Smile Politely

Atheism v. Champaign: The Movie

This Thursday, Jay Rosenstein’s latest œuvre opens at The Art for one night only!

The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today is an hour-long documentary chronicling Champaign’s very own landmark case McCollum v. Board of Education.

THE LORD IS NOT ON TRIAL HERE TODAY – trailer from Jay Rosenstein on Vimeo.

The story of the case, from start to finish, is told by Vashti McCollum herself — still sharp as a tack at 92 — a year before her death. It begins with Champaign’s mandatory religious education program, carries through the piles of vicious hatemail Vashti receives from across the country, and ends happily when the U.S. Supreme Court reads the Constitution, and erects a Wall Between Church and State.

Rosenstein paints the picture of 1945 to 1948 as one unified city against one family-in-a-fish-bowl. Everywhere they went, the McCollums were that atheist family.

Vashti’s middle child, Champaign’s former Mayor Dan McCollum, adds his memories of the torturous three years his family suffered. The eldest son, the pupil in quo, is Jim. His interview segments convey a calm, detached, almost humorous regard for the spectacle that found him — age 12 — cross-examined by one of Champaign’s smuggest lawyers, in a court room packed with evil-wishers.

From her interview, you can tell that Vashti is still angry, still willing to stand right up to the entire town all over again. But Jim is relaxed. Dan is mellow. To have undergone such public ridicule, for so long, at such tender ages speaks to the fortitude of the woman who raised them.

My favorite part of the movie features stock footage of schoolchildren reciting the godless Pledge of Allegiance. The absence of two words from that rote chant recalls the hysteria of Joe McCarthy, HUAC and the cultural conformity an entire nation arrayed against one small woman and one brave child — and nine clever old whities with lifetime tenure.

I found the movie personally satisfying for two reasons. One, I have opinions about religious wackos. One and a half, I have opinions about Vashti McCollum. Two, I have some experience with being told to leave town by people who don’t like my uppity attitude re: civic rights. (You can read it right here on Smile Politely!)

Thursday, Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at the The Art theater. Dan McCollum and Jay Rosenstein will do a Q & A after the screening. Tickets ($6) available at the Art box office only.


Sam Harris’s latest freethinking tome, The Moral Landscape was published this morning. Go buy it. I’m about halfway through, and it’s everything you’d expect from today’s most incisive analyst of wingnuttery. Harris’s scientific arguments are better than Dawkins. His style is more effectively demolishing of opponents than Hitchens. I cannot conceive of higher praise for a writer.



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