Freethought Today · Vol. 21 No. 8 October 2004

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Live And Let Live""

Cole Porter Out of Both Closets? Dan Barker

by Dan Barker

image
Cole Porter

Two major motion pictures have been made about the life of American songwriter Cole Porter. The first, "Night and Day" (1946), starred an uncomfortably miscast Cary Grant in a fanciful biopic that pointedly ignored the fact that the famous composer was notoriously gay. After seeing the film, Porter himself remarked, "It's a dream." When asked what kind of a dream, he replied, "I'd prefer not to say."

The film also failed to mention that Cole Porter was an unbeliever.

The more recent "De-Lovely" (2004), starring Kevin Kline, corrects both mistakes, opening with a frank (and refreshing) admission by Porter that he did not believe in a god. He is now truly "out of the closet."

The films have the same strengths (the music) and the same weakness: making Porter's relationship with his wife the central theme. Though an open homosexual, Cole did indeed have a committed, lifelong relationship with his wife Linda, who knew he was gay from the start and not only tolerated but often encouraged his lifestyle--as long as he was not too flamboyant. Though the marriage was sexless, they adored and respected each other. They valued each other's advice, shared the same attraction to travel, art and entertaining. They were deep friends "unto death us do part."

(Who could object? The relationship met the religious-right requirement that marriage be between one man and one woman.)

However, their love was not the stuff of a movie romance--the films would have been much better (for me) if they had concentrated on Porter's struggle to tailor his music to the shows.

Cole Porter was born in 1891 into a barely nominally religious family. His father was a compassionate gentleman, "a good man but not burdened by religion," writes biographer William McBrien (Cole Porter, 1998). His mother went to church as a matter of social habit. "Although later in life Cole briefly considered embracing religion," McBrien writes, "he was never a believer, and his several comments about his mother's attachments to Peru [Indiana] churches were dismissive."

Biographer and friend George Eells reports that Cole attributed his mother's churchgoing to custom. "He believed that she felt no real religious convictions, although she attended some church every Sunday. Her grandfather Albert had founded the Episcopal Church in Peru, but Katie at one time or another dropped in on every fashionable congregation in town. 'I never felt religion was serious to her,' Cole recalled years later. 'It was of no importance. She went to show off her new hats.'

"Not unnaturally, Cole developed no deeply felt religious beliefs. On most occasions throughout his life, he spoke of 'pleasing the gods' or lamented, 'The gods are punishing me,' but he seldom referred to God, except to deny belief in Him. Even at seventy, he told his social secretary, Mrs. Everett W. Smith, that he found no comfort in trying to believe in a Supreme Being."

"If Katie failed to endow him with religious inspiration, she neglected little else, especially his musical education. . . ." (The Life That Late He Lived, by George Eells, 1967)

A childhood friend, Beulah, remembered Porter visiting church one Easter Sunday as a teenager. "Cole talked all through the service. He was one of the most irreverent persons I've ever encountered--but so charming," she said. "While he talked, he cracked his ankle bones in a kind of castanetlike accompaniment. I'm certain he did it to draw attention to his new brown silk socks and snappy new footwear. He was quite Beau Brummel--even then." (The Life That Late He Lived, by George Eells, 1967)

Cole's final address to his high-school mates at Worcester Academy closed with a poem by Richard Hovey, ending with the words: "Here's to Luck! For we know not where we are going." No god, no providence, no prayer--just the hope that chance would smile on his future.

After spending most of his college years writing and producing school plays (as well as composing the still popular "Bingo Eli Yale" football song), Porter graduated from Yale in 1913. Eells reports that in the survey of 292 graduates, Cole was "one of 69 non-church members; and one of the 20 who were to enter law school. . . . He was voted the most entertaining . . . the second most original . . . and one of the most eccentric."

Eells writes that during Porter's life, "Most of Cole's other friends were led to believe that he was an agnostic who might have wished for the support and comfort of some religious conviction but who was unable to summon up belief."

Harvard Law School was a disaster for Cole Porter, who spent all of his time producing shows. He dropped out of school, inherited a fortune from his grandfather, traveled the world, and "casually" wrote songs on the side, pretending he was just dashing them off for fun.

After Cole Porter became a well-known Broadway composer and internationally famous songwriter, he fell from a horse which rolled over him and crushed his legs. Instead of submitting to the recommended amputation, Cole decided to endure more than 20 painful operations over many years in an attempt to reconstruct his ability to walk. Observing how he dealt with pain, trauma and drug-related depression, his secretary (a believer) remarked: ". . . the little boss had not the strength that comes in a time of need, of a bolstering religion of even a Buddhist, a Seventh Day Adventist, a Jehovah's Witness--anything to take the place of just nothing. Without faith one is like a stained glass window in the dark. How to reach his particular darkness is an enigma."

She didn't realize that he was coping just fine without religion--he had expert medical care, plus his own inner determination, the strength of his many friendships, and the support of a caring wife.

He also had his music. His debilitation did not slow down his determination to produce songs.

How many conservative Christians who love Porter melodies realize that "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" was written for a dancer and choreographer named Nelson Barclift, with whom Cole had had a long romantic relationship? That was "our song," Barclift recalled. "Years later," McBrien writes, "Barclift remembered with pleasure that this was the song that knocked Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas' off the hit parade." Other Cole Porter songs were written from feelings arising from infatuations and relationships with men such as Russian dancer Boris Kochno and architect Eddy Tauch.

Porter's attitude toward life is often reflected in his lyrics. "Live and Let Live" [see below], writes McBrien, "is another hurrah for tolerance, and it may have been one way Cole salved his wounds after the critics' objection to the sexy scenes in Out of This World."

Cole Porter spent much of his life battling censors, who thought jazz, dancing and popular song lyrics were corrupting the morality of America. Volstead, the congressman who introduced the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale of liquor, writes McBrien, "was a natural target for Porter, who opposed the Puritan tendency of some Americans to try to legislate against personal freedom." An early production of Fifty Million Frenchmen contained Porter's song, "A Toast to Volstead," with the lyrics: "A long life to Volstead / Our senator from heaven sent. / Let us give our endorsement / To his act of enforcement, . . . Here's a long life to Volstead, / And I hope he dies of thirst."

Many of Porter's songs were decried by the moralists. "Anything Goes" was criticized by churchgoers. Cole fought back, but sometimes had to compromise. "Because of the censorship exercised by the Hayes office in the thirties"--writes McBrien about the song "Easy To Love"--"the original lyric 'So sweet to awaken with, / So nice to sit down to eggs and bacon with' had to be changed to 'So worth the yearning for / So swell to keep ev'ry home fire burning for.' "

"In the most famous number from the musical Jubilee, 'Begin the Beguine,' Porter, possibly feeling the oppression of censorship, decided to change the penultimate line, 'And we suddenly know the sweetness of sin,' to 'And we suddenly know what heaven we're in.'"

Porter's 1953 musical Can-Can was a deliberate attempt to "battle Puritanism," and the thrust of Silk Stockings "is similar to Can-Can's, and the theme the recurrent one of scorn for puritanism," McBrien observes. "The Catholic News deplored the scanty costumes of Gwen Verdon and thought that the replica of Sacré-Coeur in some sets 'must to the discerning offer apt and eloquent comment on the rest of the proceedings.' "

Let the religious right howl: the public loved Porter's art. He treasured a letter he received from his idol Irving Berlin (another nonbeliever):

"Dear Cole:

"Elizabeth (my youngest) and I went to see Can-Can last night and, along with a packed house of satisfied customers, we loved it. It's a swell show and I still say, to paraphrase an old bar-room ballad, 'anything I can do, you can do better.'

"Love, Irving"

Though happy to "live and let live," Cole Porter occasionally took jabs at religion. In a letter to his friend Barclift, Porter pointed out that "yesterday was the feast of St. Joseph" and remarked that he hasn't much use for such a day, as Joseph "resents being called the husband of the Virgin Mary & you know what she produced."

Cole Porter produced many enduring standards: "I Get A Kick Out of You," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "I Love Paris," "C'est Magnifique," "You Do Something to Me," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "In The Still of the Night," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "All of You," "What Is This Thing Called Love?", "De-Lovely," "Just One of Those Things," "Love for Sale," "Night and Day," "Don't Fence Me In," "True Love," "Every Time We Say Goodbye," and dozens more. Believers, nonbelievers, straights, gays, all Americans have been enriched by the songs (he wrote both words and music) that this nonconformist gave us.

"No matter how slick their veneer," McBrien writes, "Porter's songs almost always are centered in the sweetness and brevity of love and happiness."

Cole Porter died on October 15, 1964. Eells reports that when he was admitted to the hospital for the last time, accompanied by friend Robert Raison, a nurse who was filling out the admittance form asked Porter about religious affiliations:

"Put down none," Cole replied.

"Protestant?"

"Put down--none."

Raison spoke up to say that Cole had been a Baptist; why not put down Protestant?

Cole refused. Later, even when his condition had changed for the worse, he stood by his convictions.

Cole Porter's final words, spoken to Raison just before his death, were: "Bobbie, I don't know how I did it."

Dan Barker, a Foundation staff member and author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, is a musician who has produced two CDs of freethought music for the Foundation: "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" and "Beware of Dogma."

"Live and Let Live"

by Cole Porter

Live and let live, be and let be,
Hear and let hear, see and let see,
Sing and let sing, dance and let dance.
I like Offenbach, you do not,
So what, so what, so what?
Read and let read, write and let write,
Love and let love, bite and let bite,
Live and let live and remember this line:
"You're bus'ness is your bus'ness and my bus'ness is mine."

Live and let live, be and let be,
Hear and let hear, see and let see,
Drink and let drink, eat and let eat,
You like bouillabaise, I do not,
So what, so what, so what?
Pray and let pray, slip and let slip,
Dress and let dress, strip and let strip.
Live and let live and remember this line:
"You're bus'ness is your bus'ness and my bus'ness is mine."

1952 by Cole Porter
(The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, edited by Robert Kimball, 1992)


"

FFRF Co-Presidents

DAN BARKER and ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR are co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and co-hosts of Freethought Radio. A former minister and evangelist, Dan became a freethinker in 1983. His books, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist (1992) are published by FFRF. Other books include Godless (Ulysses Press, 2008), The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God (Pitchstone Publishing, 2011), Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning, Pitchstone Press (2015) and GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (Sterling Publications, 2016). A graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a degree in religion, Dan now puts his knowledge of Christianity to effective freethought use. A professional pianist and composer, Dan performs freethought concerts and is featured in FFRF’s musical CDs, "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist," "Beware of Dogma,” and “Adrift on a Star." He joined FFRF's staff in 1987, serving as public relations director. He was first elected co-president in November 2004, speaks widely and has engaged in more than 100 debates about religion.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, a third-generation freethinker, co-founded FFRF with her mother Anne Gaylor as a college student in 1976. She served as editor of Freethought Today, FFRF’s newspaper, from 1985 to 2009. Her book, Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So, first published by FFRF in 1981, is in its 4th printing. In 1988, FFRF published Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, the first book documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Her 1997 anthology, Women Without Superstition: 'No Gods, No Masters,’ is the first collection of the writings of historic and contemporary women freethinkers. A 1980 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism School, she was an award-winning student reporter and recipient of the Ken Purdy scholarship. After graduation, she founded, edited and published the Feminist Connection, a monthly advocacy newspaper, from 1980-1985. She first joined the FFRF staff in 1985. She has been co-president since 2004. In the late 1970s, her student protest ended commencement prayers at the UW-Madison. She has been plaintiff in or overseen many state/church lawsuits and actions by FFRF. Dan and Annie Laurie have appeared on a variety of TV news shows, including “Oprah,” “O’Reilly,” “Good Morning America,” Univision, CNN and FOX news segments, CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight.

Photo: Timothy Hughes

See Dan's bio »
See Dan's online writings »

See Dan's Debates »
Contact Dan »

See Annie Laurie's bio »
See Annie Laurie's online writings »
Contact Annie Laurie »

FFRF President emerita

Anne Nicol Gaylor
Photo by Brent Nicastro.

ANNE NICOL GAYLOR was a founder and president emerita of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She served as executive director from 1978 to 2005, and worked as a consultant to the Foundation. Born in rural Wisconsin, she was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She owned and managed successful small businesses and was co-owner and editor of an award-winning suburban weekly newspaper. A feminist author, she did substantial volunteer work for women's rights (including serving as volunteer director of the Women's Medical Fund). Under her leadership the Freedom From Religion Foundation has grown from its initial three Wisconsin members to a national group with representation in every state and Canada.

Slideshow of Anne Gaylor & FFRF activism
See Anne Gaylor's online writings.

Director of Operations

LISA STRAND is director of operations of FFRF. Previously, she was the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Library Association. She has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, both as a staff member and volunteer leader, including having served as board president of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives and the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin. She has a B.A. from the University of Minnesota. Lisa is married with a daughter, as well as three cats, a guinea pig and an untended garden that will someday be beautiful.

FFRF Legal

REBECCA S. MARKERT attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and received her B.A. in political science, international relations and German in 1998. After graduating from UW–Madison, Rebecca spent one year working as a legislative fellow at the German Parliament in Bonn, Germany. In the fall 1999, she returned to the United States and began working as a legislative correspondent and assistant to the chief of staff for United States Senator Russ Feingold in Washington, D.C. In 2002, she returned to Madison, Wisconsin, to work on Senator Feingold’s 2004 re-election campaign. After the campaign, Rebecca attended Roger Williams University School of Law and received her Juris Doctor in 2008. She joined the Foundation staff in October 2008.

Rebecca is the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s first staff attorney and primarily works on Establishment Clause cases. She is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, Dane County Bar Association, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin.

PATRICK ELLIOTT, the Foundation's second staff attorney, hails from St. Paul, Minn. Patrick received a degree in legal studies and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. He attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received his Juris Doctor in 2009. While in school, Patrick took an interest in the First Amendment and constitutional law. He joined FFRF as a staff attorney in July 2010, after working part-time for the Foundation since February. Patrick is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Western and Eastern Districts of Wisconsin.

ANDREW SEIDEL graduated cum laude from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School in 2009, where he was awarded the Haber J. McCarthy Award for excellence in environmental law. He studied human rights and international law at the University of Amsterdam and traveled the world on Semester at Sea. In May of 2011, Andrew completed his Master of Laws at Denver University Sturm College of Law with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the Outstanding L.L.M. Award. He has written a book on International Human Rights Law and his essay on the role of religion in government and the founding of our nation placed second in the FFRF's 2010 graduate student essay contest. Andrew is a former Grand Canyon tour guide and accomplished nature photographer; his work has been displayed in galleries in Colorado, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Maryland. He joined the FFRF staff as a constitutional consultant in November 2011.

ELIZABETH CAVELL received her B.A in English from the University of Florida in 2005. After college, Elizabeth spent a year as a full-time volunteer in AmeriCorps*NCCC. She attended Tulane University Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2009. After law school, she worked as a deputy public defender in southern Colorado. She joined the Foundation as a staff attorney in January 2013, after working for the Foundation part-time since September 2012.

SAM GROVER received his B.A. in philosophy and government from Wesleyan University in 2008. He first worked for FFRF in 2010 as a legal intern while attending Boston University School of Law. In 2011, his article on the religious exemptions in the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate was published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine. After receiving his J.D. from Boston University in 2012, Sam worked as a law clerk for the Vermont Office of Legislative Council where he drafted legislation on health care, human services, and tax issues. He returned to work as a constitutional consultant for FFRF in the fall of 2013. Sam has written a paper on counterterrorism and the law that was published by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City and has traveled to southern Africa to work under Justice Unity Dow of Botswana’s High Court.

MADELINE ZIEGLER graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in 2011 with a B.A. in English Literature and Political Science. She attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2014. She has worked at FFRF in some capacity since May 2012, starting as a legal intern/extern, and currently works as a legal fellow.

RYAN JAYNE received a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Honors College in 2007. After graduating, Ryan taught piano and chess lessons while working as a financial advisor until 2012, when he began law school at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon. In law school he focused on intellectual property and animal law, serving as an associate editor for the Animal Law Review at Lewis & Clark and co-founding the Pacific Northwest’s first Secular Legal Society. Ryan graduated cum laude in 2015, began working with FFRF in January of 2015, and became a Diane Uhl Legal Fellow in September, 2015, specializing in faith-based government funding.

WHITNEY STEFFEN is FFRF’s Legal Assistant. Whitney is a Madison native who graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in English in 2011. Whitney received a Paralegal Post-Baccalaureate diploma from Madison College in 2014 and previously worked as a paralegal at a small law firm before coming to FFRF. She enjoys watching the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly from the galleries, reading, and spending time with her four cats.

CHRISTOPHER LINE received his B.S. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2012. He began working for FFRF in 2015 as a legal intern while attending law school at the University of Wisconsin. Shortly after receiving his Juris Doctor in 2017, Chris began working full-time for FFRF as a Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow. He is an accomplished photographer whose work has appeared in The Humanist magazine, the Progressive, and FFRF’s own Freethought Today. His work can even be found on display in Freethought Hall.

FFRF Staff

JACKIE DOUGLAS is the office manager at the Foundation. She graduated in 2002 from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Human Development and Family Services. Jackie is happily married, owns a home on the east side of Madison, and has a black cat named Lucky.

BRUCE A. JOHNSON has been a broadcasting professional for over 35 years. He has worked in Russia, Africa, Europe, Mexico and all across the USA.  Projects he has photographed, edited and/or composed music for have been awarded many Wisconsin Broadcasters, Milwaukee Press Club and both regional and national Emmy Awards. He is a 30-year resident of the East Side of Madison, and is married with two daughters.

MOLLY HANSON is FFRF's editorial assistant. Molly graduated from the University of Wisconsin--Madison in 2016 with a degree in journalism and a certificate in gender and women’s studies. Prior to graduating, Molly interned for FFRF. She ran for the Badger track and cross country teams while in college and still enjoys running. Also in her free time she enjoys reading about history, exploring, and traveling. Molly’s interests include music, politics, feminism, folklore and psychology.

ALYSSA SCHAEFER is FFRF’s Program Assistant.  She graduated from The George Washington University in 2014 with a BA in International Affairs, concentrating in Security Policy.   A native of Wisco, she recently moved back to Madison from the east coast. In her free time Alyssa enjoys traveling, exploring the great outdoors, live music, and lazy Sundays with her cat Lola.

PJ SLINGER is editor of Freethought Today. A Green Bay native, he has a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has worked as a sports reporter, news reporter, copy editor, web editor and photo editor in newspapers in Marshall (Minn.), Mankato (Minn.) and Madison (Wis). Prior to coming to FFRF in 2015, he worked for 15 years at The Capital Times in Madison. He has a wife and three kids.

BILL DUNN is the editor of Freethought Today. He has a degree in history and mass communications (journalism emphasis) from the University of South Dakota and has worked as a reporter, copy editor and editor in South Dakota and Wisconsin since 1980. Bill joined the Foundation staff in July 2009. He has two daughters, Kaitlin Marie and Jamie Lee.

LAURYN SEERING is the publicist & communications coordianator. She was born in Wisconsin and studied abroad in Nagasaki, Japan. Lauryn graduated from the UW-Stout in 2012 with her BS in Professional Communications and Emerging Media, concentrating in Technical Communication & International Studies. Lauryn moved to Madison in 2013 and enjoys reading about space stuff, biking and creating art at coffee shops. 

JAKE SWENSON started as FFRF’s first graphic designer in 2015. He was born in Rockford, Illinois, and graduated with a degree in fine art from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. He enjoys music, cycling, photography, traveling, and coffee.

LISA TREU is our Director Of First Impressions at FFRF.  She comes to us after working in broadcasting for iHeart Radio in Madison, Wisconsin.  She hosted various radio programs for fifteen years.  Lisa and her husband ran their own Birdhouse/Birdfeeder manufacturing company called Northwoods Mfg., Inc. during the 1990’s where she had her own line of decorative birdhouses that she designed and painted herself.  Lisa is the wife of Harry and is the mother of twin daughters Katrina and Karinthia.  In her spare time she enjoys reading, painting, gardening, feeding the birds, getting silly with her daughters and lounging with her two cats.

ELEANOR MCENTEE has over a decade of experience as a nonprofit bookkeeper and is very dedicated to nonprofit organizations.  In her free time, she journals, spends time with her cats Steven and MacNcheez, and rides her Harley all over Wisconsin and more!

AMITABH PAL is the Communications Director of FFRF. Prior to joining in February 2016, he was the Managing Editor of The Progressive magazine for more than a decade. He was also the editor of the Progressive Media Project, an affiliate of The Progressive that sends out op-eds through the Tribune Wire Service to hundreds of newspapers in the United States and other countries. Pal has appeared on C-SPAN and BBC and television and radio stations all over the United States and abroad. His articles have been published in school and college textbooks in the United States and Australia. Pal teaches a course at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. He has a Master's in Journalism from the University of North Carolina and a Master's in Political Science from North Carolina State University.

A UW graduate, TIM NOTT has called Madison home since 1991. He began his career doing campus IT support while completing a BA in English. The Internet had just become graphical and the opportunity for inexpensive, scalable communication piqued Tim's interest. After 15 years in the industry he took the entrepreneurial plunge, cofounding a startup and building a platform to help make mobile application technology as accessible and ubiquitous as the Web. The company expanded services to work on drones and the Internet of Things. Tim brings his entrepreneurial and technological skills to FFRF where he focuses on our digital products and IT infrastructure.

ROGER DALEIDEN is the Graphic Designer at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He grew up in Wausau, Wis.  He has been living in Madison since 1987. He graduated from University of Wisconsin-Stout with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1986 (Fine Art), and the received his Master of Fine Art degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991. Roger has taught Art and Design courses for UW-Madison and also for Madison College. He has worked as a Graphic Designer for catalog companies, most recently Full Compass Systems, and as well as for newspapers, including The Capital Times. Some of his other interests include bicycling through our beautiful Southern Wisconsin landscapes, paddling down the lower Wisconsin River, sailing on our lakes and skiing at the local ski areas.

KRISTINA DALEIDEN is a Wisconsin native and life-long freethinker. She received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida and a Post-Baccalaureate certificate in Paralegal Studies from Madison College in 2010. She has worked for law firms focused on employment and labor law, and worked as an office coordinator at a local small business prior to joining FFRF. Kristina is an avid follower of politics and enjoys long protest marches on the square, historical fiction and post-modern poetry. Her hobbies include writing to her representatives, yoga, badgering her family and trying to persuade her cats to get off the kitchen counters.

Executive Board of Directors

View DAN BARKER's profile above. 

JIM BREDESON (Secretary) retired in 2012 from a career in academic and public libraries. He served as a reference librarian at Beloit College, Marquette University, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and as director of the library at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County for 15 years. He has been active in professional organizations and served on the boards of the Council of University of Wisconsin Libraries and Wisconsin Interlibrary Services for several years. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in journalism and library/information sciences.

Jim lives in Madison with wife Cheryl and their St Bernard dog, Afton. He has been president of the local neighborhood association board and currently serves on their condominium board committees. He is a lifelong freethinker and has been an FFRF member for two decades.

MIKE CERMAK (Director) lives in rural Pennsylvania with his family and owns several small businesses. He first joined FFRF while in college, after having read “Losing Faith in Faith,” and is passionate about state-church separation. Mike is a private pilot, electric car owner and “evangelist,” and enjoys technology of all kinds.

PATRICIA CLEVELAND, (Director) with her late husband Roger, was a founding member of the long-lived chapter, Alabama Freethought Association (active 1989-2016). Pat and Roger were awarded FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award for being outspoken atheists in the bible belt, and as volunteers for overseeing Lake Hypatia Freethought Advance (Not Retreat) near Talladega. Deeding property to FFRF, they encouraged the national FFRF to build a southern outpost, and, at Pat’s suggestion, also erect a monument to “Atheists in Foxholes.” Pat has been volunteer caretaker of the hall and campgrounds for decades, and as director or co-director of the chapter oversaw several successful lawsuits. She also arranged the annual “Glorious Fourth” of July event at Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall, attracting freethinkers not just from the South but around the country to the rural event. She is a mother and grandmother.

JOE CUNNINGHAM (Director) was born in the back hills of West Virginia, migrated with his family to the Oklahoma oil fields during the Great Depression, later returning to West Virginia, where he attended a one-room school. By high school, his family had moved to Illinois, where he had to float on a plywood boat for a total of 1,440 crossings of the Wabash River to catch the bus for high school. He joined the U.S. Navy after graduation at age 17, serving two years in the Pacific. He graduated from Southern Illinois University, earning both B.S. Ed. and M.S. Ed. degrees, majoring in history and English and taking business courses. He taught in Red Bud High School (Ill.), then in Mascoutah, where he met his wife, Norma Steines. They have two daughters, one a lawyer, one a doctor, and have five grandchildren, one of whom is finishing up her M.D. degree. He is 90 and has been retired for 31 years.

View ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR's profile above. 

STEPHEN HIRTLE (Chair) is a professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He is an organizer with the Steel City Skeptics and the Center for Inquiry Pittsburgh, faculty liaison for the Student Alliance at Pitt and previously hosted a CFI Institute on “Secularism on Campus.” He has been a guest on Freethought Radio and has assisted FFRF in fighting a nativity display at the Ellwood City Municipal Building (a Ten Commandments monument outside Valley High School in New Kensington) and the Year of the Bible resolution passed by the Pennsylvania House.

TODD PEISSIG (Director) grew up in central Wisconsin and still lives there today. He attended the University of Wisconsin Pharmacy School, graduating with a B.S. in Pharmacy in 1989. He has worked as a retail community pharmacist with the Kmart Corporation for 27 years and is currently the pharmacy manager overseeing 5 technicians. Traveling extensively both domestically and worldwide is a great passion of his, as is fighting the battle of religious overreach in our country. He also is an activist fighting for LGBT rights. Todd volunteers a full day for FFRF every six-eight weeks, as well as at FFRF conventions.

STEVE SALEMSON (Treasurer) took early retirement in 2005 after nearly two decades in scholarly publishing, first as business manager of the Duke University Press and then as associate director of the University of Wisconsin Press. In previous lives, he worked as a classical musician and as a French translator and interpreter. He has an M.A. in Liberal Studies from Duke University and a B.A. in Comparative Linguistics from Queens College in New York, as well as degrees in French horn and music pedagogy from the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. He enjoys biking, downhill skiing, doing crossword puzzles and being a grandfather. In addition to being on the board of the FFRF, he sits on the boards of the Midwest Folk Dance Association and the National Mustard Museum, and so is involved with both nonprofits and non-prophets.

JIM ZERWICK (Director) attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, joined the Navy in 1968, studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute, and served as a communications tech in the Mediterranean area until late 1971. After discharge, he and a buddy toured Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. He earned a Master’s in Library Science at UW-Madison, worked for several years at the Michigan State University Science Library, and became the engineering librarian at the University of Virginia. There he became hooked on flying ultralight aircraft. Returning to Wisconsin, he spent the following 29 years working as a property manager and assisting his parents as they approached the end of their lives. His mother, Rose Zerwick, who died as a “happy heathen” at 95 in 2013, was a second-generation atheist. Among Jim’s claims to fame is being part of the backup chorus singing Dan Barker’s “The Stay Away Pope Polka” for FFRF. He has been on the Board, initially as treasurer and now as a director at large, for 10 years. He is married to a retired high school teacher who has two grown children and a granddaughter. His three siblings and their spouses “all share a healthy skepticism of religion.”

FFRF Honorary Board

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the formation of a new FFRF Honorary Board of distinguished achievers who have made known their dissent from religion.

The FFRF Honorary Board includes Jerry Coyne, Robin Morgan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Ernie Harburg, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Jacoby, Lawrence Krauss, Mike Newdow, Katha Pollitt, Steven Pinker, Ron Reagan, Oliver Sacks, M.D., Robert Sapolsky, Edward Sorel and Julia Sweeney.

“We are so pleased that these outstanding thinkers and freethinkers have agreed to publicly lend their endorsement to the Foundation, and its two purposes of promoting freethought and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.

  • Sean B. Carroll, professor of molecular biology, genetics and medical genetics act the University of Wisconsin, is author of 'Brave Genius', 'Remarkable Creatures', 'The Making of the Fittest' and 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful.'
  • Jerry Coyne, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, is author of the popular book 'Why Evolution is True' and the blog of the same name.
  • Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most famous contemporary atheist and a distinguished evolutionary biologist, is Oxford professor emeritus. In his blockbuster book, The God Delusion, Dawkins writes: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”
  • Daniel C. Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Tufts, and author of the bestselling book about religion, Breaking the Spell. In a newspaper article about his nonbelief, Dennett once wrote: “I’ve come to realize it’s time to sound the alarm.”
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and a research associate in Harvard’s psychology department, is FFRF Freethought Heroine of 2011. Goldstein is a 1996 MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” award). She has taught at Barnard and in the Columbia MFA writing program and the Rutgers philosophy department. She’s been a visiting scholar at Brandeis and at Trinity College in Hartford.
  • Ernie Harburg, a retired research scientist, is president of Yip Harburg Foundation and co-author of Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? Ernie has dedicated his retirement to furthering the lyrics, music, memory and progressive views of his freethinking father, the lyricist Yip Harburg, author of classic songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and of Rhymes for the Irreverent, recently republished by FFRF.
  • Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet, historian and author of the acclaimed Doubt: A History and The End of the Soul, told the FFRF 2009 convention audience: “If there is no god — and there isn't — then we [humans] made up morality. And I'm very impressed.”
  • Susan Jacoby, bestselling author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, told FFRF convention-goers in 2004: "[President] Kennedy had to speak about his religion because he was suspected of insufficient dedication to the Constitution's separation of church and state. Today's candidates are suspect if they display too much dedication to secular government."
  • Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist, author and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, Fellow of American Physical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is featured in “The Unbelievers,” a film with Richard Dawkins, and is author of nine books, including A Universe from Nothing.
  • Robin Morgan, feminist pioneer, global activist, author of the groundbreaking "Sisterhood is Powerful" and more than 20 books, was formerly Ms. Magazine editor and consulting editor. She is the co-founder of the Feminist Women's Health Network and Women's Media Center and currently hosts "Women's Media Center Live" the radio "talk-show with a brain."
  • Mike Newdow is working pro bono to challenge such violations as the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. He told the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments: “I am an atheist. I don't believe in God. And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say that her father is wrong.”
  • Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard, is author of The Blank Slate: “I never outgrew my conversion to atheist at 13.”
  • Katha Pollitt, “Subject to Debate” columnist for The Nation, author and poet, has spoken out regularly and energetically as a freethinker, in such columns as “Freedom From Religion, Sí!”
  • Ron Reagan, media commentator, describes himself in a radio ad he taped for FFRF as: “Unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
  • Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist, Stanford professor and bestselling author, once suggested FFRF put up a sign at its conventions: “Welcome, hellbound atheists.”
  • Edward Sorel, satiric cartoonist and irreverent illustrator who is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and whose caricatures have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, has been a Foundation member since the 1980s.
  • Julia Sweeney, comedian and actress, is writer/performer of the play, “Letting Go of God”: “How dare the religious use the term 'born again.' That truly describes freethinkers who've thrown off the shackles of religion so much better!”

In Memoriam 

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  • Christopher Hitchens, the iconoclastic journalist, was author of the bestselling God Is Not Great: “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”
  • Oliver Sacks, M.D., the compassionate neurologist and bestselling author, described himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”

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