Meet a member: Jeff Brinckman

Name: Jeff Brinckman.

Where I live: Madison, Wis.

Where and when I was born: Milwaukee in 1953. I was baptized shortly afterward, to protect me from the erroneous belief that I’d go straight to hell if I died outside the church. Although my father converted to Catholicism as a condition of marriage in 1941, I had no choice. I became a Catholic the old-fashioned way: I inherited it.

Family: Married once, I have two adult children.

Education: University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, BBA.; Hamline University, JD; Utrecht University in the Netherlands, LLM, international law.

I “did my time” at a Catholic grade school in Menomonee Falls. Back then, no tax dollars went to parochial schools and no right-wingers like Gov. Scott Walker were giving welfare money to religious charter schools. My parents kept government out of religion by financially supporting both the public school district and my parochial school.

The election of John Kennedy in 1960, the first Catholic president, was big news at my school. Since Catholics were a minority, the nuns taught us Article VI of the Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

In religion classes, I had to memorize all sorts of unsubstantiated beliefs. Although the nuns were not stereotypical demons, I nonetheless feared them, and particularly the school principal. Fear was a psychological weapon. I was to fear God and the chance of spending an eternity in hell.

Although the 1960s are known for Vietnam and civil rights, there was also a revolution over religion inside and outside the church. While the Supreme Court courageously found prayer in public schools unconstitutional, liberal Catholics prevailed at the Second Vatican Council in Rome (1962-65) and, almost overnight, everything changed.

My doubts about religion started: A nun walked into class one day no longer fully covered in black. Suddenly, the Mass was in English instead of Latin, guitar music replaced pipe organs and meat could be eaten on Fridays. What was infallible truth just yesterday had changed radically. The revolution opened my mind and made me wonder whether any of it was true. The church had let the genie out of the bottle.

My clearest memory of prayer was in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis when my mother had me kneel before a crucifix so we could pray for peace. Although the Russians turned their ships around at our blockade, I didn’t attribute it to prayer. I thought the crisis was solved by two humans, Khrushchev and Kennedy. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, I wondered why a good god permitted it. I was already a doubting Thomas.

With regards to morals, the church wasn’t all bad. As a member of our all-white suburban basketball team, I was driven into Milwaukee to play the all-black Cherry Street School. I met blacks for the first time and it was a good experience. The priests and nuns who risked violence to push integration deserve credit.

By the 1967 “Summer of Love,” the supernatural part of the church had lost me. Questioning was in; the pope and his entourage were out. While in high school, I still had to go to church on Sundays, but I usually skipped out.

Military service: After anti-war activists bombed the Army-Math Research Center in Sterling Hall at UW-Madison in 1970, where my brother was majoring in math, my parents sent me to UW-Eau Claire. Once Nixon eliminated undergraduate military deferments, I was classified 1-A but drew #185 in the lottery and was not called. As the war wound down, I asked how a good god could allow 54,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese to die for no reason.

Five college classes helped me move from agnosticism to atheism: Western Civilization, Philosophy 101, Philosophy of Religion, Constitutional Law and English Legal History.

Person in history I admire: Thomas Jefferson, for his views on religion.

Before I die: I just wish Jennifer Aniston would finally answer one of my calls. I’m getting really exhausted from leaving all those messages.

Editor’s note: Better update your bucket list, Jeff. Recent news reports say Jen, 46, and fiancé Justin Theroux, 43, have finalized their prenup that puts her net worth at $112 million and his at $19 million.

Freedom From Religion Foundation