Life in the Heartland for a San Francisco Liberal: Stephanie Salter


Stephanie Salter
Photo by Brent Nicastro

Remarks by Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president:

Our office has enjoyed Stephanie Salter’s op-ed columns for the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle for many years, and has corresponded a few times back and forth.

About three years ago, Stephanie Salter suddenly moved much closer to us–becoming assistant editor of opinion and commentary at the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, and moving back to her home state of Indiana. I had wondered how she was faring–seemed like a bit of culture shock would be involved, but we had lost touch.

Then this summer, Stephanie Salter was one of several editorial columnists in the country to write sympathetically about the Hein v. FFRF decision. These op-ed columns were very personally comforting to our office.

We reprinted Stephanie’s column in Freethought Today. Her column noted that the Supreme Court decision, not in our favor, was a Catch 22–that the Supreme Court gave the green light to the executive branch to violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution in a way that the legislative branch is forbidden to do.

I knew from our correspondence that Stephanie Salter is a nominal theist. When we invited her to speak at our conference, I explained that the award we wished to bestow was first given to Helen Thomas, an Episcopalian, when she addressed our Washington, D.C., conference in 2002. Like Helen Thomas, Stephanie Salter “gets it”–she is an ardent supporter of the separation between church and state, and an astute observer and commentator. We are delighted to finally have a chance to meet Stephanie Salter after all these years, to give her our “Friend of the First Amendment” award and catch up on her “Life in the Heartland for a San Francisco Liberal.”

By Stephanie Salter

For the “Jesus, as baseball bat people,” Christ is not the Prince of Peace, he’s a hard, heavy Lousiville Slugger to be wielded–mercilessly–against the enemies of God.

Recently, a Northern California friend called to say he’d been going through my newspaper’s Website and reading a bunch of my columns.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “You’re writing the same liberal stuff that you used to write in San Francisco. Only now, you’re in Indiana. It’s like that old quote about Ginger Rogers, ‘You’re doing it backwards and in high heels.’ “

Since I moved home to the Midwest in 2004–after nearly 30 years in San Francisco–people frequently ask what the hardest adjustment has been. Is it the lack of gourmet restaurants? No fresh produce all year ’round or great wines at a fair price? Is it being forced to drive hours to see the kind of opera, symphony, art, speakers or even movies that I could easily find in bountiful quantities any night or day in the Bay Area? Perhaps it is the conservative politics?

No, I tell them. The hardest thing I’ve had to deal with back home again in Indiana is right-wing, fundamentalist Christianity–or rather the fact that local government, business and fair chunks of the news media allow right-wing, fundamentalist Christians to drive the municipal bus of public life.

I’ve never had a problem with rabid God squadders riding ON the bus–front, rear or middle, in any seat they choose. They just can’t be permitted to sit behind the steering wheel. Ever.

Not even when we’re in “park.”

I have come to think of these folks as the “Jesus, as baseball bat people.” For them, Christ is not the Prince of Peace, he’s a hard, heavy Lousiville Slugger to be wielded–mercilessly–against the enemies of God.

Who are these enemies? Anybody who doesn’t want right-wing, fundamentalist Christians to drive the municipal bus of public life. That turns out to be a lot of people, I’m happy to report. Atheists, agnostics, followers of other religions and Christian practitioners like me, folks who go to church but prefer to keep our baseball bats in the garage with the other sports equipment. Our icon of choice for the bus dashboard is a copy of the First Amendment, all shined up and glued down to protect us on our journey.

Fairly early on in my career at the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, the Jesus as baseball bat people recognized me as an enemy. Never mind that I write nice things about God and people of faith all the time. I don’t take the bible literally–especially Leviticus–so I can’t be a real Christian. My motives are never pure.

During the long, televised funeral of Pope John Paul II, for example, the reason I chose to publish a column about my old Purdue University philosphy professor, Bill Rowe–one of the gentlest atheists ever to come down the pike–was not because the interview was scheduled way before the pope passed. Oh, no. The baseball bat folks knew I deliberately did it because–as a pusher of atheism–I had no respect for the pope or any Christian on the face of the Earth. And so they said, over and over, in their many letters to the editor.

As heavy as the volume of protest was about Professor Rowe, it didn’t come near the cascade that followed a piece I did on the erection of a 50-foot-tall cross in my neighborhood. Because the saga of this cross pretty much represents the mentality of the Jesus as baseball bat people, I thought I’d share it with you. I wrote it in March of 2006.

I don’t know about you, but I kicked off Lent with one heck of a contemplation: discerning the layers of the controversy created by a new 50-foot-tall, red-and-white, “JESUS SAVES” structure alongside North Seventh Street.

The contemplation brought to mind a number of biblical quotations–from “Love thy neighbor as thyself” to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Matthew 6:1-5, about low-profiling our alms-giving, fasting and public prayer, came into play, too.

I call the structure erected by Cross Tabernacle a “sign” because that is what it looks like to me: a huge, white, T-shaped sign with 312 foot-high red lettering and a flashing red light on top. Soon, the church says, the structure will be floodlit at night.

The pastor of the tabernacle, Keith E. Taylor, says the giant structure is “in-your-face evangelism,” but not a sign. To the bewilderment of many people throughout the city, the Terre Haute Board of Zoning Appeals concurred. Jan. 4, it designated the cross-sign “an accessory building” and granted the tabernacle a 35-foot variance from the 15-foot height limit for such construction. An official explanation of this decision is a tad disturbing, especially given that nobody I’ve talked to in the residential neighborhood around the tabernacle had a clue about the cross until it was half-way up and sunk into 13 feet of concrete.

“When we first saw this, we thought, ‘What is the purpose behind this?’ ” said Jeremy Weir, the executive director of the Planning Department, which reviewed the project, then sent it to Zoning Appeals. “But they want to spread the word of God, and it is difficult for us to tell them how to do this.”

Uh-oh. The people of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., want to spread the word of God, too. They do it by showing up at funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and holding up signs that proclaim a soldier’s death “the wrath of God” for the United States’ tolerance of homosexuals.

STOP! I am not equating the giant cross-sign with the hateful insanity of the Westboro Baptist Church. No, no, no, I am not. What I am saying is, when a government agency starts bending the law to encourage one group’s method of spreading its interpretation of God’s word, that agency creates a mighty steep and slippery slope. It’s why U.S. law traditionally has made such a big deal about separation of church and state–not to shut down worship, but to ensure this nation never gets to where there is only one “correct” way to pray to one “correct” version of God.

The Planning Department is, like all of city and county government, supported by public money, taxpayer dollars. Unlike homeowners or businesses, a church pays no property taxes. Yet the desire of the Cross Tabernacle members to spread their take on God won them an exemption from following the same rules that everyone around them must follow.

If the owners of any of the homes that line Seventh Street between Maple Avenue and Fort Harrison Road wanted to erect a 50-foot-tall Mickey Mouse head or Colts mascot or peace sign in their front yards, do you think the Zoning Appeals board would have given them the green light?

Ironically, one of the tabernacle’s nearest neighbors, J.J. Smith Flower and Garden Shop, is prohibited by law from using flashing lights that border its ground marquee. Why? Because Smith’s flower shop is a business. The sign is 4 feet tall.

Last Saturday, I walked over to the flower shop to buy some blooms for my house. What I found hurt my heart. Lois Dowell, whose family has owned Smith’s since 1970, was crying hard and saying, “I just don’t understand.” Lois is 77. All morning she and her sons had been fielding angry, scolding telephone calls. People wanted them to know they were never going to buy flowers from the shop again. Never.

“They were so hateful,” Lois said. “I love Jesus, too.”

The Dowells had been deemed “bad Christians” because, in a Tribune-Star story published that morning, Lois’ son, Mike, said what many in the neighborhood had been saying in private: Public notification rules were not followed for the cross’ erection, the structure is over-sized for the area it borders and it is visually unappealing to many eyes–not because it’s a cross, but because it’s a gigantic red-and-white sign with a flashing light on top. As one of my elderly neighbors, a lifelong Christian, put it, “That cross doesn’t make me think of Jesus, it makes me think of a carnival.”

The Dowells had an added complaint: Anything as big as the new cross will affect the value of their undeveloped property, which they are trying to sell, because it adjoins the tabernacle’s land. Suddenly, the cross had become a giant divining rod. Anybody who didn’t like it was branded a defective Christian or–worse–an enemy of Jesus. This included Lois Dowell who, I know for a fact, would crawl on her knees to church if that’s the only way she could get there.

In the news story, Pastor Taylor said the cross is part of “God’s timing” for his church to “assert a little more presence in the city.” “It is quite an eye-catcher,” he told the Tribune-Star reporter. “Travelers can see that somebody’s not ashamed of the cross and the Gospel.”

Since I read that, I’ve tried to remember the last time I heard anyone in this town say, “I am ashamed of the cross and Gospel.” I’ve held the little gold crucifix I have worn on a chain around my neck for 20 years and I wondered: When did the absence of a 50-foot-tall cross with a red flashing light on top imply Christian shame or defect? Is in-your-face evangelism the only way anymore to prove one’s commitment to the path of Christ?

Sunday night, I decided to visit the Cross Tabernacle, which until recently was known as the First Assembly of God. The huge hall holds about 1,000 and was packed with folks of all ages. Everybody seemed electrified by the clapping, arm-waving, singing spirit of Christ. The musicians were terrific, and big TV screens flashed smiling faces around the church.

Before the service had begun, the TV screens had flashed meeting and bible study announcements, calls to community outreach and service, and telephone numbers for Indiana politicians with the message, “Phone calls make a difference.”

Walking back and forth at the front of the sanctuary, a wireless microphone in his hand, Pastor Taylor talked about what a great week it had been and a great morning of saving souls. Many had come forward in the 10 a.m. service, he said, asking to be baptized. As for the new cross, Taylor said the church had “no time” for the controversy.

“Yes, it’s a big cross,” he said, “but our God is a big God.”

Cross Tabernacle has targeted all of Terre Haute as its “mission field.” From meth addiction to riverboat gambling to a proposed strip club in a nearby commercial area, the church aims to fight, Taylor said, politically, as well as spiritually.

Anyone who doesn’t like the way Cross Tabernacle goes about worship, he said, should walk on down the road and find something that suits them better. “This is no sissy church!” the pastor said, and the delighted congregation applauded heartily.

Several minutes later, I slipped out a side door. I was happy for the people of Cross Tabernacle and for the love of Jesus they so obviously have in their hearts. I just prefer my own church’s approach to worship, prayer and community outreach.

On Ash Wednesday, I began my 40-day Lenten observance. Along with penance and alms, I gave thanks for the freedom of a nation in which I am not forced to practice in-your-face evangelism and Pastor Taylor does not have to attend a sissy church.

Each time I pass the 50-foot-tall, red-and-white structure with a flashing red light on top, I think the same thing: It is a sign, and it’s too big for the neighborhood.

* * *

So, as I said, that column really inspired the e-mails and phone calls, most of them about as civilized and in search of a dialogue as a person whacked out on PCP. Like the poor folks who own the flower shop, I was dead Christian meat. I hated the big cross, I hated Jesus.

One woman who called actually did want to engage in conversation. She said she couldn’t understand how, if I really was a Christian, I could have a problem with any cross, whether it was five inches tall or 50 feet. I told her that my problem was with the city, with the planning department and zoning appeals board. I re-phrased the Mickey Mouse head and Colts mascot analogy by asking her what a Unitarian friend of mine had said: “What if somebody wanted a zoning variance to put up a 50-foot-tall question mark?”

The woman said that was different. I tried another tack. I asked her if it didn’t bother her, just a little, that this obvious, illegal warping of the zoning laws, this exception to the rules everyone else has to follow, zipped so seamlessly through local government channels.

She was quiet, and then she said, “Well, I figure that if it’s illegal but it made it through all those people in all those different departments, then that proves it really was God’s will. He must have wanted it to happen.”

The good news is, after three years, most of the Jesus as baseball bat people don’t bother to call or e-mail me. I’m beyond redemption, so they take their condemnation straight to my boss, the editor-in-chief of the Tribune-Star.

Meanwhile, I keep writing my same liberal stuff. One of my favorite columns was to ponder which NFL coach God planned to back in the Super Bowl since both Tony Dungy of the Colts and Lovie Smith of the Bears gave all the glory for their conference championships to the Lord.

Another piece I really enjoyed writing was a fantasy about Jerry Falwell’s arrival at the threshhold of heaven. I’d like to share that with you, too. Please excuse my thespian-challenged delivery:

Jerry Falwell stands in line, waiting to be admitted through what he used to think of as “the pearly gates” but now realizes is an indescribable threshold that simply–and profoundly–separates heaven from everything else. Mostly, the line flows and Falwell must move briskly to keep up. Occasionally, though, the stream of former humanity comes to a complete halt. As he nears the head of the line Falwell can see that each delay is for a person being pulled from the line, then led about 200 yards off to the left, too far for Falwell to view.

Heavenly Greeter: Brother Falwell! Hello, and congratulations on your journey. A swift attack at your desk. The dream of many.

Jerry Falwell: Praise Jesus! He rewarded his humble servant.

Heavenly Greeter: Hmmm. Actually, that isn’t how it works, brother, as you will learn.

Jerry Falwell: You are beautiful to behold, Greeter, but I am so eager to cross over this threshold, I can’t delay another second. I’m just–

Heavenly Greeter: Whoa, brother! You’re not cleared yet.

Jerry Falwell: What?! [Falwell feels his whole being flush with an unpleasant warmth, a sensation he cannot remember experiencing during his mortal adulthood. He is embarrassed.]

Heavenly Greeter: Please step out of line, brother, and follow these two.

The Greeter’s open palm indicates two fairly short, compact women whom Falwell can’t place. Impossible though it is–people are neither clothed nor unclothed in this realm–one of the women seems to be wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

Jerry Falwell: Both of you, I feel I know you, but I don’t believe we ever met. Wait a minute! The hat. Bella Abzug! Oh, Lord. And you, oh, no. Betty Friedan! Feminists!!!

Bella Abzug: Calm down, Brother Falwell. What are you afraid we’re going to do–kill you??? [Abzug and Friedan erupt in such hearty laughter, they fall into one other, causing Abzug’s hat to slightly tilt.]

Betty Friedan: Or are you afraid we’ll rob you of your manhood? Take a look. It’s already gone. Passes away when we do, brother. Remember St. Paul? Neither male nor female?

Jerry Falwell: But you’re female.

Bella Abzug: That’s only because you still see us that way. Why do you think you got pulled out of line? You’ve some remedial work to do, Brother Falwell. This way.

Flanking him, Abzug and Friedan link arms with Falwell and walk for what feels to him like miles. Their voices rise and fall as they talk or sometimes sing “Try a Little Tenderness,” Friedan doing a fair imitation of Otis Redding. Falwell hums along until Abzug segues into his very own words from Sept. 12, 2001:

Bella Abzug: “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’ “

Betty Friedan: (patting Falwell’s hand affectionately) OK, dear boy, this is where we stop.

Falwell finds himself in the middle of an arena. Women and men, many African-American, rise all around him as if they were sitting in bleachers. He spots Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who walks slowly toward him, then wraps him in an embrace.

Martin Luther King: Brother Falwell. You seem surprised to see me. Still thinking of me as a Communist and a threat to America? Still questioning my “sincerity and intentions” as a civil rights activist? You said all those things about me–in a sermon!–in 1965.

Jerry Falwell: Dr. King, I was young, raised in the South, I didn’t–

Martin Luther King: Yes, raised in the South. Who can forget your reaction to Brown vs. Board of Education in yet another sermon? “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

Falwell hangs his head. Still, King holds him in his arms.

Martin Luther King: You preached to your congregation that the “true Negro does not want integration,” and you told them black people eventually “will destroy our race.” When I led the march on Washington for civil rights, you said ministers should stay out of politics, but when it was your agenda, you said you’d been wrong about preachers and politics.

Falwell watches as two more people move out of the stands, a slim black woman and a white man wearing glasses and a bow tie. They place their arms over Falwell’s shoulders.

Jerry Falwell: Who are you?

The woman smiles and says, “Barbara Jordan,” and the man says, “Andrew Heiskell.”

Barbara Jordan: I was a member of the United States Congress, remember? Andrew was the chairman of Time Inc. We helped Norman Lear found People for the American Way. The day after terrorists slammed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, you went on TV and told the nation we aided the attack. Even the White House felt compelled to call that “inappropriate.”

Jerry Falwell: I apologized a week later.

Andrew Heiskell: Come on, brother. You said you were sorry, then you made the same lunatic accusations in different words. Do you want me to read them? I’ve got the CNN transcript right here.

Jerry Falwell: Doggone journalists.

Falwell sees two men approach, one barely out of his teens. As the others have, they embrace him fondly. The younger man takes Falwell’s right hand. The older man actually holds Falwell’s face in both of his hands and looks him in the eyes.

Jerry Falwell: I don’t know you gentlemen, but I feel your love and compassion for me.

The older man says, “I’m Harvey Milk. This is Matthew Shepard. We were gay in mortality, and we were murdered for it.”

Matthew Shepard: They beat me, then hung me on a fence in Wyoming. Harvey was shot by one of his fellow San Francisco supervisors. You said we were evil. You blamed us for America’s problems. You called us “brute beasts.”

Jerry Falwell: But you’re here, in heaven!

Harvey Milk: That’s right, Brother Falwell. All these other souls are here, too. They crossed over the threshold long ago.

Falwell looks at the packed arena. It rises as far as he can see.

Jerry Falwell: Who are all the rest?

Matthew Shepard: People you never knew but condemned. Women who had abortions, doctors who helped them. Folks who belonged to the ACLU. Couples who raised children and grandchildren by the Golden Rule but didn’t belong to a church. Each wants to meet you, to hug you and kiss you and tell you about their mortal selves.

Falwell’s eyes sweep the countless faces. His shoulders sag, but his heart feels oddly light. From out of the crowd, a tiny purple creature with a triangle on its head and a red bag over his little arm waddles up.

Jerry Falwell: Tinky Winky. The Teletubby I said might be a homo.

Tinky Winky: Hi, Brother Falwell. We meet at last. I’m going to stay with you while you get to know all these people.

Jerry Falwell: Oh, my. Will it be weeks? Years? How long must I stay?

Tinky Winky reaches up and wraps his tiny purple mitt-hand around Falwell’s hand and says: As long as it takes, dear brother, as long as it takes.

* * *

The baseball bat people loved that one–just as they will a new Web site that an old Purdue pal and I are days from launching. It’s called and it’s our response to Indiana’s idiotic and probably illegal In God We Trust license plates.

Although these plates are clearly specialty plates, which cost every other affinity group supporter $40, the state is charging standard plate prices. In the first six months of availability, a half-a-million Hoosiers chose to show their Christian reverence by hanging In God We Trust license plates on the back of their vehicles.

The plates aren’t free, as the state legislature and governor keep boasting. They cost about $12 each to make. That’s taxpayer money going for specialty plates. Not surprising–and bless them–the Indiana Civil Liberties Union is fighting this in court. I’m sure they would welcome your donation.

With our site, my Purdue pal and I simply want to offer a forum in which people like us can kvetch about this latest violation of the church-state separation and–best of all–collect traffic horror stories involving drivers with In God We Trust plates on their cars or trucks.

My friend has posted a terrific photo of a strip club near Indianapolis whose parking lot tends to attract vehicles with the God plates on them. I currently hold the atrocity anecdote lead with my description of an incident near my office. A young woman driver with In God We Trust plates on her car lay on her horn and flipped her middle finger at a van that was making a perfectly legal left turn. The van was driven by an elderly man who had a handicap card hanging from his rear-view mirror.

I can’t wait to write about–and about all the terrific atheists, agnostics and other free thinkers I’m meeting here this weekend at the Freedom From Religion Foundation convention. I can’t wait for the letters to the editor that will follow.

When I lived in San Francisco, I had no idea how much fun it is to ply my trade backwards and in high heels.

Thank you so much for this award, and please keep up the fight.

Stephanie Salter is a native of Indiana. She was a researcher at Sports Illustrated magazine, a sports, general news and feature reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, and an op-ed columnist for both San Francisco dailies. In late 2004, she returned to Indiana, where she is the assistant editor for opinion and commentary at the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. One of her most cherished awards was to be named an honorary member of the Longshore Workers Union of America in San Francisco.

Freedom From Religion Foundation