Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Review: Ellery's Protest

I only know the story of Ellery Schempp from the perspective of a Christian. He was the boy responsible for removing prayer from pubic schools. I learned of Ellery’s lawsuit in Sunday school as an adolescent. Un-American was the most common phrase used to describe him, that along with pure evil, and.... Atheist!

My marginally qualified instructors did not stop to explain the nuances of the lawsuit; they instead used the blunt hammer of Satan’s minions working to bring down America as reason enough to vilify anyone associated with the case. It worked too. Until recently, I viewed the whole school prayer thing through a filter of negative imagery. Then I read a book that changed my perspective. I have a new hero now - Ellery Schempp.

Mary Bisbee-Beek of the University of Michigan Press asked me to review Ellery’ Protest. It sounded interesting, but a little outside the scope of my normal reading. I read the book slowly. I found myself drawn into a story I knew very little about. A story that, thanks to my Christian youth, I had all wrong.

Great legal decisions often result from the heroic actions of average citizens. Ellery's Protest is the story of how one student's objection to mandatory school prayer and Bible reading led to one of the most controversial court cases of the twentieth century---and a decision that still reverberates in the battle over the role of religion in public life.


Written by Stephen D. Solomon, Associate Professor at New York University where he teaches First Amendment law, Ellery's Protest now occupies an honored spot on my Atheist themed bookshelf. The book is not written from the perspective of the Atheist - Ellery was a Unitarian. It is instead an analysis, no - a brilliant analysis, of an historically important and precedent setting legal decision. The book tells the story of our country adopting tolerance of sectarianism. Secularism was that catalyst. but was far from the only ingredient in this complex case.

I have a few friends who will appreciate this book. They are not casual readers. Which is good because this is not a casual book. I read it slowly, taking notes as I moved through its pages. There is deep meaning and insight in pages of this book. I recommend Ellery's Protest to anyone who seeks knowledge and illumination. I certainly benefited from reading it. I am not exaggerating by stating that page-after-page provided an education on some aspect of America's secular roots which were unknown to me.

Midway through Ellery's Protest is a chapter titled "Do you believe in the divinity of Christ". It is the first chapter cover the lower court trail proceeding. 18-year-old Ellery answered the question with a firm "I do not". The next 40 pages are my favorite of the book. The author explores the sectarian nature of the bible. A high level summary says that Bibles are sectarian in nature and that daily reading promotes instruction in one sect's theology. Catholics, Jews, Hindu's, and Muslims do not even recognize the King James version of the bible as divine. How can using it as the standard be fair? This question seems simple 50 years later, it also sound familiar given the ongoing battle with the Intelligent Design movements.

The story of the Good Samaritan, told as part of the chapter exploring the sectarian nature of the Bible, was another eye opener. When viewed from the perspective of expert witness Solomon Grayzel, shows that any moral value is obliterated by the backhanded slap at Jewish culture. I will not tell the whole story here, but the book is worth the purchase price just to examine this single argument. you tell this story in a school to a Jewish child or in the presence of a Jewish child and a Christian child an the Christian child has every right to say "See, you come of a people that is cruel, that doesn't understand the decencies of life."...

Just substitute the words "Jewish child" with "Atheist child" or "Hindu child" and one can see the power of the arguments used to support secularism. The only way to prevent a repeat of Europe's bloody sectarian past is to ensure it does not gain prominence in America. Ellery's Protest hammers this issue home in chapter after chapter.

What is the value of a book like Ellery's Protest? I can only answer by saying my bookshelves are full of book like this one. Knowledge reinforces one's ability to discern truth from fiction. Knowledge helps one become a critical thinker, helps one reject the irrational, to recognize the con man, and protect our liberties. Book like Ellery's Protest push back the darkness. We need that, because the forces of theocracy are always active.

I took my time with this book. I read it two times since I received it in August. I've written this review twice too. The first time did not do it justice. I hope I did a better job this time. I recommend Ellery's Protest to all my Atheist readers and fellow bloggers, as-well-as my academically minded friends. You will not regret the time spent reading this outstanding work. The book is not about Atheism, however, it is about the rights and liberties inherent in our constitution which allow us to live freely and believe (or not) as we choose.


The Exterminator said...

Well, if the test of a good book review is that you make someone want to read the book -- then this a great review. I'm heading over to Amazon now.

Anonymous said...

Solomon Grayzel was my uncle. Thank you for telling this story. Although I never met him, I feel like this helps me understand what a good person he was. Be well.