In commenting on the Chicago controversy in an article on religious freedom and the importance of the separation of church and state, Reverend H.B. Sissel, Secretary for National Affairs of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., wrote recently in Look: "Seventeen states prohibit the sale or distribution of contraceptives [to the general public] except through doctors or pharmacists; five states ban all public sale of such devices. Although these statutes were enacted in the 19th century under Protestant pressure, times and attitudes have changed for many Protestants. Today, they believe that Catholics have no right to keep such laws in operation. Some Catholic spokesmen have agreed that their Church is not officially interested in trying to make the private behavior of non-Catholics conform to Roman Catholic canon law. Meanwhile, the laws stay on the books, though they are being tested in the courts."
The Reverend Sissel commented on a number of other church-state conflicts in society today and concluded his thoughtful article by stating: "The so-called 'wall of separation' between church and state has been breached often by both, each using the other for its own ends....
"I know it is a sign of my bias as a Christian (I hope many other Christians share the bias) that I believe, in the long run, that political and civil liberties are safest when the church is free to be the church. And by 'free,' I do not mean just free of external coercion. The freedom of the church lies in its recognition of its basic mission: to be deeply involved in the personal, social, political and economic life of the world—but not to be identified with the world: to encourage compassion, a desire for justice and a vision of what it means to be truly human; and to renew that vision by living to the wellspring of its faith.
"Churches and synagogues, clergymen and churchgoers, all must regain the unique sense of purpose and mission that God has given them to perform by worship within and witness without. All need to face, and deal with, the urgent problems bound up in the issue of church and state. And all need to recognize that when men of faith begin to look to the state as a pillar of religion, the edifice of faith they seek to save has already begun to collapse."
Nowhere is this truth more evident than in the matters of free speech and press. Religious censorship reared its ugly head in Chicago in an even bigger controversy than the recent birth-control suppression when, late in 1956, the film Martin Luther was scheduled to be shown over WGN-TV and then suddenly cancelled. Prominent Protestant clergymen and private citizens charged "Roman Catholic censorship" and a Protestant Action Committee issued a statement saying: "Pending a full review of the situation, the committee decided today to authorize a formal protest with the Federal Communications Commission against WGN-TV for the banning of the film."
Robert E.A. Lee, executive secretary of Lutheran Church Productions Inc., which made Martin Luther, wrote of the Catholic censorship of the film in Chicago, and around the world, in The Christian Century, saying: "In Chicago all the fuss is focused on just why WGN-TV got cold feet and 'pulled the film.' Martin Luther was scheduled for the December date at the specific request of the station after its officials had carefully previewed it.... [Then] the showing was canceled.
"Aroused Chicagoans were convinced that they knew why. A volunteer action committee of Protestant leaders of the city called a press conference and bluntly charged 'de facto censorship,' claiming WGN-TV had yielded to pressures 'mobilized by the Roman Catholic Church.' The station's public relations department declared, in a polished euphemism, than an 'emotional reaction' had led them to cancel. A spokesman for the chancellery of the Chicago Roman Catholic archdiocese denied that any 'official' protest was made. It is conceivable that the representative of Cardinal Stritch who visited a WGN-TV official at 2 p.m. on December 14 [one week before the planned showing] had other reasons for the appointment. But, oddly enough, a responsible station executive telephoned us in advance of the representative's visit to get information to support his own arguments as to why Martin Luther deserved to be televised.
"The Chicago case makes more urgent that question that many concerned individuals—including some Catholics—have been asking: Is one religious group really attempting to dictate what the public can see and hear through mass-communication media? Is the Roman Catholic Church becoming more aggressive in extending its censorship programs beyond its own sphere?"
Lee went on to comment on the banning of the film in Quebec: "In that part of the world the political influence of the cardinal is no secret. It is known that the censor received his instructions from higher authorities. And a person who discussed this situation frankly with the provincial premier revealed that the decision was 'requested' by an ecclesiastical authority. This despotism boomeranged mightily—as such despotism anywhere must sooner or later. When, in spite of the ban, a courageous group of Protestant churches in the Montreal area staged a united demonstration by showing the film simultaneously for a week on their own premises, they had seats for only half of the comers. But the government refused to rescind the ban."
The Canadian ban was not lifted until 1962, when the censorship board of Quebec was changed and the new board permitted showing of the film. Lee mentioned that a number of Catholic leaders throughout the world had not reacted so emotionally to the movie which, while showing the Protestant side of the Reformation, was in no sense anti-Catholic. Many Catholics, here and abroad, were also openly concerned about their fellow Catholics acting as censors. A letter in Time said: "I am one of the many Catholics, I hope, who are appalled at the shallow thinking of our Chicago brethren who became a pressure group protesting the showing of the TV film Martin Luther. If, as Catholics, we possess the truth, why do they resort to such intolerance in order to prohibit what they consider to be false from the beginning. We cannot deny the historical existence of Luther and his founding of the Protestant Church. Do Chicago Catholics fear the facts of history? I wonder if they realize how much their bigotry damages the cause of Catholicism and the fellowship of man?"
Despite the controversy caused by the Chicago censorship, WGN-TV declined to reschedule the film. Sterling "Red" Quinlan, the rebel head of rival TV station WBKB, then accepted the motion picture and aired it without further incident. "Red" Quinlan is a liberal Catholic.
The banning of the June issue of Playboy caused no comparable public outcry—or the religious implications were less clearly defined. But as we shall see, the situation is disturbingly similar.
In The Playboy Philosophy, we have been outspoken in our opposition to any tyranny over the mind of man, whether invoked in the name of the state or in the name of God. We specifically criticized the part that organized religion—Protestant as well as Catholic—has played in such suppression throughout history, down to the present day. The views that we have expressed are shared by many of the more liberal clergy—of all denominations—who recognize that religious freedom requires that the church remain free from any involvement in government and any direct coercion of the citizens in a free society.
We were especially critical, in the April and May issues, of the Chicago "justice" meted out to comedian Lenny Bruce. In June the administrators of that "justice" turned their ire on Playboy.
Bruce was arrested on charges of giving an obscene performance. He had been previously arrested on the same charge in San Francisco and Los Angeles. There were differences in the Chicago and California incidents, however: In San Francisco, he was acquitted and in Los Angeles, all charges were subsequently dropped; in Chicago, he was found guilty and given the maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $1000 fine (the decision is now being appealed). In Chicago, also, the license of the nightclub in which he appeared was revoked for two weeks, in an administrative proceeding that preceded the trial. In other words, before the actual charge of obscenity was ever heard in a court of law, the city suspended the nightclub's license for having permitted an obscene performance on its premises. And by this action, Chicago officials succeeded in banning Bruce from any future appearances at nightclubs in this city, since—no matter what the final outcome of the trial—it will take a very brave club owner indeed to book Bruce knowing he is thereby placing his liquor license in jeopardy.
Why did California and Chicago trials end so differently? There were religious implications in the Chicago arrest and trial that did not exist in either San Francisco or Los Angeles. Variety reported, after the first day of the hearings on the liquor-license revocation: "After nearly a full day of hearing prosecution witnesses, it is evident that, in essence, Bruce is being tried in absentia. Another impression is that the city is going to a great deal of trouble to prosecute Alan Ribback, the owner of the club, although there have been no previous allegations against the café and the charge involves no violence or drunken behavior.... Testimony so far indicates that the prosecutor is at least equally as concerned with Bruce's indictment of organized religion as he is with the more obvious sexual content of the comic's act. It's possible that Bruce's comments on the Catholic Church have hit sensitive nerves in Chicago's Catholic-oriented administration and police department."
The religious considerations in the case arose again during the trial, as Variety reported in a second news story: A number of people "have been puzzled by the arrest, since it is the general opinion of many café observers that performances with similar sexual content have been overlooked at other Chi clubs. It's thought that Bruce's attacks on organized religion may have been the deciding factor in making the arrest, or so the line of prosecution questions would indicate to date."
Chicago's daily newspapers made no mention of the religious implications in the arrest and trial, but on the basis of sworn affidavits from two witnesses, The Realist reported the following conversation between the Captain of the Vice Squad and the then owner of The Gate of Horn (he has since been forced to sell his interest in the club) following Bruce's arrest.
Captain McDermott: I'd like to speak to the manager. Alan Ribback: I'm the manager. McDermott: I'm Captain McDermott. I want to tell you that if this man ever uses a four-letter word in this club again, I'm going to pinch you and everyone in here. If he ever speaks against religion, I'm going to pinch you and everyone in here. Do you understand? Ribback: I don't have anything against any religion. McDermott: Maybe I'm not talking to the right person. Are you the man who hired Lenny Bruce? Ribback: Yes, I am. I'm Alan Ribback. McDermott: Well, I don't know why you ever hired him. You've had people here. But he mocks the pope—and I'm speaking as a Catholic. I'm here to tell you your license is in danger. We're going to have someone here watching every show. Do you understand? Ribback: Yes.
Anyone who has ever heard Lenny Bruce knows that his act is not an attack against any specific religious group, but against all of society's intolerance and hypocrisies. His technique is vitriolic and his manner often so free-form that it becomes a verbal stream of consciousness. But his basic message is not one of hate, but of charity, love and understanding.
"Lenny Bruce is here to talk about the phony, frightened, lying world," wrote the Chicago Tribune's Will Leonard less than a week before Lenny's arrest. And Richard Christiansen, in the Chicago Daily News, termed Bruce "the healthiest comic spirit of any comedian working in the United States today." His act, said Christiansen, "is right smack at the center of a true comedy that strips all prejudices and reveals man's inhumanity to man."
Nor do all Catholics fail to understand. Writing on the subject of Bruce and his vocabulary, Professor John Logan of the University of Notre Dame stated: "I find him a brilliant and inventive moralist in the great tradition of comic satire—Aristophanes, Chaucer, Joyce. If his use of four-letter words constitutes obscenity, then those satirists were also obscene."
The point, as we have previously stated, is not whether any one of us agrees with all, or any part, of what Bruce has to say, but whether a free society can long remain free if we suppress the expression of all ideas that are objectionable to a few or to many.
The charge against Lenny Bruce was obscenity, but his actual "crime" seems to have been speaking out too openly on certain negative aspects of organized religion. The charge against Playboy is obscenity, also.
In the February issue, we commented on the National Organization for Decent Literature, which headquarters in Chicago. The NODL prepares a monthly list of "disapproved" books and magazines that is supposed to be a guide for Catholic youth, but is often used as a weapon for adult censorship. Local organizations—sometimes openly Catholic and sometimes seeming to represent a cross section of the community, while actually under Catholic control—use the NODL black list to suppress reading matter in their community through the action of sympathetic officials or through the intimidation of local book and magazine dealers through threat of boycott or other coercion.