Saturday, January 16, 2016
CRAIG EDWARD KELSO, That One Time I Angered Jesus Christ and American Apple Pie
Are you Craig? a bookish, professorial gentleman asked as I busied about a local San Diego coffee shop, shaking hands and greeting folks for the monthly Atheist Coalition meeting.
You never knew who was going to tap you on the shoulder in those days. A hundred to one, it was as friend. But ooooooooooooooh that one. He being white, slender, wearing a sports jacked, glasses, he could've gone either way.
My policy was to turn immediately, break their personal space, and make for a handshake, firm and Alpha. This way, Christian bullies would know I was not to be trifled with, and friendlies would feel welcome.
Grabbed at the man's hand, did my thing, Yes! And you are? I half demanded.
It was Peter Irons, a constitutional professor of some note out at UC San Diego. He'd written excellent books, one of which was a cool compilation of Supreme Court cases whereby he managed to pilfer audio excerpts of key cases. I actually knew who he was.
Dr. Irons wasn't an atheist, I'd come to find, but a progressive Unitarian, a believer, a choir member. He offered to buy me coffee, asking we sit away from the assembled so he could explain a proposal in the works.
Phil and Howard, activists within Atheist Coalition, mentioned something about me being the right man for the job, fearless and whatnot. I hadn't really understood what they were getting at, and it wasn't until Dr. Irons sat me down that it all came together.
Dr. Irons discussed with me the pending lawsuits both Phil and Howard had kept in motion for years, arguing against the city's obvious preferential treatment of Christianity atop a beautiful La Jolla summit -- a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. Governments love to break their own rules.
Phil and Howard won at every stage, and the victories were piling up. But no politician wanted to be the one to order whomever to take the cross down, this towering, lit, Latin Cross for all San Diego to see. They were scared, and politically it made no sense to do anything other than vilify atheists.
Two of the last refuges of all scoundrels are patriotism and religiosity.
The conversation with Dr. Irons went well, as I was more than familiar with the arguments and the suits. The Mount Soledad Cross wasn't a war memorial. It was dedicated on Easter to Jesus Christ. Only later, when folks, especially Jewish residents of La Jolla, who'd been red-lined from buying property for years, got wind of their basic constitutional protections did appeals to war pop up.
Here they were, everyone was, paying taxes to support an obvious symbol of religiosity, claiming San Diego, La Jolla, to be Christian.
Local politicians and advocates tortured themselves in front of judges. IT'S NOT A CROSS! It's not Christian! And on and on. Every single judge, without exception, ruled in favor of Phil and Howard. All that was needed was to decide where the cross should go and how to respectfully move it.
Dr. Irons was convinced he, Phil, Howard needed one final, definitive proof to bring the court of the Mount Soledad site's religious significance.
He wanted to get a permit to hold a sunrise celebration on Easter that year (1996) to protest the injustice of justice delayed.
Protest the cross! Protest the cross AT the cross! Protest the cross AT the cross with a bunch of atheists! Protest the cross AT the cross with a bunch of atheists ON Easter, legally.
I laughed so loudly I shook Dr. Irons from his careful whisper. He smiled sheepishly. How do I get the permit? I asked immediately. Dr. Irons explained as long as I was brave enough to go through with it, he, as a La Jolla resident, would get the permit.
He warned me I'd be threatened. He explained it might be a circus. He said I would be the most hated person in San Diego, if not the United States.
I do not know whether it's pathological or what, but I have exactly no fear ... of anyone. I've had HUGE dudes face me down, dudes who could've easily imposed their will upon me physically, and I've told them to fuck off. I just do not have it.
This is because I never, ever do anything I do not believe in or think is wrong. I don't get off on being naughty. I am not a fucking school girl. I do what I fucking want, and, well, one has to assume there will be consequences. But get all scared? Naw.
I told Dr. Irons if Christians or whomever came THIS CLOSE to me, I'd snap their fucking necks. Now, there's no need for violence, Craig, he worriedly counseled. I am also not a violent person. I dislike it, I explained to him. I prefer peace. I just wanted Dr. Irons to know any fucking Christian or self-appointed patriot could suck my dick, that's all.
Dr. Irons gulped.
Sure enough Dr. Irons secured the permit.
All. Hell. Broke. Loose.
The next Atheist Coalition meeting was packed, media all over the place. Curiously, Phil and Howard had skipped town, and would be gone until everything blew over. I found that hilarious, but I understood. They'd received the brunt of negative attention for a long, long time, and I am sure they felt this would drive Christian nuts nuttier, and so they left our hero in charge.
Now I gulped.
Associated Press. ABC. NBC. CBS. CNN. All there. Local radio stations.
When I arrived, everyone pointed and yelled in my direction. THAT'S HIM. ASK HIM.
I explained this was a private meeting (I wasn't sure just yet what we were going to do with the permit, so I wanted to buy time -- I had a couple of weeks), and that I'd send out a press release when we'd hold a formal conference to detail our event.
To my amazement, that seemed to shoo them away. For now.
The group was in noticeable panic mode. Who was Peter Irons? Why are atheists holding an Easter anything? Lots of confusion.
I explained the notion of civil disobedience. Quieting them, I explained this was straight out of the Civil Rights playbook. The city and local Christian knuckleheads often claimed ANYONE could use the park at any time. Well, motherfuckers, we were calling them on it.
Some understood. Some did not.
When I opened the Atheist Coalition PO Box that week, the thing was flooded with letters from all over the world. Hatred. Atta-boys. Lots of appeals to go on shows and talk about the issue.
I did as much press as I was able. A Los Angeles radio station, KFI, the John and Ken Show, called me and we chatted for a while over the air. They too felt it was a provocation just to hurt people. I attempted to explain the reasoning, and it was at that moment gold struck.
I was going to invite everyone Christians hate but pretend to love:
The Gays! Called the MCC, a gay Christian church run by a lesbian veteran. Hahahahaha. That was a personal touch. So great. She accepted on the spot.
Wiccans! Yes, the fucking pagans are people too, no matter how goofy. An actual transvestite 'Witch' joined us. Nothing more satisfying.
Jews declined. Muslims declined. I understood.
A good Catholic boy joined us.
Some secular folks, like atheists, as well.
We'd have a few speeches, and then leave.
The media exploded. WITCHES AT THE CROSS! GAY CHRISTIANS! Oh my god it was hilarious. I sat back and watched it unfold before we were actually to march up to the park.
My phone rang off the hook (before cell phones). Lots of threats. Lots of pussy prank calls. Politicians refused to debate me after they heard my appearances. I knew the issues. All they could do was call me names. They did.
When Easter rolled around, I awoke extra early and set up. By 6am we were set.
It was packed.
Vendors. Media. Buses full of people. Fundamentalists came with their requisite large signs, boasting we and fags were all going to hell.
Everyone urged me to set up AT the cross. Fuck that.
I set up with the glorious ocean at our backs, so every photograph of us was in opposition to the cross and NOT with it in the background. Poetry.
I was Master of Ceremonies, and I introduced the event and all the speakers.
Most everyone listened, even the fundamentalists. It was one of the first times many of them met atheists ... and we didn't have horns ... we had a point, and they knew it.
A group did try to interrupt us. Local Victory Outreachers, reformed gang members, stopped terrorizing their own neighborhoods for a morning, and attempted to disrupt the event. San Diego Police asked me what I wished. I held the police off as the gangbangers shouted and yelled in Christian tolerance and love.
I went to the head gang leader Christian dude, and I explained we didn't go to his church and interrupt, we had a permit, and that the police were asking me to get involved. I pointed at the police. I told him I didn't want any police anything, and that my car was right over there. See me without the cameras, I yelled back, if you're a man. He smiled and dragged his goons back down the mountain, thank god.
The event turned out to be rather charming. A more secure Christian group was not there in support, but they brought doughnuts. They offered me one. I accepted. Their pastor asked to speak to me after. I agreed. He was a nice enough fellow, but completely clueless about what it means to live in a pluralistic society.
Dr. Irons came and spoke. He was kind. He was warm. He insisted this event and its reaction proved his point. It was obviously a religious memorial, and it evoked the kind of passion one might expect better expressed at church, paid for privately.
A local fellow, kind old man, who'd played trumpet at Easter Sunrise every year for decades asked if he could continue his tradition. I granted his request. He asked if there were any atheist songs. I laughed. The crowd laughed. I asked if he knew any Iron Maiden. He laughed. He played, and a few of the assembled danced.
We proved a point, although it was only a minor historical footnote in the church/state separation battles during those years that spread all across the country.
Ultimately the cross remains, legally maneuvered to private circles some how, and newly affixed with all manner of plaques to war and death and destruction.
Just as Jesus would have it.
And I mean it.
Craig Edward Kelso is a felon, father, husband, controversialist, living in Southern California with his adorable family.