Talladega County is known for a few things, most notably the NASCAR track that shares its name with the county, along with the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind and Honda Manufacturing, among a few others. But another Talladega attraction is not quite so well known.
Every year during the Independence Day Weekend, the Alabama Freethought Society and the Freedom From Religion Foundation hold their annual advance (not retreat) around Lake Hypatia. They have been gathering there every year for more than two decades now.
Among the 100 or so guests this year are the co-presidents of FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker. They have been regular visitors to Lake Hypatia for many, many years.
Gaylor and her mother founded what became FFRF as a local organization in 1976, to protest prayer and guest clergy at city council meetings. “We decided we were more likely to be heard if we were representing an organization rather than a mother-daughter team,” she explained. FFRF was born and became front page news in the Madison, Wisconsin area. City government dropped public prayer altogether, and the county began alternating between guest clergy and other inspirational but non-theist speakers. Calls began coming in, and FFRF went national by 1978.
She and Barker met on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1984, when that program was first beginning to build a national audience. “We knew of him,” Gaylor said, “but we had never met before that."
At that time, Barker was just coming out of a career in the ministry that had been largely centered around music. He still writes and performs music, but with a different focus these days. He continues to be active with the Clergy Project, a group providing retraining and other benefits for ministers who no longer believe. After three years, this group has thousands of members, membership remains confidential for obvious reasons.
The organization continued to grow rapidly through the late 1980s and early 1990s.
They hired their first full-time attorney in 1988, and currently have five. There is a project under way to quadruple the size of their headquarters to accommodate all the new staff.
But another talk show appearance would also have major consequences, at least as far as the Alabama event is concerned.
In 1988, Barker and Gaylor appeared on the Phil Donahue Show. At the end, Donahue put the FFRF address on the screen, stumbled while reading it and then read it again.
“Normally, something like that doesn’t stay up there long enough for anyone to grab a pencil and write it down,” Barker said. “Because he stumbled, it stayed up a little longer.”
Apparently one of the people writing down the address was Roger Cleveland, owner of some property in Talladega County near Lake Hypatia.
“At the time, he was an agnostic, but his wife Pat was still a practicing Christian, which I didn’t know,” he said. “I was going to Atlanta for a debate, and he suggested we all meet. He asked about starting up a chapter in Alabama, and we said he would need at least 10 members. He said he could do that. And I think Pat realized she was a non-believer on their way home.”
The group the Clevelands assembled met in the living room of their house, just down the road from where this year’s festivities are taking place. “This place became a magnet that brought a lot of people here,” Gaylor said. “They took on a building project, then bought some more property, which was deeded over to us. They put a lot of their sweat into it, too.”
The annual advance was also Roger Cleveland’s idea, with the first gathering taking place in 1991. First one building and then another went up on property owned by the foundation, and campgrounds were set up for visitors on the Cleveland’s property around it. The Alabama chapter built a pavilion and Bill Teague designed some of the monuments. Quotes from famous non-believers like Thomas Paine abound, and the area is also the home to the nationally known “Athiests in Foxholes” monument to non-theistic soldiers. “That started with some litigation over a huge cross in San Diego. There was a competition for a new design, and ours didn’t win, but we built it here,” she said.
As the Alabama chapter continued to grow, Gaylor said they were “shocked, although we really shouldn’t have been. We were successful here because something like this was needed in such a religious area.
In Madison, there are more people like us, so it’s not as important for us to get together. But here, people can sometimes feel besieged.”
Although the turnout for this year’s advance was not as high as in some past years, the organization continues to grow nationally. FFRF recently purchased advertisements on “The Daily Show” and the “Colbert Report”. The ads feature Ron Reagan, and is fighting lawsuits on breaches between the separation of church and state all over the country.
They are also continuing to attract other celebrity spokespeople.
“A couple of years ago, we gave the ‘Emperor Has No Clothes’ Award to Charles Strauss, who wrote the music for ‘Annie’ and other hit shows,” Gaylor said. “He and Dan collaborated on a song called ‘Poor Little Me, I Only Have A Brain,’” with lyrics by Barker.
Barker pointed out that Strauss had once written a book called “Put On A Happy Face” dealing with his career as a young man in the music business, including his time touring with Butterfly McQueen (Prissy in “Gone With The Wind), who, it turns out, was also an atheist. “He was playing piano for her, and even though she was the headliner, she couldn’t go into a lot of restaurants. He would have to order her food and bring it out to the car, and even got spit on for doing that one time. I don’t think they ever knew they were both atheists until the fiftieth anniversary of “Gone With The Wind.” She told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that just as her ancestors had been freed from slavery, she had been freed from religion.”
Scott Clifton of “The Bold and the Beautiful” is another outspoken atheist. “We asked him about being an atheist in Hollywood, and apparently everyone else there is, too,” Gaylor said. “So there’s not really that much to say about it. They’re pretty well insulated, and that makes it harder to get well-known speakers. So if anyone out there knows George Clooney…”