Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Rob Sherman: Atheist. Activist. Asshole.

      It was easier to sympathize with Rob Sherman's cause than to sympathize with Rob Sherman. On one hand, he fought the good fight that others shirked or shrugged off—to resist the easy infiltration of religion into government, to hold America accountable to its secular ideals, and to frustrate those all-too-eager to put the weight of the law behind the symbols of their own particular faith. 
    On the other, he could be so grating about it, filing his lawsuits, haranguing officials, showing up at the newspaper on Sept. 11, 2001, practically unhinged, insisting that this, THIS is what religion leads to. I was glad he was doing what he was doing, I suppose. I just wished he would do it far away from me.
    The long-time Buffalo Grove resident seemed to be mellowing lately, branching out—he ran for Congress in the 5th District on the Green Party ticket last fall, promising to preserve jobs for coal miners and get "In God We Trust" off our money. He did not win.     
    During the campaign, I ran into him at the Sun-Times, having his portrait taken. He seemed in good spirits, and I was cordial, and wished him well. He had recently moved to a home with an airplane hangar in Poplar Grove. It was unwelcome news Sunday to read in the Daily Herald that a plane belonging to Sherman, 63, had crashed, killing its pilot. The coroner was slow to officially identify the victim as Sherman, but eventually it was announced that Sherman had died in the crash. Condolences to his friends and loved ones for their loss.
      For the rest of us, well, Rob Sherman was sui generis. There was no one like him, and in the years to come we might find ourselves wishing there were. It took courage to do what he did, and while he had flaws, he without question had fortitude. Even though his vexing qualities might be what first spring to mind. When I wrote "The Alphabet of Modern Annoyances" in 1996, it seemed natural to begin the book with Sherman, and I'll reprint it here, as my tribute to this unique figure on the Chicago area landscape. I know the headline might strike some as a little harsh, and I went back and forth on using that last word. But then Sherman was a lot harsh, for decades, and it only seems fair. 

     Rob Sherman is a pest. he'd be the first to admit it. A professional atheist, Sherman has spent years pressuring suburbs around Chicago to purge their town hall lawns of nativity scenes and their crests of crosses and other religious trappings. He is as common a sight at city council meetings as folding chairs.
     Needless to say, people hate him. Sherman is pushy and aggressive and gets communities worked up over issues they'd rather not think about. And he never goes away.
     Even those who sympathize with Sherman sometimes find themselves blanching at his tactics. He is locally famous for having dragooned his young son, Ricky, into being a reluctant poster child for the atheist cause. The most notorious incident took places eight years go, when a columnist* visited Sherman's home and Ricky, then six, was trotted out for display.
    "Do we celebrate Christmas?" asked Sherman
     "No," Ricky answered.
     "Why not?" Sherman quizzed.
     "I don't know," Ricky said.
    "Because we're what?" Sherman persisted.
    The son was puzzled. "Smart," he ventured.
    "Because we're what?" Sherman prodded. "It starts with an A."
    The child thought a moment. Then it came to him.
     "Assholes?" he said eagerly. 

*Not me, incidentally, but Eric Zorn, and I half admired, half winced at how I seized his vignette for my own purposes. 


  1. First obituary I ever read that made me literally laugh out loud. Woke my wife up. God damn it!


    1. I agonized a bit over the headline. I knew it was funny, but the guy did just die, and does have family, friends etc. That's why I didn't run this Sunday -- it was ready to go. I figured, wait a couple days.

  2. As an atheist, my attitude toward Sherman was much like yours--half admiring, half embarrassed.

  3. If there were more people like Mr. Sherman in government maybe we wouldn't have laws that say it's ok to discriminate if you say it's my religion. Christian law good, others bad.For a while I thought Rand Paul was going to be that kind of asshole thet Sherman was, but he turned out to be just a regular one.

  4. A nice warts and all assessment. He pursued a worthy enough cause, but muddied the waters considerably by giving people the impression that separation of church and state is an atheistic doctrine. A few of the Founders may have been atheists; most were lukewarm Christians or Deists. They were united in a resolve to keep the long history of state-abetted religious persecution from being imported to American shores. As Thomas Jefferson famously observed: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

    And Mr. Madison, who wrote the First Amendment and considered it the most important of them all said, "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christianity in exclusion of all others."

    Tom Evans

  5. Well said and historically true, Tom.


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