Freedom from religion foundation, Inc | Subscribe
Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Dick Hewetson: My personal history of the United States

FFRF Lifetime Member Dick Hewetson is one of FFRF’s longest-tenured members, having joined the foundation in its first year as a national organization in 1978. Here, he recounts his life and how it has played out against the backdrop of American history.

By Dick Hewetson

At the age of 92, I realize that I have lived through over one-third of the history of the United States of America. (Our republic is 246 years old.)

I was born on March 31, 1930 — six months after the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. My father was the cashier of the Flossmoor State Bank in Flossmoor, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. Shortly after I was born, the bank closed. After a brief time with the South Side Bank of Chicago, my father became unemployed. We soon became “homeless” and lived with relatives or friends for the first four years of my life. I do not remember these times.

Both the Civil War and the Great War (World War I) were recent memories. There were people who remembered Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation that “freed” the slaves. The slaves may have been freed, but they were certainly not full citizens. They only held certain menial jobs. 

1930s

The major forms of entertainment were radios at home and movie theaters that showed black and white movies with sound, and, if you could afford it, a piano in the parlor. Sound had only recently been added to movies. Until then, movies had no soundtrack, and the dialogue was flashed as text on the screen. Movie theaters had pianos. 

Milk and ice (we had no refrigerators) were delivered in horse-drawn wagons.

In history books in my public schools, the American Indians were referred to as “savages.” We now know that their children were placed in schools that robbed them of their culture.

In grade school we sang a song:

Such a kind policeman stands

At the corner every day.

Little children, who are lost,

Go to him to find their way.

The street policeman was a member of the neighborhood. He knew us. We knew him. Now the police cruise in pairs in automobiles, and many people fear them.

1940s

I grew up in Minneapolis, which I now understand was a tremendously anti-Semitic city. Jewish people could not be buried in the city’s cemeteries. With the exception of the University of Minnesota, Jewish doctors could not be affiliated with any hospitals. They could practice across the river in St. Paul. After World War II, the Jewish doctors in Minneapolis built Mt. Sinai Hospital.

One Sunday when I was 11 years old, I rode my bike to a former neighborhood to visit a playmate. When I arrived, he came running out of his house to tell me that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. I had no idea where Pearl Harbor was or what that meant.

The ensuing war had a profound effect on my life. Patriotism was at a high level. Food and gasoline were rationed. We collected scrap metal for the arms industry. Families had flags in their windows with blue stars representing members in the armed services and gold stars representing those who had died in battle.

As a young person, I saw the middle class grow because of the work of labor unions. I saw the return of prosperity after World War II. Because of the G.I. Bill, veterans were able to get an education and buy homes. Both my brother and brother-in-law received an education through the G.I. Bill. The gap between the rich and the poor became the smallest in history. The following years led to a growing middle class. The gap between the rich and poor grew even smaller. For most Americans, these were good times. 

1950s

From 1950 to 1954, I attended the University of Minnesota. I worked 40 hours per week to support myself. The tuition was $33 per quarter! I went on to Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in Evanston, Ill. With summer jobs on the Great Northern Railroad and washing pots and pans in the seminary kitchen, I was able to pay for my education.

Although I was living a rather “cloistered life,” I was aware of the anti-communist atmosphere in the United States. Wishing to distinguish us from Marxist-Leninist countries, Congress changed the motto of the country from “E Pluribus Unum” to “In God We Trust,” and added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. I still love the ring of the phrase as I learned it: “one nation, indivisible.” Scarier to me were the hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy to weed out communists and homosexuals from the government.

Because I grew up poor and was taught that waste was not good, I remember being appalled by the idea of throwing useful things away —what I call our “throw-away society.” Cleaning rags were made from used clothing. Now we purchase them at the hardware store. The worst example of this is single-use plastic gadgets. Decades later our landfills and oceans are filled with plastic! 

Also, I remember a time when being in debt was something to be avoided. With the exception of homes and automobiles, most things were purchased only when we could afford them. Now, with the plethora of credit cards, being in debt is normal. Living beyond one’s means is normal.

The priesthood years

I now realize that my motives for going into the priesthood were very subliminal. It was a place to “hide” and be considered all right as an unmarried man. I also thought that if I had enough faith, my homosexuality would fade away.

Having lived my entire life in Chicago and Minneapolis, my first assignment was a real culture shock. When I graduated in 1957, I was assigned to St. John’s Church in Hallock, Minn., and Christ Church in St. Vincent, Minn. St. Vincent is in the northwest corner of Minnesota. Hallock is 20 miles south. To give some perspective, Hallock is 375 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Driving south from Hallock, it was 70 miles to the first traffic light! However, it was only 85 miles north to the wonderful city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. That city became a haven for me.

Two years later, I was living and working as an Episcopal priest in International Falls, Minn., which was a unique experience. This border community is known as the “Ice Box of the Nation.” Forty degrees below zero is not unusual in the winter; I once experienced 50 below. While I was living there, coaxial cable arrived from Duluth, and I bought my first TV. This led to a connection with the rest of the world that we had never experienced. 

My next assignment, starting in 1963, took me to Owen, Wis., where I served St. Katherine’s Church, as well as St. Mary’s in Medford, for five years. Owen was an unusual community for central rural Wisconsin. The town began in the early 1900s, built around a lumber yard established by John S. Owen from Milwaukee. The population was varied because they all came as “outsiders” from surrounding areas to work for Mr. Owen. He was an Episcopalian, so he established St. Katherine’s congregation. The Episcopalians in Eau Claire, Wis., were building a new church, so he purchased the old church, dismantled it, shipped it by rail, and reassembled it in his new community.  

Regardless of their background, most of his employees went to “his church.” This created a sense of community that I had never witnessed before. Again, I saw ordinary people uniting to live and work together.

1960s

The awareness of my sexuality led to a mental breakdown in 1967. This led to my leaving the parish ministry and taking a job with the Minnesota Department of Employment Security. I continued to fill in on Sundays for Wisconsin churches when the local clergy were vacationing, or there was a temporary vacancy. Some of these vacancies were because of misbehavior or alleged misbehavior of the local priest. I found the coverup by the church disgusting. Also, I realized more and more that church folk were too trusting of the words and teaching of the clergy.

The 1960s and ’70s brought the civil rights movements. Much progress was made, but certainly not enough. Recent times with Black Lives Matter have shown how deep systemic racism is. I have always been grateful that my racism was tempered by the fact that I attended an “integrated” school before we knew that term. A nation that promised to be a “melting pot” could be so beautiful. I relish the diversity. Today, it thrills me that the talking heads on television are no longer all white males. 

1970s

Once I came to terms with my sexuality, I began having doubts about my religious beliefs. I soon became aware that my doubts about religion were real. I left the church in 1972. Now that my livelihood was no longer with the church, I could see more clearly.

I became aware of the budding gay rights movement and became involved. It was difficult for me because most of the activists were young, counterculture people and I was this middle-class conformist in my 40s.

In 1978, I joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation because it worked for the separation of church and state — keeping religion out of government. Most members were atheists, and when I realized what that meant, I realized that I had always been an atheist!

At the height of my career with the state of Minnesota, there was affirmative action. That meant that as a white male, I could be bypassed in order to promote minorities and women. I was comfortable with this because I understood the concept and rejoiced that women and minorities were getting a “fair chance.”

During my career as a state employee, I became active in our union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Because of my involvement, AFSCME Council 6 was the first union in the United States to have anti-discrimination against LGBTQ people.

1980s

In 1981, President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers. From that time on, unions lost much of their power. The Minnesota Legislature broke up our bargaining units. Since then, the income gap has continually grown between the wealthy and the working class. Beginning with General Electric in 1981, corporations paid shareholders more by not giving raises to employees to keep up with inflation.

Today

The two issues in which I have been most active are LGBTQ rights and the separation of state and church. We still have no national law to protect LGBTQ people, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Bill Clinton, has set us back on both of these issues. “Sincere religious beliefs” allow discrimination. One person’s religious belief cancels the human rights of another.

It has become evident to me that this country built its wealth on white supremacy and slavery. I contend that it still operates in the same way, except the wealthy are not necessarily white, and the slaves are no longer only people of color and are called “minimum wage workers.” Wealth runs the country. Cheap labor is still the backbone.

In the 19th century, Chinese laborers were brought to this country to build our railroads, but were not allowed to become citizens. Throughout our history, they have been our cheap laborers. Many of them set up their own businesses in Chinatowns in our major cities. Now they are being blamed for the Covid pandemic, and their businesses are suffering. 

Money drives elections and influences our elected representatives. Our K-12 education system is a disaster. The Founding Fathers believed that democracy depended on an educated public. In my opinion, we do not teach critical thinking and good citizenship to our children. I have long believed that a high school diploma or G.E.D. should require passing the citizenship test that immigrants must pass.

Fewer than 50 percent of voters elected Donald Trump as president in 2016. I predicted that he would win. Most people in this country, including myself, do not think that Washington politicians really care about them. An example is Social Security. My parents, who died in the late 20th century, lived on Social Security. That is no longer possible because of inflation. Also, I paid into Social Security my whole working life with the promise the benefits would not be taxed. When I retired, Congress changed the law to tax 85 percent of my benefits. 

It is clear that gun manufacturing makes money. We already have more guns than people in this country, yet we manufacture 3 million more guns a year! Daniel Defense, which manufactured the gun used in the Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting, is a major contributor to the Republican Party.

I shall close by paraphrasing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, regarding the date the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade: June 24, 2022; a date that shall live in infamy. Democracy died in the United States of America. Now, guns have rights, but women do not!