I’ve been reveling in watching the ad that Ron Reagan so obligingly recorded for the Freedom From Religion Foundation play on many of my choice late-night comedy news programs over the past two weeks. We placed the ad on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” on Comedy Central and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” on TBS. For the first time, CBS agreed to play the ad nationally on my favorite program, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Wednesday night was particularly fun as it was a “triple-header,” with the punchy ad running on all three programs one after the other on the same night. Dan Barker and I never tire of watching Ron Reagan’s wry demeanor and his tagline, “unabashed atheist . . . not afraid of burning in hell.” But I confess that by the end of the evening, I was getting a bit tired and impatient waiting for the ad to appear on the “Late Show,” where it was scheduled to air close to the show’s conclusion.
Then suddenly, I went from impatient to electrified. Stephen Colbert remarked that his second guest Rep. Jackie Speier would be talking about surviving the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. As a 28-year-old, Speier was a legislative counsel for the honorable but doomed Rep. Leo Ryan, the only member of Congress ever to be assassinated. Ryan’s mistake was taking seriously the concerns of desperate family members of many of the more than 900 individuals Rev. Jim Jones had lured out of the country and into the remote jungles of Guyana — along with an armory of weapons, foster children and a treasury partly built up by public aid he was pocketing. Ryan led a fact-finding mission to confirm whether the followers of this Christian cult leader and madman were indeed being terrorized and falsely imprisoned.
Speier wrote a book two years ago, Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back, about that fateful trip. She soon realized they had descended into a tinderbox. When they hurriedly left the enclave, taking with them some would-be escapees, they were followed and shot. Ryan was killed, along with four others in their party, on the airstrip as they started to board their planes. Speier and nine others were also shot and left for dead, waiting almost a day for help. Meanwhile, Jones was overseeing the horrifying murder/mass suicide of more than 900 of his followers. Shot five times, including in the back, Speier spent two months in the hospital and underwent 10 surgeries, also requiring around-the-clock protection from U.S. marshals due to continued threats on her life.
Colbert only hinted at this background as he asked her about the Capitol attack. It was chilling how matter-of-factly Speier recounted how she found herself trapped in the gallery of the House chambers as she and others were informed that the Capitol had been breached. After hearing a gunshot, she said: “I put my head down and I remember feeling the cold marble on my cheek. There was this sense of resignation. Here I was 42 years later, in my own country, in the sacred temple of democracy, and I was fearful that we were going to lose our lives.”
At that dramatic point in her account, “The Late Show” broke for some ads, including our never-more-timely message. When the show resumed, Colbert asked whether Speier saw parallels between the supporters of Jim Jones and those who stormed the Capitol. Speier replied in part that she had been reluctant to compare Trump to Jones, but added about the insurrectionists: “If they’d had guns, imagine the destruction, imagine the deaths, imagine the mayhem . . . It’s really indescribable when you realize that our country came that close to losing democracy. This insurrection nearly succeeded.”
When asked about impeachment, Speier said Trump’s role cannot be brushed away: “This was an act by the president of the United States to incite an insurrection. We’re supposed to forget that we almost lost a democracy two weeks after the fact?”
Leading the call for impeachment has been Rep. Jamie Raskin, co-chair of the historic Congressional Freethought Caucus, who has been public about losing his 25-year-old son to a tragic suicide on New Year’s Eve. Raskin has astonished his colleagues and the nation by his fortitude, showing up for the certification vote on Jan. 6, when he was temporarily caught in the House chambers and had to go into hiding like his colleagues. Even in hiding, he began writing the articles of impeachment. He has explained his resolve: “I am not going to lose my son at the end of 2020 and lose my country and my republic in 2021.” As one of the impeachment managers, Raskin did us proud as he read the articles before the Senate on Tuesday night.
“I’m alarmed by the intrusions of religion into our secular government,” notes Reagan in the FFRF ad. It is indeed time to take renewed alarm, and double down on vital work to defend our secular republic. Please join FFRF in our work so that reason — and our secular Constitution — will prevail.