Why Not Rugs?
Finding room for God in the statehouse
July 25, 1985
Scholars have pored over their texts for generations, but to date have found no convincing evidence that God cares about good government. Illinois lawmakers sense this; when they need guidance when facing difficult decisions, they pray to campaign donors instead. Every so often a legislator will decide that it wouldn’t hurt to ask God anyway, and propose that God be admitted in a quasi-official way into the process. So it happened in 1985.
The chapel idea was not approved, by the way.
As Gary McCants explained it later, God spoke to him a year ago and told him that the time had come for there to be a chapel in the Illinois statehouse. God did not speak to him in a burning bush—McCants, who is a Democratic staffer in the Illinois House, was in the shower at the time—but McCants took the message to be an order nonetheless. I understand that Democratic staff members often hear voices. My guess is that it wasn't God talking to McCants but Mike Madigan; they're easy to confuse, especially in the latter days of a legislative session.
Whatever its provenance, the idea for a chapel quickly won converts. According to the story filed by State Journal-Register reporter Cindy Skaugen, Sen. James "Pate" Philip spearheaded the appointment of a subcommittee of the Legislative Space Needs Commission to look into conversion of a statehouse hearing room for the purpose.
God came to McCants in the shower, but Philip had Pat Robertson come to him over dinner. Robertson, the TV evangelist, often speaks for God, who would speak for himself but he doesn't reach Robertson's audience. Robertson urged a chapel, and even offered to return to Springfield—a second coming as it were—to cut a ribbon at its dedication.
I am always surprised at the company God keeps. Former state schools superintendent Donald Gill used to conduct regular prayer meetings in his offices. (Gill once noted that kids pray in the classroom, especially during algebra tests—although he never explained how, if prayer were efficacious, Illinois schoolkids test so poorly in math.) Secretary of State Jim Edgar preaches outside the office as well as in it. And when Ronald Reagan visited Dixon, Illinois, eighteen months ago he described "our roots" in terms of faith in "our God”—as if we all believed in the same one, or believed in one at all.
Few people take serious offense at such blurring of private conviction and public service. I am not one of them. A few days after Reagan left Dixon, newly appointed Springfield finance commissioner Jim Norris pledged to do "what is right for my God, my wife and family, and the people of Springfield." I dispute his priority as well as his presumption. Norris's god is not my god, and since I'm paying his salary, it seems reasonable to expect that between nine and five he do what is right for me. More to the point, doing right for your god supposes that you know what your god wants, which seems a tricky business. If disputes over what God wants can wreak such havoc in Beirut or Belfast, imagine what might be the result if he were to decide to back the completion of Lake Springfield II.
God doesn’t talk to me. I can't get even Rebecca Paul to return my phone calls, and if I were to hear voices in the shower I wouldn't ask my minister to explain them but my plumber. I do not believe in the Christian god, never having been able to reconcile the existence of an all-powerful, all merciful being with the invention of either sex or polyester. Believing in the fundamentalist Christian creed seems no more ludicrous to me than believing in socialism or the tooth fairy. Yet while I have little personal use for Christianity, I value the acquaintance of a good many Christians—relationships which, I hasten to point out, demand more tolerance from my friends than they do from me. Decent men and women are rare enough that I don't worry much anymore how they got that way.
Which brings me back to the problem of the statehouse chapel. My first reaction to the proposal was incredulity. Lawmakers who are agitating for a place to pray are among those lawmakers who voted to buy and tear down both a Roman Catholic and a Lutheran church which stood within a block of the statehouse door. (Indeed, it is pews from the soon-to-be-razed Lutheran church that likely will be placed in such a chapel.) My guess is that the members feared making that block-long walk under the open sky, vulnerable as they doubtless are to bolts of lightning.
The statehouse is to some extent my building too, and I am picky about who should be allowed in it. When McCants and Phillip say "God," they, like Reagan and Norris and Gill and Edgar, mean that mainly Christian, mainly Protestant, vaguely white, vaguely male, deity which believes in low interest rates, mothers who don't work, and winning football teams—a god which, were he to take flesh on earth, would join a Rotary Club.
That description, not coincidentally, fits manyt Illinois legislators, but it scarcely encompasses the manic variety of the rest of Illinois. The god Philip and his cohorts want to enshrine in their chapel is not even universally recognized among Christians, much less by adherents to the other world religions. Backers will no doubt deny any intention of making it a place of specifically Christian worship. But the plan to install pews, for example, suggests a certain very specific style of worship. Why not rugs? Or For such a space to be genuinely ecumenical would require that it be adorned with symbols of all denominations; rather than an austere place for meditation, would looking like an ethnographer's rumpus room. The only sure way to avoid offense is to not install any religious symbols or paraphernalia at all—at which point the rest of us must ask, what is the point of a chapel which is not a chapel?
Not all Christian sects, for example, share these imperialist impulses. Many black Christians still look to their faith as a means to improve themselves This makes them a superior sort of Christian compared to the world's Robertsons and Falwells, who see religion primarily as a means to improve everybody else.
A person's religion is a matter between him and his god, except when he practices it in a public place, when it becomes a matter between him and the rest of us. I would not wish to ban private prayer from the statehouse even if it were possible. But the right to pray is not the issue. A chapel isn't just intrusive, it's unnecessary. I confess my bias, but it seems to me that a god who values a prayer more that comes from a chapel than one which comes from a cafeteria line or a conference room can't be much of a god.
Obviously, what our devout members propose is not to expedite prayer, but a certain kind of prayer. They propose prayer not as a private act of communion but a public act of affirmation. Prayer of this sort is a social act intended to confirm the fellowship of other believers, or to impress them with the depth of one's piety.
And I add again, one's Christian piety. I cannot agree with those colleagues who think that, while the church-state separation is to be valued in the abstract, a little god won't do anybody any harm. Piety is hardly a guarantee of virtue in any sphere; if anything it is inimical to virtue, since piety feeds a nasty kind of arrogance. As to the salutary effects of religion on civil affairs, one needn't even look as far as the history books. A glance at the newspaper front page will attest to that point gloomily enough. Governments are like people, in that both work best either when they have a whole lot of god in them or none at all. I could not live comfortably in a Christian republic, assuming I was allowed to live at all. (A less bloodthirsty bunch would not need to preach peace as much as Christians.) Burning heathens at stakes would violate EPA guidelines, although presumably they would deaway with the EPA too. I fear a grislier fate: having Mark preached at me by Penny Pullen.
Philip and the rest of the religious right in the statehouse are not trying to establish a Christian republic on the order of Khomeini's Iran. The fanaticism of the American Christian is curiously wan, unbloodied as it is by history; its aim is less conquest than conformity. Even so, that urge to establish the faith as official exists, and otherwise silly projects like statehouse chapels are its expression.
I feel some obligation as a citizen and taxpayer to make an alternative proposal. Impiety is not nearly the threat to sound government that ignorance is. Instead of a chapel, then, I propose that the Space Needs Commission open a reading room in the statehouse. Those who no longer read to learn may bring their Bibles instead.
The statehouse is a big building, as befits a symbol of a big state. We can find room in it for everybody. □