Why Not Rugs?

Finding room for God in the statehouse

Illinois Times

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 his audience doesn't match Robertson's. 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 put me first, not God. 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 many 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 do away 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. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated