March 29, 2001
Lessons from the Palos Heights Controversy
-- Michael Vander Weele
You may remember the controversy in Palos Heights, Illinois, over the Al Salaam Mosque Foundation's attempt to purchase -- and eventually worship in -- a local Reformed church. (See Sightings 8/26/00 for more details.) The city council intervened to prevent the purchase of the church. Opponents to the sale circulated petitions encouraging the city council's move, and both sides filled the council chambers, local newspapers, and radio talk-shows with their views. The matter, which drew national attention, is still unresolved.
As a professor at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, I decided to take advantage of our location at ground-zero and spend our two-week January interim studying the controversy with fourteen students. There was a substantial archive of written materials for students to work through, but we were also rich in human resources. The students had lengthy meetings with local clergy, lay leaders of the Muslim community, and Kenith Bergeron, the Department of Justice representative assigned to facilitate discussion within the village. They were able to observe a monthly meeting of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Group convened and facilitated by Bergeron. Students were also invited by the imam from the Bridgeview Mosque to observe noon prayers and ask questions afterwards.
The students -- from the immediate area and as far away as Minnesota and Canada -- took various, and sometimes differing, lessons from our study. As their professor, I also learned several important lessons from the experience.
First, whenever possible we need to put a face on an issue. Though our class also read newspaper reports and Stephen Carter's book Civility, nothing was more important to my students than their face-to-face meetings with many of the local players. Similar meetings likely would have been just as helpful for my fellow citizens in Palos Heights.
Second, this kind of work takes time and patience. In addition to individual work done outside of class, in two weeks we were able to put in thirty class hours. Time was essential just for reading, hearing, and considering the various sides of the debate in order to reach informed judgments about it. But we could have used more time -- for example, to archive and compare newspaper reports, to interview neighbors, or to study other government interventions in religious affairs.
Third, we need to remember that, at least in politics, manners are linked to morality. The subtitle to Civility is Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. Carter argues that a "sacrificial civility" is at the heart of a healthy democracy's public life. This is a lesson that he learned from his Christian faith, Carter tells us, but he also insists that it is a principle that can be affirmed by other viewpoints as well.
Fourth, politics and religion are often more closely intertwined than many white churches realize. A primary reason for offering this interim course was the comment I heard more than once in city council meetings that we need to separate politics and religion. Exactly wrong, I thought. Any religion that doesn't have political implications is a dead religion. (I'm reminded of a University of Chicago conference a few years ago entitled "Black Theology, Public Theology," which made exactly that point.)
My own church's Reformed tradition now seems to me to reveal the danger of too pure a separation of pulpit and politics. Those local Protestant and Catholic clergy who worked together to sort out what was required of them agreed that this seemingly political issue had deep religious roots. Those roots required them to offer a different, more immediate kind of social and political instruction than they had thought their vocations required. Often this education was different from what their parishioners desired -- not only in content but also in kind. Often it involved creating new lay groups or new activities for youth or middle-school ministries. But just those efforts were what most impressed my students in this community's response to last summer's controversy. The local government could not be expected to handle these religious activities, which are so essential to the city's political life.
As for the lives of my students, they clearly benefited from and valued the diversity of voices and faces that had been placed before them. I was proud to see three of them introduce speakers to the college community at later convocations, explaining why from a Christian perspective it was important to hear a Muslim lawyer speak about his different faith and fellow citizenship. In the end, I think we all learned that an adversarial model for government has severe limitations, not least of all in nurturing religious pluralism.
Michael Vander Weele is a professor of English at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois, and a participant in that community's Muslim-Christian Dialogue Group.