DECEMBER 3, 2001
-- Martin E. Marty
"Islam Gets Spot for the Holidays," headlined the November seventeenth issue of The Chicago Tribune. The subhead read: "Minaret to Join Manger, Menorah." Similar headlines appear in newspapers across the country. On one side, the negative, they represent one more instance of community involvement in what a book title called several years ago "The December Wars." All year long people can get along across the boundaries of their faiths. They snuggle peacefully in alphabetical order in the "Churches and Synagogues" section of the Yellow Pages. Come December, they square off for space in the public square.
On the positive side, the representation of the "Third 'M'"-- Manger, Menorah, and now Minaret -- is a signal of generosity, fairness, and tolerance. It is also evidence that groups care about their faith, and like to have it presented publicly. A majority of Americans think of themselves as living "faith-based" lives, and a large minority of them want to banner their own faiths. They make commitments, and actually go to, and worship in, mosques, churches, and synagogues, etc.
Read on in stories like the one in the Chicago Tribune and you will find another clue as to why religious groups want to occupy those few square yards in the Daley Plazas or Court House Squares of the nation. This clue suggests that the December Wars are not so much about faith or piety as they are about politics and representation. A city with 100,000 citizens who own lawns on which, say, a crèche scene would be a thing of beauty, appreciated by neighbors of other faith or no faith, becomes a battle ground on which crèche constructors vie for numerical superiority against those erecting December symbols of other religions. How much does this all have to do with religion?
It once had more to do with the old Christian and then "Judeo-Christian" American impulse to say "We belong and you don't." Now, according to a Muslim spokesperson, "the point was there was a need to give equal representation to the three Abrahamic religions." A city official explained: "We feel it's important to have a full recognition of all the major religions in Chicago." All? Where are the Sikhs, the Bahais, the Hindus, the Zoroastrians, the Unitarian Universalists, the Theosophists, and scores more? What about non-believers? Do just three now "belong," and "need representation." Are they the ones who get to say "we belong and you don't," "you don't matter as much?"
Years ago in the famed "Pawtucket" case the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of displaying the manger with Jesus, who to Christians is the savior of the world, on the Court House lawn as long as it is surrounded by sufficient quantities of other symbols -- trees, bells, Santa Claus -- to deprive it of all religious meaning. People call it the "Two Plastic Reindeers plus Jesus" decision. The December Wars and the arrival of the Minaret seem to this "Sighter" less about faith, than about representation, "making it," and, ultimately, having weight to throw around.