David Seiler opinion column: Religion increasingly entering the public square

Several years ago I was invited to attend a political fundraiser about 50 miles or so south of Effingham for a local politician whose district encompassed both areas. I arrived at the event and was surprised to find out it was dry – meaning no alcohol was being served. Not being a much of a drinker myself it was not a particularly big deal to me, but I did find it noteworthy in comparison to similar such events I had regularly attended here in Effingham County where the event kept going until the keg ran dry and there was always another keg.

I asked this local politician if dry events were common in that southern region of the district and he assured me they were. I inquired about how he felt as sort of an outsider at such events and he said, “They’re fine.” And with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “But we have more fun!”

It was my first adult realization of just how close the Bible Belt is to our area. Historically speaking, the Bible Belt ran across the southern states of the US but as anyone who has traveled in Southern Illinois knows, that “southern drawl” is clearly evident in towns south of I-64.

I relay this story because it relates to a change that has come over our area in the last generation or so. That feeling of change many people sense is the Bible Belt cinching around our waist.

Before jumping to conclusions, please understand that this is not an essay intending to bash on religion. As someone who has spent many Sunday mornings attending mass, it’s not my intent to diminish the positive impact religion can have for some folks. However, I also acknowledge that religion seems to have a not so great impact on some and many do just fine avoiding religion altogether. But my point is that I think it’s important to note the cultural change and ask ourselves about the impact.

By my own life experience, I can attest that church has always been influential in this area. I recall news articles from out of town reporters who were astounded by the number of churches in Effingham per capita. But growing up it was always quite clear to me that we weren’t part of the Bible Belt. I grew up reading the newspapers and watching news broadcasts; it was clear to me even as a child that our area was different than the Bible Belt.

What was different, at least in my eye, was the understanding that one’s own religious belief was one’s own business. We each had our own decisions to make about how to interpret what was heard at church and it wasn’t our place to impose that view on everyone around us. There was certainly no sense that because others might have a different point of view that our particular religion or denomination was being persecuted. Religion didn’t shape our decisions as much as it shaped our individual decision making skills. There was a respected space in our local area between government and religion.

That space is regularly violated now. I hear local elected officials commonly invoking religion as justification for their votes on legislation. It seems that religion is more commonly proclaimed in the public square and I can tell you that not everyone is comfortable with it. There is a feeling among some residents that religion is being misused, overused and abused but these folks are unwilling to come forward and say it because to do so is to bring on a fight. It’s easier for them to stay silent.

I suspect that in spite of my imploration to the contrary, some will see this essay as a criticism of religion. But I urge folks to look beyond their own preconceived views just a bit. Place yourself in the shoes of an outsider and question whether the overwhelming dominance of religion is an attraction or a repellant? Truth be known, the answer to that likely varies but what seems clear is that our history was different.

I acknowledge that my childhood perception of society might be skewed. Maybe I saw things through a lens that was missing aspects of our local society. But the history teacher in me knows that things were different then and that the not so distant past provides a model where we might all feel more welcome.