“If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name,
he’d never stop throwing up.”
— Frederick in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
I have always wanted to begin an opinion piece that is sure to anger religious fundamentalists by quoting a Woody Allen movie.
Every religion has its own special brand of extremists. Generally, religious fundamentalists are insecure about the uncertainties of the modern world. They hark back to a simpler time to promote an antiquated view of culture. They claim the supernatural always planned on that view.
In this regard, extremist Christians often have a hard time dealing with the realities of modern American worship, in which non-Christians play a much more visible role than they used to — for instance, an interfaith chapel that equally welcomes Muslims.
Which brings us to an interfaith chapel at a public Kansas university that was founded in 1964 with the mission of being open to “all races and creeds.”
That chapel is Wichita State’s Grace Chapel, a non-sectarian common place for religious worship that had its pews removed to be more flexible for the various groups that use it. The idea for this renovation came from the former Campus minister Rev. Christopher Eshelman and was later spearheaded by then-student body president Matt Conklin.
Both men are Christians.
Not surprisingly, when the more fundamentalist and reactionary elements of the community caught wind of this development, they went straight for the “Islamification of America” dog whistle. Even a Fox News commentary chimed in, calling the chapel’s new pew-less design evidence of an “Islamic transformation of a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values.”
It is a bit comical to see that phrase in writing. I am sure many of you have received at least one email from an extended relative who calls President Obama something like an “atheistic Muslim socialist.”
The Rev. Eshelman, WSU’s former campus minister and originator of this pew-removal “conspiracy,” attempted to provide some inconvenient facts to those whipping up the hysteria.
From the Wichita Eagle story:
“I want to emphasize: Never in my conversations or experience did I have a Muslim insist on anything for that space,” he said. “There were no demands.”
Many others joined the reverend in trying to set the record straight:
“The major push was from Christians,” said Chandler Williams, a WSU graduate student who attends Central Christian Church. “The Muslims were not as involved in the discussions as the Christians.”
Williams said she volunteered in 2013 to serve on a committee studying how to make the chapel more effective. The group looked up reservations paperwork to see who was using it. The answer: hardly anyone.
Some people got married there, she said. Fraternities used it for initiation rites. WSU’s school of music sometimes used it for classes.
“So then we called together community people and religious leaders, ministers from the whole community,” she said. “We got an overwhelming response about renovating the chapel and removing the pews. They said it would give the floor a more flexible space, for things like Bible studies and even more interfaith discussions.”
Calling it a Muslim takeover of the space is untrue and unfair, she said.
“It hurts to think the Muslims here are constantly framed like that,” she said.
At the heart of this xenophobia is Christian dominion theology, which teaches that God is trying to regain control over the world and, thus, wants to set forth a nation governed by conservative Christians who rule the rest of society under their understanding of biblical law. If this theocratic push for political power sounds familiar, it’s ironically the same concept — just a different dogma — that these same extremists claim is behind the false crisis of sharia law expansion in America.
Apparent dominionist Hazel Torres chimed in about the WSU chapel on Christian Today with a claim of more “takeover” evidence:
“Meanwhile, the Muslims students (sic) are also making their move to assert their control of the facility. They recently presented a petition calling for the university to install Islamic-friendly plumbing—specifically, handheld bidets in restrooms around the campus.”
Of course, dominionists and reactionaries will see such decisions this way, instead of as constitutionally sensitive policymaking that attempts to bring a public facility in line with the inter-faith spirit of its benefactor. The university’s democratically elected student-body government ushered in these reforms, not a specific religious group with an agenda.
It would be easy to dismiss these xenophobic overreactions as mere nuisances on the spiritual fringe, but we should all be sobered by the traction these worldviews now hold in mainstream right-wing political circles, particularly among the likes of Presidential contender Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
This growing theocratic political ideology may ultimately splinter the national Republican Party, but more importantly it will continue to do damage to the progress our private and public sectors are trying to achieve in helping us fully realize our religiously pluralistic and constitutionally protected democratic society.
If Jesus came back and went to Wichita State’s chapel, I don’t know if he’d throw up, but I do know he wouldn’t be concerned about pews.