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Chicago prays: Let us not be Bible-thumped

Wheaton College students are worried about their right to browbeat anyone enjoying the Bean. What about our right to be left unmolested by evangelists?

Protesters in Chicago.
The entire city is one vast pulpit for religious fanatics to hector passersby. Can’t Millennium Park be a rare exception? | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The line snaking through the deafening, dripping bowels of Union Station, waiting to squeeze up the stairs to Madison Street, can take an eternity. When you finally break the surface, into light and air, one more hurdle awaits: the permanent pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses hoping to break you on their rack of literature.

No biggie. Sidestep them and be on your way. But they are also the opening salvo in the constant barrage of admonition and entreaty that is the price of walking downtown.

On Madison Street you’ll likely encounter a mendicant or two on cardboard, blessing you for whatever funds you contribute to their meth addiction. And if you’re really unlucky, Joe Scheidler and the entire Pro-Life Action League will be waiting across the bridge, human easels for their five-foot-tall color posters of the diced up fetuses of women they wouldn’t bother to spit on in person.

That’s life in the big city. Window shopping on Michigan Avenue? Dare make eye contact with a well-scrubbed millennial holding a clipboard and they will bound over, flash you a Colgate smile, asking some inane question — “Do you like animals?” — while snaking a hand into your pockets, metaphorically.

Finished? I’ve barely begun. State Street is the home of gaunt, Elmer-Gantry-style preachers screaming into blown-out loudspeakers about the fiery pit that awaits cigarette smokers and sodomites. All December much of Daley Plaza becomes a jostling religious anti-science fair, with little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay close by Muslims brandishing their star and crescent and the brutalist steel menorah of the Chabadniks, a decoration Albert Speer might have used at the Nuremberg rallies had the Nazis, you know, been into that kind of thing. Worst of all, the flimsy, anemic glowing red “A” of atheism, a physical manifestation of their feebleness relative to the Biblical passion of the Godstruck.

Of course the Wheaton College undergraduates shooed away from badgering tourists at Millennium Park and now suing the city know none of this. My first daily newspaper job was in Wheaton, and I recall just how insulated their suburban cloister can be, a sad blend of ignorance and certitude. Of course the argument of their lawsuit, filed Wednesday, is framed inward — their rights, their religion. Wheaton is traditionally a hotbed of censorship. But religious fanatics have discovered the First Amendment and realized that, like piety, tolerance can be twisted to their purpose. So now they demand that we patiently endure their favorite fairy tale at any time and place of their choosing. You can’t guide your children up to a large reflective sculpture to marvel in one of the trademark delights of Chicago without risking God’s self-appointed henchmen subjecting you to a spiritual mugging.

I don’t like to mess with anyone’s inner life. But today I’m making an exception. Maybe because evangelicals have so thoroughly discredited themselves by their near-universal embrace of the cruel, corrupt Donald Trump, an act of hypocrisy that would be stunning if it weren’t so typical. They were also cool with slavery, abolitionism being the exception, not the rule.

Maybe because Wheaton College is associated with oleaginous presidential groupie Billy Graham, curled at the feet of power, cooing divine approval at each new moral failure. A tragic figure who nevertheless appears saintly compared to his vile hater of a son, Franklin,

This is the same Wheaton College that in 2015 cancelled its own students’ health insurance, on short notice, lest one of them use it to secure contraception under Obamacare. Where was their love of freedom then?

Is this lawsuit really necessary? “We pray that the City of Chicago amends their unconstitutional code,” the students declared, in a statement. Why isn’t prayer enough? If you believe in the power of prayer, and in an omniscient God who follows you around like a pull-toy duck, squawking validation at every word and deed, why not place your faith in Him to soften the city’s heart, rather than running to embrace that crimson strumpet, Law?

Oh, right. Because they don’t really believe this stuff, apparently. It’s just the shiny wrapping on the club they use to browbeat anyone who dares think differently. Let’s hope — or, if you prefer, pray — that the city of Chicago cleaves to its own mighty, non-denominational faith, and shoves this omnipresent irritant to the curb where it belongs.