Religion in southern Illinois a diverse experience

By Gus Bode

On inauguration day here in Carbondale, there was a nice little ceremony where local activists presented the peoples’ agenda to Jerry Costello. This ceremony offered a glimmer of hope for people who feel the re-election of George W. Bush represents the continuation of a dark chapter in American history. Of particular significance, to this life-long atheist, was the overwhelming presence of people of faith at the event. Rev. Joseph Brown, the director of Black American Studies here at SIUC, gave an excellent speech that served as not only a denunciation of the current administration, but also as an implication of capitalistic greed as the root of the problem.

To all of those who feel the Christian right has a stranglehold on moral values, not so fast. The diverse representation of members of local religious groups has reassured me that the left need not write off God as an ally in the fight to change this country. In fact, the left desperately needs something that everyday people can identify with. Almost overnight the Republicans became the party of the people, their candidate had the working class image, despite his roots, and Kerry was painted as the son of privilege, out of touch with mainstream American values. Perhaps his apparent reluctance to associate himself with religious rhetoric hurt his candidacy, but I have to hope that Christians might eventually see that the hot topics of gay marriage and stem cell research were not worth deciding an election over, and the moral issues of peace, health, and work opportunity will prevail.

It feels odd to me writing about the potential good found within the church, but perhaps it’s time to shed the layers of cynicism that have built up inside me. Atheists all over the country are probably going through a similarly sudden realization that they are an overwhelming minority, and that they probably will never convince everyone else of their folly. We live in a country where most people believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, and is the Son of God, or God himself, or some such combination. As you can see I have no particular expertise in The Bible. I’ve actually never read it, and never really been to church. I can count the number of religious ceremonies I’ve attended on one hand. There was my friend’s Bar Mitzvah, two Catholic weddings, and an Easter celebration in Springfield, Mo.


Experiencing a Baptist Easter is something unforgettable. The ceremony was held at the SMS basketball arena, complete with banners from the women’s team’s recent trip to the final four. It was broadcast on local television, and featured several musical performances and sermons. The most breathtaking moment was the end of the Passion Play, when Jesus was resurrected via being lifted up on a cherry picker. Needless to say it became very hard to suspend my disbelief and experience the ceremony without a healthy dose of cynicism.

Cynicism can be very valuable, and these days no American, constantly inundated with advertising messages and less-than-factual news reports, should be without it. Maybe it’s also OK to check it at the door sometimes, to experience things with an open mind, that’s supposed to be good, too, right? This is what I hope to accomplish this year. I want to share the varieties of religious experiences that southern Illinois has to offer. I do not pretend to be a seeker. I’m not planning on converting any time soon, but I believe that I’ve been missing out on something that is quintessentially American, freedom of religion. Call it a new year’s resolution.