Rhetoric makes for a hotter Claremont summer

by John Pixley


It was a church group.

I don’t know why people were shocked—shocked!—about what happened when, in a new addition to the city’s Fourth of July Celebration, the choir from the Pomona First Baptist Church presented a concert of patriotic music in front of the Claremont Depot at the beginning of July. Sure, “God bless America,” “In God We Trust,” even “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” and “Glory, glory, hallelujah, His truth is marching on” are familiar tropes in patriotic American song, but they do have a different, very distinct ring when put forth by a Christian body.

This wasn’t the Pomona College Choir singing a Bach mass. Or, perhaps in a better example for those with questions about Pomona College’s Congregational beginnings, the choir with students from Scripps, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd and Pitzer College singing “O, Magnum Mysterium.”

“What was the city thinking?” was the immediate question, including from members of the city’s Human Relations Commission, regarding what some saw as evangelism at a city-sponsored event. Or even in a public space. This was all the more poignant after the city ended up backing out of a celebration featuring a Catholic mass in El Barrio Park not long before.

But perhaps the question should be “What were people thinking?” What was anyone thinking?

This is what I’ve been asking, with people firing off letters, printed in these pages, ricocheting off each other in a steady stream since the patriotic concert. These letters haven’t been about how good or bad the singing was, and they have definitely made summer even hotter and steamier around here.

Some letters have said that Christians should be allowed to express their faith in public, with a few at least implying that they have a duty to spread their faith. Some letters have said that religion has no place in the public square, citing the First Amendment and saying that it makes people of other faiths or no religious belief feel left out or estranged. At least one letter included the opinion that it’s unfair that it’s okay for Occupy Claremont to have a presence in front of city hall, at least for a while, even as a Christian doing so wouldn’t be tolerated. One letter was from representatives of the ACLU threatening legal action unless the city draws up rules, or clarifies the rules it does have, regarding church/state issues.

Like I said, Claremont has been heating up in the last month or so, whether or not the mercury has been rising.

I’m wondering if the real question isn’t what was anyone thinking but, rather, was anyone thinking? Or, maybe, thinking too much.

It could be argued that Occupy Claremont is based on religious values, even Christian values—peace, justice and all that—but, as far as I know, it’s not a religious group. It is certainly not a church choir singing in front of city hall.

But what about Claremont’s Fourth of July parade? Do we really think about what goes on in it?

For many years, there has been a large contingent or 2, at least, from fundamentalist Christian churches, with Christo-centric songs blaring forth. I am not here to advocate them being banned from the parade, like those who sue to have God removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, but what about the Jewish people, the Muslims, the Buddhists who are there to cheer on the parade too? How do they feel when these contingents pass by? What about Sikhs, a group victimized in a recent terrorist act?

Likewise, the large contingent in recent years featuring people of different faiths championing same-sex marriage (which I have been involved in) has, for sure, elicited some frowns and thumbs-down. Again, this is a case in which some feel obliged or called to express their beliefs, especially when they see them challenged or see those with differing beliefs as “lost.”

And, no doubt, there are those who would rather see a contingent of soldiers or veterans waving the red, white and blue than a group of peace marchers carrying signs.

Over the years, such issues have inspired a letter or 2 regarding the parade. But then the topic quickly dropped, with no ongoing conversation.

But can we have a real conversation, a constructive, productive dialogue, about expressing religious beliefs in public spaces, at public events? Perhaps what we should really ask is if we want to think about this, and if we can talk about it without getting hot under the collar.

And I don’t know if suggesting that someone who doesn’t like what’s going on go elsewhere, no matter how negative and harsh the expressed opinions are, is what I mean by constructive and productive.


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