On the first Wednesday in January in each of the past five years I’ve ventured to the south campus of UMass Lowell to speak with students in a Community Psychology class. The course runs “intersession” (i.e., between the fall and spring semesters) and meets for many hours on many consecutive nights at the start of January. The reason I go on Wednesday is because the class always attends the Tuesday night Lowell City Council meeting. My role on Wednesday is to give some context to what the students (few of whom are ever from Lowell) witnessed the night before.
In the past, the students have always been willing participants in our discussions, about what you would expect from a group going to night class after a full day of work. Last night was different. Last night I had barely started introducing myself when the students were agitating in their seats as if they had all chugged a couple of Red Bull’s just before my arrival. The cause of the anxiety? They were exceedingly perplexed about the large role that religion played in the city council meeting. And at that point they were only talking about the opening prayer which many of them felt was out of place at a governmental meeting. That elicited a loud laugh from me. As soon as I regained my composure I explained that up until a few years ago, the council regularly recited the Our Father at the start of each meeting and that it was only after an intense debate that the council had switched to the more ecumenical, inclusive prayer they heard recited this Tuesday. I added that many in the community were still outraged that the Our Father was no longer being recited.
Our next stop was the manger. The first question was why did the council wait until 55 minutes into a 60 minute debate to ask the city solicitor to explain the relevant law. I replied that the councilors all knew what her answer would be – that the city erecting the manger on city hall grounds was illegal – and that they didn’t want to hear it.
Another student speculated that the real objective of the council was to have the statues restored and the display better lit but that the location of the display wasn’t that important to them. I disagreed with this assertion, telling the students that this whole debate wasn’t really about religion, it was about marking territory: moving the nativity scene back to city hall would be an unequivocal statement of who holds power at city hall. On Tuesday night, the councilors weren’t acting on behalf of the 105,000 people who live in Lowell; they were acting for the 11,500 people who voted in the November city election, a group that is older and whiter than the average resident; a group made up of many who not only see nothing wrong with the city spending money raised through taxes to erect a Christian religious display on the grounds of City Hall, but also see any questioning of that as a direct attack on them, their values, and their way of life. That’s why Councilor Mercier insisted on at least three occasions that her motion be decided on a roll call vote so “everyone knows where each councilor stands on this.” She wanted everyone who votes in the city election to know which councilors voted against Jesus. None did. The motion passed unanimously.
One of the reasons I think that religion should be kept out of the governmental sphere is that too often it is used as a tactic to achieve one’s political objectives. That was the case Tuesday night. The nativity scene is just another in a succession of wedges that have been used to drive people in Lowell apart on issues that are at best tangential to the mission of local government. Unfortunately, the tactic works well. That’s why it is used so often.
The students shared some observations: How the City Manager’s body language during the meeting telegraphed the contents of his letter of resignation; the amusement the students experienced as they watched city councilors struggle to use their brand new and obviously unfamiliar iPads during the meeting. We also talked about where young people get their information about local affairs, if they get it at all. We even talked about Pericles. That will all have to wait for another post that I’ll do over the weekend. The above is enough for tonight.