Columbia Steeples on the Rise

March 10, 1991

Traditionalism is on the rise in Columbia. For three decades, church steeples have been curiously absent in a community that has come to symbolize American liberalism, even down to encouraging its residents to worship in shared, plain-vanilla religious space dubbed "interfaith centers."

Perhaps it is a sign of the times, perhaps a consequence of rapid growth, but Columbia's religious landscape is beginning to change. Several congregations are considering or are in the process of building churches of their own. "One of the sights that is sadly missing in Columbia is that of church steeples," said Rev. W. Stephen Neel, pastor of the 10-year old South Columbia Baptist Church. "We're not against the interfaith concept per se, but we wanted to provide our congregation with a more traditional approach."

Among other things, Columbia's visionaries saw interfaith worship as a means of promoting religious oneness among diverse faiths through a sharing of facilities, resources and religious philosophies. The idea was to encourage a focus on the ministries themselves instead of construction. Thus traditional hallmarks -- steeples, stained glass, crosses and stars of David -- were eschewed in favor of homogenous meeting halls.

Yet it is this very lack of religious touchstones, of spiritual flavor, that is spurring congregations to build their own houses of worship. "The interfaith approach just doesn't work for us," said Rabbi Kenneth Cohen of Beth Shalom Synagogue. "We're looking to build a purpose-based synagogue that has the ambience of a synagogue, not a social hall."

Curiously, this move toward traditionalism is getting a cool reception in a planned town founded on the principle of free choice. Despite obvious and growing interest in single-faith facilities, the Rouse Co. refuses to sell land directly to religious groups that wish to build single-faith facilities. It not only sells to those who embrace the interfaith concept, but at discounts as much as 50 percent off prevailing market values. The company points out that "other opportunities" exist elsewhere in the county for church steeples and synagogues.

Rouse is certainly within its rights. But perhaps the time has come to re-evaluate these policies. Religious freedom cuts both ways. The interfaith approach is a noble one that has worked well for many. But those desiring a more traditional experience should be neither penalized nor discouraged from going their own way. Columbia, of all places, should be open to diversity.

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