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Patrick Springer, Published April 28 2012

Lindgren’s stint as Fargo mayor led him toward questioning God’s existence

Jon Lindgren couldn’t have imagined the profound effect the Ten Commandments monument outside City Hall would have on his life the day he first encountered the polished granite slate.

Lindgren was visiting town in 1968 as a prospective faculty member in the economics department at North Dakota State University. Walking downtown, he spied the totemic monument, which even then struck him as an odd mix of church and state.

He got the job and later became mayor of Fargo, from 1978 to 1994, the city’s second-longest serving in that office.

But it was as a former mayor that Lindgren would tangle with the Ten Commandments – a fateful experience that, ironically, started him on a path that led him to abandon his Christian faith.

Now, in retirement, Lindgren has become a rare species of public figure in an area where churches seem as common as cold days in January: He is an unabashed doubter of God’s existence.

He shies away from calling himself an atheist, since he concedes there is what he regards as an infinitesimal chance that God created the universe.

He prefers the term freethinker. He is, in fact, the reigning president of the Red River Valley Freethinkers, whose members include many atheists and agnostics.

As someone who had been an active advocate of civil liberties and gay rights, Lindgren was invited by the freethinkers to join their cause: eradicate the Ten Commandments from the public square as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

They lost their case in federal court a few years ago, though they resurrected the challenge with a fresh set of arguments now pending. The litigation and firestorm of controversy it provoked forced Lindgren to think about religion, and his beliefs, in a way he never had before.

Somewhere in the process, a man who for years was an active churchgoer, who as mayor had often been invited to say a prayer at public events, found that his belief in almighty God had died.

An early dissent

Jon Lindgren grew up on a farm in central Iowa in a home that worshipped at the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church of America.

It was a conservative evangelical denomination that Lindgren compares to Baptists.

“I’d say I was a believer,” Lindgren says. “But,” he quickly adds, “I have this utter qualification.”

After his confirmation, the pastor stopped by the Lindgren home to see if young Jon Lindgren would become a member of the church, a formality that called for a polite request to join.

“To the astonishment of the preacher and my mother, I didn’t ask to join,” Lindgren says. “I don’t know exactly why I didn’t.”

His mother was aghast. “She said something like, ‘You really should do this.’ I did not join.”

Lindgren went on to be married in the Methodist Church, a denomination he and his wife, Elaine, would join. Upon moving to Fargo, they joined the Presbyterian Church and raised their two children in the church.

“It just never occurred to me to have a married life or family life without a church,” he says. “It was just something I always thought I would do.”

But Lindgren’s church life hinged more on fellowship and the church’s engagement in social causes than from a deep and abiding faith, he says.

During the 1960s and 1970s, during the civil rights struggle, protests against the Vietnam War, and the push for gay rights, preachers spoke from the pulpit about the need for social justice.

“The churches were at the forefront of social change, and that’s what we enjoyed about church life,” Lindgren says.

Also, he was drawn to the Presbyterian preacher’s intellectual approach to faith, which involved a tension between the literal belief in the Bible and a more metaphysical belief.

“A cultural Christian might be a good description,” he says.

Looking back on it, his youthful refusal to join the church was prophetic.

“There was just some skepticism in my mind,” he says, “and it remained there in all the years I was a church member and I was enjoying church.”

‘That’s not my church’

Davis Cope is a mathematics professor and a fellow freethinker.

Cope was, in fact, instrumental in inviting Lindgren to join the legal case in 2002 to move the Ten Commandments.

“It was my idea to invite him, and he was happy to join us,” Cope says. “This caused Jon, in my opinion, to start thinking about religion objectively, and he found it less and less convincing.”

Cope, who was raised in a conservative Christian home in the South, believes that Lindgren is not unusual in that he essentially inherited a set of beliefs that withered under more rigorous examination.

Although Lindgren and Cope were both on the faculty together at NDSU, the two didn’t know each other well until they joined as fellow plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Lindgren’s prominence as a former mayor, Cope admits, made him an attractive spokesman for the freethinkers’ cause.

Also, he adds, Lindgren was accustomed to the hot glare of publicity and was not one to shy from controversy when he believed in something.

Although firm in his convictions, Lindgren doesn’t waiver from a reasonable tone and doesn’t lose his temper in confrontations, Cope says.

His style is to have a polite exchange of ideas, relishing in the intellectual give and take. “He’s gotten so interested in examining religious beliefs,” Cope says.

Some of Lindgren’s experiences as mayor made him receptive to the freethinkers cause.

Because of the celebrations and events he routinely took part in as the city’s figurehead, Lindgren became aware of Fargo’s growing ethnic and religious diversity.

It didn’t seem right to him that Hindus or Muslims or traditional American Indians or people of any other faith – or those who professed no faith – to be confronted with what seemed like an official embrace of the Ten Commandments, tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Also, Lindgren was a human lightning rod at moments during his time as mayor, taking positions that clashed with religious conservatives.

Most notably, he repeatedly issued proclamations for gay and lesbian awareness. As an outspoken advocate of abortion rights, he found his home in north Fargo picketed by anti-abortion demonstrators.

In retrospect, experiences like those were the start of his loss of faith and embrace of open agnosticism.

“Definitely some of it was being mayor and encountering religion in a way that most people don’t,” he says. “People came to my office and said ‘God wants you to shut down the abortion clinic.’ ‘God doesn’t want gays living in Fargo.’ ‘God doesn’t want any stores open on Sunday.’

“So I thought, ‘That’s not my church. My church doesn’t think that way.’ But then I found out some people in my church thought that way.”

Lindgren stopped going to church, a step toward his later realization that his faith had faded to the point of blinking out, like a dying candle flame.

A new field of study

At the age of 73, Lindgren’s hair has turned gray. He looks very much like the economics professor he was, often dressing in blue jeans and a gray sports jacket.

His personality is affable, his voice soft-spoken, and he often has a bemused smile when he discusses subjects he finds interesting.

In some ways, he’s still in academics, but he’s switched his field of study from economics to religion.

One of his seminar sparring partners is the Rev. Dellas Oliver Herbel, a priest in the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Fargo. Raised as a Lutheran, Herbel wants to engage Lindgren and other doubters in a civil dialogue.

For one reason or another, more and more people are leaving organized religion – and the church must acknowledge that and develop personal relationships with those who don’t believe, Herbel says.

The two were brought together at a luncheon seminar on religion and science that Cope organizes.

“I’d dare say we hit it off,” Herbel says. “I think we get along with each other well.”

Each has a blog on Area Voices, and Herbel commented on Lindgren’s blog before the two met recently.

Although Herbel would be happy if Lindgren reversed course and rekindled his belief in God and returned to a church, conversion isn’t really his aim when they trade views.

That’s good, because it would appear Lindgren is not apt to lose his deep skepticism. He enjoys the fellowship he has with the freethinkers, and he doesn’t despair in his lack of belief when he contemplates his mortality.

He sounds very much like an economist – and also like the boy who refused to join his parents’ church – when he says he looks to the empirical.

“It doesn’t seem like there could be anything after death,” he says, “but I don’t know because I’ve never been dead.”

And he isn’t very much bothered by those who don’t agree with him. He delivers this message his customary smile and chuckle.

“If you know you’re going to be dead some day, it doesn’t matter what people say about you when you’re alive. I like to remind myself of that sometimes.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522