How do we account for the shrinking of American Christianity?

Today we consider once more the diminishment of American Christianity -- in membership, in influence, in various ways -- from both a Protestant and a Catholic perspective.

Delavan-ch-aFirst, this opinion piece from Religion Dispatches suggests that we can learn more about how and why the church is failing by looking at the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court abortion decision on Roe vs. Wade.

The author, the Rev. Peter Laarman, writes that he's been "thinking about what my Protestant tradition calls the 'prophetic office' of the clergy, in which a responsibility to resist unjust power is supposed to join the 'teaching office' (i.e., faithful preaching and religious education) and the 'priestly office' (administration of the sacraments and pastoral counseling) as one of three core ministerial responsibilities.

"In the mainline churches that prophetic office seems to be all but extinguished."

Laarman adds this: "Howard Moody was a prophetic preacher of the highest order, but in the case of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS), which he created along with his colleagues Arlene Carmen and Art Levin, he let prophetic action do the preaching as he and his co-workers developed a network of 1,400 ministers and rabbis all across the country who. . . 'opened the lives of women' to a large cohort of mostly male clergypersons at a time when abortion was illegal in every state."

But that changed as clergy who identified as conservative or evangelical "ruined the mainline Protestant churches, turning off the people in the pews and driving out the moderates and generally setting the stage for the very sharp decline in mainline Protestant power and prestige that continues to this day. According to this narrative it follows that today’s tongue-tied mainline clergy do well to go slow, or even stay entirely silent, on issues considered potentially 'divisive.'”

So without bold leaders, people leave -- and, of course, some leave precisely because of bold leaders just as some are attracted to bold leaders who become rabidly political in ways that compromise the gospel. Indeed, as a piece in the June issue of The Atlantic  ("How Politics Poisoned the Church") says, Christian evangelicalism has morphed "from a spiritual disposition into a political identity. It's heartbreaking."

That article, by Tim Alberta, talks about such evangelical pastors as Bill Bolin of the FloodGate Church in Brighton, Mich., and notes that "substantial numbers of evangelicals are fleeing their churches, and most of them are moving to ones further to the right," where sermons, if one can call them that, feature anti-vaccine rants, the spread of QAnon conspiracy theories and complaints that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Republicans.

"The church," Alberta says, "is not a victim of America's civil strife. Instead, it is one of the principal catalysts."

As for the Catholic side, Fr. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, writes in this RNS column that "There are numerous signs that the Catholic Church is failing in Western countries. There are few vocations, church attendance is down and young people are leaving the church in droves. There are as many theories explaining this decline as there are commentators, but the theories can be collected in two major baskets: those that blame culture and those that blame the church itself."

Reese says that the "Catholic hierarchy tends to blame contemporary culture for the church’s problems." And he declares that "There is a lot of truth in this cultural explanation for the church’s failings, but blaming the culture is like blaming the weather."

But he adds this: "Liberals believe Vatican II was just the beginning of reforms that were necessary for the church. They believe the hierarchy, especially John Paul II, feared chaos in the church and shut down any further reform. The documents of the council were interpreted through a conservative lens, and theologians were labeled dissidents and silenced if they did not toe the Vatican line."

All these theories, however, ignore the voice of experience of the people in the pews, he writes. If they have a bad experience, he says, they simply abandon the church. He puts it this way: "Ideas are important, but experience often matters more. Lots of people stay in the church even though they disagree with some church teaching. But a bad experience in confession, at a wedding or at a funeral can turn people away for good."

All of which raises the question for Christians of who is shaping Christianity in America for the future? There are efforts to do that, for sure. But it seems to me that the only ones that will succeed are led by people who remember this: It's not that the church has a mission; rather, it's that the mission has a church. And if the church gets in the way of the mission, it will need to change or turn the task over to someone else.

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It's obvious that one of the societal issues about which people of faith disagree -- and that may contribute to the diminishment of American Christianity in some ways -- is abortion. I thought it would be helpful today to offer you two pieces to read -- one of which argues that Roe vs. Wade was wrongly decided in 1973 and should be reversed and one of which calls the apparent upcoming Supreme Court ruling reversing Roe "an affront to our nation’s judicial process and devastating to the people whose lives are jeopardized by the court’s actions." The first piece, available here, was written by my childhood friend from India, Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court. He comes at this from a legal point of view as an atheist. The second piece, available here, is from an organization called Catholics for Choice, whose president is my former National Catholic Reporter colleague Jamie Manson. Please read the one with which you think you'll disagree first -- and see if it changes your mind about anything.

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P.S.: Anyone who has followed the various investigations into the 9/11 terrorist attacks knows that there have been many efforts to determine whether and how the leadership of Saudi Arabia supported or coddled the terrorists. A new report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, described in this report, suggests there were several ways in which the House of Saud backed the terrorists. As the story to which I've linked you says, "The new report lays out what it calls the FBI’s 'investigations and supporting documentation' regarding the religious 'militant network that was created, funded directed and supported by the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] and its affiliated organizations and diplomatic personnel within the U.S.'” All this is one more reason for the U.S. to distance itself from the ruling family in Saudi Arabia.

Finally, a start on an accounting of a shameful page of U.S. history


The news about federally supported boarding schools for Native American children just gets more and more disheartening. And there's still more to come.

What contributes to the horror of this dark picture is the role some churches played in the effort to turn Indigenous children into white children, replacing their culture with a system rooted in white supremacy. A motto for this twisted work was "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." The idea was, in effect, to finish the genocide that began when the first European invaders landed in what has become the United States.

It should have been a national scandal when the schools started in the early 19th Century. It wasn't. That it has become a national scandal today (here and, relatedly but separately, in Canada) is reassuring -- however late the details of this debacle are finally being made public.

This past Wednesday, the U.S. Department of the Interior (now overseen by an Indigenous woman) released a report that begins to describe the scale of what happened to Native children in many boarding schools. As the Associated Press story to which I've just linked you notes, this new report "has identified more than 400 such schools that were supported by the U.S. government and more than 50 associated burial sites, a figure that could grow exponentially as research continues."

HaalandYou can read the full report here. As reports there, the new document "provides the first accounting of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative that was announced by Secretary Deb Haaland (pictured here) on June 22, 2021. It was submitted to her by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland on April 1. The main document consists of 102 pages. There are three appendices, labeled Appendix A and Appendix B, along with Appendix C."

Newland's transmittal letter to Haaland includes this information: "This report shows for the first time that between 1819 and 1969, the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools across 37 states (or then-territories), including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii. This report identifies each of those schools by name and location, some of which operated across multiple sites.

"This report confirms that the United States directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession. It identifies the Federal Indian boarding schools that were used as a means for these ends, along with at least 53 burial sites for children across this system -- with more site discoveries and data expected as we continue our research."

The report's executive summary adds this: "The Federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and
identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education, including but not limited to the following: (1) renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; (2) cutting hair of Indian children; (3) discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian languages, religions, and cultural practices; and (4) organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills."

As the AP story about the report's release says, "The dark history of the boarding schools — where children who were taken from their families were prohibited from speaking their Native American languages and often abused — has been felt deeply across Indian Country and through generations. Many children never returned home. The investigation has so far turned up over 500 deaths at 19 schools, though the Interior Department said that number could climb to the thousands or even tens of thousands."

Here is the Religion News Service story about the release of the report. In that story, RNS reports this: "The Roman Catholic Church and a number of Protestant denominations already have begun investigating their own roles in those boarding schools. The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative report pointed to previous reports explaining that the government divvied up reservations among 'major religious denominations.'” And this: "Several Catholic groups and Protestant denominations also have called for the United States to establish a Truth and Healing Commission similar to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued its final report on its own residential school system for Indigenous children in 2015." (It's also good news that Pope Francis is planning a July trip to Canada to speak about all of this and Indigenous issues generally with First Nations people there.)

As Secretary Haaland released the report, she issued this statement this: "The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable. We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face. It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous Peoples can continue to grow and heal.”

This Indian Country Today story about the new report says that "the list (of boarding schools named) includes religious mission schools that received federal support; however, government funding streams were complex. Therefore, all religious schools receiving federal, Indian trust and treaty funds are likely not included. The final list of Indian boarding schools will surely grow as the investigation continues. For instance, the number of Catholic Indian boarding schools receiving direct funding alone is at least 113 according to records at the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions." History also tells us that other faith communities, from Quakers to Methodists, were involved in such schools.

And there was a wide range of schools and mission centers, as I noted in this recent blog post about the Shawnee Indian Mission in suburban Kansas City, where many of the children lived with their families in the area and attended classes by day.

This new report is a good first step toward full disclosure. But there is more to the story and, in the end, it will require a generative response.

The roots of this boarding school story, as I suggested earlier, are deep and troubling. The question now is whether faith communities that were involved in this evil have acknowledged this history and are doing something now to make up for their participation in it. The ripple effects, after all, still are felt because -- to the surprise of some non-Native Americans -- Indigenous people are still among us, including members of more than 570 federally recognized tribes.

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The annual Templeton Prize from the John Templeton Foundation is given to people whose scientific work connects with spirituality in some way. This year's prize, just announced, went to Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist and author. As the RNS story to which I've linked you reports, "the John Templeton Foundation praised the 70-year-old Wilczek for transforming 'our understanding of the forces that govern our universe,' while also applying 'the insights of his field to the great questions of meaning and purpose pondered by generations of religious thinkers.'” Science and religion need not be in conflict, especially if each remembers its boundaries. Science deals with the what, the how. Religion deals with purpose. The Templeton prize is important because it encourages thoughtful ways to for religion and science to talk with each other while each, in effect, stays in its own lane.

A story of the Six Million -- but now minus one

When Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I published our book about people in Poland who rescued Jews there from the Holocaust, the very first story we told was about a survivor named Zygie Allweiss, now of blessed memory.
Ziggy brother-1And in that story in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, we described how Zygie and his brother Sol -- later residents of the Detroit area -- were "the only Holocaust survivors from their large family." We even named all of Zygie's other siblings, Sarah, Loeser, Gittel, Mendel, Rachel, Fishel and Frimcha.
So today it's time for a joyful update. Zygie and Sol were not the only siblings to survive. Fishel, it turns out, made it, too. Zygie's daughter, Esther Allweiss Ingber, sent me a note the other day saying, "Good morning, Bill! Something very exciting has happened in my life! One of my father Zygie's older brothers who escaped to Russia after Poland was invaded in 1939 survived the war!"
(The photo here shows Fishel and his wife, Klara. The top photo shows Zygie and his daughter Esther with Rabbi Cukierkorn and me a few years ago when Jacques and I went to Detroit to speak about our book.)
As Esther explained, "Fishel Allweiss' granddaughter in Israel, Ira (short for Irina) Kuravsky, found Zygie's Page of Testimony on Fishel. Zygie submitted pages on all his family members to Yad Vashem in 2011. Ira contacted me yesterday on Facebook, coincidentally on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
"Fishel thought his whole life that his entire family had died in the war. He searched for them in Poland. He heard they died in a fire. How overjoyed he would have been to know that my dad and uncle, Zygie and Sol, survived and were living in America. And vice versa. . .I'm blown away." (Fishel, who worked as a watchmaker, died in 1981 of cardiac arrest.)
(Yad Vashem, by the way, is the Israeli Holocaust authority. It has an archive of Holocaust survivor records and it's the agency that awards the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" to non-Jews who saved Jews from the Holocaust and whose stories can be verified.)
Esther adds this: "Ira told me her grandfather Fishel was 18 in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Fishel and his brothers Loeser and Mendel, and their father Jacob, were taken into the Polish Army. Fishel was badly injured."
A note from Ira to Esther filled in these details: "We knew about a family of 11 people. . .even names, but at home it was forbidden to talk about it. Grandpa (Fishel) was crushed by his searches, would travel to Poland after (the) war and everything. They would always tell him that everyone (was) burned in the synagogue. He was more depressed (after hearing that), and would turn to alcohol. He felt he had failed, and had failed to save the family, and he was alive and the rest of the family was gone, and (he) was unable to tell about his life in Poland. Perhaps Grandma (Klara) knew more (about Fishel's life before the war) but (that) was always a very sensitive subject at home."
One reason Fishel's family didn't connect with Zygie and Sol Allweiss while they still were alive is that the family thought their last name was spelled differently, as Alvais. Esther says that "Alexander Alvais of Israel, Ira's first cousin and the older son of Fishel and Klara's older son Arkady, wrote me this: 'We always thought that we were Alvais, and it was the problem when we try to find some information. Fishel did not speak English and did not write the family name. So we write it like we hear it. And from today we understand that it was wrong.'"
Now, says Esther, "I'll be learning more and sharing my family details with my new first cousin once removed."
This joyful story, of course, has to be set in its historical context, which means that most of Zygie's family perished at the hands of Hitler's Nazi killing machine for just one reason -- that they were Jews. Thus, they were among the six million other Jews murdered for being Jewish. And even though Fishel survived, it sounds as if his post-war life was not a happy one but, rather, one trauma after another thanks to Hitler's "Final Solution."
All of that brutal reality, of course, doesn't -- and shouldn't -- diminish Esther's happiness of discovering that her Uncle Fishel survived. But what a different story it would have been if the anti-Judaism promoted by the Christian church almost from its beginning had not helped to birth modern antisemitism and had not Hitler been infected with it and empowered by the German people to act.
Some of what we think we know about history turns out to be wrong. And sometimes that's good news, even if it's tempered by a surrounding catastrophe.

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We know now, of course, that many Jewish families were unable to bury their dead in the Holocaust. It's one of the many ways Hitler's Nazi regime dehumanized people. And burial can be an important, healing ritual, as this article from The Conversation makes clear. As the author, , notes, "In all cultures, people clean, protect, embellish and carefully deposit their dead. Muslims wash and shroud the body before interring it. Hindus may bathe it with milk, honey and ghee and adorn it with flowers and essential oils before cremation. Jews keep watch over the deceased from the time of death until the burial. And many Christians hold wakes at which family members gather to pay tribute to the deceased." And he concludes with this stark note: "Given the importance of those rites, it is also striking that the Russian defense ministry has reportedly been reluctant to bring their own dead back home, because they are concerned with covering up the scale of the losses. This seeming indifference to the suffering of Russia’s own people and their need for closure may be yet another act of dehumanization."

Here's another reason Russia's church leader is Putin's puppet

As the immoral, murderous war of desecration continues in Ukraine, many people have noticed that the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Patriarch Kirill, has chosen badly by backing the war criminal, Vladimir Putin.

Kirill-PutinAnd there has been plenty of speculation about why Kirill has made such an abominable choice -- one that is, nonetheless, sadly consistent with the ROC's support of almost whoever has been in power in Russia across its history. I've written about that choice on my blog in recent weeks here, for instance, herehere and here (in most cases not as the lead item of that day's post).

But now this analysis from the publication "Foreign Policy" suggests that homophobia has something to do with Kirill's backing of Putin.

Janine di Giovanni, a Foreign Policy global affairs columnist, writes this: Putin "has enlisted Kirill as his wingman, who shares his homophobic views. Freedom House, a democracy watchdog, calls Putin’s anti-LGBT rants 'state-sponsored homophobia' used to control Russia and says, 'Regulating gender and sexuality remains at the forefront of Russia’s domestic and international political agendas.'”

For such a twisted agenda, it helps to have the backing of a well-known religious figure. Americans know about that.

Indeed, the author contends this: "At the heart of Kirill’s support for the war is homophobia. On Forgiveness Sunday — March 6 — he delivered a sermon, where he implied that the West had been engaging in 'the suppression and extermination of people in the Donbas' for years because 'in the Donbas, there is rejection, a fundamental rejection of the so-called values ​​that are offered today by those who claim world power.' Specifically, he said, the people of the Donbas had refused to hold gay pride parades; and thus, the West was trying to destroy them."

When religious leaders fall into the trap of relying on political leaders for approval and power, they'll come up with almost any excuse to continue the relationship. And that, in turn, damages not only their own religious tradition, it damages religion in general.

Which is just what Kirill is doing.

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If you've read Isabel Wilkerson's revelatory book Caste, you know that the social ranking system often associated with India goes beyond that country and beyond Hinduism. It turns out that there's now a dispute about using caste as an anti-discrimination category on college campuses in the U.S. This article from The Conversation explains that dispute and shows how widespread caste thinking and action is around the world. Read it and weep. 

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: I just got a fun email from Stacey Perkins Rock, the wife of my former pastor, now living in Europe: "Thought you’d like to know that I personally handed the Pope a copy of your book today. If you get a call from the Vatican City area code, pick up, it’s not a prank!" The book she's talking about is one I wrote with her husband, the Rev. Dr. Paul T. Rock: Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. I'll be standing close to my phone for a few days, but prefer that if you're not the pope you don't call and pretend that you are. (Paul now is senior pastor of the American Church in Paris.)

We face social disasters if we don't fix social media


As you may have noticed, the human capacity for evil has transformed social media. It has moved from mostly a fun and interesting way to share thoughts and news with people we at least sort of know to an appalling source of hatred, misinformation, disinformation and did I mention hatred? Plus cat videos.

Many of you know that but, like me, continue to use social media, and sometimes for worthy purposes. But perhaps you haven't paid enough attention to its propensity to draw out the worst in humanity. This article from the current issue of The Atlantic will put you up to speed about how and when this has happened.

Before I get into some of those disheartening details, I want to say that there are things you and I can do to work against the hatred, extremism and lies that are regularly found parading around social media in the guise of wisdom and enlightenment. In fact, I think it's our job to find ways to do that if we care at all about the common good. I'll have a bit more to say about that at the end of this post.

The Atlantic piece was written by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University and author of a book I recommend: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

As he notes early in the piece, "Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. . .Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous. . .It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust."

No doubt you've seen this yourself if you've ever tried to carry on a worthwhile conversation via text or social media with someone with whom you have political disagreements. There are ways to have such conversations and to have them be enriching for all participants. But the results often are at best disappointing and at worst destructive of relationships when those conversations happen via social media or text messages.

It's not just personal relationships that get wounded and even destroyed through social media, it's important institutions. As Haidt writes, "Part of America’s greatness in the 20th century came from having developed the most capable, vibrant and productive network of knowledge-producing institutions in all of human history, linking together the world’s best universities, private companies that turned scientific advances into life-changing consumer products and government agencies that supported scientific research and led the collaboration that put people on the moon. . .So what happens when an institution is not well maintained and internal disagreement ceases, either because its people have become ideologically uniform or because they have become afraid to dissent? This, I believe, is what happened to many of America’s key institutions in the mid-to-late 2010s. They got stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted."

Social-Media(Darted is a term referring to Haidt's contention that social media equipped its users with sharp verbal darts to be tossed willy-nilly at people with whom one took issue.)

Political institutions, of course, are included in the list of institutions that got stupider. As he notes, "American politics is getting ever more ridiculous and dysfunctional not because Americans are getting less intelligent. The problem is structural. Thanks to enhanced-virality social media, dissent is punished within many of our institutions, which means that bad ideas get elevated into official policy."

Haidt confesses that he doesn't have all the answers for how to fix all this, but he does make some helpful suggestions, one of which is to "Prepare the Next Generation."

He describes his ideas for that in some detail, and you can read all that for yourself. I just want to add that already there are efforts in the Kansas City area to teach the next generation how not to fall into the trap of bitter wars through social media. One of those efforts is led by the SevenDays organization, which works with high school students to promote in students the values of kindness and care.

SevenDays was created after the 2014 murders of three people at Kansas City area Jewish institutions. Mindy Corporon lost one of her sons and her father and Jim LaManno lost his wife to the spiteful violence by a neo-Nazi. (All three victims were Christian.) Mindy decided her job was to respond not with bitterness but with love and care. So the task of SevenDays (I'm a relatively new board member) is to overcome hate through education and dialogue. And young people are a particular -- but not the only -- focus of that work.

Every school, congregation and youth club should offer social media training for students so they know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable free speech. The idea is not censorship. Rather, the idea is to give students tools that will help them not fall into the trap of responding to hate with more hate.

We can't do this work soon enough. Haidt again: "(W)hile social media has eroded the art of association throughout society, it may be leaving its deepest and most enduring marks on adolescents. A surge in rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm among American teens began suddenly in the early 2010s. (The same thing happened to Canadian and British teens, at the same time.) The cause is not known, but the timing points to social media as a substantial contributor — the surge began just as the large majority of American teens became daily users of the major platforms."

So we all have work to do, no doubt starting in our own families. But we can't just leave it there. Teaching young people how to conduct civil and respectful discourse has to happen or the costs will be too great for society to bear.

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Slowly, the history of how Indigenous people in what is now Canada and the U.S. were treated by (Christian) European invaders is being revealed. The most recent example was an apology by the head of the Worldwide Anglican Communion for the church's role in running boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada -- schools where many died as their overseers tried to wipe out their culture and turn them into white kids. Despite the deaths and mass graves, Indigenous people on both sides of the border still survive, and now is the time to learn about them and discover how their culture and approaches to ecology, for example, can instruct the rest of us.

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P.S.: Ready or not, the long-delayed schism of the United Methodist Church just got more real, as this Christianity Today story reports. Without a formal schism vote, the Global Methodist Church launched on May 1. As the CT story to which I've linked you says, "the new denomination plans to uphold traditional, conservative Wesleyan theology but run on a lighter, leaner infrastructure that emphasizes grassroots accountability and ministry connections." At its base the GMC will stand against treating LGBTQ+ folks equally with others by denying them ordination. Theology that finds ways to divide and oppress people stands against anything Jesus taught.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Republican Sen. Susan Collins charges that what appears to be votes by Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch to overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade abortion decision was "completely inconsistent" with what they said at their confirmation hearings and in discussions with her. It's another distressing sign that increasingly nowadays Supreme Court justices are partisan and that, like many annoying politicians, they'll say things they don't really mean just to advance their careers. In any event, if the draft Roe vs. Wade decision stands, the political climate in the U.S., already at a divisive boil, is likely to get much worse. Sigh.

To answer eternal questions, we must think theologically

What does it -- or can it -- mean to think theologically? In other words, is it possible in the midst of war, pandemics, economic disparities, racial oppression and so much more to keep an eternal perspective on life? To wonder about purpose and meaning and final things?

K-TippettKrista Tippett (pictured here), a journalist and theologian who hosts the "On Being" public radio show and podcast, raised that question recently when she spoke at Kansas City's Country Club Christian Church, which has been celebrating the centennial of its 1921 founding.

At one point in her remarks, she was reminiscing about being in Europe in the 1980s when East Germany collapsed and joined with West Germany to become, simply, Germany today.

"It was like this social experiment," she said, "because we had this one city (Berlin) -- one city, one people, one history, one language -- and you split it down the middle. And you have two completely opposite economies and political systems and ways of telling the same history that they'd all lived through. There were two kind of levels of moral confusion. One was, what I was seeing in the world was real power. And the other was I watched people on the western side of the wall and on the eastern side of the wall and I saw that people in the east who had nothing could create this incredible beauty and dignity and intimacy. But it was also equally likely that if you lived in West Berlin where you had everything, you could be really shallow."

She said that made her wonder theologically how it is that we are human and "how is it that we craft life with meaning?. . .I just wanted to think theologically."

You and I, if we're conscious and mindful, recognize that we face those questions every day.

Why do some people produce art and other people get caught up in the deadly business of drugs? Why are some people profoundly moral, meaning they inevitably think about others and their needs, while some people are astonishingly self-centered and regularly demean others?

Well, of course, all of us are a mixture of good and evil. All of us, even with the best intentions, fail to live up to the standards that our great religions set for us and that we, in various ways, set for ourselves even if we're detached from those faith traditions.

And yet it's important to think theologically about our systems and our leaders. What conditions and failures coalesce to lead to a Vladimir Putin, a Donald Trump, an Andrew Johnson, a Viktor Orbán -- one autocrat after another? And what conditions and successes coalesce to lead us to an Abraham Lincoln, a Harry S. Truman, a Harriet Tubman, a Dalai Lama?

To answer such questions we must think theologically. We must ponder the factors that contribute to moral education and, in turn, to systems that control and work against humanity's tendency toward greed, power and empty consumerism.

There are, of course, various helps with all of this -- people, books, art, podcasts (such as Trippett's). But to want such a path in life requires that we say no to endless distractions, to mindless TV, to whatever draws us away from life-giving sources.

I wish I did much better at this task than I do. I wish everyone did. Maybe it requires a daily rededication to thinking and acting theologically, to listening to our better angels, to saying no to what sucks life and purpose out of us. Maybe today is the day to start that daily rededication.

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A few days ago was Yom Hashoah, the commemoration of the Holocaust and the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in World War II. If you've read the book that Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I wrote about how some non-Jews in Poland saved Jews from the Holocaust (They Were Just People), you know that trying to describe how non-Jewish Poles have related over history to Jews is, well, complicated.

And that's exactly the point that the rabbi who wrote this RNS column makes as he describes his recent visit to Poland. He writes this: "In the centuries of Polish Jewish sojourning, there were good years, even beautiful ones. But, there were also ugly, troublesome and tragic times." It's a piece well worth reading.

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P.S.: There's been a fair amount of news recently from astronomers about black holes. The question the author of this article explores in an interview with astrophysicist Jeff Zweerink is what any of that tells us about God. Part of Zweerink's answer: "Black holes are so beyond what I could fathom, so far beyond what I could even comprehend experiencing. We’re confronted in a small way with what it would be like to experience something infinitely bigger than us." (Zweerink seems here to be following Tippett's advice to think theologically.)

When people of faith lose their way because of idolatry

When religious leaders fail to follow the path that their tradition has traveled for centuries (with, of course, certain adaptations and occasional missteps), they inevitably get challenged by members of their community who call them to account.

IdolatrySome of that seems to be happening in light of the obvious presence of Christian nationalists at the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at our nation's Capitol. That event marked a culmination of ideas that had been expressed by certain pastors.

And as this NBC story describes, it has driven some self-described evangelical pastors out of the church and even out of the U.S.

As the story reports, "Jared Stacy had made the decision to leave his job as youth pastor at Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, just a week before the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in Washington."

Stacy, it's clear, was "(d)isillusioned with his church and the increasingly conservative and nationalist nature of the broader evangelical Christian community to which he had dedicated his life."

The religious support of former President Donald Trump -- at almost any cost -- is an American example of what's been happening to the Russian Orthodox Church's veneration of Vladimir Putin and of Putin's despicable war on Ukraine, a sycophant style relationship described in this Financial Times article. I also wrote about the church and Putin in the second item in this recent blog post.

None of this is to say that religious voices should not be heard in the public square. Nor is it to say that being a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu or an adherent of any other faith tradition means you should stay out of politics. Not at all. In fact, the very first creed of what became the Christian church -- "Jesus is Lord" -- was a bold political statement, meaning that Caesar is not lord.

But when faith communities become not just political but partisan in a way that ignores or abandons their core doctrine, they damage not only their own community, they damage religion in general by making it look hypocritical (because in this case it has become hypocritical).

The NBC story says that "Stacy, 31, is one of a small but growing number of younger evangelical Christians who have left what they see as a religious community led astray from its faith by a fervent strain of Trump-based politics. He and other former evangelicals warn that in a post-Jan. 6 world, the movement faces a challenge in attracting and keeping young, progressive Christians alienated by its relationship with conservative politics."

For some of those Christians, Trump became -- and, in many cases, remains -- an idol. And what is the first of the Ten Commandments? It's a warning against idolatry.

Stacy says he finally decided that "if I have to go buy into this politicization and conspiratorial mind in order to follow this peasant from Nazareth, I don’t want anything to do with that.”

The question is how many other people like Stacy there are in that wing of Christianity and how many eventually will recognize that Stacy is right to reject idolatry. Ask me in a few years.

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No one should be shocked that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its just-released annual report, says Afghanistan under the Taliban should be included in the list of worst offenders of religious liberty. That is who the Taliban has always been. That is why they allowed the 9/11 terrorists to train in Afghanistan. So I wouldn't be holding my breath of any significant change it the Taliban's approach to any religion beyond their own twisted version of Islam. (Here is a link to the new USCIRF report itself. Read it and weep.)

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a great interfaith play -- now is online here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My review of Fr. Paul Jones' new book, Remnant Christianity, now is available online here from The National Catholic Reporter.

Why do we explore the creation? Because we must.

The recent news that "the final instrument aboard the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope finally achieved its operating temperature of just above absolute zero" is a reminder of what, from the beginning, humanity has done to explore the creation -- and, in turn, the idea of a creator.

Webb-telescopeAs the story to which I've linked you in the first paragraph reports, "The temperature milestone is a key moment in Webb's multi-phase, six-month-long commissioning period to get its mirrors aligned and its instruments ready for deep-space observations."

Almost no matter where you look to find the history of humanity, you discover that we are explorers and that our questions are endless. Even the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, though mythological and not historical, shows people who want answers, who need to test limits, who can't rest when they don't grasp something. In the biblical story, curiosity, in effect, killed those cats.

But that hasn't prevented people who came later from actively searching for answers to how the world works, which is the arena of science, and for what purpose the world and humanity exist, which is the arena of religion.

And over the centuries humanity has written about exploration as almost a God-given right and duty.

In Rudyard Kipling's "The Explorer" poem, for instance, he says a voice told him this: "Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges/Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"

In Kipling's case, that voice may have driven him to participate in the scandal of colonialism, but the drive to find something new, to answer unanswered questions need not lead to evil and destruction. It can lead to insight and beauty.

Exploration, like a knife, is a neutral tool. It can help us, slice by delicate slice, understand how apples are formed. Or it can be used for murder, for appropriating for ourselves what doesn't belong to us.

Will that happen in the deep space that the Webb telescope soon will start revealing to us? Will we imagine distant stars, planets, galaxies are places to covet and control instead of being part of an intricate creation that contains its own fierce beauty? I can't answer that now. But if we treat distant space the way we've treated our own planet, I am not hopeful we'll get it right.

And yet, how can we not want to know what's out there? And what it might say about a creator?

(The image here was found with the story and carries this credit line: "Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab.")

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Do you, too, get satisfaction from stories about when bad things happen to bad people? I plead guilty, too. Which is why I so enjoyed this story from The Tablet headlined "Hitler's Jewish Baby." I won't tell you more than that. Just read it.

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P.S.: The Catholic Church has had two popes -- one in office, one retired -- living at the Vatican for nine years. A new book suggests it has been a destructive situation because the opponents of Pope Francis have made Pope Benedict XVI's home their headquarters. Once again a faith community is sadly divided between people who seem certain they know what the church should be and people who are open to more than one answer to questions.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My review of Fr. Paul Jones' new book, Remnant Christianity, now is available online here from The National Catholic Reporter.

What happened in the '90s that changed religion in the U.S.?

One of the stories about religion today that nearly everyone has heard has to do with the diminishment of Christianity in the U.S. It's been going on for decades, as Protestants now make up less than half the population and as the number of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated (they're called the "nones") has soared (it's now at least 25 percent).

NonesBut did you know that the 1990s seems to have played a key part in this story? I hadn't really thought about that until I read this Religion News Service article. It was written by Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, a pastor in the American Baptist Church and author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.

He says that the 1990s are "when young Americans seemed to lose religion virtually overnight." I think he may be on to something.

What contributed to this phenomenon? "It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing," Burge writes, "but there are possible culprits." First is the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and with it the end of the "conflict between the virtuous Christian capitalists of the United States and the godless communists of the Soviet Union." That meant, he writes, "that being nonreligious no longer meant being un-American, giving permission for a lot of closet nones to begin expressing their true feelings on surveys."

Second was what he calls a "backlash against the religious right." That meant that "when faced with the strident rhetoric of the Revs. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the rest of the religious right leaders, many moderates headed for the church exits and never came back."

Third was the internet. "Demographers ignore the impact of the World Wide Web at their peril," Burge writes. "It would make sense that as young people were exposed to other faiths on the new technology — and saw the faults in their own — some would leave faith behind altogether." Well, the effect of the internet is more complicated than that, as he acknowledges, but it did play a role.

The question, of course, is whether anything can be done now to reverse the falling numbers. And, if so, what? That's what all kinds of scholars, congregational leaders and others are trying to figure out. And so far there's no clear answer.

There have been what I like to call some "movements" that have attracted people to this or that spiritual path in recent decades. But eventually movements need structure. And what results is another brand of institutional religion. That often means that what first attracted people to a movement slowly disappears and they drift away.

What we do know is that even most people who call themselves "nones" are not atheists. Whether institutional religion can find a way to appeal to them is still an unanswered question.

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The three Abrahamic religions whose major holidays have overlapped this year have this as a central tenet: "True life is found in living for others." That way of putting it is found in this article from The Guardian, which also makes this point: "(I)f your strategy for political victory is turning voters against their neighbor, if you see spending on universal quality child care, public education, mental health or raising the rate of income support for people without jobs as a burden rather than an investment, or if low wages and growing inequality are built in to your policy design and intrinsic to your political ideology, then your driving purpose is not the wellbeing of the human collective. Your leadership will not make the well-being of most people better most of the time – because, simply, that is not what you are about." And if that's not what we're about, why not?

A time to unpack what forgiveness and apologies mean

Among the many mysteries of faith, the roles of apologies and forgiveness rank pretty high on Easter weekend.

ForgivenessOne way of putting the Christian story, after all, is that the death of Jesus meant the forgiveness of our sins. The long-standing question, of course, is who gets included in the word "our."

As we think about being forgiven and forgiving others, it's helpful to think about apologies and their worth. To receive forgiveness, must we first apologize? And if we somehow represent more people than ourselves, can we legitimately apologize on behalf of others? Beyond that, do we have any standing to apologize for actions taken not by us but by, say, our ancestors or some of our long-dead fellow citizens?

Questions like that, I hope, will come to your mind when you read this piece from The Conversation about what it means when a pope apologizes.

The specific apology first dealt with in the article is one Pope Francis made recently "to First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations, acknowledging the harm done by residential schools in Canada. . ."

Stories of mass graves of Indigenous children at boarding schools have received a lot of attention in the past year or so.

The author of the article, Annie Selak, associate director of the Women's Center at Georgetown University, writes that "As a Catholic theologian who studies church authority, I’ve observed how previous papal apologies can speak for the entire church and either deny or claim responsibility." And she adds this:

"It was once unthinkable for a pope to apologize, for admitting guilt would imply that the church was sinful. However, the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of bishops, cardinals, heads of religious orders and theologians that met from 1962 to 1965 and modernized the church, shifted the church’s perspective on change and instituted major reforms. It also opened the door to admitting fault."

So faith communities can -- and do -- establish their own rules for apologies and forgiveness, and they may not match the rules set by other faith communities. Governments, too, can -- and sometimes do -- issue apologies for actions taken by current or previous governments. The question is whether those apologies change anything, either in the one offering them or the ones receiving them.

No doubt part of figuring that out has to do with whether the apology seems sincere or whether it was simply a statement about being sorry that "you took it that way."

Beyond that, apologies that don't result in changed behavior seem pretty worthless. And yet Selak makes a valid point when she writes this: "While there are certainly actions that are necessary to repair and restore justice, I argue that it is also important to recognize that apologizing is itself an action." (To which I'd add, "though sometimes an empty action.")

In traditional Christian worship there's often both a corporate confession of sins and, after that, words that offer what's called an "assurance of pardon."

Whether in worship or simply in our daily lives, it's always useful to think about who is authorized to offer an apology and who is authorized to offer forgiveness. As someone with German heritage, for instance, do I personally have any standing to apologize to Jewish people for the Holocaust? Similarly, do Jews born after the Holocaust have any standing to offer forgiveness to German people also born after World War II?

In the end, philosophers and theologians can argue about such matters. And should. But the question I, as a Christian, must ask myself on Easter weekend is whether I need to apologize for any of my actions or thoughts and seek forgiveness. The answer every Easter is the same: Of course I do. After all, I'm human.

(P.S.: Here is an excellent article, apropos for Easter, from New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine about how Christians can avoid more anti-Judaism on this sacred day.)

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The origins of the so-called Easter Bunny are quite ancient, as this article from The Conversation notes. Indeed, it's always interesting to find out about the beginnings of our various cultural and religious traditions. In this case, however, the author, Tok Thompson, who teaches anthropology and communication at U.S.C., can't seem to acknowledge what Easter itself is about. He says this: "Easter is a celebration of spring and new life." But he doesn't say whose new life we're talking about. Here's a hint: Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ. You may believe in that resurrection or not, but that's what Easter is about.