Putting politics above moral requirements

Has your house of worship, if you have one, reopened this weekend for in-person services? That, after all, is what President Trump seems to want all congregations to do.

World-religionsThe congregation of which I'm a member isn't reopening yet. Our leaders -- lay and clergy -- believe it's still too risky and likely would expose some people to the coronavirus. So we'll wait.

But it's been distressing to see Trump trying to suck up to his religious followers by urging them to open so they can exercise their religious freedom. The congregations meeting via the internet are exercising that freedom now, of course, and in a safer way than by gathering again in person.

I thought this Dahleen Glanton column in The Chicago Tribune got at this matter in the right way.

In the midst "of a pandemic," she writes, "the push to reopen churches seems like a hypocritical demand by those who use the Bible as a guide for how they should treat the weakest and most vulnerable. Most parishioners realize that congregating at this stage would be both risky and selfish." The religious rights of some, she wrote, "should not outweigh the health and safety of others."

Correct.

Notice, too, that although Trump declared houses of worship "essential" in his recent statement asking that they reopen, he didn't attend any service himself.

This is a time for faith communities to be focusing on their core moral teachings. And in all the great religions of the world, those teachings are about care for others, especially people who in some way are downtrodden. So people of faith should be spending their time on providing pastoral care for their own members, for sure, but also on reaching out to others in need when millions have lost their jobs and now more than 100,000 Americans have lost their lives.

It would be a terrible mistake to mix that task up with the politics of a man whose life before and after he was elected president reveals no respect at all for those core moral teachings. It's a point made over and over by the Christian evangelical essay writers in a new book edited by Ronald J. Sider, The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump. Worth a read.

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UPDATING THE UNITED METHODIST COMING SCHISM

In February 2019, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, in a very close vote, made the appalling decision to keep -- and strengthen -- the denomination's ban on the ordination of LGBTQ+ people as pastors. Almost immediately there was talk of schism. That schism would have happened earlier this month, except that the coronavirus pandemic canceled the meeting at which it would have taken place. That meeting now has been rescheduled for Aug. 29-Sept. 7, 2021, at the Minneapolis Convention Center, as this Religion News Service story reports. This whole controversy is an embarrassment not only to the UMC but also to Christianity generally as certain branches of the faith insist on a literalistic reading of the Bible to justify treating gays and lesbians as second-class human beings. That's a misreading of scripture, as I note in this essay. As the UMC moves toward a split, potential members will want to be quite careful about understanding which side of the split the congregation they're thinking of joining will end up on. Buyer beware.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about KC area clergy, to their surprise, finding at least a little joy in this time of pandemic -- now is online here.


A sad story about 'Jane Roe' of Roe vs Wade

In some ways the national debate about abortion, which began even before the 1973 Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision, has been a model for the rabidly uncivil discourse that now infects our politics and our culture in general.

McCorveyA woman named Norma McCorvey (pictured here), known then for purposes of anonymity only as Jane Roe, got her case seeking a legal abortion all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that abortion is, in fact, a right protected by the Constitution. What you may not remember is that McCorvey never actually got an abortion because by the time the court ruled she had given birth to a child she then put up for adoption.

In any case, that's far from the most intriguing thing about McCorvey, who died in 2017. A new documentary, described in this Washington Post story, tells how the so-called pro-life forces who seek to ban abortion completely paid McCorvey huge amounts of money to pretend later in her life that she was on their side and one of them.

That part of the story, described by McCorvey herself on camera for the documentary, amounted to what the Post called a "stunning death-bed confession."

As McCorvey says in the documentary, “I took their money and they put me out in front of the camera and told me what to say.” The "they" in this case were the most ardent supporters of making abortion illegal again.

There really are no heroes or heroines in this story. McCorvey herself is in many ways a complicated mess. But for sure the people who paid her to pretend she was one of them had lost their moral compass and were willing to engage in despicable means to justify their ends.

As this column in The Guardian notes, "According to the documentary, McCorvey received at least $456,911 in 'benevolent gifts' from the anti-abortion movement in exchange for her 'conversion'”.

That column also notes this about McCorvey: "She was a desperate woman battling for the right to have control of her own body; along the way she loaned her name to a bigger fight. McCorvey taking money to lie obviously isn’t something she should be applauded for, but the real villains in this story are the hypocrites who preyed on a vulnerable woman in the name of 'family values.'”

And here's an RNS story quoting various people in faith communities about how they've reacted to the McCorvey admission in the documentary. Here, too, is a National Catholic Reporter column by Jamie Manson, in which she notes that the men in the pro-life cause "were exploiting McCorvey's desperate need for money and attention, and McCorvey was exploiting their desperate desires to win and to control female fertility. Yet the ones who actually get swindled, the ones who really lose, are women, who are denied the freedom to make choices about their lives, their health and their families."

Finally, here is a Slate story quoting some opponents of legalized abortion about their reaction to the documentary.

What a sad commentary on people who were pretending to be acting as moral agents.

Just for the record (and I've shared this several times in the past), I believe abortion should be a legal option because I think that in rare cases it's the least evil of a series of evil choices. But what I personally believe about abortion isn't really relevant to people facing a choice about it. The choice should be up to the pregnant woman (and her partner) in consultation with her physician and any other adviser, including clergy, she wants to consult. Still, I do wish abortions were much, much rarer than they are.

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BEST RAMADAN EVER?

Omer Bajwa, a Muslim chaplain at Yale University, writes in this RNS column that Ramadan this year in the pandemic was much better than he imagined it would be: "Free from the potential distractions of social Iftar obligations and the spiritual danger of Riya’ (ostentation), I am now freer to focus on my own spiritual health, or lack thereof, by worshiping with my family or in solitude. This could help resuscitate my ailing spiritual heart by allowing me to think deeply and intimately about my relationship with my Lord: is it fractured? Have I drifted? Am I sincere?" Glad he mentioned all that. Unexpected joy experienced by clergy in this pandemic is the subject of my next Flatland column, which will post here this Sunday morning.

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MOLLY MARSHALL TALKS ABOUT HER RESIGNATION

CBTS-Molly-3P.S.: In this April post, I briefly mentioned that Molly T. Marshall (pictured here), president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in suburban Kansas City, had abruptly resigned that presidency because of what she admitted was an unstated "ethical lapse." This shocked the campus and, for a time, halted release of this then-in-progress six-part podcast about Marshall's influential life and career. The sixth part of that podcast now includes an epilogue in which, in a post-resignation interview, Marshall talks about this being a "very dark period" in her life, about how it "has been the hardest patch in my life" and how she's now "pretty publicly humiliated" and spending time alone imagining how this lapse -- never described in detail -- happened. Marshall simply says that her ethical lapse "was not related to money or fraud" and "it did not involve anything at Central." And the podcast narrator, the Rev. Erica Whitaker, says that it involved no illegal behavior at Central or elsewhere. The closest that Marshall comes to explaining what happened was this: "I just worked too hard and was inattentive in some ways to being a whole person." The epilogue voice recording was done by phone and is, therefore, of uneven audio quality, so sometimes Marshall's words are a bit hard to understand. But what strikes me about all of this is that she is doing the right and even brave thing by talking about her error and her fear that it might injure the seminary that she did so much to bring back to life when it was in terrible shape. She's lived a remarkable and interesting life, and those of us who have known and admired her have been grieved that her career ended the way it did. But if the idea of being a "wounded healer" has validity -- and it often does -- I think Molly has a chance to serve in that role in some capacity eventually. If the difficult idea of forgiveness really means anything in Christianity, this case can be a chance to live into that as Molly displays repentance and asks for forgiveness. (By the way, I give lots of credit to the producers of this podcast for not releasing it until they had a chance to talk with Molly about why she resigned. Without the epilogue to the podcast, the rest of it would have looked and sounded phony and tone-deaf.)


The need for prophetic voices now

The coronavirus did not cause all the problems in society that we've been experiencing during the time since this pandemic exploded on us, but it certainly did reveal them in case someone hadn't noticed them before.

Prophetic-voicesSo as faith communities begin to find their way back to meeting again in person, they also now know that they will have a responsibility to use their prophetic voices to describe those problems and propose solutions. It's what people of all the great world religions are called to do, now and always. What problems?

This is not an exhaustive list, but it's a place to start: Racist systems, inadequate education, health care and health insurance equity issues, economic disparities, our current culture of contempt, including contempt for expertise, as described in this book by Tom Nichols: The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.

As Nichols writes, "Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they're wrong about anything."

We have watched that sad reality play out day after day when people like Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, experts on the spread of infectious diseases, had to listen to -- and try to counter -- the dangerous nonsense President Trump has been putting out about this pandemic.

His kind of willful ignorance leads to crazy conspiracy theories and the many people who buy in to them and who thus are filled with certitude about completely made-up stories. The "birther" story suggesting Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S. is a prime example of this gibberish. For details, see this distressing article about "QAnon" in the current issue of The Atlantic. You don't know about QAnon? Oh, my. You need to.  Today.

The QAnon issue is also mentioned in this RNS column about the widespread prevalence of conspiracy theories, particularly among young Americans. And this article from The Conversation describes how some in the QAnon movement are using its bizarre thinking to interpret the Bible.

So somehow people of faith must help lead society to understand the difference between opinion and fact because lives depend on knowing that difference, as the pandemic has proven again.

That means that religious people must be extra careful not to blithely assert that they know what God has to do with the spread of viruses. Do they do that now? Oh, yes, many do.

This recent Associated Press story , for instance, describes how many Americans think the virus is a sign from God that things need to change. The story reports that a new poll by the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that "31 percent of Americans who believe in God feel strongly that the virus is a sign of God telling humanity to change, with the same number feeling that somewhat. Evangelical Protestants are more likely than others to believe that strongly, at 43 percent, compared with 28 percent of Catholics and mainline Protestants."

It's clear that things need to change. But does God arrange to kill tens of thousands of people to get that message across? If so, that's not a God who would attract my allegiance. Beyond that, there's no doubt a wide variety of ideas among the people who responded to this survey about what God has in mind in the way of change. In any case, I'm not sure we need to rely on God to send us a new list of needed changes when, in fact, many are obvious and can be drawn by using the moral values that all the world's great religions teach.

So, for instance, the pandemic has shown all of us that despite the great medical workers we have in the U.S., the system is broken when millions lose their jobs and thus lose their medical insurance. (Why do so many people get their health insurance through their employer but not their auto or homeowners insurance? Just curious.)

Caring for all is going to require a new health insurance system -- one that doesn't slam shut in crises and one that isn't as expensive and arbitrary as the one we have now. We simply cannot survive another pandemic (yes, another will come) with our current health care and insurance systems. Nor should we try to survive another pandemic by relying on underpaid but over-exposed first responders, including ambulance drivers, fire fighters and emergency medical technicians. They must be compensated more fairly and protected more, too.

The pandemic also has revealed again the reality that people in poverty get slammed harder than others and, in turn, require expensive solutions just to keep them from starving or losing their homes. Underneath that larger problem we find such problems as a lack of internet access in the homes of many poor children (such as the public high school student I've been mentoring), meaning that they fall further behind when education goes completely online. There are many ideas for how to fix this, but so far we haven't settled on one (or a combination) and really tried to make it work. That's what we must do now.

As the pandemic continued to keep people locked down and major parts of the economy shut down, we also began to see more clearly our culture of contempt in which civil discourse has been replaced by mindless shouting and sometimes by violence. Faith communities should be modeling how to live together civilly even when we have sharp disagreements about things. In other words, they should be doing what our president clearly is not doing -- and even what some corners of faith communities are not doing. Such an effort certainly would beat internet trolls and the spreading of misinformation through mean memes.

Here, by the way, is how one Christian pastor is thinking about what the church will and should look like once this pandemic is in our rear view mirror. It's worth your time, no matter your faith tradition.

Every crisis is an opportunity for constructive change. Let's not waste this one.

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AN AWARD FOR MAKING THE SCIENCE-RELIGION CONNECTION

This year's Templeton Prize has been awarded to the remarkable Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. The prize honors people whose work in science also seeks to help illuminate some of the deep questions that religion seeks to answer. I have admired Collins' work at least since the time when he led the Human Genome Project that mapped the DNA letters that, as the RNS story to which I've linked you reports, "compose the human genetic instruction book." Collins once considered himself an atheist, though in his 20s he embraced Christianity. I wish we could clone Collins. To read the Templeton Foundation's release about this year's prize, click here.


Was this a case of museum-quality idolatry?

When does our fascination with religious history slip over into idolatry of historical objects? That's one of the many questions that this Atlantic article about fraud in the world of religious artifacts raises.

Dirk-ObbinkBefore we get into some of the details of this story, including the mid-April arrest of an Oxford professor who has been accused of stealing ancient biblical texts, here's my thought about idolatry: All sin, in the end, comes down to idolatry. That is, sin in one way or another means putting something else ahead of God. Which is one reason the First Commandment (don't have any other gods but God) is first. Get that one right and the rest of them fall into place.

The fascinating -- and long -- Atlantic piece describes the various ways the leaders of the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which I wrote about here a few years ago, has been sucked into the debauched part of the world of ancient artifacts.

Steve Green, who with his family started the museum, also owns Hobby Lobby. Before the museum opened, he had millions of dollars to spend on items to display there, including rare fragments of ancient sacred manuscripts. Green's interest, of course, was mostly in the Bible, both the books in the Hebrew scriptures and those in the New Testament.

As we know from the story of how ancient manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in 1947 and eventually made it into the public domain, the secretive world of people who deal in such items can be both dark and, at times, criminal.

The Atlantic piece focuses on a once-highly-respected Oxford papyrologist named Dirk Obbink (pictured above), who continues to maintain that he's done nothing wrong.

But the desire for sought-after objects -- whether it's original-language biblical manuscripts or gold or diamonds -- creates a seductive market that can cause people to lose their moral compass, if any, and try to acquire the kind of huge wealth that's possible when such items are sold.

In this case, the question of who, if anyone, committed idolatry can be asked not only of Obbink but also of the Green family. I cannot, of course, get inside the heads or hearts of any of them, but the idolatry question clearly is worth asking in this case.

Well, I'll raise just that question today to give you time to read the Atlantic piece -- which demonstrates terrific reporting by Ariel Sabar.

(The photo here today came from the site to which I linked you about Obbink's arrest. The credit line on that photo said it was via Timothy Smith, former chief development officer at Museum of the Bible. Smith is one of the people I interviewed for my Flatland column on the museum, to which I linked you above.)

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WHAT'S UP WITH THE METHODISTS?

Had the coronavirus pandemic not interfered, the United Methodist Church by now almost certainly would have experienced an official and expected schism. But the big meeting at which this was to have happened got postponed until August or September or maybe later. Still, here is an RNS update on where things stand now that things are sort of frozen in place (like the rest of us).


Exploring congregations that abuse clergy

In this Flatland column that posted last Sunday, I told the story of some members of the clergy in the Kansas City area who had been forced out of their congregations. It turns out that this is more common than lots of people might expect.

Empty-churchThe column stirred up a lot of reaction -- nearly all of it expressing sympathy for the affected pastors while sometimes describing how the same thing had happened to whoever was writing the Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or e-mail response.

So I want to explore this phenomenon a little further here today, first by linking you to this recent review of a book about congregations that abuse their clergy. Had I been aware of this book when I wrote my column I'd have included a mention of it.

The book is Church Abuse of Clergy: A Radical New Understanding, by Gene Fowler.

As the review of the book to which I linked you above notes, "The motivation for church abuse is usually fear, Fowler explains, and this fear can be especially acute in times of palpable decline. As members of a congregation consider the annihilation of the church they’ve long known and revered, they experience a collective trauma. No longer able to maintain an idealistic image of themselves, they fall into denial and then fear. Abuse may also stem from ancestral trauma that’s passed on to a congregation from a previous generation."

I've long known that such abuse can and does occur. But what has surprised me is how extensive it seems to be. Here's a sampling of some reactions people posted when I put a link to my column on Facebook:

-- "We left a church we loved over this kind of thing. Old families unhappy and got rid of the pastor and no one told why -- in a very unkind way and with horrible timing."

-- "My husband and I know the lasting hurt it can cause."

-- "Especially true for women clergy."

-- "There is no meanness like that of the church, nor their ways of treating pastors!!"

-- "This is why I'm so glad my by far major income comes from teaching public school or college. I can, and have, tell a hostile congregation to ram it. (Sorry if I offended anyone)"

-- "Churches rarely see the necessity for their own change, just the pastor. I don’t believe churches understand how much of their heart and soul and mind pastors invest in the well being of their congregation."

But there was also this:

-- "A fair perspective for some situations. But there are legitimate times when the pastor IS contributing to stagnation and decline, is unwilling (after much constructive dialogue on the issues at hand) to accept the help that (church) leadership tries to provide, and so the time comes when a church determines that pastor’s skills may not be the right fit for that congregation today."

And this:

-- "While I accept that the scenario you referenced does happen, and is certainly not good for the church, there are also circumstances when a congregation should hold the lead pastor accountable. I have watched while a pastor loaded up a (leadership board) with a majority that allowed them to dictate the direction, focus and outreach efforts of the church despite having many new members with very different ideas than the 'old crowd.'  Instead of embracing the new and growing the body, they focused on the old money and pursued estate gifts. This makes for a great bank account, but eventually kills the church."

All of which is to say that congregations are human institutions led by fallible human beings. So perhaps we should expect some abuse of clergy in some cases and some bad clergy leadership in other cases.

Still, that doesn't excuse either case. Perhaps it would help if people in congregations were more aware of the possibility of abuse so they could be more attentive to it when signs of it appear. Congregations should not be run like a business. That's not what they're there for. But if people are afraid to talk about these issues in public, they get moved to quiet corners, and those doing the abuse get protected by the silence.

So is this an issue in your congregation, if you have one?

If so, you and your clergy may benefit from reading this online book, Sad Endings & Healthy Beginnings, by a retired pastor, Steve McCutchan. It's just 54 pages but has lots of good ideas.

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READING THE THEOLOGY ON YOUR FACE

What does it say about you that you will or won't wear a face mask in public in this pandemic? Well, Mitch Randall, executive director of EthicsDaily.com, writes in this column that it may reveal your theology, good or bad. "People of faith who refuse to wear masks in public when physical distancing cannot be observed reveal a theology of individualism, which places individual interest over the common good. Let’s not mistake this with the importance of personal conscience that provides rights to individuals to practice faith as their conscience dictates. A theology of individualism ignores sacred teachings that advocate for self-sacrifice for the sake of others." Exactly.


Time to update your re-reading list

Sometimes -- not often, but now and then -- I will reread a book I've read already. Maybe the best example is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I've probably read 10 times. Maybe more. Nice work, Mark Twain. It's the best novel ever written by an American.

Book-stackBut mostly life seems too short to reread things. I'd rather dig into books I've not yet tasted.

Still, in this essay, the Rev. Erin Wathen, who used to be a pastor in the Kansas City area, suggests re-reading what we've already read.

In this pandemic season, she writes, "I call for a season of: Reading Stuff I’ve Already Read. Maybe multiple times."

She insists that even in the midst of this pandemic, "we still need to read; for our mental and emotional health, and just to remain civilized! Reading is what separates us from primates, and honestly, it is clear from the evening news that some of the people in charge of this mess have never picked up a dang book. In all of this swirling chaos and apocalyptic meltdown, reading might keep us alive – in more ways than one."

So if I were to reread some books I've already read, the list would include nearly all of Kurt Vonnegut's work, especially Slaughterhouse Five. And nearly all of Stanley Elkin's books, especially George Mills, which contains one of the most moving and remarkable passages about a man dying in his bed that I've ever read. Also almost anything by Joseph Heller, including Catch-22 and God Knows, in which King David raises one complaint after another to and about God. Oh, and Robert Coover's remarkable book The Public Burning, which is a novel about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case -- much of which is narrated by Richard M. Nixon, or at least the Nixon of Coover's imagination.

Biblical books I'd reread would include Genesis, Ruth (one of my favorites), Psalms, the four gospels and others.

On your list, feel free to reread any of the six books I've written. Beyond that, what would you reread?

Erin Wathen is right that reading can keep us civilized. It beats hanging around Walmart parking lots watching people scream at each other about whether to wear masks.

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FIRST, A TIME FOR GRIEF

All of us in this pandemic have been through some level of trauma -- some way, way more than others. And it's useful to know that you don't come straight out of trauma to resume whatever a normal life is. Rather, as a United Methodist Bishop, Scott Jones, wrote in this RNS column, first we should take some time to grieve and pray. "Grieving," he writes, "is not only purposeful for showing compassion to our congregations; it also helps us to reorient our hearts to depend on God rather than ourselves. Therefore, mourning what we have lost amid COVID-19 is a critical step before reopening the doors of our churches." He's got that right.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column -- about congregations that treat their clergy leaders badly -- you can read it here.


Are these the worst religious ideas ever?

As I was hop-scotching around the internet the other day, I found this 2015 column from Salon called, immodestly enough, "The 12 worst ideas religion has unleashed on the world."

Religious-doctrineThe author, Valerie Tarico, comes up with some notions that have challenged humanity for a long time, though naturally she puts her own spin on some of them. One result is that even the idea of an afterlife sounds terrible as she describes it: "an endless repetition of never changing groundhog days (because how could they change if they were perfect)."

At any rate, here's her list, though without all the detail. You can read the detail in the piece to which I've linked you:

Chosen people, heretics, holy war, blasphemy, glorified suffering, genital mutilation, blood sacrifice, hell, karma, eternal life, male ownership of female fertility, bibliolatry (aka book worship).

Well, now that she's offended lots of people of faith -- and no doubt meant to -- let's think about what good can come out of creating such a list.

First, this or any list like it provides an opportunity for followers of any religious tradition to acknowledge that over the centuries things haven't always gone right. Not only has lots of blood been spilled in the name of religion, but lots of people have been hurt in other ways, too -- along with many people receiving extraordinary blessings of joy.

Next, it's helpful from time to time to look at old ideas to see if they still make sense. Some of the ideas the author refers to have deep roots in history and some of those ideas may have made a lot more sense centuries ago than they do now. Honest appraisal of religious doctrines now and then isn't a bad thing, though that need not mean abandoning the essential tenets of any tradition.

A good example: Many branches of the Christian church have abandoned the idea that the Bible condemns what we today understand to be homosexual orientation. My essay on this subject is here. The condemnation of homosexuality that the church had adopted is based on a series of misreadings of scripture. Still, some branches of the faith have held onto the old thinking, and it has damaged the reputation of Christianity among many in our culture.

What would you add and what would you subtract from Tarico's provocative list? I'd certainly add the long history of anti-Judaism found in Christianity. It, too, has been deplorable, and it's not quite dead yet despite some important changes of attitudes among Christian leaders. My essay on the history of Christian anti-Judaism is here. And on the plus side of religion I'd of course make sure to include the idea that we are required to love one another. What else on that side of the ledger would you add?

If you're reading this through Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, comment there. Otherwise you may e-mail me at wtammeus@gmail.com to share your thoughts about Tarico's list.

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CAN'T STOP THINKIN' ABOUT TOMORROW

As faith communities imagine how they'll change once this pandemic has eased its grip on the world, here's a thoughtful column that might help. It's by Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-convener of the National African American Clergy Network. "The church," she writes, "has a critical role to play in abating the appalling level of human suffering, especially in communities that are underserved. We should be like the good Samaritan, who, despite not knowing the person in need, gave so much to bring about the healing of his neighbor." Surely that's a place to start. What do you think faith communities should do and be in the expected new normal?

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about congregations who treat their clergy badly -- now is online here.


What do you know about Harry Truman's religion?

Because it's Harry Truman's birthday today (1884-1972), I thought we'd take a little break from thinking about the coronavirus pandemic and talk a bit about HST and religion.

HST-bookTo do that, I'm borrowing from a new book by a fellow I know, Harold Ivan Smith. The book is called Almost Everything Worth Knowing About Harry S Truman. And one cool thing about it is that it's done in the form of a long multiple-choice quiz.

Smith has divided his quiz into several dozen chapters, and today I'm picking out a few of the questions from the religion section. But wait. No doubt you wonder how I did on the whole quiz. I didn't keep score as I read the book, but I'm guessing I got about 60 percent of the answers right.

But I had an advantage. At one point in my career at The Kansas City Star, I wrote a lot about Truman. For instance, when Bess Truman died in October 1982, almost 10 years after Harry's death, almost 1,300 letters from Harry to Bess were found in the Truman home in Independence and archived at the Truman Library. They started when they were courting and ran through his White House years. I read them all and wrote quite a bit about what they revealed about our 33rd president.

So in reading Smith's book, some of what I learned then and remembered helped me get some of the answers right. But some of the questions in the book focus on quite trivial things in HST's life, which makes me guess that even Truman wouldn't score 100 percent on the quiz.

All right. Enough. A few of Smith's questions:

By age 12, what had HST reportedly done?

A. Memorized the Declaration of Independence.

B. Read the Bible through twice, "cover to cover"

C. Memorized Jesus's "Sermon on the Mount"

D. Won the county Latin language competition twice

What Part of the Bible did HST find most meaningful?

A. Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 6, Matthew 5-7

B. Micah

C. I Corinthians 13

D. Psalm 23

How did HST describe his religious faith?

A. "An old-fashioned Bible believin' Baptist"

B. "A 'light-foot' Baptist"

C. "A baptized, born-again Baptist"

D. "A Baptist who thinks 'there's more in acting than in talking'"

Well, that's a taste of what's in the religion section of this new book. It's a fun read, especially for people in the Kansas City area, Truman's home. Well, he wasn't born here, however. Where was he born? (Answer below with the quiz answers.)

Answers: B, A, D and Lamar, Mo., 136 years ago today.

JATrumanOh, and here's a Truman-related question from me: Where are Harry's parents buried? MYTruman

A: Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Mo., where I often walk in this pandemic time. I took these photos of their graves just a week or two ago.

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A CHANGING DAY OF PRAYER

Yesterday was the National Day of Prayer. Did you participate? In past years, the day has been dominated by Christians in the U.S., particularly those who identify as evangelical. But as this RNS story reports, yesterday's events were far more interfaith in nature. Which, of course, reflects the changing religious landscape in the U.S.


An atheist's view of why science trumps religion

Quite a few times over the years I've considered the different roles that science and religion play. What I'm about to say about their relationship is too simplistic, but, like a good bumper sticker, it has its uses: Science can answer (at least tentatively) questions about what and how, where and when. Religion's purpose is different. It can provide possible answers to the one question science can't: ultimate purpose. Or why.

Science-vs-Religion-Street-SignsWhich means that religion and science should be able to get along respectfully, each staying in its own lane, though being in healthy dialogue with one another.

And yet some people argue otherwise. Today I'm letting my childhood friend Markandey Katju (we were in school together as boys in India for a time), former justice on India's Supreme Court, make the case that science and religion are so different that they can't be reconciled in any meaningful way. I've told Markandey that I disagree with him. But he's a committed atheist who sees religion as little more than superstition.

So lend an ear to that argument and see if it holds any (holy or secular) water with you. Here's what he writes:

I read Umer Farooq's article "Will Pakistan's Mullahs Ever Stop Opposing Modernity?," published on nayadaur.tv. The writer has referred to the opposition by mullahs to women's empowerment, minority rights and modern political ideas.
 
Perhaps what was in Mr. Farooq's mind was the recent statement of Maulvi Tariq Jameel blaming women dressed "immodestly" for the spread of COVID-19 in  Pakistan.
 
Mr. Farooq's question creates the impression that according to him mullahs, if they so wish, or if they can be so persuaded, can stop opposing and start supporting modernity. With respect to him I submit he is laboring under an illusion.
 
Religion and science are diametrically opposed to each other. They are poles apart, and it is nonsense to say (as some people contend) that they complement each other. Since a mullah is a man of religion, he can obviously not support modernity, which is the product of science, and will always be a reactionary, as long as he is a mullah.
 
Religion says that there is a supernatural entity called God, which is immortal, permanent, all powerful, merciful, all good, etc.
 
Science does not believe in supernatural entities. It does not believe that anything in the universe is permanent. Everything in nature is changing and in flux, in accordance with some laws, which can be discovered by scientific research.
 
Science holds that there are no supernatural entities like God, angels, fairies, demons, witches or soul (and therefore there is no such thing as transmigration of the soul, or resurrection on Judgment Day), and that nothing is permanent, everything is changing.
 
Science holds that the only reality is matter, which is in different forms, and is in motion according to certain laws. 
 
Some people ask: Who created matter? The answer is: There is no creator of matter. Matter came from matter, though the form keeps changing.
 
With every step science advances, religion recedes. Thus, people at one time thought that small pox is due to the anger of a goddess (mata), but now we know it is because of a virus, and can be prevented by inoculation. People at one time thought that rains are caused by a rain god, Indra, and so if there is drought we have to propitiate that god in some way (many people in India still believe that). Today we know that rains are caused by the build up of low pressure areas over a heated land.
 
At one time people believed the sun is a god, but now we know it is a huge furnace in which nuclear reactions are taking place by the fusion process, emitting radiation energy. People at one time believed that Adam and Eve were created by God. Later Darwin, in his book Origin of the Species, proved that men evolved from the apes.
 
Religion relies on faith and divine revelation. Science relies on observation, experiment and reason.
 
Religion claims to say the final word, and cannot be changed. Thus, the Vedas, the Qu'ran, the Bible, etc., cannot be changed. In science there is no final word, and scientific theories can, and have been, regularly tested and changed.
 
For example, Newton said in 1666 that light traveled as particles (the corpuscular theory). But in 1678 the Dutch scientist Huygens propounded his Fresnel principle that light traveled as waves. Much later Max Planck propounded his Quantum theory which said that light traveled as discrete particles. Still later, Quantum mechanics, as propounded by De Broglie, and as developed by Heisenberg, Schrodinger, etc., said that particles can be conceived of as waves (and vice versa).
 
Religion says that the universe was created at a particular time by God, with all living beings. But Darwin proved by his theory of evolution, that creatures have evolved.
 
Religion says that there has to be a creator of the universe, which is God (the Creationist theory).
 
Science says that there is no such creator (the evolutionist theory). The only reality in the universe is matter (or rather matter-energy, since matter and energy are two forms of the same substance, as Einstein proved by his formula e=mc2), and matter is in motion, in accordance with certain laws, which can be discovered by scientific research.
 
If it is said that everything must have a creator, then that creator too must have a creator, i.e. a super creator, and that super creator too must have a creator, i.e. a super super creator, and so on. This is known as the fallacy of the infinite regress.
 
Religion says that God is all powerful, merciful and all good. If that is so, then why do millions of children in the world suffer from hunger, cold, etc., as the great Russian writer Dostoevsky asked in his famous novel The Brothers Karamazov? Why does God, who is said to be merciful, not have mercy on them and give them food, clothes, shelter, etc.?
 
Why is there so much poverty, unemployment, malnourishment, sickness, etc., in the world? If God is 
powerful and merciful, why does He not abolish these and give everyone a decent life? Why does He not abolish novel coronavirus, which has spread today throughout the world and is killing so many people?
 
It is true that some scientists believed in God. But that only proves that scientific and unscientific ideas can co-exist in the same head, and it will take a long time, probably several generations, before unscientific ideas are altogether eliminated.
 
All religions are superstitions and false. The truth lies in science, which is constantly developing.
 
If we are to progress, we must give up religion and go over to science. No doubt science does not have the answers to all problems today, e.g., the cure of many kinds of cancers, but by scientific research the answers can be found in the future. At one time tuberculosis was regarded an incurable disease. Later, streptomycin and other antibiotics were found which could cure it. So science never claims to be final, but is always developing.
 
The answer to Mr. Farooq's question is in the negative. Either one can be a mullah or one can be modern. One can't be both.
 
So there you have Katju's rejection of almost any role for religion, a position I strongly oppose, though we remain friends. As my religion taught me should be the case. I keep thinking that the reason Markandey continues to be my friend is that I seem to confound him by being a person of faith who also thinks science is irreplaceable in the world and he won't give up on me until he convinces me otherwise. But it's my job as an opinion columnist to complicate people's thinking. Which is what I try to do for Markandey, too.
 
For a view quite a bit different from Katju's, here's a piece called "Why Religion Is Not Going Away and Science Will Not Destroy It." I hope Markandey reads it, too.
 
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COVERING ALL THE HATRED BASES

Speaking of atheists, this RNS story says that a new study finds many atheists "face discrimination and stigma" and that they therefore often "conceal their nonreligious identities." What a world. You get smacked down sometimes not only for what you believe but even for what you don't believe. God must be so proud of humanity.


Old Ben Franklin has a religion for you (or not)

Among the books I've been reading in this time of virus quarantine is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (he's pictured here). I'm reading his e-version, which no doubt would surprise him. But maybe not. He was ahead of his time in so many ways.

Benjamin-franklinI was intrigued to find him outlining the essential religious beliefs he thought would appeal to a wide audience. In fact, he says, writing well into his 70s, that as a young man he imagined quietly and secretly getting other young people to agree to the points I'm about to list for you and then eventually going public with what would become a great, if quite basic, religious movement. But he never got it off the ground.

What were his imagined religion's major tenets? These:

-- That there is one God, who made all things.

-- That he governs the world by his providence.

-- That he ought to be worshiped by adoration, prayer and thanksgiving.

-- But that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.

-- That the soul is immortal.

-- And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.

Well, I see plenty of topics for discussion in that list. And even debate, starting with the old Greek idea of the immortal soul. The Christian alternative to that is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body because of the belief that only God is immortal.

But the one thing I really liked about Franklin's idea of creating adherents to a religion based on all these points is what he wanted to call it -- "The Society of the Free & Easy." Anything both free and easy no doubt would attract lots of Americans.

Perhaps the most useful of Franklin's points would be the one about doing good to others. If we'd all stick with -- no matter what our other religious beliefs might be -- that it would change a great deal about life.

As Walter Isaacson makes clear in his terrific biography of Franklin, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Franklin always seemed to be engaged in some sort of speculation about what we humans could know about eternal matters. In the end, Franklin leaned much more toward Deism than toward any historic and institutional religious tradition.

As Isaccson explains, "He was tolerant toward all sects, particularly those that worked to make the world a better place, and he made sure 'to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion.' Because he believed that churches were useful to the community, he paid his annual subscription to support the town's (Philadelphia) Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Jedediah Andrews," whose sermons, however, Franklin found "uninteresting and unedifying."

Well, you can read Isaacson's book for more. And you can read Franklin's disjointed autobiography, too.

I bring all this up simply to note that people have been wrestling with spiritual questions from the first tick of history's clock, and in the 1700s people like Franklin, who had a brilliant mind, still were debating such matters. As are we today.

In fact, I would argue that there's no more important topic in the world on which to spend time. How else are we to understand our lives and, eventually, our deaths? Just beware of people who are convinced that they know all the answers and who are willing to do violence to those who disagree with them.

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MANY BLACK CHURCHES STRUGGLE WITH TECH IN THE PANDEMIC

One more thing this coronavirus pandemic has revealed more starkly -- revealed, not caused -- is the digital divide, meaning the difference between the widespread connections to the internet in more affluent American neighborhoods compared with less affluent ones. This RNS story deals with that very subject as it relates to historically black churches. And the timing of it is good, in that on Friday I participated in a Zoom gathering with three African-American pastors discussing this very subject at the invitation of the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield II, pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City. His plan was to tape our conversation and use it as part of the online worship service at his church on Sunday morning. As I said to him and others on the Zoom gathering, "we must overcome the digital divide not just to connect everyone to the internet but also to train people in how to use this technology. If we fail to do that we are saying to the non-tech savvy people and those who can't afford a computer that we don't need or want you. And that would go against everything that I understand Jesus stood for."