Can faith help us through this divisive time?

Americans are working through one of the most frustrating years in our collective memory -- and it's not yet clear whether we can emerge from 2020 with any possibility that the "United" in our "United States" name will mean anything at all.

Divided-flagWe have been led by a divisive president who seems to understand none of the rules of basic civility. We are struggling against a worldwide pandemic that has infected more than 8 million of us Americans and killed more than 200,000 of us. And the struggle for racial justice finally has awakened many sleeping Americans who, before now, have seemed unable to see that the problem is not individual bigots but, rather, deeply racist systems and institutions that have been working exactly as they were designed to work.

What is so striking to me about all of this is that the U.S. is, at least on paper, one of the most religious countries on Earth. Yes, the role of religion has been shrinking for decades but poll after poll continue to find that the vast majority of Americans believe in some kind of god and that people say they try to live by the values of love and compassion. Something clearly is out of sync about all of that. Perhaps people lie to pollsters. Perhaps they simply don't understand the high standards to which all the great world religions call people.

Whatever, we seem to be at each other's throats today in ways that social media intensifies by making disinformation and misinformation so widely available.

So what can we do about this?

The article to which I'm going to link you today will not solve all of our problems, but perhaps it will give you a place to start imagining a new, more civil future based at least partly on some Buddhist principles.

This Patheos.com post by Rita M. Gross draws on Buddhist thinking to suggest some ways through this damnable thicket.

"From a Buddhist point of view," she writes, "anger is inevitable. From a common sense point of view, it should be obvious that disagreement among people, even people who have similar interests, to say nothing of people with vastly different interests, is also inevitable. The problem is that untrained, untamed people become very upset when others disagree with them, easily falling into a dualistic, 'I'm right and you're wrong — end of story' stance."

That stance, of course, will do us no good whatsoever. It is unnecessarily binary, unnuanced, simplistic and without modesty.

She then writes about stimuli that Buddhist texts identify and that frequently have been translated into English as "aversion, attachment and ignorance," and suggests some responses to those three that may be more helpful than anger or simple insistence that one is right and there's nothing more to discuss.

As most of you know, I am not a Buddhist, but I am not against finding wisdom in any tradition that can help us through our current quagmire. You can read Gross' full article for yourself and see if it helps any. And you can turn to the religious tradition you know best to discover whether it might contain some guidance for us. At the same time, it wouldn't hurt to remind ourselves that sometimes faith traditions can simply confuse us. I remember what French philosopher Denis Diderot once said, which is this: "I have only a small flickering light to guide me in the darkness of a thick forest. Up comes a theologian and blows it out."

So be wise and discerning as you look for light at the end of this current tunnel.

By the way, I will be moderating an interfaith online panel the evening of Nov. 12 in which panelists representing several different faith traditions will be talking about how we get through this pandemic period with faith and hope. For details and to find out how to register, download this pdf: Download News Brief Interfaith Panel

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WHITE EVANGELICALS AS OUTLIERS

A new survey shows that on almost every critical issue facing the U.S., people who identify as white Christian evangelicals hold opinions markedly different from the rest of Americans. For instance, only 35 percent of them say the coronavirus is a critical concern. Has President Trump led them astray or have they led him astray? Good question. I think maybe the answer is yes.


Will congregations survive the pandemic financially?

In the long list of institutions and movements that have suffered in this exhausting pandemic, faith communities continue to be damaged in various ways, even as some good things happen to, for and with them.

Collection-plateMany Christian churches now are entering what often is referred to as the annual stewardship drive in which members of congregations make financial pledges for the next year. The results tell church leaders what level of programs and other expenses they can afford in the coming year.

Other faith communities handle things differently in many cases. For instance, in most synagogues there are dues or membership fees rather than annual free-will pledges.

But whatever the financial structure, many congregations have struggled with finances because of the pandemic and the ensuing economic struggles that have plagued the nation.

This is especially true in American Christian churches, which, on the whole, have been in decline for decades in terms of membership. There are exceptions, of course, but many congregations -- both Mainline and evangelical -- have been hurt. Membership in Catholic churches in the U.S. has been holding its own, but that's mostly due to immigration.

As this RNS story notes, "According to a study by Barna Group, 65% of American churches have seen a decrease in contributions during the pandemic. A staggering 1 in 5 churches may be forced to close their doors in the next 18 months, the study said. It’s a reckoning that has been anticipated for decades as church attendance has slowly waned and Americans have steadily decreased the proportion of their charity designated to churches."

In response, congregations have been adopting various strategies, from cutting costs by reducing office staff to offering members and visitors new ways to give, including through various online apps.

For instance, in my own congregation, Second Presbyterian, leaders have told members that if they are facing uncertain finances in the coming year, they may make a six-month pledge versus one for the entire year.

The churches, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, temples and other houses of worship that emerge in stable and hopeful condition after this pandemic will be the ones who now are rethinking their finances from top to bottom. Hope alone is not a strategy. As that rethinking takes place, members who can afford to do so would do well to consider helping to fill the gaps with renewed and enlarged commitments to see their congregation through.

Love of money, as the Bible says, may be the root of evil, but congregations that don't have money can do almost nothing at all to work against evil.

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HELP FOR CHRISTIANS TO UNDERSTAND THEIR JEWISH ORIGIN

A new translation of the New Testament may help Christians understand their Jewish roots more deeply, this Jerusalem Post story reports. The translation, by Brad Young, is called The Hebrew Heritage Bible. Many Christians miss lots of the depth and richness found in their faith's Jewish roots. Maybe this one, not yet published, will open some eyes.

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P.S.: In the U.S., our court system frequently is called upon to make judgments about matters of importance to religions. Given that, I thought you might be interested in this article from my friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court. In it, he talks about a case that he considers the most important one he ever decided -- and it turns out that it had to do with religion. It involved followers of the Jain religion in India. And he confesses that even 12 years later he sometimes wonders whether he decided it properly.


Don't read another religion's scripture without help

Scripture

As more Americans recognize that our population is turning increasingly pluralistic in terms of religion, many people, out of curiosity, may be tempted to pick up the scripture of a faith tradition different from their own and start reading it.

The instinct to do that is good, but it can lead people astray pretty quickly. It's much, much better to be introduced to scripture from a tradition different from your own in the company of someone from that tradition to help guide you.

A theologically literate Christian, for instance, could help people outside that tradition understand what Jesus might have meant when he suggested that if your eye causes you to sin you should pluck it out. Similarly, someone articulate in Judaism could explain why God seemed to be happy with an offering from Abel but not with one from Cain, leading to all kinds of trouble.

The idea of reading scripture other than your own with someone for whom that scripture is sacred writ may be especially important with Islam's Qur'an. The 114 surahs (chapters) in the Qur'an are rather different from other sacred writ in several ways, as religion scholar Karen Armstrong explains in her 2019 book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts.

"Europeans and North Americans who bring to the Quran a biblically based understanding of scripture," she writes, "are often baffled. There is no coherent narrative: anecdotes about the prophets are scattered throughout the text, with no sense of progression. Themes are not developed logically; there is no systematic treatment of doctrines; and its constant repetitions seem wearisome. Its surahs have been arranged seemingly arbitrarily, starting with the longest and finishing with the shortest. There is little sense of time: the prophets, whose lifetimes span a millennium or more, are all treated as contemporaries.

"But," she continues, "the Quran is an orally transmitted scripture and designed to be performed, not read silently or sequentially. Well versed in the art of oral recitation, Muhammad's audience would have been able to pick up verbal signals that are lost in written codification (and in translation). They would find that themes, words, phrases and sound patterns recurred again and again -- like variations in a piece of music, that subtly amplify the original melody and add layer upon  layer of complexity. The Quran is designed to be repetitive. Its ideas, imagery and stories are bound together by internal echoes, which reinforce its central teachings with instructive emphasis. Verbal repetitions link disparate passages in the listener's mind and integrate the different strands of the text, as one verse delicately qualifies or supplements others."

Not only that, but the true Qur'an is in Arabic. And as is true with any translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew, Greek and (some) Aramaic, any translation of the Qur'an into another language is by definition an interpretation of the original and not the original itself.

For those Muslims whose native language is Arabic or who have become deeply fluent in Arabic, any Arabic Qur'an is written in what has been called that person's "heart language." That's the language in which we think and dream.

And it's why people who use American Sign Language were so thrilled recently at the completion of the first full Bible (other than one done for Jehovah's Witnesses) in ASL. This story describes the idea of heart language relative to the new ASL Bible.

The Wired Word, which provides Bible study material for Christian adult education classes, devoted one of its two most recent weekly lessons to the new ASL Bible. (I serve as a volunteer on the Wired Word team.) That lesson told people this: "To learn more about ASL, see this site from the U.S. Department of Health."

Scripture in any religion is almost impossible to read without help from people who have studied when it was written, who wrote it, to whom, in what language and why. And, speaking of language, it's important to know what the original words meant at the time of writing and what they mean now. All of that -- and more -- is why it strikes me as foolish for people to read any scripture in only a literal way, without interpretive help. A literal reading may be a place to start, but if readers never get beyond that they'll miss almost everything.

So if you're not a Muslim, find one to help you understand the Qur'an. And a Hindu to help you grasp the Bhagavad-Gita. But also know that if you picked a different Muslim or a different Hindu, you might wind up with different meanings than the first two would offer.

When scripture gets less complicated to understand, I'll let you know.

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LOTS OF DAMAGE ALREADY DONE

Facebook has changed its policy and now will ban content that "denies or distorts" the Holocaust. Facebook started in early 2004. This new policy is the right one, but it's 16-plus years late. Why?

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P.S.: The Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University has a series of interesting webinars coming up. You can read about them -- and sign up for them -- here. The institute's director is Alvin H. Rosenfeld, author of, among other books, Resurgent Antisemitism, which I reviewed here a few years ago for The National Catholic Reporter.


Pope Francis shows us how to use our prophetic voices

A Bible study group I help to lead has been reading some of the so-called minor prophets in the Tanakh, which Christians traditionally have called the Old Testament.

Fratelli-tuttiWe've been trying to see what Micah and others have to teach us about using our own prophetic voices in times (like now) that require people to speak truth to power and to make clear what has gone wrong in society as we also propose ways of fixing things.

At just the right time for our group, Pope Francis issued his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (brothers and sisters all), in which the pontiff shows in this age of anxiety how a prophetic voice is supposed to be used. (And by prophetic voice, I don't mean one that predicts the future but, rather, one that makes the broken realities of the present clear.)

I am not suggesting that you need to agree with the pope's analysis of conditions today and his prescription for how to improve things on the planet. There's plenty of room for argument about all of that.

But he does take up the prophetic task and he challenges a lot of conventional wisdom.  And if you aren't doing that with your own prophetic voice, why even have one?

In this encyclical, the pope zeroes in on what he sees as the inadequacies, if not failures, of what he calls "market freedom," which might well be translated as capitalism. It's not a new subject for Frances, but in this case he's responding more specifically to what's been happening to people in the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the pandemic hit, he writes, "there were those who would have had us believe that freedom of the market was sufficient to keep everything secure. Yet the brutal and unforeseen blow of this uncontrolled pandemic forced us to recover our concern for human beings, for everyone, rather than for the benefit of a few."

Then he writes this about the role of government in the economy: "Some people are born into economically stable families, receive a fine education, grow up well nourished, or naturally possess great talent. They will certainly not need a proactive state; they need only claim their freedom. Yet the same rule clearly does not apply to a disabled person, to someone born in dire poverty, to those lacking a good education and with little access to adequate health care. If a society is governed primarily by the criteria of market freedom and efficiency, there is no place for such persons, and fraternity will remain just another vague ideal."

Which, he notes, is exactly what is happening today, and the result is that not all of God's children are valued equally by society even if they are valued equally by God.

Indeed, he says, "The right of some to free enterprise or market freedom cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment. . ."

Then he hits his stride in section 168 of the encyclical: "The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes. Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of 'spillover' or 'trickle' – without using the name – as the only solution to societal problems. There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged 'spillover' does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society."

As I say, there is plenty of room here for discussion and disagreement on specific points the pope makes. The point I want to make is that Frances is doing his job -- and we should be doing our job -- by critiquing what we see happening all around us. That's part of the task of people of any faith -- and of none -- simply because we are human.

If our social, education, political and other systems oppress anyone and we fail to call that out, we aren't doing our job. Let's be more like Pope Frances in this regard.

(In even better news, Pope Francis declares again in this encyclical [start at section 255] that the death penalty is "inadmissible" and that "the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide." Here, by the way, is a helpful column about all of this by Michael Sean Winters of The National Catholic Reporter.)

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A JEWISH NOBEL LITERATURE WINNER

This year's Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to a Jewish woman, Louise Glück. This interesting article in The Forward explores whether and how her being Jewish has affected her writing. The piece describes her as "the most mysterious public presence: Over the 50-plus years of her career, she’s given few interviews, and has been as likely to write in the voice of God as that of a flower."


Understanding American Christianity's history of white supremacy

It is too simplistic to put it this way, but in some sense Christianity in the U.S. can be divided between those who focus on individual salvation and those who are more concerned about helping to create a moral, just society in which the values taught by Jesus get put into practice.

White-too-longIt's also too simplistic to put it this way, but people who identify as evangelical, conservative or fundamentalist generally see themselves as part of the first group while people who identify as Mainliners or progressives often identify with the second group.

For sure there is overlap. The divisions aren't neat and tidy. But I've been thinking about those two broad approaches to the faith more recently as I've been reading White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, by Robert P. Jones, who grew up in what he describes as an evangelical Southern Baptist church in Mississippi but who later became aware of the pro-slavery, racist history of that denomination and who eventually founded the Public Religion Research Institute.

In the book, Jones tries to unpack how different approaches to theology came to inform these two views of what is of primary importance in Christianity.

As he does this, he points out that white-dominated Christianity of all types, across history, has been complicit in promoting the repugnant idea of white supremacy.

"White Christianity," he writes, "has been many things for America. But whatever else it has been -- and the country is indebted to it for a good many things -- it has also been the primary institution legitimizing and propagating white power and dominance."

Christian theologians wrestling with how to understand the "end times" -- or the end of the world or the end of history -- have proposed three different approaches: amillennialism, premillenialism and postmillenialsim. In one of my favorite cartoons, a distraught man sits on his bed while talking on the phone with his pastor. The man says, "Pastor, my wife just left me, I just lost my job and I found out my son is on drugs. Please, please tell me again the differences among a- pre- and postmillenialism."

To make a simplification again, premillenialists think Jesus is coming back (probably soon; maybe next week) to reign on Earth for 1,000 years, while postmillenialists think it's up to them to build and perfect the reign of God on Earth so that Jesus can come back and reign in peace. (Set aside the amillennialists in this discussion.) Christians who identify as evangelical tend to be premillenialists, as they try to convince everyone to accept Jesus as lord before he returns so they can be "saved." Progressive Christians either ignore all of this or are more inclined to act like postmillennialists, even if they don't know the term.

With that as inadequate background, I'll turn back to Jones, who writes: "Prior to the Civil War, it was generally popular for white Christians to be. . .postmillennialist. . .The establishment of the Confederacy represented progress toward God's ideal for human society. After a humiliating and decisive Civil War defeat, however, such an optimistic vision of imminent political realization of Christian ideals held less attraction. By the late nineteenth century, the Lost Cause generation began to adopt a premillennialist theology that held the opposite: the present world represents the work of a sinful and fallen humanity, it will continue to decline and it will be redeemed only by the second coming of Christ."

What difference did that change make? Again, Jones:

"The most significant outcome of this shift is that the logic of premillennial theology undercuts calls to social  justice. . .Major human intervention is futile. . .The reorientation of religious faithfulness, with its radical contraction of human social responsibility, has been a hallmark of white evangelical theology ever since, influencing white evangelical thought not just on race but on  other social problems as well."

If the evangelical task focuses mostly on bringing people to Jesus while paying little or no attention to social injustice (again, that's an oversimplification), who is the Jesus to whom they're trying to draw people?

Jones puts it plainly: ". . .Jesus is white. . .Whites simply couldn't conceive of owing their salvation to a representative of what they considered an inferior race. And a nonwhite Jesus would render impossible the intimate relationship necessary for the evangelical paradigm to function: no proper white Christians would let a brown man come into their hearts or submit themselves to be a disciple of a swarthy Semite."

So, as Jones notes, after "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Ala., in 1965, "the Reverend Jerry Falwell gave this response in a sermon: 'Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else -- including the fighting of Communism, or participating in the civil rights reform. . .Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners."

But as Jones notes and as nearly everyone knows, the late pastor Falwell "eventually reversed himself, founding his own political organization, the Moral Majority, in 1979 and becoming a major player on the political right." What changed Falwell? Jones says he was "enraged that Bob Jones University, a conservative white Christian institution, had lost its tax-exempt status in 1976 because it refused to rescind its racially discriminatory policies."

Today, you won't hear much about "Lost Cause theology" in conservative churches, Jones writes, "but its direct descendant, the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social justice -- created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation -- lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well."

Well, clearly I urge you to read the Jones book for yourself and test his conclusions. But I thought it was helpful to focus on the various millennialist brands of theology to bring some clarity to how American Christianity got to where it is today. What still needs to happen is both repentance and action to rid the faith of any remaining threads of white supremacy (and there are plenty).

If you are part of a Christian congregation, I hope you will be part of leading members there into some deep reflection and action related to this subject. My congregation is trying.

(By the way, Youthfront, a Christian ministry based in the Kansas City area, is offering a free online panel discussion about how and when to speak to children about racial issues. It'll be Nov. 12 and will feature Montague R. Williams, author of the book Church in Color. For details and to register, click here.)

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EARS COVERED, MOUTH SAYING 'LA-LA-LA-LA'

President Trump's relentlessly positive statements about his Covid-19 have a source, this RNS column argues. It's similar to the "Prosperity Gospel." For Trump, the source is Norman Vincent Peale's "power of positive thinking." Another term for it is seeing just what you want to see.

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P.S.: Do you know about Redeem TV? It describes itself as "a ministry of the Christian History Institute and Vision Video" and it "makes movies and television shows available for free around the world, with the help of viewers who donate to the mission of Redeem TV." You can check it out here. I'm a long-time subscriber to Christian History Magazine, and some of you might want to be, too. You can check that out here.


Is Christianity doomed in America?

It is far from news that -- at least in terms of percentages of the population -- Christianity in the U.S. is (and for decades has been) on the slide.

ChristianityinAmericaAs this interesting column from Good Faith Media notes, "While many people are leaving behind evangelicalism, others are leaving Christianity altogether. According to Pew Research, U.S. citizens describing themselves as 'Christians' have rapidly dropped 12% from 2009 to 2019, while those describing themselves as 'atheist' or 'agnostic' rose 9% during that same time frame."

And though Protestants earlier in my life made up at least three-quarters of Americans, today they are below 50 percent of the population.

So the question that asks in the piece to which I've linked you is this: Can Christianity be saved?

The answer to that one, it seems to me, is obvious: yes. The harder question is whether the current shape of Christian churches in the U.S. can survive. The answer to that is much more challenging. My current answer is: I don't know, but I doubt it.

Which is to say that the church must do now what it has done in every generation -- change. In my Presbyterian tradition we describe the church as reformed and always being reformed. Churches -- whether individual congregations, whole denominations or the church universal -- that don't make reforms over time die. And probably should. And I'm not talking here about the central teachings of the church but, rather, it's institutional structure and the ways in which it mediates its messages to the world outside the walls of the church.

But change is hard, but as this pandemic season is teaching us it also can be liberating. A rabbi recently told me that one thing he's really enjoyed about having to conduct worship services online instead of in person is that he's once again seeing members of his synagogue who have been ill or home-bound for other reasons.

Randall makes a revealing point in his article: "The rapid decline of Christian affiliation in the U.S. appears to parallel a continued allegiance with exclusivity, control and power." He notes that a fracturing church -- especially since the start of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago -- is nothing new, but "there seems to be a difference in this modern-day divide. It spans the whole of Christianity. The rise of evangelicalism set into motion a modern-day split between conservative, moderate and progressive Christians. It is not tied to a denomination but reaches across the Christian landscape fracturing the whole. Only time will tell if Christianity will survive this latest divide."

I don't know how many times I've heard people say that the last seven words of the church are: "But we've always done it this way." It's truer now than ever. Congregations that aren't agile enough -- organizationally, in terms of polity and even theologically -- to speak an ancient words of truth and liberation in new ways probably are doomed.

But their experience won't be useless to the church universal. Those congregations and denominations can always be used to teach others what to avoid if they want to be part of the ongoing witness of the faith. (And that applies to congregations beyond Christianity, too.)

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THE 'PROUD BOYS' AND 'ANTIFA'

I trust that many of you, too, were appalled at the overall appalling presidential debate the other night when President Donald Trump told the organization called the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by." Who are the Proud Boys? This Jewish Telegraph Agency article answers the question of whether the group is antisemitic. And here is a BBC report on the Proud Boys and on the Antifa movement. It's good to know about these groups so you can make up your mind about politicians who support them in some way.

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P.S.: Here's some better news. The American Public Square organization will honor the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, with is inaugural Founder’s Civility Award on Tuesday, Oct. 13 in a virtual event. You can read about it and make reservations through this link. I wrote this Flatland column about Adam a few years back. He's remarkable, and is another answer to the question raised above about whether Christianity in the U.S. is doomed. He founded his church with about 10 members in 1990 and today the congregation numbers well over 20,000.


What's the shape of American families today?

Family is important. No doubt. It shapes us and sometimes misshapes us. It encourages us and sometimes crushes our hopes. It nurtures us and sometimes abuses us.

AFS-logoIn thinking about family from a religious point of view, however, what Christians (and no doubt people of other faith traditions) can say is that family is not the instrument God uses to offer us whatever we imagine salvation means. Rather, that's the job of the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the gurdwara, the temple.

I'm pondering families and their changing nature (they've had many shapes across history) today because I've been reading this year's annual "American Family Survey" that the Deseret News in Salt Lake City publishes. The latest edition of it focuses on how the pandemic has affected family life and on how families are thinking about various issues in this presidential election year.

This link will take you to all the stories the Deseret News published about the study.

You can read all that -- and the report itself -- but I found this paragraph in the study's summary particularly interesting:

"The percentage of respondents who told us that their identities as parents and as spouses or partners were very or extremely important to them increased relative to 2018. In the midst of a presidential campaign and protests about racial equality, the percentage saying that their partisan and racial identities were important also increased. In this sense, 2020 was a more politicized environment for American families than 2018, but also one in which family relationships were more salient."

It should be no surprise that people who identify as Republicans differ in several ways in their responses from people who identify as Democrats.

As the study's summary notes, "Democrats were substantially more likely than Republicans to regard economic issues as the primary challenge facing families — more than 8 in 10 Democrats mentioned economic challenges, compared to just over one third of Republicans. In contrast, Republicans tended to focus on culture and family structure."

Republicans also seemed a lot more worried about the decline in regular attendance at worship in recent decades than did Democrats.

But, in the end, the question for all of us is what constitutes family and what makes families healthy. As I've indicated, the definition of family has shown a lot of flexibility over the centuries. In fact, when Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court spoke at the court's recent gathering to honor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he noted that in addition to her biological family, the court also constituted family for her.

Along those lines, I once preached a sermon I called "Water is Thicker Than Blood," in which I suggested for Christians that the water of baptism creates a family that is more permanent than the family into which we are born. In that sermon, I mentioned that Jesus once asked who his family is and answered his own question not by mentioning his biological mother and others but by saying that his family is made up of whoever does God's will.

Groups such as the Family Research Council like to promote the idea that the family is the most important collection of human beings in anyone's life and that the best model of a perfect family is one male husband, one female wife and several children who aren't having sexual identity issues.

The new study about families suggests that life is much more  complicated than that. In the end, you may not be able to choose your parents, but in a sense you can choose your family. That's what Ruth the Moabite did in the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible. And it's what Jesus did. So we have some pretty good models for doing that.

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AVOID A RELIGIOUS VOTE ON BARRETT

My friend Melinda Henneberger, a Kansas City Star editorial page columnist, has made an excellent argument in this column about why Democrats in the U.S. Senate who will consider voting for or against Judge Amy Coney Barrett for a seat on the Supreme Court should avoid any criticism of her membership in a religious group known as People of Praise. She writes: "First, you cannot fight bigotry with bigotry; religious intolerance is just as wrong as any other kind of othering. Indulging it won’t get us a more tolerant America. And Senators, treating her like the kook that she is not is just what the president is counting on you to do." There are good reasons to be against this appointment, but Barrett's faith commitments should not be among them.

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P.S.: At noon on Saturday, Oct. 24, Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City and the Lykins Neighborhood Association are hosting a groundbreaking ceremony for what they call the nation's first memorial to victims of human trafficking, to be located in Lykins Square Park at 7th and Myrtle. You can find details about the event in this pdf flyer: Download Into the Light Flyer A4


Do you believe in 'faithism'? I hope not

For several reasons, today I'm going to explore what a science fiction writer I know calls "faithism."

Religions-of-the-worldIn a recent note to me, he wrote this: "Christianity and Judaism and Islam and all supernatural religions that say THEY are superior to others are part of a sick vein of #FAITHISM in the USA and the world at large. Why don't you attack faithism on your blog?"

Clearly he means that some people wind up worshiping their religion instead of the god to whom religion means to point. And he is right. For instance, some people seem to worship the Bible instead of the god attested to in the Bible. Which is to say that they are so positive that every single word in scripture is inerrant in historical and every other way so there is no need for interpretation. Their position is: The Bible says it clearly. I believe it. That's it.

Which is, of course, an idiotically low view of scripture. All scripture must be interpreted, whether we're talking about the Tanakh (which Christians traditionally have called the Old Testament), the New Testament, the Qur'an or the scripture of any other faith tradition. To get at any scripture's meaning, it's necessary to know as much as possible about who wrote it, to whom, in what language, when, the historical circumstances at the time and more.

It's simply foolish to assume that words written, say, 2,500 or 2,000 years ago are directly applicable to our situation today without some exegetical effort to bridge the gap.

Faithism, to return to that made-up word, is,  as I've suggested, a reference to the idea that only one religious tradition owns the truth and that there is only one way to reach what many people of faith call heaven. For instance, in the New Testament (John 14:6), we find Jesus quoted as saying that he is the way, the truth and the life and that "no one comes to the Father but through me."

If we are biblical literalists, that single verse, taken out of any context, would end any debate. I've heard or read two excellent sermons in my life that directly take on that often-misused verse and explain why there are several ways to make sense of it that don't end up in faithism, meaning the idea, in a Christian context, that if you don't pledge allegiance to Jesus you are eternally doomed.

Sometimes words of scripture taken at face value lose faith value. They do that by missing the broader point.

Every religious tradition, of course, makes exclusionary claims. Our often-binary minds want to say that only one of those religions can be true. Well, that's one possibility, but it's also possible that each tradition brings some new light to the table, some insight that hadn't yet occurred to others.

And yet, in the end, we must choose to follow just one religion or no religion at all. (I've never had enough faith to be an atheist.) Similarly, it's impossible simply to speak "language." Instead, we must choose English or German or Hindi or something else. Or we must be silent.

So there you are, my friend who urged me to write about faithism. I've certainly not unpacked all that word might mean. But every word I've written is the truth and divinely sanctioned. Unless it isn't.

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A MODEST PROPOSAL

I especially like this Religion News Service opinion column about white evangelical Christians because it acknowledges ways in which such people have contributed to problems in America while also suggesting that we quit demonizing them or any other people of faith. What a concept, huh? "On Nov. 4," writes, Arthur E. Farnsley II, research director of Religion and Urban Culture 2.0 at IUPUI, "all Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and every other American will still be in the same boat. Constantly berating white evangelical Protestants now will only make it harder for all of us to stay afloat." (IUPUI is Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis.) Let's be a little more gentle with each other, folks, even with people we might think are dead wrong. Well, unless you yourself have never been wrong about anything.

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P.S.: Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and leader of the Human Genome Project, won the annual Templeton Prize earlier this year. It honors people in the cross-hairs of science and religion. The other evening he gave his acceptance speech, and it's worth a read or a view. You can do either here.


Some think the Holocaust happened in. . .Australia

The Holocaust is the most famous genocide in history -- and it happened within the lifetimes of many people who still are alive.

Treblinka-21And yet a new 50-state survey of millennials and members of Gen Z finds what must be called appalling ignorance about how Germany's Nazi government murdered some six million Jews along with millions of others in World War II.

Some examples:

-- 63 percent of all national survey respondents did not know that some six million Jews were murdered.

-- More than a third of those respondents thought that only “two million or fewer Jews” were killed.

-- Three percent of Missouri respondents thought the Holocaust happened in the U.S., and 1 percent of them thought it happened in Australia.

-- And nearly half of all national respondents (48 percent) could not name any of the more than 40,000 concentration camps or ghettos established in World War II.

And on and on in this survey conducted for the Claims Conference (the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany). That agency, established in the early 1950s, is responsible for negotiating with the German government, as the agency's website says, "a program of indemnification for the material damages to Jewish individuals and to the Jewish people caused by Germany through the Holocaust."

The good news in the survey about the Heart of America is that Kansas was tied for the fifth highest ranking among the states with the most knowledgeable respondents, while Missouri was not in the bottom 10. That may reflect well on the decades of work by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (I serve on its voluntary Council of Advocates). The Missouri survey results are found here. And the Kansas results are here.

But clearly more education is needed. Studying this history -- or any history -- has several purposes, and among them is helping all of us know how we got to where we are today. We cannot understand our present without knowing our past. And we will not be able to avoid the errors and disasters of the past if we ignore that past.

Holocaust denial and the rise of neo-Nazis in our time find some their roots in the kind of stunning ignorance displayed by the respondents to the Claims Conference survey.

Anti-Judaism and antisemitism are the results of what may be humanity's oldest hatred. Such hatred moves people to deny the full humanity of other people by calling them such terms as "sub-human." And once someone is in that category, of course, it's easier to countenance his or her extermination.

If you have members of your family or your faith tradition who would do badly on this Claims Conference survey, I hope you'll share it with them. And I hope you'll help them overcome such destructive ignorance.

(The photo here today shows Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and me on our visit to the Treblinka death camp in Poland as we worked on our 2009 book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.)

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ARE CONGREGATIONS POLITICALLY ACTIVE?

New research suggests that religious congregations that consider themselves more in line with progressive politics have increased their political activity a lot more in recent years than congregations that consider themselves more conservative. The study, done by teachers at the University of Notre Dame and Duke University, "finds that the very congregations that should have increased their mobilization the most under Trump in fact increased it the least, including on issues for which Trump has strongly advocated, like immigration and endorsing candidates," this press release about it says. Among the congregations most politically active, the study finds, are Black Protestants.

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P.S.: The Kansas City area Christian youth ministry, YouthFront, like many agencies, has struggled through this pandemic period, but has planned a free virtual reporting and fund-raising event on Thursday, Oct. 22, called "A Story to Tell: A Year of Challenge. A Night of Hope." That link will get you to a page to register. Just FYI, my daughter Lisen is the organization's development director.


What religion has to do with this time of racial unrest

In many ways, the ongoing story of protests in American streets against racial injustice has deep roots in religion. That's certainly true of misguided and misused religion that tolerated, if not actively encouraged, slavery -- and then, when the Civil War was over, provided cover for whites in the South to justify crushing Blacks' hopes for freedom, hopes that had been encouraged by Reconstruction.

Blm-3To get deeper into all of this today, I'm going to link you to two helpful articles. This one from The Conversation is about how faith and spirituality run deep in the Black Lives Matter movement. And this one, from The Atlantic, explores the possibility of a "next Reconstruction," given the failure of the first one 150 or so years ago.

In the first piece, two scholars who have studied the #BLM movement for five years have concluded that "BLM was not only a movement seeking radical political reform, but a spiritual movement seeking to heal and empower while inspiring other religious allies seeking inclusivity."

(By the way, the BLM co-founder just denounced televangelist Pat Robertson for claiming that the organization is "anti-God.")

The Atlantic piece, which describes how and why Reconstruction failed after the Civil War, quotes Frederick Douglass making a point undergirded by religion: “In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds.”

It was a hopeful, aspirational statement, not a description of reality back then, and it found its roots in the religious idea that every human being is a child of God and precious in God's sight. The political scientist Glenn Tinder, in his book, The Political Meaning of Christianity, calls that idea the "spiritual center of Western politics."

Adam Serwer writes this in the Atlantic piece to which I've linked you above: "At the height of Reconstruction, racist horrors produced the political will to embrace measures once considered impossibly idealistic, such as Black male suffrage. Many Black Lives Matter activists have a similarly radical vision."

But then he notes this: "Believing in racial equality in the abstract and supporting policies that would make it a reality are two different things. Most white Americans have long professed the former, and pointedly declined to do the latter. This paradox has shown up so many times in American history that social scientists have a name for it: the principle-implementation gap. This gap is what ultimately doomed the Reconstruction project."

One reason Americans are struggling today over racial justice issues is that our predecessors failed to fix things after the Civil War, even with its post-war constitutional amendments (XIII, XIV and XV). That sad story is told in great detail in Ron Chernow's book Grant. One of the stories Chernow tells is about how, in Reconstruction, the governor of Mississippi, Adelbert Ames, pleaded with federal officials to send troops in to protect Black people from vicious, marauding whites who were following the ideas set forth by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, who said that the confederacy's corner-stone "rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. . .Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system."

What was the "curse against Canaan"? Another misreading of scripture. You can read about it here. The idea that Noah cursed his son Ham's son Canaan somehow led to the bizarre idea that Ham and Canaan were Black and that from that point on Blacks would be enslaved or in any case not equal to whites. It was theology gone mad, but the idea still is around today.

President Grant allowed his racist attorney general to handle the plea from the Mississippi governor, and that meant federal troops did not intervene to protect Black citizens there. As Chernow writes, "Disheartened by Grant's refusal to rush troops to Mississippi, Ames sat brooding and besieged in the governor's mansion in Jackson. He concluded that Reconstruction was a dead letter, white supremacists in his state having engineered a coup d'etat."

The Atlantic article adds this to that story: "Retreating from Reconstruction, these Republicans cast their objections to the project as advocacy for honest, limited government, rather than racism. But the results would ultimately be the same: an abandonment of the freedmen to their fate. . .Local authority was ultimately restored by force of arms, as Democrats and their paramilitary allies overthrew the Reconstruction governments through intimidation, murder and terrorism, and used their restored power to disenfranchise the emancipated for almost a century."

(It helps to remember that the Republicans back then were considered the progressive party while the Democratic Party was the cordial home of white supremacists. All that's pretty much reversed now. Abe Lincoln must be rolling over in his grave.)

If bad theology led to crazy ideas like the curse of Canaan and like using scripture to justify slavery, maybe good theology can help us find a way toward the day when racist systems are dismantled and all people are seen as of ultimate worth. But that won't happen by accident.

(The photo above here today is one I took of the Black Lives Matter community art on Brookside Boulevard just south of 63rd Street in Kansas City.)

Tsu-4 Tsu-5(Just as an aside, although the Civil War ended 155 years ago, there still are monuments and markers all over the country -- some of which, such as those honoring traitors like Robert E. Lee, are coming down. While in Kirksville, Mo., last weekend, I ran into this double-sided sign describing a Civil War battle that took place right there on the town square. Read it and you'll know that history, too. Or read the article about it to which I've linked you. Or, heck, go to Kirksville. And while you're there say howdy to my granddaughter at Truman State University.)

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THE HIGH HOLIDAYS ARE RATHER DIFFERENT THIS YEAR

Judaism's High Holidays, which begin Friday night with Rosh Hashanah, have a new look in this pandemic season, as this Washington Post article explains. Every faith tradition has been affected in various ways by Covid-19, though not all of the changes have been terrible. Here and there congregations have seen at least a little bit of good come out of all the disaster, as I wrote earlier this summer in this Flatland column.

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P.S.: How sad that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the start of the Jewish High Holidays. She was exactly the kind of justice we need on that court.