American Jews are asking an odd question

There have been European immigrants to the U.S. -- including the Irish and the Italians -- who had to negotiate their way into a culture in which white people were (and are) the dominant caste in a country founded on the principle of white supremacy.

Star-davidIt took time for those two groups and others to be recognized as white. The book to read is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson.

It turns out, as this interesting article by  notes, that American Jews today sometimes struggle with the question of whether they are white. She says she and other American Jews are asking this: "Where do we fit into the country’s fraught racial landscape?"

Well, part of the problem of even asking that question, as Jaradat notes, is that it "overlooks our diversity. Researchers estimate that Jews of color number between 12% to 15% of American Jewry."

But as Wilkerson shows, in the U.S. being white means being part of the dominant caste, which means that even poor whites whose economic, social and other needs are not being met often imagine that no matter how bad things are for them they can take comfort in the fact that they're not part of the lower caste of people with darker skin. (Yes, it's a sick system, which is why we need to fix it.)

Some of this question for and about Jews in the U.S. gets into an ancient debate about whether Jews make up a race, a religion, an ethnicity or something else -- or all of them.

As Jaradat writes, "Some claim that even posing the question 'Are Jews a race?' is taboo because it plays into the hands of anti-Semites. After all, the Nazis used a racial definition of Judaism: anyone with three of four Jewish grandparents was considered Jewish, regardless of whether they — or their grandparents — identified as such or practiced the religion. The modern state of Israel also follows a racial definition, offering citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent."

See the kind of knots we all get tied in when we insist on identifying ourselves and others by race -- which, as the results of the Human Genome Project proved to us, is a political, not a biological, construct. Which is to say that the DNA of every human on Earth is about 99.99 percent the same, no matter what racial or other category they get put in.

Sometimes all of this just makes me want to shake my head and ask, "What the hell is wrong with us?" Part of the answer, of course, is that we have developed a racist and casteist system in the U.S. that I finally have more hope that people are recognizing and wanting to deconstruct. Stay tuned.

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American voters who are also people of faith, says this RNS opinion column, are looking for a presidential candidate who -- in the midst of the pandemics of Covid and racism -- can give them hope. Ryan Eller writes that it's quite possible that "the majority of religious Americans will vote for whichever candidate best understands their grief and shows deep empathy for them. . ." The "candidate they trust," he says, "will restore hope and help them heal. Call these swing voters the Forgotten Faithful." They sound like Richard Nixon's alleged "Silent Majority," but that term described people who were neither silent nor in the majority. We'll see about the Forgotten Faithful.

What a compromised King David can teach us

Many characters found in Bible stories are, well, flawed people, starting with Adam and Eve.

30-days-davidMoses murdered a guy and had to flee. Peter denied Jesus three times, and other disciples of Jesus sometimes come off as dumb as fence posts. Jonah ran away when God asked him to go to Ninevah and shape up the people there.

And King David? Where to start? Well, start with what today almost certainly would be called his rape of Bathsheba and his being an accessory to the murder of Bathsheba's husband.

And David could be a complainer. The novelist Joseph Heller caught that so memorably in his terrific 1984 novel God Knows, in  which David is a prime character. Chapter two begins with David saying that "the killing of Goliath was just about the biggest goddamn mistake I ever made."

Later in the book, David offers this lament: "Some Promised Land. The honey was there, but the milk we brought in with our goats. To people in California, God gave a magnificent coastline, a movie industry and Beverly Hills. To us He gives sand. To Cannes He gives a plush film festival. We get the PLO. Our winters are rainy, our summers hot. To people who didn't know how to wind a wristwatch He gives underground oceans of oil. To us He gives hernia, piles and anti-Semitism." And on and on.

I mention all of this to suggest that anyone who writes a book in which he or she uses King David as a positive role model has not only to acknowledge his failures but, when writing about his assets, pipefit them around his deficits in careful ways. Which is exactly what Larry Buxton, a pastor and teacher, has done in his new book Thirty Days With King David: On Leadership, which will be published Tuesday. It's the second in a series of "Thirty Days With" books from, the first being Thirty Days With Abraham Lincoln: Quiet Fire, by Duncan Newcomer.

In the hands of a different author who might have wanted to make strong political points, this book could have been a jeremiad against the leadership (such as it's been) of President Donald Trump. But Buxton mentions Trump only once or twice in passing and does not point out directly that leadership qualities being praised in King David are not only lacking in Trump but often are 180 degrees from how Trump acts.

So if you want to see that in this book, that's up to your interpretation of it, not something Buxton seems to intend.

But here are some of the leadership qualities of David that Buxton suggests leaders today would do well to emulate: Patience, vision, humility, integrity, openness, tenderness, forgiveness, courage, gratitude, self-control, calmness and justice.

In each case he draws on the stories of David in the Tanakh (what Christians traditionally have called the Old Testament) and finds examples of when David acted as a leader with patience, vision, humility and so on. It's an effective technique and a helpful review of this ancient history of Israel and its leaders.

Buxton begins the book by calling David "the world's most famous writer" because he often is credited with writing most, if not all, of the book of Psalms in the Bible. Well, here is where I wish Buxton, who is not reticent to point out David's faults, would have noted that many scholars have determined that David may have written none of the psalms attributed to him.

As the great Hebrew scholar Robert Alter notes in his own translation and commentary on the psalms, "The Davidic authorship enshrined in Jewish and Christian tradition has no credible historical grounding. . .One cannot categorically exclude the possibility that a couple of these psalms were actually written by David, though it is difficult to gauge the likelihood (and some scholars altogether doubt David's historicity)." (The parenthetical marks here are Alter's.)

Still, in his new book Buxton was not out to debate Davidic authorship of the book of Psalms and was just noting that many people know David because, rightly or wrongly, they associate him with the psalms.

But even if David never wrote any of them, his story in the Bible is a deep well from which to draw lessons for our lives, and Buxton helps point the way toward that.

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My friend Mary C. Curtis has written this excellent column about faith and politics as the 2020 election approaches. She calls it an election "that reveals a faith divide as deep as ever in America, as stark as black and white, but with many shades of gray." And she's spot on with this observation: "For too many who would identify as persons of faith, the words of the holy books — with encouragement from leaders who profess to have all the answers — serve as invitations to close hearts and minds rather than reach out to the unfamiliar." I first met Mary through the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, which I once served as president.

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P.S.: Continuing the commemoration yesterday of the 19th anniversary of 9/11, here's a recent column on that subject that I wrote for, in case you missed it when it posted.

Psssst: Want to hear a little gossip?

Pope Francis said something the other day that didn't get a lot of attention, but I think it's worth unpacking a little.

Gossip"Gossiping," he said, is a "plague worse than COVID."

He departed from his prepared text to say that. The story to which I've linked you adds this: "Francis didn't give specifics during his weekly blessing, but went on at some length to say the devil is the 'biggest gossiper' who is seeking to divide the church with his lies."

So he's using some hyperbole here, for sure. But Francis certainly has his hands full with a Roman Curia that contains, by many accounts, backbiters and dissenters -- OK, gossipers -- who can make life pretty miserable for the pontiff.

But let's set that aside and see if there's something in his words that might accurately describe a despicable human behavior that we all would do well to curb.

We can, of course, turn to scripture to find admonitions against what's called gossiping today. For instance:

"Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear." -- Ephesians 4:29

"There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies and one who sows discord among brothers." -- Proverbs 6:16-19

"A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends." -- Proverbs 16:28

Similarly, the Qur'an is quite explicit about the need to avoid gossip:

"Believers, avoid making too many assumptions -- some assumptions are sinful -- and do not spy on one another or speak ill of people behind their backs. . ." 49:12

"Believers, if a troublemaker brings you news, check it first, in case you wrong others unwittingly and later regret what you have done." 49:6

In this thoughtless time of social media flash responses, such scriptural advice is more necessary than ever.

The news media -- from irresponsible personal blogs to reputable outlets -- contain lots of gossip. There's even a category called "gossip columnists," who mostly trade in rumors about celebrities. They wouldn't do that if there were not a market out there for such trash.

And just the other day, while reading Isabel Wilkerson's terrific new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, I ran across a way that gossip is used in any culture (ours, India's, Nazi Germany's) that has or has had a formal or informal caste system: "With few other outlets for control and power, people on the bottom rung may put down others of their own caste to lift themselves up in the eyes of the dominant (caste). . .The caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries, that build up in a world of perceived scarcity. As people elbow for position, the greatest tensions arise between those adjacent to one another, up and down the ladder."

My own experience is that gossip is engaged in primarily by people who are unsure or insecure about who they are and what value they have -- no matter what gender they are. They seem to have missed the religious idea that absolutely every human being is precious in God's sight, meaning there are no garbage human beings and no sub-humans. Maybe the pope should have added that to his off-the-text rant about gossipers.

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A Catholic priest, with the support of a bishop, says in a video that Catholics who vote for Democrats in the upcoming election will "face the fires of hell." I had no idea that a Wisconsin priest was in charge of the afterlife. Good to know.

Did Christianity make Judaism irrelevant?

Was it God's plan to have Christianity supersede Judaism, making the latter irrelevant and obsolete?

Nelson-webinarThat arrogant belief, called supersessionism, has been around for a long time and has helped to create century after century of Christian anti-Judaism, the history of which I describe in this essay. Supersessionism has come in various styles over the centuries, ranging from what scholar Cary Nelson calls "hard" supersessionism to the "soft" variety.

Nelson, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author or editor of more than 30 books, recently presented a webinar about all of this at the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University. (A video of the webinar should be available soon on this page of the Institute's website.)

As a Christian, I found it painful to listen to Nelson describe all the ways in which Christians have, century after century, denied that Judaism matters. The fact that in recent decades, particularly in light of the Holocaust, various branches of Christianity have backed way from hard supersessionist positions is helpful, but supersessionism is far from dead, and today it expresses itself most virulently in people who believe that modern Israel has no right to exist.

To give webinar participants a bit of relatively modern historical perspective, Nelson went back to Jan. 26, 1904, when Theodore Herzl, described here as "the visionary behind modern Zionism and the re-institution of a Jewish homeland," met at the Vatican with Pope Pius X "to seek the pope's support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine," as Nelson noted.

"According to Herzl's account in his diaries, which is not disputed, the pope's reply was blunt: 'We cannot give approval to this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem but we can never sanction it. The soil of Jerusalem, it was not always sacred (but) it has been sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ. As the head of the church, I cannot tell you anything different. Jews have not recognized our Lord. Therefore, we cannot recognize the Jewish people.'"

Just over six decades later, the Catholic Church reversed that myopic and insulting view by issuing a history-changing document called Nostra Aetate (or "In Our Time"). Although no doubt some Jewish scholars and religious authorities, if given a chance, would have made some edits to some of that document's language, the effect of the document was that for the first time in its history the church said that Jews -- both at the time of Jesus and today -- should not be charged with deicide, meaning they should not be held responsible for the death of Jesus.

Since then there's been quite a bit of Jewish-Christian dialogue and, at least in parts of the church, a growing acceptance of the idea that God's covenant with the Jews is irrevocable. And yet, as Nelson pointed out in the webinar and will describe in detail in a forthcoming book, Peace and Faith: Christian Churches and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict, supersessionism among Christians still is around.

The video of Nelson's webinar gets into more details, but for my purposes in this blog post, I simply want to point out that people making religious truth claims need to be aware of all the ramifications of those claims, especially if one result is the proclamation that followers of a different religious tradition not only are wrong but should be shut up or even permanently removed.

In my essay on anti-Judaism in Christianity that I linked you to above, I note that there may not be a direct link between historic Christian anti-Judaism and the Holocaust, but clearly those centuries of anti-Jewish teachings helped to create the atmosphere in which the emergence in the 1800s of modern antisemitism became possible. And without modern antisemitism, the Holocaust is simply inconceivable.

Ideas matter -- especially religious ideas that create in adherents a false certitude about what is true. What a more peaceful world this would be if everyone remembered that we are finite beings attempting to understand something about the infinite. Given that truth, it's probably arrogant to say anything at all about God. And yet our human curiosity insists that we do say something. Just know that if whatever you say about God dehumanizes other people, making them irrelevant or making them enemies, you've gotten things dangerously wrong.

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While we're on the subject of antisemitism today, the Jewish newspaper the Forward has done this story explaining the ways in which antisemitism informs the crazy conspiracy theories being promoted by a movement called QAnon, which I last wrote about here. "There is a strong current of anti-Semitism in the QAnon worldview," the article reports. "The anti-Semitic components are not incidental. QAnon may have started in 2017, but its ideology resonates with much older anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the modern American face of an age-old and very dangerous ideology." (Side note: You may notice that I spell it "antisemitism" while the author of the Forward piece spells it anti-Semitism. Who's right? Good question, but the answer is too long to get into here. If you care, e-mail me at and I'll explain why I choose the un-hyphenated version.)

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P.S.: Speaking of attacks on people because of their religious tradition, MSNBC host Joy Reid should be ashamed of herself for ignorant and hateful words she uttered on air the other day about Muslims, as described in this RNS column condemning her. The column says she "compared President Donald Trump’s seeming support for those committing violence at protests to 'the way Muslims act.'” At best it was misguided Islamophobia. As the authors of the RNS column say, "the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found in a survey two years ago that American Muslim adults reject violence more than any other group in the U.S. (And) American Muslims are more likely than the general public to reject violence against civilians by the military as well as by an individual or small group." People with prominent public voices should know the facts before they speak. Reid's response to the criticism she's rightly received for this has been inadequate.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I am a guest on the episode of Mindy Corporon's "Real Grief -- Real Healing" podcast that was released Saturday. We talk about the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and the shape grief and healing can take. You can listen in here.

Newly unveiled Vatican archives are sadly telling

A few months ago, here on the blog, I wrote about what researchers might find now that the Vatican archives covering the papacy (1939-1958) of Pius XII (pictured here) are being made public.

Pope-pius-xiiOne of the early results has to do with what this Atlantic article calls the "private discussions behind both Pope Pius XII’s silence about the Nazi deportation of Rome’s Jews in 1943 and the Vatican’s postwar support for the kidnapping of two Jewish boys whose parents had perished in the Holocaust." It was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David I. Kertzer. He won the prize for his terrific book called The Pope and Mussolini.

The Atlantic article is long, detailed and disheartening -- but perhaps not unexpected, given the realities of the depth of antisemitism in Europe in that era and given the ponderously slow way that change traditionally comes to the Vatican and, thus, to the Catholic Church.

"In light of the publication of this massive trove of documents," Kertzer writes, "the claim has been made that nothing much new will be learned about the pope’s silence during the Holocaust from the recent opening of the Vatican archives. But scholars need not have worried about a lack of new material. . .The new discoveries provide ample grounds to believe that the full story of Pius XII and the Jews remains to be written.

"It would only be after Pius XII’s death that Church attitudes toward the Jews would change in a meaningful way, thanks to his successor John XXIII, who convened a Vatican Council devoted in part to rooting out the vestiges of medieval Church doctrine on the Jews. The culmination of those efforts came only after Pope John XXIII’s death; in 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the remarkable declaration Nostra Aetate. Reversing long-held Church doctrine, it called on the faithful to treat Jews and their religion as worthy of respect."

Some years ago, portions of the archives covering the papacy of Pius XII were unveiled. But it turns out they were carefully redacted, meaning certain documents were withheld -- and now we see more clearly why.

Kertzer explains: "No aspect of the pope’s attitude toward the Jews has received as much attention as the controversy over his silence during the war — his failure to denounce the Nazis and their accomplices for the systematic slaughter of Europe’s Jews. In an effort to respond to critics, it was (Giovanni Battista) Montini (one of Pius XII's chief deputies) himself who later, as Pope Paul VI, commissioned a group of Jesuit scholars to pore through the Vatican archives — which have remained closed to other scholars until now — to bring to light all relevant documents regarding the pope’s and the Vatican secretary of state’s actions as they considered how to respond to the unfolding horrors of the Second World War. This resulted, from 1965 to 1981, in the publication of 12 volumes filled with thousands of documents. Volume 9, devoted to how the Holy See sought to help the victims of the war in the year 1943, contains 492 documents."

But what was missing -- described in detail by Kertzer -- reveals an deep anti-Jewish current in the Vatican that, by today's Catholic standards, looks despicable. So this is painful stuff for the Catholic Church, but it's absolutely necessary to have these documents so that everyone can know the history, if for no other reason than not to repeat it. So good for the church for finally unveiling these sorry secrets.

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Actor Chadwick Boseman, who just died, was an authentic and consistent man of faith both in private and in the public eye, this RNS column asserts. As the Rev. Tyler Burns writes in that piece, "Both his stardom and his real self seemed a synthesis of pious faith and an unwavering commitment to his Blackness. Over his short career, he committed himself fiercely to bringing our heroes to life, to remind us to appreciate their legacy. His sweat-drenched portrayal of music icon James Brown in 'Get on Up' and his defiant performance as the barrier-breaking baseball star Jackie Robinson in '42' are just two examples of his choice to honor the legacy of those who came before us." To me, the sad thing is that Boseman didn't speak about his cancer much so that his fans could have walked with him on that journey and so that he could have encouraged others to get checked. But that's a highly personal decision that no one has a right to criticize.

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P.S.: I wrote this column for this week about the upcoming 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and how we should be responding all these years later.

Predicting how people of faith will vote

It is a risky -- but almost inevitable -- business to try to determine how people of various faith traditions (and none) will vote in any presidential election.

Relig-politicsPart of the reason is that not all (fill in the blank) think alike. And, thus, you can have devout Catholics, Lutherans, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and others vote for Candidate A while others who follow their tradition choose Candidate B (or C through Z).

Still, there are trends, and wise campaign managers will know what those trends are and try to shape campaigns to appeal to certain segments of the population based on religious affiliation. Indeed, now that the Democratic and Republican national virtual conventions are over, they're already at work on that task.

The best rundown of voters along religious lines that I've seen so far for the 2020 Biden-Trump race is this Gallup piece by Frank Newport, a Gallup senior scientist.

It does a pretty careful and thorough job -- with appropriate caveats -- of suggesting where each candidate might plausibly look for votes among people of faith.

And Newport is properly cautious about being too certain of predictions about how the votes will fall. He writes: "Segmenting Americans according to their religious identity is not as straightforward as it might seem. Religious identity is like a Russian nesting doll; opening up one doll reveals more dolls within. Broad religious groups can be divided into smaller religious groups, and those in turn divided still further."

This is especially true in the Protestant world, which is divided in a hundredyskillion different ways. Indeed, in many Protestant churches, especially among Mainliners, you can find congregations that are quite divided politically even though they worship together regularly and care about one another. They understand that church is first about who God is and what God expects of people and only secondarily about political matters.

And yet, as a Protestant, I'd also note that people who say they don't want to hear politics from the pulpit baffle me. They make me wonder why they don't want to hear the gospel, which from the very beginning was marinated in politics. Indeed, the first confessional statement of the church -- "Jesus is Lord" -- was deeply political in that it meant this: "Caesar is not Lord."

At any rate, I think you'll get some good information in Newport's piece. What you won't find is any good explanation of why some 81 percent of voters who identified as white evangelical Christians voted in 2016 for Donald Trump, a man whose very life stands against almost every core value such people have said is important to them. My guess is such voters will continue to vote for Trump again in 2020 but not in quite such overwhelming numbers. There's growing evidence that some of them have rediscovered their moral compasses.

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As people worry about new conspiracy theories -- especially those promoted by QAnon -- this Atlantic piece reminds us that the 100-plus-year-old conspiracy fraud known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion still is with us, despite it being debunked time after time. The book, still for sale in many places around the world, first appeared in 1903 as a made-up story of how a small group of Jews plans to control the world. "It was a fabrication, and a clumsy one," the Atlantic piece notes. But it has survived. In fact, the article says, "Nearly everything about The Protocols is wrong, but just enough about its depiction of the onset of totalitarianism is insightful that it is harder to dismiss than other, more outlandish conspiracy theories. And though its most fervent following is on the far right, the text itself is without any emphatic leftist or rightist coloring. This is why it can be embraced as it is today by disparate groups such as evangelicals, neo-Nazis, some anti-Israel activists and a slice of black-metal fans." Yikes.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about my own journey toward anti-racism -- now is online here.

Congregations for conspiracy theorists?

This past May, here on the blog, I mentioned a valuable book, The Death of Expertise. Its author worries -- with good reason -- that Americans are devaluing what real experts are trying to teach us. Often that's in favor of weird conspiracy theories that should look like fool's gold from a mile away but often, to some gullible people, don't.

QanonIn that same post, I mentioned the weird movement called QAnon. I noted that it's "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."

Well, reality-detached followers of QAnon seem to be infiltrating some Christian churches, this RNS story says. And, thank goodness, that infiltration is alerting and alarming some pastors because they finally are sensing, as the story says, that this movement is "taking on the power of a new religion that’s dividing churches and hurting Christian witness."

Among the conspiracy theories being promoted by and through QAnon, the story says, are these: "that 5G radio waves are used for mind control; that George Floyd’s murder is a hoax; that Bill Gates is related to the devil; that masks can kill you; that the germ theory isn’t real, and that there might be something to Pizzagate after all."

The insidious thing (well, one among many things) about such conspiracy theories is that there is no good way to argue against them because if you do that you become part of the conspiracy that is trying to keep the truth from being known. It's a vicious circle that, once again, reveals the fragility of human reason.

I don't know if QAnon is attractive to certain types of congregations over others, but no doubt it's a good idea for congregational leaders in all faith traditions to be aware of the problem and to have conversations about why truth matters.

Here, from the RNS story to which I linked you, is something else about which congregations should worry: "Once the fascination of far-right commentators and their followers, QAnon is no longer fringe. With support from Trump and other elected officials, it has gained credibility both on the web and in the offline world: In Georgia, a candidate for Congress has praised Q as 'a mythical hero,' and at least five other congressional hopefuls from Illinois to Oregon have voiced support."


When anybody -- thanks to the internet -- can be a publisher, there's no telling what sort of junk gets spewed out into the world. Well, that's not quite true. One way to tell is to follow social media critically. But prepare to be amazed by the technology and sickened by much of the content. If the New Testament is right that the truth shall make you free, there are lots of unfree people wandering the country these days.

(The image here today comes from this piece in The Conversation, which directly asks whether QAnon is forming a new religious movement.)

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As the Republican National Convention this week reaffirms the party's desire to keep Donald Trump and Mike Pence in office, this RNS account offers a look at the often-controversial role religion has played in this administration. I bet there's stuff on the list you've sort of forgotten about.

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P.S.: Recently I wrote here about all the damage the two Jerry Falwells (Sr. and Jr.) have done to Christianity and religion in general. Then earlier this week Jerry Falwell Jr. reportedly resigned as president of Liberty University. If you didn't read the exclusive interview he did with the Washington Examiner about the affair his wife had and what trouble ensued from that -- eventually leading to his presumed resignation -- you can find it here. What a sad story of bad -- and perverted -- decisions. There's more to the resignation story in this Reuters piece. The reason I'm being careful not to say that Falwell Jr. actually resigned is captured in this note from this BBC story: "On Monday, he resigned from his post -- a decision he later rescinded before confirming he was stepping down after all." Maybe that has changed two or three times in the last hour or three. And yet maybe the resignation really has happened. CNN reports it's true.

Keeping tabs on antisemitism on U.S. college campuses

Over the past few years I've gotten to know Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, based at Indiana University. We met a few years ago when he and I both were on a panel discussion at his school.

AntisemitismHis institute has been putting on webinars about various subjects, including one I attended on Monday, "Denying Jewish Self-Definition: The Latest Trend in Campus Antisemitism in America and What Can Be Done About It?" with Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, who is co-founder of the AMCHA Initiative. The link I just gave you is a one-page description of the group, which describes itself as "a non-profit organization dedicated to investigating, raising awareness about, and combating acts of antisemitism at institutions of higher education in America." The group's website is here.

As Rosenfeld explains it, "Amcha is a Hebrew word meaning 'your people' or 'your nation' (i.e. the Jews are God’s people). It also has the connotations of 'ordinary people,' 'the folk,' not the elite. In short, it’s a collective term for everyday Jews."

Rosenfeld wanted me to know about this seminar as well as one coming up Aug. 31 on "The Return of Christian Supersessionism." You can find information about these seminars here.

So in turn I wanted you to know not just about the center Rosenfeld heads but also the AMCHA Initiative.

At the recent webinar, Rossman-Benjamin described the work of the agency and how it tries to investigate and keep track of antisemitic and anti-Zionist acts against Jewish students on college campuses around the nation -- acts, she says, that have been increasing in recent years. Well, there has been something of a reduction of classic antisemitic acts on campuses, she says, but, in their place, a rather alarming increase in what her agency calls anti-Zionist acts. You can follow her main points by looking at this PowerPoint, which she used in her presentation.

Anti-Zionists acts are committed by people who are not leveling legitimate criticism at the Israeli government's policies and actions but, rather, who think that Israel should not even exist as a self-described Jewish state.

Clearly some of this is coming from zealous supporters of the Palestinians who think Israel -- and particularly the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu -- has badly mistreated Palestinians. There is much to debate on this matter, and I agree that Israel (and especially Netanyahu) has done some indefensible things (as have some Palestinian leaders). The AMCHA Initiative tries to make sure that honest policy disagreements don't turn into destructive antisemitic acts against American Jewish college students.

Modern Israel turned 72 this year, and has had to defend itself all that time against people who want it to disappear. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a subset of the Arab-Israeli conflict, continues to roll along with no realistic solution in sight. American, Israeli, Palestinian, Middle Eastern and world leaders have all failed in this.

So no wonder there's been sharp disagreement about what to do. But Rossman-Benjamin is right that such disagreements should not degenerate into antisemitism, one of the world's oldest hatreds.

By the way, speaking of antisemitism, Alvin Rosenfeld called my attention recently to a publication called Profiles in Catholicism, which recently produced an issue on antisemitism. One of the people interviewed was my friend Rabbi Michael Zedek, now of Chicago, but formerly rabbi at Temple B'nai Jehudah in Kansas City. You can read it here.

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The subject of antisemitism today may be appropriate given this piece in the Forward about members of Joe Biden's family who are Jewish. I wasn't aware of it until I read the article, but it reports that "all three of Biden’s children — Beau and Hunter, his sons with his first wife, Neilia Biden, and Ashley, his daughter with current wife Jill Jacobs Biden — married (Jews)." My own extended family is ethnically diverse -- with nieces married to people of Chinese, Korean, Filipino and African-American backgrounds. And such diversity, whether ethnic, racial or religious, can help to give one an expanded view of humanity and to keep one from becoming insular.

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P.S.: If some day your mind goes blank and you can't figure out where to find my blog, please know that it now also appears on my Amazon author page, which is here. Heck, go there anyway. You might find that you don't own some of my books. What a shame that would be.

Misusing religion in India and Turkey

What people consider sacred space should be, but often isn't, protected. As people fight over it, as they're doing now in both India and Turkey (and no doubt in many other places), it's important to remember that such spaces are not ever as sacred as people or as the arrangements people make to live in harmony in community.

Erdoğan ModiSo it's the people, much more than the property, who need to be respected and protected. But the current fights over sacred spaces in India and Turkey seem in many ways to be ignoring that rule. That fight is described in this Atlantic article.

As Yasmeen Serhan reports, "In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (at left) has acted on his yearlong quest to restore the historic Hagia Sophia, once a Byzantine-era cathedral and museum, as a functioning mosque. Three thousand miles away, in India’s northeastern city of Ayodhya, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (at right) has fulfilled a similar promise, . . .laying the foundation for a new Hindu temple on the ruins of a 16th-century mosque where Hindus believe an ancient temple once stood.

"Yet the transformation of these sites marks more than a simple manifestation of religious adherence. At its core, it represents a concerted effort by Turkey’s and India’s leaders to galvanize support from their religious and nationalist bases, even if doing so comes at the expense of their countries’ religious minorities. Even more fundamentally, it is changing how these two countries see themselves, demonstrating a simultaneous recasting of once-secular republics into fully fledged ethnonationalist states."
In other words, the leaders of those two countries are exploiting sacred space for political reasons and, in the process, encouraging division and even violence among competing religious groups. (Anything sound familiar here?)
Erdoğan has turned out to be a manipulative autocrat who has upended the lives of thousands of Turkish people. Here is a 2017 Flatland column I wrote about how that has affected some Turkish natives in the Kansas City area.
And in India, Modi, as Serhan writes, has been "replacing the secular vision of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, with a Hindu-nationalist one. . ." Nehru, like all leaders, had his faults, but on the whole he was wise and had his nation's best interests at heart as India became independent from Britain in 1947. Nehru recognized the need to create a nation in which the majority Hindus would not crush Muslims and adherents of other religious traditions.
As a Hindu nationalist, Modi has abandoned that vision. In fact, he's has turned it on its head.
The U.S. continues to struggle with some of the same church-state issues now on the front burner in Turkey and India, but there has been no serious, widely popular movement here to create a theocracy -- despite what it looks like sometimes. And we need to pay attention so that no such movement gains any steam.
And yet in all of this, the current leaders of Turkey and India are not entirely useless to Americans. They can always be used as bad examples.
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I used to enjoy hearing former First Lady Barbara Bush speak about whatever was on her mind. She was wise with a sense of humor. And the words Michelle Obama spoke Monday evening to the almost-live Democratic National Convention were terrific, too -- with one small exception. She used a phrase that I consider thoughtless and even self-centered theology. Here's what she said: "Empathy: That's something I've been thinking a lot about lately. The ability to walk in someone else's shoes; the recognition that someone else's experience has value, too. Most of us practice this without a second thought. If we see someone suffering or struggling, we don't stand in judgment. We reach out because, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I.' It is not a hard concept to grasp. It's what we teach our children."
If only she had stopped with "We reach out." Adding the idea that the grace of God spared me (or you) from the same trouble we're seeing in others assumes that God picks and chooses who gets "suffering or struggling" and who, for no apparent reason except divine autonomy, doesn't. It's sort of like saying that when a plane crashed, the person sitting in seat K-22 survived thanks to God's intervention but the person sitting in K-23 died because God couldn't be bothered saving someone else.
Things -- both good and evil -- may well happen to us that we can't explain. But to say that God's grace saved us from suffering implies that the person who experiences suffering isn't worthy of God's grace. Let's be careful with that kind of language. Just because a phrase is widely used doesn't mean it carries wisdom.

All the damage the Falwells have done

Many people who identify as evangelical Christians seem oddly in love with religious leaders who betray or mislead them (Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress) and political leaders who simply want their votes.

Jerry-falwell-jrIt's hard to understand why such (often) good-hearted people allow themselves to be taken advantage of so often.

Jerry-falwell-srBut with the Falwells, the late Jerry (pictured at right) and his son Jerry (left), it's happened again.

As this interesting piece from Good Faith Media notes, because of the older Falwell, "an Americanized version of Christianity emerged with a driving, narrowly focused religious/political ideology that has little to no regard for the life and teachings of Jesus.

"An overriding allegiance to a naïve perspective on abortion – that ignores its complexities and political realities – and aggressive efforts to deny equal rights to women, LGBTQ persons and others became the defining marks of this Americanized Christianity," writes John D. Pierce, Good Faith Media's executive editor and publisher.

And now Jerry Jr. has just taken a leave of absence from his position as president of Liberty University. It's a leave that the author of this RNS piece hopes will be permanent, as a way of putting "a check on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s misbehavior." The author of the piece, Marybeth Davis Baggett, is a former Liberty student as well as a former professor there.

"While the last four years have introduced the public to Falwell’s fixation on money and power," she writes, "these values have infiltrated the school’s ethos and increasingly taken hold under his leadership."

She says that despite all that, she's "hopeful the board will use this moment as a reckoning, that it will take stock of where and how the leadership has jettisoned the mission for expediency and profit, where it has failed to live up to the school’s doctrinal commitments."

And as Pierce notes in his piece, "Personal morality of political leaders, once enmeshed into the formula, became an expendable value in recent years, when conservative Christians decided honesty and integrity are no longer that big of a deal if they can keep a grasp on power.

"Today, the Christian witness is badly tarnished by this movement and is continuously sacrificed on the cheap altar of self-interest, discrimination and fear."

I would argue that the damage goes beyond evangelical Christianity. This lust for power, which led to 81 percent of white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump in 2016, has damaged Christianity generally and, more broadly, religion itself. If this is how religious people behave, after all, who wants to be part of that?

The Falwells and others have lots for which to answer.

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We all knew that as soon as Joe Biden nominated a woman of color as his running mate social media would light up with lies about her. That's the American political system now. But USA Today has done some fact-checking on some of those lies, including the charge that Harris wants to institute Islamic Shari'a law in the U.S. That's a false charge, the newspaper reported. By the way, if you, too, are a non-Muslim who is frightened about Shari'a in the U.S., you might want to learn why your fear is wrongheaded. The best place to start is with a book by a University of Kansas law professor (who is Catholic, by the way), Raj Bhala. It's called Understanding Islamic Law (Shari'a). Digest that before you make a fool of yourself in public talking about Shari'a. Also: here is a Flatland column I wrote about the uselessness of passing state laws banning Shari'a.

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P.S.: Curious about Sen. Kamala Harris' connections to religion? This RNS piece fills you in. (And here is an Associated Press story on that subject.) But let's remember that one of the few -- perhaps the only -- legitimate question about religion to ask political candidates about their personal faith commitments is how those commitments might affect public policy. Also: this RNS story describes how Harris, a Baptist whose mother was Hindu and whose husband in Jewish, represents the conglomeration of religious traditions in one family that is becoming much more common in the U.S. today.