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June 30, 2008


The top two Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders met Sunday and are continuing to talk about steps toward reunification. This 1,000-year-old division has been a terrible witness to the world about the ability of Christians to get along with themselves, much less others. Although I don't want or expect a single church with a single worship style and polity, there must be less division among Christians than there is now. If the Catholic-Orthodox split ever can be mended, maybe there's hope for the Protestant-Catholic split and all the divisions within Protestantism.

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So this past Friday, as I usually do, I was reading "All Things Catholic," the weekly column by John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter -- this column, in fact -- when I was struck by something John quoted from a priest.


The priest told a gathering of his fellow Paulists that they should be "beyond liberal, beyond conservative." Rather, he said, when it comes to Catholic theological infighting they should “have an unlisted number.”

I am far from an expert on Catholic infighting or where one might expect the Paulists to line up in such struggles, but the priest's comments got me to wondering what every religion -- not just Christianity and not just the Catholic part of the faith -- would look like today if each one could move "beyond liberal, beyond conservative" and focus, instead, on living out the faith in the fullest and truest sense.

My guess is that there would be much less sectarian strife, much less willingness to demonize others, much less anger. Instead there might be a greater willingness to be forgiving of people who fail and to be open at least to understanding things in different ways.

I recognize how idealistic and naive that must sound, and I don't for a minute imagine that all faiths in every time and place could pull off a no-labeling pledge.

But what if the movement could could start with just a congregation or two here or there in which people agree not to label each other? And if that's too much to ask, suppose we start with two or three already existing small groups within those congregations? Would such de-labeling catch on?

It's worth a try. What do you liberals, conservatives, moderates and extremists think?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

June 28-29, 2008, weekend


On Friday here on the blog, I talked about the potential split in the Anglican Communion, mostly over how to deal with the question of gays and lesbians in ministry. That same day, it turns out, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (my denomination) voted to amend the church's constitution to allow ordination of gays and lesbians. This amendment must be approved by a majority of the 173 presbyteries (regional governing bodies) over the next year before it can take effect, and I frankly have doubts about that happening, though I believe it should. I think eventually nearly all Christian denominations will recognize that there is no biblical warrant for denying ordination to otherwise qualified gays and lesians, though I doubt that will happen in my lifetime.

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Knowing how to handle religious issues in the workplace can be tricky at times. This report suggests that it's been a particular issue in Canada, though, again, look at the headline someone put on this. "Wars"? Oh, come on. That sounds like people of faith are bringing tanks and rifles to work. Besides, consistent, constitutional and fair rules can take care of nearly all these workplace issues.

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What are the values -- by which I mean moral values -- behind America's politics?


I know some of you are wondering what I'm smoking because you think there aren't any. But hang with me here.

It's a good -- if perhaps impossibly broad -- question, and a new University of Michigan research project is scheduled to launch on Monday to try to provide some possible answers. But with your help.

You'll be able then to go to (earlier I had this listed here as .com because that was the way site organizers had given it to me, but that was in error, and the .org site seems to be working now) to read and participate. I have given you the direct Web site address here and not just an embedded link in case the site goes off-line until its official launch on Monday. So, if you can't get to it now, come back here then or save the address now and visit it Monday.

The site will be operated by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and guided by Wayne Baker (pictured here), a professor in the Ross School of Business there.


Baker, a sociologist, plans a daily topic (sort of blog-like) with a chance for people to respond to it. There also will be quick polls and other features. I gather that he's hoping for a national conversation.

He's been working to develop the Web site with the help of none other than a journalist who specializes in religion. No, not me, but David Crumm, for a long time a writer for the Detroit Free Press and now founding editor of, a Web site that seeks to promote interfaith dialogue. Check it out. It's high quality stuff.

"Dr. Baker's project is a new way for concerned Americans to let leaders know what they value, and why," David says.

So I hope you'll bookmark the new Our Values site and participate as a way to helping to shape a national discussion about ways in which our common values can help to guide public policy. It's a discussion we really need.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend talks about why some people confuse patriotism with commitment to religion.) 

June 27, 2008


The worldwide Anglican Communion is getting close to breaking apart, this report says. A major issue, of course, is how the church is to treat gays and lesbians. In some ways this kind of internal fighting gives religion a bad name among folks who view it from the outside. But in other ways it reveals to outsiders people who stick by their principles. The Anglican Communion may split, but Anglicanism will go on. And I'm guessing that 50 years from now the church will look back and wonder what all the to-do was about when churches finally move closer to treating all people with equity and love.

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As I've said many times, interfaith dialogue is fascinating, crucial and difficult.


But don't pass up opportunities to experience it. I had a chance this week to meet in Kansas City with two Muslim leaders from Italy and am glad I did.

Imam Wagih Saad Hassan Hassan (on the left in the picture here) and El Hassan Sadiq (on the right) were visiting the U.S. as part of the U.S. State Department'sInternational Visitor Leadership Program. The focus on their trip here and elsewhere in the U.S. was described as "religion and community activism in a democratic society."

Hassan Hassan is the imam of the Islamic Community in Reggio Emilia. He's a native of Egypt. Sadiq is present of the Cremona Mosque in Cremona, Italy, and is a native of Morocco.

It was my privilege to tell them a little about media coverage of religion both here and around the U.S. and to describe for them something of the religious landscape of Kansas City. We spoke through Michael Chaaya, an interpreter assigned to them for this trip.

The expressed concerns about the way the media in Europe portray immigrant Muslims there, and how difficult it is to be understood and integrated into the culture when there are so many misunderstandings of Islam perpetrated, as they said, by journalists who are uneducated about the subject.

We also spoke about what I called the struggle for the heart and soul of Islam, by which I meant the effort by traditional Islam to isolate and marginalize the radical elements. Each was insistent that al-Qaida and its followers are outside of traditional Islam and eventually would fade away.

But they also were concerned about the dictatorial regimes that rule in many Arab countries of the Middle East, where freedom of the press is largely a dream.

Through an interpreter such conversation can be a little trying, but we can always look each other in the eye and try to convey a sense that each of us is an important part of the human family. I think we sensed that from each other.

So my point is: Avail yourelves of opportunities to speak with people of other faiths and traditions whenever you have a chance.

As I drove home from meeting with these gentlemen at a Midtown hotel, I got behind a vehicle covered with bumper stickers, including, "Impeach Bush" and "Jail Bush." And although those aren't signs I would put on my car, I gave thanks to live in a country -- unlike Egypt, say, or Saudi Arabia -- where such publicly displayed political sentiments would be cause for arrest.

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P.S.: Earlier this week on the blog I mentioned the newly released Part II of the religious landscape study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Policy. Now Baptist Press has published this story suggesting that the wording of a question may have skewed some of the results. See what you think. When people say "religion," do they really mean "denomination"? Hmmmm.

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ANOTHER P.S.: In yesterday's blog posting I wrote some about my recent experience being in New Orleans to see how the recovery from Hurricane Katrina is going. If you want to read columns and blogs on that subject from other columnists around the country, they're being collected on the Web site of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and organization that, much as it might like to deny it, once had me as its president.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will be about why people confuse commitment to religion with patriotism.) 

June 26, 2008


The other day, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe said only God could remove him from office. (In response, I suggested God should get busy with that task.) Now Catholic bishops in the area have said that God is offended by Mugabe and his antics (who isn't?) and will bring judgment on him. Once more, everyone seems to know what God thinks. If I were God's p.r. person, I'd be urging the Boss to hold a press conference to clarify things. (Which maybe is why I don't have that job.)

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NEW ORLEANS -- Before Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Big Easy in late August 2005, Noah's Ark Missionary Baptist Church here had about 125 members.


It was -- and still is -- in a tough neighborhood not far from downtown. The pastor, Willie M. Walker Jr. (pictured here),No-6 tells me he could sit up on the roof of the church back then and watch drug dealers bribing cops on the streets below. The church, founded in 1947, was broken into 90 separate times since Walker became pastor a few years ago.

When Katrina hit, the wind, rain and flooding destroyed Noah's Ark. Walker later was honored for being an independent first responder and saving many people, but his church was smashed. So the few folks who were left began meeting in a Methodist church.


But eventually ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" heard about the church, and put its name in a stack of possible projects to help rebuild this devastated city. Finally, Noah's Ark rose to the top of that list, and this sprng the ruined Southern Baptist church was rebuilt. (For the Baptist Press story about the rebuilding, click here.)

As you can see from these pictures, it's a pretty addition to the neighborhood on South Saratoga Street, across from a cemetery. Notice the building behind the Noah's Ark sign. Much of the neighborhood looks like that.

Nowadays 60 or 70 people show up on an average Sunday morning and Walker and others at Noah's Ark are creating programs to help youth and to feed hungry people.

New Orleans is full of such rebirth stories, though, for sure, Extreme Makeover isn't part of all of them. But churches were among the first institutions to reopen after Katrina, and that has helped to bring people back to the city, which had a population of about 455,000 before Katrina and now is back to about 327,000, Mayor Ray Nagin says.

But the needs in New Orleans remain huge. Big parts of the city continue to lie in ruins, though it's quite inspiring to see what already has returned to full function.

"We're just blessed," Willie Walker told me.


To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

June 25, 2008


The question of which Catholic politicians have a "pure heart" (Pope Benedict XVI's words) that allows them to take Communion goes beyond the United States. As this report notes, it also involves Italy's prime minister. I like what the former bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese once told me, which is that he found it impossible to judge the heart of anyone coming forward for Communion.

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Are you familiar with Howard Thurman (pictured here)?


He was one of the great 20th century Christian theologians, and the other evening I met Arleigh Prelow, who is making a documentary movie about him, to be called "Howard Thurman: In Search of Common Ground."

Arleigh, who lives in California, was in Kansas City to speak about her project and to try to secure some final funding to assure the project's future.

Thurman was born in Florida and, even at an early age, began to search for ways to bring people of diverse backgrounds together, Arleigh told me. That is, bring them together without sacrificing a commitment to one's own faith.

I feel I share some common ground with Thurman, who was born in 1899 and died in 1981, because -- at least in a geographical sense (and later in a philosophical/theological sense) -- our paths crossed. He attended seminary in Rochester, N.Y., where I first worked in the late 1960s for three years after I was graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

In the 1930s, Thurman spent time in India, where I lived for two years in the 1950s. Thurman went to meet and learn from Mahatma Gandhi, who already had been murdered by the time I got to India. Arleigh said that even though Gandhi and his nonviolent approach to social change already was known to some extent in the United States before Thurman visited India, Thurman helped to popularize that approach after he returned to the U.S., and such later civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. learned from what Thurman had learned.

There's also a Howard Thurman Center at Boston University, where he once taught and where many of his papers are archived.

I'll try to keep you posted on the progress of the film production but you also can follow it for yourself on the movie link I've given you above.

The Rev. Robert Lee Hill, pastor of Community Christian Church, who invited Arleigh to Kansas City, hopes to get her back here when the film is ready to be viewed. That would be an event worth seeing for sure.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

June 24, 2008


The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life yesterday released the second part of its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. When you click on the link, I invite you first to go to the "Comparisons" section. Some intriguing material there that points to the amazing diversity of religious belief in our pluralistic society. I'll have more to say about all of this later here and maybe in a column, but poke around in the findings and see what surprises you. For some comments on all this from the religion reporter of the Dallas Morning News, click here. And for the Pew Forum's own press release about the survey, click here.

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For some reason I've been thinking lately about the difficult work that military chaplains do -- necessary, dangerous, uplifting work.


So I thought I'd hunt around to see if any such folks (or members of their families) are blogging about their experiences to give all of us a taste of what that life is like.

I've found several I'll share with you in the hope that all of us can more fully appreciate the job chaplains do to hold together our people in the military.

The first blog I found is by an Assemblies of God chaplain. It's got some interesting posts, but it appears he let it go dormant several months ago. He's got a wife, four kids and is stationed in Alaska.

Next I found a blog by the wife of a military chaplain. It's much more up to date. She and her husband also have four kids, one of whom is also in the military.

I found this blog by an Army chaplain serving in Iraq. Note his wide range of interests. This isn't just a site about his thoughts on God.

Next, here's a blog by a Universalist-Unitarian who, when he wrote this, was considering becoming a military chaplain. He talks about the negative reaction among some other U-U members.

Finally (this is a really brief list for you today) here's a spot for Buddhists in the military, including information on where to find a chaplain.

Well, as I say, this is just a taste of what's out there. If you know other blogs related to military chaplains, pass them along.

But let's remember the important work these folks do to keep body and soul together for our troops.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. 

June 23, 2008


This column in the Chicago Tribune asks a good question: If all the gay people are getting married in California, why is God punishing the Midwest with awful weather? Or did the goofy televangelists get in wrong before? That is, was Hurricane Katrina not really punishment for the sins of New Orleans (where I just spent four days -- more on that later)?

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The conventional wisdom about presidential politics in recent elections is that people who identify themselves as conservative or evangelical Christians mostly vote for the Republican candidate. Further, Democrats have had trouble even knowing how to talk about religion without seeming to be engaged in a subject about which they knew precious little.


Well, the picture always was more complicated than that, but a new survey designed by some folks at Calvin College suggests that this whole picture may be changing for the 2008 election. For a Calvin press release about this, click here.

As the release notes, one of the most intriguing results, at least to me, is the change in members of Mainline Christian churches (the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc.). These folks historically have voted pretty reliably Republican. But now they are more lined up behind the Democrats.

I tend to be skeptical of all political polling and all of these kinds of surveys for many reasons, but they can sometimes provide a snapshot of how things may be, and they may help us understand more clearly what is happening in races that are dynamic and complex.

At the very least, they help to remind us that reality is much more complex than our prejudices, stereotypes and assumptions.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holiday: Sacred Heart of Jesus (Catholic Christianity)

June 21-22, 2008, weekend


You like ironies? Try this. China, of all places, is becoming the world's biggest supplier of Bibles, this story says. Imagine that.

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Robert Mugabe, ruler of Zimbabwe, says "only God" can remove him from office. Hey, God, I think this fool is calling you out. Have at him. Please. And soon.

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Over the past several years, relations between American Jews and some Christian denominations have run hot and cold.


Perhaps the best example of that is my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). Several years ago the national governing body of the denomination, the General Assembly, adopted a resolution calling for the possibility of selling off investments in companies that profit from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The motive was good but the handling of it was terrible. For one thing, we had barely talked with our Jewish brothers and sisters about all of this before we did it. I wrote a column critical of the General Assembly for this.

Since then there has been talk and there have been revisions in policy and a general sense has developed suggesting that the good modern relationship between Jews and Presbyterians was getting back on track.

But a few days ago a dozen or so Jewish groups in the U.S. issued a statement bemoaning a newly issued PCUSA document. Click here for the press release from the American Jewish Committee that contains the joint Jewish statement.  And for the PCUSA statement, called "Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Bias," click here. This statement, from the PCUSA Office of Interfaith Relations, is a revision of a previous statment that most Jewish groups found helpful and balanced. This one they don't. For the previous statement, click here.

All of this has occurred just before the opening this weekend of the General Assembly's gathering in San Jose, Calif., where no doubt all of this will get lots of talk and maybe some action.

For a PCUSA General Assembly backgrounder on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, click here. And for a Jewish group that disagrees with the other Jewish groups and sees nothing wrong with the revised PCUSA statement, click here. And then click here for another Jewish analysis of the revised statement that suggests that the revision is quite an improvement.

So what are Jews, Presbyterians and the rest of the world to make of all this? Well, it's another reminder that sometimes the leaders of faith communities get into battles in our name that we don't know a lot about -- but should. It's incumbent on people in the pews to know what our leaders are doing and to be engaged in either supporting them or working against them.

My guess, however, is that if you asked most average members of most PCUSA churches (including my own) and most average members of synagogues around the country, darn few could tell you what this struggle is all about. And yet it has important implications both for interfaith relations and for the status of things in the Middle East.

It sometimes can be a pain to keep up with all this, but when things are being done in our name, that's our job. My hope is that my denomination can speak with clarity and love in ways that people on all sides of this issue can appreciate and respect, even if they disagree.

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P.S.: Ron Ballard, a Christian Science teacher and practitioner, will give a free public lecture, "Prayer and Politics: Spiritual Solutions for Creative Government," at 7 p.m. this Thursday at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library. The link I've given you has more details.

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ANOTHER P.S.: If I'm slow publishing your comments the next few days, hang in there. I'll get to them. Thanks. Bill.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (When is it appropriate to leave a congregation? That's what my Saturday column this weekend discusses.)

Today's religious holiday: All Saints (Orthodox Christianity, 22nd)

June 20, 2008


Speaking of belief, as I will be below, what's your experience, if any, with the more sensational Christian evangelists? How about Todd Bentley? This story recounts part of his story. Would you be willing to listen to him? Attend one of his revivals? And should the story have made so much of the fact that he has tatoos?

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Throughout much of the history of religions, people have created statements containing the beliefs they most cherish, the theological stances on which, in many cases, they are willing to bet their lives and which they hope will inspire others to join them.


For instance, in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have, as part of our constitution, the Book of Confessions, containing statements of faith starting with the Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed and working through the Reformation to the most recent statement adopted in the early 1980s.

For quite a helpful and comprehensive list of confessions from various Christian traditions, click here.

Different circumstances call out different statements. For instance, one of those contained in our Book of Confessions is called the Theological Declaration of Barmen, and was written by leaders (mostly Karl Barth) of the so-called Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s as a way to stand against at least some of what the Hitler regime was doing to co-opt the church.

The other day I ran across a new document called the Albany Confession 2008, which has emerged from various Presbyterian pastors in the Albany, N.Y., region. The focus of the group that has drafted the confession (confession here does not so much mean to own up to one's sins but, rather, to state the core of one's beliefs) is peacemaking, social justice, environmental protection, political activism and human rights.

What I invite you to think about today is whether any particular statement of faith, whether a historical writing, such as the Nicene Creed, or something your own congregation or you yourself have drafted, is somehow vital to your understanding of your faith today. What purpose do such confessions serve?

I find myself returning to them time and again for both clarity and perspective -- and especially to remember that sometimes the people who wrote some of the confessions contained in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions got things wrong, at least from my perspective and, sometimes, the perspective of later church leaders.

When I served on a committee that oversaw area Presbyterian seminary students, we required them to draft a new statement of faith each year as a way of seeing where their theological thinking was going. I found it a useful tool, and I think the students did, too. Maybe you'd find that exercise useful as well.

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P.S.: If I'm slow publishing your comments the next few days, hang in there. I'll get to them. Thanks. Bill.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (When is it appropriate to leave a congregation? That's what my column tomorrow will discuss.)

June 19, 2008


Speaking of religion and politics, as I will be below, a writer in a journal of African-American thought has done this intriguing piece about the recent decision by Sen. Barack Obama to leave his church. By the way, I'll be talking about that decision at least indirectly in my column this Saturday. I think Obama is not done dealing with the question of his church membership.

* * *


As the second George W. Bush administration begins to draw to a close, various analysts are taking a look at what happened and why. In fact, What Happened is the name of the book about all this by former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan.


But as much as I'm interested in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I've also been wondering how to evaluate what (remember this?) Bush called his "compassionate conservatism" and, growing out of that, his "faith-based initiative."

The latter, as you may know, was the president's attempt to funnel public dollars to charities with religious roots to do some of the social work that the government seems not to have done very well, if at all. I always liked the idea of these groups existing and being effective, but it worried me (and still worries me) when tax dollars are spent to advance any kind of religious ministry. That's not what public dollars are for.

But we don't hear much about compassionate conservatism these days and we rarely hear about the faith-based initiative programs, though they continue to exist in one form or another.

So I was intrigued to find this piece about all of this in a Templeton Foundation publication called In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues. The author, John McWhorter, works for a think tank called the Manhattan Institute. I hesitate to label such places "conservative" or "liberal" because I think such labels are misleading. You can poke around on the institute's site and decide for yourself.

But McWhorter defends Bush in this piece -- perhaps a surprising stand, especially for an African-American. I am always engaged by people who go against our suppositions. I may not agree with all McWhorter says here, but I think it's a useful vehicle to revisit the question of what role the government should play in supporting or even funding groups that have a religious base. (Pay special attention to what he has to say about programs aimed at preparing prisoners to live successfully on the outside.)

I don't want the government to be hostile to faith-based groups, and I would hope there could be areas in which they could cooperate. But, as I say, I think it's important to remember the constitutional barriers that are designed to prevent the government from directly subsidizing religious activities.

So read McWhorter and, if you're of a mind, support him or argue with him here on the blog.

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P.S.: If I'm slow publishing your comments the next few days, hang in there. I'll get to them. Thanks. Bill.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.