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A model for all professions: 6-30-09

VENTURA, Calif. -- I was thrilled the other night when my friend Jonathan Nicholas (pictured here) received the annual Will Rogers Humanitarian Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.


Jonathan, who late last year left the Oregonian, Portland's newspaper, after about 25 years as a columnist, is, like me, a former NSNC president.

More than 20 years ago, Jonathan helped create an event called Cycle Oregon, a bike trip to raise funds for various great project around his state. For the fascinating history of this event, click here. Today Cycle Oregon has a foundation of about $1.6 million and is able to give away $100,000 or more a year.

Anyway, several years ago NSNC member Bob Haught created the Will Rogers award to honor columnists who have been doing wonderful things for their cities or states. It's one more way that people with whom I spent my career are living moral lives.

And it's one more reason to bemoan the trouble so many newspapers are in. These columnists, who make such a difference in people's lives, now must reinvent themselves in various ways. And they will. And as they do you can bet that many of them will continue to be ethical people who give a great deal to their readers and their communities.

Yes, there are unethical people in the media, including the newspaper business. But people like Jonathan and previous Will Rogers winners put them all to shame.

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P.S.: Sorry it took time the last few days to post comments. I was traveling to and from California. But I'm back now so things should go more smoothly. Bill.

Remembering Joan of Arc: 6-29-09

On one of the several (but who's counting?) bookshelves in my house, I have a set called "The Complete Novels of Mark Twain."


Not long ago I was looking at them and could not remember ever reading one called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. So I've been enjoying it and have been struck by how well Twain seemed to understand the thorough way in which religion, meaning Christianity, simply permeated 15th Century Europe.

There was then almost no thought of a sacred versus secular division. The church -- meaning the Roman Catholic Church in France and England -- ruled the roost, setting the tone for all of life. And although by then there were pre-Reformation stirrings aimed at fixing what had some believed had run amok in the church, there was no serious question that people's lives were -- and should be -- shaped by the church, its teachings and its clergy.

Just to remind people who may have forgotten: Joan of Arc (depicted here) was a teenage French heroine who, at the urging of voices she believed came from God, fought to remove the English from ruling France toward the end of the 100 Years War. Eventually, after she led some surprising military successes, she was captured, charged with witchcraft and heresy (again, the dominating culture of the church) and burned at the stake in 1431. In the early 20th Century the church declared her to be a saint.

Despite the title of Twain's book, Joan herself is not the purported author of these "recollections." Rather, they come from one of her childhood friends and military aides, but Twain draws heavily on the official court records and other histories.

Here are a few short passages that show what I mean by the omnipresence of the church then and especially in Joan's life:

* At her trial, "It being Lent, there might be a chance to catch her neglectring some detail of her religious duties. I could have told him (the prosecutor) he would fail there. Why, religion was her life!"

* ". . .we all know that the air is full of devils and angels that are visible to traffickers in magic on the one hand and to the stainlessly holy on the other; but what many and perhaps most did doubt was, that Joan's visions, Voices, and miracles came from God. It was hoped that in time they could be proven to have been of satanic origin." (Notice that there were only two choices for the source of the visions.)

* (After Joan has just told the court that her Voices "promised to lead me to Paradise.") "If faces do really betray what is passing in men's minds, a fear came upon many in that house, at this time, that maybe, after all, a chosen servant and herald of God was here being hunted to her death."

Again, what's fascinating to me is to compare and contrast then in France and now in America in terms of the way society was simply then marinated in a religious culture and now is much, much less so.

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NOTE: Until Tuesday, June 30, my Internet access may be limited and/or sporadic, so a long time may go by before I can publish any comments you leave here. Thanks for your patience. I'll eventually get to them. Bill.

A lesson in Mormon history: 6-27/28-09

Because I think it helps Americans to understand their religion's history -- and, more broadly -- the history of religion in the United States, this weekend I want to take note of the murder on June 27, 1844, of Joseph Smith (depicted here), founder of the Mormon church, known officially as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


On that date 165 years ago, Smith and his brother Hyrum were dragged from jail by what is called an angry mob (is there any other kind of mob?) in Carthage, Ill., and shot. The Smiths had been arrested by non-Mormons on charges of immorality. What was the immorality? Smith said polygamy for Mormons was approved by God.

I won't go into lots of details about Smith's life and death here, but I can suggest a book I've read a lot about but haven't yet read -- Joseph Smith, Rough Rolling Stone, by Richard Lyman Bushman.

Rather, I want to suggest you think about mob psychology and rigid religious certitude. Clearly Smith made other believe that he felt certain God had called him to, as he would have said, restore the true church of Christ to earth. At the same time, members of the mob that hauled him out of jail and did him in no doubt felt certain that they were doing the Lord's work in ridding the planet of a heretic.

How are we to judge such things? In what reliable ways can we do what the New Testament says and "test the spirits" to see whether they are of God? How can we remain true to our religious convictions while at the same time reserving some space for the reality that we are finite human beings with finite understandings and cannot possibly know the full mind of God?

I wish I had exhaustive and convincing answers for all such questions. My own approach is to try my inadequte best to remember this admonition from the old Hebrew prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?" And to try to couple that with what Jesus, harkening back to Leviticus, called the two great commandments, to love God and to love neighbor. Somehow it seems to me that walking humbly and loving God and neighbor would prevent one from thinking he is deputized by God to pull a man out of jail and shoot him.

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VENTURA, Calif. -- Life has been a little crazy for Steve Lopez (pictured here), the Los Angeles Times columnist whose book The Soloist has become a major motion picture.

Lopez 083

He's had tons of speaking engagements and other responsibilities, including staying in touch with Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless musician about whom he first wrote a column and who became the subject of the book and movie. The last time I saw Steve was in 2004 when he won our National Society of Newspaper Columnists' lifetime achievement award -- based on his work before the book and movie. He returned to the NSNC's conference here yesterday and spoke to us about what he's learned since then and about the role of columnists in the future.

And when he said about us columnists, "All that we've got going for us are stories," I thought about the reality that, in one important sense, that's all religions have going for them. That is, religions tell stories -- profoundly important stories. Read the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, and you'll see a pattern of repeated stories of the exodus -- all as a way of telliing people who God is. Read the New Testament and you'll find story after story -- essentially with the same message, which is that God is our rescuer, our redeemer, the one who leads us out of our wildernesses.

Steve urged us columnists to "look for real stories. It's the only thing that's going to save us." He didn't mean that in a theological sense but, rather, in the sense of the work of columnists as they struggle the stay alive in a newspaper industry that's undergoing rapid and disconcerting change.

For just a brief taste of Steve's words to us, click on this link:

Download Lopez

Later in the day, W. Bruce Cameron, originally from the Kansas City area and author of Eight Simple Rules for Marrying My Daughter, told us that "I've just always believed in my ability to write a story."

So stories engage us. They find our hearts and teach us how our hearts are connected to the hearts of others. And in many ways, that's the way religions use stories. It was good to be reminded of that yesterday.

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NOTE: Until Tuesday, June 30, my Internet access may be limited and/or sporadic, so a long time may go by before I can publish any comments you leave here. Thanks for your patience. I'll eventually get to them. Bill.

Targeting Christian bucks: 6-26-09

My friend Suzette Martinez Standring, who like me is a former president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, often writes about religion, and in this column makes an intriguing point: Christians in America are an often-overlooked part of the economy to whom advertisers should be paying more attention. At least she reports that this is the conclusion of a new book.


Hmmm. Should Christians be thought of as an economic "affinity group"? Well, as Suzette notes, the authors of Faith-Based Marketing: The Guide To Reaching 140 Million Christian Customers, think so.

No doubt this makes economic sense to people with stuff to sell. And it may even make sense to Christians who want to be able to find products that they can feel good about buying, products that don't violate their standards, products that can improve the world and so forth.

So why does part of me recoil a bit at being thought of as part of a faith community that marketers want to reach? I think perhaps it's because the faith, at least to me, does not constitute a cog in an economic wheel. Rather, Christianity is about redemption, about joyful living, about service to others, about love.

And I'm hesitant to have marketers exploit those values to improve their bottom line.

Am I being irrational?

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VENTURA, Calif. -- As I rode in a shuttle van here yesterday from the Los Angeles airport, I listened to detailed radio reports of Michael Jackson's death. What a day yesterday was for celebrity deaths -- both Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. More proof of death being the great leveler, I guess. And perhaps more proof that celebrity in our culture often comes at a very high price -- at least in Jackson's case, given how much of the news about it focused on all the stress in his life. Some of that stress had to do with religion. Remember a year or two ago when Jackson, once a Jehovah's Witness, was thought to be converting to Islam? Well, I'm at a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference and won't have time now for getting into the subject of Fawcett and religion or Jackson and religion. But pay some attention to the coverage of both deaths and see what, if anything, is said about that.

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NOTE: Until Tuesday, June 30, my Internet access may be limited and/or sporadic, so a long time may go by before I can publish any comments you leave here. Thanks for your patience. I'll eventually get to them. Bill.

Don't forget Orthodoxy: 6-25-09

I have said here over and over again how important it is for average citizens to understand how religion influences the world around them -- even if they themselves are not adherents of any religion.


Much the same thing is true for governments. Our own government, for instance, must understand the various branches of Islam (and how that religion plays out in different cultures) if it is to make sense of such hot spots as the Middle East, including Iran and Iraq.

But the picture of religions in the world is often more complex than most people realize. And a good reminder of that came recently in a speech given by a Boston University teacher who also is a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Elizabeth Prodromou suggested that the Obama administration would be making a big mistake if it did not take the time to factor in Orthodox Christianity as an important influence in key parts of the world. There are, after all, some 350 million Orthodox Christians in the world, and their approach to life can set the tone for how things play out in many countries.

Orthodoxy, of course, like many branches of many faiths, is not monolithic, as Prodromou correctly noted, so it will be important for members of Obama's foreign policy team to grasp some of the subtleties and divisions within it -- and how those might differ from, say, Catholicism and Protestantism (both branches of which also have various divisions, some formal, some not).

In the end, religion is an extraordinarily important factor in how people and nations behave, and yet religion is also enormously complicated. It's a good message to remember for all of us.

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In this intriguing analysis, the argument is that the clerics in Iran have given theocracy a bad name. Well, yes, but it doesn't take much to do injury to a system that is so pitifully inappropriate. Humans claiming to speak for God should always be under suspicion.

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NOTE: Until Tuesday, June 30, my Internet access may be limited and/or sporadic, so a long time may go by before I can publish any comments you leave here. Thanks for your patience. I'll eventually get to them. Bill.

Another anti-terrorism move?: 6-24-09

As you know, most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, which also was the home of Osama bin Laden.


So the Saudis have a lot to answer for when it comes to violent religious fanatics.

Since 9/11, the kingdom crowned a new king -- the man who, when I met him in Saudi Arabia in 2002 still was Crown Prince Abdullah (pictured here in a photo from Arab News). He just celebrated his fourth year on the throne, and he said some things to his citizens on that occasion that I found intriguing.

"What pains you pains me," he told them.

Clearly it was an effort to make the head of a historically oppressive regime, the House of Saud, seem more human, more approachable, more sympathetic.

Indeed, as I've noted here before, King Abdullah is recognized in Saudi Arabia as something of a reformer. Now, understand that reform in the kingdom moves at a snail's pace and that Saudi Arabia still refuses to grant its citizens religious freedom. Everyone must be a Muslim there, except for foreigners -- and even they are not allowed to practice their religions in public.

Still, when I left Saudi Arabia seven years ago this month I had a foreboding sense that the kingdom would implode or explode in five to seven years, given all that was working against it. Somehow this king has prevented that, and one way he has done it is by making himself a little more beloved, if you can call any dictator beloved. But dictator isn't quite the right description of Abdullah, whose culture requires him to rule by a process of consultation.

At any rate, what most of us Americans hope for is that he can prevent a new crop of terrorists from emerging from Saudi soil.

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Pope Benedict XVI and President Barack Obama have scheduled a July 10 meeting at the Vatican after Obama attends the G-8 summit. Hmmmm. G-8 to B-16 sounds less like a presidential itinerary than a bingo game. 

When courts rule on religion: 6-23-09

I have said here and elsewhere before that some court cases having to do with the free exercise of religion are so obvious that they never should have gotten to court in the first place.


Most of these have to do with units of government promoting one religion over another.

But there are some court cases in which reasonable people can, in good faith (so to speak), disagree about how far constitutional protections of religion should go before they run into other legitimate claims either of government or of other institutions.

One such case recently was decided by the Texas Supreme Court. In effect, the ruling confirmed the constitutionality (in Texas) of a 1999 law, the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law requires government to show a compelling reason for limiting the rights and privileges of religious institutions.

This particular case involved a zoning matter. And you can read details about it in the story to which I've linked you in the previous paragraph.

I want to raise this matter today simply to say that our judicial system will be wrestling with religious freedom cases for a long time, and although some of them involve obvious abuse of constitutional principles, others are not so easy to figure out. So although there never should be any religious requirement for judges, it would be helpful if people elected and appointed to the bench would be well educated about matters of faith as well as constitutional boundaries.

I frankly don't know what kind of training law schools give students about the place of religion in public life in the United States, but my guess is very little. Do you know anything that would contradict that view?

(The illustration here today is from

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Lots of people, it turns out, are searching for God on the Internet, ABC News reports, and online evangelists are ready to respond. No surprise there. But not all people who search for God on the Internet are seeking to find either God there or spiritual advice. I'm one who uses "God" as a standard Google news search word to turn up any stories mentioning God that I might want to pass along to you blog readers. And it works. It found the story I've linked you to today. Thanks, God.

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P.S.: My latest column for The Presbyterian Outlook now is online. To read it click here. To read both it and all my Outlook columns, click here.

Rules for joining: 6-22-09

This is a good historical date on which to ask this question: What should be the membership requirements to join a community of faith?


Why today?

Well, it was on this date in 1750 that the famous colonial preacher Jonathan Edwards (depicted here) was dismissed from his pulpit at the Congregational Church in Northhampton, Mass. He had served there 23 years, but had gotten himself on the wrong side (according to those who dismissed him) of an argument over requirements for admission to full membership in the church. Edwards wanted more restrictions than his opponents did. He lost.

Edwards had succeeded his maternal grandfather as pastor of the church, and his grandfather's policy was to encourage all baptized parishioners to receive Holy Communion. Edwards, however, wanted to give the sacrament only to people who, he felt, met a high standard of proving they really were Christians.

You can look up more the details of this controversy if it interests you, and if you want perhaps the best biography of Edwards, it's Jonathan Edwards: A Life, by George M. Marsden.

But I want to use the occasion of this anniversary to ask about your views of membership. Should one have profound knowledge of most aspects of the religion before being allowed into membership? What evidence should one be required to give that one holds to what the church, synagogue, mosque or temple teaches? Should one be required to complete classes before being allowed into membership? Should there be a higher standard of knowledge and commitment to doctrine for officers of the congregation than just for members? (I think so.)

My view: Just as writing that is produced without effort is usually read without pleasure, so congregational membership without some reasonable requirements having to do with knowledge and commitment to doctrine often does not lead to spiritual growth. What one first must bring to this search is a hunger. Without that nothing happens. But at some point, I think, one must decide whether to make a commitment that is deeper than, say, joining a wine-of-the-month club.

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As regular readers of this blog know, from time to time I offer book columns to let people know of newly published books having to do with religion and ethics. For my most recent such entry, click here. But I can't possibly go through all the books about religion pouring out from publishers. So here's a review of a book I have not yet read but that looks intriguing. It's called Jews, God and Videotape: Religion and Media in America and is about how the media and modern American culture have helped to create a version of Judaism that the author -- and many others -- find troubling. My guess is similar books could be written as critiques of almost any religion Americans follow.

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P.S.: My latest column for The Presbyterian Outlook now is online. To read it click here. To read both it and all my Outlook columns, click here.

Abortion common ground?: 6-20/21-09

What seems to me like a hundred years ago -- back in the late 1970s or early 1980s -- I wrote a column for The Kansas City Star describing my anguish about the failure of people who disagree on abortion to have civil discussions.


This grew out of a conference on abortion I attended. There I found rigidly convinced people -- on both ends of the abortion-position spectrum -- arguing past one another. Nobody was listening.

I can't tell that much has changed in 30 years.

But I am encouraged that some people continue to try to find some common ground on this matter. The latest effort I've learned about is a new Web site called "On Common Ground" found on the RH (for reproductive health) site.

Here you will find news and views that amount to a forum for discussing abortion without resorting to murder, such as happened to Dr. George Tiller of Wichita recently.

It would be wildly out of bounds to include in such discussion people such as Tiller's accused killer. But it would not be out of bounds to include people with strongly anti-abortion positions. I haven't read through all the offerings on the new "On Commond Ground" site, but my first impression is that such people aren't well represented.

Still, I would hope that people from all abortion perspectives -- save the ones who advocate turning to violence against those with whom they disagree -- would be welcome to add their voices to the discussions on this new site.

One of the problems with the abortion issue (I believe now in hindsight) is that the U.S. Supreme Court acted in 1973 before anything like a social consensus on the subject had developed. That polarized society and we've been dealing with the painful aftermath of that ever since. What I don't know is whether any social consensus ever would have developed without a court decision. Without such a judicial remedy, of course, it's possible that the old and destructive system of illegal abortions would have continued.

My position is that abortion should be seen as the least evil of a series of evil choices -- and thus must remain legal. But the decision should be left up to the pregnant woman (one would hope in consultation with the father of the baby in question) and that woman's physician. As others have said, that would make abortion legal, safe and rare. I respect people who in good faith hold other positions, as long as they don't want to impose their views on society through violence.

At any rate, surf around on this new site and tell us what you think.

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Steve Waldman of asks readers there a pertinent question: Is Islam inspiring the freedom fighters in Iran, and, if so, what about the people who insist (wrongly) that Islam is inherently violent and anti-democratic? I agree with Waldman's implication that Islam (and other faiths) can be used to inspire both freedom and tyranny, depending on who is using the religion for what ends. Will this weekend be remembered as Iran's Tiananmen Square?

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P.S.: In honor of Father's Day this weekend, here's a release from the White House about a national conversation on fatherhood. (AND: For a good Associated Press story about Obama and fatherhood, click here.) So are there examples of fathers in sacred writ that we can hold up as models? Like Adam, one of whose sons killed his brother? Like David, who impregnated the wife of one of his soldiers? Well, OK, not them, maybe. But who? For Some answers from my book-writing colleague, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and other religious leaders in the Kansas City area, read Helen Gray's piece in Saturday's Faith section of The Kansas City Star. AND: For an interesting piece about the importance of fatherhood from an Australian perspective, click here.

Congregations big and little: 6-19-09

What would you guess is the average size of the religious congregations in the United States?


Would it shock you to know that it's only about 75?

That's the conclusion of the latest version of the National Congregations Study. At the same time, the average person attending worship is one of about 400 regular participants of that congregation.

This, as the study authors note, may seem contradictory but it isn't. It just means that most congregations are small (90 percent have 350 or fewer members) but most people participate in large congregations -- so many of them, in fact, that their numbers account for most religious adherents in the country.

Here are some of the other primary findings of the latest survey:

Most congregations are small but most people are in large congregations.

Worship services are becoming more informal.

* Congregational leaders are still overwhelmingly male.

* Predominantly white congregations are more ethnically diverse.

* Congregations embrace technology.

* Congregations and clergy are getting older.

* Congregations’ position in the social class structure remains unchanged.

* Congregations’ involvement in social service activities remains unchanged.

* Only a small minority of congregations describe themselves as theologically “liberal,” even within the Protestant mainline.

* Congregations are more tolerant and inclusive than we might expect them to be, even when it comes to hot-button issues.

* There has been no significant increase in congregational conflict since 1998.

* Congregations’ involvement in political activities is largely unchanged since 1998.

How do these findings jibe with your own experiences? I worship in a congregation of just under 1,000 members, though as my denomination reports, "Presbyterian churches tend to be small. About seven out of ten (72 percent) of congregations have 200 or fewer members. The average, or mean, size of a Presbyterian church is 204 members. The median size is 103. More than three-fourths have 250 or fewer members. Almost half (49%) have 100 or fewer."

(The photo here today is from, with photography by

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In Iran, this analysis concludes, the future may be up to the Islamic clerics, most of whom have remained silent since the recent and probably fraudulent president election. If they line up behind the opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they could carry the day for reformers who back the idea that elections should reflect the will of the voters. Let's hope they step up to the plate. AND: By the way, an interview to be aired this weekend on "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" on PBS has to do with religion in Iran and is already available online. Click here for it.