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The politics of hunger: 10-19-10

Let's take a short survey.


Raise you hand if you've ever contributed food for charity. That is, you've given a few cans of soup to a food pantry, perhaps through your church. Or you've sent a check to Harvesters. Or maybe you've actually worked in a soup kitchen.

Hmmm. Looks like most of you. Good.

Now raise your hand if you've ever contacted an elected official about such programs as food stamps, school lunches or various kinds of food aid to people in this country or abroad.

Just as I thought. Hardly a hand has gone up.

This is exactly the point of the new book by David Beckmann, a Lutheran clergyman who just last week was presented with the 2010 World Food Prize. Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, has written Exodus from Hunger: We Are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger, which is about to be released. And it's a must read for people of faith. Indeed, for all people who care about other people.

Beckmann's point is that hunger is a systemic problem that needs systemic solutions. And such solutions are both known and possible. Beyond that, evidence suggests they work. So, in the end, this is a book of hope.

He's not suggesting that we quit donating cans of beans to food drives. That's necessary, too. But it's time that people of faith take the time to understand the dynamics of hunger around the world and to begin to advocate for solutions that can address those dynamics.

I can see Beckmann's new book being used by study groups in congregations as a way to start to direct their concerns about hunger in a more productive direction.

For a brief interview done with Beckmann just before he received the World Food Prize last week, click here.

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Is Stephen Colbert serious? Well, about his Catholic faith, yes. As this Washington Post piece makes clear, he's preaching the gospel in a postmodern way. And that includes making fun of religion and, indeed, his own faith tradition.

Settling the Ground Zero matter: 10-18-10

I will be brief today because I want to invite you to spend a bit of time reading this excellent piece in The Forward about the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York.


As you may know, I'm a member of a 9/11 family and I favor locating this community center near Ground Zero. To read the mid-August blog posting in which I described my reasons, click here.

The author of the piece to which I've linked you in the first paragraph here is Michael Berenbaum (pictured here), a writer, lecturer, rabbi and teacher. He served as project director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, essentially helping to create that marvelous institution.

Berenbaum makes two basic points in this piece: First, that locating the Islamic center near Ground Zero will have no effect at all on tourists who come to Ground Zero to pay their respects and learn about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Second, he argues -- persuasively -- that the idea of moving the proposed Islamic center away from Ground Zero has a precedent in movement of a Catholic convent proposed near Auschwitz is "distorted at best."

It's time to get beyond all this anti-Islam prejudice and find ways to live together as Americans in religious respect and harmony. Berenbaum has it right.

(By the way, a recent Ohio State University study found that people who believed false rumors about the proposed center near Ground Zero are more likely to oppose construction of a mosque in their own neighborhood. Why is that not surprising?)

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All the surveys show that the number of people who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated is growing. But they're not all atheists. Indeed, as this interesting report suggests, lots of people in this category are Christians who simply became fed up with the ways in which some branches of the church have become proponents of conservative politics. Sounds like a mission field for Mainliners.

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P.S.: At this year's annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Ritual Dinner in Kansas City, the Rev. Vern Barnet will be given the inaugural Vern Barnet Interfaith Service Award. Kansas City's goal is to be the most welcoming community to people of all faiths, and we'd be much farther from achieving that without the work Vern has done here for decades. For advance tickets, click here.

Ritual we can't do without: 10-16/17-10

At 3:30 p.m. this Sunday, the Rev. Paul T. Rock, the newly called pastor/head of staff of my church, Second Presbyterian (pictured here), will be formally installed by Heartland Presbytery.


You may wonder why anyone beyond my own congregation or Paul's family would care. It's a fair question to which I will attempt at least a partial answer.

And the answer has to do with ritual. Although I didn't much think so when I was a lot younger and, I thought, wiser than I am today, it turns out that ritual is an extraordinarily important part of what makes us human.

Yes, there are meaningless rituals, repeated endlessly merely for the sake of repetition, rituals out of which most of the meaning has been drained. Sometimes I think that singing the National Anthem before every Major League baseball game is such a ritual. Other times I disagree with that assessment.

But beyond empty rituals, there are rich and deeply meaningful ceremonies that help us put what's happening in a larger and more important context -- a context of both history and the future.

For instance, young couples go through the ritual of a marriage ceremony even though technically, I suppose, they could just get a marriage license and ask a justice of the peace to declare them lawfully married.

But it's the connection to past marriages in their family and to the possibility of future marriages of their children, if they have them, that help to make the ritual of a wedding ceremony profound.

The ritual for installing a new pastor in a Presbyterian church is outlined in the PCUSA's Book of Order, one of two volumes that make up the constitution of the church. The description of how to do an installation service takes up two pages. "Installation," it says, "is an act of the presbytery establishing the pastoral relationship." (A presbytery is a regional governing body in my denomination.)

What makes this ritual worth doing is not only that it will officially mark a new beginning for my congregation but that this new beginning will be set in the context of the history of our church. Second Presbyterian was started in 1865 by 10 people who stood against slavery and who, thus, broke away from old First Presbyterian (which no longer exists). Over the years we've been led by a series of pastors with help of various associate pastors, and by installing a new pastor on Sunday we're acknowledging that history and reminding ourselves that the story of this church began before any of us was around and, we hope, will continue long after we're gone. But that depends, in large part, on how well we respond today to the call to do ministry to a wounded world.

That's why we don't just phone it in, why we take the time to remember who and Whose we are and to think about how that will look different now under new leadership. My task at the installation will be to give the "charge" to the new pastor. Someone else will give a "charge" to the congregation.

We can no more do without this kind of ritual than the miners emerging from beneath the scarred land of Chile in recent days could do without hugging people who met them at the surface. That, too, was ritual -- crucial to acknowledging our common humanity.

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A rumor that a prudish Vatican has banned the wife of the French president from visiting the Vatican is all over the Internet, but apparently not true, this report says. Well, knock me down. Can you imagine something you read on the Internet being false? What next?

Ministering to older adults: 10-15-10

Earlier this week the folks who run the Shepherd's Center of Kansas City, called the Central Shepherd's Center (there are several Shepherds Centers in the KC area), asked me to sit down with them over lunch and help them think about how to let area clergy know more about what the center offers so they can tell their older adult congregants.


As we talked, I realized that even though I have spoken a number of times to the "Adventures in Learning" program the center offers, I wasn't fully aware of everything the center is doing to help make the lives of seniors more fulfilling.

The primary founder of the Shepherd's Center was the late Elbert Cole, who served for many years as pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Kansas City, next to which the Shepherd's Center has it headquarters. From its founding in 1972 to now, the Shepherd's Center idea has gone national, though in each location it takes on different forms.

I hope you'll surf around on the Shepherd's Center Web site to which I linked you in the first paragraph above and see if there are programs that might interest either you or people you know. I don't want to take up space here talking about each of the programs, but I might advise you to check out "KC Caregiver" and especially the support line it offers.

Because people are living longer than ever nowadays, some of the burden of caring for older adults often falls on their adult children, who become, bit by bit, their caregivers. This can be both joyful and terribly difficult -- sometimes on the same day. The KC Caregiver program seeks to support caregivers in all kinds of ways. It's a wonderfully valuable program and one that more people should know about.

So if your faith community (or even just your neighborhood) doesn't know about KC Caregiver, spread the word. And, while you're at it, look at what else the Shepherd's Center has to offer -- even for folks as young as 50.

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A federal judge in Texas has ruled that it's OK to keep "under God" in that state's pledge of allegiance. One reason to keep it there, apparently, is that it's in the national pledge. Yeah, well, you may remember your mother asking you if you'd jump off a cliff just because everyone else did. Isn't that sort of the reasoning here? Isn't the broader question whether the state has any business either promoting or discouraging a belief in God?  

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P.S.: Do you know about Imago Dei, a KC-area organization that calls itself "Friends of Christianity & the Arts"? It's a good group that has done lots of good programming in recent years. If you don't know about it, surf around a bit on the Web site to which I've linked you above. But I also wanted you to know that the group's annual art auction will be helpd Oct. 29 at the Granada Theatre in Kansas City, Kansas. The link I've given you in the previous sentence should tell what you need to know about the event, including images of some of the work that will be for sale. If you want to go, you can get more information by sending an e-mail to

A Tony Curtis lesson: 10-14-10

I love stories about people who discover or rediscover a faith tradition and who then honor that tradition by their actions.


I especially love these stories when the people in question turn out to be people of whom I've been aware, even if I was unaware of their connection to any religion.

Take, for example, Tony Curtis, the actor (pictured here) who died recently. Heck, I've known about Tony most of my life, and although I'm no follower of celebrity news, I was aware of his considerable talent and that his daughter was (and is) the actress Jamie Leigh Curtis.

What I either did not know or had forgotten was that Tony came from Hungarian Jewish heritage. More, he developed a passion later in life for preservation of that heritage. This account from The Jewish Week tells that story.

One of the things Curtis was seeking to preserve was the memory of Jewish life in Hungary, and if you know anything about Judaism you know how crucial even the idea of memory is to that tradition. Indeed, you can tell that simply by reading the Hebrew Scriptures, which over and over and over again tell the story of, for instance, the Exodus from Egypt. To know who we are we must remember from whence we came.

So a fond farewell to Tony Curtis, and may we learn from him the importance of remembering and respecting our religious and ethnic heritages -- not because either is our God but because in some way those heritages can teach us about God.

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The rescue of the miners from the disaster in Chile has brought with it stories of their religious faith and the hope that it gave them. Just before the first miner was brought up late Monday night, CNN filed this analysis of some of that. The 2002 Census of the population of Chile showed this breakdown: Roman Catholic 70%, Evangelical 15.1%, Jehovah's Witness 1.1%, other Christian 1%, other 4.6%, none 8.3%. You can find those figures in the CIA's World Factbook. My guess is that as this story gets told in yet-to-come interviews, books, magazines and broadcast pieces in the months ahead, the faith of the miners will turn out to have played an important role.

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P.S.: The Rev. Rebecca Turner (pictured here), executive director of Faith Aloud, is going to be giving several presentations in the KC area starting Oct. 29. Faith Aloud advocates for women to know about and to have available to them all pregnancy options, including abortion. She'll speak at noon on Friday, Oct. 29, to the Professional Club of Kansas City. On Sunday, Oct. 31, she'll be talking to the Community of Reason. And on Monday, Nov. 1, she'll make a presentation to Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. The Professional Club talk is just for members and the med school talk just for students, so both events are by invitation only. But the Community of Reason talk is open to the public. For more details, check the Community of Reason Web site to which I've linked you above.

Toward understanding Islam: 10-13-10

AfterProphet In the wake of a difficult few months of badly strained relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the U.S., to say nothing of the world, It's time for those of us who are not Muslims to devote ourselves to understanding that ancient world faith better.

Of course, it's also time for Muslims to gain a better understanding of faiths other than Islam, too.

Knowledge can drive out fear, whereas ignorance engenders fear, prejudice and even violence.

So for non-Muslims today let me recommend two books -- one hot off the press, the other a necessary reissue of a 2004 book.

The first is After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split, by Lesley Hazleton. It is one of the more fascinating and well-written books I've read this year.

In astonishing detail -- almost as if one were reading a daily newspaper from the 7th Century -- the author describes how Islam divided (today 80-some percent of Muslims are Sunni, the rest Shi'a, not counting the small mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism). The story is remarkable, sad but somehow fully human, with love, power and grudges all playing a part.

It's a brilliantly told tale that has implications not just for the history books but for what's happening today. And it helps all of us understand more clearly the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the era in which he lived.

As she writes near the end of this important book, "By now it is clear that anyone so rash as to think it possible to intervene in the Sunni-Shia split and come away unscathed is at best indulging in wishful thinking. It may be tempting to imagine that if the Bush administration had known the power of the Karbla story (Tammeus note: That story is exhaustively told earlier in the book), American troops would never have been ordered anywhere within a hundred miles of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, but that too is wishful thinking. As with Yazid in the seventh century, sow ith George Bush in the twenty-first, history is often made by the heedless."

As someone who writes about religion, I certainly was aware of the basic outline of the story told in this book, but it's the details and the way those details are spun out in this book that are breathtaking. (For instance, check page 44 for a fascinating description of how use of the veil for women came to be introduced.)


A second book I want non-Muslims to know about is by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who has proposed that controversial Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York. It's What's Right With Islam: A new Vision for Muslims and the West.

Rauf is not afraid to describe where he thinks Muslims, including Muslim scholars, have gotten Islam wrong in ways that have been disastrous for both Islam and the world. This is an honest, clear book of hope. If only all the spewers of anti-Islamic prejudice one hears on the airwaves and across the Internet would read and pay attention to what Rauf is proposing. But, as the author of the first book mentioned here today has said, that may be wishful thinking.

As I said earlier, it also is the responsibility of Muslims to gain a clearer understanding of other faiths, including Christianity and Judaism, which are, like Islam, Abrahamic traditions. There are lots of books they might read to begin this process, but perhaps the one to start with is Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.

It is an excellent primer on religion and can serve as an introduction for Muslims to faiths other than Islam. After that, check out the "For Further Reading" section in the back of Prothero's book for guides on several religions.

Friends, as we learn about religious traditions beyond our own, we'll probably find that this renews our commitment to our own faith. And as that happens, we can view the faith commitments of others not with hatred and suspicion but with respect, no matter how much we disagree with them. That's how we will learn to live in religious harmony in this increasingly pluralistic society.

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I'm always intrigued by efforts to translate sacred writings into new languages. And now comes this story of a man who spent 17 years translating the Bible into Vietnamese. I wondered if this had been done before by someone else. So I checked with the Wycliffe Bible Translators, but a spokesman there couldn't tell me, and the Web sites he gave me to check turned up nothing. But a quick Google search turned up this Vietnamese online version. Now, there are dozens and dozens of different English translations of the Bible, so why not more than one Vietnamese version -- even if it took one man 17 years to do it?

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P.S.: Don't forget to make plans to come to the 7 p.m. KC Festival of Faiths keynote address this Tuesday at Village Presbyterian Church. Author Bruce Feiler will be speaking and I'll moderate a Q&A with Bruce afterward.

Starting with the youth: 10-12-10

I have argued here and elsewhere for years that if the call of the 20th Century for Americans was to get racial harmony right, the call of the 21st Century is to get religious harmony right.


That means finding ways of engaging in useful, appreciative, honest and long-lasting interfaith dialogue, which should lead to interfaith action on issues where common ground can be found.

That's why I'm encouraged by the formation here of the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance. And it's why -- 10 years after it formed -- I was delighted to find out recently about something called Face to Face/Faith to Faith operated under the auspices of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York.

I'm not sure why I haven't previously heard of this program. Indeed, I might not have heard about it now had not I received a note pointing out that there's a Nov. 15 benefit being planned at which Mark Hostetter, who serves with my wife on the national board of Ghost Ranch will be honored, along with others.

As you can read on the Face to Face/Faith to Faith Web site, the program brings together Christians, Jews and Muslims from four different areas of the world to learn from each other and two accomplish these two goals:

"1. To challenge participants to safely engage conflict and explore identity in an ongoing process of building mutual understanding, trust and empathy; and

"2. To nurture faith-informed leaders with tools to build a more just and peaceful world "

We need some of that, right?

Well, have a look at the program's Web site and decide whether you know some young people who might benefit from such a program and whether the program might benefit from your own support of it. And if you're in the KC area, get connected with the Interfaith Youth Alliance and see what you can do to help and support that worthwhile effort.

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Pope Benedict XVI made some impromptu remarks yesterday in which he denounced "terroristic ideologies" that result in violence. He's exactly right. I haven't seen the full text of what he said, but such words are more powerful if they also acknowledge that one's own religion has been guilty of this sin at various times in its history.

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About You: Fully Human, Fully Alive, by Dick Staub. The author, a broadcaster, writer and speaker, is on target with his main premise, which is, as he writes, "Jesus didn't come to make us Christian; Jesus came to make us fully human." Of course, one reason he's right is that Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jew, and there was, in fact, no Christianity for decades after his death and resurrection, only what might be called a Jesus Movement within Judaism. This kind of thinking leads Staub to call Paul an "early Christian convert," when in fact, there was no Christianity to convert to and, in fact, Paul always understood himself to be a Jew. But the more important point is that among the things Christians say Jesus came to do was to show us how to live more abundantly. Staub maintains that we mess that up, and he's right. We engage in all kinds of behavior that limits us, preventing us from living the fully joyful lives that God has in mind for us. So Staub outlines ways in which we can reverse that trend. As I say, the ideas in this book are good. The goals are good. And many of the insights are helpful. But something about the book didn't excite me. I found it a bit repetitious and I found it sometimes stating the obvious as if it were fresh news. But if you are tired of an unfulfilling life and don't quite know how to hit your reset button, perhaps this book can give you some helpful ideas.

Onward toward civility: 10-11-10

In recent months I've been giving speeches about the lack of civility in America's public discourse and what we might do to change that.


To help me with that, I've been drawing on the wisdom found in four different books, the oldest being The Political Meaning of Christianity, by Glenn Tinder. More recent books I'm using are The Case for Civility, by Os Guinness, In Defense of Civility, by James Calvin Davis, and You Don't Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right, by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield.

One of my main points is that civility is not just being nice or polite. It's listening to others with respect, even when we disagree profoundly. Another is that the true basis for civility is found in the idea (well fleshed out in Tinder's book) that each individual is of inestimable worth because each is a creation of God. Therefore we should treat each other as if we all were exalted, priceless individuals.

Well, I now have a new book (oh, OK, a revised and expanded 1992 book but new to me) to help me understand civility. It's Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, by Richard J. Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Yes, it's clearly written from a Christian perspective (Mouw identifies himself with the evangelical branch of the faith), but its message is broader than that. Indeed, his words can help people of other faiths know better how to engage Christians in interfaith dialogue.

Mouw seems to go out of his way to address the concerns of people who, he thinks, might be offended by the idea of holding civil conversations with people of faiths other than Christianity. He correctly notes that such dialogue often is a way of strengthening one's hold on one's own faith. And besides, there are things people of each faith can learn from people of other faiths, even if we reject many of the truth claims of those other faiths.

I hope Mouw's book is widely read, especially by Christians whose tendency is to demonize other religions and their adherents. He walks readers through many reasons why that tendency is counterproductive and why, instead, all of us need to act with civility toward all.

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As those miners in Chili are close to getting out of where they've trapped, let's remember why we bother to rescue people in such trouble. It's because religion teaches us that each person is of inestimable worth, as I wrote above. It's because each person carries within him or her the image of God. It's because God loves each person, and so should we. Otherwise, on the grand scale of nearly 7 billion people in the world, why worry about just 33 common laborers? But if we cast them away as expendable, we're saying that none of us is worth much.

Religion's affair with politics: 10-9/10-10

A couple of years ago, when Jeff Sharlet published his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, I thought it was important enough that it deserved a separate column in The Kansas City Star.


I told readers that that "it's not possible to comprehend the entanglement of religion and politics in our country without reading The Family. In it, Sharlet fleshes out a story he told in 2003 in Harper's magazine about the intensively private organization that has gone by several names, including the Fellowship, the Family, International Christian Leadership, Inc., and. . .The Fellowship Foundation."

Sharlet now has followed The Family with his new book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. It, too, is a must read if you are to have any hope of grasping some of the major behind-the-scenes religious powerbrokers who are helping to set the national agenda.

"C Street" is a reference to the dwelling on Capitol Hill operated by The Family at 133 C Street, S.E. It's registered as a church for tax purposes, as Sharlet notes, and it's where members of Congress and other big wigs live. C Street is connected to three recent major sex scandals involving politicians tied to The Family -- those of Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), Gov. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, and former Rep. Chip Pickering, a Mississippi Republican. The Family, writes Sharlet, helped each man cover up his extramarital affair.

Sharlet begins with those sordid affairs and what they say about the religious personalities who tried to hide them, but he moves from there into broader questions of how The Family and its members and friends try to influence public policy, including military matters.

This is both a necessary and distressing followup to Sharlet's earlier book and it should be required reading for all voters before these midterm elections. It is not an anti-Republican or anti-conservative screed. Not at all. Rather, it shines the light of facts on people who would use religion to take control of our nation as a way of furthering their own narrow theological vision.

Sharlet sometimes says things in overly provocative ways when the simple truth is provocative enough, but he nonetheless tells all of us things we need to know.

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A three-night PBS series, "God in America," starts airing this Monday evening. It sounds like it's worth seeing, though given other commitments I don't know how much of it I'll get to see. But I'll be interested in your reaction. E-mail me at and tell me what you think of the show. I always worry a bit about the secular media (like me) dealing with religion because it often comes off too simplistic.

What the Phelps case requires: 10-8-10

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments in the case of the Fred Phelps gang picketing a military funeral, two questions remain:


1. How will the court rule? My answer: The court should rule in favor of free speech, despite the fact that the Phelps clan and its tactics disgust every civilized person. Religious scholar Stephen Prothero agrees with me. As does the author of this excellent commentary, written from the courtroom on the day the case was heard.

2. What about the underlying issue of Phelps' twisted theology? My answer: Faith communities everywhere, but especially Christians, have an obligation to reject the outrageously homophobic, hate-your-neighbor message that comes from Phelps' ridiculous Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. (Warning: Enter the church site with caution. It, too, will disturb and disgust you.)

As for question No. 1, let me reiterate that I detest Phelps (pictured here) and everything he stands for. He has picketed me personally several times and has even accused me of causing the death of my nephew who perished as a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. How did I do that? Phelps says my nephew's death was punishment for my advocating equal civil rights for gays and lesbians. That's how malevolent and depraved this man and his followers are. Nonetheless, as I've written before, if we begin to undo our freedom of expression, we put the nation on a slippery slope toward tyranny. We must allow Phelps to spew his venom even if it makes us retch. Otherwise what is to prevent a court some day from ruling that I am not free to call Phelps malevolent and depraved?

As for question 2, many churches do well at this, but many continue to preach the message that gays and lesbians are subhuman and deserve neither respect nor equal civil rights. It is an abominable message derived from a long misreading of scripture. For details, I refer you to my essay on what the Bible really says about homosexuality. You can find it under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. This anti-gay garbage reaches its logical conclusion when people such as Bishop Eddie Long, now in the midst of his own gay-sex scandal, denounce gays and say they "deserve death." The good news, as evidenced in a recent Pew Forum survey, is that support for same-sex marriage (an indication of how people generally view gays and lesbians) is growing.

The task of faith communities everywhere is to stand against the hatred spewing from the mouths of Phelps, Long and others and to work toward a society in which everyone is treated equally under the law and no one is considered somehow subhuman -- a category, by the way, in which the Nazis put Jews.

So I ask you what your faith community, if you have one, is doing about this. And if the answer is nothing (or worse), it's your job to help fix that -- no matter how the court eventually rules in this case.

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I liked columnist Ross Douthat's take on the recent Pew Forum survey showing how ignorant many Americans are about religion. I wrote about that poll the day it came out recently.