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Sources of Pope Francis' thinking: 7-31-14

One way to begin to understand Pope Francis and what motivates him is to understand a bit about his religious order, the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits.

IgnatiusLoyolaAnd this is an excellent day on which to contemplate the Jesuits, for it was on this date in 1556 that the founder of that order, Ignatius of Loyola (depicted here), died.

Ignatius was a Spanish reformer who was born in 1491, the year before Columbus set sail for what turned out to be the New World. The same year of 1492 is also when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella formally ordered Jews in Spain to convert to Christianity or leave.

As you read about Ignatius and the Jesuits at the links I've given you above, keep in mind that the life of Ignatius overlapped the life of Martin Luther and that by being known as a Catholic reformer, Ignatius naturally is often contrasted and compared with Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation.

Was all of the reform work that Ignatius and other Catholics were doing in direct response to the Protestant Reformation? No. It turns out there was, in fact, a reform impulse in the Catholic Church that predated Luther. What became known at first as the Counter-Reformation was seen as a response to the Protestant Reformation, but later it came more often to be referred to as the Catholic Reformation because some of the changes being suggested and implemented had little or nothing to do with Protestant complaints against the Catholic Church.

Pay attention, too, to the Jesuits' vows of poverty and chastity, to say nothing of obedience. There you will find some important clues as to what drives Francis, the first Jesuit pope. In this era of celebrities we often separate famous people from their formative influences and imagine that they are whole creates unconnected to anything but their celebrity. That would be a big mistake if you're trying to grasp who Francis is.

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SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is marking 25 years of working to be advocates for victims of abuse, and, as Religion News Service reports, is expanding its work beyond the Catholic Church. SNAP and its leaders have some great accomplishments though at times it has seemed they have been a little more provocative than necessary. And yet had the church hierarchy responded to this crisis in a timely and honest way that reflected core Christian values SNAP would be an unnecessary organization. So far, sadly, it's far from unnecessary. 

The same-sex ship has sailed: 7-30-14

As I've noted before, the movement in the U.S. away from condemnation of homosexuality to an attitude of inclusion and acceptance has picked up remarkable speed in recent years.

HomosexualityAlready 19 states now have freedom-to-marry laws for gays and lesbians and other states are joining the parade regularly, sometimes through court decisions that knock down a constitutional ban on such unions.

Within American Christianity, some branches have been leaders in this liberation movement (as they should have been) while others are slow followers and still others continue to stand in the schoolhouse door and say no.

But even the latter group is under increasing pressure to change -- pressure that is rooted in the idea that a biblical interpretation that says homosexuality is sinful is a sorrowful misreading of scripture. For my own essay on that subject, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

Now the Atlantic has done this engaging story about how evangelical Christian colleges are slowly and often painfully moving toward acceptance and inclusion of gays and lesbians.

"Over the past five years," the piece reports, "an underground movement has been burgeoning on evangelical Christian campuses. Although many of these colleges explicitly ban 'homosexual behavior,' they are now home to dozens of LGBT-friendly student groups."

This is how change happens. Slowly at first, then more rapidly as people realize that conventional wisdom is simply wrong and has been for a long time. It's what happened when churches in the 19th century slowly abandoned their support of slavery and when churches in the 20th century began to allow ordination of women. And the pace of change in the matter of homosexuality picks up when people meet real gays and lesbians and get to know them on a personal level.

I suspect that for a long time to come there will be people of faith -- Christians, Jews, Muslims and maybe others -- who sincerely believe God condemns homosexual orientation. But they will be fewer and fewer and eventually find themselves on the radical fringe. Whether they choose to stay there at that point will, of course, be up to them and their ability to acknowledge that they may have been wrong.

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The U.S. State Department's list of countries that have the worst record of religious persecution just grew from eight to nine with the addition of Turkmenistan. I'm glad that State and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom continue to produce these annual lists, but I wish the result were more progress than we're seeing.

The religious roots of WWI: 7-29-14


The National World War I Museum in Kansas City is fabulous. It's well designed, impressively filled with artifacts from the period and endlessly engaging. The "but" is coming, so hold on.

Two of my wife's brothers and their wives from Vermont visited us last week and the museum was one of our stops. (This photo of downtown Kansas City is one I took from the top of the Liberty Memorial tower there on a gorgeous day.)

As I walked through the museum, I was looking for evidence that the curators are paying attention to what historian Philip Jenkins has highlighted in his new (April 2014) book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. I have read a fair amount about the book, though I haven't yet read the book itself. But I know of Jenkins' impressive reputation from some of his previous books, including The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. So I'm comfortable suggesting that what Jenkins' has written about WWI is well worth considering.

At the museum, however, I found precious little to suggest that religion had anything to do with World War I.

WW1-crossOh, one sign had a note about military conscription at the time and said some believed that system helped to bridge gaps between "rich and poor" as well as "Catholics and Protestants." And I found at least one religious symbol (pictured here) -- a Christian cross that was a temporary grave marker for a soldier killed in 1917.

But the casual visitor to the museum would be hard pressed to find much evidence that Jenkins' theory is right that, in the end, WWI was very much a religious conflict.

As one reviewer of Jenkins' book has noted, the author finds "religious rhetoric in the mouths of countless combatants on both sides of the Great War. In Germany, Russia, Britain, America, and the Ottoman Empire" such rhetoric helped to drive people toward extravagant enthusiasm for the war.

I'm among the many people who had never thought that WWI had much to do with religion. But I suspect Jenkins is on to something. Indeed, there's hardly a historical event of any kind that doesn't have some thread of religion running through it. So I think the curators of the excellent museum in Kansas City would do well to think about ways to take Jenkins' work and theories into account as they tell the story of the horrific war that began just 100 years ago.

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Wedding ceremonies in Catholic churches are in precipitous decline, it's reported. Hmmm. Wonder if people think of that tactic as a way to avoid divorce and all that can mean in Catholicism.

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P.S.: My National Catholic Reporter article about the 40th anniversary of the "irregular" ordinations of the first female Episcopal priests now is online here.

Timeless survival stories: 7-28-14

A week from tomorrow evening Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I (pictured herewill speak at the Detroit area Holocaust center about our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

Cukierkorn-tammeusMy friend David Crumm, former religion writer for the Detroit Free Press and now editor of, asked me to write a piece for RTS explaining why, almost five years after the book's publication, we're still out speaking about it.

It's a reasonable question. So I wrote a piece that is to appear on the RTS site today. But you can read it right here:

In 2004, when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I began work on They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, we knew that in some ways the book would be timeless.

It has proved to be exactly that from the time the University of Missouri Press published it in late 2009. Why? Because unlike books about, say, theological trends or how Pope Francis is affecting the Catholic Church, our book contains stories of what individuals went through to survive the Holocaust, and what each person went through is by now as complete a story as any can be.

The book, in essence, shines a light on a small part of the whole bitter Holocaust experience and, in doing that, seeks to honor both those who survived and those who helped them avoid Hitler’s machinery of murder.

So Jacques and I continue to give talks about the book, and we suspect we will do that for years to come.

One of our talks will happen the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 5, at the Holocaust Memorial Center in suburban Detroit. And we will dedicate that evening to Zygie Allweiss and his family. Zygie is a Detroit area resident who survived with his brother Sol, now deceased, thanks to help from the Dudzik family, who provided places for the boys to hide on their Polish farm.

Eventually Zygie and Sol came to Detroit and ran service stations there for years.

We are at or near the final years of life for the last of the Holocaust survivors, even many of those who were just children at the time. Indeed, Zygie has had several health issues since I last visited him in 2011, when I came to Detroit for a conference. And several of the 20-some survivors whose stories we tell in our book have died since the book was published. So it was important that we started when we did to spend several years on research, interviewing (in the U.S. and in Poland) and writing. Had we waited much longer some of the stories would have been lost.

It is both an honor and a burden to have become in some ways the voice of the Holocaust survivors in our book — and others as the people in our book in turn represent many other survivors who made it through because of people whom Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority, names as “Righteous Among the Nations,” or, more informally, righteous gentiles.

If the post-Holocaust phrase “never again” is to have meaning, we must not forget the reality of the German regime’s plan to destroy Europe’s nine million Jews (more than three million of whom lived in Poland at the outbreak of World War II). Hitler’s “Final Solution” resulted in six million Jewish deaths, many of them in the six extermination camps that the Germans built in Poland.

And so it falls to people like Jacques and me, who are by trade simply story tellers — me as a journalist, Jacques as a rabbi who tells sacred stories — to make sure the world remembers.

And this is not simply an act of nostalgia. As Alvin H. Rosenfeld, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, notes in his 2013 book, Resurgent Antisemitism, hatred of Jews around the globe is dangerously on the rise again for many reasons.

Anti-Judaism (a theological position) and modern antisemitism (more a racial stance full of character stereotyping) are old phenomenon. In fact, David Nirenberg, in his 2013 book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, traces this bigotry back to ancient Egypt.

In our book, we tell stories of people who for many reasons — a few of them seemingly irrational — stood against that deep tradition of antisemitism and anti-Judaism and risked their lives to save Jews in Poland.

There is, of course, no silver lining to the Holocaust, which at base is a story of death and death and death. But here and there people who found themselves in the midst of it spoke life and life and life into the face of that death. And part of Jacques’ and my responsibility today is to tell the story of such brave people and of the difference they made in the lives not just of individual Jews but also the history of flawed (but sometimes glorious) humanity.

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Pope Francis detoured from his script Sunday to issue a stirring appeal for peace in the Middle East even while noting the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. "Please stop," he said. "I ask you with all my heart, it's time to stop. Stop, please." Ah, if only it were that simple.

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P.S.: My National Catholic Reporter article about the 40th anniversary of the "irregular" ordinations of the first female Episcopal priests now is online here.

There's God now, up there: 7-26/27-14


Because people have so many ideas about God (indeed, one pollster suggests that Americans believe in more than 300 million different gods), we now and then get weird stories about the encounters people have with what they think might have been God.

Earlier this year, for instance, I wrote here about people who see Jesus on French toast or on grilled cheese sandwiches.

(The best I've ever done in this regard is to have imagined that I saw Judge Robert Bork on a water tower. But it turned out to be Zeus.)

Now comes this story of a man in England who shot a photo (indeed, a series of photos) of clouds while wandering along an estuary between Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The photo, as you can see, seems to show a picture of a bearded man.


Well, that would fit the old stereotype of God. But the photographer wasn't so sure. He's not a religious man, so he said, "The obvious comment is that it looks like God but it could also be Sean Connery or Karl Marx."

Somehow it seems impossible for human beings to imagine God outside of human categories. Which is to say that we anthropomorphize God. We turn God into us. Which, ironically, is what Christianity says God did to himself as Jesus of Nazareth. So maybe we aren't so crazy after all. Maybe.

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New York Times reporter Kim Severson was in a McDonald's in Gaffney, S.C., the other day and found something faith-based on the wall that may or may not surprise you. Have a look here.

Break time for a laugh: 7-25-14

It's been far too long since we took a bit of time out for alleged humor of the faith-based sort here. So today, on the anniversary of the 1968 publication of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which I didn't find one bit funny (and which a majority of American Catholics pretty much rejected or ignored), we're going to do that.

LaughfaceA reminder that I don't make up these jokes. If you don't think they're funny, send me better ones.

* Three men are traveling on a ship when they are accosted by the devil. The devil proposes that if each man drops something into the sea and he cannot find it, he will be that man's slave. If the devil does find it, however, he will eat that man up. The first man drops a pure, clear diamond, and immediately gets eaten. The second drops an expensive watch, trying to impress the devil, and gets eaten. The third man fills a bottle with water and pours it into the sea yelling, "You think I'm a fool? Try finding that!"

* A bus full of ugly people had a head-on collision with a truck. When they died, God granted all of them one wish. The first person said, "I want to be gorgeous." God snapped his fingers and it happened. The second person said the same thing and God did the same thing. This want on and on throughout the group. God noticed the last man in line was laughing hysterically. By the time God got to the last ten people, the last man was laughing and rolling on the ground. When the man's turn came he laughed and said, "I wish they were all ugly again."

A little boy wants a bike for Christmas really badly, but the kid is a real bad seed, and he knows it. He writes a letter to Jesus. "Dear Jesus, if I get a bike for Christmas, I'll be good for a whole week." He thinks about it, crosses out what he wrote, and says, "I can't be good for a whole week, I'll be good for five days." He crosses that out and writes, "I'll be good for four days." Then he thinks again and says, "Can't do that." He gets down to one day and says, "I can't even be good for a day." Then in frustration, HE goes into his mother's room and gets the statue of the Virgin Mary, wraps it up in a blanket, puts it in a paper bag, throws it in the closet and says, "Dear Jesus, if I don't get a bike for Christmas, you'll never see your mother again!"

Three nuns walk into a bar, the fourth one ducks.

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The Washington National Cathedral, which I visited recently and wrote about here, has created a special liturgy of atonement to mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. That war began perhaps the bloodiest century in the history of humanity. Think about that, those of you who think things just get better and better.

England's eventual female bishops: 7-24-14

While I was off in New England recently, Old England was making a bit of news. The Church of (Old) England decided, finally, that it would permit women to become bishops.

Church-of-EnglandThe English don't get everything right and what they do get right it sometimes takes them a long, long time to accomplish.

But finally in 2014 -- 40 years after the American expression of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church, ordained its first women priests -- female priests in England were poised to break through the stained-glass ceiling.

(By the way, I have written about those 1974 renegade ordinations of 11 Episcopal women in Philadelphia in a cover piece in the July 18-31 print edition of The National Catholic Reporter, though I don't yet know when the piece will be posted at NCR's online site, where you can find my regular NCR columns here.)

At any rate, it's taken me a bit of time to catch up with the British female news, and I'm glad I waited. It allows me to give you this link to a delicious piece about it in The New York Times by an English woman.

I loved the sentence in which she said that ". . .in Yorkshire for a thousand years we had formidable female saints who could eat any number of male bishops for breakfast. . ."

Well, the Church of England has fallen on hard times. A state-established institution, it has become pretty moribund. Perhaps some of the current wanna-be female saints who could eat male bishops for breakfast can stir a bit of life back into the old thing. We'll see.

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For people who erroneously say that Muslims never speak out about terrorism and other outrages done in the name of Islam, here's another example of why you're wrong: The top cleric in Turkey is blasting the fools who declared establishment of the caliphate recently and saying threatening Christians with death is a threat to civilization.

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P.S.: The e-version of my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, isn't free, but almost on Amazon.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.

The anti-Judaism tradition: 7-23-14

I rarely write reviews of books or make critical comments about them until I've either finished reading them or decided that they're not worth finishing.

Anti-judaism(I hope none of you makes the latter decision about any of my books. If you do, don't tell me.)

But I'm going to break with that tradition a bit today to suggest to you that David Nirenberg's book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, which I'm about one-third of the way through in a Kindle edition, is not just an important addition to the literature about Jews and their relationship to the rest of the world but is, in some ways, essential reading for people who want at least to begin to understand what author Robert Michael, in the title of his book, calls Holy Hatred.

Nirenberg traces the long, sad, lamentable arc of anti-Judaism all the way back to Egypt in the time the Bible describes as a period of slavery for the people of Israel.

This, of course, predates the kind of viscious anti-Judaism that quickly attached itself to what eventually became Christianity once it separated itself decisively from Judaism. (For my essay on anti-Judaism in Christian history, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

But the anti-Judaism fostered in ancient Egypt set the tone for what was to come and come and come and what in some ways remains today.

(Anti-Judaism, by the way, is theological in nature. From the start of the Christian era, it has meant a disgust with Jews for not accepting Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. By contrast, modern antisemitism is a product of the 1800s and has much more to do with racial stereotypes that depict Jews as money-grubbing, filthy, power-hungry, people seeking to control the world through a small cabal of secret leaders, as described in the bogus book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which still has many followers although it has been conclusively proven to be a fraud.

What I have found most intriguing so far about Nirenberg's book is not the horrid history of anti-Judaism in Christianity -- a story with which I've been pretty familiar -- but the horrid history of anti-Judaism in Islam.

I've certainly been aware that most antisemitism today erupts not from Christianity but from radical Islamists, who continue to blame Jews for existing and for wanting to be secure in the state of Israel. But what I didn't know in the kind of detail Nirenberg provides is how an anti-Jewish attitude infected Islam from the very beginning and is reflected in various passages in the Qur'an. (This is not, of course, to say that all Muslims are antisemites. Not at all. Indeed, there are many Muslims making good-faith efforts to create harmonious relations with Jews, Christians and others. But in some ways they've had to overcome an early bias against adherents of both faiths, just as Christians have had to overcome almost 2,000 years of virulent anti-Judaism preached from Christian pulpits.)

Well, I've given you enough, I hope, to interest you in the book even though, as I confess, I haven't finished it yet.

Anti-Judaism, as Nirenberg asserts, has indeed become a Western tradition -- and may even extend beyond the West. It is an attitude that shames the West, Christianity, Islam and maybe others. Some days it leaves me speechless.

(I may get back to you with more when I eventually finish the book.)

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A Southern Baptist leader says social media inevitably are involved these days in marital infidelity. Think how bad it would be if Facebook were named after some other part of the body.

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P.S.: Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I will be speaking at Detroit's Holocaust Memorial Center Aug. 5 about non-Jews who rescued Jews in Poland. If you're in the area come join us. For details, click here. Our book is They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.

Church photos 100 years apart: 7-22-14


WARREN, Vt. -- My bride's cousin Diane brought the literal motherload with her when she came for the family wedding I officiated here recently.

Luther-Place-M-CWhich is to say that Diane brought several boxes of letters, cards, newspaper clippings, postcards and other family memorabilia that her mother, now 96 and still living kickily in an assisted-living facility, had collected and protected over the years.

Diane asked Marcia and her brothers to go through the material -- much of it 100 years old or more -- and decide what they wanted for themselves or their families.

It was a pretty amazing collection that told all kinds of family stories.

There was a newspaper clipping from the early 1940s reporting the marriage of my wife's mother and father. Another newspaper clipping -- this one from 1979 -- showed my bride's grandmother receiving the very last home milk delivery from Idlenot Dairy in Springfield, Vt.

Valentine's Day cards? Oh, yes. A stack of them from the early 1900s. Apparently people were in love back then, too. Imagine that. And there was a Mother's Day card from Marcia's grandmother to her mother, Marcia's great-grandmother.

I especially liked the 1908-'09 school report card showing that Marcia's grandmother (class of 1914) had improved in the area of cleanliness.

But perhaps my favorite item in the collection was the postcard you see above. It shows Thomas Circle in Washington, D.C., and was sent April 5, 1914, from Marcia's grandmother to Marcia's great-grandmother back in Perkinsville, Vt.

What so struck me about the photo is that I stayed in a hotel on Thomas Circle just a few weeks ago when I attended the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. And while I was there I took the photo at left showing the very same Lutheran church with a statue of Martin Luther himself in front of it.

In the postcard photo, our hotel would have been on the far right. But, of course, that hotel wasn't built until quite recently.

But there on the postcard was Luther Place Memorial Church, as it's called now, 100 years ago. And there it is in my photo today. Imagine all the people who have worshiped there, been married there, baptized, buried from there. Imagine all the Sunday school kids who passed through there. Imagine all the joy, the broken hearts, the ways in which members of that church tried to minister to one another.

I'd love to hear some of those old stories. If you happen to have a connection to this church and know such stories, let me know.

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Islamist extremists in northern Iraq have told Christians there to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death. Makes you wonder why those radicals feel Islam is so weak and pitiful that it must use such violent threats to survive. Such fools continue to give Islam, an honorable faith with a long, long history, a bad name.

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P.S.: Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I will be speaking at Detroit's Holocaust Memorial Center Aug. 5 about non-Jews who rescued Jews in Poland. If you're in the area come join us. For details, click here. Our book is They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

Many models of marriage: 7-21-14

WARREN, Vt. -- In the end, what is marriage?

J-M-wedding-2014Over the centuries it has meant different things in different cultures and it certainly has come about in different ways -- from an arranged family business transaction to a political statement to a simple ceremony marking a commitment of lifelong love. And no doubt much more, as this BBC piece describes.

I'm guessing that in the long history of humanity (well, it seems long to us though in the history of the cosmos it doesn't amount to much time) today's modern model of two consenting adults falling in love and agreeing to be committed to each other over a lifetime (or divorce, whichever comes first) is pretty unusual.

All of these thoughts were rolling around in my head here recently as I officiated at the wedding of a niece of my wife and the young man Jenny fell for, Mike.

As you can see in the photo here today of them and me (a photo I didn't take) it was an outdoor wedding. In fact, to get to this plateau halfway up a mountain at the Sugarbush Resort in Vermont, we had to use the ski lifts.

It was such a spectacular site that I ad libbed a bit at the beginning of the ceremony and asked people just to stop a minute and look at the beauty, which is its own excuse for being.

In some ways marriage itself is its own excuse for being, in the sense that there is a natural drive in people to survive and reproduce (and seek companionship) and that requires some pairing up.

What modern marriage is not, I have pretty much concluded, is a God-ordained man-woman-only arrangement. If, in fact, God had ordained such an institution, why was what we'd called bigamy today protected by Mosaic law? And why have many cultures (including among Christians and Jews) established marriage in so many different ways over the centuries? Does God have that much trouble being clear about the rules?

Well, it was a gorgeous day for a wedding here at Sugarbush and Jenny and Mike made a gorgeous couple. We had music and readings and vows and rings and prayer and all the things that go into a modern marriage. What we did not have was the only model of marriage available throughout history. And it's probably helpful to remember that when it comes to human relations sometimes we make up the rules as we go along. But as we do that, let's try to be sure that those rules don't hurt or exclude people for terrible reasons.

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A new study suggests that gay people who affiliate with gay-friendly religious congregations may do better with life that those who don't. One more reason for gay Christians to be attracted to such denominations as the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and, finally, my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA).