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Time out for a laugh (maybe): 2-5-16

Great snakes and garters. It's been way too long here since we took a humor break.

LaughingSo today you get a few religious jokes from various non-original sources. You're welcome to dream up funnier ones than these and send them to me, though, in the end, I'll be the judge of how funny I think they are.

OK, let's go:

* A Hindu devotee asked God, represented by the multi-armed Lord Narayana, this question. "My dear Lord," he said. "I understand that you have innumerable inconceivable potencies. But out of all of them the energy of light seems to be the most amazing. Light pervades the spiritual world, it illuminates the material universes and life is impossible without it." He continued, "I would like to know how you make it work."

"Oh, that's easy," was the reply. "Many hands make light work."

* Some tourists were watching the re-enactment of an ancient Egyptian religious ritual. One tourist turned to a nearby local, pointed to the statue that was being praised and asked, "Pardon me, but what was the name of that god supposed to be?"

"Why do you ask?" the man replied.

The tourist shrugged. "Just idol curiosity, I guess."

Six-year-old Angie and her four-year-old brother Joel were sitting together in church. Joel giggled, sang and talked out loud. Finally, his big sister had had enough.

"You're not supposed to talk (and especially out loud) in church."

"Why? Who's going to stop me?" Joel asked.

Angie pointed to the back of the church and said, "See those two men standing by the door? They're hushers."

* 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 went 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."

* 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!"

* Finally, here's a link to comedian Ricky Gervais explaining the Bible. You decide if it's funny.

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A new survey shows that most Americans don't think God cares who wins the Super Bowl. See? That's at least one way that I am like God. Now, if the Royals or Cubs were playing in it. . .

Learning the lessons of religion in politics: 2-4-16

The 2016 presidential race, which started the day after the 2012 election, is, by now, far enough along as to be inevitable. One question, however, remains unanswered: Will voters educate themselves not just about the issues and about the policy positions of the candidates but also about the many ways in which religion sways votes and is exploited by candidates?

Faith-MillenniumIf I said yes to that question I would reveal myself as a cockeyed optimist. And yet here and there one should be able to find voters who want to understand the role religion has played -- and continues to play -- in a country where there can be no religious test for public office.

So if you are such a voter, I give you not only my congratulations but also my suggestion that you pick up a copy of a new book called Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Religion and American Politics, edited by Matthew Avery Sutton and Darren Dochuk.

This is a collection of 16 essays on politics, policy and religion written by historians whose job it is to pay attention to all this and perhaps even make sense of it.

What makes the book work and, thus, what makes it valuable is that the authors of these essays offer a historical context to their subject. We don't get just quick tweets about the nation's founders, about slavery and religion, about the role of Mormonism, about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated or about what David Koresh, Harold Camping and Billy Graham might have in common theologically -- and what difference it makes. Instead, we get interesting history and analysis.

The book's editors argue that "religion appears to be at a crossroads in its political career and America itself at a point of departure." And yet, they say, religious energy in American politics remains vital and dynamic and "its influence as pervasive today as it was two centuries ago."

Here's a small sample of a few insights from the book:

* ". . .conservative Christians have turned the act of retelling the nation's founding into a religious practice, one that continually reaffirms their vision of the nation's moral purpose and serves as a call to action to rebuild what has been lost."

 * ". . .what appears universal in the U.S. context actually constitutes a specifically Protestant form of secularism, referred to here as 'Protestant secularism.'"

* ". . .one segment of the voting population was not wholly supportive of Obama: black conservatives. Some disapproved of Obama's support for abortion, LGBT rights, and -- more recently -- same-sex marriage."

* "In the post-9/11 atmosphere of suspicion, both the denial of Islam's long history in the Americas and the equally long Islamicist tradition of American understandings of Islam and Muslims as inherently violent, tyrannical and misogynistic came together to create new and deeply damaging Islamophobic discourses."

* Finally, I was really pleased to find that in his essay in which he described the 1993 fatal fire at the Branch Davidians' home near Waco, Texas, Sutton came to exactly the same conclusion I did when I went to Waco a year after the fire and wrote a long series of stories for The Kansas City Star about what went wrong there -- stories you can find in my first book, A Gift of Meaning. As Sutton notes, "Almost completely oblivious to Koresh's theology and beliefs, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives attempted to storm Koresh's Waco compound on February 28, 1993." As I pointed out in my series of articles, had government officials taken even 15 minutes to talk with religious experts from nearby Baylor University, they never would have gone in with guns blazing because they would have understood how such an action would have played right into Koresh's theology.

Well, there is much more here in this book, and voters would do well to absorb its insights about the many ways in which religion plays a role in our politics.

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A new study says there's been a disturbing rise in the number of American Muslims involved in terrorism, but that the fear many Americans feel about that is far greater than the actual threat. It would make more sense if people had a similar level of fear about what we're doing to the environment. But levels of fear often are simply irrational.

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

What does the Western Wall accord mean? 2-3-16


The government of Israel last week approved a compromise agreement sought by "Women of the Wall" and others to give more prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to non-Orthodox Jews. That wall is what's left of the temple that was destroyed when Roman troops razed the city in the year 70 CE. (The wall itself was originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Temple by Herod the Great just before the birth of Jesus.)

It's been a long and sometimes bitter struggle to get to this agreement, and the Jewish newspaper The Forward reports here that Reform and Conservative Jews in the U.S. are pretty happy about it.

But not all. In fact, my friend and co-author Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn simply doesn't get why people seem so excited by this deal. His conclusion: "The whole thing is nuts."

Because he's an interesting (and sometimes contrarian) thinker, let's hear from Jacques about why he seems to be swimming upstream on this one:

"This event marks the lows that modern Judaism has sunk into. A small cadre of Reform 'leaders' invented a cause meant to provoke and incite the hate of the ultra Orthodox by 'demanding the right to pray at The Western wall.'
"Reform Jews are good and interested in many things: interfaith dialogue, social justice, critical analysis of our texts. Yet praying is really not our thing. Our temples are mostly empty during praying time. This is no indictment of Reform Judaism or even of my congregants. Prayer appeals to a few but not to most. It is what it is.
"So the fight for the right to pray is ridiculous. My point will be made very clear when the site chosen will be left unattended very shortly and maybe only be used by Jews from abroad who may want to come and have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the Wall. That will be good for that small cadre that made this 'revolution' because they will benefit from the lack of understanding about Judaism and specially Reform Judaism of those Jews coming from abroad.
"Why? Because for Jews in general and Reform Jews in particular, the Temple is a place to be kept ceremoniously honored but then forgotten. Our religion is not about the Temple. There is absolutely nothing edifying, ethical, moral or positive about animal sacrifices and the priesthood. One of Judaism's greatest contributions to civilization is that we move on. We are and have always been a 'reforming' religion that adapts to time and circumstances. That is the only way to remain relevant. The first reforms into modern Judaism were the removal of references to sacrifices from our worship services, and were done almost 200 years ago. So now we celebrate returning to praying near the supposed remnants of the Temple?
"Even if there were not one billion-plus Muslims worldwide who would go nuts if their mosque were replaced by a temple, what exactly would we do in that temple? The idea of a third temple is for Jews like a car that the dog runs after. The dog would not know what to do with the car if it caught it!
"But assuming one could find some wonderful redeeming and spiritually uplifting response to this, let me remind you that the site they fought over is not really connected with the Temple but it is a sliver of the retention wall that Herod built in order to enlarge the Temple, so the whole thing is nuts.
"Before anyone accuses me of being anti-feminist, I must clarify that the reason for my outrage is exactly the fact that good and righteous anger has been spent on something as irrelevant as this rather than in seeking equality for women at work, in the board rooms, military and society in general. The Reform movement (in Israel) should be focusing on promoting equality for Reform rabbis, not on the meaningless (yet hallowed and memorable) Western Wall, but in the army, in receiving government salaries, etc., thus creating equality with Orthodox rabbis.
"This whole enterprise is a monumental waste of time, energy and it diminishes Judaism as a whole. I can only hope that now that this great 'victory' has been achieved, Reform 'leaders' may either stop disrupting the Jewish people or perhaps even dedicate themselves to some worthy endeavors. Yet I doubt that they will because my experience tells me that they want the showy and easy victories and not those that require much work and do not necessarily give great laurels, like attending to the needs of Marranos in Latin America."
Ah, there's nothing quite like an internal religious squabble. Maybe this one at least taught you a bit about the history of the Western Wall.
(And, by the way, here is the JTA's account of why the new agreement is important in its view.)
(The photo here today of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is one I took in 2012, when Jacques and I and an Episcopal priest led a Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel. The Western Wall, not visible in this picture, would be to the left and behind the gold-domed mosque.)
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Have you seen the so-called "Hand-of-God" photo taken recently over the Portuguese island of Madeira? As a meteorological phenomenon, it's pretty cool. But it also reminds us of the human propensity to rely on anthropomorphism to understand God. You know, like finding the face of Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich. Have a look at the photo at the link I've given you. Does that look like the hand of God? If so, isn't it more like the fist of God? And why does God seem to want to punch us in the nose?

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

Voting for religious outliers (and liers): 2-2-16

Although it's true that the U.S. Constitution forbids any religious test for public office, the reality is that many people take religion into account when assessing candidates -- especially in a presidential race.

Ballot-boxOne problem with that is the broad and deep theological and biblical illiteracy among Americans. Thus, when a candidate says he or she is a Christian -- in a land where a vast majority of people still identify as Christian -- it's much easier than it should be to pull the wool over voters' eyes.

Consider Donald Trump, who says he is a Presbyterian. Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans has done just that -- considered Donald Trump and his claim to be a Christian. The Donald doesn't fare so well in her analysis.

Trump, she writes, "is making his pitch to Christian voters. You would think it would be a hard sell given the fact that the real estate mogul and reality star has boasted about his extramarital affairs, profited off casinos and strip clubs, said he doesn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, called for targeting innocent civilians in war, mocked a reporter with a disability, threatened the religious liberty of minority groups in the U.S., and gained wide support among white nationalists for consistently lying about and demeaning blacks, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and Syrian refugees."

But we now know that in the Iowa caucuses last night both Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (who promised to carpet bomb ISIS -- which would be a war crime) led the field and that a fair amount of their support came from people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians. Perhaps Sen. Marco Rubio's strong showing last night means trouble ahead for both Cruz and Trump, but for now the reality is that a lot of Iowans who identify as evangelical Christians supported them.

There are, of course, no religiously perfect candidates running for any office. So one always must compromise one's hopes and values a bit when voting. It's just that sometimes we not only don't admit we're doing that, we don't admit that at times we vote not just against our own values but against our interests.

There are foundational values of honesty, respect, concern for the poor, equality of all humanity in God's eyes that people of faith would do well to think about when evaluating candidates. We voters will have to be a forgiving lot, but we need not ask for trouble by supporting people who reject those values.

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President Obama soon will make his first visit to a mosque in the U.S. Isn't it odd that our first Muslim president hasn't bothered going to a mosque for seven years? (I hope I don't have to explain satire to you.)

Saving India from religious extremists: 2-1-16

As many of you know, I spent two years of my boyhood in India. My parents were not missionaries, however. Well, not in a religious sense. Rather, my father was part of a University of Illinois agriculture team in the 1950s as part of what later became known as the Green Revolution.

IndiaIndia is a land of immigrants, not unlike the U.S. in that regard. When, under British imperialism, the country finally was cobbled together from its many kingdoms and princedoms and whatnot, it was predominantly Hindu, with a sizable Muslim minority population, along with Sikhs, Jains, Christians and a few others. (The term Hindu is one the British came up with to describe the predominant religion of India. It seems to have stuck.)

When India became independent in 1947, the country was partitioned into mostly Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan. My best friend in India, former Indian Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju, has argued for years that partition was a mistake and that Pakistan is a phony country that should be reabsorbed into India. He bristles at the idea that Hindus, Muslims and others couldn't have figured out how to live with one another in harmony.

Markandey, from a Kashmiri brahmin family (though he himself does not practice Hinduism or any other religion), also argues for a secular culture in India. As he wrote here a few weeks ago on his blog, ". . .secularism is the only policy which is suitable to our subcontinent."

And that is exactly the argument put forth in this interesting piece recently in the Times of India.

The T-of-I piece raises questions about the ways in which some members of India's minority Muslim population are causing a stir over matters they consider blasphemous.

As the author, Sadanand Dhune, said of demonstrations around this matter, "Such bloodcurdling displays of piety belong in a theocracy, not in a pluralistic democracy. Their scale, spread and intensity ought to concern anyone who cares about Indian pluralism. . .Bluntly put, the Indian model of secularism is floundering. It needs to be replaced by an approach that relies less on the well-worn pieties of the past and more on the reality of the world we live in today. The answer does not lie with Hindu extremists, who cannot distinguish between ordinary and radicalised Muslims. It lies in an updated secularism based on individual rights and equality before the law."

Theocracies might work in very tiny, uniform countries where there is consensus about how to think about God and how to respond in daily life -- countries of, say, 50 or 100 people, and not many more. But in lands with more population than that, theocracies inevitably cause problems.

It is quite possible, as U.S. history has shown, to have a nation in which there is religious pluralism and respect for all (however imperfectly manifested).

My hope for India is that it will recognize its need to commit to that model so all have religious freedom and all can respect the religious freedom of others.

Will that happen? Stay tuned.

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A Fiat once used by Pope Francis in Philadelphia last fall -- valued at $20,000 -- has sold at auction for $82,000. The good news is that the money is going to Catholic Charities. The bad news is that this is one more piece of evidence that we live in a culture of celebrity and that this culture distorts the value of almost everything.

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P.S.: Kansas City Lodge 184 of B'nai B'rith has announced details of the 2016 Margolis Memorial Essay Contest. The prize, $2,000, will go to a student who is graduating from a Kansas City area high school at the end of the spring semester of 2016 and who plans to start college in the fall. Essays are to focus on peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding among different groups. For details and all the rules, write to Mark D. Wasserstrom, chair of the contest, at There's a June 1 deadline for submitting essays.