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Why much religious freedom legislation is morally bankrupt: 3-31-16

It is worth looking again at the misguided efforts around the country -- including here in Missouri -- to adopt so-called "religious freedom" legislation, the effect of which is to treat members of the LGBTQ community as second-class citizens.

Religious-freedomThe governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, vetoed such a bill the other day. By contrast, the governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, signed one. Good for Georgia.

This difference of approach may seem like a difference in principle and religious commitment. But, in fact, politics plays into it in many ways, too.

As the AP reported in the story to which I linked you after Deal's name above, "McCrory, a 59-year-old Republican seeking a second term in Raleigh, must mobilize his party's core voters in November. Deal, now 74 and not planning to run again for office, is relatively immune to such pressures. Neither did Deal dwell on social issues in his re-election campaign; instead celebrating Georgia's ranking as the 'No. 1 state for business.'"

Would Deal, also a Republican, cave in to the forces favoring the right to discriminate if he were up for re-election? I don't know. But it seems possible, given that McCrory is doing exactly that.

And what about Deal's statement that "I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia."

I agree with him -- unless he's talking about that portion of the faith-based community that thinks gay marriage, despite being now declared the law of the land, is wrong. In that case, discriminatory practices are exactly what would be required if that "religious freedom" bigotry were allowed to be legal, thus protecting religious belief that turns out to be little more than ugly prejudice. As I've said before, this anti-gay stance is no different from the position taken in an earlier time by many Christians who used their faith to defend slavery, segregation, anti-women positions and other evils.

What's at stake here is equality under the law. If the law allows one group of people to be treated differently and, thus, less well than another group, the law fails the constitutional test of equality under the law. The proposed Missouri amendment and the North Carolina law both faith that test, if you ask me, a non-lawyer.

Let's also ask this: Why would people who worship a God who, they say, loves absolutely everyone equally want to adopt legislation (or, in the case of Missouri, a constitutional amendment) that treats people in clearly unequal and bigoted ways?

I have no good answer for that question because, well, there is none.

(By the way, here is a Baptist Press story about a survey from Lifeway Research, which is associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. It indicates a growing number of Americans think religious freedom in the U.S. is being compromised while, at the same time, a growing number also think Christians complain too much about this issue. I'm with the latter group.)

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Enough seriousness (sort of). Here is a Religious News Service quiz about guessing which Republican presidential candidate says things that resemble the words of Jesus. I love that someone at RNS felt it needed to be labeled "Satire." That reminds me of a story about my "Starbeams" column predecessor at The Kansas City Star, Bill Vaughan. One day a columnist named Landon Laird was coming to work on a bus when he overheard two people arguing about a Vaughan column. One person was sure Vaughan was writing satire. The other person thought Vaughan was deadly serious. When Laird got to the office, he came up to Vaughan, told him the story and said, "Bill, why don't you just label your columns 'satire'?" Immediately Vaughan responded, "Landon, why don't you just label your columns 'horse manure'?" (I cleaned that up a bit.)

Obama's 2009 Cairo speech reconsidered: 3-30-16

In June 2009, President Barack Obama, less than six months in office, gave a speech in Cairo, Egypt, about the relationship between the West, particularly the United States, and Muslims around the world.

Atlantic-ObamaAt the time I thought it was exactly on point and said what needed to be said. Among other things, the president said this:

We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world -- tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.  Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.
Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. All this has bred more fear and more mistrust.
So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.
I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.
Clearly there was work to do on both sides. Almost seven years later it's obvious that only a little of that work has been done on either side.
Obama was asked about that speech recently by Jeffrey Goldberg, author of this excellent Atlantic analysis of the president's foreign policy. This was Obama's reply:
“My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel,” he told me. “We want to work to help achieve statehood and dignity for the Palestinians, but I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity. My thought was, I would communicate that the U.S. is not standing in the way of this progress, that we would help, in whatever way possible, to advance the goals of a practical, successful Arab agenda that provided a better life for ordinary people.”
Part of the problem in the Muslim world -- especially the Arab part of it -- as Obama indicated, is that Israel has become a scapegoat for many of the things that aren't going right. That includes countries with terrible governments, a lack of upward economic mobility, under-educated masses and a strain of radicalism that has stained Islam in the eyes of many non-Muslims in the world. Israel has almost nothing to do with any of that. And Arab scholars know it.
I would, however, take issue with Obama's use of the word "reformation" to describe what he thinks needs to happen within Islam. That words has become so associated with Christianity -- and particularly the Protestant Reformation -- that to use it in the context of another religion is inevitably to overlay Christianity on that other religion. In some sense it is suggesting in a haughty sort of way that this or that religion should be more like Christianity.
There certainly are strains of Islam that have difficulty accommodating themselves to modernity. And those strains are causing lots of difficulties in many countries.
But if one were to look at Islam in the United States, one would find for the most part a religion that not only has changed to adjust to modern life but that in many ways is showing Muslims around the world how to do that. America has become a crucible in which this more flexible Islam is being created. Indeed, if you attended the recent American Public Square event, "Muslim in the Metro," or watched a televised version of that event on KCPT last week, you would have seen two Muslim women who embody this kind of Islam.
It's heart-breaking that Islam still struggles with a strain of radicalism that produces terrorist attacks around the globe, and, as I noted here the other day, that's something that Muslims will have to fix themselves for the most part. But I am glad we have a president who understands the dynamics of all of this and has tried to be a force for good change. The last thing we need now is to have our next president be someone who so badly misunderstands Islam that he would seek to ban Muslims from coming to the U.S.
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I have frequently written against so-called blasphemy laws, which penalize people -- sometimes with death -- who are charged with hurting the religious feelings of others. Such laws -- mostly in predominantly Islamic countries -- assume that the religion being protected by the laws is not strong enough to stand up to criticism. In other words, it's an acknowledgment of weakness. This Religion News Service piece describes how an RNS reporter who has spent time in Pakistan now despairs of such laws ever being revoked. Well, "ever" is a long time, but for the present at least I suspect she's right. And how sad that is.

A compassionate voice of action: 3-29-16

Sometimes the differences in approach to life between people in the news is simply astonishing.

Aurora_PrizeOne the one hand are American presidential candidates who want to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., who want to build a huge wall between the U.S. and Mexico, who engage in bitter back-and-forth attacks about their wives, who dream about making Middle Eastern sand glow with nuclear bombs. And on and on.

On the other hand there is a Catholic priest from the embattled Central African Republic who has been nominated to receive the annual Aurora Prize for his work in saving hundreds and hundreds of people from almost certain death -- some of whom were Muslim, some Christian.

As the news story to which I linked you in the previous paragraph notes, Fr. Bernard "Kinvi, who was born in Togo, started a church and mission hospital three years ago in the northwestern town of Bossemptee, just as violence began to engulf the nation. The region had been in turmoil for more than a decade, but fighting between Christian and Muslim extremists exploded in 2013."

The piece then quotes Kinvi this way:

“I did not check their religion before helping them. I had in front of me human beings whose lives were in danger. It is my duty as a Camilian priest who has dedicated his life to the service those who are ill and those who are suffering, even at if it meant risking my own life.”

In many places around the U.S., politicians and public office holders have been trying to outdo one another in being hard-liners about helping to rescue refugees from the civil war in Syria. It's been a shameful display. Would that they could learn a little something from the open heart of Father Kinvi, who not only speaks but acts.

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I'm simply at a loss to explain why the terrorists behind the suicide bombing in Lahore, Pakistan, on Easter Sunday thought that murdering 70 people, including 29 children, would win sympathy for their cause (whatever that might be). This violence took place a short distance from the home of a woman who preached at my church just a few weeks ago, Vida Gill, head of the Presbyterian Education Board (PEB) in Pakistan. (She and her family were home and not hurt.) The one tiny good thing I can think to say about this madness is that it has allowed me to connect you to the terrific work of the PEB, which my congregation has supported for years. (By the way, are you wondering just who Pakistani Christians are? Here's a good summary from BBC news.)

Who must defeat radical Islamism: 3-28-16

In mid-2002, I wrote an analysis piece for The Kansas City Star from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that began this way:

Crescent-moon-IslamRIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Islam, the insistently monotheistic religion that swept out of the Arabian peninsula nearly 14 centuries ago and now counts more than 1 billion followers around the world, is struggling to reclaim its true heart and soul.

Here in Saudi Arabia, Islam's ground zero, even non-Muslim foreign visitors can sense how profoundly most Muslims have been shaken after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America.

But the struggle for Islam's center is internal. In the best sense of a widely misused word, it is a jihad that the rest of us can do little more than watch, although we can encourage a political atmosphere that will help ensure moderate Islam's victory.

I would change nothing about those words today except perhaps to update the number of Muslims in the world to "more than 1.5 billion followers."

The contest for the center of Islam continues more than 14 years later, though that is not to say that nothing has changed. In fact, a lot has changed -- some for the better, some not.

And I think this Daily Beast piece does a pretty fair job not just of providing a summary of where things stand now but of calling adherents of what I labeled "moderate Islam" in 2002 (and now might be called traditional Islam) to get engaged with progressive and reformist Muslims seeking to defeat the radicals who have besmirched the faith.

Here's a key part of what former Islamist Maajid Nawaz says in that piece:

"We must finally come to terms with the fact that we are in the midst of a generational ideological struggle to distinguish Islam as a faith from the political ideology of Islamism and its violent manifestation, jihadism. Islamism has taken hold in our communities. As with fascism before it, this struggle will involve all of society, not just its Muslims or non-Muslims. Everyone must stand together to discredit the ideology of Islamism, and to reform Islamic discourse today. We require a whole-of-society approach. Our aim must be to render the Islamist ideology as unattractive as fascism has now become."

In effect, Nawaz is expanding the argument I made in 2002. To neutralize and eventually eliminate radical and violent Islamist thinking is something Muslims themselves must want to do and work on -- but with the support of non-Muslims. As I said in 2002, we non-Muslims can't defeat Islamism on our own, though we can, to quote myself, "encourage a political atmosphere that will help ensure moderate Islam's victory."

That political atmosphere, of course, gets poisoned when presidential candidates call for banning all Muslims from coming to the U.S. It gets poisoned when the police think of American Muslims first as suspects and only second as citizens. It gets poisoned when the civil war in Syria makes so many Muslims refugees that they overwhelm the world's capacity to find safe harbor for them. And it gets poisoned when radical jihadis murder people in Paris, in Brussels and in many other places around the world.

Let's hope Nawaz and others who have turned from a radical distortion of historic, traditional Islam can lead others to follow them.

(By the way, you also should know that in communities around the U.S., local Muslims are working with law enforcement authorities to identify those in the Islamic community who may have been radicalized and who, thus, may pose a danger to society. This Politico story describes some of how and where this is happening. As the story note, "U.S. Muslim communities already are highly wired by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence. And contrary to being 'radicalized,' they have proven astonishingly cooperative on the whole. Numerous sources in U.S. law enforcement and national security interviewed for this story drew a picture of a largely sub-rosa but widespread effort in American counterterrorism.")

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Pope Francis seems to be popular everywhere -- well, almost. As this BBC story notes, he's got plenty of critics right where he lives -- in the Vatican. Parents know exactly how that goes. Their harshest critics sometimes live under the same roof with them.

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Hospitable Planet: Faith, Action, and Climate Change, by Stephen A. Jurovics. Adherents of many religions have been quite engaged in recent years in the effort to reduce pollution and counter the human habits contributing to climate change. A good example was the environmental encyclical Pope Francis issued last year, Laudato Si. This new book is in harmony with all that. It first focuses on the biblical rational for engaging environmental questions at all, and finds many reasons in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Torah. Doing that, however, requires a way to explain the single verse in Genesis that has given humans free rein to be environmentally irresponsible, Genesis 1:28, in which God is quoted as giving humanity "dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." Jurovics, an engineer working on climate change mitigation, correctly notes that it's bad theology to base anything on a single verse in the Bible. He says that when that verse is put into its proper context, the latitude to be rapacious when it comes to treatment of the Earth "steadily narrows" until something much closer to a responsible environmental ethic can be drawn from scripture. With that basis, the author spends the rest of the book offering ideas for how people of faith can get engaged in finding solutions to this monumental problem before it's too late, as it may already be. My only argument with Jurovics is that he seems to suggest that individuals, whether alone or in groups, can do enough to fix what faces us. By contrast, I believe we need systemic answers that go far, far beyond using more efficient light bulbs in our houses and car pooling, useful as those strategies may be. Still, this would be a good book for study groups in faith communities -- especially Jewish and Christian -- to use to decide how they can help find solutions.

When preparing for disaster can be self-centered: 3-26/27-16

There's a strange but persistent strain in religion that worries about catastrophe, seeks to prepare for disaster, predicts traumatic and Earth-rattling events, all the while suggesting that such apocalyptic events will lead to a heavenly kingdom either here on Earth or somewhere almost unimaginable.

Heavens-harvest-logoI stumbled across what I took to be current evidence of this strain the other day when I flipped on a Christian radio station and heard a commercial for something called Heaven's Harvest. It seems clearly to be part of what's known as the Prepper (or Suvivalist) Movement, which fearfully encourages people to store up provisions for when some natural or geopolitical catastrophe occurs.

There are, of course, perfectly logical actions that people do -- and should -- take to be prepared for what may lie ahead. That's why we have refrigerators and freezers. It's why we buy life insurance and contribute to 401(k) accounts. It's why we send our children to college.

On the other hand, there are preparations made out of almost irrational fear, bordering on paranoia. This is the kind of fear that caused people in the 1950s and early '60s to build fallout shelters and threaten to keep out their neighbors. This is the kind of fear that causes some people to move to isolated cabins in the Pacific Northwest and store a year or two worth of foodstuffs away in case some kind of catastrophe strikes. Not all such hyper-fear is based on religious beliefs, but a lot of it is.

The folks behind the Heaven's Harvest website don't go into a lot of detail about what drives them, but the very name of the site and their choice to call the non-GMO vegetable and fruit seeds they're marketing as "seeds by God's design" is a clue that they have bought some of the end-of-the-world fears that some branches of Christianity seem to preach with great relish.

This kind of fear-based faith seems to me terribly out of character with the teachings of Jesus. An example: In Matthew 6, Jesus is reported telling his followers "not to worry about everyday life -- whether you will have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. . .So don't worry about these things, saying, 'What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?' These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. So don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today's trouble is enough for today." (From the New Living Translation.)

Yes, yes, I know that Jesus wasn't speaking to 21st Century Americans in a nuclear age when terrorism is a major international problem and Donald J. Trump is the top vote-getting Republican presidential candidate. So we have to be careful not to pick out a few verses and make them seem to be specific answers to today's issues.

But Christianity in general is a faith about serving others, about selfless giving, about love, which means seeking the welfare of others before one seeks the welfare of self. That's why it's such a hard faith to live out authentically and consistently.

In the 12th chapter of the New Testament book of Luke, Jesus is reported telling what has come to be called the parable of the rich fool, a man who "had a fertile farm that produced fine crops." When his bins got full, he decided to build more storage space. But God said to him, "You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?"

Accumulating tons of supplies as a means of self-defense seems sadly out of sync with the Christian teaching to love others, to care for the poor and needy and to seek first not your own ease but the reign of God. Self-preservation and reasonable preparations for the inevitable make sense. But anything beyond that seems to be out of harmony with Christian values.

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Here's a nifty story this Easter weekend about both Christians and Muslims restoring mosaics in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Although Christianity and Islam disagree about some core matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth, the fact is Jesus is Islam's second most important prophet, behind Muhammad. So it's no surprise that Muslims would want to work on this project.

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P.S.: AIDSWalk Kansas City 2016 happens April 30 to benefit the AIDS Service Foundation. If you can help, you can contribute here. Thanks.

Remembering a man our prisons failed: 3-25-16


After Jon Marc Taylor died late last year, I wrote this blog posting about how the state of Missouri and its citizens (including me) failed this long-time prison inmate.

As I noted in the piece, I counted Jon Marc as perhaps the most rehabilitated prisoner in the U.S. -- and that's saying something, given that there were more than 6.8 million individuals in our correction systems at the end of 2014.

Over this past weekend, I gathered with 15 or so other people at a memorial service for him in Kansas City. His only living relative able to attend was his aunt (his late mother's sister), who lives in Manhattan, Kan. Others there mostly had, like me, gotten to know Jon Marc while he was incarcerated but busy supporting and working with such organizations as the NAACP (Jon was white), the Kairos prison ministry, CURE (Citizen United for Rehabilitation of Errants) and others.

What brought us together on Saturday afternoon was not only our admiration of how Jon Marc had not just survived but had thrived as a prisoner (earning several college degrees and writing books) but also our disdain for the dehumanizing way our prison system too often works, warehousing individuals instead of working with effective programs to rehabilitate them and give them another chance to be contributors to society.

Our criminal justice and prison systems are stained by racism and by the failure of many people of faith to demand better.

That, of course, is not to say that we don't need prisons at all. We surely do. And there are some people who should spend their entire lives in prison to protect society from them.

But as Michelle Alexander has shown in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, our prison system shames us and reflects values often the exact reverse of the values the great religions teach about the incalculable value of every human being.

Dr. Ross Van Ness (pictured above at the lectern) of Muncie, Ind., who became something of a father figure to Jon Marc, spoke a bit about that at the memorial service, as did others. But the question I was left with was how many more Jon Marc Taylors will die in prison without a reasonable chance to show that they have turned their lives around and can be productive members of society.

One will be too many.

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On Good Friday today, David Gushee of Mercer University ponders the ancient question of why Jesus died. He's right to suggest that no single answer will capture the entirety of the mystery.

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Jesus Called: He Wants His Church Back, by Ray Johnston. The author is senior pastor of Bayside Church in Granite Bay, Calif., a megachurch. This book is his word to evangelical Christian Americans about how they get church wrong and what to do about it. Those outside the evangelical world can listen in and learn. Many of the book's insights and lessons can be helpful when applied to other branches of the church, especially Johnston's message that many Christians have failed to take Jesus seriously and follow where he would lead. Americans, he argues, have lost innocence, authority, love, values, faith, security and hope. In such a state, he says, it's a great time to introduce them to Jesus, who can restore what is lost. Sometimes, however, Johnston unnecessarily oversimplifies things. For instance, he blames Sayyid Qutb, a 20th Century Egyptian educator and politician, for being solely responsible for the rise of Islamist terrorism. Well, Qutb for sure was profoundly influential in the rise of radical and violent Islam, but to say he was the only cause of this extremist violence today ignores all the other causes that have led to such phenomena as al-Qaida and ISIS. Christians outside the boundaries of modern evangelicalism also will pause when Johnston quotes someone with this complaint about his church: "At Bayside, they take the Bible literally." Johnston's response: "I'll welcome a review like that any day!" Biblical literalism is common among Christians who call themselves fundamentalist but considerably less so among evangelicals -- and that's because many evangelicals recognize that a literal reading of the Bible simply can't be sustained. Biblical literalism, indeed, devalues the sacred text and results in many misunderstandings of it. That aside, Johnston offers some helpful criticisms of parts of the church today, especially his contention that "some Christians claim to know every certain answer to every deep question that Christians have struggled with for centuries. This attitude is not only arrogant and misguided but also doesn't meet people's needs, especially when answers hurt rather than help." Exactly. In the end, this book is an argument not simply to learn about Jesus but to follow with a deep commitment to the one Christians call Lord.

A community stands against hatred: 3-24-16


On Palm Sunday of 2014, as nearly everyone in Kansas City now knows, a neo-Nazi white supremacist seeking to kill Jews shot to death three Christians, two at the Jewish Community Center (a grandfather, Dr. William Corporon, and his grandson, Reat Underwood), and one at Village Shalom, Terri LaManno.

The man was convicted and sentenced to death.

And it would not be unreasonable to imagine that the families of the victims would spend the rest of their lives grieving and hiding from additional public attention.

But that's not what has happened. Indeed, the very night of the shootings, Mindy Corporon, whose father and son were murdered, showed up and spoke gracious and insightful words at a prayer vigil that a couple of friends of mine organized and at which I spoke, too.

Since then, Mindy and members of Terri LaManno's family have become engaged in a community-wide effort to promote values completely opposite from the bigotry that drove the shooter.

And for the second year in a row, this new effort, called Seven Days: Make a Ripple, Change the World, is organizing seven days of events to promote love and community.

None of this has been easy for the Corporon and LaManno families, and, as I reported here last year, Mindy has had to confront all the old questions of why there is evil in the world. And she's been willing to talk about it all quite publicly, as I will mention next Wednesday, March 30, in my National Catholic Reporter column.

But this must not be the effort of just one woman or even of just two families. The whole of Kansas City should support their work in raising up constructive, life-affirming values in the face of violence, evil and death. And not just for the protection of the Jewish community here but for all who have been targets of bigotry and oppression.

I plan to be at several of the upcoming Seven Days events. I hope you will devote some time and energy to be at one or more of them, too. It's a way of saying that we do not share the hatred that drove a man to try to kill people just because he thought they were Jewish.

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In the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks, it's time again to look at how people get radicalized enough to commit such violence, and that's what this Religion News Service piece attempts to do. But it seems clear at least to me that we don't know nearly enough about the radicalization process to know how to stop it or at least slow it. And every faith community should be looking at this question from its own context, though clearly the current burden is on leaders of Islam to figure out what is going wrong and why.

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P.S.: I hope you will join me and the Rev. Dr. Paul Rock from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5, at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City for a Communiversity class we're calling "Conversations with Jesus and Pope Francis," based on our new book, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. The "Conversations" link will give you the information you need to sign up.

The 'nones' aren't all alike: 3-23-16

The Atlantic -- a worthy publication I've read for a long time -- is doing a new series on how young Americans will go about choosing which religion, if any, they will follow.

Religious-unaffiliatedIt promises to be a good read, based on this opening piece.

But what struck me in that article was its nuanced description of the so-called "nones," the religiously unaffiliated who, when asked to choose a religion they follow from a list, check "none of the above."

"The bigger problem with 'none-ness,'" the piece says, "is that it suggests a clean narrative arc for the past and future of religion: an inevitable, measurable decline. If young people don’t care about religion, the thinking goes, that necessarily means the United States will become a much less religious country over time. This is not a new theory; sociologists and historians have been predicting the end of religion for many decades. In the 1950s and ’60s in particular, Western scholars of religion focused on the certainty of secularization, only to see much evidence to the contrary in subsequent decades. From a global perspective, the share of religiously unaffiliated people is expected to decline in the next four decades."

Once again we discover that labels can hide more than they reveal. The "nones" aren't a monolithic group, any more than are Muslims, Jews or Presbyterians. Under all those labels one finds considerable diversity. And the word "nones" conjures up a vision of people who don't believe anything.

But as the Atlantic piece notes, "the category can be misleading. People who don’t identify with a particular religious group aren’t necessarily non-religious or non-believers. Many embrace some sort of ritual practice, and relatively few describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. It’s true that a growing number of young people are drifting away from religious institutions, but it’s also true that a significant portion of young Americans still attend worship services, pray, and believe in God."

So when we hear "all" and "everyone" and "everything" language, we'd do well to slow down and challenge it. Heck, challenge all of it coming from everyone who talks about everything. Or something like that.

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Billy Graham's grandson, fired from his church job because of an affair he had, says he hopes his life can be a warning to others. It takes a real optimist to hope that, if nothing else, he can always be used as a bad example.

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P.S.: I want to let you know about an independent film called "The Stand," which tells the story of Muslims and Christians banding together in terrible circumstances to stand against terrorism. This crowd-source funding site will give you more information about the film and how you can help to bring it to reality. I hope you'll take a look. And, if you can, kick in a little to help. I did. 

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The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs, by Peter Enns. When I first saw the title of this book, I was frankly a bit worried that the author would approach this subject in the way I am approaching it in my own next book, due out later this summer from Skylight Paths Publishing. It's a book I'm calling The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. But it turns out that although Enns and I share some thinking about false certitude, we do quite different things in our books. First, Enns comes at this subject from an experience of teaching in an evangelical college that well into his time there turned from scholarly openness to a stance of rigid adherence to specific statements of dogma. He couldn't -- and didn't -- last long in that kind of stifling atmosphere. And he spends a good part of this book describing why the doctrinal certainty at the root of such an approach to Christianity is so wrongheaded. Even as a young man, Enns writes, "I had never openly explored my thinking about God because I was taught that questioning too much was not safe Christian conduct." He had to -- and did -- overcome that background. By contrast, I grew up as a Presbyterian and did not experience that kind of no-questions-asked faith. I found it telling and intriguing to find that today Enns is a member of an Episcopal congregation, and if the Episcopalians are known for anything in terms of approach to doctrine it's that they encourage the hard questions. Enns makes it clear that he's not against careful thinking through what one believes and even coming to some fairly clear conclusions about all of that. What he warns people against, instead, is "preoccupation with correct thinking." That, he writes, "reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking. . ." The idea that at all times you must know what you believe, he writes, leads to having a closed heart to trusting God. What Enns says he needs -- and suspects others do, too -- is "a God bigger than my arguments." I commend this book to you, but also ask you to give mine a read when it appears, probably in August.

How bad religious ideas cause suffering: 3-22-16

Terrible religious ideas have taken a huge toll on the world over the centuries -- such ideas as that the Bible supports the concept of slavery, that the Jews should be held accountable for the death of Jesus, that Allah supports terrorism.

Saving-AlexOne terrible religious idea that continues to exact a steep price is that homosexuality is a sin. It's based on a misreading of scripture, though it must be said that this misreading has been Christianity's traditional understanding for a long time and that only in recent years has this tradition been recognized as not only wrong but deeply harmful to many people. Well, recognized by at least some people of faith. Others cling to it tenaciously. (For my essay on what the Bible really says about homosexuality, click here.)

Evidence of the kind of damage and pain this misguided view of homosexuality has caused can be found in a new book by Alex Cooper (pictured below right) (with Joanna Brooks), Saving Alex. It describes how Alex told her Mormon parents when she was 15 that she is gay and what the terrible result of that coming out was.

As a result of her parents' religious idea that homosexuality not only is sinful but that it can be cured by so-called conversion therapy, Alex was kicked out of her California home and eventually sent to the Utah home of an unlicensed couple who abused and tortured Alex in their effort to make her straight. This happened in St. George, also the home of Alex's grandparents, who did nothing to prevent Alex from being mistreated in this way.

It's a distressing story that finally has a good ending because Alex eventually escaped and challenged the Utah legal system in several ways. Today Alex is in her early 20s and lives in Portland, Ore., where she works for a non-profit agency and lives with her girlfriend. Here is a Religion News Service story that includes some quotes from an interview with Alex. For the time being, she's set aside her adherence to Mormonism while she sorts out where she is spiritually -- and where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is on the issue of gay people.

Alex was a bit of a rebellious, spirited child who, nonetheless, writes in the book that she always loved her parents and wanted to live with them like a normal family.

Alex-CooperBut when she announced to them that she was gay, "They had no idea what to do with me. I can see how terrifying it must have been, for my mom especially, because our religion told her there was no place for people like me, no place in the faith and the community that held her world together, and no place in God's plan."

At one point, while, in effect, a prisoner in the home of the so-called conversion therapists, Alex attempted suicide. That very same day, a Sunday, she was taken to church "for my annual interview with the bishop of our local congregation." But the bishop refused to intervene on her behalf and free her.

"I guess I had hoped -- really hoped," Alex writes, "that the bishop would be able to see me, that the trust I had been taught to place in my church leaders from the time I was a little girl would not fail." But the bishop returned her to the couple guarding her and within minutes of returning to their home she was again, as punishment, forced to stand for hours facing a wall while wearing a backpack full of heavy rocks.

At the time, she had no one to turn to, especially not her parents, given, as she writes, that they "were locked in by their need to believe and belong, so locked into their hunger for answers that they could not be with me in my questions and struggles as a gay girl in a religion that was so impossible for people like me."

Eventually Alex was allowed to attend a regular high school, where she found help not just in some fellow students but also a teacher who, though Mormon, did not hold rigid anti-gay views.

It turns out, as Alex notes in the book, that she is far from alone among Mormons or among people of some other faith communities who despise homosexuality: LGBT kids "end up in state custody more frequently than straight kids. Thirteen to fifteen percent of the kids in the juvenile justice system identify as LGBT. . .Twenty to forty percent of all homeless youth are gay. Thirty-nine percent of gay homeless youth say they were kicked out of their homes. . ."

The reality was that "I was being held by people who used religion to justify emotional and physical abuse," she writes. But she forced herself early one morning to escape from the home she was locked into and get to her high school, where, by this time, the couple who held her had forbidden her to go. With help from a teacher, a pro-bono lawyer, other students and some juvenile justice system workers she finally won her freedom and an opportunity to return to live with her parents under strict court rules that forbid them from seeking to change her sexual orientation.

The court order, as she writes, said "I could go back to my parents and live as myself. As a gay teenager, in the State of Utah, where just a few weeks before the whole legal system had stood behind the idea that parents should have the right to try to change their gay children."

It was quite a distance from where this story started: "I have never felt more terrified, more lost, than when my parents turned me over to total strangers and drove away. It made me want to die, and the statistics should I'm not the only one."

Alex survived this faith-based battering and her story can be an inspiration to others still struggling to be their true selves in the face of terrible religious ideas that say they are worthless sinners -- not because of what they've done but just because of who they are.

Religion like that has a lot of explaining to do. Religion like that needs to repent.

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By contrast, a good religious idea -- mindfulness -- comes from Buddhism. But as this New York Times piece notes, America's commercialization of that idea may be devaluing the lessons of the practice. I'll plug the piece into the mindfulness app on my smart phone and see what my phone thinks.

'Show Me' the way to bigotry: 3-21-16

I have written about various aspects of religious freedom before in several venues, making the point that the United States is among the most religiously free countries in the world and arguing that some measures supposedly designed to protect religious freedom are, in fact, simply excuses for bigotry.

Sexual-equalityBut some Missouri lawmakers continue to push a proposed constitutional amendment that would enshrine that bigotry by allowing businesses to refuse to serve, for example, gay couples because those business people believe homosexuality is against God's will.

It's unclear to me how such a stance differs from cafes refusing service to certain potential customers because they're black. In fact, that is almost exactly what this is like.

So I was pleased to see some members of the clergy from the Kansas City area gather recently to denounce this nonsense.

As The Pitch story to which I've just linked you reports: "This means anyone can refuse service to anyone," says the Rev. Chase Peeples, minister for Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ. "Hotels, bed and breakfasts, taxis and limousines, tailors. . .where does it end?"

An interesting sidelight to this is that people worried about how such measures would affect business also are coming out against them. For instance, the NCAA says its sports tournaments need to be in places that treat everyone fairly. And the Missouri Chamber of Commerce says it opposes this "religious freedom" legislation because it would hurt the state's economy.

I loved the quote in the last story from Don Hinkle, director of public policy for the Missouri Baptist Convention: “For the chamber, it is all about money. The conscience of a person be damned.”

How ironic that concern for money (Hinkle was right about that part of it) would lead a group to line up with the moral position on this issue while a group concerned about morality would line up instead in favor of legalized discrimination.

No wonder a growing number of people are distancing themselves from religion.

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A woman who teaches biblical and religious studies at an English university says early Christian icons cast doubt on whether Jesus was nailed to a cross. More likely, she says, he was tied up to that cross. Every year the media reports such stories in Holy Week. It reminds me of writer Calvin Trillin, a Kansas City native, who briefly was assigned to cover religion but, he swears, was yanked from that beat when he insisted on referring to it as "the alleged resurrection."