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Has Trump killed American civil religion? 9-30-16

Like 84 million other Americans, I watched the presidential debate Monday night between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And I struggled to articulate the implications of some of Trump's annoying and, frankly, unbelievable responses.

Trump__ClintonI was especially pained by his answer to Clinton's criticism of him for profiting from the the housing crash in the recent Great Recession: “That’s called business, by the way,” he said. And when she called him a tax-dodger who didn't pay his fair share of federal income taxes, his answer was: “That makes me smart.”

In both instances, it is hard to imagine a more direct challenge to the teachings of the world's great religions that we are to care for one another and that we are to work for the common good, not just our own individual success.

As I was thinking about all of that as the week wore on, I ran across this Atlantic piece, which I think nails what I was trying to put into words:

Yoni Appelbaum, a senior editor at the publication, wrote this:

"Civil religion died on Monday night.

"For more than 90 minutes, two presidential candidates traded charges on stage. The bitterness and solipsism of their debate offered an unnerving glimpse of American politics in a post-Christian age, devoid of the framework that has long bound the nation together.

"Hillary Clinton may have offered little sense of humility, of obligation, of responsibility in Hempstead, but it was Donald Trump who directly rejected those virtues, reframing them instead as vices. He painted altruism as a sucker’s game, and left sacrifice for the losers. It was a performance that made clear one broader meaning of his candidacy—the eclipse of the values that long defined America."

I understand and accept that I live in a time when Protestants have moved from being a vast majority of our population to no majority at all. I grasp the concept that this is a post-Christian age. And, with Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas, I'm not terribly unhappy about that because it gives us Christians a chance not to be responsible for running everything. Now we can more properly assume our role of speaking with prophetic voices about what's going wrong and about how to fix it.

But I never thought I would encounter a presidential candidate who was not in some way steeped in the common values that our civil religion (mostly based on teachings from the Abrahamic faith traditions) promotes.

And yet here is Trump, directly rejecting those virtues, as Appelbaum notes. And who was heard expressing pride in his leadership of the clearly racist birther movement against President Obama.

My guess is that if Trump ever releases his tax returns (don't hold your breath) they will prove that he also thinks charitable giving is a fool's game and that he takes almost no personal part in it.

Hillary Clinton, a United Methodist, is, like all presidential candidates before her, flawed. There are things about her past I wish I could change. But she is not advocating the destructive values that have put Trump in tension with some of the core values of America since its beginning.

What a sad time this is for the nation. And yet I have faith that the American people will survive even Trump -- and even if he wins.

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Speaking of Americans and religion -- whether civil or not -- a new study about the theology of Americans shows a huge variety of opinions about God and nearly every other theological subject. And yet despite so many different opinions, it's possible to locate the kind of common values that Donald Trump clearly rejected in some of his debate remarks this week.

Islam's long history in the U.S.: 9-29-16

It took the 9/11 terrorist attacks 15 years ago for many Americans to realize that America is home to a lot of Muslims. As I mentioned here yesterday, the American Muslim population estimates range from 3.3 million to perhaps 10 million.

Muslims-AmericaThis widespread failure to recognize and appreciate Muslim presence in this country was more evidence of how often we Americans live in cultural, ethnic and religious silos, unexposed to our neighbors and unaware of our own history.

Prof. Amir Hussain's new book, Muslims and the Making of America, aims to fill in the gap in our historical understanding. It does so effectively, quickly and quite engagingly. (I've linked you to the book's Amazon page on the title of the volume above, but here's the link to the book's Baylor University Press page.)

Hussain, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University on Los Angeles, takes a broad-sweep look at the many ways Muslims have been part of American life since -- and even before -- the days of slavery, when many Muslims were captured in Africa, chained and sold to Americans. Hussain says scholars estimate that at least 10 percent of the slaves brought here from West Africa were Muslims. In fact, he writes, George Washington, "our first president, the father of our country, owned Muslim slaves, who helped to build Mount Vernon."

Islam has been in the United States for a long, long time, and Hussain gives us fascinating details about that. As an important religion in America, it has captured the imagination, as well as the allegiance, of many African-Americans, who today make up something like 40 percent of American Muslims. For some of them, the conversion to Islam is a return to the faith of their African ancestors.

Hussain's argument is three-fold: Islam is not new to the U.S. It is not "un-American." And it is not full of violent extremists who want to overthrow this nation. Some facts he uses to bolster his case:

-- There have been mosques in America since at least 1915.

-- Islam has been part of the pluralistic American religious landscape for centuries, and as one of the three Abrahamic faiths its tenets are neither mysterious nor subversive.

-- Only a minuscule number of American Muslims has turned to violent extremism. And when many Muslims in the U.S. have seen such terrorism on the part of Muslims elsewhere, they have condemned it, even though they aren't responsible for it.

Islam's presence in the U.S. often goes unrecognized, the author argues. For instance, many Americans are unaware that "an imagine of the Prophet Muhammad, holding both a sword and a Qur'an, was added to a frieze on the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court."

Hussain describes the interesting history of the founding of the Nation of Islam in the early 20th Century and how some decades later many of its members walked away from its provocative teachings about white people being devils and, instead, embraced traditional Sunni Islam.

More: Did you know that the first national Muslim conference in America was held in 1952 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Why there? Well, there has been a deeply rooted Muslim community there in the middle of the nation for a long time.

Did you know the founder of Atlantic Records and eventually chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ahmet Ertegun, was an American Muslim?

Yes, you've heard of boxer Muhammad Ali -- once the most famous man in the world as an American Muslim -- and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the best NBA player in history, but are you aware of the architects, prize-winning scientists, artists and other musicians who were and are American Muslims?

They're all in this book, including two Muslims who are members of Congress (so, in the spirit of equality, we can blame them along with other members for the state of things today).

Sometimes Hussain goes off into needless and beside-the-point details, but his message is an important one both for American Muslims and for non-Muslim Americans who are trying to figure out how to live in a country in which white Protestants no longer run the place.

"American Muslims," Hussain writes, "are an American success story, solidly middle class and mostly professional."

If that's not your impression, you (and many other non-Muslim Americans) have been sadly misinformed.

* * *


As we mourn the death of Shimon Peres, it's worth paying attention to the ways in which he was engaged in almost every development in Israel from the time the Jewish state declared its existence in 1948. The Atlantic piece to which I've linked you does a pretty good job of describing that.

The struggle of today's American Muslims: 9-28-16

For American Muslims, this presidential election season has been little short of a nightmare.

Islam-americaA major part of that has been the anger and resentment toward Muslims that Donald Trump stirred up when he proposed at least a temporary ban on any Muslim seeking to enter the U.S. It's no secret that such xenophobic rhetoric can -- and often does -- lead to violent behavior.

So what does American Muslim life look like in this wrathful time? Daniel Burke, CNN's talented religion editor, has put together this fairly lengthy look at that question, focusing especially on the life of a 17-year-old Muslim girl who lives in Maryland.

"It's difficult," Burke writes, "to measure a sentiment such as Islamophobia, the word for hatred and fear of Muslims. But it's also hard to escape the idea that being Muslim in America today is like watching comment sections spring to lurid life. The anti-Muslim rallies, the vicious hate crimes, the racial profiling, the threats and taunts and questions about divided loyalties.

"Scholars say Islamophobia seems to surge after attacks by Muslim extremists and during presidential campaigns, when candidates pledge to get tough on terrorists, often by singling out Muslims."
Nobody has an accurate count of the number of Muslims in America, though generally most scholars and journalists use the 3.3 million figure that the Pew Research Center has come up with. But I've heard Muslims and others suggest that the real figure could be as high as 8 to 10 million.
The exact count doesn't matter. What matters is that Muslims have been in this country since slave-trade days (many coming here as slaves) and are part of American culture. I'm currently reading for review, Muslims and the Making of America, by Amir Hussain, which details the long history of Islam in the New World. (The book is to be officially published today. Watch for my review here tomorrow.) It's difficult not to conclude from this book and from Burke's CNN reporting that the anti-Muslim bigotry in the land today is rooted in historical ignorance and a desire to return to a time when white Protestants pretty much ruled the land.
Those days are gone. It's time to welcome every immigrant who wants to be a good American citizen. And it's past time to respect the religious choices everyone here makes -- so long as those choices don't involve violent extremism.
* * *


Let's not lose sight of the terrible murder of nine black parishioners in a church Charleston, S.C., in June 2015. Jury selection began this week in the case. This is one more example of someone with locked-down answers to hard religious questions acting out in violent ways. That kind of false certitude is what I argue against in my new book, The Value of Doubt, which I'll talk about at 6:30 tonight at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library. Make a reservation for this free event here.

Honor codes that devalue life: 9-27-16

Ever since I read this David Brooks column a few months back about J.D. Vance's book, Hillbilly Elegy, I've wanted a chance to see what it could teach me about what Vance calls families and a culture "in crisis." So I'm reading it now.

Hillbilly elegyBrooks focused on this honor code implicit in the life Vance described: "I may not make a lot of money, but people can count on me. I'm loyal, tough, hard-working, resilient and part of a good community."

It's an admirable code, and although I did not, like Vance, grow up in Appalachia, I did encounter a similar code in northern Illinois in the middle of the 20th Century when I was a boy.

But Vance also writes about a different honor code from his boyhood, one that it's possible to find variations of in various religious communities today, a code that does enormous damage in many ways.

In writing about his grandmother, Vance says that "Despite her admonition not to start fights, our unspoken honor code made it easy to convince someone else to start a fight for you. If you really wanted to get into it with someone, all you needed to do was insult his mom. No amount of self-control could withstand a well-played maternal criticism."

That kind of honor code in Vance's childhood produces plenty of violence.

A similar code today in some cultures produces what have come to be called "honor killings." Although one still has to be cautious about the accuracy of Wikipedia entries, I think its opening description of these murders is pretty much on target:

An honor killing or shame killing is the homicide of a member of a family by other members, due to the perpetrators' belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family, or has violated the principles of a community or a religion, usually for reasons such as refusing to enter an arranged marriage, being in a relationship that is disapproved by their family, having sex outside marriage, becoming the victim of rape, dressing in ways which are deemed inappropriate, engaging in non-heterosexual relations or renouncing a faith

What is one true thing we can say about people who commit such honor killings, whether they be Muslim, Hindu, Christian or part of some other faith tradition? This: That they value honor more than they value life.

How sad. What a repulsive repudiation of core religious values. Which is another reason that honor and shame cultures cause so much trouble in the world and are so hard to change.

But as Vance's illuminating book shows us, such honor codes are not limited to strange cultures far away. We can find elements of them right here in the U.S., where they also cause almost nothing but trouble. Makes me wonder whether religious leaders in such cultures ever seek to unplug such codes or whether they're so deeply embedded that they don't even try.

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Now and then one can find a vision of hope in troubled lands. Here, for instance, is a story describing how Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders have brought together their congregations in Jerusalem for common prayer. It's a rare site and the people who organized it are of uncommon courage in a place full of strife.

* * *

Cover-Value of DoubtP.S.: You are invited to join me at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library, when I will introduce my new book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions,Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. For a reservation to this free event, click here.

Leonard Cohen challenges God: 9-26-16

I am a fan of Leonard Cohen (pictured here), the singer-songwriter-poet who turned 82 last week. I can, in fact, sing you several verses of his famous "Hallelujah." Not well, but I know the words.

Leonard-cohenCohen draws from his Jewish roots for his music, and "Hallelujah" is an example of that. It speaks, after all, of King David's life.

But this recent article in The Forward asks whether Cohen's newly released song, "You Want It Darker," is his most Jewish work yet.

The link I've given you will take you not just to the story but also to a 4-plus-minute clip of Cohen performing this powerful, haunting, challenging song.

The Forward describes "You Want It Darker" as "another plaint of a narrator addressed to God, asking why bad things happen to good people, why mankind suffers, and why God seemingly wants us to descend to the darkest depths before offering redemption."

Indeed, the song reflects one of the things I most admire about Judaism: Its adherents' willingness to challenge God, to demand that God be God, to argue with God.

Clearly, over history, some Jews have simply walked away from being religious, or Torah-observant. No doubt some of that has to do with the hard questions of theodicy, which ask why there is suffering and evil in the world if God is good. In the starkest terms, the question is where was God when millions of Jews were dying in the Holocaust. One of the Holocaust survivors my co-author and I wrote about in our book They Were Just People told us that the Holocaust killed any belief he had in God, though he still belongs to a synagogue for social reasons.

But Cohen, rather than abandoning such a puzzling God, uses his creative powers to describe what he senses: "You (God) Want It Darker." It's a description that insistently demands a response from God.

Cohen is voicing exactly the kinds of harsh questions that I suggest in my new book, The Value of Doubt, we simply must ask if we are ever to get to an authentic religious faith. There are helpful answers to Cohen's questions of God, but no one will ever hear those answers if the questions themselves go unasked or are suppressed by religious leaders who fear them. So good for Cohen for not fearing to ask such questions.

(I will be introducing my new book at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Library. If you want to reserve a seat at this free event, just click here.)

* * *


When political rhetoric gets hot and divisive, bad things can follow. A Kansas City example is the attempt at arson at an under-construction mosque north of the river. Who thought such hateful actions would change anyone's mind about being Muslim?

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P.S.: My latest monthly column for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine, now is online. To read it, click here.

Is this the real cause of religion schism? 9-24/25-16

As I noted here on the blog in May, the United Methodist Church appears to be headed for a major schism, which finds its roots in the question of what, if anything, the Bible says about homosexuality. (For my take on that question, click here.)

United-methodist-churchThe church, about 5 million of whose 12 million members are from countries outside the United States, has tried to forestall that split by creating a commission to study the issue some more.

No one knows how all that will come out, but I can't see how another study will make any difference, and I suspect that a schism eventually is inevitable.

That said, there's more to this story -- for Methodists and particularly other Protestant denominations -- than just the division over the Bible and homosexuality.

As this interesting blog asserts, the source of schism goes quite a ways back. In the case of the Methodist Church, the author argues, it goes back to 1939, when the denomination decided to give an equal vote to lay people. (It's also the 50-50 power-sharing way that is in place in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA).)

"This decision," writes Robert Hunt, "was the logical outcome of a century of democratization in the church, or put another way, the steady influence of democratic ideals within a church that traditionally vested authority in a elite, self-selecting male hierarchy. It is a pattern being worked out in other religions as well as they move into the era of the idealization of democratic values. Indeed I would suggest that the first great divide that affects all inter-religious dialogue is the difference between democratic religious organizations and those that are in some form or another oligarchic."

Hunt is the director of global theological education at Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.

I think Hunt is generally right, and I acknowledge that at the end of his blog post, he writes this: "Does this mean that I oppose the vote of lay persons in UM General Conferences? No, I believe that the early Reformers were right that Christ vested authority in the baptized members of the apostolic church, who are as a body the true successors to the apostles."

But Hunt seems pretty regretful of this power-sharing arrangement, nonetheless, and suggests the price paid to implement it has been too high.

I have a different take. Rather than bemoan the tendency of Protestant laity to create division via democratic means within the church, I think this system of clergy-lay governance places a greater responsibility on the church as a whole to help make its members theologically literate. Many of the things that divide churches rise to the surface because many people in the pews are theologically and biblically illiterate.

Cover-Value of DoubtWhat every church needs is an atmosphere in which people are encouraged to express their questions about faith and even their doubts. This is one of the major points in my just-released book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. (If you're in the Kansas City area, I invite you to join me for my first public talk about this book at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Register for this free event here.)

Such vibrant discussions about matters of faith may not, in the end, prevent schism. But without the freedom to talk in educated detail about such things, schism is almost inevitable. There still will be questions of authority, of course, but even those can be resolved amicably if people are not spewing theological foolishness rooted in nothing other than their own whims and fancies.

* * *


A new report from a university-based California think tank suggests that a rise in hate crimes can be attributed to political rhetoric. Like that we've been hearing again and again from Republic presidential nominee Donald Trump. That conclusion seems pretty obvious. When political leaders engage in provocative language designed to raise fears, those fears get acted out. Come on, Americans. We can be better than that.

A lesson in the Wells Fargo scandal: 9-23-16

The Wells Fargo bank scandal, recently uncovered, was profoundly appalling but not surprising. When money is an idol, as it surely is in our society, unethical behavior inevitably follows.

Financial-ScandalsThe reassuring aspect of this deplorable story is that the big bank company had some employees whose moral compass not only had not been compromised but drove them to oppose and eventually reveal the unconscionable practice of opening new (and fraudulent) deposit and credit card accounts in the name of current customers without telling those customers what was going on.

The scam frankly seemed to me to be short-sighted and, ultimately, stupid and worthless. But short-term gains sometimes are all it takes to move some people from temptation to dishonest behavior.

Still, as this Christian Science Monitor editorial correctly suggests, "Banks must make sure they hire people of high integrity and also ensure employees have a safe outlet to report wrongdoing."

It is, of course, never possible to guarantee at the time of a hire that the person being employed will never do anything unethical or illegal. Still, good human resources departments can devise screening tests to help make sure that a new employee won't steal the company blind in the first week.

All of this raises the question of how one develops a healthy moral compass. The answer for many people for a long time has been through religion. But religion in the U.S. (and Europe) today plays a decreasing role. So other sources of morals-formation must be developed to avoid the kind of sickening behavior that has landed Wells Fargo in trouble. And the more such sources the better.

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Pope Francis recently addressed the Italian National Council of the Order of Journalists. It's got to be a made-up group. Everyone knows journalists are never in any sort of order. It's hard enough to get them just to take an order.

Misusing Christianity for racist purposes: 9-22-16

In much of the last half of the 20th Century in the United States, society's focus was on racial matters, as the civil rights movement brought to the attention of almost everyone ways in which equality among the races before the law was still a dream, not a reality.

RacismThe work to make our nation more equitable in terms of race has produced some progress, for sure. But evidence of racism and its deleterious effects still are almost everywhere. And religion is far from innocent in this matter.

Some of you are, like me, old enough to remember that when the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, one of the responses, especially in the South, was the creation of all-white Christian private schools, which were started to allow segregation to continue.

The Daily Beast recently took this look at that history and how such schools are doing today. The findings are distressing.

After describing the racism behind the creation of these schools, the Daily Beast reports this: "That history has proven difficult to shake for today’s private Christian schools. The institutions are still overwhelmingly attended by children from wealthy white families. Forty-three percent of these private schools have student bodies that are at least 90 percent white. In many Southern Christian schools, not a single black person can be found. At others, only a handful of minority children attend."

There is much more to the article, and I commend it to you.

What I find so disturbing is that Christians are doing this. Using Christianity to justify racial bias is not unlike using Islam to justify terrorism.

When Christians find others misusing their religion for such despicable purposes, they have a duty to speak out against that, to say that doesn't represent the faith. That's what I'm doing here today. If you're a Christian, I hope you will find ways to do the same, even by sharing this on Facebook.

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Another court decision allowing a town board to open with nothing but Christian prayers is distressing and needs to be overturned. I'm confident it will be. This, after all, is religiously pluralistic 21st Century America, not the middle of the 20th Century when white Christians ruled.

When scorn becomes the coin of the realm: 9-21-16

At my church, we're in the middle of four Wednesday evening sessions called "Faith Without 'Othering.'" In it Betsy Hansbrough is helping us learn about some of the thinking of René Girard, a Christian philosopher and historian who died last November at the age of almost 92.

2015-05-22 20.33.23In Girardian thought, referred to as Mimetic Theory, there is a prominent role for scapegoats. To scapegoat someone, of course, means to blame him or her for whatever the current trouble is. Oddly enough, this often works, though only temporarily.

It's no surprise that politicians often use scapegoats as a way of diverting attention away from the reality that they don't know how to fix things or that their most recent screw-up wasn't really all that bad. And as individuals we also employ scapegoats to deny our own responsibility for some decision or action that has turned out badly. How do we treat scapegoats? We scorn them. Scorn is a powerful emotion and action, as people who have been scorned surely know.

As we were talking about this last Wednesday evening, I was thinking not just about individuals who create scapegoats to blame and scorn but also about how sometimes whole communities or whole nations do the same.

In fact, the night before our class, Joakim Soria, a Kansas City Royals relief pitcher, had -- once again this frustrating season -- pitched badly, leading to another team loss. Soria has had a tough year. About a dozen times this season he has entered the game with the Royals ahead or tied and, by the time he left the mound, the Royals have been behind. In fact, it happened again last night in Cleveland in the bottom of the 9th inning.

Baseball fans always want to assign blame for losses. So Joakim Soria has become a scapegoat who is blamed by the whole legion of Royals baseball fans. Well, both Soria and his manager, Ned Yost. All over town (until the Royals won the series from the White Sox) I've heard fans scorn both Soria and Yost as the team's hopes of returning to the World Series for the third year in a row have almost evaporated.

Do Soria and Yost deserve some blame for the team's trials this year? Of course. But, in fact, baseball is a terribly complicated game, and if the Royals dumped both of them there would be no guarantee that all would suddenly be right at The K. Losses happen for a multitude of causes, some of them so subtle that most fans miss them.

But in Mimetic Theory, people often react to bad news not as individuals but as mobs. And mobs have hypnotic power, as we can see while watching political rallies and sporting events. In the case of the Royals, the mob demanding that the team rid itself of Soria and/or Yost will, if that happens, enjoy what Mimetic theorists call a fake peace. Because it's fake, it won't last long and eventually will demand another scapegoat.

Breaking that cycle requires love, grace, forgiveness, compassion and empathy. But that stuff is hard and in short supply, especially among sports fans. Scapegoating is easy. That's why the latter is much more prevalent than the former. You could look it up -- in almost any history book. No doubt the ease of scapegoating and the difficulty of loving and forgiving is why authentic, healthy religion is so hard to live out.

* * *


Former President Jimmy Carter says Baptist leaders should be in the forefront of efforts to combat "resurgent racism" in the U.S. Good idea. And they could start by standing against the racist remarks turning up in this presidential race.

Were Christian evangelicals once feminists? 9-20-16

In several branches of Christianity that would identify themselves as conservative or evangelical, there are rules and traditions that forbid women from being ordained as pastors.

Women in ministryIn fact, the Apostle Paul's narrow instructions to the early church at Corinth (found in I Corinthians 14) sometimes get taken quite literally as applicable to churches today: "Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission. . ."

By contrast, some other branches of the faith have understood that both men and women can be called to ministry. My Presbyterian denomination, for instance, has ordained women since 1956. Indeed, the first woman so ordained, Margaret Towner, still is active in church matters in her retirement in Florida. About 20 years later, the Episcopal Church began ordaining women.

Given those divisions on this issue, it may surprise some -- especially people in evangelical circles -- to learn that in the 19th Century evangelicals were almost feminists.

This blog describes how "Evangelicalism in America mainly sprang out of the soil of eighteenth and (perhaps especially) nineteenth-century American revivalism. And that nineteenth-century revivalism was in many cases quite progressive on several key social issues–one of which was the role of women in leadership." (Italics not added.)

The blogger, Kyle Roberts, quotes two different books about this history, each affirming the active role women played in such churches.

After citing the early history of an active role for women in evangelicalism, Roberts concludes this: "This is why the continued resistance to women in public, church ministry by many self-described evangelicals in the United States today is hardly legitimate–certainly not on the basis of the 'evangelical roots of feminism' in its origins."

The Catholic Church, of course, also does not ordain women as priests (though it is starting to talk about ordaining them as deacons), but the church bases its decision not on the Apostle Paul's words but, rather, on the idea that for apostles Jesus chose only males.

But, as I say, many other branches of the faith ordain women with enthusiasm, recognizing the many gifts they bring to ministry and affirming their own sense of being called by God to this work.

I'm with them, not with those who would limit the role of women.

* * *


Pope Francis tells his Vatican police that corruption is like an addictive drug. Well, yes, but the same can be said of power, of money, of lots of things. Maybe, in fact, the whole world needs to go into rehab.