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Disestablishing Islam in a Muslim country? 11-18-16

I recently wrote here about how citizens of Switzerland were lining up in opposition to offering Islam the same kind of official government recognition there that Christianity and Judaism already have.

BangladeshI expressed doubt that any country needs to make any religion its special faith. That's not the role of government.

It appears now that a predominantly Muslim country, Bangladesh, may do what the Swiss and others should do, which is to remove government sanction of a religion, in this case Islam.

As the story from The Independent to which I just linked you reports, "Dr. Abdur Razzak, a leading member of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party, proposed the religion be withdrawn from the country’s constitution during a discussion at the National Press Club in the capital Dhaka.

“'Bangladesh is a country of communal harmony. Here we live with people from all religions and Islam should not be accommodated as the state religion in the Bangladeshi constitution,' Dr. Razzak said in his report."

In some ways it is more difficult to create faith-state separation in Muslim-majority countries because Islam itself tends not to draw a distinction between religious and non-religious life. It's all religious. Which is to say that Muslims are obliged to follow Islam in all areas of their lives.

In effect, the same is true of Christianity and some other religions, but Islam seems more insistent about there being no separation between public and private behavior or between religious and secular matters.

Still, if Razzak is right that in Bangladesh "we live with people from all religions," then the hospitable thing to do is to create a welcoming environment for all faith traditions. And that means not naming one such tradition as the national, or established, religion.

Religions should stand on their own, without either support or interference from government.

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If, as I believe, the religious impulse begins with awe and wonder, few writers could express those emotions more beautifully than my friend and former Kansas City Star colleague Charles Gusewelle, who died this week. Gus, who was not a religious man in the traditional sense, understood that we live in a world that offers us beauty and marvels at every turn. To honor him, I suggest that you find some of his books and that you marinate in his words. You'll be a better, more mindful person because of the experience.

Jews, Muslims offer help for Trump: 11-17-16

Responding to the nasty presidential campaign and the appointment of a man who has a record of antisemitism to a high White House position, Jews and Muslims have launched a new partnership to fight bigotry.

Jews-MuslimsAs the National Catholic Reporter article to which I've just linked you reported, "the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America launched the new national group: the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council. Though Jewish and Muslim groups have cooperated before, the size and influence of these two particular groups — and the prominence of the people who have joined the council — mark a milestone in Jewish-Muslim relations."

Perhaps this is another example of how something good can come out of something problematic.

American Jews and Muslims, of course, inevitably bring with them international issues that divide them, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as people in this new council work through U.S.-based issues, they will want to be careful not to let international matters cloud their vision of what needs to be done here.

I liked the approach taken by Eftakhar Alam, senior coordinator at the Muslim society's Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances. He is not in an attack-Trump mode but, instead, is offering help to make sure the new administration handles some issues properly.

"We have to show the administration," he said, "that as American Muslims and Jews — people of the faiths of Abraham — we are uniting to help the administration navigate in the proper constitutional manner, to uphold freedom of religion and constitutional rights for all American citizens."

That may sound a bit like a backhanded criticism, given that it seems based on the assumption that the Trump administration will not "navigate in the proper constitutional manner," but, in fact, these matters are complicated and sometimes not easy for any administration to do the right thing.

This new effort, whether it amounts to much or whether it succeeds or fails, may be something of a model for how others interested in other issues should proceed: Get organized, identify possible problems the new administration will face (or create) and offer to help.

Even the most disappointed supporters of Hillary Clinton would do well not to sit on their hands for the next four years but, rather, to continue to be engaged in the political process. The last thing the U.S. needs is a badly failed presidency, after all.

(By the way, some media outlets have reported that Frank Gaffney, who has a reputation as an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist, has been working with the Trump transition team. But this Politico piece quotes a Trump team member as saying that those reports are false and that Gaffney is in no way advising Trump. I hope that denial is true -- and remains true.)

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Indonesia, the country that's home to more Muslims than any other, is working on ways to use social media to counter hateful speech and extremism. Perhaps there are things the U.S. can learn from that experience to detoxify some of our social media, which could use some antitoxins.

A Trump appointment to worry Jews, others: 11-16-16

The aftershocks of the presidential election continue, and it looks as if we're in for some serious whiplash as President-elect Donald Trump moves toward taking power in January.

Steve-bannonI've been among those urging people to be calm and to give Trump a chance. I still think that's the right approach, and so does my pastor, the Rev. Dr. Paul T. Rock, who had this to say to our congregation this past Sunday (I was out of town, but listened later online).

On yesterday's blog post, in fact, I found something for which to praise Trump.

But what are we to do when we find the president-elect making a choice we find abhorrent and divisive? I think we find civil ways to object, without using the kind of over-the-top language employed by some of the radio and TV talk show hosts and some of the wingnut bloggers.

For instance, I think Trump's appointment of Steve Bannon (pictured here) as a top adviser and "senior strategist" is terrible. And so do many people in the Jewish community, given Bannon's record of antisemitism.

As The Forward story to which I just linked you reports, "Bannon transformed Breitbart News, which was founded by ultra-conservative Jewish journalist Andrew Breitbart, from a fringe site into a high-traffic haven for conspiracy theorists many. . .with neo-Nazi or white supremacist ties."

In some ways this is a surprising appointment, given that Trump had a core of Jewish supporters and has Jews in his extended family. It's hard to imagine an appointment that would say more clearly to the whole country that this presidency will not have at its core respect for people of all religious traditions.

If the appointment of Bannon stands, it will be necessary for Jewish and human relations advocacy groups to monitor him closely and to raise any concerns publicly, civilly and quickly. Is it possible Bannon will change his repugnant views once he's on the White House staff? Maybe. Stranger things have happened, including the ways in which George Wallace eventually abandoned many of his racist views.

But this appointment will call for vigilance by people who care about religious freedom and freedom from bigotry.

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Harvard Divinity School is celebrating its 200th anniversary. So for some historical perspective on how things have changed, the Harvard Gazette did this interview with the current dean. The school today prepares not just Christians. Rather, it's attended by people from dozens of faith traditions. This is the new look of America in many ways, and it's a look the new Trump administration and its leaders would do well to acknowledge and respond to with something other than the kind of hostility we've seen from Steve Bannon.

Remembering the path to today: 11-15-16


WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- My parents were resourceful, rarely wasting anything. I suppose that's true of a lot of people who lived through the Great Depression and came to deplore conspicuous consumption.

For various projects, Dad would reuse old lumber that was stored in the barn that served as our garage here where I grew up. Mom would find all kinds of ways to turn leftovers into meals -- some of them even edible.

So I think they'd have been proud of the makeshift decorated wreathe that my sister Mary and my wife Marcia cobbled together from inexpensive parts purchased at a local big box store. To the knit-together branches, they attached some colorful artificial greens and flowers and then secured it all with some red ribbon.

As you can see in the photo above of Mary and me, we placed it at the base of the headstone that marks where Dad was buried in 1992 and where Mom was buried in 1996 here in Oakland Cemetery.

This is one of the things you do when you are grateful for good memories, grateful for having been given a good start in life by people who were profoundly moral and who taught their four children the value of being dependable and trustworthy.

No, none of the four of us gets to the cemetery very often. We are not obsessed with this spot. But we do our best not to forget. We know how much of a gift memory is, especially because we watched Dad in the last few years of his life lose much of his due to senile dementia. So we remember. We say thanks. We come back when we can and tell stories.

Dad died in January, so he was buried on a brusque day. Mom died in May, so the weather was softer, prettier when we buried her. In fact, I describe that day in the very first essay in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.

Religion teaches its adherents the value of memory, while suggesting people not get stuck in the past. A cemetery visit is one way of living out such lessons.

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Well, here's a bit of reassuring news: Donald Trump says the courts have settled the issue of same-sex marriage and he's fine with the result. That is not a widely held view among many of the people who voted for him, but it's the right position to take to treat all Americans equally under the law on this matter and it's the right position to take to avoid even more societal divisiveness.

Faith news while I'm gone: 11-14-16

LIBERTYVILLE, Ill. -- NewspapersWhile I'm gone a few days visiting family in Chicagoland and making a cameo appearance in my old hometown of Woodstock, Ill., I'm going to give you a couple of sources from which to get updates about religious news.

The first is Religion News Service. This excellent group of journalists provides coverage of lots of religious matters. It's a good place to keep up. You can even support RNS with a donation.

Another good source of news and analysis in the world of faith is the Pew Research Center. Lots of studies worth reading can be found there, too.

While I'm gone I also invite you to explore the various essays I have here on the blog under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. And, of course, if you've missed any postings over the last almost 12 years I've been writing this blog, now's your time to go to the archives section on the right side of this page and catch up. 

Miss me. See you back here before you know it. Bill.

By the way, many of you know that if you friend me on Facebook, a link to my daily blog will show up in your newsfeed.

Remembering a Holocaust rescuer: 11-12/13-16

Sometimes human memories are short, and short memories can lead to trouble, especially when they fail to forget both disaster and heroism.

Schindler-3That's why we have museums. That's why we write books about inspiring people. That's why memory is such a core value in Judaism.

In furtherance of memory, a foundation in the Czech Republic plans to turn an old factory into a Holocaust Museum. It's a factory overseen in World War II by industrialist Oskar Schindler, who employed more than a thousand Jews in an effort to save them from death at the hands of the murderous Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler.

As The Guardian story to which I've linked you reports, "Parts of the complex in Brněnec (formerly Brünnlitz), close to Schindler’s birthplace in Svitavy (Zwittau), were given the status of cultural monument earlier this month, according to the Czech culture ministry."

As the famous movie "Schindler's List" depicts, Schindler saved more than 1,000 Jews by having them work in his factories in both Poland and the country then known as Czechoslovakia.

As you may know, it is a Jewish custom to place a stone on the grave of someone as a sign of respect and remembrance. I have been to Schindler's grave in a Catholic cemetery in Jerusalem, and so many stones usually cover it that to read the name of the person buried there it is necessary to move them away. You can see that in this grave photo that I took in Jerusalem in 2012.

Again, from The Guardian story: "A Czech foundation plans to restore the dilapidated factory in Brněnec and create a Holocaust memorial and an exhibition depicting Schindler’s life there, with an opening scheduled for 2019."

Score another one for memory, which needs all the help it can get. Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I have tried to preserve Holocaust memory, too, by telling stories of others who worked to save Jews in Poland from the Germans in World War II in our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

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P.S.: LIBERTYVILLE, Ill. -- While I'm in Chicagoland this weekend spending time with family (and celebrating the Cubs' World Series win), I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog. Things should get back to normal here by Tuesday.

Those abusive climate change deniers: 11-11-16

Some of the candidates running for national office in this year's election asserted that there is no long-term issue more important to the future of humanity and the planet than climate change.

Katherine HayhoeWell, perhaps that's debatable, given that some sincerely think nuclear proliferation is more crucial and some even think we're all doomed if either the Royals or the Cubs don't win next year's World Series.

As much as I love both the Royals and the Cubs, I place the question of climate at or near the top of my list of matters that can affect our future. One of the problems, however, is that there is a significant segment of religious adherents who aren't buying it at all. I'm not sure what they're smoking, but a lot of people who would call themselves Christian evangelicals are also climate change deniers.

One of their own, a Texas scientist named Katharine Hayhoe, is challenging them to wake up and smell the pollution. Good for her. I first wrote about Hayhoe here in 2014. (The photo here today shows her with a book she co-authored on this subject.)

Since then, she has created a web series called "Global Weirding," in which she tries to convince evangelicals of what the huge majority of scientists know to be true -- that the earth's climate is changing in dangerous ways and that human behavior is contributing to that.

Some of the reaction, sad to say, has been predictably terrible. As The Guardian story to which I linked you above notes, "While most U.S. climate scientists live amid constant controversy, Hayhoe believes she is enduring an acute level of abuse because she reaches parts of the population many of her peers cannot reach.

"She’s an evangelical Christian. Her husband is an evangelical pastor, even, in a faith whose followers are largely skeptical of climate science. But stating the obvious doesn’t stop the hate mail."

Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, is making a bit of progress in opening up the ears and minds of some of the deniers. What I simply can't understand, however, is why some of the unconvinced imagine that the way to win their argument is to call Hayhoe vile names and to threaten her with death.

All I can assume is that the deniers know they have no case and want to deflect attention away from the emptiness of their position. How sad.

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P.S.: WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- I'm here in my hometown today and in the Chicago area for a few days of family things and Cubs celebration. While I'm gone you won't find the usual second blog item here. Things will get back to normal next week. Thanks for reading. Bill.

What will replace our national political parties? 11-10-16

For much of our nation's history, we have been served relatively well by a two-party political system.

Politics-word-cloudOh, third, fourth and even fifth parties from time to time have highlighted particular issues, and sometimes the major parties have, over time, adopted those issues as their own.

But on the whole -- and certainly for the last 150-plus years -- we've had a two-party system in which each party has worked to check the excesses of the other party and to keep the American government in what I think of as the broad political middle.

Today, in the wake of Hillary Clinton's surprising loss to Donald Trump, it looks to me as if both parties are in profound trouble and will need to find a new way forward. The Republican Party, at least at the presidential level, has become the Trump Party. The Democratic Party has lost a lot of loyalty from its followers, most of whom, like most Republicans, have precious little contact with the party's apparatus and structure. (Test: Can you name your GOP or Democratic ward committee person?) And now the Democrats are in an internal fight over why Clinton lost the election.

This demolition of the parties in an election driven by social media memes and disinformation (leading to the Disunited States of America) grieves me because in an often-overlooked way, the two parties have been vehicles for moral value. For instance, they have identified and articulated what it means that Americans believe each individual to be of inestimable value, which is a deeply religious idea. They have stood for individual freedom on the one hand and concern about the common good on the other. If we are to continue to hold to some of the important moral values that have guided this country, however imperfectly, we need two solid political parties -- one center-left, one center-right.

But, as I say, this election showed that our whole two-party system is, at best, on shaky ground, and party affiliation now means very little, compared to the cult of personality that the GOP has become and to the basket of imponderables that the Democratic Party has degenerated into. In some sense the parties have been made increasingly irrelevant by PACs and super PACs and all the almost-untraceable money that they now legally fire-hose into campaigns because the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed this abomination.

But I do not despair. I know that history shows us it is possible to rebuild a political party with a solid moral compass out of the wreckage of a party that failed. I'm thinking of the collapse of the Whig Party in Abe Lincoln's time and the rise of the Republican Party. It was the GOP back then that stood on the high moral ground for an end to slavery and national union against a Democratic Party that, though divided, essentially adopted positions that would have continued slavery, our nation's original sin.

Now, in his victory, Trump has crashed the GOP into a sea of fear, of xenophobia, of racial and religious hatred. Somehow the party lost control of itself and allowed this narcissistic, revengeful, sexually abusive, climate-change denying man to blow it up. I will leave to others the sad story of how that happened, but it was far from an overnight failure. And even though he won, his victory has done nothing to restore the Republican Party as a solid, responsible center-right source of ideas and ideals.

Trump, for all his faults, did manage to reflect some of the real pain and angst among some Americans. And it will be important for him to recognize and respond to the hopes he fueled without continuing to mislead his followers about immigrants and about such crazy conspiracy theories as the birther controversy he led and stoked for so long. In turn, the Democrats must walk away from the dismissive, even hateful, language Hillary Clinton used (and later apologized for) that called such angry Trump supporters a "basket of deplorables." We're now all in this together and we can't afford that kind of divisiveness. It's time for civility and respect on all sides -- which are also values our great religions teach.

One unanswered question is who will have the moral and political authority to rebuild the Republican Party. It can't be those who lost their moral compass and supported or at least failed to criticize Trump's worst ideas and his most divisive rhetoric. It can't be, thus, Paul Ryan or Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie or Mike Pence, all of whom wound up pledging allegiance to the Trump Party. Rather, it will require people from the "Never Trump" camp, including Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.

The Republican Party over the years sometimes has provided a needed check on the Democratic Party's tendency to spend tax money foolishly sometimes and to create a bloated bureaucracy that believes too much in the government and not enough in the people. The GOP has stood for individual freedom and principled compromise on a host of issues, though the latter virtue has pretty much disappeared in the last couple of decades as myopic radicals have gained power in the party and helped to drive this post-factual age.

Can America return to a viable two-party system that will help keep the nation centered, both politically and morally? Yes, it can. Whether it will depends in large part on who can succeed in rebuilding a substitute for the trashed GOP and on the willingness of both Trump Party and Democratic leaders to recognize how much they need a loyal opposition to prevent them from succumbing to the siren call of power.

Without a two-party system we may move toward a multi-party system that some other countries have. But if we go in that direction it will take a long, long time for such a system to find its sea legs. And I'm not sure we can afford that kind of time. Better to have two centered parties that act as agents for a morality that seeks the common good first.

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How might Pope Francis and Donald Trump find ways to work together? There are several, says John L. Allen Jr. at Crux. It's worth a read as all of us begin to digest the possible shape of a Trump presidency.

The Swiss go non-neutral on faith: 11-9-16

Once the United States became the United States, the possibility of an official state religion was banned by the Constitution. Thank goodness.

SwitzerlandIn other countries, however, there still are state-established religions. It's an anachronistic holdover from a long-gone time and it causes all kinds of problems, though, of course, each country should be free to determine that for itself.

Witness Switzerland.

A new survey there shows a large majority of citizens there think Islam should not be granted the same sort of government recognition as an official religion as Christianity and Judaism already have.

As the story to which I've linked you reports, "Asked whether Islam should be granted the same official status as Christianity and Judaism, 61% of 15,617 respondents said 'no' or 'probably no' in what the Swiss News Agency reports was a representative survey carried out by the Tamedia publishing house."

Why does the government of any nation need to decide which religions have official status and which don't? The only thing the government ought to care about is whether religions are fomenting violent revolution or whether they somehow represent a security threat to the nation.

Imagine how divisive it would be in the U.S. to ask people in a survey which religions should be officially recognized by the federal government. The terrible anti-this or anti-that religion feeling already in existence would almost certainly be exacerbated. And for no good purpose.

Switzerland has a reputation as a politically neutral nation. It would be good if it were religiously neutral, too.

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Speaking of countries that could do with a lot less state involvement in religion, there's Saudi Arabia, where, this Associated Press report says, a woman is challenging the religious establishment in various ways. Control of religion in the Saudi kingdom is complicated but the House of Saud lets Wahhabi leaders preach their rigid brand of Islam in exchange for political support. As someone voters in the U.S. elected president yesterday might say, it's a rigged system -- rigged against religious liberty.


Documenting persecution of Christians: 11-8-16

Anyone who reads the annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom or that from the State Department on that subject knows that religious liberty is in trouble in many places around the world.

Under-caesars-swordSome countries are worse than others, of course, but religion is under attack across the globe.

What many people don't realize is the extent to which Christians are suffering. Statistically, that reality make sense, given that Christianity has more adherents than any other world religion -- some 2.3 billion, give or take, compared to Islam, which is second with about 1.7 billion.

For many reasons, the repression of Christianity doesn't get as much press as it should. It's a serious problem, and world leaders need to recognize it as such and do what they can to alleviate it.

Perhaps this new just-released 26-minute documentary from a group connected with the University of Notre Dame can help. It's called "Under Caesar's Sword," and it describes in chilling detail some of the persecution of Christians taking place. (The link will give you the whole documentary. I hope you'll watch it and share it with friends.)

The film was produced by the "Under Caesar’s Sword initiative," which this press release describes as "the first systematic global investigation into Christians’ responses to violations of their religious freedom. Working to build awareness of and solidarity with Christians who suffer, Under Caesar’s Sword is a partnership of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture and the Religious Freedom Institute and is funded by a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust."

Focusing on persecution of Christians in no way diminishes the repression adherents of other world religions are experiencing in various countries. But it does bring some needed light on a subject about which lots of Americans seem ignorant. There is an organization dedicated to helping persecuted Christians and to bringing their stories to light. It's Open Doors USA. Have a look at its website.

When the documentary looks at some of the suffering Christians have been experiencing in such countries as India and Turkey, it provides some perspective about Americans who consider culture warrior Bill O'Reilly's alleged "War on Christmas" to be serious persecution of Christianity.

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I haven't yet read Ann Voskamp's new book, The Broken Way, but her message sounds a good deal like the message my congregation heard from our pastor, Paul Rock, this past Sunday: Recognize the ways in which we are broken and be a gift to others in their brokenness. Healing can come to both. We just need to give ourselves away to others in need. We do that by finding out where God already is at work in the world feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, comforting the afflicted.

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P.S.: What? You haven't voted yet? Get to the polls today. People gave their lives so you could have this privilege and responsibility.