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Does God also love aliens from other planets? 12-20-16

The ancient question of whether we humans are alone in the universe never seems to disappear -- and it certainly hasn't been answered in any definitive or satisfying way yet.

But as astronomers continue to discover additional planets in the cosmos -- including some that seem to be able to sustain life -- the question gains new intensity, and not just for scientific reasons but also for theological concerns.

As this BBC piece notes, the potential discovery of other life in the cosmos "would raise a series of questions that would exceed the bounds of science. For example, when we ask, 'What is life?' are we asking a scientific question or a theological one? Questions about life’s origins and its future are complicated, and must be explored holistically, across disciplines. And that includes the way we respond to the discovery of aliens.

"This is not just an idle fantasy: many scientists would now argue that the detection of extraterrestrial life is more a question of when, not if."

In several faith traditions, including Christianity, there tends to be a myopic view of life that suggests humans are not only at the top of the chain but that there are no other possible forms of life anywhere else that could match our wonderfulness.

A few years ago, for instance, science writer John Gibbon made something like that argument in his book Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique.

It's a seductive argument, but it doesn't prepare us theologically for the possibility that life of some sort might be found beyond Earth. What might be the theological implications of that, especially for Christianity, which teaches that God so loved humanity that God became incarnate in a human being, Jesus of Nazareth?

Would we have to imagine Jesus becoming incarnate on the planet Tralfamadore out of love of the Tralfamadorians if such a place populated by such beings is found?

If so, what does that do to the essential tenets of Christianity, if anything?

This conversation can drift easily into strange fantasy and away from our responsibilities to live compassionately here on Earth, but if it challenges our too-small notions about God, perhaps it's worth it.

(The photo you see here today is one of a series of clouds I've taken from airplanes. But in this case, the lens is pointed mostly toward Earth, not toward the mysteries of outer space, where other life might or might not exist.)

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Speaking of old questions, one from World War II is about who might have revealed to authorities the hiding place of Anne Frank and her family. There are lots of theories about the discovery of the young Jewish girl who left a now-world-famous diary. But as this Washington Post piece reports, researchers now think there may have been no betrayal at all. It might just have been coincidence. In any case, let's remember the point that Alvin H. Rosenfeld makes in his book The End of the Holocaust: The Holocaust was a whole lot bigger than Anne Frank, and Anne herself was more complex than the one quote often repeated from her about her not losing hope in humanity.

What our first black president gave us: 12-19-16

As we move toward the end of the Obama administration, we're starting to get useful analyses of what his eight years as America's first black president have meant.

ObamaOne of the best is this current cover story in the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a terrific writer who, as a black man, has written powerfully about what has been labeled America's original sin, slavery, and the terrible legacy of Jim Crow laws, segregation and other signals of systemic racism that have held back the United States and kept it from being all it could be. (Read his book, Between the World and Me.)

Coates sees Obama's presidency through that lens and writes:

"Obama was born into a country where laws barring his very conception — let alone his ascendancy to the presidency — had long stood in force. A black president would always be a contradiction for a government that, throughout most of its history, had oppressed black people. The attempt to resolve this contradiction through Obama — a black man with deep roots in the white world — was remarkable. The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable."

I think Coates has identified what I, as a white man, will miss most about the Obama presidency:

"What Obama was able to offer white America is something very few African Americans could—trust. The vast majority of us are, necessarily, too crippled by our defenses to ever consider such a proposition. But Obama, through a mixture of ancestral connections and distance from the poisons of Jim Crow, can credibly and sincerely trust the majority population of this country. That trust is reinforced, not contradicted, by his blackness. Obama isn’t shuffling before white power (Herman Cain’s 'shucky ducky' act) or flattering white ego (O. J. Simpson’s listing not being seen as black as a great accomplishment). That, too, is defensive, and deep down, I suspect, white people know it. He stands firm in his own cultural traditions and says to the country something virtually no black person can, but every president must: 'I believe you.'”

It's not that all Americans trusted or believed Obama. Some of the dislike and mistrust of the man would have accrued to any president of any race who proposed and defended the policies Obama did as a Democrat. But at least part of the distrust and disbelief surely was rooted in a bigoted rejection of the man because he was black -- a bigotry that goes against the grain of everything that the great world religions teach. America's racial attitudes have certainly changed for the better in my lifetime, but there is a long distance yet to be traveled, and it is to our collective shame that we white Americans haven't made that trip more quickly, more resolutely. In that failure we have punished ourselves by preventing many African-Americans and, indeed, members of other minority group from reaching their full potential.

That, too, is clear from what Coates writes: "The ghettos of America are the direct result of decades of public-policy decisions: the redlining of real-estate zoning maps, the expanded authority given to prosecutors, the increased funding given to prisons. And all of this was done on the backs of people still reeling from the 250-year legacy of slavery. The results of this negative investment are clear — African Americans rank at the bottom of nearly every major socioeconomic measure in the country."

I wish I were hopeful that we are on a path with our next president to continue to change and progress in our racial thinking and acting. But our next president got to where he is partly because he attracted people who bought his racist birther argument against Obama. So, although I want to give Donald Trump a chance to govern well, I am not optimistic that his presidency will see any improvements in racial harmony.

And yet as W. H. Auden wrote at the end of his poem, "September 1, 1939," we must "show an affirming flame." And I will try to do just that and I hope you will, too.

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Just for this holiday season, here's a great short radio clip about a Jewish doctor who winds up praying with a Christian family. It's more proof that we need not give away who we are as adherents of this or that faith to help people of a different tradition.

Is Trump driving progressives back to church? 12-17/18-16

A few Sundays ago at my church, I noticed that attendance seemed to be higher than usual, though I couldn't account for why. It wasn't the annual Christmas pageant, led by our children. That happened a week or two later. And it wasn't any special music or a famous guest preacher.

Trump-BibleMaybe it meant nothing, but I'm rethinking what it might mean in light of this Atlantic article, which reports that since the election of Donald Trump, church attendance is up at Protestant churches generally considered progressive or liberal in some way (though, of course, those labels -- like all labels -- hide more than they reveal).

The piece mentioned a post-election attendance spike at a United Methodist Church in Dallas, then reported this:

"Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect — including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics."

I'm not sure whether what Diana (read her books) calls the Trump bump in church attendance is real, but my guess is that even if it is, it won't last for four years. We saw something similar right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when folks needed comfort and wanted to offer what I came to think of as not 9/11 prayers but 9-1-1 prayers seeking emergency help.

That attendance spike cooled off as did the national feeling of togetherness that the 9/11 attacks generated.

All of which tells me again that Christianity (indeed, any faith) is hard to live out on a consistent basis. It means being engaged even when there's no Trump election or no Obama election or no terrorist attack or no Great Recession. It means staying the course and living out one's faith no matter what the circumstances.

Clearly, that's too much consistency for most of us to live with. So we slide away. And sometimes our sliding away leads to the next crisis.

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Here's more sad news about journalism's inadequate coverage of religion, which I just wrote about here: The PBS show "Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly," is ending soon after 20 years on the air. I've met the host, Bob Abernethy, a terrific guy, and am sad to lose his voice and leadership in this area. Will anything fill this void? Don't know.

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P.S.: It's getting late, but I have solved your problem of finding a terrific, inexpensive, last-minute holiday gift for friends who actually read books. All you have to do is order my new book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. I've just given you a link to the page for it. But if you want an autographed copy of either the paperback or the hardback, send me an e-mail ( and I'll tell you how we can arrange that. (But do it before the weekend ends.) Or if you're in the Kansas City area, our great local independent bookstore, Rainy Day Books, has been carrying it. One excellent thing about the book is that it doesn't require batteries. Well, unless you get the e-version for your phone or iPad, say.

Why we must learn to think theologically: 12-16-16

In an adult education class at my church recently we were talking about what our responsibilities are as Christians now that the country is moving from one presidential administration to another.

Destiny-PowerOne of the things I said was that we must continue to look at the world through theological lenses. Which is to say, well, what? One of the things it is to say is that we must think theologically about anything we see, read, do or witness in some way.

Soon after that I was reading Jon Meacham's definitive biography of former President George H. W. Bush, Destiny and Power. In it, Jon describes the World War II experience Bush had as a fighter pilot and of his being shot down in the Pacific. Bush survived (barely) but the two others in the plane died.

"There was no logic to the costs of combat, Bush realized," Meacham writes, "no real rhyme nor reason. All you could do was your best, and take what came. In the warm September (1945, after the war) night in Virginia Beach, the Bushes (newly married George and Barbara) prayed for those who would not come home or have families or build lives. They knew -- they both knew -- that there but for the grace of God, Bush could be dead in the depths of a distant sea."

Stop right there, I told myself. Think about what Meacham is really saying. In the midst of a World War II air battle between the United States and Japan, God decided to save Bush but to let William G. (Ted) White and Del Delaney, his plane mates, perish. That's what the phrase "but for the grace of God" means in that case. It means God picks and chooses on a daily, hourly basis who in a bombing, a car wreck, a plane crash or a terrorist attack gets to live and who must die.

The God who is painted in such a picture is whimsical, capricious, vengeful and, at times, brutal. By contrast, the God described by Jesus Christ is thoughtful, loving, compassionate and nonviolent. So I will grant that Meacham -- a thoughtful man whom I've met and interviewed -- simply used that "grace of God" phrase sloppily to mean that Bush was lucky and not really to mean that God revealed an inner and vicious unpredictability by saving Bush and letting his companions die. But it still was a theologically inept phrase to use unless, of course, Meacham's idea of God is radically different from mine or from the one revealed by Christ.

And that's some of what I mean when I say we must learn to think theologically. Let's not be attributing to providence what happens by coincidence or without divine sanction, whether that's when we write history or when we see history being made every day in our national politics.

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Members of the Religion News Association have decided that the top religion story of 2016 was the election of Donald Trump. Makes me wonder whether that's because it caused so many people to use the Lord's name in vain.

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P.S.: The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relation's "Diversity Spotlight" this month features this engaging video interview with Judy Jacobs, a Kansas City area Holocaust survivor. It is through such personal testimony that Holocaust deniers are put to shame.

Missing the meaning of the Christmas star: 12-15-16


For centuries people have marveled at and pondered the idea of a star leading the magi to the place of Jesus' birth. The Christmas star shows up in all kinds of places, including a stylized one that in this season hangs in the sanctuary of my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church.

It's a cool story, really. But we get into trouble when we try to imagine this story as literal history.

For one thing, as Catherine M. Wallace writes in her book The Confrontational Wit of Jesus, "As historical event, this is quite improbable. No one can navigate by a star (by comet, actually) to a specific address (in Matthew, a house, not a stable.). . .The story is wildly unrealistic from start to finish." But she's not ready to toss it out as meaningless:

"I contend that both liberal dismissals and fundamentalist insistence are wrongheaded. The episode is neither pious legend nor historical fact. It is something far more potent. It's narrative theology."

Then there's the science to consider, the astronomy.

What happens to stars (and other bodies) in space sometimes is violent, random and vicious. For instance, recently a European Southern Observatory telescope helped astronomers figure out that what they thought at first was the brightest supernova ever seen was, in fact, "a rapidly spinning black hole ripping apart a passing star that came too close."

Black holes, those mysterious wells of energy and nothingness from which even light cannot escape, can do that to a star. The press release to which I linked you in the previous paragraph explains that "In the process, the star was 'spaghettified' and shocks in the colliding debris as well as heat generated in accretion led to a burst of light. This gave the event the appearance of a very bright supernova explosion. . ."

The Christmas star story assumes a benign, even benevolent, cosmos full of stars that get employed in helpful ways for strangers searching for babies in specific locations.

To take that as scientifically accurate is to miss the metaphor implicit in the gospel that the whole cosmos rejoiced over the incarnation of God as Jesus on that first Christmas. And surely that's a much more important -- even miraculous point -- than whether stars can GPS their way to a specific address.

(I found the star graphic seen here today at this NBC News site, which has a story about the star.)

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Pope Francis has confirmed plans to do even more international traveling next year. Well, we may have found at least one Bible passage (Matthew 28:19 in the KJV) that this pope takes literally: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations. . ." If you're going to pick one to read that way, that's a good one.

A mature voice encouraging young Muslims: 12-14-16

Khizr Khan (pictured here), who made such a splash this summer at the Democratic National Convention, could have simply gone home after Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump.

Khizr-khanThis father of a Muslim American Army captain who died in Iraq had challenged Trump but voters had selected Trump anyway.

And yet Khan, I'm pleased to say, has not been silent since his electrifying speech in Philadelphia. Today he is working to encourage young Muslims not to lose heart and to pledge themselves to legal, constitutional ways to secure religious and political freedom in the U.S.

The Los Angeles Times story about Khan to which I've just linked you reports that "Now the 65-year-old has a new mission: inspiring hope in young Muslims, some of whom had never voted in an election before last month, some of whom weren’t old enough to vote at all."

This post-election period has been a trying one for many Muslims in the U.S. Reports of anti-Muslim actions and even hate speech have risen and instilled fear in many young Muslims.

Khan is doing his best to make sure those young Muslims (and others) don't abandon hope.

"Never feel afraid, never feel disheartened,” Khan is saying. “Whenever in the life of decent people throughout the history of mankind, whenever there have been difficult times, there have been times when their values were tested. That is why we are here, that is why I am here, that is why you are here,” Khan said. “To make sure the goodness of this country [lasts], the goodness that we cherish when we call ourselves proud Americans.”

Faith that withers under fire, that slinks away when challenged, that cannot inspire people in hard times isn't worth much. Khan is providing a model for people of all faith traditions not to wilt when the going gets tough. Good for him.

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Well, this is interesting and something I didn't know: In Latin America there's competition about who secretly delivers Christmas gifts -- among Santa, the baby Jesus and the three wise men. The Jesus seems to be winning. Well, in almost any competition, if Jesus is a player you're wise to bet on him.

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P.S.: Please put it on your calendar for a month from today. I will be speaking from 9 to 11 a.m. on Jan. 14 at Second Presbyterian Church about contemporary spirituality. I'm the third speaker in a four-part series. Tickets are required (they're cheap) and you can get one here. I hope to see some of you that Saturday morning.

How journalism fails to cover religion: 12-13-16

If you're one of my regular readers, you know that from time to time I complain about the quality of journalism as it relates to coverage of religion. Despite some excellent religion reporters here and there, for the most part religion gets nothing like the coverage it deserves.

Religion-JournalismIt may be one of the reasons members of the media seemed so stunned at the election of Donald Trump.

So I was pleased to find the executive editor of The New York Times saying in this recent interview that he believes journalism must do better when it comes to religious coverage.

"I think that the New York-based — and Washington-based too, probably — media powerhouses don't quite get religion," said Dean Baquet. No doubt true, but even newspapers, magazines, TV and radio and other outlets here in the Heartland don't pay nearly enough attention to religion. The Kansas City Star, for which I once was the religion columnist, is now down to no one assigned to cover religion and has reduced its Saturday Faith section to part of one inside page of the FYI section.

Similar worries about religious journalism were expressed recently in this Harvard Gazette interview with Diane Moore, senior lecturer on religious studies and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Word Religions at Harvard Divinity School.

"We see that the fundamental misrepresentation of religion, what I call religious illiteracy, is what’s driving part of the fabric of U.S. culture," she said.

Indeed, I think religious literacy is so essential that I've been working for several years on a special project of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council to create an interfaith religious literacy project. We're now in conversations with officials from the University of Missouri-Kansas City about the possibility of locating it there. Here's a link to a recent column I did about it for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine.

Of course, it's unlikely that journalism outlets will improve coverage of religion if readers, viewers and listeners don't complain about the current dearth of such coverage. So gripe away, folks.

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I frequently write about new faith-based books here on the blog. Today I'm going to let someone else do that. Here is Kimberly Winston's holiday reading list of such books. She writes for Religion News Service. To her list I would add my own new book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. E-mail me ( if you want to know how to get an autographed copy or 10 to give as gifts.

Just how old is the religious impulse? 12-12-16

The other day I was in a group that was talking about the various DNA tests available now to tell people about their own background. One woman said she had taken one of the tests and discovered that a very tiny part of her showed some Neanderthal background. Pretty amazing, given that the Neanderthals disappeared 40,000 years ago, but not impossible.

Neanderthal_skull_homo_sapiens_skullThat got me to thinking about what we know about the Neanderthals. So I was intrigued to find this NPR piece, which raises the question of whether the Neanderthals were religious.

It's a perfectly understandable and legitimate question. For as we consider the evolutionary past of the human race and its cousins, scholars are inevitably intrigued by the question of whether there were religious practices and beliefs tens of thousands of years ago.

The NPR piece is cautious about drawing solid conclusions about that question, but the author, an anthropologist, writes that "We do see hints of ceremonial responses to the dead at Neanderthal sites."

Such ceremonies might well indicate a connection to a religious system. Or they might mean precious little. What we have discovered about the Neanderthals, however, is that we've been wrong to consider them just dumb, simple and brutish. They lost the evolutionary battle with us homo sapiens, but they were not monstrous freaks.

"Looking at the evidence collectively, though," the NPR piece concludes, "I think at least this conservative conclusion is warranted: Some Neanderthals buried their dead with purpose and care."

As I write in my new book, The Value of Doubt, awe and wonder are the initial impulses that lead to religion. And it's impossible that the Neanderthals weren't, like contemporary and later humans, at times struck by awe and wonder as they lived in and considered their environment. The world simply draws out from us that kind of response.

So I find it hard to imagine that even the Neanderthals didn't have some kind of practice and belief that we might fairly label religious today. The question for us is what, if any, difference this history makes to us. Perhaps it calls on us to respect our ancestors' thoughtfulness and ability to grapple with the eternal questions in ways we haven't much appreciated. And it should call us to re-examine our own beliefs and practices to see whether they are life-affirming or something less healthful.

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A new survey shows that American Catholics continue to be in love with Pope Francis. And lots of us Protestants think he's pretty cool, too, as indicated by the book I co-authored last year with my pastor, Paul Rock, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. It's still a good Christmas gift.

'The eyes of the blind will be opened': 12-10/11-16

I have a remarkable retired clergy friend who each year sends out a remarkably honest Christmas letter to update family and friends about his life of trial and joy.

Isaiah-35Since his 2015 holiday letter, an accident caused him to lose sight in his one good eye and he is now blind. That has caused him to move from his home into a care unit, where I visit him not nearly often enough (though I plan to see him Tuesday).

Despite his terrible circumstances, he is able to look life in the eye -- blind as he now is -- and recognize blessings and joy when he senses them. So I want to share part of his latest Christmas letter with you today to give you a model of how one person's spirit stays strong even when he must feel like put-upon Job some days.

He begins by saying he "will share some of the things I have learned from being blind.  
"1. How totally dependent I am on the kindness of others. I have to have help showering, shaving, dressing and getting in and out of bed for instance -- but I have learned to feed myself. It is one of things that has been so troubling about the recent election. I fear it has been more divisive than unifying, and we really do need each other.
"2. I am learning to celebrate the things I can still do rather than grieving the things I can no longer do. I still allow myself 15 minutes a week for self pity, and that is all.
"3. Patience. I sometimes wait for an hour or an hour and a half before my call light is answered. And I have to remind myself that there are others in this place who have needs also.
"Otherwise, life in 'the home' goes happily forward." And then he lists various activities that he continues to enjoy -- from a monthly spelling and geography bee (he's the defending champ) to a brain fitness class to a monthly meeting of retired clergy.
My holiday wish for you is that you will have at least one friend like my blind friend, someone who can model what it looks like to recognize the inevitable pain and suffering in life but who can live joyously nonetheless.
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Religion News Service has done this interview with the first woman to be ordained a rabbi, Sally Priesand. She was ordained in 1972. Now women rabbis are working in lots of places. Only Orthodox Judaism will not ordain women. In the interview, Priesand says, " I didn’t really think very much about being the first. I didn’t do it to champion women’s rights. I just wanted to be a rabbi." Clearly the right attitude.
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: Although I don't know how these things are judged, I just heard from the folks at that my blog has been ranked in the top 50 faith blogs at No. 23. For the full list, click here.

What's next for the Israelis, Palestinians? 12-9-16

It feels as if the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been floating around at least since, well, the United Nations tried to create two states in the 1940s, though the result was just Israel after the Palestinians' leadership refused the deal.

Jerusalem-dome-doveSo for nearly 70 years the Jewish state of Israel has existed despite almost countless efforts by many of its Arab neighbors to destroy it. And for most of that time some kind of "peace process" has been under way to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict and its Israeli-Palestinian subset by creating a separate state for the Palestinian people.

The question this Atlantic piece finally asks is whether it's now -- or soon will be -- too late to save the two-state solution. Secretary of State John Kerry, nearing the end of his term, is giving plenty of indications that he thinks so.

I hope he's wrong, but he may not be. If he is right, leaders of the Middle East will have missed a vital opportunity to give the people of the region a future full of peace and hope versus a future full of continued battling and uncertainty. How sad that will be.

Who is to blame for getting us to this terrible place? On the one side are people who say that Palestinian leadership, beginning in the 1940s and even before, has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. On another side are people who say that Israel's insistence on continuing to build settlements in occupied and disputed territory has so badly undermined the peace process that it looks like deliberate sabotage.

Beyond that, there is lots of blame to go around for the failure of Arab leaders other nearby nations to find a way to live with Israel and to encourage Palestinian leadership to do the same. And there is blame to be apportioned to international diplomats, including Americans, for not having a creative enough imagination to overcome resistance to a two-state solution.

As the Atlantic piece reports, "Israel can’t be both Jewish and democratic over the long term if it abandons the idea of a Palestinian state and instead exercises sovereignty over majority-Arab lands, Kerry said, and it can’t be at peace within its broader neighborhood either. 'There will be no separate peace' with other Arab states in the absence of a peace with the Palestinians. He wasn’t yet willing to say that time has run out to solve the problem. But he said 'there has been an erosion over a period of time by virtue of this continued settlement process which narrows and narrows the capacity for peace.'”

What we don't know yet, of course, is whether the incoming Trump administration -- and whoever gets picked for secretary of State -- will have the expertise or interest to move this peace process, such as it is, along toward success. And if it doesn't, the world may be in a lot deeper trouble than it is already.

(The photo here today is one I took in Jerusalem in 2012, showing the dove of peace near the Temple Mount looking for a place to land and succeed. It's still floating around there today.)

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A reporter for National Public Radio -- a young Muslim female who grew up in Indiana -- spent this election season traveling the country. And she tells this fascinating story about her experiences, concluding: "I got to see America this year like I had never seen her before — traveling to main streets in Iowa, diners in New Hampshire, living rooms in Ohio, county GOP meetings in Colorado, casinos in Nevada, churches in Florida, and so many, many more places across our fascinating country. And for that I'll always be grateful. But I also felt unwelcome in my homeland for the first time. It's something I had never known before." Sigh.