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Our simplistic thinking leads us astray: 1-31-17

The annual March for Life in Washington -- which, as Melinda Henneberger of The Kansas City Star correctly notes in this column, is more complicated than just expressing opposition to abortion -- has left me wondering (again) about the labels we use, such as "pro life" and "pro choice."

March-for-lifeThese simplistic labels, like almost all labels, hide more than they reveal. To be pro life should mean much more than just being opposed to abortion. If it doesn't it's proceeding as if ending pregnancies were the only possibly evil thing happening to affect life. And pro choice should mean much more than being in favor of letting women chose whether to end a pregnancy. That sort of limitation fails to acknowledge how messy life can be and how the very preciousness of life should lead to deep soul searching before electing to have an abortion.

If pro lifers are focused only on abortion, the pro life label gets emptied of meaning. Where, after all, is the concern about life after birth? About health care for all? About economic justice so life is not spent just in brutal poverty? About stopping capital punishment so we're not arbitrarily ending life, sometimes of innocent people? About protection of children from abusive educational, welfare and other systems that can ruin and even destroy young lives?

Once again we find ourselves moved by such massive events into binary thinking. And that's exactly the kind of no-gray thought process that destroys nuance and that, in the end, fails to describe the world in a fair and accurate way. Binary thinking leads to what Donald Trump's aide Kellyanne Conway calls "alternative facts." (No wonder George Orwell's book 1984 has surged in popularity recently. As of yesterday morning it was's No. 1 best seller.)

This Atlantic piece delves into some of this in a helpful way.

"For most Americans, though," the piece reports, "the Trump administration won’t be judged on a single issue. As the leaders of the pro-life movement cheer on the new president at the March for Life, they risk associating the movement with all of his policies — including the exclusion of refugees, immigration restrictions, and a newly undermined health-care system. They also risk alienating the people who have often been their most enthusiastic marchers: the young women and men who turn out by the thousands to march against abortion every year."

Many of those young people did not vote for Trump and seem to have a more accurate, more complicated view of the many issues that touch on abortion.

I sometimes tire of hearing me say this, but the reality is that life and political issues are complex, sometimes convoluted. And when we fall for simplistic descriptions of them we open ourselves up to simplistic answers that, in the end, will be divisive and unhelpful.

* * *


The profoundly controversial Trump travel ban on refugees from certain countries has stirred tremendous protest across the country. As this story reports, few seem to believe the president when he says that it's not a ban on Muslims (the ban he promised in his campaign). And as this story reports, American Christians have not welcomed the president's preference for allowing persecuted Christians (over others) into the U.S. In the end, Trump has spent an enormous amount of political capital and goodwill on this poorly thought-out policy, and people of faith have done the right thing by telling him he's on the wrong track -- even though all Americans want policies that protect us from terrorists entering the U.S.

In this new era, the role of people of faith: 1-30-17

As I wrote here recently, people I know in my church and elsewhere are struggling in this new political era to figure out how to respond to new policies and new directions.

ProtestsPeople of faith are called to use what I call their prophetic voices to speak a word for justice, for compassion, for mercy, for honesty, integrity and even for love.

But this is a frenetic time. In the first week of Donald Trump's presidency he issued lots of executive orders and made speeches and gave interviews -- and it was hard to keep up with all of it, though over the weekend most of the attention fell on his misguided travel ban affecting some predominantly Muslim countries.

Even if you liked everything you saw (and if you did, I'd say you were being foolishly consistent) you probably had a hard time keeping up with all the fast-breaking developments, all the news, all the facts and alternative facts.

And if you disliked everything (again, perhaps, foolish consistency), you might have spent all your energy by this past Wednesday before falling, exhausted, to the ground.

I am trying to be discerning about where to spend my energy, about when to use my prophetic voice here, in other publishing venues and in person. So over the weekend here on the blog I focused on the big question of whether the new administration will adopt a new and repugnant policy approving the use of torture in some cases.

As I think about how to proceed in this new time, this blog entry (unfortunately the author is anonymous, and I dislike that) has been helpful and maybe it will be helpful to you, too.

The author, who identifies as an African-American pastor, writes this: "My enthusiasm about the Trump presidency is admittedly non-existent. But I recognize there are those who feel quite differently than I do."

That's the first and perhaps most important step: for all sides to display some humility and to recognize that we may not be right in our assessment of things. Civility and humility are in short supply in our country at the moment, and, in my judgment, the new president is not encouraging either of those necessary characteristics. But that doesn't mean we need to engage in binary thinking that reduces complexity to two colors.

One of the necessary things prophetic voices need to say today is that we must not engage in simplistic bumper-sticker politics. Life is way more complicated than that. Let's remind our politicians of the need for nuance and fairness.

* * *


The continued loss of priests and nuns is hurting the Catholic Church, Pope Francis says. My guess is the church's ban on female priests and its insistence on keeping a celibate priesthood won't change until things get much, much worse. But whatever actions the church is taking now to stop what Francis calls the “hemorrhage” of priests and nuns from the church isn't working, so it's likely that things will, in fact, get worse.

* * *

P.S.: Here is my latest Flatland column, in which I offer an update on Steve Israelite after his terrible accident last fall.

Why we must stand against torture: 1-28/29-17

In his first post-inauguration interview with ABC news the other day, President Donald Trump said that torture works and indicated that using it against ISIS fighters may be justified. The administration's policy on the subject is under review, so it's good that Trump also said that he wants to do "everything within the bounds of what you're allowed to do legally."

NO_TORTUREThere are many distressing matters raised by all of this, particularly for people of faith, including whether the new administration might want to stretch and stretch again "what you're allowed to do legally."

For years now an organization called the National Religious Campaign Against Torture has been raising lots of troubling questions about torture as it seeks to convince policy makers here in the U.S. never to use torture.

Here is how NRCAT describes torture: "Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved -- policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation's most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable. Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now -- without exceptions."

If you missed it, here's what the ABC story said about the news agency's interview with the president: "Trump said he would wage war against Islamic State militants with the singular goal of keeping the U.S. safe. Asked specifically about the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, Trump cited the extremist group's atrocities against Christians and others and said: 'We have to fight fire with fire.'

"Trump said he would consult with new Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo before authorizing any new policy. But he said he had asked top intelligence officials in the past day: 'Does torture work?'

"'And the answer was yes, absolutely,' Trump said."

And yet there is considerable evidence to the contrary. For instance, as this 2014 New York Times report shows, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found many reasons to dismiss CIA claims about the value of information gained by torture.

And this analysis in The Guardian raises lots of questions about the efficacy of torture and the reliability of the information torture produces from its victims.

But asking whether torture works is a question that never should need to be asked in the first place -- similar to whether murder works or rape works. Torture is simply morally unacceptable in any case in that it debases people, treating them as commodities and as not part of the human family.

So I found it at least modestly encouraging on Friday when Trump said that although he thinks torture works, he plans to yield to the opposition to torture expressed by Defense Secretary James Mattis. Trump's temptation and instincts to use torture, however, must be continually opposed.

This is one matter on which the voice of people of faith should be strong, clear and in unison as it speaks to the new administration with this message:

No. Torture is unworthy of us as a people. You will not commit it in our name. Ever.

* * *


It turns out that in Israel, evangelical Christian groups are among those helping Holocaust survivors live more comfortable lives as they age, this report notes. There's always the question of motive in such cases. Are these groups doing it out of guilt, out of respect for the common humanity their members share with survivors or as a way of trying to convert Jews to Christianity? I hope it's mostly for the second reason, though it wouldn't surprise me to find some helpers attached to reasons 1 and 3.

On God's rapidly expanding cosmos: 1-27-17


In a talk I've given about my new book, The Value of Doubt, I have made the point that imagining we can understand God in any comprehensive way is just silly, given that we can't even understand close to everything about the physical universe we inhabit. I have put it this way:

"We cannot even come up with thorough, unchallenged explanations for the reality we can see and touch all around us — the puzzling subatomic world of quarks and fermions, of leptons and bosons, all the String Theory and M-Theory enigmas, to say nothing of a universe that astronomers now think is 93 billion light years in diameter and is expanding at an accelerating rate. So if that’s true, why do we think we can lock down God in a box? What makes us imagine that we are smart enough to chart heaven or even the human soul?"

New evidence of our colossal ignorance has just surfaced through the work of astronomers.

I know this will sound like a joke, but there actually are serious scientists collaborating internationally on figuring out the rate at which the universe is expanding (and other things), and their collaboration group is known as HOLiCOW. The name is a smash-up of HO Lenses in Cosmograil's Wellspring, if that means anything to you. The HO (the O should drop down half a line, like this: H0) refers to the Hubble Constant. If you want to know about the Hubble Constant, you may click on that link and not rely on me to mess up your thinking about it, but, in short, Hubble's Constant was the initial value for the expansion rate of the universe.

At any rate, yesterday the HOLiCOW folks released findings that show that the universe seems to be expanding at a rate that's even faster than previously thought.

These scientists reported that "the values obtained by the different groups of astronomers for the local universe are in disagreement with our accepted theoretical model of the universe." (Local universe? What? There are other distant universes? Well, not quite. One explanation is here.)

And "this," the astronomers reported, referring to their findings about the rate of expansion of the cosmos, "hints at a fundamental problem at the very heart of our understanding of the cosmos."

So they've made my point again. There is much that we can explain about the material universe, including some things about dark matter and dark energy. But there still is much that's a mystery to us.

From this position of ignorance (not stupidity, just ignorance) of the physical world, it seems like foolish hubris to think that we can say much of anything useful about the spiritual world and God, save, perhaps, what religion calls revelation, such as the idea that God is love.

When it comes to eternal, divine matters, we rely not on sight but on faith, as II Corinthians 5:7 tells us. Faith is not blind, not irrational. But it also is not seeing fully but through a mirror darkly, as the Apostle Paul reminds us. Remembering that should keep us humble.

(The image here today is from the Hubble Telescope and is called "Snow Angel S106 Nebula." You can find it and other Hubble images here.)

* * *


Although the (now-late) Mary Tyler Moore wasn't Jewish, in some ways she really was, this intriguing piece asserts. Until I read this, I had been mostly unaware of the ways in which she tackled antisemitism and highlighted Jewish values.

Should remaining blue laws disappear? 1-26-17

Remember "blue laws"?

I recall writing about their abolition in Missouri back in the 1970s and the concern about whether allowing commercial establishments to be open for business on Sunday would bring about the moral collapse of our culture.

Blue-lawsIt turns out that there still are blue laws here and there in the United States. And now they've become a big legislative issue in, of all places, North Dakota. As this AP story reports, "Critics of the nation's strictest so-called blue law began another effort Monday to strip it from the books. Some such restrictions have existed since North Dakota became a state in 1889, stemming from fears that visiting a retail store on Sunday morning would compete with church and erode family values, leaving little time for rest."

Well, the reality may well be that having retail stores open on Sunday competes with church and can "erode family values, leaving little time for rest." (Whatever the heck the term "family values" means.)

But it's not up to the state to worry about church attendance. It's not up to the state to define "family values" or any kind of spiritual values or spiritual discipline. It's up to the state, instead, to offer equality under the law and to maintain public safety.

It's up to religious communities to teach their followers what constitutes moral behavior. If a faith community thinks buying beer or sweaters or tires on Sunday is immoral and even sinful, it's up to that community to teach that value to its adherents, not to get the state to enforce its own version of moral rectitude.

Religious people who want to deputize the state to be its moral police might do better to move to a place like Saudi Arabia, where there really are vice police who do such things. I've seen them there.

The current North Dakota effort to do away with blue laws is far from the first there. As the AP reports, "The legislation is the latest in a line of attempts to persuade the Legislature to end the Sunday morning shopping prohibition. The state Supreme Court has twice upheld the ban, once in the mid-1960s and again in the early 1990s. The state's high court, in similar conclusions, ruled that the law was not to aid religion, but rather to set aside a day for 'rest and relaxation.'"

If that court was right, it still doesn't explain why it is the state's job to make sure this or that day is for rest and relaxation. Such matters, if they are to addressed at all by the law, should relate to labor laws and regulations, not religious activities.

For religion to operate freely, it simply needs a government that doesn't impede its ability to teach its followers what it believes to be proper theology and action. The last thing religion needs is for the state to be its handmaiden. That weakens religion.

(By the way, you still can find some blue laws hanging on not just in Missouri but in lots of states. The only blue laws I might keep are those that regulate the sales of alcohol after a certain late-night hour. And I'd do that for legitimate public safety reasons, not so the state can be a nanny.)

* * *


Pope Francis seemed to say recently that there's lots of freedom of religion in China. He's going to have to do a lot of explaining of what he meant by that. For as the Crux piece to which I've linked you accurately reports, the evidence is quite the contrary. It's been that way for a long time and seems not to be getting any better.

* * *

P.S.: There are several upcoming opportunities for KC area youth to be involved in interfaith activities, including a chance to do a service project and opportunities to discuss how to react to religious harassment. For details, click on this link to a pdf file outlining several upcoming events:  Download KCIYA_upcoming_events_2017_01_17

Is the celibate Catholic priesthood nearing an end? 1-25-17

From time to time in the Catholic Church, the issue of a celibate priesthood gets lots of attention -- and then sort of dies away as the current system stumbles on despite the shrinking numbers of those ordained.

PriestsBut as this Economist analysis notes, the issue soon may not be avoidable. Cries for change -- from priests themselves -- are being heard here and abroad, and the movement to allow married priests seems to be gaining serious momentum.

Although worldwide the church itself is holding its own and even growing, ". . .the priesthood," the article reports, "with its hard calling of celibacy, is in freefall in many places. In America, the number of Catholics connected to a parish has risen over the past half-century from 46m to 67m, while the number of priests has fallen from 59,000 to 38,000. In France, about 800 priests die every year while 100 are ordained. Priest numbers there have fallen from 29,000 in 1995 to about 15,000. On present trends they may stabilize at less than 6,000."

Some men and women experience a true call to celibacy and to being religious leaders. Celibacy, in this sense, is a spiritual discipline that many believe is a divine gift that allows those who have it to be married, in effect, to the church.

But as the Economist story notes, some older priests now are saying that they agreed to this form of life because the church demanded it, not because they chose it.

In fact, the church already has some married priests. In the U.S., they are former Episcopal priests who converted to Catholicism after already being married and have been allowed to remain married. (I did a story about one such man in Kansas some years ago for The Kansas City Star.) There also are married priests in Eastern-rite Catholic churches.

The chances of the church changing the rules on celibate priests is much higher than it is for ever allowing female priests. But despite the current attention to the celibate priesthood, change appears to be quite some time away.

* * *


A new film in Egypt that is critical of the too-close relationship between Muslim leaders there and the state has caused a big controversy. No surprise. It's what happens when fiction speaks truth, as it sometimes does more clearly and more forcefully than non-fiction.

What spending money says about us: 1-24-17

One day after school last week, two of my elementary-school granddaughters were at our house and wound up watching a show on TV about pampered dogs.

Bee-HaleyPampered dogs? That's what it said. And, boy, it wasn't kidding.

One of the obscenely expensive item shown was a doggy dish that cost just under $1,000.

My 11- and 9-year-old granddaughters rolled their eyes in disbelief. As well they should have. And I made sure I rolled my eyes, too, because I wanted them to know that something that needlessly expensive for a dog was, in my view, a case of losing all sense of proportion and all sense of moral balance.

Just think, I told them, what $1,000 could do instead if it were used to help feed a malnourished family suffering from a bad and inadequate diet because of poverty.

They nodded. End of story. No need at that point to make it any clearer. They got it.

I thought about that a few days later when I attended the memorial service of Bee Haley, who had served as development director for Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, a non-profit on whose board I serve.

Over her years with KCH&PC, Bee had helped to raise some $30 million to help us care for people at the end of their lives. And before that she was a fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society, where she helped raise an estimated $20 million.

It was important work, and it encouraged countless people to be generous, to use their wealth to help others, to, well, not spend it on $1,000 dog dishes.

No one, including me, has a perfect record when it comes to not wasting money foolishly or on needlessly extravagant things. Nearly all of us have bought stuff for way too much just because, well, we could.

But I hope that when I'm tempted to do that in the future, I'll remember Bee's voice and her hard work to make sure that K.C. Hospice had the resources needed to make sure the people for whom it cares have a smooth trip to the end. Give $1,000 to that instead of a doggy dish fit for a king and, in the end, you'll have shown that you have your priorities straight and that the great religions' call to give charitably isn't a scam. It is, rather, a call to live recognizing the ultimate worth of every human being.

* * *


Here is a Washington Post story that blows up the image of a typical Islamic imam. It's about Suhaib Webb, who grew up as a wild white kid in California and now is a Qur'anic scholar and movement leader. Like Christianity, Islam includes an astonishingly broad range of people around the world.

A complicated calculus on abortion: 1-23-17

The quadrennial presidential inauguration and the annual March for Life (to protest the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion) now are behind us, and it's time to try thinking in ways that may seem a little contrarian.

Abortion-debateFor instance, some Hillary Clinton (and good for her for showing up to witness Donald Trump's inauguration) supporters may be surprised, but the sun has come up for three straight mornings after Trump became president. So maybe it's time for some of them to acknowledge that this may happen every single day for four years.

As for Roe vs. Wade, this New Yorker piece makes an interesting case for why Republicans might regret it if the Supreme Court eventually really does overturn that case and pull the constitutional rug out from under abortion.

Why? In a word, it has given them an emotional issue to run against. As the article says, "for the conservative movement, Roe has not been such a bad thing. Conservatives may indeed benefit more from Roe’s preservation than from its being overturned.

"The most direct beneficiaries of Roe have been women of all political persuasions, whose right to control their own bodies and to avoid forced childbirth was not recognized before the ruling. But conservatives have also reaped benefits since the late nineteen-seventies, when strategists like Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the Moral Majority, shrewdly recognized that social issues like abortion could broaden the Republican Party’s base beyond the business class. 'Yes,' social issues 'are emotional issues, but that’s better than talking about capital formation,' Weyrich said. As the recent election showed, this strategy can yield dividends even for candidates who have never seemed especially moved by the plight of the unborn. For much of his life, Trump described himself as pro-choice. He was more likely to be spotted at a night club than at a pro-life rally. All of this changed when Trump ran for President, at which point he began courting evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Jr., and rebranding himself as a committed right-to-lifer."

Abortion has been one of the most divisive issues in American political history, and part of the reason is that many of the opponents have claimed to be speaking and acting on God's behalf. That is, they have been certain that abortion is always and everywhere a deep evil and sin.

When you know exactly what God thinks about complicated social issues, it's hard not to feel smug, not to believe those who disagree with you are tools of the devil.

So it's been hard for opponents and proponents to find any common ground, even though many of us who believe abortion should remain legal also believe that its use should be much rarer than it is (though the numbers are falling). But many of us who believe that are men, and in many ways the privileged voice in this debate should be that of women, not men.

At any rate, just as the barking Trump dog has caught the presidential car he's been chasing and now must figure out what to do with it, so, too, will Republicans who oppose abortion have to figure out something else to be against if the Supreme Court some day removes abortion from their list of evils to oppose.

* * *


Pope Francis says he will reserve judgment on Donald Trump until he sees what actions he takes. It's exactly the right way for everyone, including politicians of all stripe, to approach any new president, though it rarely happens that way. And the new president doesn't encourage people to take that stance when what comes out of his mouth and his Twitter account is unnecessarily provocative. Still, what matters is action, more than intentions and more than words.

Churches that reflect our dinner tables: 1-21/22-17


For a very long time, some American Christians have worried about the lack of racial diversity of people attending worship services on Sunday mornings. Indeed, that 10 or 11 a.m. hour sometimes has been called the most segregated hour of the week in this country.

Some of the racial makeup of congregations has been a natural result of segregated geography and of the widespread human inclination to hang around people like ourselves. But a good deal of the lack of diversity grows out of the history of bigotry in this country starting at least as far back as slavery.

The question of what can be done about all of this now was the subject the other evening of an American Public Square gathering at Redeemer Fellowship in KC's Midtown area. A rabbi moderated a panel made up of four Christian pastors in a conversation called "Religion & Race: Chasm or Bridge?"

It was a useful evening with lots of worthwhile topics tossed on to the table, and APS is to be commended (again) for providing a forum for talking civilly about difficult issues that face us, though the evening would have been strengthened considerably had the panel reflected the religious diversity of the Kansas City area. Instead, there were four Protestants and the moderator was a rabbi. That's not good enough.

But for today I want to focus on something said by one of the panelists, Brian Key, who is pastor of spiritual formation at Redeemer Fellowship. (He's on the far right in the photo of panelists above. To his right is Tina L. Harris, pastor of Grand Avenue Temple United Methodist Church. In the center is panel moderator David Glickman, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom. To his right is Linda Collins, associate pastor of New Life in Christ International Ministries, and to the far left, holding the microphone, is Rick Behrens, senior pastor of Grandview Park Presbyterian Church.)

What he has learned from others, said Key, an African-American pastor at a predominantly white church, is that unless you make a determined effort to have it look otherwise, your church will mostly likely look like the people who show up at your dinner table.

I think experience bears that out. If we live in a world that is truly integrated -- not just at work but in our family time and free time as well -- we will want something similar in our faith community. At my house over the years we've certainly had a racial, ethnic and economic variety of people at our dinner table, but the truth is that most of the time our dinner guests look a lot like the middle class white folks that my wife and I are. And our church, Second Presbyterian, though it has some racial minority members, looks mostly like our dinner table.

There are many good reasons to want a diverse church, as some of the panelists noted. But it takes an intentional effort. Which means not just being welcoming but being inviting. And it takes being aware of the unstated cultural messages and hurdles we put up (often without meaning to offend) for visitors.

This might be a time when what happens in our homes can change what our churches look like and whom they include.

* * *


Regular readers of my blog may recall this post from last June in which I talked about an interfaith effort by Kansas City area teen-agers to help a Muslim girl, Rania Bouzahzah, who had been diagnosed with cancer. The girl and her family recently have returned to Belgium, from which they had come to the U.S., so they could be closer to family and for other reasons. I and others just received this update from the girl's father, Boumédiène Bouzahzah, and wanted to pass it along to ask for your prayers and good thoughts on behalf of Rania. Here's what he said: "Hi, everybody. As I mentioned previously we returned back home to Belgium. Thank God, we made it home safely. Rania was tired and had some headache and vomited a couple of times. We had a very good welcoming and a very nice dinner together with about 2/3 of our family members. Rania was overwhelmed. Things are going slowly but we need time and support from family members. We will update you. Thank you for being there for Rania. Love to all of you. Best wishes, Boumédiène and family."

What will faith mean to Trump? 1-20-17

If, as G.K. Chesterton, once wrote, America is "a nation with the soul of a church," perhaps it would be wise for us on this presidential inauguration day to do a brief review of our new president's connection to religion and what that might mean over the next four (or eight) years.

Donald_trumpDaniel Burke, CNN's religion editor, took such a look at Donald Trump late in the presidential campaign.

"Trump's attempts at public religion have been awkward, at best," Burke wrote.

In fact, though Trump asserts he's a Presbyterian, the language of faith seems to escape him. And if some investigative reporting about Trump's business dealings and his penchant for revenge is anywhere close to accurate, we're dealing with a man whose actions often fly in the face of the teachings of the world's great religions on such subjects as forgiveness, compassion, concern for the poor, personal piety and moral rectitude.

And yet a broad sweep of American Christians who identify themselves as conservative or evangelical backed Trump's election and are hoping he can restore a national dialogue about and commitment to traditional values (whatever, exactly, that term means).

It's hard for me to share their optimism, but the fact is that we simply don't know yet how Trump will behave once he sits in the Oval Office. Will he express words of love and reconciliation but besmirch the office with tawdry examples of personal lust the way Bill Clinton did? Or will he be a fundamentally decent, moral man, like George H. W. Bush, who often felt the need to compromise politically in awkward ways to move his agenda forward in opposition not just to Democrats but to narrow-gauge, intransigent Republicans like Newt Gingrich? Will he stain the presidency with the kind of immoral, despicable behavior that we saw in Richard Nixon or will he, like Barack Obama, manage to get through his term without serious scandal but, like Obama, be challenged at every turn by the political opposition?

I don't know. And neither does anyone else.

It seems to me that what people of faith are called to do in this and every other presidential administration is not just to pray for the president and his administration and the nation but also to be close observers of what happens and to speak with our prophetic voices about what we see going amiss and how that might be rectified.

Supporters of the new president cannot simply assume that everything he does now will be fine, just as his opponents cannot assume that his every action will be wrong and in need of public condemnation. Let's be discerning. Which will require us to watch carefully.

And let's remember that the United States has survived a long time partly because its citizens have, on the whole, been responsible and have understood it's their responsibility to know that when we speak of "the government," we mean us, the citizens.

Represent us well, Mr. President. We'll be watching (and more).

* * *


Donald Trump is starting his presidency with low approval ratings, but there's one leader who might be able to teach him how to improve his standing in the polls -- and that's Pope Francis, whose popularity among Americans is growing from what started out as a pretty high base. His attractiveness to a wide swath of people is part of what led Paul Rock and me to write our book, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. The lesson for Trump? Maybe it's: Be more like Francis.