Previous month:
May 2018
Next month:
July 2018

How religious leaders lose the people: 6-30/7-1-18

One of the many astonishing things that happened 50 years ago in 1968 was the publication of a highly controversial papal document, “Humanae Vitae,” which reconfirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on artificial birth control.

Humanae-vitaeIt was in many ways unexpected. Many in the church thought that, in line with recommendations from many church leaders, Pope Paul VI would adjust church teaching to allow Catholic women to use not just the rhythm method to prevent unwanted pregnancies but also birth control pills and other means.

So there was a swift reaction -- against the document and, by connection, against the church. In fact, this thorough piece from The Conversation gives credit to Catholic laywomen for reacting against a male-dominated church and taking charge of their own lives.

". . . starting in the 1940s," the story reports, "Catholic laywomen and men began to publicly discuss the church’s teaching on contraception. By the early 1960s, when the birth control pill came into common use, these questions became especially pressing. Catholic laywomen regularly wrote in the Catholic press and elsewhere expressing their views as married women and fostering a conversation that called the ban into question.

"They wrote eloquently about their marriages, their sex lives, their struggles with endless pregnancies and, increasingly, their frustration with rhythm. The only method of family limitation allowed them failed over and over again while the necessity of denying themselves sex caused rifts in couples already stressed by the care of large families."

Partly as a result of these activities by lay people, especially women, the papal birth control commission created to study the whole issue recommended doing away with the ban on artificial contraception.

When Pope Paul rejected the commission's advice and kept the ban, all hell broke loose. And, in effect, still is.

As the piece to which I've linked you reports, "Among American Catholic women, for example, as of 1955, 30 percent used artificial contraception. Ten years later, that number had reached 51 percent, all before the ban was reiterated in 1968.

"By 1970 the number of Catholic women in the U.S. using birth control hit 68 percent, and today there is almost no difference between the birth control practices of Catholics and non-Catholics in the United States. Globally, as of 2015, there is little difference between Catholic and non-Catholic regions."

What all faith communities should learn from this experience is that even though religious institutions are -- and should be -- free to set boundaries on the beliefs and behaviors of adherents, when the leaders of those institutions get so far removed from the realities of the everyday lives of people in the congregations, those leaders are likely to make bad choices and be rejected.

Religious beliefs and practices must somehow find affirmation in the daily experiences and needs of the people in the pews. When the distance between those experiences and those beliefs and practices becomes too great, something will snap. In the case of the papal document published in 1968, what snapped was a deep commitment of the people to their institutional leaders. American Catholics have in many ways been somewhat estranged from the Vatican ever since.

For another perspective on Humanae Vitae, here's a link to Fr. Charles Curran's analysis of it just published by the National Catholic Reporter. Curran teaches at Southern Methodist University.

* * *


Here's a new step in interfaith relations: An orthodox rabbi has been named the first Jewish president of a multi-faith theological seminary in California. Daniel Lehmann, president of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass., has been picked to head the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. The more interfaith training clergy from all traditions get, the better. 

* * *



The countless fans of writer Parker J. Palmer will be delighted to know that he has published a new book of essays (and a bit of poetry), On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old. In it he returns to a theme he has approached a lot in many of his previous books (aging), but this one feels like a summing up, almost a gentle valedictory speech by someone who soon will be 80 and has come through the journey with many insights that will be helpful to others. Paraphrasing a song Janis Joplin made famous, Palmer writes, "Old is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time of life to take bigger risks on behalf of the common good." Parker, who has struggled off and on with depression, is nothing if not realistic here: "Wholeness does not mean perfection -- it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life." And Parker is not just someone who types. He's a writer. Which means you get such fresh phrases as: "(Being able to tell the truth) comes from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that. . ." And this: "It was a hard-frozen winter day in my part of the world, and the east-facing window was filigreed with ice. Beyond the bare trees, the horizon glowed with a crimson sunrise that, viewed through the tracery of ice, turned the window pane into stained glass."

Thinking through the 'Muslim ban' court decision: 6-29-18

Now that we've had a few days to think through the U.S. Supreme Court's decision upholding President Trump's travel ban, let's pause and carefully consider what it meant and may mean going forward.

Trump-tweetSome points:

-- The court was right that presidents have broad immigration authority. Is it too broad? Perhaps. So it would be useful to do an analysis of that question and propose ways that any president can act quickly in an emergency but still allow other branches of government to weigh in to help set a rational immigration policy.

-- It took Trump and his administration three times to come up with a travel ban that, narrowly (5-4), met constitutional standards. That's an appalling record. The first two attempts were so obviously anti-Islamic in character that they shamed our immigrant nation. The third attempt seemed to be motivated by the same anti-Islam feelings that the president has often expressed, but it finally was written in a careful way that allowed a majority of the court to declare it passable. That doesn't, of course, change Trump's biased thinking or his real motivation for the ban, but our legal system did force his administration to produce something slightly more acceptable that the court could swallow. In fact, let's acknowledge that if the third travel ban had been the first and if it had not been preceded by xenophobic language that assumed all Muslims around the globe somehow were potential terrorists, any Supreme Court would have been obliged to rule it constitutional. The real question was whether Trump's rhetoric -- during and after the campaign -- was so offensive that it stained any travel ban, including this third one. The court voted 5-4 no on that question, though both sides had good arguments. Had I been on the court, I suspect I would have voted with the majority, while holding my nose, the same way I'd have voted to approve the nomination of Neil Gorsuch as a justice. More about Gorsuch below.

-- Immigration policy, despite this court ruling, needs a thorough revision. It's now up to Congress -- prodded by the people of the nation -- to come up with something reasonable and something that provides the U.S. with the security it needs. I cannot, however, foresee that happening in the current Congress. So let's change Congress so we can get to something with which we can live -- something that protects our security but honors our status as a nation that welcomes immigrants who make us a better country.

-- The court's decision noted that the Trump administration argued that the countries on the ban list "would be the most ineffective Muslim ban that one could possibly imagine." And, as Politico reported, "Roberts agreed with that argument. Though the ban applies to five countries with Muslim majority populations, 'that fact alone does not support an inference of religious hostility,' Roberts wrote, noting that those five countries amount to only 8 percent of the world's Muslim population." Indeed, Trump and Roberts were right about that. Many Americans seem not to know that the country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia, though India, a country made up predominantly of Hindus, is a close second and soon may pass Indonesia as the nation with most Muslims. Trump has indicated he'd like a much broader Muslim ban (as his June 2017 Tweet pictured here indicates). So thank God for the courts and for public opinion to prevent his prejudices from dictating every government policy in this area.

-- The 5-4 decision was one more step in the minds of lots of Americans toward a thoroughly political Supreme Court. Had the Senate confirmed President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, before Obama left office there would have been no chance to nominate and approve Neil Gorsuch to the court. And Gorsuch's vote was required to approve this ruling. This kind of thinking about the court as a partisan body is distressing to me. The court should be -- and historically has been much of the time -- nonpartisan. We must work our way back somehow to a Supreme Court that is above partisanship, though I fear that ship has sailed. Will a non-partisan court be one result of Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement? I doubt it. Sigh.

-- This whole travel ban matter has been an opportunity for all Americans to learn more about the millions of Muslims in their midst and the many ways nearly all of them contribute to society. Have you done some of that learning? If not, why not?

* * *


Speaking of Muslims and how various Islamic groups get along, King Abdullah II of Jordan this week won the annual Templeton Prize for his work in promoting cooperation between and among different sects of Islam. Each year the Templeton Foundation honors someone “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery or practical works.” Abdullah has for years been a voice of reason and moderation in Islam. Good for him.


Faith communities may face unexpected taxes: 6-28-18

Religious organizations are learning that the recently passed federal tax reform bill may cost them a lot of money.

Churches-and-taxesThe Politico story to which I've just linked you reports that "Republicans have quietly imposed a new tax on churches, synagogues and other nonprofits, a little-noticed and surprising change that could cost some groups tens of thousands of dollars.

"Their recent tax-code rewrite requires churches, hospitals, colleges, orchestras and other historically tax-exempt organizations to begin paying a 21 percent tax on some types of fringe benefits they provide their employees."

There are good reasons that faith communities are tax exempt, except when they venture into profit-making ventures. As has been said often before, the power to tax is the power to destroy. And we certainly don't want the government destroying religious groups.

That said, it's always worthwhile to review how the tax laws work and how they affect non-profits in general and faith communities in particular. Some provisions may continue to live just because they always have and not because they are fair or make sense.

So I'm not arguing against a regular review of tax policy. But this seems to be one more case of a terrible legislative process that allowed provisions to slip in with almost no one knowing about them.

Tax law may be the worst-made (wurst-made?) sausage on the legislative menu, and it might make you sick to know how either such law or any sausage is put together. Still, both legislators and the press have an obligation to alert the public to what changes are being considered. Somehow this one slipped through with almost no notice.

Politico reports that "Many organizations are stunned to learn of the tax — part of a broader Republican effort to strip the code of tax breaks for employee benefits like parking and meals — and say it will be a significant financial and administrative burden."

There may well be good reasons to get parking and meal deductions out of the tax code, but not without some thought as to how it will affect both private companies and non-profits.

Does your faith community know about this? If not, please share what I've posted today. And please ask your members of Congress how they let this happen and what they intend to do about it.

* * *


There's a bit of good news from Poland. Lawmakers there are backing away from a recently passed terrible law that made it illegal to blame Poland for the Holocaust. At least, as Reuters reports, they have voted to "remove parts that imposed jail terms on" people convicted of that. Germany, of course, was responsible for the Holocaust, not Poland, where the Nazis built six of their death camps. But not all Polish hands at the time were clean. Because it's a complicated story, the law making it a crime to suggest Poland was complicit in Nazi crimes was really problematic. Good step, lawmakers.

* * *



After writing an important and wonderfully helpful book for adults about the parables that Jesus told (Short Stories by Jesus), Vanderbilt scholar Amy-Jill Levine has joined with a rabbi named Sandy Eisenberg Sasso to write books about them for children. Their lovely little book Who Counts: 100 Sheep, 10 Coins and 2 Sons, I reviewed here last year. Now they've combined with artist Margaux Meganek to write The Marvelous Mustard Seed, retelling the story Jesus told about how big, important things can grow from small, seemingly unimportant things. The words are simple and the story is as engaging as when Jesus first told it. Besides that, the art is simply wonderful. At the end of the book is a helpful note to parents and teachers about parables and even about mustard itself. "Parables," they write, "were not originally allegories, with every element of the story containing secret meaning. Parables can open up our imagination, if we let them." Christian and Jewish (and other) congregations would do well to have this book's universal story available to read to their children.

The very model of a lay person: 6-27-18

Soon after I began dating the woman I married almost 22 years ago, I met someone who was quite active in her church, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church at 67th and Nall.

Larry-Bingham-1Larry J. Bingham and his wife Ann were members of a study group into which I married. It was quickly clear that Larry was a deeply thoughtful theologian, though he wasn't ordained as either a pastor or a deacon. And it wasn't just that he was well read and articulate. He was a gentle man who in all kinds of ways lived out his faith and made room for others who had different approaches than he did.

For the last several months Larry and his friends, including my wife Marcia and me, have been walking with him through a cancer diagnosis. It was no surprise that Larry's focus wasn't simply on living as long as possible but, rather, on making sure that whatever treatments he was willing to undergo might help doctors learn more about cancer so that others later might benefit from Larry's experience.

All of us hoped that Larry, co-founder of the Seigfreid Bingham Law Firm, would beat this disease. And he tried his best, though in the end cancer took Larry on Father's Day. So over this past weekend we became part of a standing-room-only crowd at St. Michael's to memorialize Larry and say farewell.

There were lots of great Larry stories told there with his widow, his children and grandchildren present.

But I think my friend Monte Giddings, archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, captured something central not just to Larry's life but to healthy faith communities generally.

Monte said that if all lay people lived the way Larry did there would be no need for clergy.

Larry-Bingham-3Well, in some ways Monte was stretching a point, particularly for the Episcopal tradition that places high value on the role of clergy. But he highlighted the central role that each person of faith can and should play in a faith community. Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other houses of worship simply cannot exist without deeply committed people who not only make their congregations function well but who demonstrate what it means to act in the world as if they believe what they profess to believe.

Larry did exactly that. He loved his church and his denomination, though he was quite willing to call it on the carpet when it needed to be and to seek to get it to change. Monte described Larry as the model layman. I agree, but I also think Larry would agree with something that the Rev. Jan Edmiston, a Presbyterian pastor, once said in my presence: If you've been baptized, you're no longer a lay person.

That idea is in harmony with what we Protestants often call the "priesthood of all believers." In that sense, Larry was a priest, one who called all the rest of us to that vocation, no matter what our tradition.

* * *


Leaders at the final rally of the renewed Poor People's Campaign used it to encourage people to continue the effort to alert the nation to the plight of people in poverty and to work to alleviate conditions. I hope all this makes a difference. Let's check back in a year and see whether it did.

* * *

P.S.: Recently I wrote here of the ways in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions misused chapter 13 in the book of Romans to justify abhorrent government policy. In that post I quoted Pauline scholar Mark Nanos. Yesterday Mark shared with me this excellent review of this issue written by a professor emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary. Give it a read if the topic continues to interest you.

An inspiring story of leaving the closet: 6-26-18

Traditional Christian theology has held that the Bible condemns homosexuality. This turns out to be a serious but persistent misreading of scripture. Because the church has gotten this wrong for so long, the number of lives of LGBTQ people crushed in terrible ways cannot be calculated.

UndividedBut we now know of one of those lives -- and in quite some disheartening detail.

In her new book, Undivided: Coming Out, Becoming Whole and Living Free from Shame, well-known British-born Christian musician (and now writer and speaker) Vicky Beeching describes her long, painful journey as a closeted gay woman within the evangelical wing of Christianity and her eventual decision in her mid-30s to accept who she is and acknowledge her sexuality to the world.

It's a compelling and important story that can help others come to terms with their true identities. It shines an important light on one of many ways the Christian church has gotten things wrong in its history by misusing the Bible -- things like its approval of slavery, its serious misunderstanding of astronomy (ask Galileo), its treatment of women as second-class citizens and more. She finally asked this: "Why did the church keep getting things so wrong, over and over, constantly finding itself on the wrong side of justice? It had been wrong about the solar system, slavery, women, interracial marriage and other civil rights." Excellent question.

"Since childhood," Beeching writes, "the church had taught me that homosexuality was an 'abominable sin.' As a result, I couldn't accept my own gay orientation. As an adult, my only survival solution was to shelve my feelings, keep them entirely private and assume I'd never be able to date or marry. This way I could still belong to my faith community, keep my livelihood -- the church-music career I loved -- and not risk losing everything and everyone. I was only twelve or thirteen when I first realized I was different, and knowing how 'sinful' these feelings were caused waves of shame to crash over me."

In fact, much of the rest of the book is a recounting of the shame she felt and how she sought to ignore it: ". . .I'd never acted on my feelings for girls -- not so much as even the briefest kiss, despite the fact that I was nearing thirty," she writes early in the book. "All of it was locked away inside as I tried to impeccably do the right thing by my Christian values."

This is a hard book to read without becoming enraged at misguided theology that damages people. At least once, Beeching came close to taking her own life instead of living in a closet full of shame and guilt. And we all know she's far from the only LGBTQ person to face such a stark choice.

The approach to the Bible that leads to this kind of misinterpretation is rather widespread in Christianity. It's a literalistic view that ignores excellent and necessary scholarship and also ignores the many times the church has had to change its teachings because they simply could not stand up to the evidence or to the moral chaos such interpretations caused. Eventually, she writes of the Bible, "I could see it was a far more complex book than I'd imagined."

Beeching tried confessing what she understood to be sin. She went through what she describes as an exorcism when she came to believe that demons were making her understand herself as gay. Eventually, when all that and more failed, "It seemed to me that I must be too broken for even God to fix." She felt psychologically damaged, "trapped and fearful."

It was only when, as a terrific student, Beeching went to Oxford for her college education and began to study theologians whose understanding of the Bible was different from hers that she began to sense a way out of her dilemma, though it took more years of study, prayer and counseling for her eventually to risk her career as an evangelical musician and come out. She was, of course, widely rejected by her faith community, though she began to discover others who made her feel welcome.

Those of you who have read my own last book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith, will not be surprised to learn how glad I was to find Beeching open up about her "obsession with having a faith that felt watertight -- one where everything neatly added up. . ." Instead, she learned that "faith should be rooted in mystery and wonder rather than in sterile claims of certainty." And later she writes this: "It seemed to me that a huge dose of humility was needed in all discussions of theology. . ." Exactly.

After she had come out in public and was learning how to survive in a different way, she says she "emerged with a deeper, richer spirituality rooted in mystery and wonder, a more honest faith that had room to breathe."

As I say, this is a compelling and important story. But a good editor would have helped her tell it in a somewhat more understated, less overwritten way. Sometimes, when telling an emotional story, less is more. This book could have used a bit more less.

At any rate, I hope that young people of faith struggling with issues of their own sexuality will find this book and that it will lead them to wholeness.

* * *


The pastor of the United Methodist Church that Attorney General Jeff Sessions attends near Washington says the administration's now-altered policy of separating children from families at the border makes her cringe, but she says she'll refuse to dehumanize the architects of that policy. She's got it right twice.

Methodists should not discipline Jeff Sessions: 6-25-18

You may have read last week that after Attorney General Jeff Sessions misused the 13th chapter of the New Testament book of Romans to justify the Trump administration policy of separating children from their families at the U.S. southern border, leaders of the United Methodist Church threatened to discipline Sessions, a Methodist.

UMC-logoI doubt it will happen and hope it doesn't, though it's kind of a dicey question.

As this Religion News Service piece argues, disciplining Sessions could set a bad precedent. Author Jacob Lupfer writes: ". . .the liberals’ new-fashioned commitment to church discipline is shortsighted and likely to backfire. The hammer you rediscover as powerful today could be in someone else’s hands tomorrow.

"Sessions must face on his own the question of why has he prostrated himself before Trump in ways that jeopardize his commitments to Christian teaching and human decency. I doubt that the introspection Sessions needs will come from liberals or any religious denomination.

"Acquiescence to Trumpism is not yet a heresy in American Christianity. If it were, the churches would be even emptier than they already are."

Still, it raises the question of what faith communities should do if their members behave in public ways that contradict church teaching or in some way bring disrepute to the group.

There's no easy answer. My temptation in the case of a person with as high a profile as Sessions -- and in the case of someone known to be a member of my own faith community -- would be to publicly denounce whatever action or policy I believe conflicts with church teaching but to continue to welcome the person as part of the group on the theory that almost everyone has particular differences with church teaching and that all of us, as the Apostle Paul says, are sinners.

Heavy-handed church discipline, it seems to me, should be reserved for clergy and officers who have taken vows promising various levels of action and commitment to church theology. Sometimes people break the rules on purpose as a kind of civil disobedience to make a point to their faith community. An example would be the Methodist pastors who have conducted same-sex weddings even though at the moment the church doesn't allow them to do that. And there should be consequences in such cases because civil disobedience without consequences sort of takes away the power of the action.

But disciplining a regular member for a public political action makes the faith community look unnecessarily rigid and unwilling to allow internal dissent.

Sessions was wrong about Romans 13, as I noted in this post last week, and he's wrong about a lot, I think, but using church discipline to whip him into line is the wrong approach.

* * *


A new report from the Pew Research Center says Christians are the most persecuted people of faith in the world. There's no doubt that many face terrible problems in various countries. But let's differentiate between that and the phony claims of persecution in the U.S. over things like the alleged "War on Christmas" and similar made-up crises.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the uselessness of anti-Sharia laws -- now is online here.

It's Pope Francis against an anti-immigration trio: 6-23/24-18

It's hard to imagine two people who have more broadly different approaches to the issues of immigrants and asylum seekers than Pope Francis and President Donald Trump.

IMMIGRATIONIt's not surprising that any pope would have a somewhat different view of all this than any American president. The former is charged with advocating for the Christian gospel of love and inclusion while the latter is charged with making sure America is secure and that immigration and asylum rules are fair.

Still, the Trump-Francis differences could hardly be more dramatic.

And now, as this Daily Beast analysis reports, three Trump supporters are working in concert to oppose the pope on this very issue -- Trump's former senior adviser Steve Bannon, the traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke (once head of the Archdiocese of St. Louis) and Italy’s new interior minister Matteo Salvini, often described as a xenophobe, including by the author of the Daily Beast piece.

As the story notes, Francis has called for "integration and acceptance, not borders and closed ports. . .But the pope’s words have fallen on the deaf ears of many politicians, and sparked outrage from Bannon, Burke and Salvini."

I don't want you to imagine that popes, including Francis, always advocate humane policies that are practical, reasonable and caring. The deeply checkered history of the papacy makes it clear that doesn't always happen. And I don't want you to suggest that, no matter how Bannon, Burke and Salvini express themselves on the matter of immigration and asylum, they aren't raising some real issues that need attention.

But Pope Francis is doing what wise and thoughtful people of faith are supposed to do -- use their prophetic voices to call attention to injustice, evil and injurious policies.

And if you ever have to vote between Francis and Bannon on the question of who is representing thoughtful morality, go with the pope every time.

As this issue has been hotly contested in the U.S. in recent weeks, it seems to me that the distinction between immigrants and asylum seekers often has been lost. People who want to move to America for a better life, a better job, a fresh start should comply with our immigration system. And American lawmakers should make sure that system is as fair and well-operated as possible.

On the other hand, most of the people in recent weeks being detained at the border, from what I can tell, fall into the category of asylum seekers. They are trying to escape domestic or political or social violence in their own lands and to save the lives of their families. They should be handled differently than normal immigrants. To take away their children for weeks at a time, for instance, is inhumane and unconscionable.

In all of this, I think the Daily Beast commentator gets it right when she writes: "One might assume Francis is asking what Jesus would do for the good of humanity. It seems Bannon, Burke and Salvini, worshippers of Trump, think they know better."

* * *


What does it mean to be Christian in America today? A history professor at Henderson State University offers some useful historical perspective here. Although Christians remain a majority of Americans, the religion is splintered in all kinds of ways, some of them uniquely American.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the uselessness of anti-Sharia laws -- now is online here.

A government proposal to reform Islam: 6-22-18

Let's imagine that some official in the U.S. government decided that for purposes of geopolitical strategy it would be a good idea to seek to change Judaism in some way. Perhaps encourage the Reform movement over the Conservative, Orthodox or Reconstructionist movement within that tradition.

IslamophobiaMy hunch is that most Americans, if they found out about it, would be outraged. It's not up to the U.S. government, after all, to regulate or define any religious tradition. And most Americans would be right to be outraged.

Well, it turns out that some U.S. government official did not suggest changing Judaism but, rather, Islam.

As this story from The Intercept reports, a State Department memo advised the White House last year to begin pushing for an "Islamic Reformation." Had the idea been adopted, that goal would have been made part of the National Security Strategy that the Trump administration announced in December.

The good news is that the idea didn't make the cut.

But don't count it out. As you know, the musical chairs tradition of the Trump administration means that several different people now have key positions to affect that National Security Strategy who weren't on the job when the Islam reforming idea was, finally, rejected. Speaking anonymously to The Intercept, a current U.S. government official noted that “(H.R.) McMaster (former national security adviser) and (Rex) Tillerson, former secretary of State, weren’t convinced of this [Islamic reformation] argument. Now you have (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo and (national security adviser John) Bolton who live and breathe this stuff.”

Bolton, whom I met and spoke with when he was in the George W. Bush administration, has historically had a serious anti-Islam streak to him. So is it possible that this Islam Reformation idea might come back to life?

Who knows?

What we do know is that the idea of "Reformation" comes from Christian history. To overlay it on another religion seems like a category error, though for sure all religions evolve and occasionally need the equivalent of a good spring cleaning or garage sale. But "Reformation" is almost certainly the wrong word to use for non-Christian changes.

What we also know is that no religion is going to welcome pressure from any government to change its theology or practices. That's not how such changes should occur. Rather, they should come about as a result of internal dissatisfaction with the status quo.

No doubt governments consider all sorts of wacko ideas just to make sure they haven't missed something. But when this Islam Reformation idea showed up, someone should have blown it off the table immediately. The fact that it got at least something of a hearing is not reassuring.

* * *


This is odd. When I looked at this website of the Focus on the Family organization yesterday afternoon, I could find not a word about keeping families together at the border, the subject of 800 million (or so) news stories in the last week-plus. I even looked at its "Social Issues" page, thinking that this family advocacy group surely would want to say a word about why breaking up families is a terrible idea. Uh, no. Instead there were stories about baking cakes for gay couples, about how to talk to your kids about homosexuality (guess where that one goes), about talking to your kids about transgender issues (guess where that one goes) and so forth. Strange. The family advocacy vice president must be on vacation. Maybe in Mexico. Here's a Slate piece about Focus on the Family's seeming disinterest in the families at the border.

When people of faith are bullied: 6-21-18

Earlier this week I wrote here about the fears that historically have influenced how some evangelical Christians think and behave.

Religious garbToday I will tell you about people of faith who have become targets in New York City, no doubt because of the irrational fears others have about them, fears rooted in ignorance, which often is self-inflicted.

Buzzfeed reports here that a "new study on the experiences of Muslim, Arab, South Asian, Jewish and Sikh New Yorkers found rampant physical and verbal harassment" in the last couple of years.

There is no data on who is doing the harassment, so let's not go blaming this or that group of people.

But it is disheartening to know that if you appear in public in some kind of religiously associated garb the chances improve that you will be targeted -- at least in New York and almost certainly in other cities, too.

The survey was released by the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

As Buzzfeed reports, some of the survey's findings include:

  • Over 1 in 10 indicated that they had experienced property damage or vandalism.
  • Nearly 1 in 7 experienced being unfairly denied services at a business because of race, ethnicity, or religion.
  • Nearly 1 in 6 experienced some form of racial, religious, or ethnic discrimination-related problem in their employment, either in a current job or while seeking a job.
  • Nearly 2 in 5 had experienced “verbal harassment, threats or taunting referring to race, ethnicity or religion,” with 1 in 4 reporting they had experienced it more than once.
  • Roughly 1 in 10 had experienced physical assault that they knew or suspected was a “result of race, ethnicity or religion.”
  • When asked about discrimination in public accommodations, survey respondents most frequently identified being followed by a security guard or sales clerk in a store and being purposefully pushed or shoved on a subway platform.

Every single one of those actions violates primary teachings of the world's great religions. So if the people committing these acts are also people of faith they clearly don't understand their own traditions or they willfully choose to violate its tenets.

But no matter where these things occur and no matter whether observers are people of faith, everyone has an obligation to try to stop such harassment or to enlist law enforcement authorities to intervene.

Bullying of religious people everywhere in the world must end -- as must bullying by religious people.

(The illustration here today came from this Atlantic site.)

* * *


Francis Collins, who ran the National Institutes of Health for several years, says science is beautiful and revealing but we must be careful about where biotechnology might lead: “There are scientific concerns. There are safety concerns. There are huge philosophical and theological concerns.” He's right. Let's proceed under a caution flag, a yellow light. Carefully. Morally.

Who are evangelicals and what's their history? 6-20-18

For several good and no doubt obvious reasons I've been focusing recently here on the blog on Americans identified as white Christian evangelicals, some 81 percent of whom voted in 2016 to elect Donald Trump as president. I think the moral collapse of so many white evangelicals is one of the more important religion stories of our time.

Wong-bookToday I want to introduce you to two helpful books that can shed some light on this subject -- one new, one just reissued in hardback. The first can provide some interesting information about diverse political opinions within a broader racial and ethnic range of evangelicals. The second can offer some important historical context for this discussion.

The two books are Immigrants, Evangelicals and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change, by Janelle S. Wong, and The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, by Mark A. Noll. This latter book is the first in a five-book series on evangelicals from Intervarsity Press Academic.

Noll teaches at the University of Notre Dame and Wong teaches at the University of Maryland. Funding for Wong's work came through the Russell Sage Foundation and other institutions.

Wong's slim book is full of survey results and statistics that demonstrate that not all evangelicals think alike. Her work will be of interest mostly to political campaign strategists trying to appeal to certain segments of the voting population and to sociologists interested in the changing demographics of the total American population.

Noll-bookFor example, the data she studied found that almost universally, black Americans, whether evangelical or not, "tended to be less conservative" that Latino, white or Asian-Americans. And "white evangelicals were much more conservative than nonwhite evangelicals in their vote choices, in their position on government-sponsored health care and in their willingness to tax the wealthy." In short, she concludes, "racial identity may shape political attitudes among people who share evangelical faith -- even beyond the traditional black-white binary."

Noll's book, by contrast, goes back to the foundations of the nation and looks at the historical roots of evangelicalism. Among other conclusions he draws is that from the beginning evangelicals emphasized "the need for conversion. . .and the necessity of a life of active holiness."

It's the latter requirement that the 2016 presidential vote has so seriously called into question.

Because, as Noll correctly notes, the term evangelicalism "is too loose a designation ever to have produced a tidy historical record," he spends some necessary time seeking to clarify what the term means, though he notes that it's "important to realize that the emphases of evangelicalism have shifted as they came to expression in different times and places."

At its best, he writes, "evangelicalism provided a needed revitalization to English-speaking Protestant Christianity. It breathed vibrant religious life into stagnant or confused religious institutions. . .Most important, it communicated the beauty and the power of the Christian gospel in a wide variety of settings and through that gospel provided a wide range of individuals with purpose before God and meaning for this life, and it did so for the long haul."

By contrast, the bad news, as Noll describes it, is that at its worst, "evangelicalism neglected, caricatured and distorted the inherited traditions of Reformation Protestantism. Evangelical beliefs and practices could foster a self-centered, egotistic and narcissistic spirituality and also create new arenas for destructive spiritual competition. From in-group cliches, associations and institutions, evangelicals sometimes constructed new barriers to alienate humans from each other. They could turn so obsessively inward as to ignore the structures of social evil." And, as we know now, not just ignore those structures but actively cooperate with them.

So if you want to get a clearer picture of who Christian evangelicals are and of evangelicalism's roots, these two books provide a good place to start.

* * *


The largest American evangelical denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention. National representatives of that group met recently and, as this Atlantic report notes, the denomination has begun backing away from the Culture Wars. Those wars, spurred by certain voices on Fox News and by certain prominent preachers, have done considerable damage to the reputation not just of Baptists but also of many other evangelicals and Christians generally. As Jonathan Merritt, author of the Atlantic piece, notes, "disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover." So we'll see what progress on that front gets made in the coming year or two.