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What should happen if religious and civic law clash? 7-19-19

Among the more difficult questions about religion -- a question about which people of good faith can and do have differences of opinion -- is what to do when a religion's rules conflict with the laws of the country in which its adherents are located.

Church-stateWe have seen this kind of dilemma come up in, for instance, the case of whether certain Native Americans are allowed to use the otherwise-banned drug peyote as part of their ceremonial life. In a 1990 decision, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that an individual's religious beliefs do not excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that government is free to regulate.

A case that may be more complicated currently is live in Indiana. There the question is whether a religious organization can discriminate in its hiring based on its theology even if that discrimination would seem to violate federal, state or local law.

As this story from The Economist explains, the case involves "two male teachers at Catholic high schools in Indianapolis, who ran into trouble with the local archbishop after it emerged that they were married to one another. In one case, Cathedral High School laid off Joshua Payne-Elliott, who had taught there for 13 years. His husband Layton Payne-Elliott fared better. His employer, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, decided to keep him on, but at a cost. The school no longer has the archbishop’s blessing to call itself a certified Catholic institution; instead, it will style itself an independent Catholic school."

Joshua Payne-Elliott then sued the archdiocese, "citing the distress he had suffered as a result of interference with his teaching contract. He also filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that enforces equality laws."

The Economist asks the right question here: "(T)he outcome will pose in even sharper relief one of the dilemmas faced by organised Christianity in modern times. Should it aim to cast a broad wash of influence over society as a whole, which may mean compromising with some secular norms? Or does it retreat into a self-policing minority subculture, observing much stricter norms than society as a whole: the kind of outfit that society can tolerate only if it remains fairly small?"

And yet even there one can and should find limits to what religion allows. For instance, can anyone imagine a religious community in the U.S. having the freedom to own slaves today because it continues to believe what many churches, especially in the South, believed before the Civil War, which is that the Bible not only doesn't forbid slavery but in places seems to countenance the abhorrent practice?

Or what if a religion believed -- as some have across history -- that child sacrifice is a meet and proper thing to do on occasion. Would American jurisprudence allow that? Of course not.

Obviously those are two extreme examples. But they get to the point of the issue here, which is that religion and civil law must find ways to coexist without doing serious damage to either one. In this time of high-strung rhetoric about every conceivable issue, I suspect that rational conversation about all of this will be next to impossible. But it's what we need to have.

So let's calm down and find ways to work through these complicated issues. And if one of the ways that proves helpful is that religion sees the light and abandons what society thinks is reprehensible behavior, so much the better, just as it may also prove helpful at times if the government would simply butt out. See? I find myself on both sides of that. And maybe you do, too. Which ought to lead us toward a little humility.

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What does it feel like when an American citizen is told to go back to wherever he or she came from (which is what President Trump told four members of Congress recently)? Here's an answer from a Sikh man who grew up in Texas. Simran Jeet Singh writes this: "I can’t recall how many times I’ve been told to go back to where I came from. What I do know is that the frequency of these calls has increased in recent years, in part because of what scholars are calling the Trump Effect: the emboldening of people to act and speak on their racist feelings." By the way, my next Flatland column, scheduled to post on July 28, is about a new Sikh gurdwara, or house of worship, being built in suburban Kansas City. If you don't know much about Sikhism, you can learn a little then.

What, if anything, will replace institutional religion? 7-18-19

Yesterday here on the blog we took a look at Muslims in the United Kingdom and, based on a new book, what Muslims and others in the U.S. and elsewhere might learn from them.

NonesToday we return to Britain to think about this opinion piece in The Guardian, which wonders what a world in which institutional religion plays a smaller and smaller role eventually will look like:

"What will it mean to have a predominantly godless country?" the editorial asks. "The great difficulty with answering this question is that theology and morality are only tenuously related. Habits of kindness, decency and tolerance come from practice rather than belief. Religions are justly feared because they often don’t practice the more loving parts of what they preach. But atheism is no guarantee of moral virtue or even tolerance, as the rhetoric of the 'New Atheist' movement towards Muslims made very clear. Any set of beliefs about God can be used to justify selfishness and cruelty."

I'm not at all sure I buy the argument that practice rather than belief produces "habits of kindness, decency and tolerance," although it's certainly clear that some kinds of religious beliefs produce the opposite of those desirable results.

At any rate, Britain's rejection of religion is considerably more advanced than what is found in the U.S., despite the fact that now about 25 percent of the adult American population identifies as religiously unaffiliated.

But loss of institutional religion doesn't mean simply empty houses of worship. It also means loss of what historically has been an important part of the whole social fabric of a land, and it's that fabric that provides the rituals, the concern for the common good, the practices that can make a society more whole and healthy.

Take away, for instance, the charitable work that religious institutions do in the U.S. and the already bad conditions of inequality, poverty and injustice would only get much worse here.

So, in the end, there's no telling where the anti-religion trend will lead, but it's important to remember that, on the whole, the world is more religious today than it was 100 years ago. Which is to say that both traditional institutional religion and new avenues of spirituality are finding converts in places other than North America and Western Europe. And if we fail to see that we fail to see reality.

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A new poll suggests that Americans don't think much of clergy. In fact, the RNS story about this says that "doctors, teachers, members of the military — even scientists — are viewed more positively than clergy." Some of this, of course, is the fault of clergy who are abusive, dishonest and greedy. But most of the ordained people I know are honest, hard-working and trustworthy. Still, now clergy know a bit of what it feels like to be a journalist these days.

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P.S.: My friend Sheila Sonnenschein will be speaking July 28 about her work with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom at an event sponsored by the Precious Blood Renewal Center in Liberty, Mo. For details, here's a pdf about the event: Download Sheila-Interfaith Hope __ July 28. Please share it with anyone you think might be interested. Sheila and I serve together as board members of the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Council.

What can be learned from Muslims in the U.K.? 7-17-19

Some 15 or so years ago, I attended a national conference in the Washington, D.C., area for journalists to learn more about how Islam is finding its way in the U.S.

Being-Brit-MuslimsThe question we considered had to do with what kind of Islam Muslims in America were creating here and how it differs from Islam elsewhere because of the peculiarities of the American culture in which it was having to negotiate its way.

The reality is that every religion has at least slightly different expressions depending on the country in which its adherents live. American Buddhism, for instance, will be somewhat different from Buddhism as it's practiced in, say, Tibet, Japan or the United Kingdom.

What's interesting about these differences is that people in one country can learn from the experiences of their coreligionists in another country.

All of which is why a new book by a British Muslim should interest not just British Muslims but also Muslims in America and elsewhere who continue to negotiate a place and space for their faith tradition.

The book is Being British Muslims: Beyond Ethnocentric Religion and Identity Politics, by Mamnum Khan, who has degrees in biochemistry and molecular immunology from British universities. He lives in Luton, England, northwest of London.

Khan clearly is seeking to present a rational, calm, thoughtful approach to Islam not just because such an Islam makes sense in a British context but also because such an Islam stands in useful contrast to the rigid voices from branches of the faith that, in some locations, have turned Islam into Islamism, an ideological, political and often violent expression that most of the world's Muslims reject and detest.

The essays contained in this book first appeared, sometimes in slightly different forms, in a blog called Islamicate.

Khan encourages the British Muslims to and about whom he writes to avoid simplistic expressions of the faith.

"Have we created a culture where we shut down or ignore people who ask questions. . .?" he asks. The pursuit of such questions, he insists, should lead to a "holistic and nuanced understanding of reality." Which, of course, would look rather different from the brutal and demented version of Islam produced by the Osama bin Ladens of the world. Those versions, he says, are interested only in "tight-fisted, no-nonsense answers" to difficult questions.

He also suggests honoring and even recreating some of the Islamic institutions, such as multidisciplinary research academies, that were products of early Islam in the Eighth Century. Such institutions, he suggests, could reinvigorate Islam today wherever it's found.

Demographics in Britain show some of the same trends as demographics in the U.S. Khan notes, for instance, the in the 1950s the Muslim population of the United Kingdom was around 100,000, or 0.2 percent of the population. Today it's around three million, or five percent and is expected to grow by 2050 to about 10 percent of the population. The U.S. Muslim population also is growing, but not as quickly as in Britain. (A 2017 estimate of the U.S. Muslim population puts it at about 3.5 million, although Muslims are traditionally hard to count because they don't keep mosque membership numbers the way many Christian churches do.)

Still, what British Muslims are learning about how to integrate themselves in healthy ways into society can be useful information for American Muslims, too.

And that includes Khan's concluding advice: "Muslims should keep away from seeing ourselves as superior or better endowed in any realm of life simply by virtue of being Muslim. Instead, we should strive to be humble and grateful beings. In the context of social interactions, this means that we see others, including non-Muslims, as souls on their own journeys back to God." Not bad advice for people of any faith tradition.

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Yesterday's 50th anniversary of the moon landing by Apollo 11 astronauts was -- and remains -- an opportunity to think about what technology has brought us, this RNS opinion piece says. Julie Schonfeld writes this: "We should hold our technology today up to the test of whether it inspires society toward wonder, hope and courage or increases fear and insecurity about our shared future." What a good idea.

The slow, slow pace of change in religion: 7-16-19


It was on this date 965 years ago, in 1054, that the "Great Schism" occurred, splitting Roman Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy.

I mention this to make a point about how slowly things sometimes change in institutional religion. As you might imagine, this East-West divorce did not happen overnight. The differences built up over centuries until on this date the Roman and Greek churches excommunicated each other. Michael Cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople, repudiated the claims of Pope Leo IX as the global head of Christianity.

It took until Dec. 7, 1965, for the pope (Paul VI) and the Eastern Orthodox patriarch (Athenagoras I) to meet and declare an end to the schism and express some hope of eventually reuniting the church. More than half a century later that reunification has yet to take place, but at least the two sides aren't at war.

Why does change happen so slowly in religious traditions?

Oh, there are many reasons, including the reality that it's often just easier to keep things rolling along as they have been going. Add to that the difficulty of compromise among people who often are convinced that they hold the only true version of truth and it's no big surprise that change is slow.

For example, the denomination of which my congregation is a part, the Presbyterian Church (USA), began serious consideration of whether to ordain otherwise-qualified LGBTQ folks in 1978. We found ourselves fighting about this every time our national governing body, the General Assembly, gathered. It took until 2011 for us finally to change our rules to allow such ordinations as pastors and officers and to allow pastors to officiate at same-sex weddings if they wanted to (they aren't forced to).

But what's three-plus decades among friends? Well, some of those friends have left the denomination because they are convinced the PCUSA got it wrong. Some day they may realize that the Bible should not be used as a weapon in this matter, but for now our split remains.

The United Methodists are in the midst of a similar battle now. I last wrote about that here.

In many ways, slow change probably is a good thing in religion. It prevents such institutions from flipping and flapping in the social winds. But as anyone who has tried to institute change in a faith tradition can testify, it can be really frustrating.

And don't talk to me about the patience of Job. If there's one thing Job was not, it was patient.

(The image here today came from here.)

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Both in the U.S. and in other countries some Muslim women are being harassed because of the more modest swimwear they use. Of all the things to fight about, this one seems among the silliest. Just let them follow their religious tradition. Why should anyone else care that they aren't wearing more revealing clothing?

On protecting religious freedom for all, everywhere: 7-15-19

One of the justifiable worries when former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback became U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom in the U.S. State Department was that he would focus his attention almost solely on persecution of Christians around the world.

International-Religious-FreedomAnd that "around the world" also might include phony charges of religious persecution of Christians in the U.S. Brownback was, after all, a terribly failed governor, and there was concern that he might not get this new job right, either.

His ambassadorship still is a work in progress, but if the International Religious Freedom Roundtable that starts tomorrow in Washington is any indication, Brownback is looking at a wide range of religious persecution across the globe and not just at Christians (though, for sure, there is a lot of persecution of Christians in many countries). This Reuters story will add some details about that conference.

As that story notes, "Speakers will include Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi woman held as a sex slave by Islamic State militants; and American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who was freed after two years of detention in Turkey. Attendees will include Rohingya Muslim representatives who have fled a campaign by Myanmar’s military against them."

The list of religious persecutors around the globe is long, indeed, this 234-page annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) shows.

As the report notes, ". . .the enduring story of the last 20 years is. . .the story of people who wish to live their lives as their conscience leads, who dream of raising their children so that they can make their own choice about what to believe or not believe freely and openly. Yet for some, the last 20 years have been a chronicle of a different kind, spanning a generation of cruel and unrelenting treatment because of their beliefs."

Religious liberty is not just an American value rooted in our Constitution. It's a foundational human value. And it should have advocates in every country. I'm glad the U.S. State Department and the USCIRF continue to highlight evidence of religious persecution. And I'm especially glad that under Brownback the focus has included more than suffering Christians.

Let's follow the conference this week and follow how Brownback's office performs moving forward so that all persecuted religious people around the world feel they have a partner and advocate in Washington.

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Pope Francis has appointed some women to a group that oversees Catholic religious orders, and he's getting praise for his actions. This is part of what it means when critics say the church needs to make structural changes to respond to the church's ongoing sexual abuse crisis. A church run only by males, whose instincts are to protect the institution, not the victims, can find only trouble.

When alternative spiritual paths beckon: 7-13/14-19

What are people who walk away from institutional religion looking for that they're not finding in the faith tradition of their parents or grandparents?

SpiritualityIt's a question that churches, synagogues and other houses of worship have been asking for more than 50 years as the number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated -- or "nones" -- has grown dramatically. Nones now make up something like 25 percent of the American adult population.

The Los Angeles Times recently looked into the question of alternative religious practices, if any, among the nones and, in this article, reported finding a wide range of options.

The young nones, the paper reported, "are embracing more spiritual beliefs and practices like tarot, astrology, meditation, energy healing and crystals.

"And no, they don’t particularly care if you think it’s 'woo-woo' or weird. Most millennials claim to not take any of it too seriously themselves. They dabble, they find what they like, they take what works for them and leave the rest. Evoking consternation from buttoned-up outsiders is far from a drawback — it’s a fringe benefit."

One of the intriguing things about all this to me is that people -- almost all people everywhere -- seem interested in the eternal questions, in questions of meaning and purpose. Those are spiritual questions that various religions over the course of human history have sought to answer in different ways. But the seeking never ends, and that's a good thing.

Simplistic answers appeal to some people, of course, but the healthiest religious traditions encourage people to recognize their ultimate inability to comprehend the incomprehensible because they are finite minds seeking to grasp the infinite. So healthy religious traditions encourage people to be comfortable with ambiguity and paradox and mystery.

And maybe people who deal in tarot, astrology and such are just more naturally open to mystery, though I'd like to think that people of traditional faiths also would welcome it.

The people to worry about are the ones who claim to have all the mysteries solved and know all the rules. They scare me a lot more than some millennials fooling around with the fake science of astrology.

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Here's an intriguing blog post by a Lutheran pastor who visits a Southern Baptist Church in Texas and is overwhelmed by the co-mingling and confusion of patriotism and the gospel. When Christians wrap the gospel in the American flag, the result is nothing but distortion.

After the Charleston massacre, a story of hope: 7-12-19

One of the most appalling outbreaks of violence rooted in white supremacy in modern history was the 2015 murder of nine black people praying at the end of a Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

For-such-a-timeThe unrepentant 21-year-old killer was found guilty and sentenced to death. Which, of course, comes nowhere close to ending the story. In any such disaster, the story continues in the lives of survivors and of families who members were killed. It's one of those continuing stories that we get in an important new book, For Such a Time as This: Hope and Forgiveness after the Charleston Massacre, by the Rev. Sharon Risher with Sherri Wood Emmons.

Risher's mother, Ethel Lee Lance, and two cousins, Susie Jackson, 87, and Tywanza Sanders, 26, were among those murdered. The path from the shock of the killing to an eventual commitment to work for sensible gun legislation and against white racist ideology has been mined with one trauma after another for Risher, and she spares the readers none of it. This is a book full of raw emotion and pleas for racial harmony and political activism to counteract the spiteful ideology that motivated the shooter.

The story is at time repetitive and could have used some additional careful editing, but in some ways those shortcomings accurately reflect the storm that Risher survived to write about. It's also a monument in words to honor those whose lives were taken away merely because Dylann Roof decided that his job was to kill as many African-Americans as possible to save white culture.

As we read about how Risher and her family worked their way through catastrophe, she acknowledges that it hasn't been easy and that there have been many internal family disagreements.

"I really do hate to put all of our business out there like this," she writes. ". . .But I want people to know, to really understand, that just because you have gone through all of this mess, it doesn't mean you can't come out on the other side. You can."

As a young woman, Risher always felt the love and support of her mother, who died a few months before her 71st birthday. But it took Risher time to find her own path. Eventually she graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, though she was ordained by another Protestant denomination and became a hospital chaplain, a job she was doing in Texas when the Charleston massacre occurred.

In the time since the shooting, Risher has left chaplaincy work and has been working with Everytown for Gun Safety and other groups that seek to bring some sanity to gun ownership laws in the U.S. She now describes herself as "a politician in the army of God. My weaponry is love. . ."

It took her a long time, but eventually she came to publicly say she has forgiven Roof, even if he hasn't been interested in anyone's forgiveness.

These massacres have been happening with such rapidity in recent years in the U.S. that it's easy to forget about them as the endless news cycle moves on to the next one. This book is a good reminder that real people with real problems and real solutions are involved in all of them.

It's worth our time to slow down enough to hear their testimony. And maybe if we pay attention we can end up with fewer victims and fewer mourners.

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Why are several European countries so concerned with what Muslim women wear? It's a good question. This Economist piece tries to unravel the mystery. In the end, passing laws about what such people can wear is simple bigotry.

When Holocaust history gets distorted or dismissed: 7-11-19

Despite the mental fragility demonstrated by Holocaust deniers, it is clear that Adolf Hitler's Nazi government in Germany approved of and led the slaughter of some six million Jews in World War II, along with millions of others.

TWJP-coverIt's a well-documented genocide about which students should learn well before graduating from high school. And thanks to such agencies as the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, students in the Kansas City area do learn about this dark history.

To add to the factual record, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I wrote our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

But here and there around the country the question of whether the Holocaust is real history or just an opinion continues to get raised in shocking ways.

For instance, this Palm Beach Post story describes how the principal of a Florida high school told a mother in an e-mail that “I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.”

He later suggested that his wording in the e-mail wasn't very good, but the fact that he felt called to say such a thing in the first place appalled the mother in question, who continued to push against a reluctant school system to make sure children were being taught true things about the Holocaust.

Schools are not free to make up falsehoods and declare them facts or to describe verifiable historical events as simply opinions. But sometimes it takes oversight by parents and public school taxpayers to make sure that what is taught as history is true.

As I look back on the history I was taught in high school I am aware of a lot that seems to have been missing, especially about the ways in which America's first European settlers crushed Native Americans and about the ways in which white supremacy was the predominant ideology on which our nation was founded. Later, in college history classes at the University of Missouri, some, but not all, of those themes got filled in.

The lesson here is that the truth cannot set us free if we never learn it. Do you know what history your children or grandchildren are learning in school? Maybe it's time to find out.

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It's been clear for a long time that the Russian Orthodox Church is in bed with the Putin government. But here's a twist: Some church officials now are suggesting it might not be a good idea for Orthodox priests to continue conducting ceremonies in which nuclear weapons are blessed by the church. What's that church's version of Genesis say? That the first people were Atom and Eve?

Sexual abuse now involves Buddhists, too: 7-10-19

A decade or two ago many Americans were under the impression that the only religious group dealing with charges of sexual abuse was the Catholic Church.

Shambhala-Thangka-fullThat has turned out to be wrong on many counts. For example, this summer's national gathering of Southern Baptists devoted a lot of time to how to handle sexual misconduct charges in various Baptist congregations and institutions.

And just this week, The Denver Post published this story about abuse among Buddhists in Colorado who are part of what's called the Shambhala movement. It also published this backgrounder about Shambhala.

As the story noted, "Shambhala, the Boulder-born Buddhist and mindfulness community, for decades suppressed allegations of abuse — from child molestation to clerical abuse — through internal processes that often failed to deliver justice for victims, The Denver Post found through dozens of interviews with current and former members and a review of hundreds of pages of internal documents, police records and private communications.

"That suppression came in the form of worshipful vows students said they were told to maintain to the very teachers they alleged abused them; in explicit and implicit commands not to report abuse; and through a cultish reverence that served to protect Shambhala’s king-like leaders, according to interviews and third-party reviews commissioned by Shambhala itself."

Well, you can read the rest of the story and the backgrounder for yourself if you're interested. What I want to point out is that by now every faith community should be aware of the potential for such abuse and have policies and practices in place to prevent it. It's more and more apparent that the question isn't whether such abuse will occur in this or that religious context but when. It's also clear -- and not just from the Catholic experience with all of this -- that religious leaders will do what they can to protect the reputation of their institutions at the expense of injured individuals.

So if you don't know what you faith community is doing to protect children and to prevent sexual abuse of any member, start asking questions now. The people you save may include your children or grandchildren.

(The image here today of the Shambhala mandala can be found here.)

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The rigid theology that guides many Christian Zionists is, in the view of the author of this RNS opinion piece, sadly antisemitic. Indeed, there's almost no other way to look at it. Their supposed support of Israel is paper thin and has little to do with the welfare of the Jewish state.

Teaching teachers religious literacy: 7-9-19

If you have been a relatively consistent reader of mine for the last several decades, you know that I think religious literacy is absolutely essential if we're to have a country in which people of different faith traditions can live together in relative harmony.

WorldReligionsIn fact, for the last seven or more years I've been working with a small task force blessed by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council to create some kind of interfaith religious literacy center or project for our community. For the last several years we've been in conversation with leaders of the University of Missouri-Kansas City to become a partner with us in this effort. Nothing finalized yet, but stay tuned.

It's easy, I've found, for people to wonder why religious literacy should be such a big deal. Aren't most Americans Christians? Why do we have to know much any other religions?

This Washington Post story will, I hope, answer such questions. It describes a summer course in the Washington, D.C., area (Montgomery County) in which teachers learn about the many faith traditions of the students they'll have in class this fall.

"For six days," the story says, "Montgomery teachers of all grade levels tour some of the Washington area’s religious institutions, from a Muslim mosque to a Sikh gurdwara to a Jewish synagogue. They meet with experts who teach them about the difference between Catholic and Protestant, Sunni and Shiite, atheist and agnostic.

"They also discuss the thorny question of whether public school teachers should even be talking about religion at all."

What I found sort of shocking was what those teachers didn't know before taking the classes. You'll see why I say that after reading this opening of the story:

"School was out — and now it was time for the teachers to be quizzed.

"More than two dozen Montgomery County public educators furrowed their brows as the questions flashed on the screen. 'Which is not one of the Ten Commandments?' More than half of them got it wrong. Then: 'What was the religion of Maimonides?' Ten guessed that the sage was Buddhist; seven guessed he was Mormon. Six got the correct answer: Jewish.

'When does the Jewish Sabbath begin?' popped up. Again, wrong answers — many of the teachers guessed Saturday. (It’s Friday night.)

“'See?' one teacher muttered. 'This is why I’m taking this class.'”

We can't possibly appreciate the religious commitments others make if we don't understand them. Ignorance, of course, leads to fear and fear can lead to bigotry and violence.

So I urge you to seek out opportunities to educate yourself about religion, including traditions beyond your own. A good place to start is Stephen Prothero's 2008 book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.

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Speaking of religious literacy, did you know that the about-to-die Mad Magazine was Jewish humor and satire? That's what the rabbi who wrote this admiring obit of the magazine says. It helps to look at the world through theological eyes.