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We can solve hunger -- here's how: 8-31/9-1-19

Not quite a year ago, the World Health Organization reported that hunger affects 821 million people -- one in nine -- in the world and that "Hunger has been on the rise over the past three years, returning to levels from a decade ago. This reversal in progress sends a clear warning that more must be done and urgently. . ."

Silence-killThe Rev. Arthur Simon knows all this. And, in his new book, Silence Can Kill: Speaking Up to End Hunger and Make Our Economy Work for Everyone, he focuses on hunger in the U.S. and how ridiculous it is that we haven't worked up the will to solve it, given that solving it is much less expensive than letting it continue or even grow. He blames lots of people for this failure, but has special words of reproach for people of faith, especially Christians, who think that solving hunger would require them to get their hands dirty with politics.

Simon speaks from experience. He's founder (in 1974) and president emeritus of Bread for the World, which describes itself as "a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decisions makers to end hunger at home and abroad." Simon himself in his new book calls Bread for the World a "citizens' lobby" designed in part to educate elected officials about what they should be doing to rid the country and the world of hunger.

As someone who has worked in the world of charity for decades, Simon knows, as he writes, that there's a widespread "impression that charity is the main way or even the only way citizens have of responding. People are led to think that the role of charity is far more consequential than the role of government in addressing hunger, when the opposite is the case by a wide margin. As a result, few of us who support such charities also urge our members of Congress to act so that the nation as a whole does its part in addressing hunger and poverty."

And be sure of this: Simon understands that simply giving people free food won't solve the problem. Rather, they also need jobs and respect and education and a reliable way forward. But solving hunger, he suggests, is the low-hanging fruit here, and accomplishing that can lead to solving the other problems. In fact, not solving hunger is simply wasting good money.

By not doing away with hunger around the globe, Simon writes, we are colluding with a problem that "is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of at least six million people each year, half of them young children." The good news is that "the world has made dramatic gains against hunger and poverty in recent decades. The share of its population that is chronically undernourished has sharply receded. The world is now within reach of putting a near end to that kind of hunger."

Yes, Simon acknowledges, in the short term it would require more public dollars to solve this problem, but fairly quickly the improvement in the health and well-being of citizens would more than pay for those dollars through lower health care costs, more people in the work force paying taxes and similar beneficial returns, including children able to focus on school instead of on their empty stomachs.

Simon, brother of the late Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, makes an excellent case for public investment to wipe out hunger in the U.S., but he doesn't stop there. He seeks to enlist people of faith to do more than hand out baskets of food on holidays. His main reason, he says, is "to convince believers that to engage in charity for hungry people, while remaining silent about it at the political level, not only limits their impact on hunger, but actually works against their faith. It is an inconsistency that results in widespread suffering and death."

Yes, he says, "the church should avoid partisanship, but assert moral principles deeply embedded in its faith; and justice is deeply embedded in the Bible."

This book is both disturbing and compelling. I hope faith communities of many traditions will use it as a guide for how to get more involved in solving a problem that is quite solvable. Not to do work toward a solution would be a violation of many faith communities' foundational principles.

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Speaking of food, Religion News Service has done this interesting article about so-called "dinner churches," which I wrote about almost two years ago in this Flatland column. The trend (and Kansas City was an early adopter), is spreading nationally.

Forfeiting Rohingya Muslims for an unattainable goal? 8-30-19

If you have paid any attention at all to international news in the last decade or so, you have heard about the desperate plight of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar (formerly Burma). But perhaps the nuances and details of the story have escaped you, along with the connection to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar leader who has received many humanitarian awards, including the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

MyanmarIn recent times Suu Kyi, who spent many years under house arrest at the direction of a military dictatorship in her country, has been routinely and roundly criticized for her failure to defend the Rohingya, who have been concentrated in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

The story, however, is more complicated than it might at first appear. This report in the current issue of The Atlantic by Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national-security adviser to President Barack Obama, gets into some of the details about why that is so and whether the Rohingya who have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh have any future at all.

Is this a clear case of genocide that hasn't been stopped by someone who, almost everyone thought, was a great moral leader? Or is it something else, at least in part?

Rhodes leaves us with the impression that it's mostly the first option but that Suu Kyi has what she believes are defensible reasons for her inaction. Those reasons, of course, are simply incomprehensible to the dying and oppressed Rohingya Muslims.

"The military," Rhodes writes, "has ruled the country either directly or indirectly since 1962. In 2011, stifling martial law gave way to a partial opening: Political prisoners were released, relatively free elections were held, and the government began to plug Myanmar into the internet and the global economy. But modern Myanmar has never known peace or controlled all of its borders."

How do the Rohingya fit into all that? Rhodes' answer: "The status of the Rohingya, who live in Rakhine State — which borders Bangladesh to the north and the Bay of Bengal to the west — has long been at issue. Many Burmese deny that the Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group, referring to them as Bengalis — unauthorized immigrants from Bangladesh. This was codified into law in 1982, when legislation denied citizenship to anyone who had come to Myanmar during British rule; the junta used this law to deny citizenship to all Rohingya. In the late ’70s and again in the early ’90s, the military launched operations that brutally drove more than 300,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh."

The shock to the international community has been Suu Kyi's apparent hardness of heart toward the Rohingya, who, in the beginning of all this, Rhodes makes clear, were not entirely innocent.

But as Rhodes reports about Suu Kyi, she "has done little to stop the atrocities. Her seemingly callous indifference has felt to many outsiders like a betrayal. How can Suu Kyi, an avatar of human rights for so many years, stand by while her government violently tramples them? Western politicians and media have heaped criticism on her; many of the organizations that championed her cause are rescinding the awards they once rushed to give her. But Suu Kyi has refused to shift course."

When pressed on the Rohingya, Rhodes says, Suu Kyi say, “We will get to those things. But first must come constitutional reform. We cannot have human rights without democracy.”

In the meantime the Rohingya Muslims are stateless refugees and many have died while Suu Kyi has other things higher on her agenda.

Suu Kyi may have been an honorable voice for freedom and democracy in earlier days but today she seems a voice for soulless pragmatism at the cost of lives. And her reasons for adopting that position seem hollow.

(By the way, if you want to see some of the faces of the Rohingya, this piece offers that, plus some stories about how they're surviving, if at all.)

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A federal appeals court has ruled that it's all right for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to ban guest chaplains who don’t believe in God. Still, it might be sort of intriguing to hear how they'd begin a prayer: "To whom it may concern." Or "Dear Nobody." "Oh, nonexistent God."

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P.S.: You might be interested in the Sept. 14 "Free the Innocent" fundraiser gala sponsored by the Miracle of Innocence project that I wrote about in a Flatland column here. To get tickets to attend, go here.

When old houses of worship get redone or reused: 8-29-19

The church building that houses my congregation is a little over 100 years old, though the congregation itself goes back to its founding in 1865.

2nd-towerAt our current location -- 55th and Brookside, just southeast of Kansas City's Country Club Plaza -- we've done various kinds of remodeling over the 41 years I've been a member there, from redoing our chapel to refurbishing our lower-level classrooms after the big Kansas City flood of 1977 to remodeling our fellowship hall, our library and our more formal parlor and more. And although we're a smaller congregation than we were when I joined, we are committed to using our building in wise ways that are financially efficient and that create space for all kinds of people even outside our membership to use our beautiful building.

Which is why we're nearing the completion of about $2.6 million worth of building changes.

Lots of other congregations around the country have not been able to keep the buildings that house them in decent shape because of a shrinking membership and old buildings that requires lots of maintenance.

In fact, as this NPR story reports, "More than 6,800 religious buildings have sold in the past five years and more than 1,400 are currently for sale in the U.S., according to the commercial real estate database CoStar.

"Some will be sold to other congregations, while others will become something entirely different — like a nun-themed coffee shop."

The story notes that "revamping old religious buildings can come with hidden costs, especially if developers have to run plumbing and heating vents through thick stone walls. A new construction project might have fewer surprises. . .but old houses of worship often have unique features that customers find desirable."

You may be aware of some church building or site reuse stories where you live. One of the saddest but well-written pieces about that appeared in The Kansas City Star a couple of years ago, written by my former colleague Rick Montgomery. Since Rick wrote that, the building has been torn down and something else is going in on that site -- but not another church.

One thing to remember about all of this is something our pastor, Paul Rock, has told us often: A church is not a "place where" but a "people who." That applies to synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras and other houses of worship, too.

(The 2018 photo you see here today, is one I took showing work being done to preserve the iconic tower at my church, Second Presbyterian. That tower work now is completed as is much of the interior work. In a few weeks, we hope the new west-side entrance to the building will be done, complete with an outdoor "porch" for various gatherings.)

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When Attorney General William Barr decided to seek the death penalty in the case of the man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year, some of the Jews who worship there opposed that move, this RNS story reports. In fact, Jewish leaders and congregants around the country traditionally have opposed the death penalty. And there are all kinds of reasons to be against capital punishment. One additional reason in this case is that there's an indication that the man charged in the case might have pleaded guilty had prosecutors taken the death penalty off the table. A trial will put the whole community through the disaster again and may allow a virile antisemite a platform from which to spew his hatred. Bad move, AG Barr.

A day to honor the value of words: 8-28-19

It's not just because I'm a writer that I believe words matter -- often a great deal and for a long time. The evidence is everywhere, even if you limit your inquiry to the field of religion.

BookstacksFor instance, today is the anniversary of the death of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). And it's the anniversary of the birth of Russian novelist, social reformer and religious thinker Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). (Tolstoy's old birth date, Aug. 28, now is considered to be Sept. 9 because of calendar changes since his birth.)

Their words still are in print today and still helping to shape how people think about religious matters.

Among Augustine's works are The City of GodDe doctrina Christiana and Confessions. The latter work has been especially influential in that in it readers see a deeply flawed man who, nonetheless, found a way to God and found some answers to the eternal questions.

His writings have influenced almost all branches of Christianity in different ways. And although the Catholic Church has designated him as a saint, Protestantism credits him with early thinking that helped to shape the Protestant Reformation more than 1,000 years after his life.

Tolstoy's novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina are still read widely today and help us understand the human condition and the roles that greed, pride and revenge play in a broken and sinful world. In fact, I confess that I didn't get around to reading the latter until a couple of years ago, though I found it compelling. I also confess that I've read a fair amount about War and Peace but have never finished the book itself. (I'm  betting that puts me in pretty good company.)

If works by Augustine and Tolstoy have such staying power, imagine how influential the sacred texts of various religious traditions have been -- the Bible (in all its form), the Qur'an, the Talmud, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads and more.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, God created the world via words. God, in other words, spoke the cosmos into existence. And Christians consider Jesus Christ to be the Word of God. Words would matter even if none of that was the case. But they matter all the more because  of it.

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One of the best things to come out of the recent gathering in Germany of an international interfaith group, Religions for Peace, was the confession that in many issues facing the world, "religious communities have fallen short." Once that's acknowledged it's easier to figure out what to do going forward.

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Given my lead topic today, this seems like an excellent day to alert you to some intriguing words in a new book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, by Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who has spent much of her life working against the death penalty. Now in her early 80s, Prejean uses this book not just to sum up her personal life but to set it in the context of developments in both the Catholic Church and the world. But she wants readers to know that she's not done working for change in the world. Near the end of the book, in fact, she writes that she hopes "that the recognition by the Church of the inviolable dignity of every human person, even criminals, will become a guiding moral principle for the Church to rethink its attitudes, teachings and policies on women and LGBTQ persons." Prejean comes across in this book not as a rigid rule follower but a struggling, fallible person seeking to know and do God's will. She seems both fun and, at times, funny. At the same time, she confesses that early in her life -- and in her training as a woman religious -- her faith was "riddled with fear. So much fear that I'm even afraid of Jesus." It takes her time to get over that, but eventually she finds ways to live a life of joy and commitment to the inestimable worth of everyone. Vox has done an interesting interview with Prejean that you can find here.

Sexual abuse charges now against Jews and Baptists: 8-27-19

The state of New York recently created a one-year window in which sexual abuse lawsuits can be filed that previously were blocked by the statute of limitations.

Child-Sexual-AbuseAs this Associated Press story reports, hundreds of such suits alleging child sexual abuse have been filed.

In one of them, the AP says, "Thirty-eight former students of an Orthodox Jewish school in New York City operated by Yeshiva University sued. . .over claims they were molested by two prominent rabbis in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s."

At the same time, The Houston Chronicle has continued its groundbreaking reporting on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention, including this story about the support SBC leaders were giving a pastor facing sex abuse charges.

In the Yeshiva case, the AP reported this: "One of the accused rabbis, George Finkelstein, targeted children of Holocaust survivors, according to the lawsuit, telling them they would increase their parents’ suffering if they spoke about the abuse. The other, Rabbi Macy Gordon, who taught Jewish studies, allegedly sodomized boys in a 'vicious and sadistic' manner using objects, the lawsuit says. Gordon died in 2017 in Israel. Both he and Finkelstein have denied the allegations in the past.

"Finkelstein was promoted from the school’s assistant principal to principal even after some of the boys’ parents reported the alleged abuse to school officials, the plaintiffs said."

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. We've heard story after story about such matters in the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church here and abroad for decades now.

What's the essential problem here? It's two-fold: People almost inevitably do sinful and illegal things. A the systems in place to protect children from those people have been shown time and again to be inadequate. No doubt it will be impossible to stop every act of child endangerment and abuse, but surely our religious and educational institutions can do better than they're doing now. The trauma inflicted by such acts of abuse can damage someone for life.

Here, for instance, is what the AP story says about one of the alleged victims: "David Bressler, 51, said the abuse he suffered while a student in the early ’80s led him to abandon his religion that now rekindles memories of the abuse. He has no contact with his parents and other relatives who are observant Jews. When he married his Jewish wife a decade ago, he made her promise not to raise their children in the Jewish faith.

"He said he still doesn’t tuck in his shirt, a habit he started in high school to make it more difficult for his abuser to put his hand down his pants. Bressler once punched Finkelstein while he says the rabbi was sexually 'wrestling' with him. Now there are days he can’t bear being on a crowded subway because 'I can’t stand being touched by people.'”

Ask yourself what you can do in the faith communities or schools with which you're connected to make sure that doesn't happen to anyone else.

It's the least any of us can and should do.

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As this RNS piece reports, advertising aimed at us today has gone spiritual: "What the advertisements from the 1960s were designed to evoke was carnal (or, at least, venal). But today’s advertisements are designed to evoke different and more numinous emotions: spiritual well-being, an inward journey, a moral sensibility. We’re buying the very things that organized religion used to provide us for free." Makes me wonder why people pay for what's free. Maybe because they can.

Looking for Earths in all the right places? 8-26-19


The age-old question -- rooted in theology, in curiosity and in human hubris -- is whether we Earthlings are alone in the universe.

Some of that question occurs because it's hard to imagine that a God who creates out of love would arrange for an observable universe 93 billion light-years in diameter and yet use only one tiny blue-green ball as home for life. Perhaps that's exactly what's happened, but it's still hard to fathom.

So philosophers, theologians and actual astronomers continue to delve into all the mysteries surrounding this question. One of the most recent about which I've read comes from this news release from Penn State University.

It describes work being done to provide "the most accurate estimate of the frequency that planets that are similar to Earth in size and in distance from their host star occur around stars similar to our Sun."

In other words, it's trying to find potentially habitable Earth-like planets circling stars that could support life instead of burn it up.

The researchers don't have any solid estimates yet of how many such planets might be out there, but they have determined that:

"Based on their simulations, the researchers estimate that planets very close to Earth in size, from three-quarters to one-and-a-half times the size of earth, with orbital periods ranging from 237 to 500 days, occur around approximately one in six stars. Importantly, their model quantifies the uncertainty in that estimate. They recommend that future planet-finding missions plan for a true rate that ranges from as low about one planet for every 33 stars to as high as nearly one planet for every two stars."

As almost always happens, researchers turn up findings that require more research. Which means employment for researchers. But it also might mean answers to cosmic mysteries. Such answers, of course, won't unravel the primary question of why the universe exists at all, which is to say what purpose its creator might have had in mind. But that's not a question for science. That's a question for religion.

(The image here today came with the Penn State news release, which used this caption and credit line for it: "Artist’s impression of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which discovered thousands of new planets. New research, using Kepler data, provides the most accurate estimate to date of how often we should expect to find Earth-like planets near sun-like stars. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/W. Stenzel/D. Rutte"  

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President Trump's recent comments about Jews being disloyal if they vote for Democrats has produced this counterargument from a writer for the Jewish publication The Tablet. It's not just Trump, argues Carly Pildis, but "whole swaths of the American political establishment are treating us like morons."

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the resurrection of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in KCK -- now is online here.

Another Methodist plan on division: 8-24/25-19

If you've been following the developing schism in the United Methodist Church denomination, you know that earlier this year the church's international governing body decided to keep its old rules that forbid ordination of LGBTQ folks as pastors and that refuse to allow pastors to conduct same-sex weddings.

UMC-logoSince early in 2017, I've written about this issue several times in different venues, including here, here and here.

Recently, Religion News Service reported on a new effort to split the denomination by agreement, instead of one side simply walking away from the other. (Think of it as a Brexit-like exit, but by accord. In other words, a Methexit.) It began with a secret meeting this summer in Indianapolis and has resulted in what RNS calls "a blueprint for spinning off one or two new denominations, hoping to put an end to decades of battles over LGBTQ inclusion."

Before the Indianapolis gathering, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the 22,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood, Kan., hosted a meeting of Methodists opposed to the plan that the UMC adopted. The result of that gathering was at least an informal commitment to resist the new plan and to seek ways to undo it but not to walk away from the denomination, at least not yet.

The RNS story says the Indianapolis gathering was attended by "five conservatives and eight Methodists who are more liberal." One of the attendees described the plan this way: “It’s a practical plan that promotes peace and fairness.”

As RNS details the plan, it "would not dissolve the United Methodist Church or require amending its constitution. Instead, the denomination would create a new legal entity for traditionalists. Under the plan, the United Methodist Church would change its name. It would also make changes to the denomination’s rulebook. Most notably, it would delete a statement that says the 'practice of homosexuality' is 'incompatible' with Christian teaching. Regional bodies called 'conferences' would then have a choice of aligning with either the traditionalist or what it calls the 'centrist/progressive' denomination."

No doubt something like this will appeal to some Methodists, including those who want to keep the old anti-LGBTQ rules and those who think they're wrong and should be scuttled. But I have trouble seeing how the plan differs from a pure split. In fact, this new plan even gets rid of the UMC name. And it gives up the continued fight to make the whole church LGBTQ friendly. 

This continuing battle over LGBTQ issues will end some day when those who continue to think the Bible condemns homosexuality will wake up to the reality that it does no such thing. You can read my essay about what the Bible really says about homosexuality here.

In the meantime, the UMC and other denominations with anti-LGBTQ rules will continue to injure gays and lesbians for no good reason. I'm not a Methodist (but a Presbyterian).  But if I were a Methodist I'd keep fighting to change the old rules. We Presbyterians fought over this from at least 1978 until we finally changed our rules in 2011 to allow otherwise-qualified LGBTQ people to be ordained and to allow pastors, if they choose to, to officiate at same-sex weddings. It has cost our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), congregations as well as members. But doing the right thing often is costly.

Jesus taught us that.

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About a year ago the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked that people stop referring to members as Mormons. This RNS piece analyzes how that has gone. On the whole, it's been a tough sell, though there are a few signs of progress toward the no-Mormon goal. Maybe the problem is that the church itself used -- and allowed use of -- the term for so long. And the alternatives are both long and at times awkward. Still, as a rule we should call people what they prefer to be called.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the resurrection of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in KCK -- now is online here.

Why India's Christian population is so small: 8-23-19

When I lived in India for two years of my boyhood, I was well aware that Hindus made up a majority of the population and that Muslims were next in order of magnitude.

India-ChristiansWhat struck me even then as a 12-year-old was the oddity that there weren't many Christians in the country despite the fact that Britain had ruled India for about 200 years, ending in August 1947. (My family arrived in 1956.) After all, I reasoned, surely most of the Brits who came to India were members of the Church of England. And surely there were both British and American missionaries (I knew some of the latter, though my parents were not there are missionaries).

Why didn't Christianity catch on more in India as it has done across Africa in recent decades and in such places as South Korea? (In recent years the percentage of Christians in the Indian population has been stuck at roughly 2.3 -- no larger and maybe even a little smaller than when we lived there. As India has been in the news a lot lately with its Hindu-Muslim dispute over Kashmir with Pakistan, this seemed like a good question.)

I think I've discovered at least part of an answer in 2005 book a friend recently asked me to read, The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj, by David Gilmour.

Gilmour points out that the British training for people being sent to run India did not include "Christian religious training. Civilians (the term given to members of the Indian Civil Service) were nevertheless expected to perform religious ceremonies in places without resident clergymen. . .

"Religious fervour diminished in the years following the (1857) Mutiny. After 1857 there were few Lieutenant-Governors like the Evangelical, Sir James Thomason, who himself conducted 'divine service' in his camp when on tour. Organized Christianity no longer played much part in the lives of (British) men who spent half the year touring their districts without seeing a church or a priest.

"Alfred Lyall complained that the Service contained some 'dour Low Churchmen with a strong Scotch flavour', and the Evangelical tradition reappeared in the figure of Frank Lugard Brayne, a zealous Commissioner in the Punjab, but religious enthusiasm was rare among late Victorian Civilians. One admitted that he and his colleagues cared 'little about dogma and doctrines' and would have agreed with Kipling's fictional Assistant Collector who thought 'one creed as good as another'. They certainly did not think that India could be converted to Christianity or even that conversion was a desirable goal."

Beyond that, Gilmour writes, many British civil servants in India "regarded missionaries as 'pestilential mischief-makers' whom they would have liked to expel from the land."

So when we lived on the campus of what then was known as the Allahabad Agricultural Institute (now the Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Science), where my father was stationed as part of a University of Illinois ag team, a small group of Christians, including my family, would gather for Sunday evening services. And my mother started a Sunday school for Christian youth that met in our home.

But as Christians we were well aware that Christianity was a distinctly minority religion in the land. And now we both have a little better understanding of why.

(The map you see here today, showing Christian populations in India in the 2011 census, came from here.)

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The 10th Religions for Peace World Assembly has been meeting in Germany this week, with nearly all participants saying they must ignore religious differences and work together on problems or nothing will be accomplished. True, but how can that message penetrate the brains of all the religious people around the world who are certain they're right and everyone else is dead wrong?

An evangelical blasts Trump's evangelicals: 8-22-19

Ever since the results of the 2016 presidential election became known, all kinds of analysts have tried to explain why 81 percent of white Christian evangelicals abandoned their moral center and voted for a man whose life has been an almost complete rejection of the values for which those voters have long stood.

Immoral-majorityIn a new book, one white evangelical, Ben Howe, turns state's evidence and testifies about what made so many of his fellow evangelicals (though not him) support Donald Trump. It's an important insider's view that seeks to explain (not condone) what has seemed so inexplicable to many of us who are outside the white evangelical boundaries.

In The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values, Howe concludes this: "For the possibility of a bit of worldly influence, they surrendered their moral voice in the public sphere."

It is a sad, even appalling story. And not just because it resulted in the election of a man unfit for the office. Beyond that, it's sad because of the enormous damage it has done to evangelical Christianity, to Christianity more broadly and to religion itself even more broadly. If people of faith loudly profess to be (fill in the blank) but then act in a radically different way, why would anyone want to be connected to faith at all? Hypocrisy kills religion. And it's hypocrisy that Trump's white evangelical supporters have displayed in bright colors.

Howe, a filmmaker, podcaster and writer, is aiming his criticism directly at evangelical Christians and calling them to make more moral choices. So in one sense this is an inside-evangelical-Christianity book with the rest of us looking on. But it's one that any American citizen should find intriguing because it helps to explain the shocking choice most white evangelical voters made in 2016.

Howe saw a few signs early in the 2016 race that trouble was ahead as Trump kept winning primary elections, but, like many people, including many Republicans, he never imagined that Trump could get the nomination or, if Trump did, that he could beat Hillary Clinton, for whom Howe did not vote, either, objecting to many of her political positions.

What finally got Howe's complete attention in 2016 was a tweet sent out by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. It said Falwell was honored to introduce Trump "at a religious leader summit in NYC today!" With the tweet came a photo that included a shot of a Trump wall on which was displayed the many magazines on which Trump's photo has appeared on the cover. One of them showed a 1990 edition of Playboy "with playmate Brandi Brandt wearing nothing but Trump's tuxedo jacket."

It stunned Howe, though not because he's a prude, he writes. Rather, the photo triggered a childhood memory of being "taken to a protest by my evangelical parents." (His father spent part of his career as a Southern Baptist preacher.) There, about 5,000 demonstrators were objecting to the sale of Playboy in 7-Eleven convenience stores, and the protest was led by Falwell's father, the Rev Jerry Falwell Sr., creator of the political-religious organization called the Moral Majority.

For a time, Howe's family attended Falwell's church in Lynchburg, Va., site of Liberty University, where Falwell was president. Now Falwell's son, as president of Liberty, was promoting a man featured on the cover of the very magazine Falwell's father railed against, a presidential candidate Howe describes as "a confessed and apparently unrepentant serial adulterer."

Howe, by the way, uses part of this book to confess the sins of his own youth, in which, he writes, he "succumbed to peer pressure and dived deep into the world of drugs and crime." Eventually he found his way back to health, balance and the church. But he also writes about Christian leaders -- such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Robert Tilton -- who in the 1980s were bringing disrepute on American Christianity through sins and bad choices of their own. The stigma of such charlatans "chased evangelicals for decades," Howe writes, even though many of the errant preachers weren't evangelical but, rather, Pentecostal. Still, he suggests evangelicals should have learned from the experience of scandal, but seem not to have.

Instead, they were attracted to a candidate about whom Howe writes this: "When it comes to Christianity, Trump knows the notes but not the tune." Still, Trump was politically savvy enough to hold a private meeting in June 2016 "with a thousand value-centric conservative leaders," Howe writes. It was that meeting that Trump offered himself "as God's preference, not just man's." That's when the attitude of evangelicals started to shift toward the inevitability of Trump's nomination and to look for reasons to justify their support of him, Howe says. The dam broke and evangelicals were mostly all in for Trump after that.

"It may be a noble mission," Howe writes, "to seek to influence the elected through the mobilization of Christian voters who demand the character and values that reflect Christ's teachings. But that is very clearly no longer the mission."

Instead, he says, Trump evangelicals have overtly altered "their entire ethical framework to accommodate one Republican president."

Well, there's much more in this book, including a discussion of "vessel theology," which imagines that God sometimes chooses someone who seems unlikely to be God's tool of change -- as God is said to have chosen King Cyrus, a non-Jew, to help the people of Israel as recounted in the Hebrew Bible. And, Howe writes, "this view of Trump as God's inerrant vessel permeates the modern evangelical movement. . ." Remember that this is the movement that loudly called for the resignation of President Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky affair because it was such a moral scandal, which, of course, it was.

But, as the author notes, long before Trump, "the ingredients required for his ascent had been brought together. It was a toxic mixture of resentment and desire for revenge which spawned the Trump evangelical moment. Evangelicals were tired of being on the outside."

By backing the winning candidate in 2016, Howe writes, evangelical leaders "have taught their flocks to value the things of the world, rather than the things of Christ."

What does all this mean for the future of the evangelical branch of the Christian church in the U.S.? Howe's answer: ".  . .how can anyone expect anything other than the loss of younger generations, the departure of members and a difficulty attracting new adherents to the faith?"

In biblical terms, evangelicals have sold their birthright for a pot of stew. It's one of the most important religion stories of our era, and it will have ripple effects for decades.

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Sticking today with the president as a topic, the other day he declared that Jews who vote for Democrats show "great disloyalty." The list of what's problematic about his statement is long, and the Jewish newspaper The Forward covers some of that list in the piece to which I linked just you. I'm not sure I'd classify Trump as a standard antisemite, but he certainly says and does things that raise that question, despite his actions favoring Israel. It's complicated. But Trump seems consistent on his "disloyalty" belief about American Jews. He said the same thing two days in a row, this New York Times story reports.

What it takes to keep teens connected to faith: 8-21-19

At some point in my high school years I decided I didn't want to be a member of our church or even attend, though my parents frankly didn't give me much choice about the matter.

Youth_ministryThe problem with church, as I diagnosed it with my inexperienced teen-age eyes, was that it was full of hypocrites. Which is to say people who acted all nice and religious on Sunday but who sometimes seemed to have different standards the rest of the week. It's pretty common for teens to have really sensitive hypocrisy radar.

At any rate, starting when I went off to college I was essentially unchurched for about 12 years, although during that time my interest in the eternal questions never went away. I read theology and even took some lay theology classes at Colgate Rochester Divinity School while I was working for the afternoon newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., in the late 1960s.

Eventually I found my way back to church once I realized that I was one of the hypocrites I used to judge and thought maybe I needed some help with that.

There are lots of reasons youth and young adults get turned off of -- and by -- religion.

As this USA Today piece by a young person notes, sometimes it has to do with a faith community's deep commitment to some tradition that means very little to young people and should mean much less than it does to older members.

"Whatever this 'tradition' comes dressed as," the author writes, "we find it a turnoff. Because of this, church should offer more open-ended resources to teens — such as meditation, discussion groups and even nature walks. In other words, the Christian church experience needs to start transcending the traditional and adapting to the times. Only then can teens start finding meaning in church beyond traditional mass, and realizing they can come to God in their own way without indoctrination or an intermediary."

Lots of faith communities -- but far from all -- realize this and are doing something about it. The youth ministry in my own congregation is doing really well right now thanks to excellent leadership. And two of my grandchildren -- siblings ages 17 and 14 -- are deeply connected to their own congregation and the opportunities it offers for them to learn and, in their case, to use their musical talents.

But keeping young people connected to a faith community -- or getting them reconnected -- means listening to them and learning from them. Which is what Youthfront, the highly successful youth ministry organization in the KC area, does so well.

Why is all this important? Because, as I've often heard from faith leaders, faith communities are always just one generation away from dying. And death would bring an end to all the good such communities can do.

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The brother of the late Illinois Senator Paul Simon, the Rev. Art Simon, founded the non-profit agency Bread for the World. He's now 89 and, in this interview with RNS, suggests we're closer now than we were 45 years ago when his agency was created, to ending world hunger. Worth a read. I've met Paul Simon but not Art, though he and I became e-mail friends when a mutual friend was in prison and we both worked to encourage his parole. That didn't happen, but in the process I learned what a terrific human being Art Simon is.