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Thanks, blog readers, but now I'm on to other things

As the archives of this blog will attest, I started it in December 2004 when I was still a full-time columnist at The Kansas City Star.

47-Star-CubicleI've loved the daily rhythm of doing it -- as, earlier, I loved the rhythm of writing a daily editorial page column, "Starbeams," for The Star for some 27 years before I shifted to a weekly column in the Faith section.

But -- barring some major developments that I may feel compelled to comment on in the next year -- this, the 4,704th post, will be the last daily entry for "Bill's Faith Matters Blog."

The reality is not that I'm burned out doing this. I love doing it. And I've been grateful that The Star has kept access to it available on its website even though I've been retired from full-time employment there for 13-plus years.

Home-office-19Rather, the reality is that I have some writing projects I want to get to before my number is up, and I simply don't have time for that work if I'm still doing this daily blog. If those projects come to fruition, I'll do my best to let you know about them. You can follow me by friending me on Facebook and/or connecting with me on Twitter (@BillTammeus) to stay in the loop.

If this is your first time reading my blog, well, all I can say is that what you missed still is in the archives, to which I've linked you in the first paragraph above. My hope is that it won't take you 15 years to read it all even if it took me that long to write it all.

If you've been a regular reader for a long time, you have my thanks and gratitude. I hope I've occasionally enlightened you or, at minimum, complicated your thinking. I'm sorry if I angered you now and then, but perhaps you needed that. As, now and then, do I.

I've tried to be a voice of calm reason when it comes to matters of religion and ethics. I've tried to explain why religious literacy in our increasingly pluralistic society is so damn important. I've tried to point out not just where religion goes astray, as it often does, but also the immeasurable goodness of which it's capable. I've tried to remind readers that science can answer some questions but not the question of purpose, which is reserved for religion and philosophy, and that religion should not be relied on for answers that only science can provide. I've sought to introduce you to helpful books (a few of which I've authored or co-authored) to ponder all of this and more. And I hope I've opened your mind to the possibility of awe and wonder as the primary impulses behind religion.

Being an elder in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has provided me a theological lens through which I tend to see the world but I have tried not to argue that the Reformed Tradition of Christianity in which we Presbyterians locate ourselves is the only or even the best way of being religious.

Although I'm stopping the blog, I will continue to write columns for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine (you can find links to past Flatland columns here), and for The Presbyterian Outlook as well as book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter. And I'll still consider and accept some speaking engagements. But, as I say, this blog is about to fall silent except on rare, if any, occasions.

At the beginning of my newspaper career, we were required to put an end-mark on our copy to indicate to editors that no more of this story or that column could be expected. That end-mark is what today we'd call a hashtag -- #30. So, in memory of my past professional work in journalism, which started in the 1960s, let me say this about this blog:


(The top left photo here today shows the last cubicle I worked in at The Star at the time of my 2006 retirement. It's where I worked when I started this blog. I was gone from that picture, as I'm now gone from this blog. The photo on the right shows my home office, where I've been writing the blog as well as other columns and books in recent years.)

P.S.: For quite a few years I have not allowed comments on this blog because when I did allow them readers turned the comments section into a theist-atheist pitched battle of nastiness. I decided I did not want to be responsible for creating one more platform for uncivil discourse in our culture. But readers could always e-mail me directly, as you still can, too. I'm at [email protected]. And I'm sure you'll have worthwhile things to say, given that, starting tomorrow, we'll all have 2020 vision.

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ANOTHER P.S.: A final book recommendation, especially for white evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016: Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump, by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch.

What makes religion so darn difficult?

I am going to back up a couple of days in the news because I want to say something about the Christmas message Pope Francis delivered this year.

Uncon-loveIn it, he said this: “Christmas reminds us that God continues to love us all, even the worst of us. God does not love you because you think and act the right way. He loves you, plain and simple. You may have made a complete mess of things, but the Lord continues to love you.”

That's the Christian message, but it doesn't stop there. And because it doesn't stop there it makes the Christian religion a profoundly difficult faith to follow.

Followers of Jesus are obliged to love others in the way that God loves us -- unconditionally.

Christianity, rooted in Jewish concepts, requires each of its adherents to love people who sometimes aren’t even very likable. As a Christian, I am obliged to see Christ in every person I meet, knowing that each person bears the imago dei, or the image of God. And I mean every single person, whether that person is saintly and generous or a serial killer or even a fan of the professional sports team I dislike the most. None of that matters. All that matters is that he or she is human, a child of God and that we must treat all people lovingly because of that truth.

We are not required just to like them. Nor are we required just to tolerate them. Those standards are far too low for the standards that Jesus uses to tell us that the most important commandment is to love God with all your strength, heart and mind and the second most important is to love our neighbor as ourselves -- commandments that issue from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible.

None of this obliterates the idea of grace, which is God's pure, unmerited favor for humankind. For it's out of the idea of grace that Jesus tells followers that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

In responding to the pope's comments in this way, I am not arguing that other faith traditions teach something radically different or completely opposite. All healthy religions ask their followers to be instruments of grace and peace. But that's what makes religion so difficult if we take it seriously.

I fail in some way at taking it seriously every day. But I know that I can be forgiven and try again. And again. And again. As can we all.

And speaking of new beginnings, I hope you'll come back here tomorrow. I have some news related to that subject that I hope you won't miss.

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For something a little different, take a look at these fabulous photos from Religion News Service of varying religious practices and events around the world in 2019. Quite stunning.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Jean Zeldin retiring from the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education -- now is online here.

Longing for peace, we may underestimate war's true cost

In the Vietnam War era, it became a repugnant cliche to refer to unintended civilian deaths as "collateral damage." The term dehumanized what happened so we didn't have to think about women and children, mostly, losing their lives to the appalling violence war causes.

Cost-warIn this holiday season, when visions of sugar plums and world peace dance in our heads, perhaps it's time to acknowledge that the wars we fight still produce something like collateral damage.

A new study by a Vanderbilt University economist finds that "the post-9/11 wars may have resulted in more than twice as many indirect deaths back home as were lost in battle," as this Vandy press release reports. "These indirect deaths are due to the diversion of war costs from the U.S. economy and the subsequent impact on the nation’s health."

You can find the full report here. It appears in Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy.

The primary message from this is that when we spend money on war, we have less to spend on education, health care, job training and other programs that, in the end, save and extend life.

Vanderbilt Prof. W. Kip Viscusi estimated that post-9/11 wars have cost American taxpayers about $1.95 trillion.

Using a carefully calculated formula that determines what can be thought of as indirect deaths because of war, Viscusi found that while the wars caused the loss of 10,000-plus American lives, the indirect number of deaths exceeded 21,000.

If we truly value life, we will dedicate ourselves to avoiding wars, even while acknowledging that some wars are simply unavoidable and even necessary. But we must be clear about casualty and death numbers. They add up to a lot more than simply deaths on the battlefield, even if the formula Viscusi has used doesn't get it exactly right.

All of this is good to remember as much of the world celebrates the birth of someone called the Prince of Peace.

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Religion News Service has put together this list of 10 "religious influencers" who died between the start of the year 2000 and now. Quite a list. Anyone you think should be on it who's not?

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Jean Zeldin retiring from the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education -- now is online here.

Why the date-setters for the world's end are always wrong


As this year comes to an end, it's a good time to ponder not the world coming to an end, exactly, but of one of the false prophets who predicted the world would end on this date in 1908, the last year (prior to 2016) that the Chicago Cubs won a World Series, back when the Ottoman Empire still existed.

The alleged prophet's name was Lee J. Spangler, who was in a long line of date-setters who came before and after him and who were always and everywhere wrong. How could they not be? Even Jesus said he didn't know when the world would end and that nobody but God the creator knows that.

As this fun piece about Spangler notes, 1908 was not the only time he predicted the end of time. He later said it would happen in 1915, though it's entirely unclear why a single person listened to his blather.

As the piece to which I've linked you notes, "The New York Times covered Spangler's prediction" in 1908, as did The Washington Post. The journalists who wrote those pieces no doubt might have benefited from attending classes at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, which opened in 1908.

Here's what The Times reported about the 1908 matter: "Spangler had predicted it would (end), and Spangler himself slipped away in advance of his followers' disappointment. Awaiting the final trumpet blast of an angel, the prophet's followers spent a very uneasy night."

The story to which I've linked you contains several other fun tidbits about Spangler's predictive failures.

What makes such false prophets attractive to some people? And why do the forecasters think it's important for them to warn people about something that never happens? Good questions. I suppose the answer is basic human gullibility.

And yet some serious scientists believe that our human species, if not the Earth and cosmos we inhabit, will come to an end. One of them is Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist, who writes this in his lovely little book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics:

"I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct. What's more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us."

So maybe Spangler wasn't a raving lunatic. Maybe he was just born too soon. And knowing that our species won't last forever and that, individually, we won't either, I think the proper response is gratitude for the home we've been given in the cosmos and love of those with whom we share it -- this year and for as long as we hang around.

(The photo here today is one I took at the Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in northern New Mexico a few years ago. When I think of the world ending, I like to imagine it doing so colorfully.)

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I find it encouraging that the recent Christianity Today editorial criticizing President Donald J. Trump has stirred up at least some debate among people who identify as evangelical. The latest development is that an editor of The Christian Post resigned once he learned that the publication was going to print a pro-Trump editorial. But the support that white evangelicals continue to give to Trump causes further damage to the evangelical cause.

This sounds like progress in the Catholic sex abuse scandal

Last week here on the blog, in a secondary item, I mentioned that Pope Francis had promulgated new rules that are designed to deal more openly and forthrightly with the sexual abuse scandal in the church. And I suggested that it looked like a good move but maybe we should wait a bit to see the reaction to it from across the church.

Abuse-churchWell, some of that reaction has come in and it's mostly positive.

Here, in fact, is what the Religion News Service has just reported about what the new rules mean.

Part of that RNS piece says this:

"The new protocol will transform legal proceedings and the lives of abuse victims, those accused of abusing them and bishops in charge of exercising oversight.

“'This is a tremendous step forward in transparency and the right of victims’ participation' in canonical trials and 'also the rights of the accused,' Dutch canon lawyer Myriam Wijlens told Religion News Service in a phone interview Wednesday.

“'There are only winners in this; there are no losers,' she added."

I hope she's right. But at the same time we have to factor in this new reporting from the Associated Press about how overwhelmed the Vatican office charged with dealing with the scandal is feeling.

"Nearly two decades after the Vatican assumed responsibility for reviewing all cases of abuse, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is today overwhelmed, struggling with a skeleton staff that hasn’t grown at pace to meet the four-fold increase in the number of cases arriving in 2019 compared to a decade ago," the AP reported.

As I've noted several times recently, the AP is doing some of the best reporting on this scandal. And the piece to which I've just linked you notes that Monsignor John Kennedy, head of the congregation’s discipline section, which processes the cases, "spoke to The Associated Press and allowed an AP photographer and video journalists into the CDF’s inner chambers -- the first time in the tribunal’s history that visual news media have been given access. Even the Vatican’s most secretive institution now feels the need to show some transparency as the church hierarchy seeks to rebuild trust with rank-and-file Catholics who have grown disillusioned with decades of clergy abuse and cover-up."

This kind of transparency has been needed for a long time, and it's reassuring to find that it's happening increasingly under this pope. None of this, of course, removes any of the crimes or the trauma caused by those crimes. But without it things would simply continue to get worse. And that's true not just in the Catholic crisis but in other faith communities as well, where abuse also has been a major problem. 

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For Christmas, Religion News Service did this audio interview with a Greek Orthodox priest at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It will give you a pretty good sense of how things are there in what is traditionally said to have been the birth place of Jesus.

A story of Christmas from my old Nativity Scene

A Merry Christmas to all celebrating that this day, as am I.

I'm going to try something a little different this year. I'm going to try giving you a Christmas story that I wrote for the now-defunct Star Magazine, part of The Kansas City Star, in 1982. It was a Christmas story about the Nativity Scene with which I grew up.

But I'm having to give it to you through jpeg photos of the original pages. I hope they will be clear enough for you to read. (You can always click on each picture to enlarge it.) If I do say so myself, I still like this story all these years later. I hope you will, too. Enjoy:








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Now here's kind of a cool idea. A Catholic church in Louisiana decided to try to spread blessings across its community by using a crop-duster plane to spread holy water across the town. Well, Christian theology says Christ came to rain, just spelled a different way -- reign.

Religious organizations should show us the money

On this Christmas Eve, which falls in the midst of Hanukkah, I'm thinking about what gift faith communities might give not just to their own members but also to the communities in which they serve.

Financial transparencyOne good answer would be financial transparency and accountability.

Many congregations and denominations from various branches of religion do quite well at this. For instance, I know I can always find out exactly how my own congregation is doing in terms of the money it receives, the money it spends (and for what) and the financial resources it relies on, such as endowment funds.

But I'm also aware that there are other faith communities where that's much more difficult information to discover.

And this opinion piece in The Salt Lake Tribune makes the valid point that all religious organizations should be open books when it comes to financial transparency and accountability -- if for no other reason than that they are granted tax advantages of various kinds.

The author of the piece, Robert Gehrke, is writing about a recent financial revelation about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

He cites "a bombshell story in The Washington Post citing an IRS complaint by David A. Nielsen, until recently an investment manager for Ensign Peak Advisors, an arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — you know who they are. Nielsen alleges that the church maintains a $100 billion reserve fund with money given in member tithes for charitable purposes, but not used to that end.

"In the past 22 years, the church, Nielsen claimed, didn’t use any of the money from the fund for charitable or humanitarian purposes, but did dip into it to prop up two for-profit businesses. . ."

The article did note that the "church, in a statement Tuesday, acknowledged it maintains reserves but said it uses 'the vast majority' of tithing proceeds 'immediately to meet the needs of the growing church including more meetinghouses, temples, education, humanitarian work and missionary efforts throughout the world.'”

But as Gerkhe properly notes, "Transparency is good. It’s good in government, it’s good in business, and it’s good for charities. So why not churches?"

Why not, indeed? Why not all charitable organizations, including all faith communities?

For one thing, people are apt to be more open to giving to charity if they can believe that the charitable organization is being truthful and open about its finances.

The Bible, after all, disclosed the donations made to the Holy Family by the wise men from the East, though even there it might have helped to tell us how many ounces of gold.

(I'm not a charitable organization, but I'll start. Here's how much I get paid to write this blog: $0.00.)

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The U.S. State Department has released its annual list of the most egregious violators of religious freedom around the world. The report notes some improvements in Sudan, and the RNS story to which I've linked you quotes Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom this way about that: “They've stopped bulldozing churches; they've redesignated Christmas — both the normal Christmas and Orthodox Christmas — as national holidays. They have brought, now, people of other faiths into the new cabinet.” All Americans should be glad that the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom promote the foundational human right of religious liberty around the world.

How to survive after being abused by a priest

As any good child development expert can tell you, children who experience trauma are forever changed in some way, even if they manage some level of healing.

Priest scandalAnd the trauma of sexual abuse is so searing that healing from it is almost always incomplete, and the effects are in many ways permanent.

That's the lesson to be drawn from this series of stories that the Associated Press has just published about people who were sexually abused by Catholic priests.

As I've mentioned here fairly recently, the AP is doing some of the best current reporting on the state of that scandal and how it's playing out in the lives of victims and others touched by it.

The new series, accompanied by effective stylized photography, focuses on people who were victimized and who had to come to terms with how that has shaped their lives.

"For the faithful," the AP reports, "the Catholic Church isn’t only a place of worship but the center of social and cultural life, its doctrines and customs woven into the fabric of families and communities. And its priests and deacons are more than holy men but confidantes, teachers, father figures with unparalleled power. To many, they’re the closest thing to God on earth.

"For those abused by priests, the violations are spiritual, the damage inflicted not just on the body and mind, but a system of beliefs."

The AP project is called "Sundays After," and for it "photographer Wong Maye-E and writer Juliet Linderman traveled across the U.S. and sought out men and women who were willing to share their experiences -- both how they were abused by Catholic clergy, and how they survived.

"Wong captured the subjects with digital and Polaroid cameras. She soaked the instant photos, freeing the images on fragile membranes -- wrinkled, torn, distressed -- and pasting them on watercolor paper. The film transfers themselves, with their imperfections and rough edges, are resilient, much like the survivors they portray."

The link to the series will get you to seven different stories of abuse and survival. These are the deeply human stories that get missed when we speak merely of statistics. I hope you'll give them a read and rededicate yourself to finding ways to protect children from anything like this in the future.

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A new report shows that the founder of the Legionaires of Christ Catholic religious order, Marcial Maciel, abused at least 60 boys. Insiders at the Vatican had protected the Legionaires, but now the truth is starting to come out. And it's appalling. But that's what happens when secrecy reigns.

How should we be praying about impeachment, conviction?

Ask any random 100 adherents of a religious faith about the nature of prayer and you're likely to get 148 different answers. So it should not be a surprise if the Religion and Politics opinion piece I'm linking you to here doesn't accurately reflect whatever you think about prayer.

PrayerThe author of the piece, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, is the author of Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity, which will be published by Fortress Press next year.

And the subject has to do with how proponents and opponents of impeaching and convicting President Donald J. Trump think about and use prayer to support their positions or at least to guide them as they consider their positions.

Which raises the question of whether prayer should be used as a political weapon. It appears that it's being used exactly that way by both proponents and opponents of impeachment (now a done deal) and conviction (I'll be surprised if it ever gets to be a done deal in this case, but given other surprises this year, who knows?).

The Graves-Fitzsimmons article notes that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (I wrote about her and prayer here recently) and Trump have different approaches when it comes to prayer, a conclusion that should surprise no one.

"The differing approaches of Pelosi and Trump — both self-proclaimed Christians — he wrote, "mirror the disparate reactions from Christian leaders and groups in the United States. Progressive Christians have called for prayer and reflection as Congress searches for the truth. Conservative Christians have continued their prayer from the 2016 campaign and the Trump White House: asking God to help Trump, which in turn helps enact conservative policies they support."

Prayer sometimes seems like a mysterious practice. It can amount to simple demands on God, who once was described in such cases as a "cosmic bellboy." But such a view of prayer is severely limited. Among the healthier views of prayer are ones that see it as trying to center our lives on and in God and to discover, not through petitions but through listening, what God's will might be in this or that situation.

A bumper sticker way of thinking about prayer comes from author Anne Lamott, who suggests that prayer can be distilled to this: "Help. Thanks. Wow."

Like all bumper sticker ways of viewing the world, it's cute and contains some truth but is unhelpfully simplistic, failing to notice, for instance, that in addition to intercessory prayer ("Help") there are many other kinds of prayer, including centering, meditative, adoration, praise and thanksgiving.

In the case of national issues, whether that means war or unemployment or impeachment, I think prayer should be thought of not as a tool of demand but as a tool of exploration, of humility, of longing. We should be open to answers we don't expect. We should not assume we know the result for which we should be praying. Rather, we simply should put ourselves in God's way and listen.

If that sounds like too passive, I suggest that this part of the famous Lord's Prayer -- "thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven" -- must sound too passive for you, too. But prayer is not about controlling God. Prayer is about God changing us, even if it's just by opening our eyes to some truth we hadn't previously noticed. We all could learn something here from a non-theistic tradition, Buddhism, and not fall into deep desire for a particular outcome of prayer. It's such desires that can lead us astray.

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When Christianity Today, a magazine known to be evangelical in character, published a recent editorial calling for the conviction of President Trump on impeachment charges, Trump fired back in his usual gun-slinging way. He called CT (and, by the way, Mr. President, it's CT, not ET, as you had it in a tweet) a "far left" or "very progressive" magazine, a description that would surprise its readers. And he said this: "No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close." Well, that contention can be debated, but it's certain that deep evangelical support for this president, whose life has been a rejection of core evangelical values, has damaged evangelical Christianity in profound and perhaps lasting ways, to say nothing of calling into question whether religion itself has a moral center. When historians tell the story of evangelical support for Trump (especially among white evangelicals), it's going to be a sad lesson about rejecting many of the values on which evangelical Christianity is based. It's going to be a story of strange bedfellows, a story that will have left evangelicals ultimately feeling used, perhaps not unlike the way Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal have felt, even after they received hush-money payments.

What to learn from Bloomberg's misjudgments

Because I doubt that the presidential candidacy of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (pictured here) is going to get very far, I'm not sure it's worth worrying too much about his performance as mayor or his policy proposals he'd likely follow if he became president.

Michael-BloombergThat said, there is something to learn about two of his badly misguided policies as mayor that can help current politicians seeking higher office avoid Bloomberg's mistakes, and this Huffington Post piece can guide us.

Bloomberg already has apologized for one such policy. It was the stop-and-frisk practice that treated citizens as suspects. As the Huff Post piece notes, "After years of criticism, Bloomberg apologized for stop and frisk just days before announcing his candidacy for president last month."

It took Bloomberg too long to admit his error, but at least he did. And maybe, as president, he would discourage mayors of other cities from adopting such discriminatory practices.

The other terrible policy enacted under Mayor Bloomberg was the "now-defunct surveillance program that mapped and spied on everyday Muslim Americans," as the Huff Post piece describes it: "The NYPD program, exposed by the Associated Press’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series in 2011, confirmed many Muslims’ worst fears and left permanent damage between the Muslim community and law enforcement, even after it ended in 2014.

". . .Bloomberg approved and oversaw the program, saying it is what he 'expected' the NYPD to do. He staunchly defended the surveillance when it was exposed and widely condemned."

Because Bloomberg has not apologized for that program, New York (and other) Muslims are wondering how, if at all, a Bloomberg presidency would differ from the anti-Muslim policies of the Trump presidency.

The lesson here for voters is that whoever is president must be president of all in our religiously and racially pluralistic nation. No group -- whites, blacks, browns or others; Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs or others; straight or LGBTQ or others -- should feel unwelcome in America unless, like ISIS or al-Qaida terrorists, they have the goal of damaging or destroying America.

So as you think about whom to support for president in 2020, give thought to how each candidate deals with the requirements of fairness and equity in a religiously pluralistic nation. Otherwise we're just buying (more) trouble.

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The phrase “Trump to Jesus” trended on Twitter on Impeachment Day this week when two GOP representatives alluded to the biblical account of the crucifixion of Jesus. Aren't you glad you're not a professional historian who one day will have to explain all this to future generations? I'm guessing a lot of them will simply report such things and then write: "Don't ask me."