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Houses of worship targeted heavily in 2019

The term religious freedom has come to mean many things to many people. So much so that it has led to sharp disagreements.

Religious-violenceBut surely at the very least religious freedom here and around the world should mean the freedom to gather in a house of worship without worrying about whether someone will break in and attempt to murder worshipers.

And yet exactly that kind of violence has happened over and over again in 2019, as this disheartening Associated Press story reports.

In delineating the attacks, the AP called 2019 "a year where attacks on places of worship occurred with relentless frequency. Hundreds of worshipers and many clergy were killed at churches, mosques, synagogues and temples."

Some of the attacks resulted in a small number of people being killed or wounded. Others were far more deadly, including this one: "On March 15, a gunman allegedly fueled by anti-Muslim hatred attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people. The man arrested for the killings had earlier published a manifesto espousing a white supremacist philosophy and detailing his plans to attack the mosques."

You can read the distressing list of others, and as you do I hope you will give some thought to how people become so damn certain of their beliefs that they are willing to kill others who don't share them. This kind of false certitude, as I've said over and over, is the opposite of faith, and it's literally killing people.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California got it right after a murderous attack this year on a synagogue in Poway: “No one should have to fear going to their place of worship. No one should be targeted for practicing the tenets of their faith.”

This kind of violence is enough to make me wonder why God is so patient with humanity. I might have been tempted to end the human experiment long ago. So it's a good thing I'm not the deity.

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Thank goodness that people of conscience on the Indian subcontinent are protesting the new misguided law in India that would condition Indian citizenship on religion. The law is one more tool being used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to turn India from a secular state with religious freedom for everyone into a Hindu state with religious privilege just for Hindus. It's a terrible idea, and the protesters know it. By the way, here is a column on this subject by my friend Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court.

Some Advent season help to explain the Trinity

As Christians move through this Advent season toward Christmas, one of the doctrinal realities of the faith is that the incarnation ultimately required followers of Jesus to explain what the church universal taught about the Holy Trinity, traditionally described as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Holy_TrinityIt's hard to imagine any doctrine of any faith tradition that has been as difficult as the Trinity to explain and that has been more misunderstood through the use of inadequate analogies (ice, liquid water, steam, all H20).

And yet Christians are obliged to have some kind of explanation.

A few years ago, a pastor friend asked me to come preach in his Oklahoma church -- and, naturally, he asked me to do so on so-called Trinity Sunday in June, when lots of pastors seem to invite guest preachers in so they themselves don't have to take one more run at helping congregants grasp what the Trinity is all about.

I gave it a go, and you can find that sermon in my last book, The Value of Doubt. I told the congregation that I found it helpful to think about each member of the Trinity as a different means of calling all of us to faith.

One of the best explanations of the Trinity I've every found is in Miroslav Volf's book, Allah: A Christian Response. Among many other points Volf makes is this:

"God is not one thing among many other things in the universe, not even one supremely important thing without which none of the other things could exist. Instead, God is unique and categorically different from the world. We always go wrong when we employ numbers with regard to God the way we employ them with regard to created things. . .(T)o say that there are three 'Persons' in God means only that there are three eternal, inseparable and interpenetrating agencies; in each, the other two are present, and in each, the single divine essence is present."

Got it? (Does the image here today from Wikipedia help?)

If not, today I point you to a source I learned about recently on discovering that today is the anniversary of the 1957 death of English writer and Christian apologist Dorothy Sayers. One of her books still can be found here and there, including on Amazon. It's The Mind of the Maker, and is said to contain some lucid explanations of the Holy Trinity. I haven't had a chance to get and read a copy, but it's on my list -- a list I've made and, in this case, a list I'm checking thrice.

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Pope Francis yesterday issued new rules for how sexual abuse cases in the church are to be handled, and at least at first glance they appear to be substantial and important. Among other things, the rules now "forbid imposing an obligation of silence on those who report sex abuse or allege they have been a victim," as the Reuters story to which I've linked you reports. It always takes a bit of time for the Catholic world to digest such changes, so let's wait a few days before making a final determination about whether this is major progress, a small step forward or something else.

Unpacking Trump's executive order on antisemitism

The other day here on the blog, in a secondary item, I mentioned that President Donald Trump had signed an executive order somehow designed to fight against antisemitism on college campuses (as seen in the photo here today).

Trump-ex-order-antisemOne reason, I noted, to doubt Trump's sincerity on this complicated issue, is that one of the people he invited to speak at the event has a history of declaring that Jews who don't convert to Christianity are going to hell.

So there's that.

But the issue of how to define both antisemitism and how to define what it means to be Jewish complicates this whole matter in sometimes-frustrating ways.

As David Schraub, a lecturer at Berkeley Law School and senior research fellow at the California Constitution Center, writes in this Atlantic article, there is much to unwind here if antisemitism is to be fought against.

"At root," he concludes, "the problem is that the Trump administration cannot be trusted to judge what is anti-Semitic and what is not. But the fight against anti-Semitism requires judgment — there is no way to avoid it. Jews can be mistrustful of what the Trump administration has in store for us, or suspect that Trump does not have our best interests at heart when he purports to fight anti-Semitism for us. But we must nonetheless preserve a real and serious corpus of law protecting Jews from anti-Semitic discrimination, even if the Trump administration tries to use these tools for its own illiberal agenda."

The ancient question of what does it mean to be Jewish, he writes, is fraught with issues but must be addressed nonetheless if anti-discrimination legislation is to mean anything. So, he says, "as a legal question, it matters a great deal."

Does even coming up with a legal definition of what it means to be Jewish or black or Mexican-American mean that it gives prejudicial people another tool to use to promote their hatred? Well, maybe.

As Schraub writes, Trump's executive order "set off a firestorm of criticism in the Jewish community, most of which focused on attacking the idea that Jews could be included as a 'nationality' (thus receiving national-origin-based protections). These critics perceived the order as implicitly denying the Americanness of American Jews: What would it mean for the federal government — led by Donald Trump, no less — to separate Jews into their own nation?"

Humanity is infected with ancient hatreds that get passed from one generation to the next and that transform into new forms of previously unknown hatreds. Trying to legislate against all that is well meaning but extraordinarily difficult -- and sometimes it can backfire. What we must be careful about, as Schraub makes clear, is that in our efforts to prevent illegal public expressions of such hatreds we don't make it easier for those hatreds to exist and be spread.

(The photo here today came from this New Yorker site, which will give you another take on Trump's executive order.)

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After the murders at a kosher market in Jersey City, N.J., last week, law enforcement authorities said that one of the suspected shooters (both dead now) had ties to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. Just what is that? This helpful RNS piece gives us some help understanding this complex and varied group, which is really a collection of groups.

An increasingly insular Catholic town in Kansas

Every religion makes claims that are exclusive to it. The question that leaders and followers of a religion must confront is whether, to stick to those claims, it is necessary to separate from people who follow a different religion. And how separate is separate enough?

St-marys-ksMuch of what I've been writing about in the latter part of my journalism career has been the idea that religions can and should maintain their separate identities but that they can learn to respect and even learn from traditions different from their own through interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

In fact, my experience is that people engaged in such cross-religious conversations wind up making a deeper commitment to their own tradition because they are forced to understand it more thoroughly to be able to explain it to others.

And yet people sometimes feel more comfortable or safer when they create religiously homogeneous communities, and there certainly is not law against that, nor should there be.

The Atlantic's religion reporter, Emma Green, recently spent time in such a community in St. Marys, Kan., about an hour from Topeka, and writes about that experience in this interesting article.

St. Marys has become home to a growing population of Catholics who follow the approach to Catholicism taught by the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX.

"Though not fully recognized by the Vatican," Green writes, "the priests of SSPX see themselves as defenders of the true practices of Roman Catholicism, including the traditional Latin Mass, celebrated each day in St. Marys. Perfumed with incense and filled with majestic Latin hymns, the service has an air of formality and grandeur. To most American Catholics under the age of 50, it would be unrecognizable."

The SSPX folks have been in St. Marys for about 40 years, and in that time, Green notes, they "have more than doubled the town’s size. Even with six Masses on Sundays, parishioners fill the Society’s chapel to capacity; overflow services are held in the gym of the Society’s academy, which inhabits an imposing campus built by the Jesuit missionaries who called St. Marys home in the 19th century. The school is constantly running out of classroom space. The parish rector, Father Patrick Rutledge, has to scramble each summer to accommodate rising enrollment. Real estate sells at price points closer to those of Kansas’s big cities than of its other small towns."

One of the things that seems inevitably to happen in walled-off communities is that sometimes strange beliefs about truth outside the community can get embedded.

For instance, Green reports this: "SSPX’s insularity, and the order’s controversial history, have bred suspicion in town. Among the post-Vatican II changes the Society rejects is the Church’s declaration regarding its relationship with non-Christian religions, including a passage repudiating the long-held belief that Jews are responsible for the death of Christ. In 1989, a Nazi collaborator convicted of committing war crimes in Vichy France was caught hiding out at an SSPX monastery in Nice. Two decades later, Richard Williamson, a former SSPX bishop, gave an interview denying that the Nazis had used gas chambers and claiming that no more than 200,000 to 300,000 Jews had died in the Holocaust. (During my visit to St. Mary’s Academy, I noticed a photograph hanging in the school’s main administrative building in which Williamson is a central figure.)"

So living in a silo can have its dangers, and one of the victims of the exclusivist choice can be truth. But if the old adage is true that birds of a feather flock together the questions to ask are: What are the advantages to that and what are the dangers? You can be sure there will be both, particularly when religion is the basis for the exclusivity.

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In many communities, this NPR story reports, the move toward solar energy is being led by communities of faith. My own congregation made several major changes in recent years to use solar energy and to install more energy-efficient lighting. Were we interested in saving money? Of course. But houses of worship have broader reasons to do such things, including the idea that humans are to be good stewards of God's creation.

Reform Jews are helping us think about 'reparations'

The subject of possible "reparations" to African-American descendants of slaves is so controversial as to seem simply to be a non-starter in our era of political Manichaeism, when we're 100 percent right and our enemies are 100 percent wrong.

Reparations-wordleThere seems to be no place for nuance, for complexity, for ambiguity or paradox or mystery.

And yet reparations (though that word is problematic) are worth discussing, as I wrote here earlier this year.

And if such conversations are to be reflective and meaningful as opposed to talk-radio bomb throwing, it helps to know what informs your own opinion about this matter and how, therefore, you are intellectually and spiritually shaped.

American Jews who belong to the Reform Movement (it's the largest branch of Judaism in the U.S.) have been thinking recently about how their own tradition, theology and practice might lead them to adopt this or that position on reparations.

As this opinion column by a prominent Reform rabbi, Jonah Pesner, notes, "African slaves and their descendants had their freedom, self-determination, bodies, communities, ability to inherit and pass down wealth to their loved ones, possessions and, most important, their humanity, systematically stolen from them; reparations are an attempt to offer a restoration of their rightful blessings."

Members of the Union for Reform Judaism have been meeting in Chicago for the last several days and wrap up on Sunday. You can follow that gathering on the web here. But on Friday, they voted to support the call for reparations, as this story reports. The story says that the resolution the group approved declared that reparations "can take the form of anything from an expression of remorse to education to monetary compensation."

As Pesner writes, this whole issue is "complex. But our tradition teaches us that we can — and often must — hold in our hands two opposing truths in order to understand the complexity of the world. It is not only atonement that we seek, but also justice."

All of which raises the question of what resources are available to us as we think through the issue of reparations -- which means much more than money, if it means money at all. As I wrote in the blog post to which I've linked you above, "using the term "reparations" must be done with great caution and clarity.

"Might reparations involve financial payments, similar to the ones given to Japanese-Americans who were unjustly incarcerated in internment camps in World War II, including one of my brothers-in-law? It might. But what is also profoundly in play here is a necessary acknowledgment that the U.S. was founded on white supremacist values, that those values were challenged in the Civil War but that they prevailed in the South in the badly botched Reconstruction era. And elements of those values, of course, also could be (and can still be) found in the North in non-slave states both before and after the Civil War and before and after the Jim Crow era. . .

"Monetary reparations for racial injustice might help and be welcomed in some circles but such payments without a confession of our racist roots and a societal determination to create what Martin Luther King Jr. called the 'Beloved Community' would be morally inadequate."

To come to some resolution of what we think about this issue, we must do what the Reform Jews are doing, and that is to find those sources in our faith traditions that teach us how to approach matters of justice.

Which means this will not be a brief conversation. It cannot and must not be. But it is far past time for it to begin. And I'm glad to see the Union for Reform Judaism showing leadership in this way.

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It's been known for some years now that the number of adult Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated is growing. What has been unclear is whether any of those who have left institutional religion might, as they grow older, return to it. As this story reports, the chances of such a return now appear to be growing slimmer for millennials. They may be gone for good, according to new research. So now what we don't know is how they will meet the needs that faith communities traditionally fill. Stay tuned.

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If your family, like ours, includes at least one special needs child or adult, you almost certainly know at least the name of the late Jean Vanier and the organization he founded, L'Arche. An engaging new book tells his story. It's Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, by Anne-Sophie Constant. Vanier (1928-2019) was born into an important Canadian family and had many advantages of status growing up. But at age 36, searching for some deeper meaning in life, he bought a small house in a French village and began to be the caregiver for two mentally disabled men. From that beginning, L'Arche was born to provide home, care and love for mentally disabled people. It now has more than 150 sites on five continents. But there is, as you might imagine, much more to the story, and Constant tells that fuller story, describing how, even from the start of L'Arche, Vanier "took on the role of spiritual guide in addition to that of founder and organizer." Indeed, Vanier became an inspiration and guide to people across the globe. Vanier was dying as Constant was finishing the book, and, indeed, died just as the book was going to press. But the book is a worthy monument to the considerable good this fascinating man did for the world.

Maybe some confession would help us all now

The other day Pope Francis spoke to a morning Mass at the Vatican and urged listeners to understand why confession of their sins is so good for them.

Confession"The Lord," he said, "always consoles us as long as we let ourselves be consoled."

Because I am not a member of the Catholic Church, I have never participated in its formal practice of confession to a priest. Some of my Catholic friends speak about their experience in two ways. One: That it is transformative and necessary for them to move forward in life with authenticity. Two: Sometimes, especially when they were children, they felt the need to make up examples of wrong-doing just to get through the process even when they felt they hadn't committed any sins.

My own experience with confession is that if we are honest with ourselves we realize how easy it is to be dishonest with ourselves. By which I mean that it's difficult to see yourself clearly, as if we were seeing ourselves through the eyes of a disinterested observer or even through the eyes of God.

We all tend to justify our actions and thoughts even when, deep down, we know that they have been destructive. So we shy away from confessing our errors, our sins, our shortcomings because we have found ways to believe they really didn't amount to much.

This tendency can be seen playing out in this politically divisive time in the U.S., especially now that we're deep into the process of impeaching President Donald Trump. Republicans, including the president, seem incapable of acknowledging the many ways Trump has mishandled (and I would say abused) his office. And Democrats often seem unable to see or praise even the smallest Trump move or achievement.

Where are the voices that call on all sides to confess their biases and their errors and to move ahead with spirited debate about policy approaches instead of demonizing the other side? It's time for some confession. It's time to take several deep national breaths and to see if, together, we can find a way forward.

I just wish I were more confident than I am that we are capable of doing that. If you are hopeful about this, can you lend me some of your hope? I confess that mine is in frighteningly short supply.

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When President Trump signed an executive order the other day aimed at reducing antisemitism on college campuses (Jews are divided about the use of the order, RNS reports here), one of the people he asked to speak at the event is a pastor who says that if you're Jewish you're going to hell. The White House seems to vet speakers about as well as it vets top appointees.

More helpful journalism on the Catholic abuse scandal

Some of the best recent reporting on the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and on how the church is responding has been coming from the Associated Press.

Priest-abuseFor instance, last month, in this blog post, I noted two major AP pieces about all of this.

And today I guide you to this AP article about all of the pressures that the dwindling number of Catholic priests are facing in the wake of the abuse scandal.

It describes a wearied priesthood struggling to stay afloat.

"Weighing on the entire Catholic clergy in the U.S.," the piece notes, "is the ripple effect of their church’s long-running crisis arising from sex abuse committed by priests. It’s caused many honorable priests to sense an erosion of public support and to question the leadership of some of their bishops. That dismay is often compounded by increased workloads due to the priest shortage, and increased isolation as multi-priest parishes grow scarce. They see trauma firsthand. Some priests minister in parishes wracked by gun violence; others preside frequently over funerals of drug-overdose victims."

Had I been the reporter on this story, I'd have added this phrase after "sex abuse committed by priests. . .": ". . .and the willingness of some bishops to cover up for those priests." After all, the scandal never would have grown as huge as it became without bishops who were willing to look the other way or actively try to protect guilty priests.

One of the priests quoted in this latest AP work makes the point well. The Rev. Philip Schmitter, 74, who has served for 50 years in Flint, Mich., put it this way:

“This cover up, this ‘Let’s protect the institution’ was just a heinous, utterly unchristian kind of behavior.”

As the Catholic population in the U.S. grows (mostly thanks to immigration) and the number of priests shrinks, the AP piece says, many priests are overwhelmed: "Stress, burnout, depression and addictions are among the conditions treated at St. Luke Institute, a residential treatment center for Catholic clergy and lay leaders, in Silver Spring, Maryland.

"St. Luke’s president, the Rev. David Songy, is a psychologist who has worked extensively with troubled priests. One growing problem, he says, is that new priests are now often assigned their own parish within three years, instead of 10 or more in the past, and may be ill-prepared to oversee finances and personnel as well as pastoral duties."

This Catholic story that the AP is chronicling is in many ways a self-inflicted wound. The children are the most important of the innocent victims, of course, but it's worth noting that good priests fall into the innocent-victim category, too. The bishops who permitted this sore to fester have a lot for which to atone.

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Here's a sad story about the decline of Mainline Protestant churches told by a journalist who was married in one of them and then recently went back to visit it. She concludes that some of those churches have simply abandoned hope for a more vibrant future. Well, some may have, but not all. I know quite a few such congregations, including mine, that are working hard to offer hope to their neighborhoods and to the world.

The Methodist LGBTQ fight goes to court

Moral decisions have practical consequences -- sometimes quite unexpected.

UMC-logoFor instance, when the international governing body of the United Methodist Church last February decided to keep its strict rules against ordaining LGBTQ persons to ministry, it led to campaigns of rejection and resistance from people who were on the side of allowing such persons to be ordained.

Those campaigns are advancing and appear to be leading to an eventual schism, though the exact shape of what will result still isn't known.

One of the more interesting reactions to the church's failure to change its anti-LGBTQ stance has come from Southern Methodist University.

SMU last month took action to sever its ties with the church and one of its regional bodies, called the South Central Jurisdictional Conference. But that conference recently sued the university, claiming that it had no right to do that. As the story to which I've linked you reports, the jurisdictional conference issued a statement saying, "By this lawsuit, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference seeks to preserve a 100-year relationship that it or its predecessors have held with SMU."

But then SMU released its own statement, which says, “SMU cherishes our history with the (United Methodist) Church, and we are committed to maintaining close connections with the church and its successors. In response to the debate regarding the future organizational structure of the church, the SMU board of trustees recently updated its governance documents to make it clear that SMU is solely maintained and controlled by its board of trustees as the ultimate authority for the university.”

If the denomination intends to stick with its regressive thinking about LGBTQ issues, it can expect more of this kind of opposition from people and organizations with United Methodist ties. The February decision has, in the eyes of many American Methodists, wounded the Methodist name. Those Methodists are trying to figure out how, if at all, they can redeem the name so that it won't carry with it the idea of bigotry.

Sadly, sometimes those efforts wind up in courts of law.

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India is considering ridiculous and bigoted legislation that would tie citizenship to religion. This is one more step in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s platform of Hindu nationalism. People around the world who care about religious liberty should protest this proposed legislation.

Viewing the Christmas story through children's eyes


All these years later, I still remember when I was given the role of one of the so-called three wise men in a children's Christmas pageant at the church in which I grew up in Illinois.

I held my head high, both to keep the crown from slipping off and because I thought this was an important role in an important story.

What, as a 6- or 7-year-old (or whatever age I was), I knew about the historical or mythological nature of the Christmas story, no doubt was quite limited. But I did grasp the special nature of the occasion and the idea that acting out a story in costume was one way of telling others what was in the Bible.

I was thinking about all that this past Sunday when the children in my Kansas City church put on their annual version of the Christmas story, as shown in the photo above.

Does it make much difference if Jesus was really born in Bethlehem or whether, as some scholars contend, he probably was born in his hometown of Nazareth?

Does it matter if we smash together the birth narratives found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew even if they don't match up completely?

Was there really a flashy star guiding Persian astrologers to the birthplace? Did King Herod really order the murder of lots of toddlers and infants?

I don't know the answers to those questions. What I do know is that, at its foundation, this is a story of love, a story of incarnation, a story of God being present with humanity. And if we nitpick the details (some of which there's simply no way to verify) we are likely to miss the point.

The children are wise simply to immerse themselves in the story and, in some mysterious way, find themselves in it. That's what I did as a little-boy wise man decades ago and I still remember that because even at that age I knew that the story was somehow about me, too, because I was enveloped in a love that was the impulse behind creation. I hope the kids in the photo here today know that, too.

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The name "Muhammad" has just cracked the top 10 list of names given newborn males in the U.S. It's one more piece of evidence that our nation is becoming more religiously diverse and that Muslims are negotiating their way into the mainstream of American society.

Why Pelosi's statement on hate was so important

I am backing up a few days today to explore a question a journalist asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- "Do you hate the president?"

No-hatePelosi, who is not my favorite politician, responded as a Catholic Christian in a wholly appropriate way, one that reminded everyone listening of the difficult obligations people take on when they declare themselves to be followers of Jesus. Father Thomas Reese has a nice take on this matter in this RNS post.

Pelosi said, “I don’t hate anybody. I was raised in a Catholic house. We don’t hate anybody, not anybody in the world."

That, at least, is the ideal, the goal. And to testify publicly to that goal is to open up oneself to an analysis of whether one is really living by that standard. Pelosi was willing to do that, so good for her.

But there is more to consider here. First, our use of the word "hate" has become so widespread that the term has almost lost any useful meaning. If we say we hate kale or olives or liver-and-onions, we have neutered the word, deflated it.

Hate should be a shocking word, applied only in extraordinary circumstances -- and not applied to individual people. Rather, it should be applied, in the spirit of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, to those matters that injure people. When Ecclesiastes 3:8 declares that there is "a time to love and a time to hate," I take it to mean that the target of hate should be restricted to those matters that break God's heart, for what breaks God's heart should surely break ours. Taken to an extreme, it means you don't hate Adolf Hitler, you hate his actions, his thinking, his murderous ambition.

One reason Christians are obligated by Christian doctrine not to hate other people is that they are obliged to think of those other people as children of God, as bearers of the imago Dei, the image of God. In specifically Christian terms, they are required to see God in the other person in the spirit of Matthew 25:40, which quotes "the king," or Jesus, saying that "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

Beyond that, Christianity calls the human body the temple of the Holy Spirit. To hate another person is to vandalize that temple.

So in the midst of our bitter partisan national politics, when trust and civility have gone out the door in disgust, here's a powerful (and partisan) leader using her public platform to remind everyone of the obligation that she feels as a Catholic not to hate anyone. Does she fall short of that high standard? Almost certainly. As do I. But witnessing to the need for such a gold standard is worth praising, so I praise such an act.

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In Canada, a federal court has denied charitable status to the "Church of Atheism," ruling that it doesn't represent a religion. Really? Atheism itself, it seems to me, requires a great deal of faith.