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What's behind the surge in anti-Catholicism?

Anti-Catholic prejudice in the U.S. -- and around the world, for that matter -- is an old problem.

BigotryHere is a description of that history from a Catholic point of view. And here is a description of it from a Wikipedia point of view.

This kind of bigotry should be condemned whenever it's seen. It is not, however, anti-Catholicism to acknowledge that you are an adherent of Christian beliefs and practices that may differ from Catholic beliefs. That's simply acknowledging the reality that the church universal is divided -- and has been in some ways almost from the start, though especially since the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s.

But true bigotry, no-doubt real anti-Catholicism, has reared its despicable head in recent times across the U.S., as this report from The Week reveals. As the publication's national correspondent Matthew Walther writes, "Catholic buildings are being burned and our sacred images destroyed for the not very complicated reason that we are increasingly the objects of suspicion and loathing in the United States and Western Europe, just as we have long been in the Middle East and parts of East and Southeast Asia.

"This has nothing to do with any protest movement, worthy or otherwise. It is about one thing: hatred of the Church, Her sacraments, Her immutable teachings, Her glorious saints, Her bishops and priests and religious brothers and sisters, and the faithful themselves."

Walther begins his article with a disheartening list of recent examples of anti-Catholic vandalism and other hateful acts. Read it and weep.

In some ways, I suppose, any hate of this sort is simply one more example of the tribalism that has afflicted humankind almost since the beginning. It's the old attitude that if you're not one of us you're against us and you need to be put down in some way. Which is just a sign of weakness and insecurity on the part of people holding such an attitude.

But what's especially disappointing about this kind of bigotry is that all the great world religions teach against it. In Christianity, for instance, followers of Jesus are obligated to see each person as a child of God who bears the image of God. The last thing anyone should want to do is to hate the person bearing that image. That doesn't mean you have to like someone or agree about everything.

But it does mean that there's no place for anti-Catholicism, Islamophobia, antisemitism or any other hatred with ties to religion. And it's up to each one of us to recognize whether we're furthering such hatred individually or in systemic ways. The time to check on that is today.

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The Barbecue Baptist Church in Texas, described in this RNS story, sounds like a great idea. And it looks as if that church is serving something close to the fabulous kind of barbecue we get in Kansas City, not that awful Carolina BBQ. Start such a church here and I'll participate at least once.

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P.S.: In this time of pandemic and civil unrest, a fair amount of attention has been paid to supporting Black-owned businesses. As we do that, let's also remember businesses owned and operated by people in the LGBTQ+ community. Many of them are struggling to survive financially, too. How to help? Here is a helpful national guide. If you have a similar guide or list of LGBTQ+ businesses in the Kansas City area, let me know and I'll put that link in a later post. Thanks.

Can multiracial religious congregations work?

I don't know who first said it long ago in the U.S., but it's become a cliche that Sunday morning worship time in Christian churches is the most racially segregated hour of the week.

Multi-racial_churchThat is slightly less true today than it was 50 or 75 years ago, but the reality is that there's still not much racial diversity in many congregations.

The most racially diverse congregation that I know about in the Kansas City area is Sheffield Family Life Center, an Assemblies of God church in the city's northeast. I wrote about that church last year here.

That's not to say that there haven't been efforts to create more integrated churches. But as this NPR story notes, even those efforts, when they are successful, may not do a lot to solve America's deep-rooted racial divide.

The story reports that a "recently completed survey of congregations by Michael Emerson, now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Kevin Dougherty of Baylor University found that the share of churches defined as 'multiracial,' with at least one out of five members from a minority background, grew from 6% in 1998 to 16% in 2019."

But here's the sad, though perhaps not unexpected, news: "'All the growth [in multiracial churches] has been people of color moving into white churches,' Emerson says. 'We have seen zero change in the percentage of whites moving into churches of color.' Once a multiracial church becomes less than 50% white, Emerson says, the white members leave. Such findings have left Emerson discouraged.

"'For the leaders of color who were trying to create the multiracial church movement,' Emerson says, 'they're basically saying, "It doesn't work. The white brothers and sisters just won't give up their privilege. And so we've been defeated, in a sense."'"

In the fields of home sales and classroom integration, a term called a "tipping point" sometimes is used. It means that when a neighborhood or a school reaches a certain percentage of Black people, whites will begin to leave. That bigotry appears to be what Emerson is describing in multiracial churches.

The challenge for people who would like a multiracial congregation is to focus less on race and more on core purpose of the congregation and to coalesce around that. But so far there's not much evidence that such an approach -- or any other approach -- is working to make such gatherings commonplace. It's further proof that we Americans -- particularly white Americans -- have a lot to learn about how to live in racial harmony by creating a culture in which whiteness does not automatically mean privilege or power.

(The image here today came from this United Methodist Church site.)

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In coordination with the main topic above today, here's an RNS story about a new book that explores "white Christianity’s role in creating and upholding whiteness." The book is White Christian Privilege, by religion scholar Khyati Joshi. Looks like a book I'll need to add to my reading list. See if you need to add it to yours.

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A Very BIG Problem, by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Annie Bowler. This charming book is another in a series by Levine and Sasso aimed at introducing children to scripture and to the lessons about life that scripture contains. Previous books are: Who Is My Neighbor?, The Marvelous Mustard Seed and Who Counts?: 100 Sheep, 10 Coins and 2 Sons. This new book, which has an Aug. 4 publication date but can be pre-ordered now, focuses on creation and how there's enough of God's love to go around for all of creation, including all creatures. It's a book that should be in the hands of teachers whose task is to start the theological education of young children who are old enough to listen to a good brief story and, through words and art, grasp its meaning. Levine teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Sasso is director of religion, spirituality and the arts initiative at Indiana University-Purdue and Bowler is an award-winning artist.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about medicine, spirituality and art -- now is online here.

Why knowing U.S. Protestant history is so vital now

In the 15th chapter of the book of Acts in the New Testament, there's an account of a dispute among early followers of Jesus.

Protestant-minorityOne side said that gentiles should be required to convert fully to Judaism (meaning, for men, circumcision, and, for all, certain dietary restrictions) before they could join the new Jesus Movement, which was still within Judaism. The other side said that wasn't necessary because Jesus came for all, Jews and gentiles alike.

After hearing the arguments, the leader of the mother church in Jerusalem, James, brother of Jesus, did what all of us need to do today. He looked at -- and drew from -- history. In the James case, he quoted something from the prophet Amos, found in the Hebrew Bible, to declare that the second group was right: gentiles didn't first need to become fully converted Jews to be part of the Jesus Movement that eventually would split off from Judaism and become Christianity.

And, as the Apostle Paul made clear elsewhere, if such conversions had been required it would have meant that God was the god only of the Jews, but the arrival of the new age with the resurrection of Jesus meant that God was the god of everyone.

For our fraught time, one lesson is that we must know our own history and be instructed by it as we seek to make changes in social and religious systems in response to the civic turmoil in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

This is especially true for Protestant Christians, who from the start of our country until quite recently have dominated the American religious landscape, though the latest estimates show that Protestants now constitute not quite 50 percent of the population.

Which is why it's important to read articles like this one from The Conversation

"As the dominant religion in the U.S.," writes Tiffany Puett, who teaches religious and theological studies at St. Edward's University, "Protestant Christianity’s dominance has long been enmeshed with the racial dominance of whiteness – white supremacy."

The actions and thinking of many of our nation's founders, she writes,  are "part of an old, defining narrative of America as chosen by God, rooted in a white Anglo-Saxon heritage and exceptional in its devotion to values of liberty and individual rights – a narrative of American exceptionalism. This narrative has also supported the notion that the ideal or 'true' American citizen is essentially white and Protestant. . ."

So if those of us who are both white and Protestant today want to be engaged in the anti-racism work that is beginning to happen more broadly in our culture, we must acknowledge that history. That doesn't mean we personally take the blame for what our ancestors did and thought. But it does mean we need to figure out whether and how that old racist thinking might still be present somehow in our congregations and other religious organizations today.

After all, we can't effectively change course if we don't know how we got here and, thus, where we are.

If you need another resource to help you with all this, let me recommend The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism, by Jemar Tisby. I reviewed this book here for The National Catholic Reporter.

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In this difficult time in our American culture, there are lessons about disagreement to be learned from the Talmud, a rabbi writes here. "We could transform our society if we were willing to recognize how complicated the story really is — if we learned to listen deeply and left room for dissenting voices or different approaches around the table," write Will Berkovitz. True. Another rabbi once told me that the Talmud amounts to 3,000 pages of unresolved debate, and the lesson is never to imagine that your understanding of the problem is the final one. Now's a good time to remember that.

What has support of Trump cost and lost?

As Americans move closer to the November presidential election, this is a good time to review the benefits and costs of the overwhelming support that Donald J. Trump received in 2016 from people who identify as white evangelical Christians.

Politics-ReligionOne way to do that is by reading this Atlantic piece.

Many of those Trump voters wanted him to appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices who might overturn the Roe vs. Wade 1973 decision legalizing abortion. That overturning hasn't happened yet, despite Trump appointing two justices. And the two he appointed -- especially Neil Gorsuch -- haven't always ruled in ways that many of those Trump voters wanted them to rule.

That was especially true in the ruling that, as the Atlantic piece reported, "protected gay and transgender individuals from workplace discrimination, handing the LGBTQ movement a historic victory. . .

"It was a crushing blow for the religious right," Peter Wehner writes in that article. But wait. There's more. As Wehner notes, that "was not the only major legal setback for social conservatives and evangelical Christians. By a 5–4 margin, the Court — in June Medical Services v. Russo — delivered a significant defeat to the pro-life movement, striking down as unconstitutional a Louisiana law that could have left the state with only a single abortion clinic. . .Social conservatives can point to some important religious-liberty victories. But overall, this term was a judicial gut punch for the president’s evangelical supporters."

So will evangelicals who supported Trump to get the judges they wanted stick with him? Probably many of them will, given that they almost certainly would not like anyone Joe Biden might nominate to the high court or even to lower courts.

But there's more to all this than judges. There's also the reality that Trump's life shows contempt for the very values (family, honesty, compassion, generosity, etc.) for which evangelicals say they stand. And this became even more clear when Trump's niece, Mary L. Trump, released her new book.

As Wehner writes, "Elsewhere, Trump has engaged in a bromance with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the worst persecutor of Christians in the world, and established more intimate and admiring relationships with many of the world’s despots than with leaders of America’s traditional allies. And on issues that have traditionally concerned conservative evangelicals, such as fiscal responsibility and limited government, Trump has been awful: The deficit and the debt exploded under his watch, even pre-pandemic."

Beyond that, of course, Trump's views on race should be an embarrassment to any person of faith who believes God loves everyone, no matter what color a person's skin. As Wehner notes, Trump has recently "tweeted a video of a supporter shouting 'white power' (he later deleted it but has yet to denounce it); attacked NASCAR’s only Black driver, Bubba Wallace, while also criticizing the decision by NASCAR to ban Confederate flags from its races; threatened to veto this year’s annual defense bill if an amendment is included that would require the Pentagon to change the names of bases honoring Confederate military leaders; referred to COVID-19 as “kung flu” during a speech at a church in Phoenix; and blasted two sports teams, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, for considering name changes because of concerns by supporters of those franchises that those team names give undue offense."

What supporting such a man does is to bring great shame and disrepute not only on evangelical Christianity but also on Christianity more broadly and, in fact, on religion itself.

The reassuring news is that there are some efforts afoot to convince evangelicals to dump Trump in 2020, as this RNS story reports.

But none of this is to say that we've ever had a perfect president or a perfect presidential candidate. There's even strong evidence that Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator," was what today would be called a racist bigot and white supremacist. Some of that evidence is found in his remarks at the fourth of the Lincoln-Douglas debates when both Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 1858.

If you were unaware of this, you can read Lincoln's words for yourself at the link I just gave you, but here's a highlight:

"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

So, yes, Abraham Lincoln demonstrated clearly then that he was a white supremacist, as were most of our early presidents, at least in part because they were living in a system designed from the beginning to recognize whites as superior.

But in this post-George-Floyd-death time, it's time for evangelical Christians -- and all people of faith and people of no faith at all -- to reject the kind of bigotry that Trump spews because it is against everything the great world religions teach. Perhaps some chastened evangelicals will recognize that by the time of the vote in November.

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Here's one more thing that people of faith should find appalling about the direction the Trump administration is moving: The resumption of using the death penalty on federal prisoners. Three people have been executed in just the last few days, the most recent on Friday in Indiana. Thank goodness that, as the RNS piece to which I just linked you reports, faith leaders around the country are speaking out against this outrage: “So much for the ‘pro-life’ administration,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, wrote in a Facebook post. “The taking (of) a life is always immoral. So is the taking (of) a life to punish the taking of another life." Capital punishment is a barbaric holdover from a time that should be long gone.

This guy says he died but God sent him back

Because of all the coronavirus deaths in the U.S. and around the world in recent months, lots of us have been thinking about death more than usual.

Crystal-1(For lots of Americans, usual is never. For some reason many Americans seem to think death is optional. They'll have a rude un-awakening some day.)

When people think about death, they almost automatically think about the possibility of an afterlife, given that most of the great world religions propose some version of that.

So maybe it should be no surprise to read occasional stories about people who have had near-death-experiences and who say they saw God before they returned to life.

That's exactly what a man who is the subject of this strange story says happened to him.

After a car crash in which he almost (and maybe really) died, he says, this happened: "Before I could come to a stop, I found my self standing before this brilliant and awesome light. There was no tunnel. I was standing there in a dark spot in front of this light. All I felt was pure Love. I could not move at all and could not hear or speak.

"There were three figures in front of this light. Two of the figures looked like they were talking to each other. The third one saw me and then approached. He had this glow around him. He had a beard and mustache. He was talking to me, but I couldn't hear him. All of a sudden a figure appeared within the light. All I could make out was a shadow because of how bright the light was. He lifted up his right hand and the only words I heard was, 'Now is not your time.'"

Let's unpack that a little.

Light has often been a synonym for -- or symbol of -- the divine. Indeed, that's been true ever since God said "Let there be light" in one of the Genesis creation stories. Jesus himself described himself as the "light of the world." So in these near-death-experience stories we should not be surprised to find experiences of light.

But did you notice broad hints of Christian Trinitarian theology in the man's story? Three figures showed up there -- suggesting, in the conventional Christian description of God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And perhaps because nearly all depictions of Jesus show him with a beard and mustache, that's what appears to this man.

You and I have no way of knowing what this man really experienced, if anything. We have only his word for what happened. And, therefore, we cannot make any judgment -- and shouldn't -- about whether this really happened to him or about whether this is how God appears to people as they die (or darn near die).

If, in fact, we can and do buy into this story -- or any of countless other stories of faith -- it's simply evidence that we have made the conscious leap from scientifically proven phenomenon to convictions of the heart. We have made a leap of faith. And faith always requires such a leap -- or it is not faith. As the book of Hebrews in the New Testament says, faith "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

It's also interesting that something Jesus himself said seems to come into play in this man's story. After Doubting Thomas came to faith and called the risen Christ "My Lord and my God," Jesus replied, "Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don't see and yet believe." There's hardly a better definition of faith than that.

If something like what happened to this man happens to you, let me know. Better yet, keep a camera with you and bring back some photos. All of our 21st Century scientifically bent minds would be grateful for such evidence.

(The photograph here today of the heavens is one that I took a few years ago at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.)

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The author of this column makes a good point: "(J)ust because I’m aware of the destruction caused by racism, that doesn’t mean I’m automatically sensitive to other forms of racism." He writes as a Black man who once made antisemitic remarks without thinking much about it. It cost him, but he learned through the experience. So here's a good question all of us should ask ourselves: Are there injustices about which we still make jokes?

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P.S.: When the dictatorial president of Turkey recently mandated that the Hagia Sophia, once a Christian Orthodox cathedral, be turned back into a mosque from a museum, it was the wrong and divisive decision for many reasons. My friend Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court, writes about some of those reasons in this article. "President Erdogan," he writes, "is trying to set the clock back by trying to convert a secular country into an Islamic one."

When the idea of individual sin isn't enough

It's oversimplifying things to put it this way, but within Christianity there are, broadly, two sometimes-competing ideas about sinfulness.

SystemsOne suggests that sin is always individual in nature. The other, while acknowledging individual sin, suggests that sin often is systemic or more communal in origin.

Generally speaking, people who identify as conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist associate with the first idea about sin, while people who would describe themselves as Mainline or progressive associate with the second.

So it becomes news when someone identified with the first -- in this case a Southern Baptist pastor -- makes the case that Christians worried mostly about individual sin and individual salvation need to broaden their scope and recognize systemic sin -- racism -- where it exists.

As this Religion News Service story reports, Rick Armstrong, the pastor of a start-up church in Arlington, Texas, told fellow Baptists that they “must understand that racism is much more than an individual sin. . .Southern Baptists must embrace the reality of structural, systemic and institutional areas of racism.”

In some ways it's surprising that it has taken this long for some evangelicals to move from a fairly rigid view of sin as individual to a broader view that entire social systems can be unjust. Surely the system of slavery, which the Southern Baptist denomination at the time supported, should have been seen as a systemic plague in hindsight once the Civil War ended -- and slavery with it.

In any case, it's refreshing to see Armstrong and others now making the case that an individual view of sin is inadequate to explain the many ways in which Blacks and others in the U.S. continue to be oppressed and held back from reaching their full human potential.

In what my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), calls the "Confession of 1967," the focus is systemic, not individualistic. The confession, or statement of faith, deals with reconciliation between humans and God and among humans.

It says that those joined to Jesus Christ "by faith are set right with God and commissioned to serve as his reconciling community." In other words, as the confession says later, "To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community."

Notice that it doesn't say "his reconciling individual."

As I was writing this blog post, I ran across something from and about President Woodrow Wilson in the 2009 biography of him by John Milton Cooper Jr. that I'm reading. Cooper reports that in an October 1914 speech that Wilson gave to the Pittsburgh chapter of the YMCA, he "applauded faith like theirs, which expressed itself in good works and social reform but he also said that he did not like to think of Christianity 'as a means of saving individual souls.' He was being true to his Presbyterian upbringing, which stressed the workings of God in the world in large ways, not as solace to individuals for life's agonies."

Well, Wilson, I think, went too far in dismissing Christianity as a "means of saving individuals souls." I would say it is about individual salvation but it's also about much more than that. It's about living lives of gratitude in response to God's love of us. To miss that because we're so focused on individual salvation is to miss the point not just of Jesus' life, it seems to me, but also of his death and resurrection.

So how one understands theology can make a difference in how one sees the anti-racism work that many in the U.S. have begun to take more seriously since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer (to say nothing of other outrages).

The reality is that the U.S. currently has in place unjust systems in the areas of policing, incarceration, health care, education, the environment and more. And these systems cannot be fixed simply by individuals agreeing to treat people who don't look like them nicely.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. We cannot, for instance, reverse the environmental degradation of the Earth simply by individuals using more efficient light bulbs. System approaches don't remove one's individual relationship with God, but they do serve as reminders that along with that a vertical relationship there must be a horizontal relationship with the rest of humankind, and that relationship inevitably involves various systems that can be -- and often are -- corrupted and in need of repair.

(By the way, The Atlantic just published this interesting story about Black pastors who have taken on the role of helping their white evangelical colleagues say the right things when it comes to racism. It's worth a read.)

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If you're still confused about why Native Americans and others took offense at President Trump holding a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore, perhaps this backgrounder from RNS will help. The author of the piece notes this: "What we are also failing to see, though, is that there is nothing exceptional about what Trump did: It fits right in with the long history of racist abuse that arrived with European colonists." Indeed.

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P.S.: This year's annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists got nixed by the virus, but I just learned my blog won an award. A YouTube roll-out of all the winners is here.


The drift to public funding of religious schools

The phrase "separation of church and state" is found nowhere in the Constitution. As this Forbes piece explains, "The phrase 'separation of church and state' was initially coined by Baptists striving for religious toleration in Virginia, whose official state religion was then Anglican (Episcopalian). Baptists thought government limitations against religion illegitimate. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson championed their cause."

Holy-bible-and-moneyBut over time case law has firmly established the separation principle because it turns out that Americans, generally, have no interest in having their tax dollars support any particular religious belief or institution.

But the separation wall has been crumbling bit by bit over the years, and the most recent damage was done by a 5-4 vote in the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that, as this Huffington Post article says, "could open the floodgates for allowing public dollars to fund religious institutions.

"The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, centered around a school tax credit program in Montana that provided financial incentives for individuals and corporations to donate to private school tuition scholarships. Most of the schools that signed up to participate were religious.

"In 2018, the Montana Supreme Court found this in violation of a state constitutional provision barring public dollars for religious schools. The state disbanded the entire program in response, a decision that affected both the religious and secular schools in the program.

"In a 5-4 ruling that will likely reverberate around the nation, the Supreme Court has reversed the state court’s decision."
This Associated Press account noted that the ruling "prompted a jubilant reaction from the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump, who counts religious conservatives as a core part of his base. The campaign lauded the decision as 'a victory for educational freedom,' underscoring its importance for a White House that often spotlights religious liberty." At the same time, the AP story reported that "(c)ritics assailed the decision as another in a series of setbacks for a principle with long roots in the U.S. legal system."
And this Bloomberg opinion piece said that the ruling "took yet another brick out of the wall separating church and state. In the foreseeable future, there may be no wall left at all."
Beyond that a Michigan State law professor, in this piece in The Conversation, asserts that the court's ruling "could massively limit states’ ability to exclude religious schools from all sorts of funding, including controversial voucher programs which allow state funds to be used by parents to send children to a private school. And rather than preventing religious discrimination, the court’s decision may actually support a system that discriminates against religious minorities and those of no faith."
The Montana case -- and many other "separation" cases -- was complicated by the way the state law was written. That law said that private schools could receive indirect public subsidies, though those same subsidies were forbidden to religious schools. That's cutting off of religious schools from among other private schools is what the Supreme Court said was unconstitutional.
As I say, in many such cases the details matter. But the trend clearly is in the wrong direction. Which is to say that more and more tax dollars seem to be available to support religious education. I'm all for religious education, but not for tax dollars paying for it. The ultimate stop on that road is called a theocracy. And though we're nowhere close to that destination yet, it's important to remember that that's not where most Americans want the nation to go. Steps in that direction should be resisted.
Public schools exist for everyone -- and they should be funded and operated much better than they are. But Americans are -- and should be -- free to chose a private or parochial school for their children. If they make that choice, however, the taxpayers should not have to fund such schools. We appear closer and closer to just such public funding, and I hope we can move back in the other direction soon.
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I'm sorry to report the troubling news that the Rev. Tony Campolo has had a stroke and is in a rehab center trying to recover. Tony, now 85, once spoke at my own church. He is one of the leading voices among evangelical Christians -- but a voice that has emphasized the duty of Christians to care about the poor and needy. Would there were more such voices among evangelicals.

Something to celebrate in American history

There are many reasons to be proud of the United States, just as there also are many reasons to feel a sense of shame at some of the country's history.

Lgbtq-flagThis Fourth of July weekend I want to focus not on the deep strands of racism in our history -- racism still woven into so many of our social and governmental structures -- but, rather, on the progress we've made in beginning to weave LGBTQ+ people into our social fabric in a healthy way.

We're far from where we need to be, but the distance we've come from my childhood is in some ways rather breathtaking. When I was a boy in the 1950s in a small almost-all-white town in northern Illinois, youth and adults often could be heard using the word "queer" as a slanderous term that dehumanized gays and lesbians (about whom most of us kids knew next to nothing).

Today, the LGBTQ+ community has reclaimed that term of derision and turned it into a label of pride. (As evidence, here is last week's sermon from one of our associate pastors at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Mo.) In some ways the same thing happened to the first followers of Jesus. When they first were called "Christians" it was mostly a pejorative term. But eventually they owned it, gladly marking themselves with the title of their Messiah.

One of the first times I wrote about LGBTQ+ issues for The Kansas City Star was in a rather lengthy piece that ran on the editorial pages in February 1993 in response to President Bill Clinton's ill-advised don't ask-don't tell military policy. That piece is reproduced as part of this essay on the Bible and homosexuality. The reaction to the 1993 piece -- in which I argued that the Bible offers no real guidance on the matter except for urging unconditional love for all -- was heavy and mixed. I was praised and I was denounced. Some readers were clear that the essay alone would be enough to guarantee me a place in hell.

What struck me then -- and what strikes me even more today -- is the strength and resiliency of the LGBTQ+ community as it seeks to negotiate its rightful place in our culture. Gay people have put up with an enormous amount of derision and grief, as, of course, have people of color in our country. And both have shown remarkable fortitude in continuing to seek equal civil rights and respect.

A good example of that is found in this RNS story about how LGBTQ+ people on the campus of Liberty University in Virginia have managed to live through an atmosphere of contempt for them at the school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who, as the story notes, once "labeled AIDS as divine punishment for gay people and for 'the society that tolerates homosexuals.'"

Despite that -- and additional condemnation from Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell Jr., now Liberty president -- LGBTQ+ students and others on campus are surviving and seeking to take advantage of the freedoms guaranteed to them as Americans -- freedoms that now, of course, include the right to same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

Pride Month 2020 just ended, but it brought to the attention of the nation once more not just the progress made since the Stonewall Riots in 1969 but also the remaining bigotry, at least some of which finds its roots in the misreading of scripture that I mentioned above.

So in this age of anxiety and protest, let's continue to work toward changing the unjust systems that keep people down in America, but let's also remember and cheer the fact that in a relatively short period of time, LGBTQ+ people have come closer to being considered part of America's mainstream. None of this would have happened without loud and insistent voices of protest, voices that need to continue speaking. Let's make it a habit to listen carefully to the voices of all American citizens before deciding whether to join or oppose them.

(The flag image above came from here.)

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Here is an essay I happened upon that I hope you'll read. It's by a woman who, at age 18, had an abortion. And it's about her rigid religious upbringing and why she rejected that. To me, her story is an example of what can happen when religion without love and forgiveness is injected into the brains of children. Sigh.

No, he was Jesus of Nazareth, not Natchez

When the rallies, protests and other reactions to the George Floyd murder (well, that and similar outrages) began, I figured it was only a matter of time before someone would -- again -- raise the question of why so many American Christians think of Jesus as a white man.

HEAD-OF-CHRIST-SallmanWell, it's happening. And I'm glad.

This Religion News Service story describes some of how the strange idea of Jesus' whiteness gained such currency in the U.S. And this story from The Week explores the matter from another angle. Beyond that, this editorial from The National Catholic Reporter explains why a white Jesus is a problem.

The RNS story describes how the "Head of Christ" painting by Warner Sallman (pictured here) "came to define what the central figure of Christianity looked like for generations of Christians in the United States — and beyond."

Indeed, that painting was ubiquitous in my childhood. In almost every church (and in many homes) you could find a copy or two of it hanging on some wall.

And if you look carefully, you can see that Sallman gave Jesus blue eyes. Yep, a First Century Middle Eastern Jew with blue eyes. He must have been quite an attraction.

"The backlash to Sallman’s work," RNS reported, "began during the civil rights movement, when his depiction of a Scandinavian savior was criticized for enshrining the image of a white Jesus for generations of Americans.

"That criticism has been renewed recently amid the current national reckoning over racism sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in an encounter with police."

Indeed, as the story in The Week notes, "After the Confederate statues come down, activist Shaun King tweeted Monday, 'the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down.'

"'They are a form of white supremacy,' he said. 'Tear them down.' And tear down all the 'murals and stained-glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends,' too, King added."

Well, as I said here on the blog the other day about statues of Confederates and slave owners, I'd prefer that we not tear them down but, rather, move them to some kind of museum-like context where people can learn from them about the evils of slavery and, in the case of white Jesus portraits, the issues of white supremacy. Let's use this as a time of learning and not waste it by destroying evidence.

And one of the things to learn is how Sallman's Evangelical Covenant Church has changed over the years. This piece describes those good changes.

Emotions are running high after the Floyd murder -- as  they should. But let's not make decisions about destruction that we'll later regret.

And while those who are Christian are figuring out how to react to all of this, it would be helpful to remember, as this piece from Ethics Daily notes, that the church's struggle with racism started way back at the beginning. As the author points out, "although the primitive church 'continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and in fellowship with one another,' they still confronted ethnic tensions within the newly formed community." And so the story continues today, though in different circumstances.

(The photo of the Sallman painting seen here today came from the RNS story to which I linked you. The caption read: "Painting by Warner Sallman, “Head of Christ,” © 1941 Warner Press Inc., Anderson, Indiana. Used with permission.")

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Although there are traces of the "God of the gaps" approach in this interesting Forbes article about science, religion and philosophy, it does give us a pretty good sense of where we are in the changing relationships among those three disciplines. What's important to remember is what science can't answer -- ever -- and what religion shouldn't try to answer -- ever. Keep such things in mind and the world will make better sense.