Previous month:
July 2020
Next month:
September 2020

Predicting how people of faith will vote

It is a risky -- but almost inevitable -- business to try to determine how people of various faith traditions (and none) will vote in any presidential election.

Relig-politicsPart of the reason is that not all (fill in the blank) think alike. And, thus, you can have devout Catholics, Lutherans, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and others vote for Candidate A while others who follow their tradition choose Candidate B (or C through Z).

Still, there are trends, and wise campaign managers will know what those trends are and try to shape campaigns to appeal to certain segments of the population based on religious affiliation. Indeed, now that the Democratic and Republican national virtual conventions are over, they're already at work on that task.

The best rundown of voters along religious lines that I've seen so far for the 2020 Biden-Trump race is this Gallup piece by Frank Newport, a Gallup senior scientist.

It does a pretty careful and thorough job -- with appropriate caveats -- of suggesting where each candidate might plausibly look for votes among people of faith.

And Newport is properly cautious about being too certain of predictions about how the votes will fall. He writes: "Segmenting Americans according to their religious identity is not as straightforward as it might seem. Religious identity is like a Russian nesting doll; opening up one doll reveals more dolls within. Broad religious groups can be divided into smaller religious groups, and those in turn divided still further."

This is especially true in the Protestant world, which is divided in a hundredyskillion different ways. Indeed, in many Protestant churches, especially among Mainliners, you can find congregations that are quite divided politically even though they worship together regularly and care about one another. They understand that church is first about who God is and what God expects of people and only secondarily about political matters.

And yet, as a Protestant, I'd also note that people who say they don't want to hear politics from the pulpit baffle me. They make me wonder why they don't want to hear the gospel, which from the very beginning was marinated in politics. Indeed, the first confessional statement of the church -- "Jesus is Lord" -- was deeply political in that it meant this: "Caesar is not Lord."

At any rate, I think you'll get some good information in Newport's piece. What you won't find is any good explanation of why some 81 percent of voters who identified as white evangelical Christians voted in 2016 for Donald Trump, a man whose very life stands against almost every core value such people have said is important to them. My guess is such voters will continue to vote for Trump again in 2020 but not in quite such overwhelming numbers. There's growing evidence that some of them have rediscovered their moral compasses.

* * *


As people worry about new conspiracy theories -- especially those promoted by QAnon -- this Atlantic piece reminds us that the 100-plus-year-old conspiracy fraud known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion still is with us, despite it being debunked time after time. The book, still for sale in many places around the world, first appeared in 1903 as a made-up story of how a small group of Jews plans to control the world. "It was a fabrication, and a clumsy one," the Atlantic piece notes. But it has survived. In fact, the article says, "Nearly everything about The Protocols is wrong, but just enough about its depiction of the onset of totalitarianism is insightful that it is harder to dismiss than other, more outlandish conspiracy theories. And though its most fervent following is on the far right, the text itself is without any emphatic leftist or rightist coloring. This is why it can be embraced as it is today by disparate groups such as evangelicals, neo-Nazis, some anti-Israel activists and a slice of black-metal fans." Yikes.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about my own journey toward anti-racism -- now is online here.

Congregations for conspiracy theorists?

This past May, here on the blog, I mentioned a valuable book, The Death of Expertise. Its author worries -- with good reason -- that Americans are devaluing what real experts are trying to teach us. Often that's in favor of weird conspiracy theories that should look like fool's gold from a mile away but often, to some gullible people, don't.

QanonIn that same post, I mentioned the weird movement called QAnon. I noted that it's "mentioned in this RNS column about the widespread prevalence of conspiracy theories, particularly among young Americans. And this article from The Conversation describes how some in the QAnon movement are using its bizarre thinking to interpret the Bible."

Well, reality-detached followers of QAnon seem to be infiltrating some Christian churches, this RNS story says. And, thank goodness, that infiltration is alerting and alarming some pastors because they finally are sensing, as the story says, that this movement is "taking on the power of a new religion that’s dividing churches and hurting Christian witness."

Among the conspiracy theories being promoted by and through QAnon, the story says, are these: "that 5G radio waves are used for mind control; that George Floyd’s murder is a hoax; that Bill Gates is related to the devil; that masks can kill you; that the germ theory isn’t real, and that there might be something to Pizzagate after all."

The insidious thing (well, one among many things) about such conspiracy theories is that there is no good way to argue against them because if you do that you become part of the conspiracy that is trying to keep the truth from being known. It's a vicious circle that, once again, reveals the fragility of human reason.

I don't know if QAnon is attractive to certain types of congregations over others, but no doubt it's a good idea for congregational leaders in all faith traditions to be aware of the problem and to have conversations about why truth matters.

Here, from the RNS story to which I linked you, is something else about which congregations should worry: "Once the fascination of far-right commentators and their followers, QAnon is no longer fringe. With support from Trump and other elected officials, it has gained credibility both on the web and in the offline world: In Georgia, a candidate for Congress has praised Q as 'a mythical hero,' and at least five other congressional hopefuls from Illinois to Oregon have voiced support."


When anybody -- thanks to the internet -- can be a publisher, there's no telling what sort of junk gets spewed out into the world. Well, that's not quite true. One way to tell is to follow social media critically. But prepare to be amazed by the technology and sickened by much of the content. If the New Testament is right that the truth shall make you free, there are lots of unfree people wandering the country these days.

(The image here today comes from this piece in The Conversation, which directly asks whether QAnon is forming a new religious movement.)

* * *


As the Republican National Convention this week reaffirms the party's desire to keep Donald Trump and Mike Pence in office, this RNS account offers a look at the often-controversial role religion has played in this administration. I bet there's stuff on the list you've sort of forgotten about.

* * *

P.S.: Recently I wrote here about all the damage the two Jerry Falwells (Sr. and Jr.) have done to Christianity and religion in general. Then earlier this week Jerry Falwell Jr. reportedly resigned as president of Liberty University. If you didn't read the exclusive interview he did with the Washington Examiner about the affair his wife had and what trouble ensued from that -- eventually leading to his presumed resignation -- you can find it here. What a sad story of bad -- and perverted -- decisions. There's more to the resignation story in this Reuters piece. The reason I'm being careful not to say that Falwell Jr. actually resigned is captured in this note from this BBC story: "On Monday, he resigned from his post -- a decision he later rescinded before confirming he was stepping down after all." Maybe that has changed two or three times in the last hour or three. And yet maybe the resignation really has happened. CNN reports it's true.

Keeping tabs on antisemitism on U.S. college campuses

Over the past few years I've gotten to know Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, based at Indiana University. We met a few years ago when he and I both were on a panel discussion at his school.

AntisemitismHis institute has been putting on webinars about various subjects, including one I attended on Monday, "Denying Jewish Self-Definition: The Latest Trend in Campus Antisemitism in America and What Can Be Done About It?" with Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, who is co-founder of the AMCHA Initiative. The link I just gave you is a one-page description of the group, which describes itself as "a non-profit organization dedicated to investigating, raising awareness about, and combating acts of antisemitism at institutions of higher education in America." The group's website is here.

As Rosenfeld explains it, "Amcha is a Hebrew word meaning 'your people' or 'your nation' (i.e. the Jews are God’s people). It also has the connotations of 'ordinary people,' 'the folk,' not the elite. In short, it’s a collective term for everyday Jews."

Rosenfeld wanted me to know about this seminar as well as one coming up Aug. 31 on "The Return of Christian Supersessionism." You can find information about these seminars here.

So in turn I wanted you to know not just about the center Rosenfeld heads but also the AMCHA Initiative.

At the recent webinar, Rossman-Benjamin described the work of the agency and how it tries to investigate and keep track of antisemitic and anti-Zionist acts against Jewish students on college campuses around the nation -- acts, she says, that have been increasing in recent years. Well, there has been something of a reduction of classic antisemitic acts on campuses, she says, but, in their place, a rather alarming increase in what her agency calls anti-Zionist acts. You can follow her main points by looking at this PowerPoint, which she used in her presentation.

Anti-Zionists acts are committed by people who are not leveling legitimate criticism at the Israeli government's policies and actions but, rather, who think that Israel should not even exist as a self-described Jewish state.

Clearly some of this is coming from zealous supporters of the Palestinians who think Israel -- and particularly the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu -- has badly mistreated Palestinians. There is much to debate on this matter, and I agree that Israel (and especially Netanyahu) has done some indefensible things (as have some Palestinian leaders). The AMCHA Initiative tries to make sure that honest policy disagreements don't turn into destructive antisemitic acts against American Jewish college students.

Modern Israel turned 72 this year, and has had to defend itself all that time against people who want it to disappear. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a subset of the Arab-Israeli conflict, continues to roll along with no realistic solution in sight. American, Israeli, Palestinian, Middle Eastern and world leaders have all failed in this.

So no wonder there's been sharp disagreement about what to do. But Rossman-Benjamin is right that such disagreements should not degenerate into antisemitism, one of the world's oldest hatreds.

By the way, speaking of antisemitism, Alvin Rosenfeld called my attention recently to a publication called Profiles in Catholicism, which recently produced an issue on antisemitism. One of the people interviewed was my friend Rabbi Michael Zedek, now of Chicago, but formerly rabbi at Temple B'nai Jehudah in Kansas City. You can read it here.

* * *


The subject of antisemitism today may be appropriate given this piece in the Forward about members of Joe Biden's family who are Jewish. I wasn't aware of it until I read the article, but it reports that "all three of Biden’s children — Beau and Hunter, his sons with his first wife, Neilia Biden, and Ashley, his daughter with current wife Jill Jacobs Biden — married (Jews)." My own extended family is ethnically diverse -- with nieces married to people of Chinese, Korean, Filipino and African-American backgrounds. And such diversity, whether ethnic, racial or religious, can help to give one an expanded view of humanity and to keep one from becoming insular.

* * *

P.S.: If some day your mind goes blank and you can't figure out where to find my blog, please know that it now also appears on my Amazon author page, which is here. Heck, go there anyway. You might find that you don't own some of my books. What a shame that would be.

Misusing religion in India and Turkey

What people consider sacred space should be, but often isn't, protected. As people fight over it, as they're doing now in both India and Turkey (and no doubt in many other places), it's important to remember that such spaces are not ever as sacred as people or as the arrangements people make to live in harmony in community.

Erdoğan ModiSo it's the people, much more than the property, who need to be respected and protected. But the current fights over sacred spaces in India and Turkey seem in many ways to be ignoring that rule. That fight is described in this Atlantic article.

As Yasmeen Serhan reports, "In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (at left) has acted on his yearlong quest to restore the historic Hagia Sophia, once a Byzantine-era cathedral and museum, as a functioning mosque. Three thousand miles away, in India’s northeastern city of Ayodhya, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (at right) has fulfilled a similar promise, . . .laying the foundation for a new Hindu temple on the ruins of a 16th-century mosque where Hindus believe an ancient temple once stood.

"Yet the transformation of these sites marks more than a simple manifestation of religious adherence. At its core, it represents a concerted effort by Turkey’s and India’s leaders to galvanize support from their religious and nationalist bases, even if doing so comes at the expense of their countries’ religious minorities. Even more fundamentally, it is changing how these two countries see themselves, demonstrating a simultaneous recasting of once-secular republics into fully fledged ethnonationalist states."
In other words, the leaders of those two countries are exploiting sacred space for political reasons and, in the process, encouraging division and even violence among competing religious groups. (Anything sound familiar here?)
Erdoğan has turned out to be a manipulative autocrat who has upended the lives of thousands of Turkish people. Here is a 2017 Flatland column I wrote about how that has affected some Turkish natives in the Kansas City area.
And in India, Modi, as Serhan writes, has been "replacing the secular vision of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, with a Hindu-nationalist one. . ." Nehru, like all leaders, had his faults, but on the whole he was wise and had his nation's best interests at heart as India became independent from Britain in 1947. Nehru recognized the need to create a nation in which the majority Hindus would not crush Muslims and adherents of other religious traditions.
As a Hindu nationalist, Modi has abandoned that vision. In fact, he's has turned it on its head.
The U.S. continues to struggle with some of the same church-state issues now on the front burner in Turkey and India, but there has been no serious, widely popular movement here to create a theocracy -- despite what it looks like sometimes. And we need to pay attention so that no such movement gains any steam.
And yet in all of this, the current leaders of Turkey and India are not entirely useless to Americans. They can always be used as bad examples.
* * *
I used to enjoy hearing former First Lady Barbara Bush speak about whatever was on her mind. She was wise with a sense of humor. And the words Michelle Obama spoke Monday evening to the almost-live Democratic National Convention were terrific, too -- with one small exception. She used a phrase that I consider thoughtless and even self-centered theology. Here's what she said: "Empathy: That's something I've been thinking a lot about lately. The ability to walk in someone else's shoes; the recognition that someone else's experience has value, too. Most of us practice this without a second thought. If we see someone suffering or struggling, we don't stand in judgment. We reach out because, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I.' It is not a hard concept to grasp. It's what we teach our children."
If only she had stopped with "We reach out." Adding the idea that the grace of God spared me (or you) from the same trouble we're seeing in others assumes that God picks and chooses who gets "suffering or struggling" and who, for no apparent reason except divine autonomy, doesn't. It's sort of like saying that when a plane crashed, the person sitting in seat K-22 survived thanks to God's intervention but the person sitting in K-23 died because God couldn't be bothered saving someone else.
Things -- both good and evil -- may well happen to us that we can't explain. But to say that God's grace saved us from suffering implies that the person who experiences suffering isn't worthy of God's grace. Let's be careful with that kind of language. Just because a phrase is widely used doesn't mean it carries wisdom.

All the damage the Falwells have done

Many people who identify as evangelical Christians seem oddly in love with religious leaders who betray or mislead them (Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress) and political leaders who simply want their votes.

Jerry-falwell-jrIt's hard to understand why such (often) good-hearted people allow themselves to be taken advantage of so often.

Jerry-falwell-srBut with the Falwells, the late Jerry (pictured at right) and his son Jerry (left), it's happened again.

As this interesting piece from Good Faith Media notes, because of the older Falwell, "an Americanized version of Christianity emerged with a driving, narrowly focused religious/political ideology that has little to no regard for the life and teachings of Jesus.

"An overriding allegiance to a naïve perspective on abortion – that ignores its complexities and political realities – and aggressive efforts to deny equal rights to women, LGBTQ persons and others became the defining marks of this Americanized Christianity," writes John D. Pierce, Good Faith Media's executive editor and publisher.

And now Jerry Jr. has just taken a leave of absence from his position as president of Liberty University. It's a leave that the author of this RNS piece hopes will be permanent, as a way of putting "a check on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s misbehavior." The author of the piece, Marybeth Davis Baggett, is a former Liberty student as well as a former professor there.

"While the last four years have introduced the public to Falwell’s fixation on money and power," she writes, "these values have infiltrated the school’s ethos and increasingly taken hold under his leadership."

She says that despite all that, she's "hopeful the board will use this moment as a reckoning, that it will take stock of where and how the leadership has jettisoned the mission for expediency and profit, where it has failed to live up to the school’s doctrinal commitments."

And as Pierce notes in his piece, "Personal morality of political leaders, once enmeshed into the formula, became an expendable value in recent years, when conservative Christians decided honesty and integrity are no longer that big of a deal if they can keep a grasp on power.

"Today, the Christian witness is badly tarnished by this movement and is continuously sacrificed on the cheap altar of self-interest, discrimination and fear."

I would argue that the damage goes beyond evangelical Christianity. This lust for power, which led to 81 percent of white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump in 2016, has damaged Christianity generally and, more broadly, religion itself. If this is how religious people behave, after all, who wants to be part of that?

The Falwells and others have lots for which to answer.

* * *


We all knew that as soon as Joe Biden nominated a woman of color as his running mate social media would light up with lies about her. That's the American political system now. But USA Today has done some fact-checking on some of those lies, including the charge that Harris wants to institute Islamic Shari'a law in the U.S. That's a false charge, the newspaper reported. By the way, if you, too, are a non-Muslim who is frightened about Shari'a in the U.S., you might want to learn why your fear is wrongheaded. The best place to start is with a book by a University of Kansas law professor (who is Catholic, by the way), Raj Bhala. It's called Understanding Islamic Law (Shari'a). Digest that before you make a fool of yourself in public talking about Shari'a. Also: here is a Flatland column I wrote about the uselessness of passing state laws banning Shari'a.

* * *

P.S.: Curious about Sen. Kamala Harris' connections to religion? This RNS piece fills you in. (And here is an Associated Press story on that subject.) But let's remember that one of the few -- perhaps the only -- legitimate question about religion to ask political candidates about their personal faith commitments is how those commitments might affect public policy. Also: this RNS story describes how Harris, a Baptist whose mother was Hindu and whose husband in Jewish, represents the conglomeration of religious traditions in one family that is becoming much more common in the U.S. today.

It's past time to scrap the term 'Judeo-Christian'

Over the course of my life, I've often heard that the U.S. has an important "Judeo-Christian heritage." And that this heritage continues in many ways to define who we Americans are and what we stand for.

JudeochristianThe only problem with that assertion is that it's never been true, as this Atlantic article notes. And it's way past time to quit using this phrase, which inaccurately defines our origins and now increasingly excludes large segments of our religiously pluralistic society.

As , professor of Jewish history at the University of Virginia, writes in the Atlantic piece, "(T)he 'Judeo-Christian tradition' excluded not only Muslims, Native Americans and other non-Western religious communities, but also atheists and secularists of all persuasions. American Jews themselves were reluctant adopters. After centuries of Christian antisemitic persecution and philosemitic fantasies of Jewish conversion, many eyed the award of an honorary hyphen with suspicion. Even some anti-communist politicians themselves recognized the concept as ill-suited to America’s postwar quest for global primacy in a decolonizing world.

"The mythical 'Judeo-Christian tradition,' then, proved an unstable foundation on which to build a common American identity. Today, as American democracy once again grasps for root metaphors with which to confront our country’s diversity and its place in the world, the term’s recuperation should rightfully alarm us: It has always divided Americans far more than it has united them."

As Loeffler also points out, the hyphenated term only seemed to connect Judaism, the tradition at the root of Christianity, with Christianity itself, even though throughout most of its history Christianity has preached a virulent anti-Judaism, as I describe in this essay.

One of the problems, however, with trying to describe why the Judeo-Christian phrase doesn't work now and never did is that people -- Loeffler included -- are likely to fall into the old trap of misunderstanding the Apostle Paul, who over and over again in history has been used by Christians as a warrant for anti-Judaism because they have falsely painted him as someone who rejected Judaism and its First Century culture and became a Christian.

Here is where Loeffler messed up on that point. He notes that a Protestant pastor, George Docherty, "persuaded President Dwight Eisenhower to officially add the words under God to the Pledge of Allegiance and 'In God we trust' to American currency as part of a 'theological war'.”

Thus, Loeffler writes, Docherty argued that "American society must promote its own identity as a 'God-fearing nation' defined by the 'Christian revelation' and the 'Christian ethic.' To do so would proclaim to the world that 'in this land, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, for we are one nation indivisible under God.'”

Docherty there is adapting verse 3 of chapter 28 of Paul's letter to the Galatians. But Loeffler refers to what Paul writes there as "Saint Paul’s famous vision of Christian universalism — 'neither Jew nor Greek' — (which) cast Jews as a people destined to disappear in a future all-Christian world."

The problem is that Paul never was a Christian. Rather, he was always a Jew who was speaking mostly to Gentiles but also at times to other Jews. So he never could have had a "vision of Christian universalism," there being no such thing as Christianity in his lifetime. Getting Paul wrong by making him a Christian has been quite costly over the centuries. It has led to deep animosity between Christians who think Paul abandoned Judaism with good cause and Jews who have come to think of Paul as a traitor because they, too, have bought the traditional Christian view and think Paul rejected his own Jewish tradition.

The person to read to start to grasp this subject in depth is Pauline scholar Mark D. Nanos, who in recent books has been pushing for an understanding of what he calls "Paul within Judaism."

Despite all that, Loeffler's primary point is on target: "The incredible religious diversity that has blossomed in the United States since the 1960s has changed our country for good, and for the better. We cannot turn back the clock to a mythical 'Judeo-Christian America' in order to chart a new course for America’s moral imagination."

As we Americans have shown over and over again in our response to the George Floyd murder and the subsequent civil unrest and protests, if we don't understand our white supremacist history -- including the way our civic ancestors savaged this land's Indigenous people from the beginning -- we'll never know how to fix what is still wrong today, despite the progress in civil rights we've made in the last half century.

Nothing blocks progress more than willful ignorance, of which many of us, including me, have been guilty.

* * *


Speaking of interfaith matters, as I was above, there's great and unexpected news about interfaith leader Eboo Patel and his Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), based in Chicago. As this RNS story reports, the IFYC is receiving a "$6 million gift from author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott." And it comes just as Patel and his staff have completed a new strategic plan outlining the various ways the organization hopes to expand its work of helping young people become interfaith leaders. As Patel explained, "We're going to be dramatically expanding our online programs. Our first major effort in this is a campaign called 'We Are Each Other's' — with an awesome opening video. We’re going to be supporting our alums, particularly in work around racial justice. And we’re going to be launching a major new initiative about racial justice and interfaith leadership." I've gotten to know Patel and his work over the last several years, and he's exactly the kind of moral leader our country needs many of right now.

Shining a light on Jesus' most famous sermon

Chapters five, six and seven of the gospel of Matthew in the New Testament contain what has been called Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount." And even though scholars think the contents of that so-called sermon were delivered in smaller bites over time and not all at once, it still remains one of the most memorable and influential sections of any of the four gospels. It contains not only the Beatitudes but also a version of what Christians today call the "Lord's Prayer," or the "Our Father."

Sermon-mountMy guess, however, is that not many Christians ever have focused intently just on those three chapters and, through that study, unpacked all that is there. Now there's a new book that does just that. It's Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner's Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven, by Amy-Jill Levine, the well-known and highly regarded New Testament scholar at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. The book is both revealing and insightful, and not only for "beginners."

Levine's approach to the New Testament is shaped not just by her rigorous scholarship but also by the fact that she grew up Jewish (though as a girl she went to a Catholic school for a time) and she still attends an Orthodox synagogue. Which helps to make her (and, through her, readers) more sensitive to the reality that Jesus was a Jew speaking mostly to other Jews and drawing on what Levine regularly refers to as the Scriptures of Israel, which now have become known as the Hebrew Bible and which Christians often call the Old Testament. (Levine says it's OK for Christians to do that, but I dislike that terminology because I think it's both dismissive and supersessionist.)

Levine also brings to this study of Jesus' most famous sermon a lovely sense of humor, which should not surprise anyone who ever has heard her speak. In what other book on this subject by a serious scholar are you apt to run into Popeye, grits, liquid eyeliner, Girl Scout cookies and your local 7-11? Those golden nuggets are nicely buried in the text.

In this Jesus sermon, Levine writes, "Jesus is not a Christian talking to other Christians; he is a Jew talking to other Jews. He's not telling his fellow Jews to do away with Torah. That would be ridiculous. Rather, he's telling them that he has insight into the heart of Torah, and they would do well to listen to him."

At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed that the "Kingdom of God," or the "Kingdom of heaven," has come near and that people can live in that reign today by living lives of compassion, mercy, justice and love. As Levine rightly notes, "the kingdom of heaven is not some abstract place with pearly gates and golden slippers, harp music and a bunch of angels flapping their wings. The kingdom of heaven occurs when people take the words of Jesus in these chapters to heart and live into them. . .(T)his kingdom is already available to us, already manifested when we enact God's will on earth as it is done in heaven."

One of the ways to do that is to recognize the image of God in others. As Levine points out, "we have to see the image of the divine in those it would be so easy to hate: the Nazis who are among us to this day, the terrorists who seek to die a martyr's death by blowing up themselves and all around them, the child molester. They, too, are human beings." Which is part of what makes the religions that preach this approach so difficult to follow.

So the Sermon on the Mount is the call of Jesus to set up "a new family or a new community," Levine writes. And the good news is that "anyone can be part of this community."

Levine's personal grounding in Judaism helps her recognize what anyone reading the Sermon on the Mount should recognize, which is that "knowledge of the Scriptures of Israel is essential for understanding" Matthew, to say nothing of the other three canonical gospels.

Thus, Levine's explanations of the Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer and other parts of the sermon should be especially helpful for Christians who have a tendency to forget -- or, worse, a prejudice against -- their Jewish roots.

Indeed, she calls the Lord's Prayer "a magnificent Jewish prayer, echoed in a number of other Jewish prayers still used to this day. . ." (italics hers).

She also emphasizes a point that Kansas City Pauline scholar Mark D. Nanos has noted in some detail in his work, which has to do with why the Apostle Paul argued that Gentile people of his time who decide to become followers of Jesus need not first convert to Judaism.  As she writes, "For Paul, the messianic age -- which he saw as beginning with the Christ's resurrection -- had begun, and in that messianic age, Jews and Gentiles both worshiped the God of Israel. Were the pagans to convert to Judaism, then only Jews would be part of that grand chorus."

There is much more here in these 128 pages, but what also strikes me about this work is that it's not simply a terrific scholar shining light on an important part of the New Testament. It's also that very scholar urging readers to live by the lessons Jesus was teaching. Time and again Levine pushes readers to internalize Jesus' words and make them come alive.

"Any faith that does not manifest itself in works is not faith," she contends, "it is complacency and self-satisfaction. It is not salt, because it contributes nothing to the earth. It is not light, since its shining is only for self-reflection." Precisely.

It won't surprise me if this small book quickly gets adopted by study groups that are serious about grasping the deep meaning found in the Bible. If they listen to Jesus as Levine understands him they will become more deeply committed people of faith who are changing the world for the better.

* * *


Here's what I and some others will count as good news in the Catholic Church: Pope Francis has appointed six women to top Vatican financial positions. The jump from there to female priests is a long, long, long one -- and may never happen. But it puts the Vatican in position to draw now on the wisdom and experience of women, most of whom have been excluded from top Vatican jobs maybe since the days of St. Peter.

What did we do to deserve the pandemic?

I will start today by asking what I think is a really foolish question and then link you to this Tablet Magazine article that will provide a long, fascinating and complicated answer.

God-sinHere's the question: Is humanity being plagued by this coronavirus pandemic because we deserved it for our, well, sins?

The quick, science-based answer, of course, is no. Rather, we're stuck with COVID-19 because viruses exist and can spread pretty easily in the world. (Whether that means God designed things badly is another question altogether, one we'll not get into here today.)

The psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and author who wrote the Tablet piece, Norman Doidge, says this: "Examining one’s actions after a political catastrophe, in which there is often a human hand in the matter, makes sense. But blaming ourselves for plagues, famine and drought does, for someone living in the shadow of science, seem to take human responsibility rather far.

"It seems to partake of that egocentric frame of mind that characterizes the psyche in its earliest stages of evolution, or at its most primitive: The world revolves around us; the physical forces of the universe are woven into our lives, and if lightning strikes us, it is not random, it’s personal. If rain comes after long absence, it is because we are blessed; if a plague comes, it is because we are cursed. That seems so archaic.

"So, why do we still do it?"

Good question.

Although Doidge writes from a Jewish perspective, I think part of the answer of why "we still do it" lies in a Christian idea drawn from Jewish theological history, which is that we have a personal relationship with God. You see that time and again in the Hebrew Bible stories about Adam, Noah, Joshua, the prophets. God is reported speaking directly to such people.

Christianity has extended that idea to include the way some branches of the church tell people to refer to Jesus: As "my personal Lord and Savior."

So, as Rabbi Harold Kushner phrased it, when bad things happen to good people, those who are people of faith may imagine that they are being punished for not measuring up to what can seem like God's impossibly high standards.

Doidge says this: "Guilty fear exists in a human being who is aware that he or she has developed a conscience, and has crossed it (hence the guilt) and is now awaiting the consequences like a criminal awaiting sentence by a judge. Guilty fear, unlike fear, which triggers the wish to escape, knows there is no escape from the all-seeing parent or God. It is filled with dreadful anticipation. In this, it is forward looking."

One of the many problems with imagining that plagues, hurricanes, tsunamis or plane crashes are God's punishment for our misdeeds is that it allows us to define what is and isn't a misdeed. Thus, you get televangelists saying outrageous things like a hurricane hit this or that city (New Orleans, I'm looking at you) because of that city's lax attitude toward the sin of homosexuality. (For my essay on why there is not "sin of homosexuality," click here.)

The technical name for such trumpery and twaddle is "theological B.S." But it grows out of the common practice of blaming ourselves when disaster strikes.

And yet there is a sense in certain disasters in which we may be, corporately if not individually, to blame. Think of the ecological disaster we are creating on Earth. Don't many of us, especially those of us who live in and support the industrialized world, have a role in pollution, climate change, melting icebergs? Of course we do. But because we bring this on ourselves in defiance of the laws of nature, we should take responsibility for this without thinking directly that God is punishing us by forcing us to breathe polluted air.

So I submit that COVID-19 is not an example of God punishing us for anything. But I do think God is expecting us to respond to this crisis in a sane and humane way. The sooner more of us do that instead of blaming the spread of the virus on sexual relations with demons and on other nonsense, the sooner we'll get to the other side of this (which won't look like what it looked like on the pre-COVID side).

* * *


The statue of a former governor of North Carolina, Charles Aycock (1859-1912), is being removed from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and will be replaced by one of the late evangelist Billy Graham. As the RNS story to which I've linked you explains, "Aycock was one of the masterminds of the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, race riot and coup, in which a local government made up of Black Americans was overthrown and replaced by white officials." One more reason Reconstruction after the Civil War failed. By contrast, as I wrote in this obit analysis of Graham published by The Kansas City Star when he died in 2018, "Graham devoted a good portion of his ministry to breaking down barriers between and among groups of people, including Jews and Christians as well as blacks and whites." Was he perfect at that? Of course not. But at least he was no Charles Aycock. If you waited for human perfection before raising someone's statue, Statuary Hall would be empty.

Are black churches still leading in civil rights?

Any Americans familiar with the Civil Rights Movement know that the historically black church provided much of the leadership for it.

Blm-dcThe best and most famous example is the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And when King was assassinated, it was, in many ways, mostly black clergy in Kansas City who spoke with prophetic voices but who also sought to calm a city that had deteriorated into rioting. My Flatland column about that is here.

So let's move ahead several decades to the current Black Lives Matter movement and ask what role communities of faith, especially black churches, are playing.

One answer -- not as much as before -- is found in this account by reporter Kelsey Dallas of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

For instance, she quotes the Rev. Watson Jones III, pastor of Compassion Baptist Church in Chicago, as saying that religious leaders are generally welcome to be part of the Black Lives Matter movement, but they don’t call the shots: “We’re in there, but we’re not at the forefront of it,” he said. “The church has lost some of its prophetic voice. It’s lost some of its fervor.”

In some ways this is a reflection of the slippage of religion generally in the U.S. As Kelsey Dallas writes of religion:

"It’s also lost some of its cultural status, said Aldon Morris, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University. Activists no longer feel like they need the power of religious institutions behind them in order to change the world.

“'The role that religion played in the civil rights movement cannot be replicated in the movements of today,' he said."

In some ways, that's a sign that the black church has succeeded in getting people to internalize and act on its message of racial equality. Many non-church folks now get it and don't feel they need to church to organize activities and other responses to the situation on the ground today.

Beyond that, at least in my experience here in Kansas City, it's worth noting that some predominantly white congregations have become much more active in trying to understand and then unplug systemic racism. There's still a long way to go with all that, but it's been happening even though most congregations have been unable to worship in person together or to hold classes and other activities except via the internet.

What role will people of faith play in the long run as the Black Lives Matter movement evolves from street protests to other activities? Good question. But so far I don't think anyone knows. What we do know is that people of faith have prophetic voices that they should be using to call attention to what's wrong in our culture and to how it might be fixed.

* * *


Speaking of people with prophetic voices, in many ways the late Rep. John Lewis lived out his Christian faith in quite public ways. So it was fitting that at his funeral service the other day there were many indications of how seriously he took his faith. This RNS story itemizes some of them. But we still don't have a good answer to this ancient question: Why do the best people seem to leave us too soon? By the way, here's a link to the op-ed piece Lewis wrote for The New York Times just before he died. It's vintage Lewis.