Previous month:
September 2020
Next month:
November 2020

What's religion got to do with the election?

On Tuesday, most American voters will ignore a pile of minor-party candidates and select either Joe Biden or Donald Trump to be president for the next four years. Because of the pandemic, of course, millions, including me, already have made their choice.

Cross-flagBoth Trump and Biden say they are Christian. Trump recently described himself as a "non-denominational Christian." And Biden says he's a Catholic.

What difference does -- and should -- any of that make?

That's the question that the author of this article in First Things asks and attempts to answer. He is Carl R. Trueman, a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.

Trueman grew up in England and brings some of that background to bear on what he has to say about Trump and Biden, neither of whom he admires because he thinks both of them are, in effect, religious phonies.

"Trump’s posing with a Bible outside an Episcopal church and Biden’s profession of devout Catholicism," he writes, "are both, in different ways, implausible and manipulative."

Trueman seems quite confident that he knows the kind of Christianity both Trump and Biden should but don't follow -- his kind. And, of course, he's free to assert that and make his arguments.

But in Trueman's version of the faith, I find a lot of reliance on dogma over heart, left brain over right brain, rules over spirit.

"I would like to make a radical suggestion," Trueman writes. "In the future, could American politicians please keep religion out of their platforms and propaganda? I ask this not for their sakes, nor for the sake of the nation, but for the sake of the church, her people and her leadership. When politicians make phony or manipulative religious claims, they expose the corruption of an American Christianity — whether that of the evangelical masses or of the Catholic ecclesiastical elites — that does not seem to take its professed faith seriously."

The problem, of course, is what Trueman means by "its professed faith." For century after century, the church universal, including "American Christianity," has sought to reduce its ideas and teachings about God to written statements of faith, sometimes called confessions. Think of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have our Book of Confessions, which includes about a dozen of these creedal statements written at various times in church history.

Each one is a sincere effort to describe religious belief and some of the obligations that flow from that belief. But one of the factors that limits their usefulness is that each one of them is made up of words. And every word is a metaphor, given that each points to a reality beyond itself. Every metaphor is open to both misunderstanding and deeper understanding.

So Trueman may think he knows exactly what American Christianity teaches when he talks about "its professed faith," but, in fact, the church and its members have been arguing about all of that from the start.

None of this is to say that it's impossible to put into words the essence of what the church wants to say to the world. The various confessions actually are good places to start that discussion. But as people of faith do that -- and this holds for any faith tradition -- it's important to recognize that "its professed faith" means different things to different people and different denominations. It's why, in fact, the church experienced the Great Schism of 1054 into East and West and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century and the hundreds and thousands of schisms within Protestantism since then.

There can, in fact, be such a thing in religion as orthodoxy, but it's helpful to remember that over time orthodoxy tends to take on different shapes and shades, which is what theologian Brian D. McLaren sought to suggest in the title of one of his books, A Generous Orthodoxy. It's also helpful, at times, to have strict constructionists like Trueman blowing their referee's whistle, even if at times it seems like an annoying distraction.

In any case, if you haven't already done so, vote on Tuesday. Just decide first which candidate offers you the "phony or manipulative religious claims," as Trueman put it, that most closely match yours.

* * *


As Election Day approaches, it's interesting to see how various groups are preparing to respond to possible disruptions and even violence. This RNS story describes a group of rabbis being trained to respond, all the while hoping that won't be necessary. Come on, voters. On Tuesday let's act like the kind of family whose members love one another.

The shortage of Catholic priests gets worse

For some decades now, the Catholic Church has been suffering a shortage of priests. Not just in the U.S., but around the world, though some places are doing better than others on this matter.

Priest-collarBut as this Religion News Service story notes, a new report on all of this shows that with just over 414,000 priests and just over 1.3 billion Catholics, the math yields one priest for every 3,210 Catholics.

What we don't know, of course, is whether at some point this situation will become so dire that the church may consider changing its policy and agree to ordain females as priests. In some cases, women serve as parish administrators, meaning that they do almost all the work of priests except for celebrating Mass. But until now church leadership has been adamant that women cannot and will not be ordained as priests.

As a non-Catholic, I don't have a dog in that fight. But I can say that my Protestant denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), which began ordaining women as pastors in 1956, is well served by its many female pastors who, in many ways, make ours a different church than if we continued to limit ordination to men.

Just in terms of pastoral care, for instance, having women to bring a feminine perspective to such matters as marriage and child-rearing is vital. And I certainly don't mean to suggest that female pastors are limited to weighing in on domestic matters. Not at all. Indeed, they bring much needed wisdom to such areas as church finance, governing structures and many other facets of church life that require wise leadership.

I can't imagine what the congregations in our denomination would look like if they were limited to hiring only male pastors. Well, maybe I can. They would cut themselves off from half the potential leadership necessary.

I don't expect to see the Catholic Church change its policy about ordaining women as priests in my lifetime. But there is now more talk about ordaining them as deacons, and perhaps if that happens church leaders may begin to find theological arguments to replace the ones they now use to ban the ordination of women. And, if not, perhaps one day the last male Catholic priest on Earth will retire. And then what?

* * *


President Donald J. Trump, who was confirmed as a Presbyterian when he was "a child," tells Religion News Service that he now considers himself "to be a non-denominational Christian.” The exclusive RNS interview was done with written questions and written responses, oddly enough. But it's worth a read to get Trump's view on various questions about religion. We Presbyterians, like all Mainline Protestant churches, have been losing members in recent years. But some losses are less painful than others.

* * *

P.S.: If you missed reading my latest Flatland column when it posted on Sunday, you can find it here. It's about the clergy alliance working at Central High School in KC.

Why do Jews and Christians read the Bible so differently?

Further evidence that life is complicated can be found in what people mean when they refer to the Bible.

Bible-with-without-JesusDo they speak from a Jewish perspective and mean the canon of Israel's scripture in the order found in what Jews call the Tanakh (a word that comes from the Hebrew words for the three major parts of that Bible, the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings)?

Or do they speak from a Christian perspective and mean the combination of the New Testament and what they've historically (and dismissively) called the Old Testament, which contains the same books as the Tanakh but in a somewhat different order?

Or do they speak from a Catholic, Episcopal or Orthodox Christian perspective and also include the books known as the Apocrypha?

Beyond all that, which translation do they use? And how do they know that it's being true to the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic found in the texts?

And even beyond all that, how do Jews and Christians interpret the very same passages in sometimes-radically different ways? And why?

There's help with these and related questions in a valuable new book called The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler.

These two excellent scholars dig deeply into several biblical passages that Christians and Jews might well read in different -- even opposing -- ways. Their goal is not to be referees to determine which group has it right. Rather, they want people from both religious traditions to grow to appreciate how some of their favorite texts might be understood in ways they hadn't imagined. And then to respect the people who interpret the texts differently from them.

After all, they write, "The better we can see through the eyes of our neighbors, the better able we are to be good neighbors. The more aware we are of the historical settings of the original texts, as best we can determine them, the better we can see how the texts might have been interpreted by the ancient audience that first heard them. And the more aware we are of the historical settings of those who interpreted the biblical texts, the better we understand our own religious traditions and those of our neighbors."

The authors pay particular attention to passages from the Tanakh that have found their way into the New Testament, including the mistranslated and often-misused word "virgin" in many Christian translations of Isaiah 7:14, a term that Christians later applied to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Indeed, Christians often read passages from the Jewish Bible as prophecy that gets fulfilled in the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Jews, by contrast, don't find Jesus Christ in those texts at all.

So not only is it helpful for Christians to understand how Jews at the time of the writing and Jews today interpret those passages, it's also helpful for Jews to grasp why and how Christians might read those same texts differently, an idea that the authors acknowledge "is not widespread in the Jewish community."

But as the authors conclude, "We are stronger when we wrestle, and when we read together. And we can, in agreeing to disagree with one reading or another, still ask, 'Give me another interpretation,' for that supply is inexhaustible."

Perhaps one of the most helpful things this book may help do for Christians is to help them be aware of the difficulties of translation. Some of their favorite passages, in fact, may be mistranslations, Levine and Brettler say. For example, there's the King James Version of Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." That wording, they say, "is incorrect on several counts." You can read the book to find out why.

And, by the way, it helps to remember that the original Hebrew contained no vowels, no punctuation marks, no quotation marks and no upper- or lower-case letters. Beyond that, it was all run together right to left. So translators had to make difficult choices -- and sometimes they simply blew it.

There are lots of interesting passages that the authors explore here, including Genesis 1:26, which has led to the question of whether the Christian Trinity idea is found there. The sections on Adam and Eve, Jonah and the book of Hebrews in the New Testament are especially engaging.

If people of faith declare themselves to be "Bible believing" or some such phrase, it certainly would help if they've actually read the book and understood how it was written, by whom, when and for what purposes. This new book can help make Jews and Christians alike (to say nothing of Muslims, who are obliged to know Bible stories briefly referenced in the Qur'an) more biblically literate and, perhaps, better adherents of the tradition to which they pledge allegiance.

* * *


Pope Francis the other day endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples, and in doing so did nothing to limit the freedom of the Catholic Church, nor did he change church teaching. What Francis advocated is something fairly close to what I have advocated for years, which, in U.S. terms, is that all marriages in this country should be civil marriages to provide equal protection under the law. Once married, if a couple then wants a faith community to bless that marriage, they can go ask for that. And a faith community at that point is free to say yes or no. That way not only are all treated equally by civil law, but faith communities maintain freedom to choose. As it is now, in most weddings in houses of worship, clergy serve as both representatives of their faith and as agents of the state. Clergy should not be deputized with that civil obligation. The civil and religious roles need to be separated.

But as someone who believes that the Christian church universal should treat people of all sexual orientations equally, I'm opposed to faith communities, including the Catholic Church, that say no to same-sex marriage because I see it as a lot like saying no to, say, mixed-race marriages. Forbidding same-sex marriages (not just civil unions) in religious communities says to LGBTQ+ people that they are unworthy and unequal. Or, as some branches of the faith say directly, they are sinners with no hope of redemption unless they give up their understood sexual orientation. Creating classes of second-class citizens is a sign of unhealthy religion.

Above here today I wrote about how Jews and Christians often read the Bible differently. That's also what happens often within Christianity. Indeed, Southern Baptist leaders quickly responded to what Pope Francis said by reiterating that they believe the Bible calls homosexuality a sin.  I strongly disagree and say why in an essay you can find on my blog here. And several years ago I wrote this column for the National Catholic Reporter outlining in greater detail the views on marriage I expressed above. So the pope's statement is a tentative step in the right direction, but it's surely not what should be desired by not just LGBTQ+ folks but by all. Also, here is an article from The Conversation making the valid point that the pope's position is not new but that it matters, nonetheless. And finally, if you want more on this subject, here is an article about it from the Jesuit magazine America.

Can faith help us through this divisive time?

Americans are working through one of the most frustrating years in our collective memory -- and it's not yet clear whether we can emerge from 2020 with any possibility that the "United" in our "United States" name will mean anything at all.

Divided-flagWe have been led by a divisive president who seems to understand none of the rules of basic civility. We are struggling against a worldwide pandemic that has infected more than 8 million of us Americans and killed more than 200,000 of us. And the struggle for racial justice finally has awakened many sleeping Americans who, before now, have seemed unable to see that the problem is not individual bigots but, rather, deeply racist systems and institutions that have been working exactly as they were designed to work.

What is so striking to me about all of this is that the U.S. is, at least on paper, one of the most religious countries on Earth. Yes, the role of religion has been shrinking for decades but poll after poll continue to find that the vast majority of Americans believe in some kind of god and that people say they try to live by the values of love and compassion. Something clearly is out of sync about all of that. Perhaps people lie to pollsters. Perhaps they simply don't understand the high standards to which all the great world religions call people.

Whatever, we seem to be at each other's throats today in ways that social media intensifies by making disinformation and misinformation so widely available.

So what can we do about this?

The article to which I'm going to link you today will not solve all of our problems, but perhaps it will give you a place to start imagining a new, more civil future based at least partly on some Buddhist principles.

This post by Rita M. Gross draws on Buddhist thinking to suggest some ways through this damnable thicket.

"From a Buddhist point of view," she writes, "anger is inevitable. From a common sense point of view, it should be obvious that disagreement among people, even people who have similar interests, to say nothing of people with vastly different interests, is also inevitable. The problem is that untrained, untamed people become very upset when others disagree with them, easily falling into a dualistic, 'I'm right and you're wrong — end of story' stance."

That stance, of course, will do us no good whatsoever. It is unnecessarily binary, unnuanced, simplistic and without modesty.

She then writes about stimuli that Buddhist texts identify and that frequently have been translated into English as "aversion, attachment and ignorance," and suggests some responses to those three that may be more helpful than anger or simple insistence that one is right and there's nothing more to discuss.

As most of you know, I am not a Buddhist, but I am not against finding wisdom in any tradition that can help us through our current quagmire. You can read Gross' full article for yourself and see if it helps any. And you can turn to the religious tradition you know best to discover whether it might contain some guidance for us. At the same time, it wouldn't hurt to remind ourselves that sometimes faith traditions can simply confuse us. I remember what French philosopher Denis Diderot once said, which is this: "I have only a small flickering light to guide me in the darkness of a thick forest. Up comes a theologian and blows it out."

So be wise and discerning as you look for light at the end of this current tunnel.

By the way, I will be moderating an interfaith online panel the evening of Nov. 12 in which panelists representing several different faith traditions will be talking about how we get through this pandemic period with faith and hope. For details and to find out how to register, download this pdf: Download News Brief Interfaith Panel

* * *


A new survey shows that on almost every critical issue facing the U.S., people who identify as white Christian evangelicals hold opinions markedly different from the rest of Americans. For instance, only 35 percent of them say the coronavirus is a critical concern. Has President Trump led them astray or have they led him astray? Good question. I think maybe the answer is yes.

Will congregations survive the pandemic financially?

In the long list of institutions and movements that have suffered in this exhausting pandemic, faith communities continue to be damaged in various ways, even as some good things happen to, for and with them.

Collection-plateMany Christian churches now are entering what often is referred to as the annual stewardship drive in which members of congregations make financial pledges for the next year. The results tell church leaders what level of programs and other expenses they can afford in the coming year.

Other faith communities handle things differently in many cases. For instance, in most synagogues there are dues or membership fees rather than annual free-will pledges.

But whatever the financial structure, many congregations have struggled with finances because of the pandemic and the ensuing economic struggles that have plagued the nation.

This is especially true in American Christian churches, which, on the whole, have been in decline for decades in terms of membership. There are exceptions, of course, but many congregations -- both Mainline and evangelical -- have been hurt. Membership in Catholic churches in the U.S. has been holding its own, but that's mostly due to immigration.

As this RNS story notes, "According to a study by Barna Group, 65% of American churches have seen a decrease in contributions during the pandemic. A staggering 1 in 5 churches may be forced to close their doors in the next 18 months, the study said. It’s a reckoning that has been anticipated for decades as church attendance has slowly waned and Americans have steadily decreased the proportion of their charity designated to churches."

In response, congregations have been adopting various strategies, from cutting costs by reducing office staff to offering members and visitors new ways to give, including through various online apps.

For instance, in my own congregation, Second Presbyterian, leaders have told members that if they are facing uncertain finances in the coming year, they may make a six-month pledge versus one for the entire year.

The churches, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, temples and other houses of worship that emerge in stable and hopeful condition after this pandemic will be the ones who now are rethinking their finances from top to bottom. Hope alone is not a strategy. As that rethinking takes place, members who can afford to do so would do well to consider helping to fill the gaps with renewed and enlarged commitments to see their congregation through.

Love of money, as the Bible says, may be the root of evil, but congregations that don't have money can do almost nothing at all to work against evil.

* * *


A new translation of the New Testament may help Christians understand their Jewish roots more deeply, this Jerusalem Post story reports. The translation, by Brad Young, is called The Hebrew Heritage Bible. Many Christians miss lots of the depth and richness found in their faith's Jewish roots. Maybe this one, not yet published, will open some eyes.

* * *

P.S.: In the U.S., our court system frequently is called upon to make judgments about matters of importance to religions. Given that, I thought you might be interested in this article from my friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court. In it, he talks about a case that he considers the most important one he ever decided -- and it turns out that it had to do with religion. It involved followers of the Jain religion in India. And he confesses that even 12 years later he sometimes wonders whether he decided it properly.

Don't read another religion's scripture without help


As more Americans recognize that our population is turning increasingly pluralistic in terms of religion, many people, out of curiosity, may be tempted to pick up the scripture of a faith tradition different from their own and start reading it.

The instinct to do that is good, but it can lead people astray pretty quickly. It's much, much better to be introduced to scripture from a tradition different from your own in the company of someone from that tradition to help guide you.

A theologically literate Christian, for instance, could help people outside that tradition understand what Jesus might have meant when he suggested that if your eye causes you to sin you should pluck it out. Similarly, someone articulate in Judaism could explain why God seemed to be happy with an offering from Abel but not with one from Cain, leading to all kinds of trouble.

The idea of reading scripture other than your own with someone for whom that scripture is sacred writ may be especially important with Islam's Qur'an. The 114 surahs (chapters) in the Qur'an are rather different from other sacred writ in several ways, as religion scholar Karen Armstrong explains in her 2019 book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts.

"Europeans and North Americans who bring to the Quran a biblically based understanding of scripture," she writes, "are often baffled. There is no coherent narrative: anecdotes about the prophets are scattered throughout the text, with no sense of progression. Themes are not developed logically; there is no systematic treatment of doctrines; and its constant repetitions seem wearisome. Its surahs have been arranged seemingly arbitrarily, starting with the longest and finishing with the shortest. There is little sense of time: the prophets, whose lifetimes span a millennium or more, are all treated as contemporaries.

"But," she continues, "the Quran is an orally transmitted scripture and designed to be performed, not read silently or sequentially. Well versed in the art of oral recitation, Muhammad's audience would have been able to pick up verbal signals that are lost in written codification (and in translation). They would find that themes, words, phrases and sound patterns recurred again and again -- like variations in a piece of music, that subtly amplify the original melody and add layer upon  layer of complexity. The Quran is designed to be repetitive. Its ideas, imagery and stories are bound together by internal echoes, which reinforce its central teachings with instructive emphasis. Verbal repetitions link disparate passages in the listener's mind and integrate the different strands of the text, as one verse delicately qualifies or supplements others."

Not only that, but the true Qur'an is in Arabic. And as is true with any translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew, Greek and (some) Aramaic, any translation of the Qur'an into another language is by definition an interpretation of the original and not the original itself.

For those Muslims whose native language is Arabic or who have become deeply fluent in Arabic, any Arabic Qur'an is written in what has been called that person's "heart language." That's the language in which we think and dream.

And it's why people who use American Sign Language were so thrilled recently at the completion of the first full Bible (other than one done for Jehovah's Witnesses) in ASL. This story describes the idea of heart language relative to the new ASL Bible.

The Wired Word, which provides Bible study material for Christian adult education classes, devoted one of its two most recent weekly lessons to the new ASL Bible. (I serve as a volunteer on the Wired Word team.) That lesson told people this: "To learn more about ASL, see this site from the U.S. Department of Health."

Scripture in any religion is almost impossible to read without help from people who have studied when it was written, who wrote it, to whom, in what language and why. And, speaking of language, it's important to know what the original words meant at the time of writing and what they mean now. All of that -- and more -- is why it strikes me as foolish for people to read any scripture in only a literal way, without interpretive help. A literal reading may be a place to start, but if readers never get beyond that they'll miss almost everything.

So if you're not a Muslim, find one to help you understand the Qur'an. And a Hindu to help you grasp the Bhagavad-Gita. But also know that if you picked a different Muslim or a different Hindu, you might wind up with different meanings than the first two would offer.

When scripture gets less complicated to understand, I'll let you know.

* * *


Facebook has changed its policy and now will ban content that "denies or distorts" the Holocaust. Facebook started in early 2004. This new policy is the right one, but it's 16-plus years late. Why?

* * *

P.S.: The Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University has a series of interesting webinars coming up. You can read about them -- and sign up for them -- here. The institute's director is Alvin H. Rosenfeld, author of, among other books, Resurgent Antisemitism, which I reviewed here a few years ago for The National Catholic Reporter.

Pope Francis shows us how to use our prophetic voices

A Bible study group I help to lead has been reading some of the so-called minor prophets in the Tanakh, which Christians traditionally have called the Old Testament.

Fratelli-tuttiWe've been trying to see what Micah and others have to teach us about using our own prophetic voices in times (like now) that require people to speak truth to power and to make clear what has gone wrong in society as we also propose ways of fixing things.

At just the right time for our group, Pope Francis issued his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (brothers and sisters all), in which the pontiff shows in this age of anxiety how a prophetic voice is supposed to be used. (And by prophetic voice, I don't mean one that predicts the future but, rather, one that makes the broken realities of the present clear.)

I am not suggesting that you need to agree with the pope's analysis of conditions today and his prescription for how to improve things on the planet. There's plenty of room for argument about all of that.

But he does take up the prophetic task and he challenges a lot of conventional wisdom.  And if you aren't doing that with your own prophetic voice, why even have one?

In this encyclical, the pope zeroes in on what he sees as the inadequacies, if not failures, of what he calls "market freedom," which might well be translated as capitalism. It's not a new subject for Frances, but in this case he's responding more specifically to what's been happening to people in the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the pandemic hit, he writes, "there were those who would have had us believe that freedom of the market was sufficient to keep everything secure. Yet the brutal and unforeseen blow of this uncontrolled pandemic forced us to recover our concern for human beings, for everyone, rather than for the benefit of a few."

Then he writes this about the role of government in the economy: "Some people are born into economically stable families, receive a fine education, grow up well nourished, or naturally possess great talent. They will certainly not need a proactive state; they need only claim their freedom. Yet the same rule clearly does not apply to a disabled person, to someone born in dire poverty, to those lacking a good education and with little access to adequate health care. If a society is governed primarily by the criteria of market freedom and efficiency, there is no place for such persons, and fraternity will remain just another vague ideal."

Which, he notes, is exactly what is happening today, and the result is that not all of God's children are valued equally by society even if they are valued equally by God.

Indeed, he says, "The right of some to free enterprise or market freedom cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment. . ."

Then he hits his stride in section 168 of the encyclical: "The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes. Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of 'spillover' or 'trickle' – without using the name – as the only solution to societal problems. There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged 'spillover' does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society."

As I say, there is plenty of room here for discussion and disagreement on specific points the pope makes. The point I want to make is that Frances is doing his job -- and we should be doing our job -- by critiquing what we see happening all around us. That's part of the task of people of any faith -- and of none -- simply because we are human.

If our social, education, political and other systems oppress anyone and we fail to call that out, we aren't doing our job. Let's be more like Pope Frances in this regard.

(In even better news, Pope Francis declares again in this encyclical [start at section 255] that the death penalty is "inadmissible" and that "the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide." Here, by the way, is a helpful column about all of this by Michael Sean Winters of The National Catholic Reporter.)

* * *


This year's Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to a Jewish woman, Louise Glück. This interesting article in The Forward explores whether and how her being Jewish has affected her writing. The piece describes her as "the most mysterious public presence: Over the 50-plus years of her career, she’s given few interviews, and has been as likely to write in the voice of God as that of a flower."

Understanding American Christianity's history of white supremacy

It is too simplistic to put it this way, but in some sense Christianity in the U.S. can be divided between those who focus on individual salvation and those who are more concerned about helping to create a moral, just society in which the values taught by Jesus get put into practice.

White-too-longIt's also too simplistic to put it this way, but people who identify as evangelical, conservative or fundamentalist generally see themselves as part of the first group while people who identify as Mainliners or progressives often identify with the second group.

For sure there is overlap. The divisions aren't neat and tidy. But I've been thinking about those two broad approaches to the faith more recently as I've been reading White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, by Robert P. Jones, who grew up in what he describes as an evangelical Southern Baptist church in Mississippi but who later became aware of the pro-slavery, racist history of that denomination and who eventually founded the Public Religion Research Institute.

In the book, Jones tries to unpack how different approaches to theology came to inform these two views of what is of primary importance in Christianity.

As he does this, he points out that white-dominated Christianity of all types, across history, has been complicit in promoting the repugnant idea of white supremacy.

"White Christianity," he writes, "has been many things for America. But whatever else it has been -- and the country is indebted to it for a good many things -- it has also been the primary institution legitimizing and propagating white power and dominance."

Christian theologians wrestling with how to understand the "end times" -- or the end of the world or the end of history -- have proposed three different approaches: amillennialism, premillenialism and postmillenialsim. In one of my favorite cartoons, a distraught man sits on his bed while talking on the phone with his pastor. The man says, "Pastor, my wife just left me, I just lost my job and I found out my son is on drugs. Please, please tell me again the differences among a- pre- and postmillenialism."

To make a simplification again, premillenialists think Jesus is coming back (probably soon; maybe next week) to reign on Earth for 1,000 years, while postmillenialists think it's up to them to build and perfect the reign of God on Earth so that Jesus can come back and reign in peace. (Set aside the amillennialists in this discussion.) Christians who identify as evangelical tend to be premillenialists, as they try to convince everyone to accept Jesus as lord before he returns so they can be "saved." Progressive Christians either ignore all of this or are more inclined to act like postmillennialists, even if they don't know the term.

With that as inadequate background, I'll turn back to Jones, who writes: "Prior to the Civil War, it was generally popular for white Christians to be. . .postmillennialist. . .The establishment of the Confederacy represented progress toward God's ideal for human society. After a humiliating and decisive Civil War defeat, however, such an optimistic vision of imminent political realization of Christian ideals held less attraction. By the late nineteenth century, the Lost Cause generation began to adopt a premillennialist theology that held the opposite: the present world represents the work of a sinful and fallen humanity, it will continue to decline and it will be redeemed only by the second coming of Christ."

What difference did that change make? Again, Jones:

"The most significant outcome of this shift is that the logic of premillennial theology undercuts calls to social  justice. . .Major human intervention is futile. . .The reorientation of religious faithfulness, with its radical contraction of human social responsibility, has been a hallmark of white evangelical theology ever since, influencing white evangelical thought not just on race but on  other social problems as well."

If the evangelical task focuses mostly on bringing people to Jesus while paying little or no attention to social injustice (again, that's an oversimplification), who is the Jesus to whom they're trying to draw people?

Jones puts it plainly: ". . .Jesus is white. . .Whites simply couldn't conceive of owing their salvation to a representative of what they considered an inferior race. And a nonwhite Jesus would render impossible the intimate relationship necessary for the evangelical paradigm to function: no proper white Christians would let a brown man come into their hearts or submit themselves to be a disciple of a swarthy Semite."

So, as Jones notes, after "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Ala., in 1965, "the Reverend Jerry Falwell gave this response in a sermon: 'Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else -- including the fighting of Communism, or participating in the civil rights reform. . .Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners."

But as Jones notes and as nearly everyone knows, the late pastor Falwell "eventually reversed himself, founding his own political organization, the Moral Majority, in 1979 and becoming a major player on the political right." What changed Falwell? Jones says he was "enraged that Bob Jones University, a conservative white Christian institution, had lost its tax-exempt status in 1976 because it refused to rescind its racially discriminatory policies."

Today, you won't hear much about "Lost Cause theology" in conservative churches, Jones writes, "but its direct descendant, the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social justice -- created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation -- lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well."

Well, clearly I urge you to read the Jones book for yourself and test his conclusions. But I thought it was helpful to focus on the various millennialist brands of theology to bring some clarity to how American Christianity got to where it is today. What still needs to happen is both repentance and action to rid the faith of any remaining threads of white supremacy (and there are plenty).

If you are part of a Christian congregation, I hope you will be part of leading members there into some deep reflection and action related to this subject. My congregation is trying.

(By the way, Youthfront, a Christian ministry based in the Kansas City area, is offering a free online panel discussion about how and when to speak to children about racial issues. It'll be Nov. 12 and will feature Montague R. Williams, author of the book Church in Color. For details and to register, click here.)

* * *


President Trump's relentlessly positive statements about his Covid-19 have a source, this RNS column argues. It's similar to the "Prosperity Gospel." For Trump, the source is Norman Vincent Peale's "power of positive thinking." Another term for it is seeing just what you want to see.

* * *

P.S.: Do you know about Redeem TV? It describes itself as "a ministry of the Christian History Institute and Vision Video" and it "makes movies and television shows available for free around the world, with the help of viewers who donate to the mission of Redeem TV." You can check it out here. I'm a long-time subscriber to Christian History Magazine, and some of you might want to be, too. You can check that out here.

Is Christianity doomed in America?

It is far from news that -- at least in terms of percentages of the population -- Christianity in the U.S. is (and for decades has been) on the slide.

ChristianityinAmericaAs this interesting column from Good Faith Media notes, "While many people are leaving behind evangelicalism, others are leaving Christianity altogether. According to Pew Research, U.S. citizens describing themselves as 'Christians' have rapidly dropped 12% from 2009 to 2019, while those describing themselves as 'atheist' or 'agnostic' rose 9% during that same time frame."

And though Protestants earlier in my life made up at least three-quarters of Americans, today they are below 50 percent of the population.

So the question that asks in the piece to which I've linked you is this: Can Christianity be saved?

The answer to that one, it seems to me, is obvious: yes. The harder question is whether the current shape of Christian churches in the U.S. can survive. The answer to that is much more challenging. My current answer is: I don't know, but I doubt it.

Which is to say that the church must do now what it has done in every generation -- change. In my Presbyterian tradition we describe the church as reformed and always being reformed. Churches -- whether individual congregations, whole denominations or the church universal -- that don't make reforms over time die. And probably should. And I'm not talking here about the central teachings of the church but, rather, it's institutional structure and the ways in which it mediates its messages to the world outside the walls of the church.

But change is hard, but as this pandemic season is teaching us it also can be liberating. A rabbi recently told me that one thing he's really enjoyed about having to conduct worship services online instead of in person is that he's once again seeing members of his synagogue who have been ill or home-bound for other reasons.

Randall makes a revealing point in his article: "The rapid decline of Christian affiliation in the U.S. appears to parallel a continued allegiance with exclusivity, control and power." He notes that a fracturing church -- especially since the start of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago -- is nothing new, but "there seems to be a difference in this modern-day divide. It spans the whole of Christianity. The rise of evangelicalism set into motion a modern-day split between conservative, moderate and progressive Christians. It is not tied to a denomination but reaches across the Christian landscape fracturing the whole. Only time will tell if Christianity will survive this latest divide."

I don't know how many times I've heard people say that the last seven words of the church are: "But we've always done it this way." It's truer now than ever. Congregations that aren't agile enough -- organizationally, in terms of polity and even theologically -- to speak an ancient words of truth and liberation in new ways probably are doomed.

But their experience won't be useless to the church universal. Those congregations and denominations can always be used to teach others what to avoid if they want to be part of the ongoing witness of the faith. (And that applies to congregations beyond Christianity, too.)

* * *


I trust that many of you, too, were appalled at the overall appalling presidential debate the other night when President Donald Trump told the organization called the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by." Who are the Proud Boys? This Jewish Telegraph Agency article answers the question of whether the group is antisemitic. And here is a BBC report on the Proud Boys and on the Antifa movement. It's good to know about these groups so you can make up your mind about politicians who support them in some way.

* * *

P.S.: Here's some better news. The American Public Square organization will honor the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, with is inaugural Founder’s Civility Award on Tuesday, Oct. 13 in a virtual event. You can read about it and make reservations through this link. I wrote this Flatland column about Adam a few years back. He's remarkable, and is another answer to the question raised above about whether Christianity in the U.S. is doomed. He founded his church with about 10 members in 1990 and today the congregation numbers well over 20,000.