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Students are learning acceptance of both science and religion


Many times in recent decades, I've written about the relationship between religious ideas and science. Quick summary of that: Each area tries to answer different questions. Science is about what, how, when and other measurables. Religion asks about purpose, about meaning, about eternal questions.

Still, despite this obvious difference between the two areas there's been lots of tension between them, and often that happens when religion pretends to know science and when science doesn't understand the limits of its area of expertise.

All of which brings us to this interesting article from The Christian Century. It describes efforts to introduce the scientific theory of evolution to religious people who have grown up believing that evolution denies the centrality of God in the creative process.

The story describes how April Cordero, a science professor at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, tries to help students grasp what evolutionists teach and what they don't. That, if done properly, can lead students to accept the science behind evolutionary theory without needing to abandon their religious beliefs, even when those beliefs may seem to be in conflict with evolution.

"Cordero," says the article, written by Dean Nelson, director of that school's journalism program, "is part of a national effort to provide a setting where religious beliefs can be enhanced by scientific discovery without forcing people — especially young people — into an either-or position. This reconciliation process is often undertaken at conservative evangelical colleges where professors’ understandings of evolution are at odds with the culture from which their students come. Cordero and her colleagues hold that a rigorous university education and a belief in the truth of scripture can be embraced by the same person. But there are few places in our culture where such conversations can take place, and this positions classrooms like Cordero’s on the forefront of cultural change."

Nelson quotes Cordero as telling her class this: "The theory of evolution says nothing about God. Evolution is neutral about God. Science can’t test if there is a God. That’s not a scientific question.”

She tells them they don't have to choose either science or religion but not both: ". . .there is a third way, where you don’t have to buy into the war, you don’t have to choose between science and faith.”

It's an admirable effort. But I wonder whether in some ways it affirms for anti-evolution students the idea that you can use the Bible to reject what is so abundantly clear from scientific evidence -- that evolution happens, that the Earth is more than a few thousand years old, that human beings did not first show up on the planet looking exactly like human beings look today.

The story does note that Cordero has teamed up with a colleague, Mark Mann, from the college's school of theology. His job is to help "students grapple with the theological and biblical implications of believing in evolution."

And for that, Mann "takes a literary approach to scripture in his discussions with students. 'You have to look at it as a collection of many genres,' he said. 'If it’s a poem, you read it differently. You don’t read it for facts.'”

All true, but some Christians who identify as conservative or evangelical also believe that the Bible is "inerrant" in every way, meaning there's not much room to read it for anything except facts.

Another problem, of course, is that we seem to be in a post-factual world in which a majority of people who identify as Republican continue to believe, against all the evidence, that the last presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.

How we get past that problem I don't have a clue, but I'm at least glad someone is trying to show college students how to accept scientific reality without throwing their faith tradition overboard.

(The image at the top of today's post came from here.)

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As we think about Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine, it's time again to look at the so-called just war theory, which National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters mentions in this column. (And, no, neither Winters nor any sane person is arguing that Putin's war can be justified.) Winters writes that just war theory "is rich, complex and comprehensive, but in a nutshell, it extrapolates from the moral conviction that a person has the right to defend himself to the moral parameters by which a people may defend themselves. The teaching has been much abused, used to justify even preventive wars like the war in Iraq, but its moral seriousness is as good a guide as we are likely to find in these moments when the evil of the world forces us into difficult, complicated and ambivalent moral calculations." Complicated, indeed. For more on that, here is a column by Jack F. Matlock Jr., former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, about why this war in Ukraine was completely avoidable. Oh, how I wish sometimes the world were as simple as former President George W. Bush thought it was -- a clear division between good and evil. People of faith should know better.

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P.S.: Here is an interesting graphic that assumes the church is just 100 people. Then it shows such things as how many of them attend worship weekly, and how many read the Bible and other statistical break-downs. It's an intriguing way of getting a better sense of the state of Christianity in the U.S. The graphic was created by a man named Mike P. Taylor, and the link I've given you will describe more about his work.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The other day I gave you this link to Mark Silk's first of two pieces about how Christian nationalism and American evangelical Christianity are related. Here is part two, the final one.

Why we still must know and care about Afghanistan


In so many ways, Afghanistan has disappeared from the radar of many Americans. The government there collapsed last August, the Afghan army dissolved, tens of thousands of people were evacuated from the capital of Kabul and the brutal Taliban came back into power. Beyond that, not much has been reported since then.

(The top photo of Afghans at the Kabul airport in August 2021 was taken by the Associated Press and can be found here.)

Afghan-9Only now, in fact, is the story of the Forever War there and the incompetent ending of that war and the exodus of Afghan citizens and U.S. troops being told. At least in part. And that story has much to say to people of faith and about the central values of the world's great religions.

The place to start is with this story, headlined "The Betrayal," in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine. The reporting done by George Packer of the magazine's staff is detailed, heartbreaking and illuminating. No American president who had anything to do with the 20-year war in Afghanistan comes off looking good. Far from it. And none deserves to look good. Indeed, Packer begins his sorrowful tale this way: "It took four presidencies to finish abandoning Afghanistan."

I want to say here what I've said before here and in other venues. I thought the U.S. was justified in invading Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an act of self-defense. After all, al-Qaida terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 people that day, including my own nephew, had trained in Afghanistan, the base of their leader, Osama bin Laden.

But I also thought at the time that a military effort to wipe out the al-Qaida training camps and prevent further terrorist nests from operating there should have taken no more than perhaps a year or two.  As we know, however, President George W. Bush and his administration willfully lost focus and began to concentrate on what turned out to be the lie that Iraq's authoritarian butcher, Saddam Hussein, had weapons of mass destruction. So instead of finishing the job in Afghanistan, Bush ordered an attack on Iraq, which turned into another long war of costly blood and treasure.

When the end for American troops finally came in Afghanistan under an agreement reached between the Taliban and President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden failed to recognize how quickly things were deteriorating and failed to plan for the worst possible outcome, which is what happened -- and in some ways still is happening. As Packer reports:

"Administration officials told me that no one could have anticipated how quickly Kabul would fall. This is true, and it goes for both Afghans and Americans. But the failure to plan for a worst-case scenario while there was time, during the spring and early summer, as Afghanistan began to collapse, led directly to the fatal chaos in August. The Taliban gave every indication of wanting to cooperate with the American withdrawal, partly because it hoped for a continued diplomatic presence. 'They’re still asking us today, "Why did you leave? ”' a senior official told me. But the administration never tried to negotiate a better way out with the Taliban, didn’t establish green zones in Kabul and other cities with airfields. Instead, the evacuation came down to 10 days and one runway."

And what was the result? Thousands of vulnerable people -- who had worked with and for the American military in Afghanistan -- failed to get out and even today are hiding out in their own country fearing Taliban reprisals. Beyond that, thousands of Afghan refugees are coming to cities across the U.S., including Kansas City. Here, my congregation is partnering with Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City to house such refugees under the auspices of Jewish Vocational Services. (The photo above left shows a collection room for furniture and other materials in the basement of our church.) We're happy to do that, but the chaos at the end of the war in Afghanistan means we're welcoming traumatized people who may well struggle to find their sea legs here. (The photo at right shows us moving furniture into a duplex for such a family.)

Afghan-7Why would religious congregations get engaged in this work? Because we are acting on foundational beliefs in the ultimate value of every single human being, as our Christian and Jewish religions teach us. That is a core belief of Islam, too, though radicals such as the Taliban, al-Qaida, ISIS and other splinter groups have blasted it to smithereens.

But if every person is of inestimable value, an American woman (involved in the final evacuation of Afghans) whom Packer quotes at the end of his story asks the right questions: 

“'Afghanistan keeps descending into hell, and what are people like us supposed to do?' she asked. 'Are we supposed to leave these people who helped Americans, including people we served with personally, behind? I’m a very idealistic person in some ways, and I understand we can’t save everyone, and there are crises everywhere. But there was a 20-year war, and that changed a lot of people here. A lot of people served and went there. Our policy, our money, went there. Do we just abandon the people? I don’t think that’s who we are as a country. I don’t think that’s who we should be as a country.'”

If we judge simply by actions alone, that may not be who we are as a country but it's clearly who our government has been throughout this long war. And, in the end, we the people are responsible for the people we select to form our government. We have some repenting to do and then we must commit to chose leaders who won't act against our core values.

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Religion scholar and writer Mark Silk has just released the first in a series of columns tracing the history of how Christian nationalism grew in the U.S. It's a helpful bit of history that may help us see how we got here and what now we can do, if anything, about this awkward distortion of the Christian faith. I wrote about Christian nationalism most recently here. (Silk is professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a contributing editor of the Religion News Service.)

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P.S.: And speaking of Muslim-Christian relations, as I pretty much was doing in the lead piece above, please know that the Dialogue Institute of Kansas City and the related Raindrop Foundation are organizing the 16th Annual Friendship Gathering at 6:30 p.m. on March 17. You can read more about that and sign up to attend at this link.

A detailed report on 'Christian nationalism' is published

It's been pretty obvious to anyone paying even semi-close attention that many of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists were marinated in Christian nationalism.

Cross-flag-1But now there's a detailed new report that puts a lot of flesh on those bones. This RNS story describes the report's origins and contents.

That story reports this: "Christian nationalism was used to 'bolster, justify and intensify the January 6 attack on the Capitol,' said Amanda Tyler, head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which sponsored the report along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Tyler’s group is behind an initiative called Christians Against Christian Nationalism.

"The organizations touted the report as 'the most comprehensive account to date of Christian nationalism and its role in the January 6 insurrection,' compiled using 'videos, statements, and images from the attack and its precursor events.'”

Part of what was visible at the storming of the Capitol building on Jan. 6 is cited in the RNS story: "flags with superimposed American flags over Christian symbols; 'An Appeal to Heaven' banners; prayers recited by members of the extremist group Proud Boys shortly before the attack or by others as they stormed the Capitol" and more.

The report itself describes Christian nationalism this way: "Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s
constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism relies on the mythological founding of the United States as a 'Christian nation,' singled out for God’s providence in order to fulfill God’s purposes on earth. Christian nationalism demands a privileged place for Christianity in public life, buttressed by the active support of government at all levels."

Which means, of course, that Christian nationalism is in severe tension with the U.S. Constitution and its guarantee of religious freedom.

You can read the whole report for yourself. It's 66 pages long, so you might want to take a long lunch hour to do that.

There are, as you might expect, lots of reasons why Christian nationalism exists as a distortion of Christianity itself. As this report from Religion Dispatches notes, claims of biblical "inerrancy" are part of that picture.

The piece describes inerrancy this way: "Evangelicals who identify as inerrantists consider their Bible to be without error in all of its correctly interpreted, actual claims."

Or as the 1978 "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" puts it, "We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or
redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood."

It's a two-dimensional approach to a multi-dimensional book of sacred writings produced by dozens of writers over hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Inerrantists tend to miss the poetry, the mythical aspects, the broader picture that the writers -- who are almost never writing what we think of today as accurate history -- are trying to convey. As some members of my congregation put it: You can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both.

The Religion Dispatches article asserts this: "It’s important not to. . .act like only the Civil Rights activists were activists. White conservative Christians were likewise racial activists, and biblical infallibility was there on the front lines with them. It did important rhetorical work: erasing their complicity in a brutal regime while transforming them into ‘just faithful Christians speaking hard truths about the Bible’ against Christians who failed to uphold its authority."

Christian nationalism has, as I say, many roots. But the important thing to remember about it is that it not only distorts Christianity, it distorts true patriotism, which often requires patriots to criticize what the government is doing in their name. But we can't work against it if we don't know what it is or how it grows. So read and learn.

One of the places (though not the only one) within Christianity from which to recruit people susceptible to Christian nationalism is the evangelical branch of the faith. But as columnist David Brooks of The New York Times recently reported, that evangelical world is in turmoil and is losing much of the younger generation.

"The turmoil in evangelicalism," Brooks noted, "has not just ruptured relationships; it’s dissolving the structures of many evangelical institutions. Many families, churches, parachurch organizations and even denominations are coming apart."

Clearly the religious world -- especially American Christianity -- is in traumatic flux. Which also means that Christian nationalism is unstable at its core. Watch this space.

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Pope Francis, a wise and thoughtful man, is urging the church to be careful about changing the rules on priestly celibacy and the male priesthood. In many situations, such a middle way is both appropriate and effective. But it also can be a tool of resistance to needed change. The Catholic priesthood is shrinking for many reasons. If a married priesthood (early in church history there were married priests) can help, why take the possibility off the table? And in other church crises, such as the sexual abuse scandal involving priests and the bishops who protected them, there should be no middle ground. That would not protect the children, which is by far a more important task than protecting the church.

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P.S.: Here is an example of a pastor whose words and actions dishonor the core of Christianity and drive people away from religion in general. Sigh.

We can't understand the present if we don't get history


To have any hope of understanding almost any aspect of history, context is vital. That's what makes it so important for museums and other interpretive centers to make clear the context of the periods or events they're trying to explain through their displays.

SIM-2I recently ran across a good example of how important the interpretation of history is when a group from my congregation visited the Shawnee Indian Mission National Historic Landmark in Fairway, Kan., and spoke at some length with the site director, Jennifer Laughlin.

We were interested in learning if and how the fairly recent stories about finding unmarked graves of students who attended boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada and the U.S. might be connected to the school for such children that operated at the Shawnee site from 1839 to 1862. That school was under the oversight of a slave-owning Methodist pastor, Thomas Johnson, after whom Johnson County, Kansas, is named. In boarding school cases in Canada and elsewhere, people are using ground-penetrating radar to locate these graves.

Laughlin pointed out that, unlike some later boarding schools for Indigenous children, there's no evidence that the students who attended Johnson's mission center school were enrolled there by force. Rather, the Shawnee tribe, having been moved to the Kansas territory some time earlier, was already pretty well assimilated into so-called white culture by then, with many Shawnee families already Methodists. In all, about 20 tribes sent children to Johnson's school, but mostly they came to learn trades, were sent there by willing parents, she said, and many returned year after year to complete their education. So, although no final determination has been made yet, it's highly unlikely that anyone will ever find gruesome graves or mass graves of children at the Shawnee mission site similar to ones being discovered elsewhere.

(The photo at right shows a "Bring Our Children Home" tee-shirt that the Kansas City Indian Center has sold to call attention to the mass burial stories.)

SIM-12Beyond that, a few white children also attended the school because it was the only school then in the area.

(The photo below describes a daily school schedule for children and acknowledges the repulsive idea that such schools were designed to assimilate Indigenous children into white culture so they could "think and act like whites.")

At one point, when Johnson was running things, the site covered some 2,000 acres and had 16 structures on it because it was a trade school. Today, the property covers just 12 acres and is surrounded by residential property. The site is owned by the Kansas Historical Society but is operated by the city of Fairway. The state, through the Historical Society, controls all the exhibits, however, and the current ones on display have been there since 2005, when lots of renovation and preservation work was done at the site.

But as Laughlin acknowledges, "historical interpretation has changed a lot since 2005. So that's why I say they're a lot better than they used to be, but they're definitely not where I hope as a museum professional they would be. I have asked for years to be able to update some of these exhibits to change some of the interpretation and add some interpretation. It's not completely white-washed but there is still a very veiled hint of white-washing. And I was told it was not in the state's budget."

Clearly that's a problem, but at least Laughlin, as site director, is present in person when the site is open to help with fuller explanations and interpretations of what this history is about and what it can tell us about the present.

And she does just that. She makes clear, as I say, that the Shawnee Indian Mission site has a rather different history from some of the later boarding schools for Native Americans where mass graves of children now are being found. That doesn't mean that the slave-owning pastor who ran the place -- or others in his absence -- didn't do some things that would be completely unacceptable today. But it does mean that all Indigenous boarding school histories are not alike and cannot be judged as if they were.

SIM-10Even a short visit to the site can leave a visitor with questions that the displays don't answer. For instance, there's a pulpit displayed there that was used in Johnson's time (see photo above). On it is a Bible opened to chapters 47 and 48 of the book of Ezekiel in the Hebrew scriptures. Chapter 48 begins this way: "Now these are the names of the tribes. . ."

Well, that was written about the tribes of Israel several thousand years ago, but "tribe" is a name long associated with Indigenous peoples in what became the United States. Was someone trying to make some kind of subtle theological connection between the Hebrew tribes and the Native American tribes? If so, why isn't there an explanation of that? If not, why was Ezekiel 48 picked?

In the last 10 or so years, many Americans have awakened to Indigenous history and to the current issues faced by Native peoples here. It would be good if an interesting site like the Shawnee Indian Mission would tell not just an accurate story of what happened there from 1839 to 1862 but also how that history connects to more recent events regularly covered by such publications as Indian Country Today, such as how women today are changing Indigenous leadership and what the recent change of the appalling name of the NFL team from Washington, D.C., means for Native people going forward.

And, by the way, if the state of Kansas has an obligation to tell this history accurately, so does the United Methodist Church, which is the more recent name of the denomination that ordained Thomas Johnson to ministry. But a search of the denomination's website turns up nothing about either the Shawnee Indian Center or Johnson. Sigh. (After I posted this blog column, a Methodist friend confirmed that he couldn't find anything on those sites, either, but he did find this story on the United Methodist's Global Ministries site. It doesn't mention Johnson or the Shawnee Indian Mission but does talk more broadly about boarding schools for Indigenous children.)

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The United Church of Christ, as part of a national campaign called RIP Medical Debt, has announced that it has paid off more than $100 million in medical debt owed by individuals, and it cost the church only about $200,000 to do that. It's a fine and lovely thing to do to help needy people. But let's be clear that it does nothing to heal our ailing health care system, which rather badly needs reconstruction. The issues are many: Many Americans still are without any health insurance; the cost structure of medical care in the U.S. is a crazy labyrinth that can -- and often does -- put people into medical debt, sometimes even including providers; there are all kinds of racial and economic disparities in our health care system; the Covid pandemic revealed countless other problems within the system. And on and on. So cheers for the UCC, part of the Mainline Protestant tradition, for helping. But if we had a rational, fair health care system such help would be unnecessary.

Protecting fragile young minds from different religious beliefs

In a country that historically has respected religious freedom, it's been important to keep religious teachings out of public schools.

World-religionsWell, let me rephrase that. It's been important for public schools not to advocate on behalf of any religion or religious belief. That said, it's also helpful if such public institutions teach students about the history of how religious ideas -- good, bad and indifferent -- have helped to shape the nation. If they don't get that, they simply won't understand the U.S. and its development.

So public school teachers cannot legally promote Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or any other religion. But is it the duty of such educators to parse teachings from any faith tradition and judge whether the students who hold those beliefs should be protected from hearing anything -- anything at all -- that may question the validity of such beliefs?

Believe it or not, a lawmaker in Oklahoma seems to be so worried that public school students will hear something that challenges their religious beliefs that he's introduced legislation to prevent that from happening. (Of course you believe that because you've probably heard that other states are considering similar bills, including a "parents bill of rights" in Missouri. And this know-nothingism is spreading across the nation.) Not only that, but, as the story reports, teachers who violate this bizarre proposed law could be fined "$10,000 'per incident, per individual' and the fines would be paid 'from personal resources' not from school funds or from individuals or groups."

The story also says that if the proposal becomes law, "parents can demand the removal of any book with perceived anti-religious content from school. Subjects like LGBTQ issues, evolution, the big bang theory and even birth control could be off the table." What about books that suggest the Earth is more than 10,000 years old? Will they be gone from the shelves, too?

Oh, heavens. We don't want our children to imagine that there's more than one way to think about things or that there could possibly be conflicting beliefs about faith, do we? Well, yes, we do. Locking children in protective cocoons will simply cause enormous problems later -- problems like we're already experiencing from people who are convinced that they alone have (or their religion alone has) all the answers.

What children most need to learn, in age-appropriate ways, is critical thinking. This bill would prevent that. If you have any influence in Oklahoma or any other state where this approach is being tried, please help defeat this nonsense. (And, no, it's not nonsense for parents to want to know what's being taught to their children. They should want to know that -- in some detail. But these laws really aren't about such disclosure. They're much more about closure.)

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Princeton University has canceled an exhibit by Jewish artists because, it turns out, some of them had deep ties to the Confederacy and its support for slavery. Oh, no, no, no. That's not how to deal with such controversy. Instead, Princeton should have used it as an opportunity to educate the public about the complexities of history and how it came to be that certain Jewish artists had forgotten or ignored their heritage of ancestors being slaves in Egypt. Instead, they backed the South in the Civil War. Princeton's foolish decision and others of equal imbecility is what created so-called "cancel culture," whose critics often rage about unimportant things.

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THE BOOK CORNER Sisters-mirror

Sisters in the Mirror: A History of Muslim Women and the Global Politics of Feminism, by Elora Shehabuddin, professor of trans-national Asian studies at Rice University. When it comes to the advances that feminist activists have brought to the world, the last group many people imagine are part of this movement is Muslim women. The image of stifled, captive, shrouded women in Islam is pervasive, even if there are many ways in which it's merely a misleading stereotype. This new book explores the many reasons such an image is off the mark and often dead wrong. The author explores the history of several centuries to discover various ways in which Muslim women have been working to liberate women, which, of course, doesn't happen without that process also liberating men from old models of patriarchy. The book in some ways is an engaging compilation of stories from around the globe about Muslim women -- sometimes with help and encouragement from outside of Islam -- who are working to create a world in which all people are valued. Beyond that, it's a book that encourages all people to work toward that same laudable end.

With Afghan refugees as neighbors, it's time to learn about Islam


As you surely know, Afghan refugees have been finding their way into life in the U.S. after the collapse of the Afghan government and the takeover by the brutal Taliban.

What you may not be as aware of is that most of them are Muslims and have brought their faith with them. Indeed, one reason so many wanted to flee their native land is that they knew that the Islam preached, taught and lived by the Taliban is a radical and misguided version of Islam -- and they wanted no part of it.

Versions of this story about that from the Philadelphia Inquirer, with minor adjustments, could have been published in lots of newspapers around the country, including here in Kansas City. (That story, by the way, contains helpful statistics about Afghan refugees, and I commend it to you.) In fact, my congregation is partnering with Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City to work with Jewish Vocational Services here to furnish apartments for Afghan refugees. JVS can always use more help, so I encourage you to volunteer. Just click on this link.

Muslims have lived on this land since before there was a United States. In fact, many of the slaves dragged here from Africa were followers of Islam in their native lands. For some explanation of that and more details, click here.

But, of course, Christians have made up the majority of Americans for a long time, although their dominance has been dwindling for decades now. But as more Muslims enter the population, it's a good time to learn more about Islam and how it's practiced both here and around the globe. Christians still outnumber adherents of other faith traditions with about 2.2 billion adherents, compared with about 1.8 billion Muslims. But many analysts think Islam's numbers will overtake Christianity's by the end of this century.

So how can you learn more about Islam and how Muslims are becoming more numerous (though still a tiny percentage of the total U.S. population) in the country? Well, you can simply Google "Islam," of course and read such sites as this one from

But there also are some excellent books to help you. Among them: The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr; What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf; Muhammad: The Messenger of God, by Betty Kelen; Women in the Qur'an: An Emancipatory Reading, by Asma Lamrabet; American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, by Paul M. Barrett; Untold: A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad, by Tamam Kahn; Standing Alone: An America Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, by Asra Q. Nomani; After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split, by Lesley Hazleton; Allah: A Christian Response, by Miroslav Volf, and Understanding Islamic Law (Shari'a), by Raj Bhala.

When my paternal great-grandparents came to the U.S. from Germany in the 1860s and when my maternal grandparents came here from Sweden around 1900, lots of Americans were ready to welcome them and help them find their sea legs. That's our job now with these Afghan refugees as we help them feel at home here in many ways, including religiously.

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And while we're learning about Islam, maybe it's time for some folks, like Mike Parson, governor of Missouri, to learn the difference between "Christian values" and "the values of some Christians." When Donald Kauerauf, Parson's nominee for director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, withdrew under pressure from people who didn't think he was conservative enough, Parson said this: “Don is a public health expert that is on record opposing masking requirements and COVID-19 vaccine mandates. He is outspokenly pro-life and morally opposed to abortion. Missourians know that I share these beliefs and would not have nominated someone who does not share the same Christian values.” People have rightly called out Parson for leaving the impression that he has a religious test for people who work for him and that he'd appoint only Christians to state offices under his control.

But my concern is broader. Parson seemed to be attributing to all Christians the values of being against masking and vaccine mandates and being opposed to legal abortions. Perhaps if the governor's range of friends and his knowledge of Christianity's diversity were larger, he would know that Christians often hold views that are opposite of views held by other Christians. That opposition isn't what makes them Christian. If Mike Parson wants to decide who is Christian and who isn't, maybe he should run for God, though it appears that office is held now by Someone with a lifetime appointment.

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P.S.: Some of you may be interested, after the recent death of Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh, in this piece from The Guardian about how Buddhism has changed the West for the better.

Are you aware of tools to help unplug extremism?

Even before I wrote my 2016 book, The Value of Doubt, it seemed to me that the world would be a much calmer, less violent place, if, before acting on any political or religious belief, people would stop and ask this: "Might I be wrong?" And this: "If others disagree with me, how did they come to their conclusions?"

Cover-Value of DoubtIt's clear, however, that many people who commit actions of violent extremism never get close to those questions. They simply charge ahead in the belief that they, perhaps alone, know what is true and what is best for the rest of us. And in the worst cases, they think God has told them what to believe and how to act out those beliefs.

So what do we do about that? Well, in my most recent book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, I devote the final chapter to eight different ideas that people, especially people of faith, can use to try to unplug radicalism. I commend it to you because it's clear that we need such methods now more than ever. (The book also tells the story of the many traumas that afflicted my extended family because of the murder of my nephew on 9/11. He was a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center.)

Cover-lle-hi-resBut it's also helpful to know what our government is doing that might help confront and reduce extremism, including the domestic variety that in recent decades has seemed increasingly to plague us, including in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

As it turns out, this NPR story deals with the very question of domestic terrorism, describing the ongoing work of the Department of Homeland Security's Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3). The NPR link will take you to a six-plus minute audio version of that recent story, while the CP3 link will get you to the DHS page about its work in this area.

The NPR story makes it clear that there is plenty of criticism and dubiousness about whether CP3 is working or even can work. But it's at least somewhat reassuring that there are people in our government who have on their minds questions about whether it's possible to stop or reduce extremist thinking that leads to violence.

On the CP3 site, I especially call to your attention the tab called "Prevention Education" and, under it, the section named "Community Awareness Briefing," which your community or organization can request.

This kind of work against radicalism should start early, with children learning humility because they are seeing adults act and speak with humility. And clearly we need more models of that. I've said before elsewhere that kids should learn early on that they're not getting properly educated and trained if they don't feel a little more ignorant at the end of the day. Each day should be a satisfying exploration in learning while also being a sharp reminder of how much we have yet to learn.

If you haven't read the ideas in my 9/11 book about stopping extremism, I hope you will. And I hope you'll also learn what the CP3 effort is about and whether it's something you want your members of Congress to encourage and make better.

Our lives may depend on that.

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Is war over Ukraine inevitable? I don't know. But I do know that it's helpful to hear the thinking of many different people from many different backgrounds. For instance, here is a column written by Bridget Moix, general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Not surprisingly, given that Quakers are known as a peace church, she argues against moving toward war in Ukraine and, instead, seeking a peaceful solution. "The United States," she says, "should commit itself to building, strengthening and participating in collective security systems that are not based on the use of force. Our country helped create the United Nations, and we should lead again in updating and strengthening our multilateral system to more effectively prevent war, ensuring security for all." Is hers a voice crying in the wilderness and, thus, without an audience? Perhaps, but maybe today you have heard her and are moved to take some action that shows your dedication to avoiding yet another war.

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Afro-IndigMy last Flatland column, which you can read here if you haven't already, described a group of people who have both Black and Indigenous backgrounds. They call themselves the Freedmen, and many of their Black ancestors were held as slaves by some of the so-called Five Civilized tribes. Today the Freedmen are working to be recognized as members of those tribes and to have their story told.

At the end of that column, I introduced a word that's been around for awhile but that lots of folks have never heard: Afro-Indigenous. And I provided a link to a book called An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States, by Kyle T. Mays. It's worth your time, even though I think it has some shortcomings.

The author is himself Afro-Indigenous and teaches at UCLA. There's lots of interesting history in the book about how Native Americans and Blacks have related to each other over time, and Mays is clear about their various connections. Which is to say he notes more than once that the European invaders of what became the United States first dispossessed Indigenous people of the land on which they lived and then enslaved Blacks whom they took from their own land in Africa. So one move took land from people and the second took people from their land.

Mays has some helpful ideas about how whites, Blacks and Native Americans can relate today, though at times he seems to engage in polemic without suggesting clear answers to what he identifies as a problem. For instance, it's obvious that he has precious little use for capitalism, but he doesn't have much of an answer for how that complex economic system might be replaced with something he'd prefer. And it seems unrealistic to want to blow up capitalism without having a feasible replacement in mind. Still, as I say, it can be helpful to know the history he describes and his take on how Blacks and Native Americans can and should work together today, given their history of oppression at the hands of a nation for which white supremacy was a founding conviction.

What the Jerry Falwell Jr. scandals tell us about religion

Across its long history, religion has produced both beauty and scandal, enlightenment and ignorance, encouragement and dismay.

Jerry_Falwell_JrThat's no doubt because human beings have had a lot to do with how things go in religion. And human beings are, well, nothing if not fallible, no matter how resilient they can be after they fail and fall and lie and make a mess of things. I find it helps to remember that in one of the creation stories in Genesis (there are two, and they don't match up all that well), we find God declaring the creation "good." Notice that the word used wasn't "perfect."

I've been thinking about all of that after having read this Vanity Fair article about the spectacular collapse and disgrace experienced by Jerry Falwell Jr., (pictured at left) who was forced to resign from the presidency of Liberty University (which his famous father ran before him) on Aug. 24, 2020, after what the author of the magazine's long story says was a resignation "in the wake of a sensational tabloid scandal that could have been dreamed up in the writers’ room of The Righteous Gemstones."

It involved sex, lies and embarrassing nude photos of Jerry Jr.'s wife Becki taken while she was having an affair with a former Miami pool boy.

In some ways, what Falwell Jr. did was similar to some things his father did -- though they were quite different people. But each of them in his own way failed to live up to the obligations Christians take on when they declare themselves followers of Jesus -- obligations of love, compassion, truthfulness, mercy and justice, to name a few of the most important. (Yes, all Christians fail at that.)

One of the differences, it turns out, between the two Jerry Falwells is that the younger one took quite awhile to come to faith. As the Vanity Fair story, written by Gabriel Sherman, reports: “'I became a true Christian in college,' Jerry told me. Newly confident in his faith, Jerry decided believing in Christ didn’t mean he had to follow the evangelical rules. After all, Jesus was a rule breaker too. 'Organized religion says you have to earn your way to heaven. What Jesus said was, "You just have to believe,” he said'."

So it's clear from the get-go that Jerry Jr. didn't understand the essential Christian concepts of either grace or faith. He blamed "organized" religion for what theologians call "works righteousness," which is to say the idea that God accepts you into an afterlife of bliss only if you earn it through your good works. That concept is rejected by Christianity. But was Falwell Jr. right to say that Jesus said you just have to believe? Well, not exactly. Belief is simply where you start. But if belief doesn't get metabolized and turn into good works and a life of love and compassion, it's essentially useless. Somehow Falwell Jr. missed all that.

When Jerry Sr. realized he was making a financial mess of Liberty University, he asked Jerry Jr. to join the staff and help to rescue the place. In that time, Sherman writes, "Falwell often invited his son to join him and his chief of staff, Mark DeMoss, for lunch at the Holiday Inn near campus. Jerry rarely went. Instead, he often ate alone in a Wendy’s parking lot, listening to Rush Limbaugh (pictured at right) in his car. Talk radio became Jerry’s political religion. 'Rush is the reason I became a conservative,' Jerry told me."

Rush-LimbaughThe late Limbaugh, a former employee of the Kansas City Royals (director of group sales and special events) and former talk show host on a Kansas City radio station, KUDL, eventually developed a huge following nationally. He was not so much a political wizard as an entertainer. He would say all kinds of crazy stuff just to keep his audience tuning in. Jerry Jr. might have done better spending his lunch hour reading the Bible with interpretive help from someone qualified to do that.

Sherman writes that "Jerry told me he supported (former President Donald) Trump because he was a real estate developer and a populist. But I also couldn’t help but see the Trump endorsement as a continuation of Jerry’s rebellion against evangelical pieties. . .

"Jerry even defended Trump when almost no one else would. After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, in October 2016, Jerry told a radio interviewer: 'We’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot.' It provided cover for evangelicals to excuse Trump’s utter lack of decency or morals. 'After that, Steve Bannon called me and said, "You won the election for us,”' Jerry recalled."

And now Jerry Jr. has essentially divorced himself from the evangelical branch of Christianity. Sherman writes that "being on the receiving end of evangelicals’ moral opprobrium has fundamentally turned him away from the movement. He believes in Christ, he said, but not the church. 'Nothing in history has done more to turn people away from Christianity than organized religion,' he said. 'The religious elite has got this idea that somehow their sins aren’t as bad as everyone else’s,' Jerry said. Listening to Jerry, it made me think he convinced himself Liberty wasn’t the fundamentalist school that it is."

Well, there certainly can be a significant difference between the life of faith that Jesus modeled and taught and what the institutional church sometimes has taught and even become. But any time now that you hear the term "organized religion," you can pretty well bet that the next words will be dismissive of faith. In some ways, it's like comparing real Major League Baseball to what the Kansas City Royals played between their 1985 World Series win and their 2015 win.

One of the saddest parts of this story is about Jerry Jr.'s wife and her destructive decision to have an affair. She seems honest in explaining what happened to Sherman and she and Jerry still are together. But what a terrible choice she made, and surely Jerry knows he wasn't the best husband he could have been.

Sherman writes this about all that: "Becki, though, has struggled. She said she’s battled depression over the past year and gained a significant amount of weight. They’re both grateful they still have their marriage. 'We’re together more than any couple you will ever meet in your life,' Becki said, as she sat on a stool at the kitchen island. 'He forgave me, and that’s what Jesus teaches, forgiveness.'”

In the end, the battlefield is littered with wounded bodies and reputations. And religion itself has been a casualty, too, its already oft-maligned reputation for high moral values beaten further about the head and shoulders by the actions of some of its noisiest and gaudiest proponents. And yet Christians should not have been surprised. As Richard D. Crane, a theology professor at Messiah College, wrote in a February 2019 article in the theological journal Review & Expositor, "A Christian account of humans as entangled in sin should lead us to recognize all human constructs. . .are flawed and corrupted. This conviction should render Christians alert for systemic injustices and distortions." Exactly.

With Crane's reminder front and center, perhaps all of us can learn something redemptive from this sad, sad story.

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A newly published list of Muslim startup companies offers another example of why immigration is both necessary and economically advantageous to the U.S. This RNS story about this notes that these startups range "from new Islamic seminaries and Muslim-focused smartphone applications to fintech (finance/technology), media and fashion." Good thing former President Trump's Muslim ban didn't work.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column -- about Black people with ties to Indigenous people -- when it posted Sunday, you can find it here.