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Just what has the U.S. Supreme Court wrought?

By now you've no doubt heard or read a hundredyskillion responses to the recent Dobbs v. Jackson U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Roe, of course, made abortion a constitutional right in 1973.

Supreme-courtResponses have ranged from people outraged at the court's ruling to those happy about it.

I am not a lawyer and, thus, am not in a good position to make careful judgments about whether the initial 1973 case was decided correctly on the basis of judicial wisdom, procedure and precedence or whether this one was decided that way.

But they both can't be right, can they? Indeed, the court in recent years has drifted from a respected institution to another collection of powerful partisans -- mostly on the right, but also at times on the left, two political labels that hide more than they reveal. And court members have cooperated with the Republican Party to institute what amounts to minority rule in this country, given that the overwhelming majority of Americans did not want Roe overturned. And just as some wanted Roe overturned for religious reasons, some wanted to keep abortion legal for religious reasons. But now, in effect, the court has declared one religious view of abortion valid and other religious views of abortion invalid.

So my fear is that this new ruling will throw us into another period of religious rancor, to say nothing of a time of females (from whom much moral agency now has been taken by this court decision) being targeted with suspicion merely because they are pregnant and will need now to decide whether to give birth or abort. It's hard to think of a matter more personal than a decision about whether to get pregnant or to end a pregnancy. And in such personal matters, I think the government should play as small a role (often no role at all) as possible. (Just as I needed no government mandate or oversight to decide to have a vasectomy, women don't need government interference to make a decision about being pregnant.)

This is another case in which it matters a great deal how we read scripture, especially the Bible. The sad thing is that people often decide whether to be for or against abortion by picking out a small group of biblical passages that seem to address the matter but really don't. (That practice is called proof-texting.) So -- just as people often do with LGBTQ+ issues -- people will choose certain parts of the Bible and declare that they make abortion against God's will in most, if not all, cases.

Psalm 139, for instance, has been a go-to passage for people opposed to abortion. Among other things, it says, "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb." Perhaps it would be helpful to explain poetry, metaphor and symbolism to some people. Oh, and science, too.

A friend who is a pastor expressed some of this angst in this recent Facebook post: 

"What I'm saddest about today is the unholy stain upon the faith to which I've dedicated my life. The public face of Christianity is ugly, judgmental, vengeful, cultish and mean. It is everything Jesus taught -- (but) through a glass darkly, twisted into its opposite. It's hard to blame all of the people who see the Christian church as a demon in our midst, standing up for clownish buffoons and vicious ideologues. I guess the only thing to say is this: I am sorry about my siblings who have trampled on the vulnerable. I will work harder to cast out the false gods they've created and make Christianity about Jesus again."

Similarly, here is a video of leaders from my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), reacting to the court's ruling. I might have said it in different ways, but I am in harmony with most of their thinking.

So expect more religious division in the country because of this ruling. Also expect more state-against-state division, given that the new ruling throws back to the states any decisions about whether to make abortion legal. In an already deeply divided nation, this additional reason for division will simply complicate our lives. In many ways, this decision is a replay of the old states-rights arguments that opponents of civil rights used for so long -- and in some cases still do.

I have said before in various venues that I wish abortion were quite rare but legal because sometimes it's the least evil of a series of evil choices. I say that as a male (meaning, of course, that I've never been pregnant) who has fathered two children whose births were planned and successful. My temptation on this whole issue is simply to do what one of my pastors suggested in a recent sermon (before the court's decision was final) that we all do: trust women to decide whether to abort. Ideally, that decision should be made in consultation with the woman's physician and in consultation with the father (assuming the father isn't a rapist or a sibling of the pregnant woman) as well as with any close friends or spiritual advisors the pregnant woman chooses.

RoevWadeBefore the 1973 decision, a lot of women got backroom, risky abortions (sometimes self-administered) and some of those women died because of it. I think we'll see a rise in that again. Whatever "pro-life" means, it shouldn't mean supporting a system that can lead to such abominations.

And I don't think abortion is the end of the issues this particular court may want to revisit. Will same-sex marriage be next? Or some civil rights decisions? This court seems to be turning into the kind of activist judicial system that people who identify as conservative have long warned everyone about.

One more thing I hope this decision does is lead to a national conversation about the role of the Supreme Court, how it's constituted and whether justices should serve for life.

But that's not the only national governmental system that should be under a microscope now. So should such bodies as the U.S. Senate, where someone from, say, Vermont, Rhode Island or Wyoming has as much power as someone representing California or Texas. One-person, one-vote? Not exactly. And if we're going to look at all the institutions that help to shape life in the U.S., let's also talk about the Electoral College, a weird old system that has proven flawed on more than one occasion.

So: Discuss. And let me know how you think we should proceed in light of the corner into which our institutions have painted us.

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The new U.S. special envoy to combat antisemitism, the brilliant and persuasive Deborah Lipstadt, is making her first foreign trip -- to Saudi Arabia. Anti-Jewish sentiment has a long history on the Arabian peninsula, and since the creation of Israel in the 1940s, that anti-Judaism has been accompanied by a lot of anti-Israeli sentiment. But these prejudices won't change unless they are talked about openly. And Lipstadt, whom I've had the privilege of hearing speak in person several times, seems like exactly the right person to help lead that conversation in the Middle East.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday -- it's about a terrific redlining exhibit at the Johnson County (Kansas) Museum -- you can find it here.

Constructing foundations to rescue the American experiment

If the United States is to survive this stressful period of political, cultural, social, racial, religious and economic divide, it will need stronger, more cohesive institutions that can give us tools to implement the aspirational values expressed -- but never fully achieved or lived out -- in our founding documents.

We-need-to-buildSo this weekend I want to point you (and me) to a new book I haven't had a chance yet to read but that sounds like exactly the kind of map forward we need. It's written by a man I've come to know and respect for his ability to articulate the necessity of drawing on our religious traditions to find inspiration to listen to our better angels.

He's Eboo Patel, president and founder of Interfaith America, the new name given to the Chicago-based organization he founded in 2002, the Interfaith Youth Core. Eboo has been in Kansas City several times to speak in various venues. He also wrote an endorsement blurb for my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.

Eboo's new book is called We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.

This Yahoo News article about Eboo's new book says this: "The path forward, according to Patel, is to recognize the power of religious faith, acknowledge that faith can be a force for good but also sometimes for ill, and build a culture that respects all faiths and solicits contributions from adherents of each." (Eboo is a Muslim.)

In that article, Eboo describes how interfaith connections increasingly are part of the American experience:

“Interfaith work happens in the United States all the time. Most people consider it positive. They just don't consider it interfaith work. When your grandfather is going through a triple-bypass surgery at a hospital started by Jesuits, with a physician team that is Muslim and Jewish, and the anesthesiologist is Hindu, and the person sanitizing the room is a Jehovah’s Witness, and the person who runs the hospital is a secular humanist who grew up Buddhist, that's interfaith work.”

He then adds: “Every single one of those people, their faith is involved in that procedure, because they're all literally all whispering the prayers of their faith or the hope of their humanist philosophy as they walk in.”

In many ways, something similar is happening in American families when it comes to internationalizing the connections they have. For instance, in the extended families of my three sisters and me, you now will find people of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and African-American descent, in addition, of course, to those of us of European origin.

For a long time, Eboo Patel has been telling people they simply need to tell each other their personal stories and to find how they connect. Those stories include faith commitments people make.

So let's get his new book and see if it can help guide us through this fraught era in our country, when many people seem to see religious, racial and ethnic diversity more a threat than a strength.

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More than two years ago, the Vatican made available to scholars many of its archived files describing how Pope Pius XII responded to pleas for help from Jews when Adolf Hitler's murderous Nazis were in power and were murdering some six million Jews. Now most of those files are being put online for anyone to read. Good. Precious little good can come of hiding history. And it's long past time that these and related files were made public.

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P.S.: The political, social, religious, racial and economic implications of the new U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade will be many and profound. I plan to get to some of them over the coming weeks. But for now, let's take a deep breath, actually read the decision and think about the most constructive path forward.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a museum exhibit that shows the damage that the unfair and racist practice of redlining did to our metro area -- now is online here.

What can it mean to say that the Bible is 'America's book'?

Is the Bible -- as Christian History magazine now has proposed on two separate covers -- "America's Book?"

CH-magThe first cover, published in 2021, had this as its subtitle: "How the Bible helped shape a nation."

The second cover, just published, used this subtitle: "How the Bible helped shape the church."

Well, I'm not going to use this blog to review, criticize or praise the magazine, of which I've been a fan for a long time, though I don't always agree with its tone or emphasis.

I've connected you via links to free online versions of the whole of those two issues of the magazine, and you can decide for yourself whether editors and writers handled the subject well.

CH-mag-1But let's begin by acknowledging that the Bible -- no matter which translation you prefer -- has had a strong and important role to play in shaping the people who helped to create the U.S. And, yes, I include among those shapers the European invaders who committed cultural and physical genocide on this land's Indigenous inhabitants. Indeed, one of the early drivers for many of the leaders of those invaders was the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, which gave them ecclesial warrant to brutalize the people they conquered and forcibly convert them to Christianity. Here is the full text (with some introductory material) of that 1493 doctrine.

The Bible also was the basis for the spread of what Christians call the gospel, or Good News. And that has led to countless organizations and to their acts of love and charity in our nation's history. It's why so many hospitals right here in the Kansas City area find their roots in one or another faith community -- and that's not limited to Christianity.

So, yes, the Bible has played an important role in American history -- for good (advocating the idea that every human being is a precious child of God) and ill (which led to the contention that slaves were not, in fact, precious children of God).

But a rather different American religious landscape has emerged in recent decades. For instance, at one point in the 20th Century the U.S. was simply a landslide for Protestantism. But Protestants now make up fewer than half the American adult population and that diminishment continues. Among the fastest-growing groups with a label that relates to religion in the U.S. are the "nones," meaning the religiously unaffiliated.

So the Bible has seemed less and less important to Americans. Where it still holds great sway, it does so in large part because of how its words are interpreted. For instance, the Bible has been used as a weapon in the debate about the role of LGBTQ+ people in our society and in our congregations. Those who read scripture with a certain determined literalness often oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians because they insist the Bible tells them to do that. By contrast, here is my essay posted elsewhere here on the blog about what the Bible really says about homosexuality. In it, I insist that the Bible has almost nothing to say on this subject except to urge everyone to love each person.

When the Bible seems to tell you that certain people are second-class citizens, you can be confident that you're reading it wrong -- and destructively.

From time to time there have been debates about whether the Bible should be used as a textbook in public schools -- not to use it to convert people but, rather, to understand how much the Bible has influenced our culture. I think it should be available for that latter purpose, if only so people who hear such phrases as "go the second mile" or "blessed are the peacemakers" or even the words "The Ten Commandments" have some clue what is meant. Biblical illiteracy is already a major problem in many congregations, and it's much, much worse in the general culture.

Well, I'd shy away from calling the Bible "America's Book," as the editors of Christian History have. For one thing, that's a pretty isolated view of a much larger world in which the Bible also has been -- and remains -- a major influence.

But, as I say, I've given you links to both of those issues of Christian History, so you can read them and decide for yourself. Read them with a discerning eye, of course, but also be open to learning something you didn't know. For instance, in the latest issue I learned that website collected more than 3,000 hymns that use biblical texts as their basis. You could spend the rest of the day there, I bet.

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The churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, facing a brutal sex abuse scandal in their midst, met recently to figure out the future of their faith community. And though it was noisy and contentious, the gathering held a promise of a brighter and more hopeful future. The RNS story to which I've linked you pointed to the determination of those who survived years of sexual abuse: They "refused to give up and by sheer force of will and tears and tenacity eventually moved the nation’s largest Protestant denomination to action. During the meeting, SBC leaders repeatedly thanked survivors, and the messengers approved a resolution asking survivors for forgiveness for their inaction." This story is far from over, just as it's far from over in the Catholic Church. But the Baptists seem to have set the right course, finally. Sticking to the path, however, will take the same kind of tenacity exhibited by the victims. And now the world is watching.

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Let us now complicate even further the idea explored above that the Bible may be America's book. I bring to your attention a quite remarkable book of Islamic fiction called Kansastan, by Farooq Ahmed, who (full disclosure) is the son of Muslim friends, both of whom are physicians. Yes, the book is set in Kansas -- around the time of the American Civil War. But it postulates a group of Muslims there seeking to hold onto a mosque and its surrounding land against marauding bands of thugs from the evil state of Missouri. The story is bizarre, wonderful, imaginative and crack-me-up funny. The humor begins in the opening dedication, which says: "For my cousin, Faisal. Would that he had lived a shorter life." I didn't, of course, have any idea what that meant when I opened the book, but its gently sinister twist drew me in. There is, in this book, prophecy, including weird and false varieties. Which is what you might expect when the voice telling the story is that of a disabled goatherd who mostly serves as the mosque's custodian. And there is love here, too. In keeping with the oddity of the story, it is twisted, surreptitious, destructive love. Farooq Ahmed has a special gift for surprising language that manages to find exactly the right phrase when nothing but exactly the right phrase will suffice. I'm not sure how I missed knowing about this book when it was published in 2019, but I discovered it some months ago when I interviewed both Farooq and his mother for a column I wrote about a play called "The Hindu and the Cowboy." You can find that column here. And you can find Farooq's book not just on Amazon, but also at the Kansas City Public Library because I requested that the library order a copy -- which happened. You're welcome. (By the way, here is an insightful interview with Farooq Ahmed done by The Kenyon Review. It should help you make sense of this book.)

Is humanity simply incapable of avoiding evil?

Total Depravity

John Calvin, the early Protestant reformer recognized now as one of the founders of the Presbyterian church, promoted a doctrine that went by the attractive name of "The Total Depravity of Humankind" (or Mankind, in the language of his day).

The name sounds worse than what the doctrine proposes. For instance, theologian R. C. Sproul, in the article to which I just linked you, says that "the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person." But that gets us into what we mean by "the fall" and what we mean by "original sin" and so forth.

Let's just say that the "total depravity" idea doesn't make humans look very good. And when you look at history, it's pretty clear why they don't look so good.

Watergate-historyAs the Jan. 6 select committee in the U.S. House has been holding hearings recently, I've been reading a new book about a previous presidential scandal: Watergate: A New History, by Garrett M. Graff. And I've been catching CNN's new series, "Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal" (in which, by the way, former White House counsel John Dean stays true to form and tries to make himself look as good and innocent as possible under difficult circumstances).

Dean, however, does make this wise and true observation: "What we have learned from Watergate is almost nothing." (Just to remind ourselves, Friday was the 50th anniversary of the break-in.)

The moral rot at the heart of the administration of Richard M. Nixon was different only in degree and style from the moral rot at the heart of the Donald J. Trump administration. And could we name other presidential administrations with scandals displaying similar immorality? Oh, my, yes -- from Teapot Dome to Iran-Contra to Monicagate to the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The point is that somehow these scandals continue to roll through history in one of the most religious countries in the world. The crucial question is why don't the moral teachings of the world's great religions seem to make much difference in either preventing or stopping national political scandals.

It's a serious question, but it does not mean that religion does zero good. Every day all over the country you can find people motivated by religious teaching helping others in need, working against structural systems that oppress people and lifting up the lost and the lonely. But power is a strong aphrodisiac. It can -- and often does -- claim people with the best of intentions.

And yet even within powerful and potentially corrupt political systems it's possible to find voices expressing moral conviction, however unevenly. As Graff, for instance, writes of Sen. Sam Ervin, who headed the U.S. Senate committee that investigated the Watergate scandal, "The words tumbled out disarmingly, softened by the gentle Southern tones and the folksy idiom. But they conveyed a sense of moral outrage."

Moral outrage at what? John Dean is quoted in Graff's book this way on that question: "The burglary at the Watergate was just the last of a series of similar acts over a period of years sponsored by the White House. It was really not unusual, in light of what had been going on. A way of life had developed in the White House which made a burglary or an illegal wiretap acceptable and almost normal behavior."

Ervin added this as the Watergate hearings began: "If the many allegations to this date are true, then the burglars who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate were, in effect, breaking into the home of every citizen of the United States. And if these allegations prove true, what they were seeking to steal were not the jewels, money or other property of American citizens, but something more valuable -- their most precious heritage: the right to vote in a free election." (Perhaps you, too, see a parallel to Trump's Big Lie scandal.)

But early in the Senate's Watergate hearings, Sen. Lowell Weicker, a Connecticut Republican (and, later, an independent), outlined the moral problems in the Nixon administration in breath-taking depth:

"Conspiracy to obstruct justice, conspiracy to obstruct a criminal investigation, conspiracy to destroy evidence, conspiracy to file false sworn statements; conspiracy to commit breaking and entering, conspiracy to commit burglary; misprision of a felony; filing of false sworn statements; perjury; breaking and entering; burglary; interception of wire and oral communications; obstruction of criminal investigation; attempted interference with administration of the Internal Revenue laws; and attempted unauthorized use of Internal Revenue information." After Weicker read that list, Graff writes, Weicker seemed "to even surprise himself with the sheer scope of perceived White House crimes."

Sounds like maybe Nixon hadn't been paying attention to the Quaker faith in which he was brought up as a child. Similarly, Trump says he was reared a Presbyterian. How embarrassing for both faith communities.

(Oh, and notice that so far I haven't even mentioned Nixon's disgraced vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, who pleaded no contest to bribery charges. Graff concludes that Agnew "was just a run-of-the-mill crook who had ended up vice president.)

In atmospheres driven by power, values can get flipped upside down, like the soldier in Vietnam who once explained that he and others had to destroy a village to save it. As G. Gordon Liddy, one of those convicted in the Watergate scandal, explained, "I know it violates the sensibilities of the innocent and tender-minded, but in  the real world, you sometimes have to employ extreme and extralegal methods to preserve the very system whose laws you're violating."

As Graff writes, "Nixon was so deep into so many conspiracies that he didn't realize that his attempt to get out of one might actually lead the world straight to another." Which is why, on Nixon's secret White House taping system, he's once heard to say that the White House staff needs to keep "one jump ahead of the f. . .ing sheriff."

Whether we're talking about the Watergate break-in and coverup or Trump's Big Lie about the 2020 election being stolen, we're looking at Calvin's total depravity idea in living color. What should give us pause, of course, is that you and I are capable of such evil, too. That doesn't excuse us from using our prophetic voices to point out evil when we see it, but it doesn't ever allow us to say that we, by contrast, are completely innocent.

It's also useful to note that this kind of political corruption reduces the chances for serious discussion about policy differences between and among the parties. Our elected officials should be focusing on a rational debate about policy alternatives to benefit the common good, not on dirty political tricks rooted in basic immorality.

If Calvin's old doctrine helps us see that each of us is capable of malevolence, maybe we should keep it around. And we should keep studying questions about moral agency, as researchers from Japan have been doing, recently reporting that infants as young as 8 months old can and do recognize antisocial behavior in others and punish the ones who commit it. Where were those babies when Nixon and Trump needed such discernment?

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As India is in the midst of deep controversy over its Hindu leaders denigrating Islam, an Islamic scholar raises the intriguing question of why Islamic governments "are very vocal when it comes to the cases of verbal or artistic attacks on Islamic values, whereas they are generally silent about human rights violations against Muslim individuals." The author of the piece to which I've linked you also asks why "another characteristic of authoritarian Muslim governments is their own violations of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities." In the end, he concludes this: "Authoritarianism in the Muslim world has tragic consequences for Muslim minorities in India and elsewhere."

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P.S.: A new poll released Friday shows the number of Americans who believe in God has sunk to a record low since the Gallup folks started asking about this 78 years ago. Now God has a clearer sense of what Joe Biden has been feeling recently.

Should religious leaders keep their jobs for life?

Recent speculation about the possible resignation of Pope Francis should raise this question about models of leadership for all religious traditions: Is it wise to have a system that puts leaders in place for life?

Pope-wheelchair(Yes, a similar question is being -- and should be -- asked about being a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.)

In the case of Francis, he's been an active, thoughtful, strong leader since his election in 2013. But he's clearly having health and mobility problems in recent months. For instance, he's been using a wheelchair recently, as the Associated Press story to which I've linked you reports and as you can see in this photo.

The rumors that he might choose the resignation route taken by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, "gained steam last week," the AP noted, "when Francis announced a consistory to create 21 new cardinals scheduled for Aug. 27. Sixteen of those cardinals are under age 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave to elect Francis’ successor."

Some religious leaders aren't officially picked for a lifetime office, but that's sort of what they get anyway. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, for instance, was elected in 2009 and looks as if he's tied his future to the bloody hands of Vladimir Putin, who keeps changing the rules for how long he himself can serve as Russia's president.

I don't think term limits -- whether in religious life or in politics -- are always a good idea. But organizations can develop such a resistance to change that it's hard to tell their state from rigor mortis. And unless faith communities or political structures renew themselves with some regularity to meet changing circumstances, they're likely to drift toward irrelevance or, worse, errors based on the weaknesses of autocratic governing systems.

There is a useful debate to be had about how long pastors of any faith community should stay on the job. I recall one of the former pastors of my congregation, who had been on the job for nearly 14 years, told me one reason he was leaving is that he'd given us everything he could think to give us and had no new ideas.

But each religious tradition would do well to do a periodic review of how its leadership is chosen and how long someone can keep a leadership position.

If Pope Francis decides to quit for reasons of health and related mobility, it looks as if he's tried to assure that the college of cardinals will choose a successor who won't depart radically from the way Francis approached the job. And because I've mostly liked the job Francis has done, I hope that will be the case.

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A few weeks ago here on the blog, I wrote about the new report showing that many faith communities, starting in the 1800s, were involved in the disaster of boarding schools for Native American children, the goal of which was to turn them into white people. One of the religious groups that helped to run such government-approved schools was the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Here is a commentary about all of this from a national Quaker leader. "The truth is," she writes, "we cannot undo the harm caused by these institutions. It is a permanent stain on our history. But by fully acknowledging the sins of the past, we can begin taking steps to chart a more just relationship with Native communities nationwide."

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- I arrived here this past Thursday to participate in the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. But on the way my bride tested positive for Covid-19, so we had to quarantine for a night in the conference hotel and then drive 12 hours straight home the next day. Then on Sunday I tested positive. Mostly minor symptoms (thank goodness I've been double vaccinated and double boosted), but still a pain. So you won't see me out and about for a while.

Women are still battling against the stained-glass ceiling

The ordination of Margaret Towner, the first female pastor in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), happened in 1956 in Syracuse, N.Y.

Women-in-ministryMarg, as she calls herself, still participates in church activities, though now in retirement in Florida. From time to time I've written about her in various venues so we stay in irregular email contact.

The Episcopal Church, under heavy pressure from women and their supporters, finally started ordaining women in the late 1970s.

Other Christian denominations began ordaining women earlier and some continue to refuse to ordain them. You can find a Wikipedia list about all that here.

I mention all this by way of introduction to this opinion column recently published by The Salt Lake Tribune. In it, Dale A. Whitman, a retired law professor who has taught at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, urges faith communities such as the Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to start treating women as equals with males.

"Today," he writes, "most American institutions, at least nominally, reject sexism and discrimination and support the rights of women to fair and equal treatment. The principal exceptions to that statement are Christian religions.

"Most of the mainline Protestant denominations have now abandoned sexism, but it remains firmly entrenched in Roman Catholicism, most evangelical churches and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their clergy and leadership positions are reserved for men. This is surprising, as there is not a shred of theological justification for different treatment of men and women anywhere in the New Testament (or in Latter-day Saint scriptures either, for that matter)."

Every religion, of course, is free to establish its own rules about membership and leadership. And that freedom should be respected even if you or I would do things differently.

But as someone who has benefitted from the ministry of ordained women, I find it sad to think about what people in faith communities that reject ordained female leadership are missing.

The associate pastor of my congregation, for instance, recently received her doctorate of ministry degree and, the next weekend, preached this powerful sermon about respecting the right of women to make decisions for themselves. It's a sermon only a woman could have preached. A man's approach might have made some similar points but it would not have reflected a woman's personal experiences.

In my most recent book, I tell the story of how one of our previous associated pastors came to our house as soon as she learned that my nephew had been among those who were murdered in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She knew what to say (very little) and what not to say. I attributed some of that wisdom to her own experiences as a female operating in a male-dominated world.

In some important ways, religious communities have been leaders in liberation movements, peace movements, environmental movements. But in some ways -- such as women's and LGBTQ+ liberation -- they have been reluctant followers or even enemies. And every day those of us active in such a community ask ourselves whether to stay and work for change from the inside or leave in exhaustion and disgust.

It can be a hard call. It shouldn't have to be a call at all.

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- I arrived here Thursday evening to participate in the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. While I'm gone you won't find the usual second item here on the blog. Something like normality should return soon.

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Sisters in the Mirror: A History of Muslim Women and the Global Politics of Feminism, by Elora Shehabuddin. It's hard to imagine a group of people less understood around the world than Muslim women. And the stories of how they relate to feminism and liberation movements seem equally baffling to most people. This book's author, who teaches at Rice University, seeks to lift the veil, so to speak, on all of this and more. She notes that there are conflicting stories even among feminists "about the global history and politics of feminism." Her goal is to tell a more accurate story. That can be done, she writes, "if we understand feminism to encompass both ideas about gender equality and social movements to enact change based on these ideas and if we keep in mind the history of unequal power relations binding different parts of the world." It's a complex story, and she doesn't begin it in the 21st Century but, rather, hundreds of years earlier to provide historical context. And she argues "that feminist movements in the West and in Muslim societies have developed in tandem rather than in isolation, even helping to construct one another." By the way, this is a book I suggested that the Kansas City Public Library purchase, and it's now available at both the Central and the Plaza branches.

Chaplains may be more important now than they've ever been

A few years ago I wrote this Flatland column about the work that chaplains do in the Kansas City area.

ChaplaincyAs I noted in the piece, "The National Board of Chaplaincy Certification, an affiliate of the Association of Professional Chaplains, sets the standards for credentials. Not too many years ago, almost anyone could serve as a chaplain at a hospital or other institution, but now the rules are tighter."

Indeed, chaplaincy has changed -- in the past century but particularly in the last few years. This article from The Conversation describes some of that change and reminds us how valuable chaplains can be.

"In hospital settings before the 1920s," the story says, "chaplains were retired or volunteer clergy with no special training. They visited patients in their own religious traditions alongside other volunteers. Religiously founded hospitals also frequently had priests, ministers or rabbis in service, reflecting the hospital’s religious affiliation."

What I found intriguing about The Conversation piece was this: "Chaplaincy emerged as a professional field in the mid-20th century out of Protestant efforts to reform theological education. Concerned about the growing influence of psychology and psychiatry in matters previously understood only as spiritual, Protestant theological leaders in the 1920s sought to get students out of classrooms and into real-life situations where they would learn to respond to the challenges and struggles people face in their daily lives."

Some of that led to wise chaplains who knew when to call on God and when to suggest psychiatric professionals. But some of that led to chaplains who tried to convince people that all they needed was to pray more.

Recently here on the blog, I wrote about what that latter attitude can do. In short, it can mess you up in countless ways. Which is not to say that religious faith isn't important. And it's not to suggest that God can't or doesn't heal or comfort people in crisis. But it is to say that we have professional mental and behavioral health workers for good reasons.

The Conversation article also mentions what chaplains and theological educators call C.P.E. -- Clinical Pastoral Education. I know chaplains and others who have been through this on-site (usually at a hospital) training who say that it's the best course they ever took in their seminary education.

In it, chaplains-to-be or pastors-to-be learn how to deal with still-born babies, with dying teen-agers, with 100-plus-year-old people who still haven't found any comfort with the idea of death.

Chaplains in the military also are important and should be paid by taxpayers the way other healthcare providers are in the military. Chaplains in the U.S. House and Senate may be helpful but they should not be paid by taxpayers, in my view. They should be paid by the faith communities from which the chaplains come. But so far I've lost that argument.

As The Conversation piece notes, chaplains have become more important in this time of Covid, and we all should be glad they're available. But it wouldn't hurt to say thanks now and then.

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In so many ways, the government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has been a disaster. His Hindu nationalist party has created a hostile environment for the millions of Muslims and followers of other faith traditions there. Now Muslims are angrily and justifiably reacting to remarks made by members of Modi's ruling party, remarks that seemed to denigrate Islam. This is governance by division. The people of India should fix this in the next election.

The problems at the core of the Southern Baptists' sex abuse scandal


With both reluctance, dismay and, frankly, horror, I return this weekend to the recently released report on the independent investigation into sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Many others have rightly denounced the denomination's leadership for its complete moral failure in permitting such abuse to go on for so long. Similarly, others have called for the SBC to institute structural fixes that can help prevent this from happening again.

All that's to the good. And so was the decision to allow this independent investigation to go forward, though as this RNS story reports, it almost got derailed several times.

But what went wrong in the SBC -- just as what went wrong in the Catholic priests/bishops abuse scandal -- can't be fixed with an apology and some governance tweaks.

The issue is much deeper than that. And I thought Peter Wehner, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, pointed pretty directly at the problem in this article.

"The members of the SBC executive committee," he wrote, "didn’t emerge ex nihilo; they emerged instead from a culture that they claim mirrors Christianity but that in fact deforms it in significant ways. The men who come out of this culture see themselves as vanguards of doctrinal purity, protectors of the Church from the twin evils of liberalism and secularism. They are ever on the prowl, quick to identify those who disagree with them as heretics, inclined to view winsomeness as weakness.

"Many of these individuals have traditionally been champions of 'family values'; speaking out against sexual sin seems to occupy an unusually large space in their minds and imaginations. So does a barely disguised contempt for women and an embrace of 'militant masculinity'. . .”

It is extraordinarily difficult at times to see the ways in which the culture that surrounds us -- whether that's family, religion, community, political party, nation or something else -- keeps us from seeing how disfigured that culture can be. We need outside eyes to help us and we need a willingness to listen to what others are saying about what they recognize is deformed.

An example: The associate pastor at my congregation, the Rev. (now Dr.) Kristin Riegel, recently shared the thesis she wrote to complete work to receive her Doctor of Educational Ministry degree from Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution located near Atlanta.

In it, she described her childhood exposure to biblical learning and how, in the end, that was insufficient for her. But as she began to dig more deeply into how the Bible is presented in our Protestant denomination, she discovered that she had been missing a lot.

"I realized," she wrote, "no one stands alone as they read the Bible; one’s readings are shaped by their families, cultures, and communities."

And this: "What I heard led me to reflect on my own pedagogical practices, especially how I was teaching the Bible. I realized that my pedagogical practices, like my interpretative practices, were not simply personal, but rather shaped by identity, culture, and community. I also began to recognize more fully how my pedagogical practices, along with those of the congregations where I worked, were shaped by white supremacy. This pattern was not an anomaly. Rather, throughout history, Christian religious education has often been used, both intentionally and unintentionally, to normalize and perpetuate white supremacy.

"In order to disrupt white supremacy, I would need to transform my pedagogical practices. However, I knew I could not do this work alone; rather, I would need to work with others as together we sought to develop more liberative ways of teaching,
learning, and reading the Bible."

It's that kind of ah-ha moment that seems never to have happened to the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention who created and covered up the scandal that now has been revealed in all its sickening details. Or, if such a moment happened for some of them, they ran away from it.

The fact is, we need others to challenge our thinking and to help us see the cultural ocean in which we swim. It's terribly difficult, if not impossible, to see all that on our own, although the SBC scandal is so atrocious that it feels like I'm letting the leaders off the hook by saying they needed help seeing the problem. They, of course, even in an unhealthy culture, should have seen it because it was so obvious and so evil. But if we don't understand the sometimes-demented ways in which our surrounding culture has affected our behavior and our thinking, we, like some SBC leaders and some Catholic bishops, will not respond in healthy ways to what should be understood as clearly malevolent.

As Wehner writes, "It’s nearly impossible to overstate how much damage these new revelations — these necessary and long-overdue revelations — are doing to the Christian witness. No atheist, no secularists or materialists, could inflict nearly as much damage to the Christian faith as these leaders within the Christian Church have done."

It seems unnecessary to say that all Southern Baptists and all Catholics are not guilty of the sins of their leaders. But it is necessary to say that now that they know these details, they have work to do. Today.

(By the way, here is a piece by religion scholar Mark Silk in which he describes how the Catholic and the SBC scandals are alike and how they are different. And here's a story from Religion News Service about proposed SBC reforms in response to the scandal.)

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Slowly, slowly, Christian denominations are doing away with bigoted barriers that have segregated LGBTQ+ people from others in their churches. The latest to open up is the Mennonite Church USA, which just changed its rules to allow its pastors to perform same-sex weddings and committed itself to fuller LGBTQ+ inclusion in its congregations. It's hard to explain why Christian churches, which should be leaders in liberation, have been so slow to welcome gays and lesbians. But a major part of that explanation has to do with how they read the Bible. Here is my essay on why the Bible should not be used as a weapon in this matter and why you should be wary of any religious body's rules that exclude people on the basis simply of who they are.

When religious beliefs prevent healing of mental illness

It is, in some ways, an unfair generalization, but some religious traditions, to motivate adherents, use fear and punishment along with the practice of encouraging people to engage in self-criticism while others emphasize love and caring. Almost always there's a mix of both but it's pretty common to find one way or the other being predominant.

Evangelical-anxietyConsider, for instance, this description of the Christianity that author and religious studies professor Charles Marsh learned as a boy in evangelical Christian churches in Alabama and Mississippi, as described in his new book, Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir, which will be published June 14 but can be ordered now.

"What, then, does it mean to be a Christian? It means reckoning daily with your mind's exquisite corruptions, knowing you'll never reach their end. And you won't get any credit from God for honest self-inspection, for even the capacity to say 'I am nothing' suggests a sad withered leaf of agency -- though agency nonetheless, that you dare not claim. Because without God you can't even know that you don't know anything. It means prostrating yourself before God, decreasing to zero, and. . .becoming his 'devoted love slave.' Anxiety, madness, the howling terrors, whatever powers are wrecking your mind -- submit to them all for the sake of his pleasure."

Out of such a bleak view of the faith comes, among other things, a belief that, as Marsh writes, "Christians didn't need secular psychology, because we had been given the Holy Spirit, who was the ultimate Healer."

Do you see where this is going -- and going inevitably?

Marsh himself wound up having mental breakdowns, deep-seated anxieties and, eventually, clinical depression. Part of what took him so long to get professional medical and psychological help was his faith-inspired notion that "secular psychology" wasn't part of God's world, God's plan, God's way. He doesn't say directly -- and I think it would be unfair to say -- that his mental illness was a result of the theology in which he was marinated as a child. Rather, it's fair to say that it took much, much longer for him to get help because he believed that such professional help was an affront to the healing power of God on which he relied.

So this book is a revelatory account of Marsh's journey. What may surprise readers is not just that Marsh, son of a pastor who preached that kind of limiting Christianity, survived but that, in the end, he found a way to retain his Christianity, though it looks different from the faith with which he grew up.

The writing is both beautiful and insightful, if also occasionally baffling. Marsh seems to like to use words that either aren't in a decent dictionary or are simply rarely used or arcane -- mung, bobo, synecdoche, aporia, jarbled, gleet and enceinte among them. I sort of like that challenge as a reader, but others may be put off by the author's refusal to fall for cliches, which at least can be grasped immediately.

The damaging idea that Marsh learned as a boy was that "I must discern my darkness, and therein remember that sin is not only what I did, but who I was: I am the one who breathes corruption." You can find that kind of theology even among some of those who led the Reformation that created, eventually, Mainline Protestant churches. For instance, the early reformer John Calvin summarized his theology in five points, one of which proposed the "total depravity" of humankind. It's actually not quite as dark an idea as the name makes it sound, but it does suggest that the image of God within people has been covered over by sin and there's nothing people can do on their own to rescue themselves from that condition.

When "total depravity" is, in effect, the lesson contained in sermon after sermon, as it was for Marsh, the result can be a damaged human being without agency.

"How dark could it really get, you might wonder," he writes, "in the mind of an evangelical virgin hoping to redeem the secular world? Pretty f. . .ing dark." And he explains that this way: "I'd always assumed you could only find God by sailor-diving into guilt and shame."

So because mental illness doesn't avoid you just because you're one brand of Christian or another, Marsh did what he could to heal himself through prayer and other spiritual disciplines while avoiding psychiatric help and/or psychoanalysis. Until, that is, much later in life. And he paid dearly for that decision.

Part of what Marsh grew up believing was that "Jesus was set to return soon" and that "I believed in my heart of hearts I wouldn't make the cut on judgment day." He writes that the lessons that taught him that are based on "cruel dogmas."

It is, of course, wrong to argue that such theology led Marsh directly and inevitably to a mental breakdown. Lots of American Christians hold such beliefs and don't disintegrate into mental illness. But it's clear that when he did have a mental crisis, what his faith tradition told him about depending for healing solely on God with no help from professionally trained healers prevented him from finding relief in a timely manner.

"Every defense failed," he writes. "My symptoms felt concentrated into permanence. I had lost the capacity for happiness." But as a Southern Baptist he was part of a group of people, 48 percent of whom say "they believe that conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be treated with prayer alone."

In contrast to that, he learned that "when the protocols of biblical self-help fall short in the treatment of mental illness, as they inevitably do, anxiety and depression will hunt down vulnerable regions of the psyche like an angry infection attacks nerve and muscle."

The journey Marsh took from this point led him through the lives of such people as German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (about whom Marsh has written two books). Eventually Marsh found his way to professional help and discovered a way of coping with his anxieties that allowed him to keep the core of his Christian faith. In the end, he makes "a case for the theological integrity of psychoanalysis."

What did Marsh finally receive when he got the treatment he needed? "I received," he writes, "the gift of mortal life: the freedom to be imperfect, to have fears and face them, to accept brokenness, to let go of the will to control all outcomes."

Marsh reveals an extraordinary amount of personal information in this memoir -- the effect of which is to make the story all the more believable. People of any faith struggling with mental illness can find a path toward hope in this book. And that hope may, as it did for Marsh, lead to some level of healing.

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Rabbi James Rudin spent part of his early career in Kansas City and occasionally has returned as a speaker. So lots of Kansas Citians should be interested that Rudin, now 87, has just published a new book about efforts by him and others to promote interreligious dialogue and cooperation. It's called The People in the Room: Rabbis, Nuns, Pastors, Popes and Presidents. As the RNS story to which I've linked you notes, Rudin spent much of his career at the American Jewish Committee, retiring as its national interreligious affairs director in 2000. I haven't yet read the book but am looking forward to doing so.