Readers of the Bible seem to be getting more discerning


There's good news about Bible reading.

The Gallup poll people report that only 20 percent of Americans now believe that the Bible is God's literal word.

As the report to which I just linked you notes, that 20 percent figure is "down from 24% the last time the question was asked in 2017, and half of what it was at its high points in 1980 and 1984."

But there's also bad news about Bible reading.

That same Gallup report notes that "a new high of 29% say the Bible is just a collection of 'fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.'"

Well, the Bible, indeed, contains some of all of those kinds of writing, but it has shown itself over history to be considerably more than that. And about half of Americans seem to understand that.

Which means that the kind-of-neutral news about Bible reading, also from Gallup, is that 49 percent of Americans think the Bible is "inspired by God, (but) not all to be taken literally." That percentage has stayed pretty steady for quite a while, and I'm in that 49 percent figure.

So why do I say it's good news that the percentage of people who take the Bible literally has dropped? Because it's impossible to read the Bible as God's literal and inerrant word while at the same time taking that word seriously. You can do one or the other but not both at the same time.

(A literal reading of the Bible is one way to come up with the bogus idea that God hates LGBTQ+ people because homosexuality is a sin. That conclusion leads to all kinds of evil. One of those evils has to do with the way LGBTQ+ people are quite often cyberbullied. This site can help those of you who need guidance on how to confront such hateful aggression.)

And while we're talking about the Bible, it also helps to identify which Bible you're talking about. The Hebrew Bible? If so, which translation? The Christian Bible? If so, not only which translation but do you mean a Bible that includes the Apocrypha, which some branches of Christianity do not include in the official canon? (Or are you with a woman who once told the former director of the Quayle Bible Collection at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., that if the King James Version was good enough for St. Peter it was good enough for her?)

There isn't, it turns out, just one Bible.

Beyond all that, it's important to recognize that the Bible (whichever version you've chosen) is a collection of writings that dozens of writers took at least 1,500 years to create. And although those writings include some verifiable history, they also use metaphor, poetry, simile, allegory, song lyrics and, well, tall tales to make valid points about God and about God's relationship to humans and the rest of creation.

The Bible is not a journalistic account of events written by the equivalent of Associated Press or Reuters reporters at the time. (Had it been put together by a TV reporter back when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the reporter delivering the news no doubt would have mentioned the 10 total number but then, for the sake of brevity, added, "the three most important of which are. . .")

The Bible is way, way better and more interesting than that. But if you read it as if God spoke the words directly into the ears of the robotic-like writers and they simply jotted down those words of divine origin, you dehumanize the book and miss its point(s).

The Gallup report to which I linked you above also notes this: "The shift in attitudes about the Bible is not an isolated phenomenon. It comes even as a number of indicators show a decline in overall religiosity in the U.S. adult population."

And while it's true that such things as church membership have been on the decline for decades and the percentage of people who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated has been on the rise rather dramatically over that same time, that doesn't mean that people who read the Bible with some regularity and understanding have gotten dumber and dumber about the book.

Yes, biblical and theological illiteracy is rampant in churches and synagogues (ask the nearest pastor or rabbi). But the news that fewer people think the Bible is God's literal word is a sign of some growing theological maturity.

And who can be against that?

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Yes, the photos from the Webb space telescope have been stunning. And please notice how much better the Catholic Church reacted to them than hundreds of years ago when it put Galileo under house arrest for suggesting that the church's view of how the universe is structured was faulty and that, as Galileo insisted, Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. This time, a leader of the Vatican space observatory (yes, the Vatican has one of those) issued a statement expressing awe at what the Webb is showing us. As the RNS story to which I've just linked you reports, Vatican astrophysicist Brother Guy Consolmagno's statement included these words: “The science behind this telescope is our attempt to use our God-given intelligence to understand the logic of the universe.” No one should fault Brother Guy for connecting Catholic theology to the Webb photos. That's part of the job of religion. But unlike the many times when religion has denied what science has revealed, this time we have an example of religion appreciating the work of the scientists. Galileo must be happy.

Why the rebuilt Orthodox church at Ground Zero is a welcome site

The most important victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 were, of course, people. Nearly 3,000 of them died that day, including my own nephew, a passenger on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center.

St._Nicholas_Chapel_2022I tell that family story and I explore the roots of extremism (and what to do about it) in my last book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.

But as we all know, there were non-human victims of the terrorists, too -- and not just the tall twin towers.

In fact, one of the structures severely damaged that day was a Greek Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas. Last week, a rebuilt St. Nicholas was consecrated as a national shrine.

I've been to Ground Zero in New York, as the twin towers site became known, several times and have paid at least a little attention to the slow progress to rebuild St. Nicholas. I thought I had a saved photo that I took of the not-yet-rebuilt site from a few years ago to use here today but, in my otherwise-perfect photo storage system, I can't find it. The photo that you see here today comes from this Wikipedia site.

The Religion News Story to which I linked you a couple of paragraphs up reports this: "The restoration had been stalled for many years, due to ongoing issues with funding. Since 2019, the rebuilding project has been funded and overseen by the Friends of Saint Nicholas, a nonprofit group that includes the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, the former vicar general of the Greek archdiocese who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this week." (As he and several others did.)

One reason to pay attention to this church rebuilding news is that at its best and fullest, the United States is a nation of diverse religious traditions. And although Orthodox Christians make up only about half a percent of the U.S. population, they connect Americans to a rich history within Christianity, especially to what has been called the Great Divorce of 1054, when Christians split apart to become the separate Orthodox and Catholic churches.

So today you will find, Greek, Russian and other branches of the Orthodox tradition represented in churches in Kansas City and in communities across the nation.

America is a blooming flower bed of faith traditions (along with people who declare no allegiance to any such tradition), and there are all kinds of efforts locally and nationally to help people recognize the strength that religious diversity brings to the nation and to places such as Kansas City. For a national view of that, visit the website of Interfaith America. For a local view of that, visit the website of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.

As Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith America, writes in his new book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, "The United States is the world's first attempt at a mass-level diverse democracy. That's one of the reasons we call this 'the American experiment' -- because not only was such a thing never tried before; people also considered it impossible."

Which is another reason to welcome back St. Nicholas.

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Sometimes groups to which I belong or support get it wrong, even if their hearts are in the right place. For me, the latest example is my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the national governing body (the General Assembly) of which just voted to condemn Israel's treatment of Palestinians by calling Israel an "apartheid" state. It amounted to borrowing a highly charged term from a different historical situation (South Africa) and applying it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of dealing with that conflict on its own terms. There's no doubt that the Israeli government has made a series of bad (at times grievous) policy choices about the Palestinians and about pursuing Israeli settlements on land the Palestinians think of as their own -- just as there's no doubt that the Palestinians often have been badly led by leaders who have made unfortunate and even deadly choices that have resulted in needless deaths and in some cases the express wish that Israel itself would be blown off the map. But this is a situation in which I think it helps not a bit to use bitter, condemnatory language to try to move along a peace process that has fatally stalled out for a long time. I don't have any specific answer for how to settle this fraught situation, but I'm sure that this kind of spat-out language won't help and I wish my fellow Presbyterians hadn't used it. Rather, we should be committed to a just, two-state solution that seeks Israeli and Palestinian autonomy and peace. Sigh.

Is this the way to measure and improve spiritual maturity?

It's no secret that biblical and theological illiteracy is common in many Christian churches in the U.S. -- and, presumably, around the world.

ChristianbiblicalilliteracyIt's one reason that years ago I began teaching an occasional seminar I called "Theology Even the Clergy Can Understand." It was a lay-led (me) look at the core beliefs and practices in the Reformed Tradition (read: Presbyterian) of Protestant Christianity. And teaching it was a way of improving my own literacy in these areas.

So it doesn't surprise me to find people from other Christian traditions trying to encourage people to become more biblically and theologically literate. Which is what a pastor named Bill White is doing with his 2021 book, Mature-ish: Your mission from God, should you choose to accept it....

White, who is senior pastor of Christ Journey Church in Florida., first picks what he believes are the four core beliefs of Christians who, like him, identify as evangelical.

They are:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe
  • It is important for me to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation

For those of you who don't know, let me say that there are plenty of Christians for whom those four statements are not at the center of their theology. And White's statements -- especially the final one -- are one reason you rarely find self-identified evangelical Christians engaged in interfaith dialogue and action, except when they see it as a tool to use to convert others.

(By the way, you can read in much more detail about all of this if you download this PowerPoint: Download Mature-ish Topline FindingsIt presents findings from a survey designed to measure where evangelicals are in their spiritual development.) 

White seems to anticipate a point I'm about to make when he says this: “It is my desire, prayer and hope that participants don't see these results as a negative, legalistic measure of their spiritual journey, but an opportunity to identify where they are and see what is in store for them as they move forward to deepen and strengthen their relationship with Christ. The book and study are not designed to show Christians where they’ve gone wrong, but to highlight key areas where a few positive steps can propel them forward in their spiritual walk.”

So why does he think they might react that way? Well, the categories he uses to describe where people are in their faith journey are, at best, off-putting and at worst unnecessarily condescending.

The categories of spiritual development begin with "newborn," on the assumption that everyone starts there. In this formula even well-educated adults are categorized as spiritual infants. These are the stages White says come after that: Infant, toddler, child, pre-teen, adolescent, adult, parent, grandparent, and godparent.

By White's calculations, more than 80 percent of evangelicals have not advanced beyond spiritual toddlerhood.

To get past those early stages, of course, you are encouraged to read White's book.

So he describes a problem in fairly narrow terms and then proposes to fix it by asking people to read his book. (Why didn't I think of that?) Well, that might work or it might not. But what I do know is that there are lots of people I know -- people I consider spiritually well-grounded, mature and wise -- who probably will never fit into the measures of maturity White sets out based on his four core beliefs.

And I hope those folks will never disappear. They make the world richer in countless ways. I not only hope they don't disappear, I also hope all of them don't become Presbyterians. I love my church and denomination, but I'm sure I don't want to live in a world of such uniformity.

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God, of course, often gets drafted into armies at war because, well, the people leading the fighting are convinced God is on their side and will help win the victory. Over history, there have been a few "just wars" as defined by Just War Theory (at least part of World War II, for instance), but nowhere near as many as the perpetrators of those wars imagine. God, however, is not the only religious figure to be called on to inspire the troops. As this article from The Conversation notes, "Western Christianity, including Catholicism, has often been enlisted to stir up patriotic fervor in support of nationalism. Historically, one typical aspect of the Catholic approach is linking devotion to the Virgin Mary with the interests of the state and military." It all seems so preposterous. Why don't we humans simply acknowledge that war is almost always and everywhere an evil to be avoided and not try to redeem it by calling up famous religious reserves? Whom, after all, are we fooling by doing that?

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Speaking of biblical and theological literacy, as I was above today, I want to recommend a small book to you who are Christians for use as a devotional in the upcoming season of Advent. It's The Hunger for Home: Food & Meals in the Gospel of Luke, by Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun. Volf, whose works I've read and recommended before and whom I've heard speak, teaches theology at Yale Divinity School. Croasmun is director of the Life Worth Living program at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. The book's official publication date is Aug. 1, but can be ordered now.

Volf and Croasmun take a look at several passages in Luke's gospel that deal with food and with their origin in God's creation. "A meal, it turns out," they write, "is the quintessential enactment of home, a site of nourishing mutual encounter between people, places and God that, in ideal circumstances, makes present, in a broken but nevertheless real way, the eschatological home that it represents." Here and there throughout this short (108 pages) book, the authors drop in what I think of as golden nuggets of insight. Such as: "(T)he picture the synoptic Gospels paint of Jesus is not one of the puppet master of the universe come briefly to play a part (even a central role) on the stage of the puppet theater. Rather, the picture is of a rightful king come to liberate a land under the unjust and destructive rule of a usurper." You will think differently about food and its origins after reading this book. It might even increase your spiritual hunger.

The high court's prayer decision is deeply flawed

It's been my experience that a lot of Americans misunderstand the concept of having a separation between church and state.

Football-prayerWhich is to say that many people think it means that religion should have no voice in offering ideas for the government to consider. In fact, the wall of separation was not meant to keep religion's voice out of the public square but, rather, to keep government from meddling in religion.

That doesn't, of course, mean that this or that religion gets to set the nation's policy in any area. Indeed, it shouldn't mean anything close to that.

But over the years the courts at various levels have issued important rulings that, for the most part, have been helpful in figuring out where the separation line is or should be. Which is why, for instance, public school teachers are not allowed to lead students in prayer in classrooms.

But now a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling has complicated all of that and given public employees considerably more leeway in promoting their own religious views in publicly paid-for spaces.

As this article from the Conversation reports, "In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District – the Supreme Court’s first case directly addressing the question – the court ruled that a school board in Washington state violated a coach’s rights by not renewing his contract after he ignored district officials’ directive to stop kneeling in silent prayer on the field’s 50-yard line after games. He claimed that the board violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and the Supreme Court’s majority agreed 6-3."

But the specific facts are important, and religion scholar Mark Silk, in this RNS column, notes that the court didn't get at least one of those facts right. He writes:

"The majority opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton, the decision the U.S. Supreme Court handed down on Monday (June 27), begins with a lie: 'Petitioner Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach in the Bremerton School District,' it reads, 'after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer.' (The photo here today depicts that.)

"In fact, the coach lost his job after he told his superiors at the school that he would continue his practice of praying at the 50-yard line immediately after games and insisted students not be prevented from praying with him, despite his employers’ cautions that the prayer sessions were getting out of hand: His postgame devotionals had turned into a media event, at which citizens and politicians had knocked over band members in a rush to join in."

(Although Kennedy says he's Christian, somehow he seems to have missed these instructions from Jesus [in Matthew 6:6] about praying: "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.")

In addition to thinking about the coach's constitutional rights, we also should think about how exercising those rights might affect the students under his guidance.

It was my experience when I participated in high school sports that you did (or tried to do) what the coach asked you to do. Run three laps around the football field? You ran three laps. Do 50 pushups? You did 50 pushups. Pay attention to what the coach had to say after a game? You paid attention.

So when a coach kneels on the 50-yard line after a football game to pray, there's immediate pressure on players to join him, whether they are people of faith or not. You simply don't want to get on the wrong side of your coach. And when, beyond praying, the coach starts giving faith-based post-game pep talks, you listen. The coach's actions were coercive and manipulative. But this court, which now seems to have become something like a wing of the Republican Party (whatever that is anymore), decided there was nothing wrong with that.

The court, in other words, approved of using a publicly funded employee to promote a particular religious practice that was being used in an exploitive way, taking away the agency of high school athletes in much the same way the court, in overturning Roe v. Wade, has taken away moral agency from pregnant women.

It's one more example of why elections matter. But because the American system allows Supreme Court justices to stay in office for life, this is a problem we can't fix with one more election. This is a problem we'll be dealing with for decades, and it's unclear now what further damage this court will do to our religious freedoms and rights.

* * *


Sometimes religious beliefs lead to abhorrent actions. And when they do, it's time to question those beliefs. This recent example comes from Nigeria, where, as the AP story to which I've linked you reports, "Police in Nigeria have freed at least 77 people who were kept in a church basement by pastors who preached to them about Christian believers ascending to heaven with the second coming of Jesus Christ." This belief is a relatively new one in Christian history, as this Wikipedia entry notes: "The idea of a rapture as it is currently defined is not found in historic Christianity, but is a relatively recent doctrine of Evangelical Protestantism." Oh, you can find some words attributed to the Apostle Paul in the New Testament book of I Thessalonians, which believers in the rapture use to justify the idea. But in her 2005 book, The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing argues that this idea about the world's future is a serious distortion of the Bible. I mentioned Rossing's book a few years ago in this blog post. The AP story about the situation in Nigeria isn't as detailed as I had hoped, but it still shows an example of the misuse of theology to get people to do what you want them to do. The idea of the rapture, by the way, gained wide popularity with the publication of the "Left Behind" series of novels starting in the mid-1990s. Always be wary of any theological idea that forms the basis of fiction. Not all such ideas are off base, but enough of them are that it should make all of us cautious.

Some scholarly help to unpack LGBTQ+ issues in religion

The small northern Illinois town in which I was born, Woodstock, had a population of about, 6,500 at my birth. By the time I was graduated from high school, that number had crossed 9,000 and was continuing to rise.

Woodstock-book-coverAs far as I knew, none of those people was gay. Not one. Which tells you what I knew.

Today, Woodstock's population has exceeded 25,000. I'm guessing the LGBTQ+ community there is, proportionately, the same as it is across the country.

(I deal with my somewhat limited background on this and other subjects in my book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans.)

My education about gay people happened slowly. At some point (maybe kindergarten, when I thought I was in love with Carole Harrington; or third grade when I thought I was in love with Linda Laing), however, I knew I was heterosexual and that it wasn't a choice.

As an adult, my education about life in the LGBTQ+ community has been advanced by subjects I've written about (maybe starting with Bill Clinton's misguided don't-ask-don't-tell policy) and by my involvement in such church matters as my congregation's AIDS Ministry.

When I joined the congregation of which I'm still a member, our denomination barred the ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians to ministry or elective office. But because the home my family bought not long before joining that church was next door to a wonderful male gay couple, I felt compelled to do the theological and biblical exegetical work to decide whether my denomination was right or wrong. It was wrong, though it took a long battle until 2011 for it to change its mind and allow gays and lesbians to be ordained.

As this struggle was underway, I wrote this essay trying to describe what the Bible says about homosexuality and why the Bible should not be used as a weapon in this dispute.

So, to advance the story a bit: In late 2015, I attended a conference in Kansas City sponsored by The Reformation Project (TRP), which has taken upon itself the task of trying to help evangelical Christians understand that there is no good biblical reason to condemn homosexuality.

Come-now-argueOne of the people at that conference, Jon Burrow-Branine, was doing a scholarly study about all of this, though Jon identified neither as gay nor Christian. He did, however, believe that TRP's work was important and needed to be understood and spread.

The University of Nebraska Press recently published Jon's summation of that work in a book called Come Now, Let Us Argue It Out.

I point it out to you as one more helpful resource that is moving along the conversation about LGBTQ+ folks and religion. There are, of course, still communities of faith that believe homosexuality is sinful. It's one reason the United Methodist Church is in the midst of a schism at the moment.

But for a long time there have been faith leaders who have insisted that if your religion leads you to consider certain people as second-class or even sub-human, you're getting things wrong. Religion should be a liberating force in the world. That it hasn't always been is its shame.

Burrow-Branine takes a careful, scholarly approach to this whole subject, though it's clear that he supports the liberating aims of such groups as TRP. If this subject is one with which you or your faith community struggles, perhaps his insights and experience as described in this new book can help. There must be room for grace in these conversations. That's part of what Burrow-Branine offers here.

* * *


Speaking of LGBTQ+ issues, perhaps you're wondering whatever happened to the impending schism (I mentioned it above) in the United Methodist Church. It's a long, complicated story, but this RNS article does a pretty good job of putting you up to speed on why that formal schism hasn't happened even though an informal one already has. In short, the Methodists have made kind of a mess of all of this, especially those who have broken away to found what they're calling the Global Methodist Church. But this split-split-and-split-again pattern has been pretty much the norm since the Protestant Reformation began in the early 1500s. It reminds me of a cartoon that shows a desert island. When rescuers show up, the lone man on the island points to a small building and tells his rescuers, "That's my church." But they see a second small building and ask about it, to which he replies, "Oh, that's the church I used to belong to."

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.

* * *


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.

* * *

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.