Some modest surprises in the U.S. religious landscape

The membership decline in American Mainline Protestant churches began decades ago. As news these days, that story amounts to dog-bites-man.

PRRI_Jul_2021_Religion_1 (1)But recently there's been a man-bites-dog twist to the story. As this Religion News Service story reports, "White Christian decline has slowed. (White) Mainline Protestants now outnumber white evangelicals."

But wait. There's more: "(R)eligiously unaffiliated Americans, or 'nones' in religion demography parlance, have lost ground, making up just 23% of the country. The complex group — which includes atheists, agnostics and some people who say they pray daily but don’t claim a specific faith tradition — peaked at 25.5% of the population in 2018."

You may categorize these findings as a surprise. Or at least a bit of one. But tracking this kind of religious landscape information is complicated. For instance, don't miss the qualifier "white" in the second paragraph above, especially the one that comes before the word "evangelicals." If you look at the page to which I have linked you in this paragraph, you'll see that "Evangelical Protestants" still make up 25.4 percent of American Christians, compared with the 14.7 percent who are "Mainline Protestants."

Beyond that, there are different interpretations about who gets included in some of these categories, as this helpful RNS story notes: "Not unlike their evangelical step-cousins, Mainliners are in the middle of their own identity crisis — and who’s in and who’s out depends a bit on who is answering the question." (I usually include these denominations as Mainliners: The United Methodist Church, The Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church. Sometimes the Quakers, the Reformed Church in America and the African Methodist Episcopal Church get included among the Mainliners.)

Still, the reality is that the religious ground in the U.S. continues to shift -- sometimes dramatically, sometimes not. And it's easy to think that what you knew 25 years ago -- a precipitous decline among Mainliners and a boom among Southern Baptists and other evangelical branches -- still holds. In fact, Southern Baptist churches in recent years have lost lots of members.

If you want to read the full Public Religious Research Institute's 2020 report from which the RNS stories stem, you'll find it here.

What we don't yet know (and no doubt won't for some years) is how the Covid pandemic has affected (and continues to affect) religious affiliation in the U.S. We all know, of course, that many congregations quit meeting in person and that only recently has that begun to change. (I wrote a bit about that change in this recent Flatland column.)

In the meantime, the question is whether any of this statistical stuff tells us much of anything about the difference religion is making in the lives of people. Probably not, but it's always good to be aware of your landscape.

(The image here today came from the Public Religion Research Institute's site, to which I've linked you above.) 

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To add to the information above about America's religious landscape, here's a piece explaining the belief among some Christians that the Bible is "inerrant" in its "moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts.” Inerrancy has always seemed to me to be a dangerous and flimsy house of cards. To fall, all it requires is the smallest historical or other error. For instance: Who killed Goliath? David, right? It says so in I Samuel 17:50. But wait. In I Samuel 21:19 the killer is identified not as David but as Elhanan. Both answers can't be right, can they? In my branch of Christianity we say that you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both. I vote for seriously.

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P.S.: Because of the concern people of faith have about the environment, from time to time I write about ecological matters, such as this post in October 2018. A reader recently passed along what I think is a really good status report on various aspects of ecological degradation because of climate change/global warming. You can read it here. It was gathered from lots of sources by a private company,, which other companies use to help control how weather affects their businesses.

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ANOTHER P.S.: In the spirit of respecting the humanity of all people (a religious idea) and not stereotyping particular people as all this or all that, I offer you this column about British people written by my childhood friend (we were in school together in India for a time when I was a boy) Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court. Markandey is an avowed atheist but a deep respecter of each person's humanity. As we all should be.

Some religious groups continue to oppress LGBTQ+ folks

It is both a strength and a weakness of institutional religion that it adopts changes ever so slowly. That's true both of practices and beliefs, though sometimes it's difficult to separate the two.

Lgbtq-Xian-flagIt's a strength in some ways because it keeps faith communities from blowing willy-nilly in the cultural wind, accommodating themselves to every silly fad that comes along. But it's a weakness when religious bodies fail to recognize that in this or that matter they've not only been wrong theologically but that their error has hurt some of the very people they are called on to lift up.

An ongoing example is the struggle over how faith communities treat LGBTQ+ people. It has been clear for a long time, as I've argued in this essay about all of this, that the Bible -- either the Jewish or Christian version -- does not condemn what we've slowly come to understand as homosexuality and, thus, should not be used as a weapon to punish and belittle gay people.

And yet it took my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) decades of arguing to recognize the damage being done to gay people by our rules against ordaining them as pastors or officers and against our pastors performing same-sex weddings. We finally changed those rules a decade or so ago.

But another separate denomination of Presbyterianism in the U.S., the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) has just declared (again) that it will not ordain LGBTQ+ people and that its pastors won't do same-sex weddings. This is the serpentine, wordy wording the PCA just approved:

Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, ‘gay Christian,’ ‘same sex attracted Christian,’ ‘homosexual Christian,’ or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.”

All of which, as I say, is based on what I would call a serious misreading of scripture. Any time you find religious rules or biblical interpretations that oppress people or treat them as second-class human beings instead of liberating them to be the people God created them to be, you can be sure you've got it wrong.

Sadly, the PCA is far from the only Christian denomination wandering in this desert. As this RNS story reports, "A bill concerning same-sex marriage failed to pass on its second reading Wednesday (July 7) at the African Methodist Episcopal Church General Conference, the denomination’s quadrennial meeting taking place in Orlando, Florida. . .The proposed bill was. . .designed to repeal a section in the AME Book of Discipline that prevents clergy from performing same-sex marriages."

I find it especially painful that a predominantly Black church, such as the AME, whose members know all about what it's like to be suppressed people, would find theological justification for suppressing other people. But after voting down that change, the denomination's leaders voted to create a new committee to study LGBTQ+ issues along with relevant scripture passages. Perhaps something redemptive will come of that. Eventually. Perhaps.

LGBTQ+ folks -- and our society generally -- have made considerable progress in freeing people from such suppression in the last 50 years. But the forces -- many of them religious in nature -- that would continue that suppression have not given up and gone away. So there's still much work to be done to change hearts and minds.

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Several Christian organizations, angry about what they saw in the Jan. 6 insurrection at our nation's Capitol, have produced a three-session adult study curriculum called “Responding to Christian Nationalism” for pastors who want to educate church members, this RNS story reports. Good. Christian Nationalism is a serious distortion of the gospel (and of our nation's founding documents) and should be confronted aggressively.

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P.S.: Some of you may be interested in what looks like a great conference on antisemitism coming up next week through the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University in Bloomington. This virtual international scholars conference starts July 19 and is called "Antisemitism in Today's America: Manifestations, Causes and Consequences."

Why Jesus didn't exclude anyone from Holy Communion

The internal Catholic battle over whether the church (or its bishops) can or should prevent certain politically active members (such as President Joe Biden) from receiving Communion, or the Eucharist, seems to mystify a lot of people.

EucharistAnd no wonder. In some ways it's an inside-baseball story that seems baffling to people outside the Catholic Church and particularly to people outside of Christianity and outside of any religious commitment at all.

This article from "The Conversation" does a pretty fair job of explaining why the issue is so important inside the church and, thus, helping people outside the church understand it a bit better.

This concluding explanation is especially helpful: 

"In its most basic terms, Catholics receive the really-present Christ in Communion so that they may be Christ in the world.

"Catholics believe that when one consumes the Eucharist, one is incorporated into Christ and becomes bonded to others who are also part of the body of Christ on Earth. It is not simply a matter of individual belief, but of Church unity and the mission of being Christ in the world.

"To set oneself outside of the practice of Communion – or to be set outside by another – is to be apart from the very practice that incorporates one into the body of Christ."

But there's more going on in this dispute. The "more" has to do with power. Let's begin by remembering that at what Christians call the "Last Supper," Jesus instituted the sacrament of Communion by serving his disciples bread and wine and explaining that those elements were (or represented) his body and blood and urging them to continue offering this meal in remembrance of him.

Let's also remember that among those Jesus served was Judas Iscariot, who was about to betray him to religious leaders in Jerusalem, and Peter, who was about to deny three times that he even knew Jesus. Many Christian scholars would argue that Jesus already knew of Judas' upcoming betrayal (as is pretty clear from gospel accounts) and that he certainly knew -- and predicted -- the denial of him by Peter.

And yet those two received bread and wine along with the others.

Jesus certainly had the power to withhold bread and wine from them or from any of the others at that meal. That he served everyone was a model of how to exercise power -- a difficult model because it shows that power can be used to include and not to exclude. Jesus drew the circle to include all and not to exclude anyone. Was that lack of discernment on his part? No, that was doing what he could to let Judas and Peter know they were loved and that he hoped that they would do the right thing.

They didn't. But their failure doesn't mean Jesus failed at including them. It means, rather, that Judas and Peter -- not Jesus -- failed.

Although, like Catholics, I believe in what's called the "Real Presence" of Christ in the Eucharist, I am outside the Catholic Church and have no say in how its bishops understand or shape church teaching. But I think those bishops would do well to reread the story of the Last Supper and figure out why Jesus didn't exclude Judas or Peter.

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For many years, a lot of the attention that was focused on Buddhism in the U.S. had to do with its many white converts and not on the Asian immigrants who introduced the faith to the U.S. and who make up a majority of its adherents here. That is changing, this NBC News story says, as Asian-American begin to reclaim some of the limelight. As the story says, "Asian American Buddhists. . .are challenging the white-dominant narratives of Buddhism and re-centering Asian American identity in what it means to be Buddhist in the U.S." A thought along those lines: Maybe Christians who came here from the Holy Land should play a larger role in leading the faith here. Christianity, after all, is an Asian faith at its root, with deep roots in Africa, too.

Here's a concept: Let's operate businesses ethically

No doubt it's a sign of something badly amiss in the business world that if you Google "examples of unethical business scandals" you get 515,000 results, including this one, which lists the 10 biggest corporate scandals.

Ethics-in-FinanceRemember the Enron scandal of 2001 in which the company was hiding billions of dollars in liabilities on its books to make it look as if it were profitable? As the website to which I linked you above reports, eventually Enron was "forced to file for what was then the biggest chapter-11 bankruptcy in history." (And now we've seen the Trump Organization and its top financial officer indicted for allegedly criminal business behavior.)

But, as we all know, the world of high (and even low) finance can be, and sometimes is, plagued by unethical behavior, often in a search for the god named profit. How and why does this happen? Well, part of the answer is that not enough emphasis is placed on financial ethics in business and professional schools.

Kara Tan Bhala, a wise woman (and now a Kansas Citian) I know who has decades of experience in this field, has published a new book that she hopes can fill in some of the gaps in knowledge about ethics in finance. It's called Ethics in Finance: Case Studies from a Woman's Life on Wall Street.

The terrific thing about the book is that it's full of true stories told in engaging ways. They are stories of ethical lapses and conundrums Bhala has encountered in her professional life along with her clear analysis of what went wrong and how, given employment of proper ethical standards, the wrong could have been avoided.

In this insider's look at the world of finance we find a wealthy married man asking a female subordinate to set him up with a prostitute in Asia. We read about how women in a big financial firm were systematically kept out of a special inner sanctum company Christmas party (within the regular company-wide party) just because they were women. We discover whistle-blowers who get fired for bringing unethical business behavior to unwanted light.

The stories are rich and detailed, mostly because Bhala lived them and took careful notes.

Bhala is head of and founder of the Seven Pillars Institute for Global Finance and Ethics, which describes itself as "an independent think tank for research, education and promotion of financial ethics. . .affiliated with the University of London – Queen Mary College."

She knows whereof she writes. And she knows the cost of not doing things ethically. For instance, she refers to the 2008
Global Financial Crisis, calling it "a catastrophic event triggered by greed, regulatory capture, excessive compensation and a whole lot of bad ethics in financial services."

Let's not relive that, please.

In each case that she writes about, she identifies the core ethical issue at play and then analyzes it from various perspectives to find out what went wrong and what should have been done to avoid ethical lapses, some of which turn out to be quite costly to the companies involved.

Early in the book she acknowledges widespread skepticism about whether there even can be ethics in business: "When I inform people I run a not-for-profit think tank that does research, education and promotion of financial ethics, invariably the first skeptical response is, 'Isn’t financial ethics an oxymoron?' After a weary answer of 'No, it’s not an oxymoron, it’s a necessity for the long-term proper functioning of finance and society,' the next question usually goes, 'But you can’t teach ethics, can you?' That’s when I get slightly more aggressive and say, 'Well, should I have allowed my daughter to grow up
feral then?'”

Bhala is determined to push the idea that ethics in finance and business not only is possible, it's absolutely necessary.

In many ways I wish this commitment to ethical standards were more evident not just in economic matters but in all matters, including academics, sports (you know, quit using foreign substances on baseballs), the arts, religion, journalism and other fields.

People from all of those areas and more could benefit by following Bhala's engaging stories and adopting the ethical standards she describes being broken again and again. The result could be that we might trust one another more. What a concept.

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Speaking of operating a business ethically, cheers for The National Catholic Reporter, for which I used to write a regular column, for divesting from investments in fossil fuels. NCR's board took its time and tried to make sure it was aligning its values with the way it invests its $12.7-million endowment. If environmental degradation is a major issue facing the world -- and I list it at or near the top -- then people of faith should be responding to the crisis in helpful ways. The board of NCR, which is based in Kansas City, has shown one way to do that.

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P.S.: My friend Markandey Katju, a former judge on India's Supreme Court, has written this piece about Afghanistan and the dire consequences if the Taliban and its radical approach to Islam again dominates that beleaguered nation. He writes: "The first thing they will do on assuming power will be to impose a Wahhabi-type bigoted version of Islam in the country. Women will be compelled to wear the burqa, and not permitted to leave their house without a male relative." Sigh.

Can 'Four Americas' become more united starting this Fourth of July?

Four Americas

This Independence Day weekend provides us another opportunity to do two things: Celebrate what's good (a lot) about the U.S. and its history and, at least as important, learn or remember what went wrong in American history. The goal would be to know how to make changes that would avoid previous errors and get the future as right as humanly possible.

I thought my former Kansas City Star colleague Dave Helling got it right in this recent column.

Here's what Dave suggests: "You can teach American history in all its abundant messiness. Embrace the brilliance and the errors of the founders and the other great figures of our nation.

"They were patriots. They were hypocrites. They were intelligent. They were prejudiced. They were human beings, flawed and miraculous at the same time."

What Dave suggests is what the world's major religions teach: Seek out what is true because the truth is liberating and leads to a more authentic and reliable future.

One way to do that this weekend might be to spend some time reading this intriguing article in the current issue of The Atlantic.

In it, journalist George Packer gives readers the core of his new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.

Packer argues that we Americans have divided ourselves into four different Americas based on four different visions of who we are and who we should be: Free America, Smart America, Real America and Just America. My guess is that many of you, like me, will find that you don't fit neatly into any of these categories, though there are aspects of each that reflect some of your beliefs and mine.

If that's the case, then there's this lesson to learn: When we imagine that someone is one-dimensional, we miss a great deal. And one-dimensional thinking inevitably produces a distorted, unfair picture.

Cover-Value of DoubtReligion, at its best, teaches followers to be comfortable with mystery, paradox, ambiguity and uncertainty. Which means it also teaches followers to avoid false certitude -- an idea I tried to unpack in my book called The Value of Doubt.

Once we say we have nothing more to learn or experience in this or that field, we foreclose growth and change. In Christian theological terms, we shut out the Holy Spirit -- and where that spirit would take us and what that spirit would teach us.

As Packer writes in his Atlantic piece: "National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one — they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality — when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts — they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up."

It's that moral identity that we form by understanding our history in great depth, by paying attention to the moment (especially to whose voice is missing or is being shut out) and by imaging a future in which every human being -- every one -- is considered to be of inestimable value. That latter idea is what political scientist Glenn Tinder, in his book The Political Meaning of Christianity, calls "the spiritual center of Western politics."

It's what I hope we can find again. It's what I hope we can recommit to as a nation -- not as four Americas that can't talk to each other but as one in which people respect differences but remain civil and committed to a beautiful future.

Happy Fourth.

(The image at the top here accompanied Packer's article in The Atlantic.)

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Imagine this: China, pursuing a genocide against its Uyghur Muslim population, is working with Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. to build a Hampton by Hilton hotel on the site of a demolished Uyghur mosque in the city of Hotan, this RNS story reports. Talk about cancel culture. Talk about despicable business and political ethics. I think that unless this outrage is reversed, no Hilton hotel will ever house me as a guest.

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P.S.: Here's a link to a piece I just wrote for The Miami Herald that I hope will help families of people who died in the Surfside, Fla., condo collapse.

No, I was not a divine prize given to reward my parents for good behavior.


A few weeks after my birth, a woman named Caroline wrote to my mother to share some mediocre-to-bad theology.

It requires a bit of background information to understand. So:

When my oldest sister, Karin, was born more than six years before me, she emerged with a cleft lip. This made my parents a little skittish about moving ahead with their original plan to have four children. Still, my next sister, Barbara, appeared more than four years later, and she had both a cleft lip and a cleft palate.

Cover-lle-hi-resBoth girls required medical attention. In fact, my second sister had about five different operations at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. I quote her about that experience in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. It was the son of Barbara and her husband Jim who was murdered in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was a passenger on the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center.

When I was born two years after Barbara (I was either an accident or my parents decided to push their luck), I was physically perfect, as I like to tell my sisters (I have three now, including Mary).

So this woman Caroline, whose note I recently discovered as I was continuing the downsizing and sorting effort that has engaged my wife and me for a year or two now, wrote this:

"He (meaning me) is your reward, I believe, for taking the added expenses connected with Karin and Barbara so beautifully."

Let that sink in for a minute.

Caroline was telling Mom that God was giving her the gift of a human being as a prize for something she did. Well, that she and Dad did well.

I would call Caroline's simplistic and, frankly, appalling theology the opposite of what is sometimes called "Retribution Theology."

Here's a bit of what the editors of the Common English Bible (in a study edition) say about that:

"The books of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. . .are based on a theology of retribution, or divine punishment. The people of Israel are in a covenant relationship with God. If the people obey God's expectations, then according to the Deuteronomistic theology, God's people will experience blessings in the land. If they are disloyal to God's love and worship other gods or fail to live according to the instruction. . .then God's people will experience curses. . .When significant numbers of people in Israel and Judah were conquered, killed and deported violently from their homes in 722 and 587 BCE, the religious leaders and prophets understood this catastrophe as divine punishment for breaking the covenant with the Lord."

The image of God in such a theology -- and in its opposite, a theology of rewards -- is rather different from the image of God proposed by much of Christianity and from the image of God to be drawn by paying attention to history. In history, though I believe that its arc points ultimately toward justice and mercy and love, the evidence is that people who break either civil or divine laws often prosper while people who faithfully keep such laws often end up in various states of loss or grief. Not always, but often enough to make one question a theology of either retribution or rewards.

That's why we say life is unfair.

I was proud of my parents for their love of and commitment to my older sisters as they worked through the medical problems with which they were born. But they weren't doing that to get brownie points with God. And they had no expectation that if they had a third child he or she would be a prize for previous behavior.

If that's how your god works, I'll pass.

I'm certainly not saying that God doesn't have rules. Or that God doesn't have expectations of us. Or that God can't or doesn't give us gifts. Every day is a gift. But Retribution Theology and Rewards Theology reduce God to a points keeper, to a goalie, to a divine Pez dispenser. Let's put it this way: The gospels say that Jesus did absolutely everything God wanted him to do every minute of every day. And yet what happened to him on what Christians call Good Friday?

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The Jewish community in southern Florida has been particularly hard hit by the recent condo collapse, as this RNS story reports: "At least 50 of the total trapped in the collapse of the Champlain condo are likely Jewish, according to various lists that have been collected among Miami Jewish organizations." One synagogue in particular there looks like it will suffer the loss of many members. May the rabbis there have strength to minister to so many anguished people.

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P.S.: If you missed my most recent Flatland column when it posted on Sunday, you'll find it here. It's about a support group for religious leaders -- who've really needed it in this time of Covid.

Is access to religious power in Israel about to change?

One of the things I've learned and admired about the Jewish community in Kansas City is that, despite theological differences within it, there is generally an attitude that allows Orthodox, Conservative, Reform (the most populous branch), Reconstructionist and others to work and live together in relative harmony.

Caesarea-8It's really quite inspiring, though I'm sure there are internal conflicts that non-Jews in the KC area simply don't hear about.

A recently arisen question is whether the newly formed government of Israel might allow a similar kind of respectful sharing relationship happen there instead of letting the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, be the privileged power brokers there.

This Religion News Service story delves into that difficult question.

As the story says, "Now that Israel’s new government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, includes a Reform rabbi but no Haredi parties, religion-and-state experts in the country are watching to see if groundbreaking legislation that many Israelis and Diaspora Jews have been yearning for is on its way."

The short answer is: Don't hold your breath. In fact, the coalition that makes up the new government is so diverse that it would not be surprising to see it fall apart relatively soon, giving the former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a chance to return to power, which he held for 12 years.

The story quotes Adam Ferziger, a professor of Jewish history and contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, as saying he "believes the government will steer clear of major religious reforms, such as recognizing the authority of non-Orthodox rabbis, and instead chip away at the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly by offering modern Orthodox alternatives."

Here is a story that explains in more detail the rather remarkable power that the Haredi hold in Israel today.

There are, of course, theological divisions in almost all faith traditions, and sometimes those differences result in clashes that affect politics and culture in various countries. Sunni Muslims, for instance, rule Saudi Arabia, where there's essentially little or no space for Shi'a Muslims (or followers of any other religion, for that matter). In some states in the American South, the culture amounts to a landslide for Southern Baptists, just as Utah historically has been a place where members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have held religious, cultural and political power.

So in that sense Israel is not so different from lots of other countries except in the details.

But I keep thinking what a great model Israel could be for the rest of the world if religious, cultural and political power were more equally shared among the various segments of Judaism represented in that Jewish state. And yet, in the end I must ask myself why should I expect that of Israel when a similar sharing of that kind of power is so rare elsewhere in the world.

(The photo of the Israeli flag here today is one I took in Caesarea a few years ago.)

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The appalling history of boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada that took Indigenous children (often against the wishes of their parents) and tried to turn them into white Christians finally is getting some national and international attention. As this RNS column notes, ". . .all too often when this conversation surfaces, it is directed toward the government and the harm done by those in power, while again and again, we have missed the role the church plays in the colonization of Indigenous peoples — including through boarding schools." The good news is that Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is herself Indigenous, recently announced what the RNS piece calls "a new initiative to investigate boarding schools here in the United States, which will reveal a part of our history we seldom talk about in schools, government or churches." Let's be clear that we must know our own history not so that we can denigrate our ancestors but so that we understand how things got to where they are today and so that we can do better. The story of boarding schools for American Indian children is terrible. So we must understand that history.

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P.S.: A quick thought about Catholic bishops anxious to deny President Joe Biden Communion. Oh, come on. Jesus gave Communion even to Judas Iscariot. Notice, by the way, that one of the bishops pushing hard to deny Biden Communion is Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

What to do about racism? Here are some answers

Early in 2019, I reviewed an excellent book by Jemar Tisbey, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism. You can read that review here.

How-to-fight-racismTisbey,  president of "The Witness: A Black Christian Collective," has a new follow-up book out that I've only read about, not read. But I have read this good interview with him in Christianity Today. And I invite you to give it a read, too, as an introduction to his book, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice.

As I grasped his message in the first book -- and the message in the second book seems consistent with that -- it is not that American Christians (white, Black or other) should spend all their time bemoaning the often-racist history of the church. Rather, they should learn about that history, figure out what went wrong and then commit themselves not to repeat that history. And not just not repeat it but, rather, redeem it by creating a racially just church today, the kind that would make Jesus happy.

The new book, Tisbey says, "comes from the urgency that I felt about the need to take antiracist action."

(A few months ago I wrote this Flatland column about what my own [predominantly white] congregation is doing on that front. Perhaps our experience can be useful to you and your congregation, if any.)

Tisbey added this: "But the second impetus was that whenever I speak or teach about racism, the most frequent question I get is 'What do we do?' I love this question because it shows that people are seeing that racism isn’t just a past question but a present one, and it also shows that they want to be part of the solution."

Exactly the point. We can't change the past, but we can understand it. We can, however, change the future so that it reflects values that can undercut racist systems and help this country live up to some of it aspirational language in its founding documents.

There's a big role in this for people of faith because all the great world religions call on their followers to treat other people, regardless of skin color or anything else, as beloved children of God. The existence of racism in the first place is strong evidence that people of faith have failed at that task.

In the interview with Christianity Today, Tisbey makes something like that same point, but perhaps more subtly: "From a theological perspective, Christians understand that all reconciliation is relational, and this is the reason for the incarnation: God becoming human to reconcile humankind to God. But even from a sociological perspective, all reconciliation runs through relationships."

Which, of course, is why white people alone and black people alone can't solve this problem.

Tisbey puts it this way: "different groups — white people and Black people — approach the text with different priorities. And if you’ve only ever been exposed to one group’s priorities with respect to Scripture, then it becomes easy to see how another group’s priorities could be perceived as wrong or inferior or “politicized.” So, we need to study theology and to read Scripture in community, so that we are approaching the text in a broad manner that helps us see truths not available to us before."

I see in some places a growing momentum to address all this in an effective way, even as some segments of the population want to continue to deny there's a problem. (One of the issues in that regard is that Fox News has recently doubled down on being an unhelpful leader in the culture wars and has helped to make the up-to-now obscure academic approach to studying racism known as Critical Race Theory a major target, as Margaret Sullivan recently pointed out in this Washington Post column.) At any rate, let's hope solutions-oriented people win that tug-of-war.

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Here's a sad story about former Kansas City Royals infielder Ben Zobrist. He has sued his former pastor because of an affair that pastor had with Zobrist's former wife. I can't possibly know all the details of this case, but from personal experience I know that it's devastating when your own pastor has an affair with your wife. That's why we were divorced. We need more effective screening techniques to prevent people who are morally unfit for the ministry from being ordained. That's probably a pipedream in the sense that all of us are in some sense morally unfit, but there should be a special standard for clergy.

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P.S.: The latest issue of a terrific magazine, Christian History, focuses on Christianity's role in higher education. You can read the whole issue here. On the page to which I've linked you, you'll also find a way to subscribe. That's free, though donations are encouraged.

Can a hopeful pope fix the wounded planet?

The question humanity must answer -- and soon -- is whether we are so far into the environmental degradation (much if not most of it caused by humanity) that global disaster cannot now be avoided.

Climate-changeIn her new book, Facing Apocalypse, which I wrote about recently here, Catherine Keller suggests things have spun out of our control ecologically:

"Climate science has. . .shifted emphasis from mitigation to adaptation -- a polite way of saying that the Holocene Earth, the world as we have known it for ten thousand years of so-called 'civilization,' can no longer be saved. Hope melted in the meantime away from even the modest Paris Climate Agreement to keep the average global temperature rise beneath 2 degrees centigrade. Then we learn that no, 1.5 is the limit for avoiding catastrophe. We have recently reached the point of the 1 degree C rise above preindustrial temperatures, warmest in ten thousand years. Hear the trumpets?"

Nor, she writes, does it help that "at this point in our history, approximately half of the trees of the earth are gone, lost to flames and deforestations, infestations and droughts, on an overheating planet."

Into this disheartening mess steps a man whose job it is to point us toward hope.

Pope Francis in 2015 released an encyclical called "Laudato Si'." In effect, it was a Vatican manifesto committing the church to working on salvaging what the document calls "our common home," the Earth. The odds are that even six years ago it was too little and too late, but that hasn't prevented Francis from continuing to work on behalf of its Earth-saving ideas.

And now the Vatican is releasing what it's called the "Laudato Si' Action Platform," to move from worrying words into hopeful action. The platform's official launch date is in October, but why wait?

The time to let the horse out of the barn, of course, is before the barn catches fire. And yet perhaps the pope's efforts at least can convince people to make changes that will make catastrophic changes in the environment a little less disastrous. That's our hope.

As the National Catholic Reporter story to which I've linked you notes, "The Laudato Si' Action Platform is an effort to move the global church to sustainability by inviting all types of church institutions to embark on seven-year, action-oriented journeys to combat climate change and address environmental issues."

Of course, this should have started not seven years ago but at least 70, when it already was becoming clear what too-loosely regulated industrialization was doing to the planet. I regret my own contributions to the problem, but regret isn't enough. Maybe the pope's encyclical and the ensuing action -- as well as reactions from other groups and institutions that recognize the size of the problem -- will help. I just wish I were more sure that the damage to our common home isn't largely irreparable by now. I hope I'm wrong and that the trumpets I'm hearing are not just notes of warning but notes of commitment to succeed.

(The image here today came from this site.)

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A year ago, before Juneteenth became a federal holiday, Christianity Today published this opinion article describing why it's a more suitable celebration of American independence than the Fourth of July. As you read it, pay close attention to the voice of a black Republican -- Frederick Douglass, who is quoted at some length at the start of the piece. The words in our nation's founding documents about everyone being created equal were, when written, and remain today aspirational, not a description of reality. So we still have work to do. And yet all Americans can celebrate Juneteenth with a renewed commitment to making those founding words reality.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column is about the newly opened exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City: "Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away." But beyond that, I guide you to this excellent Flatland article by my former Kansas City Star colleague Brian Burns, who writes about Harry Truman's various connections and responses to the Holocaust as a U.S. senator and then as president.

Suppose we find intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos

Deep space

The ancient question is being asked again, this time by serious scientists and government officials: Are we alone in the universe? (When my kids were growing up, I was rarely alone even in the bathroom.) And, if we are alone, how do we explain decade after decade of reports of unidentified flying objects, now called unexplained aerial phenomena?

We're awaiting this month a federal report on this subject. In the meantime, it seems, everyone from conspiracy theorists to religious people are weighing in on the subject.

This NPR story describes how the nation at large got more interested in this subject.

"Interest in the idea that alien beings might be visiting Earth from off-planet," the NPR story says, "has skyrocketed in recent years, particularly after the Pentagon verified that several videos showing what look to be objects moving at incredible speeds and with remarkable agility had indeed come from official U.S. Navy sources."

As for people of faith, here's a recent article from the Jesuit magazine America that suggests Catholics should be -- and are -- ready to deal with any theological questions that might be raised if and when life outside our solar system is found.

"The Catholic intellectual tradition," the writer says, "would have absolutely zero problem with the idea of intelligent life — that is, substances of a rational nature (the classic definition of a 'person' in my field) — on other planets."

And here's a recent article from the Jewish publication The Forward that says that "if and when contact occurs, there will be a number of rabbis lined up to explain how this was all foretold in the Bible."

The only people of faith who may be resistant to the idea of other sentient beings elsewhere in the cosmos, probably, are those who engage in a literal reading of scripture and believe that human beings first appeared on Earth a few thousand years ago essentially looking and thinking like they do today.

Other religious people who have at least some grasp of science and the theory of evolution know better, while still believing in a beneficent god.

And yet even if we're open to the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere, I suspect it will be difficult to root out our almost inherent sense of being special, of being at the center of the universe. Religion's message of God's uncompromising love for all humanity no doubt adds to that self-centeredness. So it will be fascinating to see how humans on Earth will react to the realization that they're not alone.

I'm guessing some will want to exploit the newly found life forms for economic purposes. Some will want to make friends. Some will want to convert them to this or that religious tradition. And some will blame them for voting fraudulently in the 2020 presidential election. That latter development may become known as the Big Lie in the Big Sky. You heard it here first.

By the way, I thought science writer Mark Buchanan made some interesting points in this Washington Post piece about why we should be really, really careful about making contact with other life forms in the cosmos if they exist. See what you think.

(I found the image displayed above here.)

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There's been a lot of recent criticism of the academic discipline known as Critical Race Theory. In some ways it's been a good and healthy debate. In others, not so much. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, now in its annual meeting, is debating several statements about it. Perhaps it's time to hear from someone who thinks that all that criticism of CRT is a hopeful sign. See what you think.

And while we're on the difficult topic of racism, I want to share a few wise words from a slightly dated (1995) but wise book I'm reading: The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution, by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza: "The idea of race in the human species serves no purpose. . . (Tammeus note: Indeed, the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, after this book was published, told us that race is a political -- not a biological -- construct.) Racism has many origins and definitions, but we know that racists often worry about racial 'purity.' Let us dispense with this aspect first: There are no pure races, and if we tried to create one, the results would be most uninviting. . .Racism is the conviction that one race is biologically superior to the others. That is what underlies racists' concern for the 'purity' of the race. . .Therefore, to think about conserving purity is absurd. . .

"Although today we are fully convinced that pure and perfect races cannot exist, in the past the false ideal of racial purity has been the cornerstone of many invalid theories, and some have had significant influence on history. . .(Tammeus note: I wish that the authors were right about everyone being convinced of this today. But in white nationalism and other nationalisms, for instance, we see otherwise.) Across the whole of Europe, there is an enormous resurgence of racist sentiment. . .Are we to conclude that racism is an incurable social disease, destined to torment us forever?"

I hope not and will continue to do what I can to make sure not. But as these authors note, the roots of racism go deep. It's only in recognizing that and in working to uproot racism that we might be able to remove it -- not from history, but from the present and the future.

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P.S.: You might be interested in a group called Faith Counts, about which I've just learned. It's a national interfaith effort to promote the idea that people of faith do a lot of good in the world. At its "Facts on Faith" site, for instance, it says that there are 12,000 faith-based programs to give prisoners a second chance, that 17 percent of U.S. hospitals are faith-based (and 20 percent of the beds) and that 56,000 congregations have programs to improve race relations. The many contributions religion makes to society should be applauded, even if at times religion also causes some of the trouble that society faces.