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US Postal Service stamp ad = religious persecution?

December 3, 2013

Ah, religious persecution. It can come in so many forms. Torture . Imprisonment. US Postal Service advertisements.

Yes, the USPS omitted a religious Christmas image from its advertisement for holiday stamps. Hanukkah was featured. Kwanzaa was represented. But the third stamp in this holy trinity? A tasty-looking but very secular gingerbread house.  Some Christians are in an uproar. The post office DOES sell religious stamps (e.g. Madonna and child) to commemorate Christmas, and a spokesperson for the agency said the gingerbread design is new, which is why it was featured in this year’s ad. But the outrage persists out there on the Internet.

A former classmate of mine wrote on Facebook that her post office in Georgia did not display any Christian stamps, and when she inquired about them, she was told, “We have them. We just can’t display them anymore.” This woman is an evangelical Christian, and she was deeply troubled. As were her Christian friends, one of whom wrote the following comment: “Let the religious persecution begin!”

This is religious persecution? You sure? Here, let me help you sort that out: The answer is no. A poorly-conceived stamp advertisement in a country where you are a member of the majority religion does not amount to religious persecution. Sorry. You are not in danger of losing your basic human rights. You are not in danger at all. You might want to save your outrage for the plight of your fellow Jesus followers in North Korea or Iran or Pakistan. You might consider other actual forms of religious persecution perpetrated against Baha’is and Muslims and Buddhists. (Having interviewed such victims, I can tell you, their stories will make you shudder.) You might even spend some time reflecting on the meaning of Christmas and how much it depends upon the correct postage.

Look, we can and should have discussions about how we talk about religion in this country, how Christian privilege works and how silly political-correctness can be. But let’s at least have a little perspective.

A new Muslim brotherhood sparks criticism — and that’s OK, folks

September 11, 2013

There’s a lot of buzz over the new fraternity at the University of Texas Dallas. It’s a Muslim frat, the only one in the country, according to reports I’ve read. Alpha Lamda Mu, also identified as Alif Laam Meem, will bring together young Muslim men with shared values that  set them apart from most other fraternities. These guys won’t be doing any keg stands. No mixers with sororities. They will focus on serving the community, networking and adhering to the guidelines of their faith.

From the Huffington Post:

Founder Ali Mahmoud told The Huffington Post that the idea for the group came about as he and a childhood friend settled into college life at the University of Texas, Dallas, and considered their social options. Mahmoud’s friend expressed his plans to join the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity to enjoy the social scene as well as the networking opportunities, particularly in the post-graduation context, but worried about the less academic aspects of being in a frat. They joked about how it would be great if a fraternity with Muslim values existed, and out of that joke, Alif Laam Meem was born.

So what precisely are Muslim values? I mean, aside from abstention from alcohol and pre-marital sex, what are the expectations for aspiring members? How do the brothers decide who makes the cut? The FAQ on the frat’s website offers a rather vague explanation (but stay tuned because a critic of this venture makes the story more interesting).

Alif Laam Meem will not tolerate any behavior that is outside of the boundaries of moral principles and mannerisms. We will have fun and enjoy ourselves as brothers, but we will not engage in any activities that are not allowed within the religion. … Our ultimate purpose is to serve and please Allah by following the model of manhood left by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

Like I said, kinda vague. But it sounds very wholesome and lovely. Right? Adam Abboud, a Muslim student at Cornell University, says no. I stumbled upon his response to the Muslim fraternity chapter after some folks from a Listserv I’m on blasted his Tumblr piece as hateful. Personally,  I was relieved to find out that not everyone was doing cartwheels over Alpha Lamda Mu. Not that I opposed the formation of the frat. I don’t. But sometimes it’s nice to add more depth to the conversation. To hear a different point of view. And this one, happily, comes from a Muslim.

I am all for Muslim unity and coalition, but we need to revolutionize what that looks like, rather than adopting discriminatory structures.

Abboud’s piece is provocative in that it addresses homosexuality, gender identity, misogyny and equality. Read on, and remember, this is a Muslim man writing:

ALM operates under male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, heteronormative privilege and fundamental understandings of Islam. For one to join ALM, they must buy into a narrow understanding and interpretation of religion as defined by these “Muslim” leaders. ALM ultimately reproduces privilege in the Muslim community; the fraternity maintains male-hetero power structures within the ever-changing landscape of [Muslim Student Associations] and Muslim populations across college campuses.

Fascinating. And, I think, encouraging. It is always good to be reminded that people of the same religion are not monolithic in their worldview. Yes, let’s talk about the definition of  a “good Muslim.” Let’s hear different opinions among young Muslims on sexuality and gender. Good for the guys at UT Dallas who created something meaningful to them. And good for Adam Abboud for challenging everyone to consider the implications, which is not, in my book at least, being a “hater.”

In the interest of equality and giving the sisters their due: Alpha Lamda Mu is not the first Muslim foray into the Greek system. I did a little searching online and found this 2005 piece from AltMuslim. It looks like Gamma Gamma Chi is still going eight years later.


Evangelicals evolve on immigration

April 9, 2013

The Wall Street Journal ran this article about evangelical attitudes on immigration on the front page today.  The placement tells me that a) shifting views among conservative Christians are surprising and b) what these believers think (and how they vote) matters. Some 300 evangelical leaders will gather in Washington next week to lobby lawmakers to overhaul immigration policy.

In some cases, according to the article, pastors who advocated a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants wound up alienating their flock. But it sounds like more people in the pews are coming around and seeing the immigration dilemma through a new biblical lens. Welcoming the stranger, helping the needy, doing what Jesus might have done.

The reporter also notes a more practical incentive:

[The evolving position on immigration]comes as many evangelical churches, much like the Republican Party, see an opportunity to add members from the swelling Hispanic population.


Of course, there are many, many evangelical conservative types who reject the biblical argument for amnesty. Texas U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith makes this pointed remark:

“The Bible contains numerous passages that do not necessarily support amnesty and instead support the rule of law,” he said. “The Scriptures clearly indicate that God charges civil authorities with preserving order, protecting citizens and punishing wrongdoers.”

Don’t get me started on all the vile laws Smith’s God has charged authorities with upholding. But it’s true that the Bible can be used to justify or condemn illegal immigration.

I wrote about this in a column a few years ago and quoted James R. Edwards, Jr. who wrote this conservative policy paper on immigration and the Bible.

Another observation in this rather disjointed post: The online comments on the WSJ piece were pretty nasty. An example:

Let’s just take every barefoot beggar the world has to offer, sign them up for food-stamps, housing assistance, Welfare & cell phones; hope they get enough to qualify for an auto loan, and call it a day.


Guns, God and Greg Abbott

March 21, 2013

So you may have noticed Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has been generating some interesting publicity. First there were the web ads urging New York gun owners to moved to Texas. The pop-up ads when clicked directed people this Facebook page.



He posted the picture on his Facebook page. OK, I get it. Abbott likes gun rights. And while I see both sides of the gun debate currently gripping this country and really don’t have a strong opinion either way, I wonder if in the wake of the Newtown shootings the AG of Texas should be lamenting the absence of guns in our nation’s classrooms. Just feels a bit, I dunno, unseemly.

But what really stands out to me (as someone who has covered this issue in the press) is the suggestion that the Bible is not taught in schools. In fact, a great many schools in Texas are teaching the Bible in elective courses because of a legislative mandate in 2008. Abbott surely knows this. But he’s playing for effect here.

Speaking of those Bible courses, you may have already seen news reports showing that the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network did a study of the Bible courses and found many to be problematic. No surprise there. BUT the report is really fascinating and illuminating. I was looking for a kind of anti-conservative Christian bias, but honestly I didn’t see it. The report illustrates not only what public schools in Texas are doing wrong with these Bible classes, it also shows how some are doing it right. Highly recommend reading the full report.

But back to Abbott’s Facebook post: The image generated a mix of comments. What do you make of it?

James Martin explains the Jesuits, celebrates the election of one of their own

March 14, 2013

Father James Martin writes on the CNN religion blog about the papal election of a fellow Jesuit, Jorge Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis. Martin, for those of you who aren’t familiar with him, is the editor-at-large of the Catholic magazine America. He provides some helpful insight on the Jesuit order, which was founded in the 16th century by St. Ignatius Loyola.

Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Challenging spiritual retreats. Lengthy novitiate programs. These are not your typical priests. Certainly not the type of priests who become bishops and cardinals. And certainly never pope … until now.

I was not familiar with the order’s discouraging ambition.  Very interesting:

…[W]e are not supposed to be “climbers.”  Now here’s a terrific irony.  When Jesuit priests and brothers complete their training, they make vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and a special vow to the pope “with regard to missions”; that is, with regard to places the pope wishes to send us.  But we also make an unusual promise, alone among religious orders as far as I know, not to “strive or ambition” for high office.

St. Ignatius was appalled by the clerical climbing that he saw around him in the late Renaissance, so he required us to make that unique promise against “climbing.” Sometimes, the pope will ask a Jesuit, as he did with Jorge Bergoglio, to assume the role of bishop or archbishop.  But this is not the norm.  Now, however, a Jesuit who had once promised not to “strive or ambition” for high office, holds the highest office in the church.

Martin concludes that St. Ignatius would be smiling at the new pope because, ultimately, you can’t be too rigid with your rules, especially if what you do is ad majorem Dei gloriam (for the greater glory of God).

We’ll see if the pope’s spiritual training makes this a different kind of papacy than we’ve seen before.


What ails the church? Celibacy or secularism? (Or secularity, as they say in the Dakotas)

March 9, 2013

As we await the election of a new pope, I think this may be a good time to start blogging again.

What inspires me today? A group of letters to the editor in response to a recent op-ed by Bret Stephens in the WSJ. You can’t read the piece in the Journal unless you are an online subscriber, but I did find the entire version here. Stephens first acknowledges how risky it is to analyze the problems of a religion not his own. But in his column about Pope Emeritus Benedict’s resignation and the future of the Catholic Church, he rightly calls the church out on its mishandling of the abuse of children. This really nails it:

No institution whose existence rests on moral teachings can be so populated by sexual predators, or so complicit in their predations.

No problem there. But I knew he was poking a hornets’ nest when he wrote the following:

The obvious and needful solution is to abolish the celibacy of the priesthood, a stricture that all but guarantees the sorts of sordid outcomes described above.

Yeeeeikes. No surprise that he got some angry push back on today’s letters page. This letter really struck me because it comes back to what a lot of conservative Catholic clergy and lay people have argued over the last decade. “It’s not celibacy! It’s the culture!” Take a read:

Celibacy isn’t the crisis. It is the wider Western civilization failing to achieve a cultural condition reflecting norms largely accepted and independent of government and the force of law. It is its visible moral decay, its inability to persuade individuals to voluntarily forgo the excesses that human knowledge and organizations make possible.

This one, written by a South Dakota priest, is even more alarming:

The church’s erosion into secularity is confirmed by secular prejudice. Those who want the church to change will never be satisfied until it ceases to be what it was. I have seen with my own eyes that chickens will peck and tear a mouse to pieces if they can catch it; they will not tolerate its presence. Secularists will peck at the church, meek as a mouse (cf. Matthew 5:5), until they have destroyed her. Yet their attitude was expected by Jesus: “As they have persecuted me, so they will persecute you” (John 15:20, NAB).

What the world needs is not an abolition of celibacy, an ancient discipline, but a world where men and women live with great integrity, honesty and humility.

Actually never heard secularity as the noun form of secular. Secularism, but not secularity. But I digress. I agree that Stephens shouldn’t have suggested that celibacy is the root of all the abuse, but the placing the blame on the non-religious? Come on. The gruesome image of the chickens pecking to death the mouse, the suggestion that Jesus was warning his followers about secularists … it’s all a bit much. This is meant to stir fear and hysteria. And it’s a magician’s trick, a distraction from what’s really going on. Look at those secularists! They’re trying to get in and ruin us! But secularists have nothing to do with it. This is the church’s problem. The church created it. The church compounded it.  The church needs to own it.

Thankfully, the last letter was very sensible:

I think Father Richard McBrien got it right several years ago when he sagely observed that those who think celibacy is the whole problem are wrong; but those who think celibacy has nothing to do with it are equally wrong.

A decade later, have Catholic bishops seen the light on sex abuse?

June 8, 2012

Another post from the world’s worst blogger. This one about the faith column in today’s Wall Street Journal. Religion writer David Gibson takes on American bishops 10 years after their historic Dallas meeting, acknowledging the “critical steps” taken with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, but pointing out how bishops protected themselves.

But throughout it all, the bishops exempted themselves from accountability—even though records showed that feckless inaction by many bishops, or even deliberate malfeasance by some, had allowed abusers to claim so many victims.

The best answer the bishops had to this in Dallas was a behind-the-scenes “fraternal correction” policy, by which a bishop would quietly pass along any concerns about another bishop to that bishop. Church tradition was invoked to preclude any external oversight by laypeople or other prelates. As always, each bishop would answer only to the pope, who alone had the authority to remove the head of a diocese.

Now, as the bishops gather next week in Atlanta for their annual spring meeting, they will hear an update on the Dallas charter but are unlikely to address this enormous loophole—despite events that make it all the more urgent.

It’s an excellent and timely column. And it stirred up some memories from my early days on the religion beat. I cannot believe it’s been a decade since the bishops crafted their charter — and that I was there covering it for the Austin American-Statesman. I was brand new on the beat and had a lot to learn about how the church operated as an institution (even though I was raised Catholic, I didn’t really understand the inner workings of the hierarchy). More importantly, I had much to learn about the impact of sexual abuse. The victims who showed up in droves to the Dallas meeting seemed so angry and demanding. Just raw emotion that, in all honesty, rather frightened me. I couldn’t relate to them.

I still can’t fully appreciate how damaging it is to be abused in this way, especially by a person who represents God. But after interviews with many victims over the years, I do have a much better understanding of their desperate need to be heard. For many of them, it had been decades of silence and shame, and those few days in Dallas marked the first time they were acknowledged. And even then, the response from the bishops was disappointing.

The problem, I think, still remains: The bishops by and large did not feel that raw pain. They did not treat the sex abuse scandal — which came to light despite their efforts to conceal it and only because a dogged team of reporters from the Boston Globe did not give up — as the real crisis that it was …. and is. What happened to so many children and adolescents — what was ALLOWED to happen, what was, in effect, facilitated by the hierarchy —  is the epitome of evil. Lives were ruined. In the face of that, concern over money and power and influence and protocol is ludicrous. Plain and simple.

Forget the institution. If you mean to follow Jesus and take care of your flock, you have to be willing to burn the institution down.

From what I can tell, the bishops aren’t willing to do that.

The ongoing gay marriage debate and a nod to Wink

May 15, 2012

So much happening on the gay rights and religion front.

There was, of course, the North Carolina vote on the constitutional amendment driven by passionate Christians, including Billy Graham, who oppose gay marriage.

Then Obama’s declaration. (For the record, I’m glad he put a rest to that “evolving” nonsense, but I still think gay Democrats should be furious he didn’t do this sooner.) As expected, the president’s support of gay marriage rights lands him in hot water with some black churches. (But, as my fellow religion writer Joshunda Sanders noted, perhaps we need to revisit the notion that there is a unified black church that opposes gay marriage.)

Then progressive Christian scholar Walter Wink died like a tree falling in a forest (more on that in a minute).

And THEN — here’s another moment I desperately wish I were still the local religion writer — the Episcopal Diocese of Texas announced two churches, including one here in Austin, will be allowed to bless same-sex unions (pending a vote by the national church).

That’s a lot of fodder for religion reporters. Sexuality has been and will continue to be one of the key dividing issues among Christians for years. Here’s another piece on Catholic theologians’ views on gay marriage (apparently not all agree with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — gasp!).

Back to Wink, who died last week in my native Berkshire County and whose death did not receive any media attention to speak of. I’d interviewed the author and theologian a couple of times on Christianity and homosexuality. This 2005 story I did on a constitutional marriage amendment in Texas has always remained with me. Wink was one of four scholars I interviewed for the Austin American-Statesman piece on what the Bible says about homosexuality. We chose several biblical passages for the scholars to analyze. Here’s one:

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.

‘If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.’

… For Wink, these passages are plainly anti-homosexual, but readers [he said] must summon the “courage to . . . say on certain things the biblical commands have to be understood in a new light. The most extreme form of saying this is to say the Bible is wrong on some issues, including slavery . . . the treatment of women and the whole sacrificial cult.”

More Catholic criticism for Ryan’s budget

April 24, 2012

Rep. Paul Ryan is getting a dressing down from some Jesuits today. Actually, this letter is written by both religious and lay scholars and administrators from Georgetown University who are taking Ryan and his budget to task for failing to live up to Catholic teaching on helping the poor.

Ryan will deliver a lecture at Georgetown on Thursday, and the nearly 90 folks who signed the letter say

[W]e would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely noted in several letters to Congress – “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” Catholic bishops recently wrote that “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”

Ryan had invoked his faith in defending/explaining his proposed budget. But Catholic bishops criticized the cuts.

I love debates like this. For another take, check out this WaPo column. In defending Ryan against Bishop Stephen Blaire, opinion writer Marc A. Thiessen says:

Ryan’s budget can only be viewed as a “cut” when compared with the unprecedented levels of spending unleashed by President Obama, who has increased our national debt by more than $4 trillion in just 31 months — a new land-speed record for fiscal profligacy. In criticizing Ryan’s spending “cuts,” Bishop Blaire is effectively arguing that these unsustainable spending increases under Barack Obama are the new floor for what constitutes “social justice.” In this view, even a 20 percent increase in spending relative to 2008 is a violation of the “moral criteria” of the Catholic Church. That is ridiculous.

Did I mention that I love these debates? This is what makes me miss being on the religion beat.

Do you have to be crazy to be a real Christian?

April 5, 2012

Lots of folks on Facebook were recently buzzing about this Andrew Sullivan essay in which he argues that Christianity is in crisis. Church leaders aren’t following the teachings of Jesus. Too many Christians have bought into the prosperity gospel instead of renouncing worldly possessions as Jesus instructed. Too many believers are hung up on gay marriage and birth control. Too many endorse torture. He makes some good points about hypocrisy, but he also manages to make “real” Christianity seem pretty unappealing.

True Christianity, he says, would look more like how St. Francis of Assisi lived (self-denial, homelessness, radical evangelism, etc.). Which is also how Jesus lived, as far as we know. Seems kind of extreme (although true believers should be down with embracing the extreme, right?).  Here’s a passage describing Francis:

(Francis) simply opened the Gospels at random—as was often the custom at the time—and found three passages. They told him to “sell what you have and give to the poor,” to “take nothing for your journey,” not even a second tunic, and to “deny himself” and follow the path of Jesus. That was it. So Francis renounced his inheritance, becoming homeless and earning food by manual labor. When that wouldn’t feed him, he begged, just for food—with the indignity of begging part of his spiritual humbling.

His revulsion at even the hint of comfort or wealth could be extreme. As he lay dying and was offered a pillow to rest on, he slept through the night only to wake the next day in a rage, hitting the monk who had given him the pillow and recoiling in disgust at his own weakness in accepting its balm. One of his few commands was that his brothers never ride a horse; they had to walk or ride a donkey. What inspired his fellow Christians to rebuild and reform the church in his day was simply his own example of humility, service, and sanctity.

A modern person would see such a man as crazy, and there were many at the time who thought so too. He sang sermons in the streets, sometimes just miming them. He suffered intense bouts of doubt, self-loathing, and depression. He had visions.

Yeah, I think most modern folks would regard that behavior as crazy. And, while I’m sure Sullivan isn’t seriously saying you have to go THAT far to be a real Christian, I sort of got that impression from the piece. The thing is, there is a lot to be said for radical Christian living. Those who eschew comfort and possessions and self-indulgence surely have an easier time developing a deeper spirituality. But I’m reminded of the Buddha’s wisdom about finding the middle way. Buddha, too, attempted self-mortification, nearly dying of starvation before realizing a more moderate path made better sense.

And I see many Christians pursuing that path here in Austin. They’ve rid themselves of excess (high-tech toys, multiple cars, fancy homes, etc.) and live a much more modest existence. They’re not starving or wearing hair shirts. They’re just simplifying so they can focus on what matters to them — serving the “least of these” and worshipping God and making the world more pleasant. They’re not hung up on a lot of the sex issues Sullivan mentions. They’re not terribly interested in “institution.” But they also don’t seem cuh-raaaazy when you meet them on the street.

I think they fit this ideal that Sullivan puts forward toward the end of the essay:

This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever.