Religion and Politics

The Prodigal Candidate

This past weekend Donald Trump addressed the African-American community first in Philadelphia then in Detroit. Listening to him speak was like watching someone conjure up one of Jesus’s most beloved parables, that of the prodigal son. It is a story of challenge and inspiration that yields deeper insight with each plumbing. Yet for all its popularity it remains one of the least understood or properly appreciated of Jesus’s parables. To begin with, as many scripture scholars have suggested, it is misnamed. It should more accurately be called “The Parable of the Forgiving Father.”

The misnomer of the common title has allowed generations of people to miss both the point and the challenge. The younger son is not the focus of the story. The father is. The younger son serves as a catalyst, his actions giving movement to the story. But Jesus does not present him as a model. In truth, when reading the parable we are probably all able to find ourselves at least partially reflected in both of the sons. In their own ways they are each self-centered. Greed and immaturity cause the younger son to demand an inheritance he is not yet entitled to; self-righteousness and jealousy flare in the older son who whines about never having been given his own party.

But the father. He is the one Jesus suggests we emulate. He is the character who is defined by love—a love that is displayed in forgiving his younger son and expressing tender compassion for his older son. So what? You may ask. The idea of forgiveness still comes through irrespective the name we give to the parable.

I suggest that the problem with the common title actually enhances the mistakes we make in our own lives, and should serve as warning when we examine the actions of others. As I noted, we probably all see ourselves occasionally reflected in the younger son. Who among us does not pursue self-centered goals and desires? Who among us, given the opportunity, would not use seed money from our parents to feed our debauchery? Those are mere human, adolescent foibles acted out in various scenarios simply indicating that we are not perfect. And when we come to our senses we ask pardon and promise to right ourselves.

If that were all, I might agree. But since most humans are not sociopaths or pathologically ill in multiple arenas of our psyches, we know when we have done wrong and we seek amends—or at least forgiveness. For many people that is what the prodigal son did.

No. He did not.

There is not one word in Luke’s telling of the parable that suggests the son expressed any sorrow or remorse for his actions. He returned to his father’s house the same self-centered little brat he was when he left. He returned because he wanted something. And it was not forgiveness. He had bankrupted himself through carousing and revelry. With no food and no money—and no one to give him anything—he returned to his father after carefully concocting a speech containing not a single suggestion of contrition. He was hungry. He was not sorry.

Oh, it’s true that the father did forgive him. But once we understand who the son really was—what he was really like—perhaps we will not so naïvely want to see ourselves in him. More importantly, we will be able to recognize when someone else is merely playing the game of the younger son. Enter the prodigal candidate.

Donald Trump went to Philadelphia and Detroit after having first traversed the continent denigrating, degrading, and demeaning the African-American community as a whole. Like the son in the parable there was no hint of contrition for anything that he said or did, no sorrow for fanning the flames of racial hatred and prejudice. Well, that should come as no surprise.

Last week Donald Trump went to Mexico after having launched his candidacy and spending the last year and a half belittling, berating and besmirching Mexican-Americans all around the country. He stood on a platform with the Mexican president and spoke not a word of contrition. He flat out lied.

Having spent months in a vituperate intemperance Donald Trump now comes before the Mexican-American and African-American communities playing the perfect prodigal son. Should we forgive him? Absolutely. After all, the father is our model in Jesus’s parable. At the same time, there is nothing in the story to suggest that the father was stupid. It is doubtful that he ever entrusted his son with another dime. So we should forgive Donald Trump—even if he is not remorseful—but we should not give him a vote and should never allow him to become president.
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Rebuilding the Web

No, I am not talking about the internet. Recall the words of Sir Walter Scott:

“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!”

Perhaps I should retitle this post “Unraveling the Web”. There is a duality of treachery and naiveté at work in our world. That has, of course, always been the case. But today a new veil seems to have descended over nations, clouding the judgment of the innocent; its opaqueness obscuring the deception and intent of the deceivers. We must not allow ourselves to be so hoodwinked that we are left to repeat the phrase of failure: “Wow! I didn’t see that coming.” Nor can we take refuge in the hubristic assertion: “It will never happen here.” For even in the United States, unwitting citizens have fallen victim to intentional malevolence.

Only by exposing the first thread we can hope to avoid being ensnarled in an intricate web that paralyzes not only the body, but also the mind. And to understand the depth of insidiousness, the true nature of this deceit, we might begin in the Middle East with ISIS and the name of God.

For all its propaganda, the so-called Islamic State has nothing to do with God. It is not about submission, as the word
Islam means. It is not about faith. If anything the Islamic State is an insult to true Islam, for rather than calling for submission to the one God, it demands obedience to itself and its own narrow construct of religion. ISIS is an insult to every faith. Much more evil though, is that at its core ISIS is an insult to Allah.

Along with submission, Islam also means peace and purity. But these ideals, like freedom and justice, cannot exist in a society where the beliefs and self-described “truths” of some—a singular interpretation of revelation—are determined to be the only interpretation, and consequently forced on everyone. This remains the case whether those “truths” are held by a majority or a minority; whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim truths. In other words, peace, purity, freedom and justice cannot exist in a society that is ruled by religion. Any religion. But then ISIS is as uninterested in those virtues as it is in truth. As uninterested in truth as it is in faith.

The Islamic State was woven from a seemingly simple thread that seduced the innocent: Submit your lives to God. But as that thread pivoted from point to point, and the web began to take shape, the idea of the divine was lost in a complex and convoluted design. God faded into mere illusion. The twisting and tangling fibers serve oppression and megalomania in pursuit of world domination, or what the ISIS rebels euphemistically call a worldwide caliphate.

The first Arabs to be ensnarled by ISIS did not recognize its deceitful use of religion. They did not realize the extent to which someone else was about to determine the meaning of submission to God. “Wow! They didn’t see it coming.” The effect was too swift. The entire Middle East, and by extension the rest of the world, quickly became entangled, stuck to the silk. Violence is now both the attraction to this web and the only way out—unless we can find a way to unravel the net of ISIS, expose its true purpose, disengage its hold on people and emasculate the ideology. That requires the whole world to remain on alert.

In the West it was initially easy to be critical. Distance from the fighting, combined with ignorance of Islam, lead some westerners to sit smugly in judgment. After all, “It will never happen here.” But reality is far more complex and unsettling, because Muslims are not the only ones to fall prey to religious treachery and twisted faith.

A quote often attributed to Sinclair Lewis (he never wrote it, but it does reflect his thought) reads: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” Such a statement twins two worlds—politics and religion. It speaks to the advancement of corporations over people; to a government by the corporate elite, for the corporate elite. It also suggests the inability of US citizens to recognize when they are being manipulated and their faith and patriotism distorted for someone else’s design and gain.

All across the South and creeping up through the Midwest, state after state has duplicated deceptive and misleading legislation all designed to sow division and enshrine bigotry. From voter ID, to welfare, to immigration to marriage equality, Americans are being conned by clever, reckless, and yes, duplicitous, politicians. These wholly unnecessary and ostensibly simple laws are being codified for one reason only—to dominate and control.

But most cunning for their disingenuousness are the legislators invoking religious freedom. The problem is, this concept of religion does not represent freedom. It is a new kind of slavery. Not unlike ISIS in Iraq, in Syria and beyond, these American politicians have decided what true religion is, how to live it, and how to shun and exclude anyone who is different. These politicians are no closer to true Christianity than ISIS is to true Islam. But then, like their counterparts in the Middle East, they are not interested in truth, either.

ISIS is coming to America. In fact, it is already here. We have yet to determine its nomenclature. But make no mistake: It is the same beast. A different name; a different religion. The same kind of leaders; the same result. And when it is too late, when these purveyors of false truth have successfully duped and misled the country, the average American citizen will be left with only one reply, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming.”

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Time's Up! Law, Morality and Religion

It seems as though every aspect of life has been partitioned into an “us” v. “them” mentality. The most obvious example is black v. white--most obvious because it is so visually demonstrative. It has become the absolute metaphor for good versus evil, and right versus wrong. This is fine as far as it goes, but most of us do not live in an absolute world. Our lives are tinted by shades of gray.

The problem intensifies when we start applying that analogy to the real world, assigning goodness and evil to other people simply because they are different from us. This is particularly odious in the areas of morality and religion. And, no. They are not the same.

Moral values transcend religion in the same way that God transcends religion. To some that may seem incongruous, but the simple truth is that both God and morality existed prior to any concept of religion. Wrapping morality into one’s religious ideas, at least trying to make them synonymous, is an exercise in futility. It is certainly futile when one is in search of truth. At the same time, it is quite successful in creating a simplistic view for the simple-minded. But that has its own drastic consequences.

Several generations of white people believed that blacks were inferior. Some ignorant people still do. Who knows the actual root of such prejudice? Perhaps it was rooted in the economic and structural development of the Western world. But did such advances make the West more civilized? I suppose it depends on how one defines civilization. One thing is clear: The resulting prejudice defiled religion as believers sought to justify their bigotry in their faith.

A similar kind of discrimination occurred with women. In fact, choose your group and there is a prejudice to match. Many people of faith have continually twisted their thinking into knots to justify bigotry that has no rational foundation. And they have managed to complicate the matter even further.

Recently, people of religion have been making louder and louder claims to be the guardians of morality. Almost without exception, these claims to moral superiority are rooted in their religious values--values that are neither absolute nor universal.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage. There is nothing inherently immoral about same-sex marriage, nor about homosexuality itself. The morality exists only by way of social construct. And those constructs, like all moral values, differ from one society to the next and are always in a state of flux or evolution between generations.

To claim that religion determines morality is like saying religion determines God. Wait a minute. That is exactly what many believers do! They can only accept and believe in a God who conforms to beliefs they already hold. They are not about to be challenged by God. By extension, they can only accept people who believe and act the same way they do.

How else to explain the absurd refusal of some fundamentalist Jews to recognize a non-Orthodox marriage? How else to explain the absurd claim by Christian fundamentalists that non-Baptized people are going to hell? How else to explain the absurdity of Muslim fundamentalists who say that a person who converts from Islam should be put to death? How else to explain the religious belief that same sex couples cannot marry—a religious belief with a very uncertain ground in truth and no claim on the mind or heart?

Enter the law. One of the beauties of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are that they are not based in any religious tradition. The Declaration transcends faith, at least beyond the general acknowledgment that certain unalienable rights are bestowed by God. The Constitution transcends the contextual limitation of social morality, at least insofar as those same unalienable rights are inherent in being human.

The result of the American experiment in democracy is that law is the all important and ultimate measure of our society. Neither morality nor religion can make that same claim. A certain credit must be given to those who vociferously claim that God is being pushed out of public life, schools, etc. They have managed to distract many people from the truth. Many people, but not the courts. So a certain gratitude also must be expressed to those judges that have consistently held that God does not belong in public life and schools. The United States is not run on Christian or any other religious principles.

In this country the law is the foundation of our society. It should not be capricious, nor should it be dictated to by religious whim. Our Declaration of Independence states that all are created equal and endowed with rights. The rights mentioned are not meant to be all-inclusive. What is all-inclusive is the all people have these rights.

I disagree with the religious position of the anti-gay movement. It is a skewed and false reading of the Bible. But it does not matter. The United States is not a country based on the Bible, and that is a good thing. It is a country based on the law.

All people have a right to marry, black and white, gay and straight. I would like to believe that anti-gay is the last great prejudice to be overcome by our society. History suggests that as soon as we succeed, something else will spring up in its place. There will always be those people who seek to cast a black
v. white, a good v. wrong pall over the world of gray that is human life.

For now, times up! In the United States of America, law, justice and equality trump religion. Thank God! And thank the Founding Fathers!
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The Theology of Rape

This is not just a provocative title. Sadly, it is very real, and was voiced by Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. During a debate this past Tuesday, he stated: “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” No matter the spin, no matter Mourdock’s protestations to the contrary, it still comes across as God’s plan. Is that offensive? Yes. Worse still, it makes God into a monster. It is theological rape.

This is hardly surprising. Mourdock is another member of the ideologically extreme religious right that has taken over the Republican Party. Their position on abortion simply is not tenable. It is built on no scientific, philosophical or even theological foundation. Like all fanatics, when they speak they guarantee absurd and offensive statements.

Let us grant the premise that God is the author of life. Let us grant also that human life begins at conception. This is the teaching of the Catholic Church and some other Christian Churches. Some non-Christians, among them Mormons, believe the same. But what does it mean? God does not author life by the act of conceiving. God’s involvement in the process is to directly create the individual human person, or soul. However, there is no sustainable argument to suggest that happens at conception. In fact, just the opposite is true.

As I previously have reasoned in a
series of blogs, we cannot state with clarity that the individual person is created before day fourteen. In the case of rape, then, use of an emergency contraceptive measure, such as the morning after pill, would not constitute abortion. However, to process these ideas, requires more than faith. It also requires thought.

Unfortunately, the new Republican leadership operates from a combination of laziness and ignorance—a willingness to embrace simplistic concepts about life coupled with an inability to nuance thought. Indeed, there is not much thought present to begin with. That is one reason why Romney and Ryan, McConnell, McCaind and Cornyn continue to support Mourdock.

Paul Ryan gave a good demonstration of laziness when he said: “The method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.” Ryan does not even pretend a willingness to think through the issue.

Romney has an even greater problem. As a Mormon he believes that every person pre-existed prior to conception. Therefore, Romney chooses to remain ignorant about the biological development of the embryo. Why let scientific knowledge interfere with one’s pre-conceived beliefs?

In the movie “Inherit the Wind,” the character of Henry Drummond comments on the human power to think. While questioning the religiously bigoted prosecuting attorney he asks the following: “Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth, the power of his brain to reason?”

There is more than a touch of irony here, because “Inherit the Wind” is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes trial about the teaching of evolution. Much like the uneducated, religious fanatics of 1925, Mourdock, Romney, Ryan and their ilk seem quite content to shield themselves from a complex world. They prefer hiding in a closet with likeminded simpletons. The real world, however, requires use of God’s gifts. It requires us to think.
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When Politcs Trumps Religion

People hold fast to many different sets of values, perhaps none more tenaciously than those of religion. That is one reason the First Amendment is first—it cements religious freedom in American life and politics.

I have explained in previous writings why Mormons are not Christian. I have also demonstrated that when it comes to elected office, it does not matter. The freedoms in the First Amendment are not just for Christians. All people are guaranteed the right to worship and believe as they choose. Even the freedom not to believe.

Of course the First Amendment cannot guarantee authenticity. Sadly, many religious people in modern America are misinformed, the values to which they cling are false, their subsequent choices counterfeit.

For example, the claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim, simply is not true, and no repetition can make it so. Obama was born and raised Christian. He lived for a period of time in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country. But he is today, as he has been all his life a Christian. That is fact. Still, there are fundamentalist Christians on the far right who will not vote for him because they errantly think he is a Muslim. And they will not vote for a non-Christian.

On the other hand, they do not apply the same principle (one which I reject) to Governor Romney. Romney is Mormon. That also is a fact. But since Mormons are not Christians, how can the far right vote for him?

I firmly believe that a person’s faith is not a measure of whether he or she is fit to be president. But for those poor, misguided souls who do think that way, Romney is not a viable candidate. Certainly not a viable alternative to Obama. This raises a deeper question. What is really going on here? Could it be that Obama is African-American and their minds are so small that they cannot tolerate a black man in the White House?

From before Obama took his oath of office, some leaders in the Republican Party decided that their primary goal would be to deny him a second term. As a result, they shouted a petrifying silence when Trump and other buffoons questioned if Obama was born in America. Equally deafening was their condemnation of those who claimed Obama was a Muslim. Two indisputable facts. And yet, these same leaders do not address the fact of Romney not being a Christian.

If far right Christians are to be faithful to their beliefs, they cannot vote for either candidate. That would, of course, be a loss to the democratic process. Then again, if people are ignorant enough to think that Obama was not born in the United States, or to believe that he is a Muslim; if they are ignorant of their own Christian theology and do not understand why Romney is not a Christian; if they do not realize that a person’s faith should not be a criterion for holding office; if they are mired in the mud of racism, then just maybe these people not voting, is not a loss to democracy after all.
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The Democratic Party Platform

It is to be expected that certain religious leaders, specifically certain Catholic bishops, would find fault with the Democratic Party Platform. However, once again, the response is over the top. Bishop Tomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois is the latest culprit in attempts to distort Catholic teaching and manipulate the electorate. His letter in the Bishop’s Column of Catholic Times is a case in point.

It is not easy to know where to begin a response. One of the problems I have with these kinds of statements/articles, is that they are deceptive and manipulative. In that, they are also dishonest. Although the bishop claims that he is not attempting to tell people who to vote for, that is exactly his purpose. He exposes his true intent when he refers to President Obama as "The Leader". That is not even a remotely subtle reference to the head of North Korea. It is more even shameful than the attacks claiming that President Obama is a Muslim, or not a U.S. citizen. More shameful because of its subterfuge.

In addressing the original exclusion of the word "God" from the Democratic Party Platform, the bishop implies, as did many pundits, that the exclusion was itself apostasy by the Democratic Party. From my personal perspective, God should never have been removed in the first place. Still, the bishop's implication is simply not true. There is a growing number of agnostic/atheist citizens in this country. Belief in God is a personal choice that people should be free to make. So is non-belief. It is one thing for people to reference God in speech (it seems that every candidate running for office must conclude with "God bless the United States of America"). It is quite another for a party to write into its platform a belief system that excludes a significant part of the populace. The conservative media response, as well as that of Bishop Paprocki, was debunked by Shakespeare years ago in the words of Macbeth, "...it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The bishop then moves to his two real concerns: abortion and same-sex marriage. The reasoning here does more than defy logic. It consigns logic to a world of oblivion. He is also wrong on the facts.

In the case of abortion, he writes that the 1992 platform said that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare". It did not. The first mention of abortion in the 1992 platform occurs in the section titled "Affordable Health Care". There, the platform reads: "...provide for the full range of reproductive choice—education, counseling, access to contraceptives, and the right to a safe, legal abortion." Later, in the section titled "Choice", the document reads "The goal of our nation must be to make abortion less necessary, not more difficult or more dangerous." The 2012 platform reads: "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe V. Wade and a woman's right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay". That language of ability to pay was also used in  the 1992 platform: "Democrats stand behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, regardless of ability to pay, and support a national law to protect that right." Very disingenuously, the bishop suggests that the Democratic Party Platform for 2012 changes its position on abortion from 1992. It does not and he is wrong.

The bishop attempts to link abortion and same sex marriage in the same category, namely, "intrinsic evil". It is almost tedious to have to pick apart the arguments of the bishop. They are presented in a manner that skews truth and defies argument. But argue we must. Again we are confronted with implication. The bishop suggests that abortion is an "intrinsic evil". If so, that would lead to the conclusion that it can never be justified. However, even official Catholic teaching allows for what is called a "therapeutic" abortion. It is rare, and it deals with intentionality, but the very term is an acknowledgement that the Church allows for abortions in extremely rare cases. I do not intend to equivocate. The issue of a woman's right to choose is far more extensive than a therapeutic abortion. Certainly one can approve of the latter while objecting to the former. But honesty would suggest that the argument cannot rest on "intrinsic evil".

As for same sex marriage, there is no legitimate argument for linking it to abortion as an intrinsic evil. The theological arguments favoring same sex marriage clearly prevent it from being considered intrinsically evil. Scriptural scholarship demonstrates that there is no true prohibition against same sex activity. It also lends support to the idea of same sex marriage.

Almost as disconcerting as his deliberately dishonest arguments about abortion and same sex marriage, is the bishop's offhanded dismissal of other issues that are at least as morally significant. In a truly cavalier choice of words, Paprocki writes of the Republican Party Platform: "One might argue for different methods in the platform to address the needs of the poor, to feed the hungry and to solve the challenges of immigration, but these are prudential judgments about the most effective means of achieving morally desirable ends, not intrinsic evils." What a striking lack of vision and failure of leadership!

If addressing the needs of the poor does not constitute a measure of intrinsic good and evil, the bishop might want to revisit his Bible, specifically the 25th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. In the last judgment scene, Jesus identifies a single criterion for admission to the kingdom. It is not how many times one went to church, nor how often one prayed. It is not even who we loved. The only criterion for judging one worthy of the kingdom is how we treat each other. For it is in the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned that we find Jesus, himself.

I wish I could look for better leadership among the country's Catholic bishops. Sadly, however, in the last 30 years we have seen a disastrous decline in the intellectual competence and moral integrity of the U.S. Bishops. Their myopic approach to abortion and homosexuality have left them rudderless as an institution and their leadership morally bankrupt. It has also made it possible to unmask their true intent, regardless of what they say.

Bishop Paprocki claims that he is meeting his responsibilities by writing the article. That to do otherwise would be to abdicate his duty. The truth is a touch more sinister. The factual errors and deliberate intent of the article is itself an abdication of his duty. His true goal is to convince people to vote Republican. In truth, whichever candidates a person votes for is truly and irrevocably a personal decision, and it should not be influenced or directed by fanatical religious leaders who threaten one with the loss of eternal salvation. How pathetic!
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What's Wrong with the Catholic Bishops, Part II

What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
Part 2


In my last blog, I challenged a statement by the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. I suggested that the document disguises a clear bias in favor of Republican political candidates. Nonetheless, the statement cleverly avoids transgressing IRS regulations that prohibit religious organizations from engaging in partisan politics. The rules are the result of granting tax exempt status to religious organizations. In the process, these same regulations should safeguard the free exercise of religion for everyone. That would seem to include not politically coercing congregations during worship services.

Sadly, some individual bishops, don’t seem to understand. Case in point, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria, Illinois. On April 14, 2012, he preached a homily that was an extreme affront both to the Gospel and to the Constitution.

Jenky does not seem to appreciate the Constitution or the world of debate. Does he truly see himself as so self-important that he (as well as the Bishops’ conference) is always right about everything? That only bishops have the answers to all of life’s questions? He must have failed the course on logic in the seminary, for he appears ignorant of the basic principle of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. The building blocks of compromise and consensus. But his diseased logic is minor compared to the symptom.

He castigated politicians who disagree with the Bishops’ position on health care reform. He then proceeded to compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. He certainly is entitled to approve or disapprove of any politician. He is even obligated to explain Catholic values (as he understands them), and how they apply to policies under consideration by various government agencies and elected officials. After all, freedom of religion does not equate with the elimination of religion. Politics and religion should not be adversaries in the lives of the citizenry.

However, Bishop Jenky is not entitled to abuse the role of preaching the Word of God by using it for partisan politics. He has no right to belittle and demean the President or any other individual politician. He betrays his own corruption by attempting to tell his congregation that they must oppose one candidate and vote for another.

Contraception is at the heart of Jenky’s tirade. Theologically, the Catholic Church is on dicey ground when it comes to this subject. Already, more than 80% of Catholics practice some form of artificial contraception in their sexual activity. Putting that aside, Jenky’s actions are not really about faith or theology.

It seems to me that he is simply drunk with the perception of his own power. His preaching makes a mockery of religion and a caricature of himself.

I do not wish the people of Peoria to suffer because of the vicious rhetoric of a misguided bishop. But perhaps the only way to rein in such hateful speech is for the IRS to investigate and ultimately strip the Diocese of its tax exempt status.

In the meantime, let’s hope that Jenky’s routine only plays in Peoria.

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What's Wrong with the Bishops, Part I

What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
Part 1


Two recent statements, one by a Bishops’ committee, the other by an individual bishop, raise serious questions about the competence and integrity of U.S. Catholic leadership. The first deals with religious freedom and the Constitution, the second with the upcoming election.

One of the beauties of the American experiment in democracy is the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment. No freedom, however, can exist unbridled. There are limits. The question will always be whether the common good outweighs the actions of any specific religion. It is part of the price we pay for freedom, democracy and diversity. The alternative is the failed experiences of Christendom and other religiously controlled governments.

In the United States today, as in times past, there are those who would seek—contrary to the Constitution—to severely restrict religious liberty and ban all religious reference from public life. However, the April 12, 2012 statement issued by the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty is both alarmist and disingenuous. The government is not engaged in an anti-Catholic war.

In sum, the committee’s statement is less than defensible. In part, it is dishonest. The selective quote from Pope Benedict XVI implies that the Department of Health and Human Services requires religious organizations, such as hospitals, to participate in intrinsically evil practices. Such language is extreme and misleading. Whatever the Church’s teaching on contraception, it is not an intrinsically evil act.

A careful reading of the ad hoc committee’s statement exposes a thinly veiled intrusion into partisan politics. It is, in reality, an attempt to arouse fear in Catholic citizens and direct their vote toward Republican candidates. As such, the bishops come close to violating IRS regulations. They do not quite cross the line. However, perhaps because the bishops mask their true intent, they dance so close to the edge as to lose their balance. Collectively, the U.S. Bishops are writing and speaking their way into irrelevance.

The heart of the Gospel, and the message that drove the teachings and actions of Jesus, was and must be non-partisan. It also must be rooted in authentic and compelling theology. The committee’s statement is neither. Would that they engaged solid theological principles and applied them equally to both political parties!

That would be something worth reading and listening to!

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9/11 New York Memorial

This is the United States of America. So it should come as no surprise that controversy has arisen over New York’s planned commemoration of the 9/11 attacks. What’s more, this is probably the most ridiculous kind of objection, for it is rooted in the fact that no religious leaders will be included in the ceremony.

For the record, a commemoration has taken place every year since the attacks. The format proposed for this 10th anniversary is the same as those over the last decade. Although many religions have memorials in their repertoire of services, the 9/11 commemoration is not a prayer service and it is not hosted by any religious body.

The commemoration at ground zero is significantly different from the prayer service held at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001. That service was specifically religious and included representatives from several different religious traditions. It was not a civic event and did not foist religion upon the nation, even though the nation was tuned in.

The feigned outrage (I say “feigned” because it is not rational enough to merit legitimacy) of people like Richard D. Land of the Southern Baptist Convention serves only to diminish the value of religious tradition in the United States.

The First Amendment of the Constitution presents us with the establishment and fee exercise clauses regarding religion. A careful reading will reveal that this amendment guarantees not just freedom “of” religion, but also freedom “from” religion. The framers of the Constitution understood the dangers of imposing religion, any religion, on others. This is the reason that courts throughout the land at various levels of judicial review have banned the use of prayer at civic events.

For some reason, people on the fringe of reason, just don’t get it. I find it instructive that the Catholic Archbishop of New York and the President of the Board of Rabbis have voiced no opposition to the format for the commemoration. Perhaps it is because they are both a little more secure in their respective faith traditions.

As a Catholic priest with many years of service, I can attest that people who are grounded in their faith do not need to shout and scream; they do not need to threaten with damnation; they do not need to foist their beliefs upon others. People who are secure in their faith are capable of respecting the traditions of others, even those who have no belief at all.

In his objections, Mr. Land stated, “We’re not France” proceeding to claim that the United States is not a secular society. Actually, we are a secular society. More precisely, we have a secular government for the reasons stated above, coupled with the fact that we (at least some of us) learned through the long and tragic period of Christendom, that governments run by a religion are dangerous and self-defeating.

It is unfortunate that we are not more like France. At the risk of confusing the issue, there were many speeches given to the world community in the build-up to the Iraq War. Yet there was no more eloquent or profound speech than the one given by the French Foreign Minister in opposition to the war. Though not religious, it was rooted in the deepest of moral principles. It was tragic that his argument did hold sway. That oft-lamented hindsight proved him correct.

Any person of faith is entitled to commemorate the 9/11 attacks in a prayer service with his or her fellow believers--or any other believers. There is no law preventing it. However, the national commemoration at the site of the attacks is neither the place nor the time.

This is nothing more than a blatant attempt to hijack this national and international tragedy and politicize it under the guise of religion. In the last ten years, one would hope that we had finally learned that we are not engaged in a religious war. Nor are we engaged in a war of cultures. Whatever the roots or religious beliefs of the 9/11 terrorists, their actions were an attack against the civic structure of this country.

The planned commemoration is exactly what it should be. During the period of silence all present call pray to their God in their hearts. But the commemoration should not be polluted by the misguided intentions of religious fanatics.
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The Federal Budget and Kingdom Economics

The financial crisis of 2008 created havoc with economies around the world threatening virtually every government and economic system with potential collapse. No country lives in a vacuum anymore, not even the once forbidden kingdom of China, and so this crisis created challenges for every nation. It also created opportunity—the opportunity to reexamine our priorities. In the United States that opportunity presents itself in the form of three documents.

Of the thousands of documents that make up the body of American life, including speeches by great presidents, senators and congressmen, these three stand out. One reason is that these are the people’s documents. They define us collectively, and, not unlike the human eyes, they allow us to peer into the soul—in this case the soul of a nation.

The first document is unchangeable. It is the Declaration of Independence. Singular among our founding documents, it grounds the philosophical principles from which a new nation would be born. The passion and commitment to these principles give rise to the second great document.

The Constitution of the United States establishes the supreme law of the land. Because its authors could not anticipate every vicissitude of American life, the Constitution is constantly being interpreted. In extraordinary situations, to address unforeseen concerns and rights, it also can be amended. In the end, it serves to guarantee that the principles of the Declaration are extended to all.

At first, it may seem absurd to link the third document, the Federal Budget, to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To begin with, the budget is in constant flux--at minimum from year to year. Even within a single year, it is frequently adjusted as politicians and special interests wrangle over its appropriations. And since most Americans have no real input on expenditures, it hardly seems like one of the people’s documents.

However, the budget is the practical application of the principles of the other two documents. It determines the priorities that allow (or do not allow) those principles to be lived out and secured in daily life. There is a reason that we use the term “shut down” to refer to an unfunded government. Without the budget, there is no government. Without a government, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are, at best, the dreams of philosophical genius. Precisely for this reason, the Federal Budget, more than any other piece of legislation defines the true soul of the country.

The process of crafting a budget does not just allow us to look into the soul of a people. It also allows to identify and to question the foundations on which priorities are determined. It may be that the world of economics, from the principles of the market economy to the funding of the government is the primary point where the Good News of Jesus Christ intersects modern life. It is certainly the most practical point. Unfortunately, that intersection does not merge into a common path. These days, at least, it leads in the exact opposite direction.

If we take the Gospel seriously, we find ourselves called to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. This Kingdom is not territorial. It is defined by neither a particular political system nor an economic structure. It is a community of shared responsibility and also shared resources. This Kingdom does not benefit one people or group of people over another.

In my last blog I suggested that the current vision of the American dream is incompatible with the Gospel. Human beings will always struggle with tendencies to be self-centered. Yet when major decisions are driven by personal gain, the Gospel call to build the Kingdom goes unheard, and subsequently unfulfilled.

For those who reject any notion of social justice in the Gospel, there is, unfortunately, no possibility of discussion. However, much benefit accrues to those who actually hear the Good News and are willing to examine it. In the parable about vigilant and faithful servants, Jesus speaks about the responsibilities of the servants. Peter asks if the parable is also meant for them. Jesus concludes with the startling statement “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

One might expect that the budget is a document of shared resources benefitting all the people. In fact, much of the budget discussion in Washington is misguided in the extreme. It centers on balancing the budget by cutting resources to the poor. Worse still, is that some in Congress, like Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, couples those cuts with outlandish benefits to the rich.

The despicability of attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the poor should be obvious. I would like to suggest that Ryan and company display a total moral vacuum, and demonstrate a complete lack of respect for the American people by suggesting that this is the way for everyone to share in reducing the deficit. What Ryan’s proposals do is take the United States of America, still the richest country in the world, and swell the ranks of America’s poor while expanding the wealth of the super rich. In the process the middle class simply evaporates.

The Paul Ryan types have probably never listened to the teaching of Jesus nor understood Gospel values. Still, it is not just the Gospel call to build the kingdom that is at odds with many of today’s budget proposals. History, also, is being ignored. While people have always balked at paying excessive taxes, most did not object to paying their fair share. The rallying cry of the American revolution was not “No taxation”. It was “No taxation without representation”—a significant difference. The idea that taxes are evil in and of themselves, and that the larger populace is not responsible for the poor must have arisen from the corrupted American dream that centers only on the individual and the self. Sadly, that is the dream adopted by many a Tea Party activist.

If the Federal Budget is to remain in place alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it must again become the people’s document. For that to happen, the people must rediscover the communal values that made America such a great nation, and then elect representatives who possess those same values.

The budget reflects the soul of the nation. What soul will we project?
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Kingdom Economics and the American Dream

The fallout from the economic meltdown has created great hardship for many Americans, just as it has for people around the globe. It seems that our current situation requires more of us than many citizens, and certainly most elected politicians, are willing to give. So how do we respond to this economic crisis and uncertainty?

One possible starting point is to reimagine the so-called American dream, a task that may prove very difficult, indeed. After all, the idea of the American dream has been around a long time, but it has been defined in different ways at different times. At the risk of political heresy, I suggest that the current version of the dream, as advanced under Ronald Reagan, is fundamentally contrary to the Gospel and should, therefore, be redefined again.

When the American dream was synonymous with owning a home and building the middle class, there was no inherent conflict with Gospel values. In those days workers, to some extent, shared in the profits of the companies for whom they worked. At least the salaries of the executives were not 500 times those of the workers. There seemed to be some acknowledgment that the workers, the ones who actually made the products, were the ones who really made the companies profitable.

Today, politicians are colluding with corporate and financial executives to dismiss the contribution of the workers in pursuit of their own profit. In this collusion, just wages and benefits are not part of their equation. Most amazing has been the way the politicians have deceived so many Americans, duping them into voting against their own best interests. Unfortunately, the effects of this duping extend far beyond the realm of political power.

Since the Reagan Administration, there has been an increasing disregard for the poor and an almost fanatical desire to expand and fill the pockets of the wealthiest Americans, even though Reagan’s “trickle down” economics has been proven a failure. The fact that so many non-wealthy Americans over the last 30 years have bought into this version of the dream (more properly an illusion) makes change difficult, but not impossible. Reagan, of course, is not solely to blame for the corruption of the American dream and the loss of Gospel values. A religious irony is also at play.

Since the advent of televangelism, we have seen numerous preachers restrict their vision of the Gospel to abundant, lavish living. And quite a few of them have demonstrated such living in their own lives. On the surface it may seem silly and gullible for Americans to believe that if they give all their money to the TV preacher, God will return it to them 100 times over. But this is the religious version of a Ponzi scheme, and like all Ponzi schemes it requires gullibility. Unlike Bernie Madoff, however, these preachers are protected by the 1st Amendment’s Freedom of Religion, coupled with the fact that donations are not investments. More insidious, though, is the fact that the televangelist’s scheme is proclaimed in the name of God. The outcome leads otherwise good people to turn their backs on the poor, the sick and the immigrant, in a self-centered pursuit of wealth.

I see two problems at work. The first is one of interpretation, and yes, everyone interprets, even fundamentalists. In John’s Gospel we hear these words from Jesus: “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Like any passage it can be, and often is, taken out of context. The “abundance” Jesus speaks of has nothing to do with wealth. Being inseparable from the word “life”, it is an image of Jesus, himself, who we are told a couple of chapters later, is the “way, the truth and the life.”

There is no authentic interpretation of the Gospel that does not embrace the plight of the poor and the suffering. Catholic social teaching (sorry, Glenn Beck) uses the profound language “preferential option for the poor.” This theology undergirds how Christians should interact with the world in which we live. One tragedy of modern economics is that the vast majority of our world’s population is being driven deeper and deeper into poverty and destitution. In the United States, the American dream is dissolving with the middle class. I am not attempting to invoke the spectre of class warfare. I am simply noting the repetitious results of studies on the American economy. The disparity and gap between the middle class and the wealthiest Americans has become an almost unbridgeable chasm. These realities lead to the second problem.

Christians are called to build the kingdom of God, but that kingdom appears to be at odds with today’s version of the American dream. At least since the Reagan era, that dream has championed the supremacy of the individual. By contrast, the Gospel calls for building up the community. I have long puzzled about the inability of Christians in America to grasp this inherent contradiction. For some, comprehension has not really been the issue. They have simply chosen the false values of individualism over the Gospel principles of community. Of course, the individual and the community are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one cannot exist without the other. But the American view of individualism that has grounded today’s economic system is blatantly anti-Gospel.

The value of our dreams, whether personal or collective, is determined by the effects they have on others. If the American dream is to re-emerge as a legitimate and worthy goal of our citizens, if it is to develop in harmony with the building of the kingdom, then our economic policies cannot be geared toward the few, nor can they benefit primarily the rich. We must, once again, become a nation that cares for the young, the old, the sick and the poor—for all our people.
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America's Lost Gospel

Christianity dominates the religious landscape of the United States. Still, given the great diversity of religious belief in this country, it has always been inaccurate to refer to America as a Christian nation. Today it is also patently false, for America is home to the Lost Gospel.

The Gospel I refer to is not some archeological unearthing of the story of Jesus, like the Gospel of Thomas. Nor is it some discovered fragment like the Gospel of Peter. There were gospels that did not survive with the four canonical ones due to questions of theological accuracy, orthodoxy and history. No, the lost Gospel I refer to is a matter for the modern world and goes to the very core of American Christianity, even Christianity itself, for it is what the four canonical Gospels are collectively all about. It
IS the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and in America today it has been lost. In spite of the fact that many on the religious right claim to be Christians, the Gospel is no longer being lived in the United States and hence, authentic Christianity holds less and less sway. Indeed, America is not a Christian nation.

The evidence has been growing for some time, but has now reached its apex with the deceitful shenanigans of (primarily) Republican members of various state houses. The focus has centered in Wisconsin, but is spreading to one state after another. It has to do with the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for wages, working conditions and benefits. These are core Gospel values.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his now seminal encyclical "Rerum Novarum", outlining the rights of workers and cautioning against unrestricted capitalism. In doing so he gave rise to the social teaching of the Catholic Church, recognizing that at its heart, the Good News of Jesus Christ is a "social" Gospel. That 19th century encyclical was only the first in a long line of unbroken teachings from successive popes. These teachings bring the Gospel of Jesus to bear on the increasing demands of a world shattered by injustice, violence and greed. So the ensuing encyclicals address issues of social order, peace, migration and human dignity.

It is not incumbent upon non-Catholics to embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church on social justice. But it might be wise for everyone to heed the warnings against an unbridled capitalism that places the financial bottom line above the good of human beings.

I am reminded of how the Reagan Administration heralded the neutron bomb. This is a weapon designed to do maximum damage to human beings, while leaving buildings and infrastructure in place. Could there be a more despicable and inhumane weapon of mass destruction? What does it say of the soul of a nation to place more value on buildings than human life?

Comparing the budget of Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislators in Wisconsin to the neutron bomb is not a stretch. What does it say about their soul, that they are willing to sacrifice the welfare, the very livelihood, of the people of their state for political and financial gain? Or that they would sacrifice the exact principles that have enabled working class peoples to rise out of poverty? Theirs is a contemporary example of "neutron" thinking.

It is no accident that the first great social encyclical should focus on workers' rights, for it reflected the growing poverty and destitution of the urban poor. As a first critical look at unbridled capitalism, it was nothing short of inspired--sadly, an inspiration that has not taken root in the hearts and minds of most government or corporate leaders.

Collective bargaining does not represent capitulation to every demand of workers or their unions. The emphasis on bargaining enervates a process that allows give-and-take for the good of all. Governor Walker suggests that he does not want to restrict workers' rights to bargain for wages, only benefits. This is disingenuous in the extreme. Wages and benefits are inextricably interwoven together. The wages paid to workers are meaningless if the workers are not provided a working environment that secures safety and provides for their health. Wages do not matter if workers are not provided lunch and work breaks or sick leave. These are but a few examples of what workers have been able to secure through the collective bargaining process. Walker, casting himself more in the role of an authoritarian, medieval prince than a contemporary governor, would have workers return to the days of serfdom, when the prince set the rules of labor--a labor that was characterized by slavery rather than freedom.

Workers have the "right" to collectively bargain. It is not a gift or privilege extended by a paternalistic government. As a moral right it cannot be stripped away by law or edict. The working class should not be used as political pawns in a vain attempt to control the reigns of government and power. Most especially, workers should not be pushed back into 19th century poverty for the financial gain of corporations or the advancement of the super rich.

Writing as I am about the social Gospel of Jesus Christ, I suppose I should say something about Glenn Beck. I am fully aware that he has counseled his audience to leave any Christian Church that preaches a social gospel. Although my readers are unlikely to be among his fans, it is high time for someone to point out that not only is Glenn Beck in no position to offer such advice, he, himself, is not even a Christian. It will probably require a different blog to explain that. For now, it is clear that anyone who would advise people to walk out of a church that preaches the authentic social teaching of Jesus, is an offense to everyone, not least of which, Jesus.

In the meantime, we as a nation must demand that the rights of workers be protected from the kind arrogant assault launched by Governor Walker, lest this neutron thinking take hold and spread even further.
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Don't Ask, Don't Tell Ruling

Somebody must be reading these blogs, because several people have asked me to write about the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Then, today came the ruling from U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips, ordering the military to cease enforcing the 17-year-old ban on openly gay troops. At this writing it is not known if the Department of Justice will appeal. As always, in cases like this, Judge Phillips will draw both supporters and detractors, and they will come from the predictable quarters.

What is most tragic about this ruling is that it had to made at all. Politics has often been described as the art of compromise. In the case of the DADT policy, it would be more accurate to describe it as a remarkable demonstration of political cowardice. Instituted under the Clinton Administration, DADT was compromise on an issue that needed leadership, not cowardice. At that time, there were already mountains of evidence from psychologists that people do not choose to be gay or straight. Sexual orientation is a matter of birth.

I realize that not everyone agrees. Just witness the irrational rant of Boyd K. Packer, the second highest ranking official in the Mormon Church and his claim that same sex unions are morally wrong and against God's law and nature. I imagine God is just as surprised as I am that Packer seems to know more than God himself about God's own laws! But then again, Packer probably believes the earth is flat! Perhaps his worm's eye view of reality is to blame, but until he can see the world as it truly is, he should keep quiet. He is the perfect example of how ignorance, fanaticism and prejudice are forever busy and need feeding.

Yes, I know that there are other religious groups besides Mormons that object to homosexuality and consider it unnatural. These include some Muslims and some Jews, and also some Christian churches. Even the Catholic Church is on the list and embraces a now-discredited approach. It views homosexual acts as sinful and refuses to accept the morality of same sex unions. But at least the Catholic Church does not condemn a person just for being gay. Neither does it support discrimination against gays and lesbians.

It is instructive that the most vociferous opponents of DADT, same sex marriage or any other homosexual issue are religious people who seek to impose their limited vision and religious agenda on all of society. However, unencumbered by truth or reality, they continue to use arguments that can no longer be sustained. A major truth behind homosexuality is that it is not an article of faith, regardless of what any religion might claim. The sciences, in particular psychology and zoology, have demonstrated that homosexuality is a natural sexual orientation, not a chosen way of life.

It seems to require reflection far beyond the ken of many religious people, but homosexuality is just as part and parcel of God's creation as is heterosexuality. The fact that it is less common, does not make it less real--or even less divine. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. If Christians truly believe that we are all created in God's image, then they must accept that homosexuality is part of God's plan, even it we do not fully comprehend what that plan is. A more enlightened approach might eliminate the severe suffering currently inflicted on gays and lesbians who are forced into secrecy or who feel forced to live false, and ultimately, unfulfilled lives.

Homosexuality may be the last, great prejudice. It certainly is the great current prejudice. Unfortunately, most prejudices are never truly eradicated. They subside only to await the resurgence of ignorant voices. There is no other way to explain the comments of people like Packer. Sadly, his voice is part of a growing pack of fringe politicians and other groups.

What I find of note in today's ruling is that one jurist, at least, possesses the courage that is sorely lacking among our political leaders. This issue should have been resolved in legislation, not in the courts. After all, one of the responsibilities of constitutional government is to secure the rights of minorities. Democracy is fine as far as it goes, but by definition democracy never threatens the rights of the majority. Constitutional government, on the other hand, has the task of ensuring that the majority does not infringe upon or deny the rights of the minority. In theory, minorities have no greater ally than the constitution--it is the only guarantee that their voices will be heard and their rights preserved. This is especially true today when extremism and ignorance are defining characteristics of many a modern politician.

In the absence of political leadership anchored to the Constitution we, as a people, are indebted to the wisdom and courage of Judges like Virginia Phillips.

(For further treatment on same sex marriages, I refer readers to Same Sex Marriage: A Theological Reflection)
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Abortion - Part 5 (conclusion!)--The Morning After Pill

In the previous blogs on abortion, I have presented the supporting evidence from science and the argumentation from theology that enable us to use day 14 of embryological development as the time of individuation or ensoulment. These arguments are both rooted in the process of twinning. I have also noted that on extreme occasions, twinning can take place after day 14, but is no longer possible after day 21.

There is a practical concern here that also must be addressed. Most women do not know they are pregnant until after 21 days. So while I have already made the argument in support of stem cell research, how does this information impact the abortion debate? After all, if most women do not know they are pregnant until after 21 days, and by this time we clearly have an individuated human person, are we not in the same place regarding abortion as we are today?

We would be, were it not for the development of the morning after pill. This pill offers us some hope in eliminating the need for abortion in the first place. At this point in the discussion, we need to address the objections both to the morning after pill and to inter-uterine devices. Up until now they have often been referred to as abortifacients. The argument of the Catholic Church, among others, has been that since these options do not prevent the sperm from fertilizing the egg, they do not prevent conception, but actually induce an abortion by preventing the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall. It is actually a little more complex than that, and by linking the scientific concept of individuation to the theological belief in ensoulment (God directly creating the human soul), the abortifacient argument collapses.

I would like to begin by taking a more careful look at the morning after pill. The use of inter-uterine devices applies to the third part of this examination, when the fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall. However, they also demand more of the woman. Most women would find using a pill preferable to inserting a device. So what exactly does the morning after pill do?

The hormone in the pill has a threefold effect: 1) It prevents ovulation. If the ovaries do not release eggs, then no fertilization or conception can take place; 2) If ovulation has already taken place, the hormone thickens the cervical mucus, thus blocking the sperm and keeping it from joining with the egg; 3) In case an egg has been fertilized, the hormone thins the lining of the uterus, thus making it unlikely that a fertilized egg would be able to implant in the womb. It is at this point that the inter-uterine device and the morning after pill have the same effect. The point is that all of the above processes take place within the first six days, since that is when implantation occurs. Six days are significantly shy of the 14 days required for individuation or ensoulment.

In the case of the morning after pill, it must be taken within five days to still be effective. Obviously, the earlier it is taken, the better. Clearly, the use of the morning after pill does not cause an abortion, and so can no longer be referred to as an abortifacient. More to the point, if the morning after pill is made more readily available to women the world over, we may be able to limit, if not fully eliminate, the need for abortion in the first place.

I stated in part 2 of this series: "Nobody can possibly think that abortion is a good thing, even if some believe it is occasionally necessary." If our ultimate goal is, in fact, the elimination of abortion, should we not establish a policy that makes the morning after pill available to all women? Those who oppose this policy while simultaneously claiming to oppose abortion are, at least in part, responsible for abortion's continued demand.

The purpose of this series was to create a new foundation and context for the abortion debate, and to change the language in order that both sides would actually communicate with each other in pursuit of a common resolution to this issue. I hope I have succeeded.
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Abortion - Part 2

In our society at large, most of the "discussion" about abortion takes place without any genuine dialogue or respect. One reason is that both sides of the debate have taken such extreme positions, that people talk past each other, rather than to each other. The end result, is that the only practical point of compromise has been to allow for abortion, (at least as far as federal funding), in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother.

I believe that there are truly good people in both camps, and that they are motivated by the best of intentions, desires and beliefs. Nobody can possibly think that abortion is a good thing, even if some believe it is occasionally necessary. Hopefully, we all share a common desire to eliminate the need (perceived or real) for abortion. Toward that end we need to engage a dialogue that is accepting of differing opinions, and tolerant of the people who hold them. We also need minds that are open to change and agreement.

In my last blog, I suggested that "human life" and "human person" are different terms, and I ended with the following question: At what point does the human life that began at conception become a human person with the dignity and rights afforded every other human person? Let us first take a look at the contribution of the biological sciences.

At this stage in the abortion debate, all reasonable people should agree that immediately upon an egg being fertilized by sperm, a life process begins that, if uninterrupted (either artificially or naturally), will result in the birth of a human being. Embryological studies demonstrate that from the moment of fertilization, there is in the zygote a new biological identity that is neither that of the father nor of the mother. We have human life. But is this human life also a human person?

Many of us have met identical (monozygotic) twins at one time or another, perhaps even triplets. Ever wonder where they come from, other than the obvious? They are the result of a process known as twinning, whereby a fertilized egg can split into identical twins or triplets. Although this twinning frequently happens early in the development of the embryo, it can take place up to 14 days after fertilization. It is not commonly known, but the physical similarities between identical twins depends on when the zygote splits. When the split occurs early on, the twins appear less identical, although they still are. The later the split, the more alike the twins appear.

At the same time, gastrulation (the point at which the embryo attaches to the uterine wall and establishes the basic body plan) does not occur until day 21. As a result there are rare circumstances when twinning takes place even after day 14. This usually results in conjoined, or Siamese twins. For the purposes of understanding how twinning contributes to the abortion debate, it is sufficient to use the 14 day period. At that point we have what scientists refer to as individuation. That means that each embryo is a single person.

Of course, identical twins are not an everyday occurrence, with the worldwide estimate being 10 million. Some people might wonder, therefore, why such concern over something as rare as twinning. I would like to suggest that it is more accurate to say that identical twins are an "uncommon" occurrence, and to consider conjoined twins as "rare". After all, it would be disingenuous to dismiss 10 million people from this discussion. Although most zygotes will not separate, we cannot state with any degree of scientific accuracy that we have a unique, individual human person until day 14, since any one of those zygotes may, in fact, become two or three human beings.

Note that, from this scientific approach, viability is not needed to determine individuation and personhood. This, then, sets a firm foundation for a legal position. Since all rights append to individuated persons, not to human life in general, I suggest that the term "human life" in the abortion discussion be replaced with the more accurate and substantial term "human person".

Most of the momentum for opposing abortion arises from religious tradition. These beliefs are profound, often emotional, and grounded in a deep faith in God and what is believed to be God's most precious gift, life. The arguments as I have so far presented them hold up well in the domain of science, but how do they fare with religion? Neither religion nor science can dismiss the other if we are to arrive at understanding and achieve a national consensus on abortion. How can we bring these two differing, but not opposing or competing, disciplines into harmony?

As the old phrase goes, "Stay tuned".
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Abortion - Part 1

Recently, I was informed by some friends that my blogs are long. And I thought they knew me! Although I understand a blog to be shorter, in principle, than an article, I still like to make it comprehensive and complete. BUT, I have heard, so I will divide the topic of this blog into parts.

For some time now I have been trying to develop an approach to the abortion debate that might achieve some civility between the camps and perhaps even lead to an acceptable compromise or national consensus.

In a conversation I had recently with a friend, I raised this issue. His response was something to the effect that the debate over abortion is over. Since we did not pursue it, I'm not sure what he meant. Abortion is certainly established law in terms of Roe v. Wade. Yet the current Supreme Court, while upholding elements of the 1973 ruling, has also continued to chip away at the legal protections to a woman's right to choose. The fact that abortion is not as prominent an issue in this election cycle also does not mean that it is settled as far as the general population is concerned. And it clearly is not settled as far as politicians are concerned. There is a bill proposed in the House of Representatives to make the Hyde amendment permanent U.S. law. Sadly, but predictably, it is supported by the U.S. Catholic Bishops. The Hyde amendment, in force now for over 30 years, requires renewal every year. It bans the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life. What about the President?

One of the responsibilities of the President of the United States is to appoint Justices to the Supreme Court. For the foreseeable future, abortion will continue to be raised each time a vacancy occurs on the high court, which means the President will seek a nominee who is confirmable, read one who can pass the abortion litmus test--a test administered from both sides of the debate. During the confirmation process, senators will attempt to get the nominee to commit himself or herself to a legal position regarding Roe v. Wade. Correct that. The senators will try to get the nominee to commit to a political position on Roe v. Wade, with the more clever appointees dodging the issue--just like politicians! At the same time various pundits will weigh in on the issue. We will hear the voices of those who support Roe v. Wade and those who oppose it. We will be subjected to the ideologies of those who support a woman's right to choose and those who are adamantly opposed to abortion. In the simplistic dialogue and labeling that characterize so much of our national discourse, we will hear from those who are "pro-choice" and those who are "pro-life".

In an ideal society, abortion should not be part of a litmus test for being confirmed as a Justice of the Supreme Court. The Justices do far more than hear abortion cases, and their decisions have profound impact on nearly every aspect of American life. We, of course, do not live in an ideal society. Nonetheless, to begin a process of moving away from the abortion litmus test, let me suggest the following:

First of all, sound bites and labels. While they might score points and be successful in the short term are ultimately degrading in the long run and contribute to what has now become one of the greatest tragedies of modern U.S. life: the dumbing down of America. Take for example the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life". Of these two, "pro-choice" is the more accurate, since it primarily indicates support for a woman's right to choose. However, there exist many nuances to being pro-choice and a certain amount of complexity exists in trying to define someone who identifies with this label. As for the "pro-life" label, it is even more complex. The only so-called pro-life issue for most of this movement is being anti-abortion. That much is clear. How else to explain their total disregard for all other aspects of life that allow people to actually live, such as feeding food for the hungry, caring for the homeless, providing universal health care? The list goes on. Clearly, complexity defines this group since major church organizations that are anti-abortion also identify as pro-life in many other areas. I must, however, give the political arm of the "pro-life" movement credit. For while they often oppose all legislation that truly advances human life and dignity for the born, they remain steadfast in their opposition to aborting the unborn. Two results? They have hoodwinked good religious people, and the dumbed down American public actually buys the pro-life label!

So, if not sound bites, then what? I deplore the kind of labels that drive people into opposing camps and create walls of separation over which none can speak nor hear. At the same time language, or more precisely terminology, is essential to understanding another's speech and analyzing another's concepts. It is to this task that I suggest we turn our attention in an attempt to move the abortion debate toward a national consensus. It will require a willingness to think, to talk and to listen. The extremes from both sides will probably refuse to engage. We cannot control them. But we should not let their refusal control us. So for the rest of us....

It seems to me that the first hurdle we must get over is the term "human life". Religious groups as diverse as Christians and Mormons have held that human life begins from the moment of conception. In the past some scientists have opposed that notion. But today, even most scientists would agree that the life process that begins at conception is a human one. It is a long process and the majority of fetuses will actually spontaneously abort. But all things being equal, when human beings conceive, what emerges nine months later is another human being. Still, "human life" and "human being" are not co-terminus. We must ask the question: At what point does the human life that began at conception become a human person with the dignity and rights afforded every other human person?

Up next, an attempt to answer that question.
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Iran, Stoning, the Koran and the Bible

As a matter of full disclosure, I am unabashedly pro-United Nations. If that loses some readers just as I begin, I make no apologies. I consider it their loss. At the same time I am a committed Christian, specifically, Catholic. Finally, I am profoundly anti-death penalty. Just how much can be covered in one blog? Let me try to limit it this way.

It is embarrassing to me as an American that our country is the only developed nation that still executes convicted criminals. There is an English phrase that some might want to resurrect and reconsider: "A man is known by the company he keeps". As countless others have pointed out, capital punishment puts us in league with Iran, Iraq, North Korea (the three countries designated as the Axis of Evil by former President George W. Bush), Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, and a number of other less objectionable countries. One thing that sets the U.S. apart from some of our death penalty pals, is that for the United States, capital punishment is not a command of God. It is enacted for purely secular, and, I might add, unsupported reasons, such as deterrence. In the quiet of our solitude and the recesses of our hearts, I suspect we all know that the only reason for capital punishment is revenge. Unfortunately, that cannot be voiced aloud in our current political climate.

America's problems with the death penalty might best be served in a future blog. For now, the real concern is religion and its misuse in determining the laws that control governments and their citizens. Recently, much unfavorable coverage has fallen on Iran. That in itself is no surprise, since Iranian President Ahmadinejad continues to offer reason for disdain. But recent coverage has dealt with decisions to stone people to death, in particular a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. It is very reminiscent of biblical times. Except that for educated Jews and Christians, their sacred writings have been subjected to the tools of literary criticism, thus enabling them to filter out those elements of the Bible that are conditioned by the social structures and mores of the times in which they were written, thus approaching a more accurate understanding of what God is saying through the writers of the Bible.

I say educated Jews and Christians, because among both groups there are still those who take a literal view of the Bible suggesting that the Bible is inerrant and every word should be accepted exactly as it is written. It is somewhat sad that in this day and age it is necessary to point out the absurdity of such a position. There were no secretaries taking shorthand notes, no dictaphones and no digital recorders when the Bible was written. The Holy Spirit inspired people to reflect on their situations, on God's presence in their lives and on how they might respond to God's call. But they did not always get it right. There are contradictions throughout the Bible beginning with two different and irreconcilable creation stories presented in the first two chapters of the very first book, Genesis.

When I was in the seminary I was fortunate to be taught by an internationally recognized Scripture scholar. One of his favorite statements was: "The Bible is the Word (read singular) of God in the words (read plural) of the men and women who wrote it" (The parentheses are mine). He also suggested that no significant conversation can take place with someone who does not acknowledge that the Bible can be subjected to the same principles of literary criticism that every other writing can.

To be fair, there are educated Muslims who understand that the same principles of literary criticism must be applied to the Koran, though for some reason that seems to be a far more difficult process--perhaps because there are several countries that have established Sharia, or some form of it, as their civil law. This makes it quite difficult to read the Koran and conclude that stoning a woman for adultery is neither the will of Allah, nor an acceptable practice under any concept of human rights.

Thus we arrive, once again, at the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It can be strongly and accurately argued that the Declaration should outlaw capital punishment in every country. It should also be noted that there are a number of articles that many, if not most countries violate in the name of national legislation, and which should bring down condemnation by the UN as a whole. Unfortunately, that might actually lead to the dissolution of the only organization capable of moving the peoples of the world toward some kind of order and peace.

I would like to suggest that those countries that implement the death penalty because of religious law are especially onerous. It seems to me that they stand in violation of at least the following articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 and 28. As such they deserve their own form of condemnation, while not excluding or exonerating more secular governments such as the United States. It also seems that countries that impose Sharia, or some other form of religious law upon its citizens stand in violation of articles 18, 29 and 30. Given the extremism of some elements of Islam, I guess this is where I consider myself lucky to be a Christian.

I realize that the United Nations, both by its structure and mission cannot exclude or expel countries that rule under some kind of religious law. But I would like to suggest that no religious text can supplant the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This includes the texts that the three Abrahamic faiths consider to be revealed such as the Bible (Hebrew and Christian writings) and the Koran. It also includes writings that are deemed sacred and holy such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, the Tao Tse Ching, etc.

As a Catholic, I am committed to the truths contained in the Bible and I believe that it offers time honored principles of justice and peace that are often dishonored by its most vociferous defenders. But I also believe that in the effort to bring about cooperation among the world's nations and eventually to achieve world peace, there may be no greater writing than the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

It may be acceptable in some countries to establsh a law that adultery is illegal (though I would have difficulty finding such justification). But to suggest that the penalty should be death is as great an affront to Allah as it is to the person caught in the act.
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France and the Burqa

There are probably scores of people who find it presumptuous and more than a little arrogant for an American to lecture France, or any other country, on religious tolerance. I have never been given to a great deal of modesty, but let me begin by saying that I abhor the intolerance and xenophobia rampant in the United States today, particularly the anti-Latino and anti-Islamic fervor that seems to dominate the daily news. That said, there are some significant problems with both houses of the French parliament passing a law banning Muslim women from wearing the Burqa in public and this is an issue that needs to be addressed and challenged even if it comes from an American like me.

One of the most amazing elements of planet earth is the extensive diversity of culture, religions, and other traditions. I live in Los Angeles, perhaps the most diverse city on the planet. A great deal of its charm is the exposure to and interaction with so many of these different cultures. Not everything can be justified in the name of religious traditions and cultural differences. This is profoundly acknowledged in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those rights cannot be subverted by differing understandings of God or diverse religious and cultural experiences. By definition these rights are universal and belong to all. Not even religious traditions can claim superiority over them. At the same time objecting to certain traditions and religious beliefs does not necessarily equate with intolerance. So what about the French situation?

It is by now a truism that in times of economic hardship and uncertainty, people in almost every country will look for a scapegoat, and that scapegoat is defined as "the other", usually aliens (legal or illegal) who have come into the country to take away jobs from citizens. The xenophobia that surfaces from such economic stress extends not just to the job market, but embraces the idea that foreigners have come to our lands to change who we are and how we live. The general populace is frequently caught up in a collective memory, or better a collective amnesia, about how things used to be. With little in the way of reality, politicians charge forth with the claim that we can take back our countries from "the other" and restore them to what they used to be. There's just one problem, or maybe two. One, the way our countries used to be exists mostly in the minds of the disillusioned. And two, politicians who play on that amnesia and fear do not really care about the poor or middle class. They simply manipulate suffering and distorted memories for their own self-serving agendas.

In the movie "The American President", Michael Douglas plays a first term president whose reelection is not guaranteed. Attacked relentlessly by a senator from the opposition party named Bob Rumson, he initially remains silent. Finally, in a compelling scene before the White House Press Corps, the president says the following: "Whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: Making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections."

Sadly, that statement could have been issued by the president or prime minister of any democratic country today. And the accusation is certainly apropos to the French leadership. Some people credit President Sarkozy and other politicians with cleverly taking charge of phrasing the issue of the Burqa, namely, that it violates the rights of women and the traditions of France. Phrasing the issue in that vein would be clever were it not so deceptive and insidious. Let's first take a look at deception. The Burqa may be a bit extreme by Western standards, but it is worn by a clear minority of Muslim women and it is not contrary to the traditions of France.

The history of the Catholic Church, particularly throughout the Western world, should serve as a foundation of reason and tolerance regarding the wearing of the Burqa. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, it seemed as though there was a competition among religious orders of women as to who could design the most outrageous habit. Though clearly not a Burqa, the only body parts of Catholic nuns that were visible were their faces and their hands. Yet no one suggested that Catholic religious habits were contrary to the traditions of France or any other country, or that the habit made Catholic nuns subservient. In fact, history arguably demonstrates that much more societal good was accomplished by nuns than by priests.

The second element in the way Sarkozy phrased the debate is despicable for its insidiousness. In recent years, parts of the Muslim world have come under intense scrutiny and condemnation for the practice of female genital mutilation. While considered a religious practice by some, it is a clear example of religion not being able to trump the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is simply unacceptable and barbaric for any religious group to engage in this mutilation for the sake of advancing an outdated and restrictive approach to sexuality--one that clearly makes women subservient. Sarkozy is a smart politician, and he knew that by appealing to the rights of women and claiming that they were made subservient, he would at least subconsciously play to the appalling practice of female genital mutilation.

Of course, there is no correlation between the wearing of the burqa and female mutilation, but then such problems have never stopped a politician with unbridled personal ambition. It seems hard to imagine, especially living next to the state of Arizona, but the xenophobia of Western Europe is even stronger and more destructive than in the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic it is an offense to the dignity, equality and inherent worth of all human beings and the fact that we share this planet together.

Given that the burqa is worn by such a small minority of Muslim women in France, Sarkozy might consider that by attacking those women who do wear the burqa, all Muslims in France have now been served notice that legitimate traditions of their faith are subject to prejudicial political will, and the oppressive power of the state, especially if provides a scapegoat for society's problems. Not unlike the governor of Arizona, Sarkozy may score the political points he so desperately needs. But in the end, the cost to his own soul and that of the people of France may not be worth it.
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The Pledge of Allegiance

American citizens are notorious for lacking historical knowledge. I guess it should not have been surprising then, that while Sarah Palin was running for vice-President she could only name one Supreme Court decision. On the one hand, she is not the best example of American historical knowledge, on the other hand, she is indicative of an appalling and almost ubiquitous ignorance. The Pledge of Allegiance is a poignant example of this historical ignorance primarily due to the attempt of the religious right to hijack the U.S. Constitution and even more so to their efforts to make the United States a religious country--specifically, a Christian one, and fundamentalist Christian at that. In the process, they have no qualms about trampling on the rights of the minority.

In the case of the Pledge of Allegiance, the pertinent part of the history is that Congress passed legislation inserting the words "under God" into the pledge in 1954. President Eisenhower signed the bill into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. Perhaps most noteworthy is this happened during the height of the "Red Scare" and the now disgraced antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. In truth, the United States was never under serious threat of being taken over by Communists. But that is somewhat beside the point. By definition fear is not driven by reason or facts, and a whole host of Constitutional violations followed the rantings of McCarthy.

I was educated in a Catholic elementary school in Norwalk, CA. The sisters were Irish and obsessed with the need to prove that Catholics were loyal Americans. Perhaps because of the strong push by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, the sisters quickly picked up the revised pledge and made it the start of our school day. The fence in my parents' backyard separated our property from a local public school, and the contrast between the two schools could not have been sharper. Many of the kids on our block attended that school, while my siblings and I went to the Catholic school two blocks away.

In the charm and innocence of youth, we used to refer to the "under God" edition as the Catholic Pledge of Allegiance, and the original edition as the Public Pledge of Allegiance. It was not quite that simple. And yet, "out of the mouths of babes"... There seemed to be an inherent sense among children that the phrase "under God" did not belong in the nation's pledge. In Catholic school, we were inundated with religion all day long. Each class began with a prayer, there were frequent celebrations of Mass and regular trips to the confessional. It was all part of belonging to the Catholic ghetto. Mind you, this was before John F. Kennedy ran for and was elected the first Catholic President.

There was nothing unseemly about being immersed in Catholicism as an expression of family beliefs. It ingrained in us not just a faith in God, but an awareness of the history of the Catholic Church and a belief in God as worshipped in that Church. Still, the Catholic school was about more than just religion. In the midst of Catholic indoctrination, we were also well educated in civics. One of the hallmarks that stood out in our classes was the non-religious character of the American government. Today one might use the term secular in an attempt to denigrate our society. But the secular nature of the U.S. Constitution was seen as a gift and a national treasure. After all, it left us Catholics, as well as other peoples, free to express and practice our religion as we chose. Inserting "under God" into our pledge of allegiance was easily seen as an integral part of our faith. Since it would have been unheard of for an atheist to attend a Catholic school, no undue pressure or constitutional violation was at issue.

That was not the case for those attending state schools when President Eisenhower signed the bill into law, and it is not the case for state schools, or state organizations, today. Decent American citizens who for reasons of their own conscience do not believe in God, should not be forced to pledge allegiance to God at the same time they pledge allegiance to their country.

It is popular for people who support the "under God" phrase to point to the use of "In God we trust" that appears on our currency. A similar lack of historical knowledge comes into play, for that phrase did not begin to appear on coinage until the civil war and was not declared by Congress to be the official motto of the United States until 1956. Even more blatantly than altering the pledge of allegiance, establishing the national motto in 1956 was specifically connected to the cold war and the fear of communist aggression.

Though never formally and officially proclaimed, it had long been understood that the motto of the United States was "E Pluribus Unum" (From many one). It is, I suppose, debatable as to whether the Latin phrase should have been officially designated the U.S. motto. Certainly, there is greater weight in its favor than "In God we trust". From the beginning, the United States had been a country that was forged from many cultures and traditions to form a singular bond of unity. Those many cultures and traditions include religions that were once foreign to the new world. Included also were and are those people who hold no religious faith at all. Yet all these peoples are equal in the eyes of the Constitution.

One further illogic in comparing the motto on currency to the pledge is that currency is essentially passive. Nobody cares or pays any attention to what is written on our coins and bills other than the denomination. They are simply passed from person to person to satisfy monetary debt. Reciting the pledge of allegiance is active and requires in its recitation the acknowledgement of and implied submission to God. It does not take much reasoning to see that the modified pledge is a violation of the Constitution.

The pledge is a statement of allegiance to the flag and the country it represents. It is not a pledge to a God that people may or may not believe in. In the United States people are free to believe in any kind of God they choose. They are also free to not believe in any God. "Under God" simply has no place in a pledge to a flag and a country whose constitution forbids the establishment of religion. If religious schools and institutions want to use the amended pledge, that is their right, although one might question the wisdom of such a decision and wonder if they are not, in fact, establishing two nations. But schools that are paid for by public monies simply have no right to place God in the nation's pledge any more than Congress had the Constitutional right to do so in 1954.

If little children were able to see that placing "under God" in the pledge of allegiance made it a religious statement, why cannot adults comprehend the same? The real question, of course, is whether or not we have a congress with the integrity and moral conviction to return the pledge of allegiance to its original and inclusive form.
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The First Amendment--America's Gift and America's Retreat

For much of its history, the United States has officially stood for advancing democracy around the globe. In practice, of course, U.S. Administrations often covertly helped to establish despotic regimes in other countries or to prop them up in the name of national security interests. But the official position has been to help peoples around the world make their own democratic choices for their own futures. Although democracy can take many different forms, the United States has usually seen itself as the great model for others to follow. There is some truth in that concept, but perhaps it needs a little nuancing.

The greatest gift that American democracy has to give to other peoples is not the stirring inspiration of the Declaration of Independence. It is not the structural efficiency of the Constitution. It is not even the intrinsic elegance of the Bill of Rights. Yet it is within the Bill of Rights that we find this single greatest gift, namely, the First Amendment. Of the several rights enumerated in this amendment, it is the Freedom of Religion, as expressed and combined in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, more than anything else, that sets a precedent for the United States, and an example for the rest of the world.

Some history might be helpful to put this in perspective. Broadly put, Christendom can be defined as that era of European history in which a symbiotic relationship existed between church and state. The positive social elements of Christendom enabled the Church to link together the countries of Europe and preserve a certain social unity. It also enabled the Christian faith to grow and expand throughout the Western world. At the same time, it must be viewed overall as a failure.

For one thing, Christianity is not a political religion. The Gospel, itself sets us on a correct understanding when we hear Jesus tell the disciples that they are not of the world, and when he informs Pilot that his kingdom does not belong to this world. Another failure of Christendom can be seen in its disregard for the primacy of the individual conscience and the subsequent lack of religious freedom. That limitation on the freedom of religion is a defining characteristic of any theocracy.

Even before the Reformation, Christendom began to collapse and a tense relationship developed between the church and civil authority. The idea of religious freedom or separation of church and state that found expression in Europe was often one of hostility. But with the American revolution, a new concept of religious freedom emerged. The establishment clause of the First Amendment clearly prevents the government from creating or even appearing to create a state religion. The Free Exercise clause, immediately following, prevents the government from denying people the right to participate in the religion of their choice, which includes the freedom to be a non-believer.

On Sunday, September 12th, we find ourselves at the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's historic speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which he defined his understanding of the separation of church and state. American Rhetoric presents a visual excerpt of the speech as well as the text of the entire address. A critical paragraph from the speech reads as follows:

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him."

Seeking to become the first Catholic President, JFK felt the need to explain freedom of religion in order to dispel fears that he would take orders from the Pope. Unfortunately, Kennedy had a much keener understanding of this freedom than do most politicians today. His grasp of this most basic freedom was more accurate than many judges and justices. And his appreciation for this freedom was more grounded than many citizens today.

In the last 20 plus years we have watched as America has taken a steady backward slide on the issue of religious freedom. Catholic bishops and politicians have sought to have public monies used to support the Catholic school system under the guise of "vouchers". Protestant ministers and presidents have sought to have the federal government fund their religious programs under the guise of "Faith-based Initiatives". Politicians and other public figures have called for America to return to God. And most egregious of all, ministers of varying faiths have done exactly what Kennedy said they should not--from the pulpit they have told parishioners who to vote for.

Although it might seem strange, believers, most notably Christians, are profoundly ignorant about values and morality. While the values we hold dear and the morality that springs from them may be a part of many different religious traditions, no individual religion can claim those values as being rooted in faith. Nor can religions collectively make that claim. God pre-exists any and all religion. For believers, God created the universe, but God existed long before human beings appeared on the earth and long before the first religious traditions were formed.

Values and morality are rooted in human nature, what it means to be human. Since I believe in God, I believe that those values are instilled by a loving creator. However, because they are rooted in human nature itself, agnostics can be as committed to the common good as believers. In fact, given that so many "religious" people no longer even speak of the common good, I would suggest that many agnostics are ahead of the curve. As a Catholic priest I can certainly see a value in individuals making or renewing a personal commitment to God and to the community programs that are part of their faith tradition. However, it is essentially contrary to our founding documents to call the nation, as a nation, back to any kind of commitment to faith.

Eventually all theocracies will fail. In Israel, the grip of Orthodox Judaism is losing its hold as more people stand up to the oppressive demands one religious group. In like manner, Islamic states that impose Sharia, suppress human rights and deny religious freedoms will undergo the same failure of Christendom. But what will replace these repressive legal systems?

The United States experimented with a new kind of freedom of religion, and a new understanding of the separation of church and state. For the most part we have succeeded and been an exemplary model for the world. But what can the U.S. possibly say to other nations if they witness us shred the very foundation of our own nation? We must rediscover the dual elements of religious freedom enshrined in our First Amendment. This is our greatest democratic gift to the world. JFK knew that. If there is to be a renewal in our country, let it be to the First Amendment. This September 12th let us once again be the country envisioned by JFK.
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Is the U.S. a religious country?

On August 31st of this year, the Gallup organization issued the results of a poll conducted in 2009 examining the place of religion in people's lives. The survey included 100 countries and attempted to determine how religious commitment correlates with a country's wealth. While religious commitment is strong among the poorer nations, one of the conclusions reached in this study is that the United States stands apart from other wealthy countries, particularly Japan and certain countries in Europe, with a whopping 65% of the population saying that religion plays an important role in their daily lives. In spite of attempts by Gallup and other polls to determine the place of religion in American life, it may be a fruitless endeavor, at least insofar as identifying any correlation between wealth and religious conviction.

A more basic question is whether or not the place of religion in the United States represents authentic religious values, indeed whether or not this commitment is even truly religious. Almost as soon as the question is posed, it is obvious that we have set upon a treacherous path. After all, given that religious commitment is deeply private and personal, and given that one of the founding principles of the United States is freedom of religion, then on what authority can one possibly judge the validity of another's faith? I am not here concerned with the legal and constitutional issues of religious freedom. Nor am I concerned about the Judeo-Christian values out of which this nation is formed. I recognize that the United States, being the quintessential melting pot, is a reflection of the wide range of religious beliefs and teachings that abound in the world at large. But I remain convinced that there is something foundational to religious authenticity that is not being addressed. For this we need to look more broadly at the world of religion.

The concept of world religions embraces Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but I include the offshoots of these religions, and I also look to the numerous natural or animist religions that have existed among indigenous peoples around the world, such as what are found in Africa and among the native Americans. The social fabric that was intertwined in both religious belief and tribal structures is near universal in character. There is a theme that runs consistently through many of these religious traditions. That theme is a concern for the poor, the sick, and those whom we might define in a number of ways as disenfranchised, essentially those unable to care for themselves. In the case of tribal religion, such concern was essential for survival. In the case of the Abrahamic faiths, it is presented as an edict from God and so becomes part of revealed truth.

It is easy to look back through the history of Europe and identify the extravagances and excesses of the oligarchy that kept vast numbers of people in abject poverty. This self-indulgence of the rich directly contributed to the revolutions that sought a re-distribution of wealth and political self-determination in attempts to create some measure of equality. The violence that defined several of these uprisings is indicative of the desperation that such intolerable and inhuman situations created for so many people and for such long periods of time. Not all the revolutions succeeded equally, and some failed miserably, but their intent was the same. In the case of today's developing nations, a similar concern often serves as a driving dynamic in the political process. And, as in the case of European history, success is mixed.

Somewhat ironically, throughout all the injustices of the past, the rich and powerful often used religion as a tool for keeping the poor under control. So on the one hand we had religious traditions speaking about a concern for the poor, a concern sometimes directed by God. On the other hand, we had an oligarchy that used the same religious traditions to manipulate the poor and keep them in subservience. In the case of colonial powers, there was even an attempt to suggest that the religions of the West created superior beings who, by supernatural design should rule over the inhabitants of foreign lands. No wonder Marx judged religion to be the opiate of the people.

This brings us back to the United States and the recent Gallup study. Clearly, there is a great deal of religious commitment on the part of many Americans. More Americans attend religious services and, according to the recent study, for most Americans religion is an important part of their daily lives. Without doubt, much of that is truly authentic. But a closer examination indicates that a corruption, I would even say a perversion, has crept into the American religious culture that raises substantial questions about its overall authenticity. This appears to be occurring primarily on the so-called religious right, primarily Christian, which is flexing its muscles in an attempt to further corrupt the rest of American society.

I would call this a modern version of the abuse of religion that has defined so much of human history. The first indication of corruption surfaces in the observation that the Christian right has almost fully abandoned that most basic of religious principles, namely, concern for the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. The next indication of corruption is perhaps even more obscene and is identified by a blatant misuse of God and God's name. It is bewildering how such groups claim to know what God intends in every situation. And it is at least arrogant that they use God in an attempt to dismantle every public policy that seeks to care for others and call out the best in each of us.

I suppose that the depth of the perversion is the self-centered orientation that motivates them to action. The Tea Party is a good example. It is loosely affiliated and not specifically religious. Yet, like many of the Christian right who make up the Tea Party, they possess no concept of the common good. They are driven by one concern only--getting and keeping their piece of the pie, no matter how many lives are lost or destroyed in that pursuit. When it comes right down to it, the Christian right is about money, not morality or values. Glenn Beck, whom I have previously criticized, is a perfect example. By calling on people to leave any church that preaches social justice, he has effectively called on people to turn their backs on God. Then he has the audacity to use God's name in a doomed attempt to bolster and defend his ideas.

As the great world religions prove, there is more than one way to respond to God's presence in our lives and to build a better world for all. In spite of their differences, what they proclaim collectively is grossly deficient in the American Christian right. So, is the U.S. a religious country? Yes, but we have a long way to go to be authentic.
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