Religious Freedom

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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Freedom of Religion in Indiana

Religion is under attack in America. It has been for a long time. But recently, it is specifically the Christian Faith that has been targeted. The classic example is secularizing Christmas; stripping Christ from the celebration with the use of “Xmas.” Yes. I realize that among scholars this a practice dating back hundreds of years and has nothing to do with secularization. X represents the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet, “Chi”, and has long stood as a symbol for Christ. Therefore, Christmas and Xmas are actually the same—both of them meaning “Christ Mass.” But that’s not the point. The issue is that today it is not just Christian scholars who are using Xmas. So are non-Christians and even non-believers. It’s a little like a family—I can say anything I want about my sister, but you can’t. Infantile? Without question. But there are other, even greater onslaughts against religion.

In more recent years, marriage has become the weapon of choice for attacking the Christian Faith. Everyone knows that marriage is only between a man and a woman. The Bible never says that, but it implies it. In recent years there have been feeble attempts to fight back with slogans such as, “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” But if homosexuality is the great sin against God that many Christians believe, we need more than slogans. We must fight back with all the ammunition in our arsenal. Enter the great State of Indiana and Governor Mike Pence.

Pence just signed legislation that guarantees the free practice of religion. Bakeries, florists, dress makers, tux shops and photographers, will not be forced to support same-sex marriage. And indeed, why should they consort with sinners? Indiana had to take a stand. Before this legislation was passed and signed by the governor, every same sex couple in Indiana sought out anti-LGBT establishments to provide the food and decorations, etc. for their wedding ceremonies. Why couldn’t they just patronize gay establishments? We needed this law.

There is another, even more important, dimension to this crisis. Indiana is evangelical territory. As such they always ask the question WWJD? Well, what would Jesus do? Better yet, what
did Jesus do?

Jesus frequented the company of prostitutes. I don’t mean that he slept with them. But they did hang out together and share a few drinks. And when it came to tax collectors, Jesus did more than drink. He enjoyed their lavish meals, even though other religious leaders criticized him for it. And let’s not forget the lepers. Jesus not only allowed them to approach him, he reached out and touched them, thus making even the Son of God unclean according to the religious laws of his day.

Does this mean that Jesus endorsed the activities of tax collectors or the life-styles of prostitutes? Of course not. But he did fraternize with them. More importantly he did not condemn them or shun them. As for the lepers, they did not choose their situation and Jesus embraced them for who they were.

On the basis of these and other things that he did it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus would have attended gay weddings. He would have enjoyed the company and the food. He would have shared in the toast and maybe even danced with the two brides. Who knows? Maybe he did. The Gospels certainly do not say that he didn’t.

Hmmm! I may have been terribly wrong about the Indiana legislature and Governor Pence. As it turns out this law is not about the free practice of religion. It is about the free practice of prejudice, bigotry and hate. There is, after all, another way to view the current situation of religion in America. Christianity is, indeed, under attack. But the threat comes from within.

Many Christians have lost sight of who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Whatever answer one offers to the question WWJD, Jesus certainly would not be supporting legislation that condemns, discriminates and pushes people to the margins of society.

This new Indiana law is not so much anti-LGBT as it is anti-Gospel and anti-Jesus. The irony would be comic if it were not so extreme. Every serious scholar acknowledges that Jesus never appeared in ancient America. But there is a new question today: “Will Jesus ever appear in Indiana?”
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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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The Phantom Menace: Women Religious and the Catholic Church

The Phantom Menace:
Women Religious and the Catholic Church


Now that I have your attention. No. This is not a blog about a Star Wars episode. It is far more serious. At the same time, not unlike the Star Wars saga, this entry touches upon the aspirations and values of people. Aspirations of equality and values of freedom. Hopefully, it is also a challenge--at least to the Catholic population of America.

Over time there have been many profound reflections on power: its place, use and misuse in history. Frequently it is the subtext of a biography about political leaders. Sometimes, power itself is the subject, occasioning a forthright and direct comment or observation. Or both.

Arguably, the most over-used, and often misquoted, statement about power comes from Lord Acton. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A second statement about power pre-dates Acton by nearly 2,000 years.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…” This reflection, admonition, command, (call it what you will), comes from Jesus. It appears in nearly the same words in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. It would appear that the Vatican has deliberately chosen to ignore both of these cautions on power.

Recently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s watchdog on doctrine, issued a censure against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The document chastised the sisters for publicly disagreeing with the U.S. Bishops (read health care). More perplexingly, they were admonished for remaining silent on other issues. I’ll return to that in a moment.

Some may think that I exaggerate by casting this in the light of power. However, for much of the Church’s 2,000-year history, Rome (and bishops throughout the world) has turned a deaf ear to Jesus on the very issue of power. The translation I chose uses the word “tyrant”. That may not be as extreme as it first sounds.

The women who have come under censure are highly educated. In fact, as a group they are far more educated priests. They are also profoundly religious and holy servants of the Church. Now Rome comes along and decides that these women, who have dedicated their lives in service of the Gospel, are not competent to run their own affairs. In a phenomenal abuse of power, the Vatican has decided that Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle should now control the LCWR. This includes approving what women may or may not speak at LCWR meetings. Did I mention that the Archbishop is a man?

It is not a stretch to suggest that the U.S. Bishops have opposed the LCWR not because the sisters disagreed with them, but rather because the bishops are speaking themselves into irrelevance. And they are lost.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that the bishops are single-issue oriented when it comes to public policy. However, their obsession with electing politicians who claim to be anti-abortion, has left the bishops on the fringe of American life when these same politicians advance legislation that is alien to Gospel values. The sisters were clever enough not to fall into that trap. However, there is a deeper problem. Rome does not seem to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ admonition.

Authority and power are two very different entities. The bishops are concerned that power might slipping through their fingers. This recent censure suggests that the bishops are the only ones who can be right, and everyone else (which includes all women) should serve them and acquiesce to their ideas and interpretations.

By contrast, the sisters are concerned with serving (empowering) the people, especially the poor and marginalized. They are concerned with recognizing the movement of God’s Spirit among all the people. As such, the sisters are the ones who speak with moral authority.

Rome’s censure has caused me to recall a scene in the film “A Man for All Seasons”, about St. Thomas More, who served as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII. When More was brought up on false charges, one of the accusations was that he opposed the king’s title and claim of supremacy over the church in England.

Cromwell accused More of denying the king’s title by remaining silent. More defended his silence by invoking an ancient adage. “The maxim is ‘qui tacit consentire’. The maxim of the law is silence gives consent.” If the sisters remain silent on positions taken by the bishops, then their silence should be construed as agreement, not opposition. That is not good enough for Rome. The sisters are not only being told what
not to say, they are now being told what to say.

One day the sisters will be vindicated. In ancient mythology Atlas was depicted as holding up the earth. In the real world the Vatican does not hold up the sun. Force and abuse of power cannot hold back the night. Look outside. Darkness is beginning to settle on the men who lord it over the Church.

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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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Ghettos without Windows

Historically, ghettos were quarters or sections of a city that isolated ethnic groups from the rest of the inhabitants. The term originated in Venice, identifying the area where Jews were forced to live. Over time it came to signify any area in which minorities or those considered less desirable are cordoned off from the remainder of the city. In recent decades, the concept and use of the word ghetto has become much more ubiquitous.

In the United States, ghetto has become almost synonymous with those parts of the big cities where African-Americans have been housed, frequently in government projects. Due to the poverty and ensuing violence, these ghettos are also symbols of squalor and destitution. Although the term is not used in South Africa, the townships established during the Apartheid regime were a tragically perfect imitation of the American ghetto, replete with the poverty, violence, and lack of government services that every citizen has a right to expect. Like the ghettos of Europe and the United States, these were populated by forced occupancy.

The condition of these ghettos has frequently and accurately been depicted in literature and film. In most cases, at least absent wartime, the inhabitants are free to leave their confines and traverse the larger city, even if they cannot live in it. In modern ghettos the people are not walled off, the buildings have windows and there is some open space from which to view the sky. I am not here attempting to sanitize the living conditions of the poor and ethnic minorities. This is merely a foundation for using the physical reality of ghettos as a metaphor for an even worse state of existence.

This is the ghetto of the mind. Its state of existence is worse because it is self-imposed. Why someone would choose to live in such a state is anyone's guess. Existing solely within the mind, it is not physical, and yet it permeates the real world spreading infection for which there are no antibiotics or cures.

Examples abound, with arguably the most corrupt and destructive one being what I like to call the "Catholic Ghetto". Not unlike prejudice, it is rooted in pure ignorance. What is even more distressing for me, as a Catholic, is that it bears no resemblance or kinship with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and most truly should not be afforded the name Catholic. The nonpareil of the Catholic ghetto is the Catholic League, an insular and hysterical caricature of the Christian Faith. If the Catholic League is the nonpareil of this kind of ghetto, then its leader, Bill Donohue is the archetype of intellectual vacuity, and his expressed Catholicism disingenuous.

Take for example, his recent and totally fabricated row with the Smithsonian over an art exhibit. David Wojnarowicz, was a gay artist who died of AIDS in 1992. His video included a brief clip of a crucifix with ants on it, a description of the artist's pain and suffering. There seem to be three elements at work in this hullaballoo all of which cast doubt on Donohue's integrity, his intellectual prowess having already been put to rest.

First, the suffering of someone dying of AIDS is probably beyond the imagination. Second, Wojnarowicz was attempting to infuse our imaginations with his reality thereby assisting our comprehension of great physical suffering. Third, through the imagery of the Cross, Wojnarowicz embraces the exhortations of the Apostles to link our sufferings to those of Christ. To suggest that this art somehow desecrates a symbol of Christianity, demonstrates an ignorance of art and demeans the Cross itself. Donohue's faith is unbecoming any follower of Christ. Believe it or not, the reality of the ghetto actually gets worse.

In popular mythology there is a belief that tragedies occur in threes. Of course, there is no scientific validity to the claim. Perhaps our sensitivity is simply heightened by the first event. But clearly, tragedies do multiply. In the case of Donohue and the Smithsonian, it appears in the person of Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York. He wrote in his latest blog how Bill Donohue's work is of great value to the Church. One would assume he was writing about the Catholic Church, after all, Dolan is not only the Archbishop of New York, he also is the newly elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And if he was writing about the Catholic Church, then beware.
Hoping that Dolan's blog is tongue-in-cheek, would be asking too much even of God. If the Archbishop really thinks and believes what he writes, then the Catholic ghetto mentality is receiving a fresh dusting of ecclesiastical approval. The tragedy? One might excuse Donohue for his ignorance of the Catholic Faith. We cannot be so generous with Dolan.
When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council he wanted to open the windows and let the Spirit of God breathe freely upon the Church. In the Catholic ghetto that defines Archbishop Dolan's Church, there are no windows to open. In fact, there is no Spirit to let in. In a world of tremendous poverty, and injustice, with natural disaster of untold proportions afflicting every corner of the globe, it seems as though Dolan has his priorities totally out of balance.
Although it is not always easy, I usually seek to find some kind of hope when bishops so distort the truth of Jesus Christ. In this case, even though Dolan is the new President of the Catholic Conference, he lives in New York. I live in Los Angeles. That is scant consolation to the people of New York, of course. But keep this in mind. The church of Jesus Christ is broader, more tolerant, more compassionate, and even wiser than Bill Donohue or Archbishop Dolan. Intellectually, and in terms of faith, no one has to live in their ghetto.
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Agnosticism and Religious Relevance

According to a number of recent studies, agnosticism is on the rise--at least in the United States and Europe. Pope Benedict XVI has centered his pontificate around leading Europe away from secularism and back to its Christian roots. The inevitable question must be asked: Is religion still relevant?

I was born and raised in a Catholic family and I have spent most of my adult life preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. So I approach this question with a bias in favor of religion, specifically Christianity. Still, other religions and even non-believers make essential contributions to the traditional understanding of God. Ironically, agnosticism, in particular, has the ability to both challenge and strengthen traditional religion. While there may be any number of reasons for a person to choose agnosticism, I would like to look at two. I believe that understanding these is essential to appreciating the insight agnostics bring to a discussion of God.

In a previous post on 03-Sep-2010, entitled "Multi-Universes and God" I took issue with a position physicist Stephen Hawking posits in his new book, "The Grand Design". As noted in the post, he argues for spontaneous creation based on gravity and in the process dismisses the need for a creator. My response suggested that while possibly negating certain concepts of God, Hawking's argument does not negate the need for the Bible's "creator" God. After all, the Bible is a book of faith. As such, it tells us that God created the world, but leaves open to scientists to determine the actual process of creation. That having been said, I can appreciate the developments within physics and other disciplines that lead many scientists to conclude that there is not or may not be a God. I can also appreciate the observations they bring to a discussion of God, that actually deepen faith. And since science and religion are not in competition with each another, I believe that the paradoxes will ultimately be resolved, but the dialogue must continue, for there is much that science and religion can teach each other. However...

There is another source of agnosticism that, while easier to comprehend, is more difficult to engage. The difficulty in addressing this particular agnosticism is that it is rooted in religion itself. More precisely, it is rooted in the way that religion is often presented. Indeed, there is a strong Christian component at work here and it is counter-productive. For the very people who want Jesus to be the center of life are the ones who are relegating Christianity to the periphery and, potentially, obscurity.

Every generation needs to find relevance. We look for it in work, in politics, in social structures and in religion. It is what we seek in our personal and inter-personal lives. But the Christian religion, despite its foundations, is failing on this front. Church authorities in various denominations proclaim the faith in such a way that it is anything but relevant. When a religion adheres to ancient belief systems without trying to bring them into harmony with the modern world, that religion has no claim on the mind or heart. This leaves thinking believers floundering about in a vain search for meaning within their religious traditions. When they don't find it, what options remain?

In Catholicism, the great 20th century movement to update the Church known as the Second Vatican Council is on the verge of being consigned to the dustbin of history. Vatican II accomplished exactly what it set out to achieve: a renewal through which the Church could read the signs of the times and merge the faith of our fathers with the reality of modern life. The Council began its changes by issuing new translations of the prayers for the Mass and the sacraments--changes that both God and humans could understand. Following that, Vatican II developed religious practices and teachings that discerned the divine presence in the secular. The Council outlined the role of religion in one of its seminal documents, "The Church in the Modern World". Slightly more than forty years later comes Benedict XVI. On the heels of John Paul II, he is attempting to roll back Vatican II's changes and direction, apparently oblivious to the fact that he cannot also roll back society or the world. By divorcing the divine from the secular, the Catholic Church actually give voice to agnosticism.

Besides disassociating itself from the secular, there are other ways in which the Church is sinking into irrelevance. These include its worship. Like the Second Vatican Council itself, the changes begin with prayer. Every element of a living faith is first of all based on the ability to communicate with the divine. When people in the pews are unable to speak in natural cadence, forced instead to use stilted formulations, God becomes distant and unreachable, not imminent and approachable. Never mind that these translations are supposed to be closer to the original Latin. There is a reason Latin is a dead language. This is not a hopeful or effective way to communicate with or relate to God. History will not look favorably on English-speaking bishops who surrendered the beauty of their language to the authoritarianism of Rome.

Perhaps because God is becoming more distant in the pews, there is now a renewed interest in demonic possession. More than 100 bishops and priests attended a conference on exorcism in Baltimore this past weekend. The organizer, Bishop Thomas Paprocki is a reasonable man, sounding neither hysterical nor hyperbolic when speaking of possession and exorcism. He organized the conference so that dioceses around the nation could be prepared, and he emphasized that an essential element of that preparedness is being able to distinguish between mental illness and demonic possession of God's people. Yes, you read that correctly and it is just as bizarre as it sounds--demonic possession of God's people.

R. Scott Appleby, a highly respected scholar at Notre Dame suggested that the action of the bishops makes perfect sense. By emphasizing that the Church deals with the supernatural, he said: "It's a strategy for saying we are not the Federal Reserve and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons." It is not clear if that is his own perspective or if he is simply observing the actions of the bishops. In either case, it is hardly convincing, and more than just a little embarrassing.

Fr. Richard Vega of Los Angeles, President of the National Federation of Priests' Councils suggested that there might be a rise of exorcism requests in the United States due to the migration of Catholics from Africa and South America--people, he says, who are more in touch with the supernatural. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if people who are more in touch with the supernatural need all this exorcism, then either their concept of the supernatural is seriously defective and tends toward magic, or the Church's concept of the supernatural neglects and minimizes God's love and care for his own people. It is fairly easy to see how this kind of nonsense might lead one to the conclusion that there is no God.

For myself, I still believe in Jesus. But I suggest that all believers speak about agnostics with more respect. After all, we might be the reason they don't believe.
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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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Burn a Koran--Let's think again

Although the website for the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida lists ten reasons for burning the Koran, it basically comes down to one: the Koran is not the Bible and so it is not consistent with Christian teaching. Well...

In 1960, Stanley Kubrick directed a superb film entitled "Inherit the Wind". It is based on a 1955 play of the same name that fictionalizes the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925. The trial involved a high school teacher accused of teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in his science class contrary to Tennessee law.

The most dramatic scene in the film occurs when defense attorney, Henry Drummond, calls the prosecutor, Matthew Harrison Brady, to the stand. In one exchange, Drummond says the following: "The Bible is a book. It's a good book, but it is not the only book." Far from being a gratuitous comment (Drummond was not commenting on the mere existence of other literary volumes), his declaration attempts to identify that the Bible is not the only source of truth in our lives. This idea should be self-evident. After all, no new writings have been added to the Bible in almost 2000 years, yet new discoveries continue to impact human life on a regular basis. Nonetheless, it is still difficult for fundamentalist Christians to grasp this fundamental concept. It is far easier to reside in a simplistic world of easy answers to complex questions, especially if one can attribute those answers to God's revealed word. The fact that those who claim to interpret the Bible literally are, themselves, given to an interpretive process need not disturb the simple-minded.

The basic truth for such people is that any religion other than Christianity is false. In spite of the fact that Jesus was, himself, a Jew, even modern day Jews are expected to convert to Christianity or be damned. Recently, at a wedding reception for a Catholic who married a Buddhist, I sat next to a Missouri Synod Lutheran who blatantly told me that anyone who was not a Christian was going to hell. From this perspective, not only are other religions false, but it becomes an easy leap to claim that they are the work of the devil, as Dove World Outreach has claimed of Islam. Never mind that there is wonderful truth in Islam that is quite in keeping with the principles of Christianity or that there are millions of Muslims who coexist peacefully with non-Muslims.

One obvious problem is viewing Islam only as an Arab religion and identifying it only with the Middle East Even worse, is suggesting that Islam is coterminous with terrorism. As others have pointed out, the largest Islamic country in the world is Indonesia, half-way around the world from the Middle East, and in that country Muslims have coexisted with Christians, Buddhists and Hindus for generations. It is true that Islam does not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, reducing him, as Christians would call it, to the stature of merely a prophet. Yet Islam traces its roots back to Abraham and the Koran teaches much of the same morality found in the Bible.

I suspect that Dove World Outreach and similar groups are not really afraid that Islam engenders and supports terrorism or even that it is the work of the devil. The real fear is that Islam challenges their Christian faith, a faith that is as superficial as it is bigoted. Having long ago surrendered their intellects to a literal interpretation of the Bible, they no longer have a reason to think and so have no response to people of other faiths. This uneducated and myopic vision of Christianity prevents them even from engaging in discussion and dialogue. Such fear of ideas eerily recalls the Nazis burning any books that did not adhere to the "German spirit" and the ideology of the Third Reich. Perhaps it is not so surprising that Dove Outreach should use the same strategy. And just as in the book-burning campaign of the Nazis, the press will dutifully be on hand to broadcast the Koran burning as if it were real news.

What concerns me most about Dove World Outreach and similar groups is not their fundamentalism, their ignorance nor even their bigotry. What concerns me most is that campaigns such as "Burn a Koran" take place in the United States, a country that was founded on religious freedom. These actions allow fear and ignorance to triumph over tolerance. Left unchallenged, they destroy the basic ideals of the American Constitution.
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What is a Christian? Someone should tell Glenn Beck

From the time of the Reformation to today, the Christian faith has been fractured and has had to contend with competing theologies. To be sure, there were divisions before the Reformation, most notably the splintering of Christianity between the Eastern Church (Orthodox) and the Western Church (Roman), but this separation was more about power within the Church, and less about theology. The Reformation changed all that. There were many issues that the reformists identified as corrupting within the Church of Rome. And in the counter-Reformation, with the Council of Trent, many of these issues were corrected, albeit too late to prevent lasting division.

Even in the long shadow cast by the Reformation, declaring oneself to be a Christian is not a matter of personal definition, i.e. one cannot be a Christian simply because he or she claims to be. There are some objective standards that are non-negotiable. For example, anyone who does not believe that Jesus is divine, that he is the Son of God, or anyone who does not believe in the Trinity, cannot be a Christian no matter how strenuously they make the claim.

At least since last Spring Glenn Beck has been telling Christians to leave those Churches that preach and promote social justice. Well, by now it is fairly well established that the Gospel of Jesus Christ IS about social justice. It is too lengthy to deal with in a blog, so let me cite one example.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus takes a clear stand against divorce. What many people do not realize, however, is that his position is intended to advance social justice, specifically, to support the rights of women. In Jesus' time, women could not own land, they were themselves property; owned first by their fathers and then sold to their husbands at the time of marriage. Women were not permitted to divorce their husbands, though husbands could divorce their wives. In that case, unable to return to her father's house, her only means of support would be to turn to prostitution. Jesus' prohibition against divorce was a direct challenge to this social injustice.

The whole idea of being a follower of Jesus should be about bringing Gospel values to bear on society, establishing the kind of equality that Jesus lived and that our Constitution enshrines.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was an appropriate venue for envisioning a future America that might embrace the equality that consumed Abraham Lincoln and led him to deliver the "Emancipation Proclamation", bringing about an end to slavery. It would, of course, be a long time before the Civil Rights Movement would further advance the cause of equality and justice for all Americans.

As a Christian minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. looked to the Gospel to ground his commitment to civil rights; the same Gospel that Glenn Beck has been seeking to distort and hijack for lo, these many months. Glenn Beck has a right to his opinion, and even to his speech. He does not, however, have a right to the name "Christian". Whatever he is, he is not a follower of Jesus Christ. As I said in the beginning, that is not a title that people can own simply by claiming it.

Glenn Beck's bigotry is a corruption of the Gospel and insulting to Christians. To spew it from the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech, is also a betrayal of Martin Luther King and the civil rights he gave his life to achieve.

Hopefully, the majority of Americans will tune out to the hatred and division that have come to define Beck. Although, given the 24 hour news cycle of modern America, it may be difficult to avoid it altogether. As I said, Glenn Beck has a right to his opinion and speech, but does he really need a microphone?
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Manhattan Mosque

In recent years commentators have noted the degree to which fear drives many political campaigns. Perhaps it has always been an element of electioneering, but it has reached a new pitch in this heated and divisive election year. What does not get as much press, is the degree of hysteria that has gripped so many people of all stripes and persuasions, most notably those on the far right. Some of this is clearly rooted in the economic troubles of our society and world, in the uncertainty of our future, in the longing for a past that exists mostly in our imaginations, and, of course, in the over play of the term "War on Terror" (thankfully, the use of that phrase has subsided somewhat). Even more so, it may be rooted in the need to identify a scapegoat for all our problems. Almost by definition, this hysteria finds expression in inaccurate language that does not serve dialogue or the common good. For example, the proposed construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan has been incorrectly referred to as the "Ground Zero Mosque" or "WTC Mosque." Such terminology is anything but innocent, especially since the mosque is slated for construction blocks away.

The term "Ground Zero" has become ubiquitous as a designation for the site where the Twin Towers collapsed following the 9/11 attack. So be it. Given that there is a new tower and museum in construction on the Twin Towers site, one is left to wonder about the lack of integrity among those who refer to Park 51 as the "Ground Zero Mosque". I, myself, would merely marvel at the term if it were not so insidious. By design, some political leaders and commentators have used the term to fan the flames of hatred, mistrust and ignorance. Sarah Palin is intellectually vacuous and does not deserve any more press. However, Newt Gingrich is an educated and intelligent man. What could possibly possess him to weigh in on this issue from such a distorted and legally deficient position?

As Gingrich and others know, the correct name for the project is "Park 51," and it is not just a mosque. It is an Islamic community center that includes a fitness center, auditorium, pool and a restaurant. It will provide a much needed interfaith program seeking to advance dialogue and understanding. It will also include a memorial to the victims of 9/11. I wish it were simply a question of misunderstanding, but the deeper truth can be seen in the calculated and ultimately treacherous effect this kind of speech has. But that is what the right intends.

A significant part of the U. S. population is ignorant about Islam, and for that matter, the 9/11 attacks. Over 60 countries lost citizens in the terrorist attacks. Muslims were killed in the attack and they also participated in the emergency response and rescue. Major Islamic groups in the United States were quick to condemn the terrorism. President George W. Bush took great pains to state we are not at war with Islam, and a number of Islamic governments have joined the efforts to defeat terrorism. Yet for many Americans, particularly those who choose not to think or to be informed, 9/11 was the work of all Muslims and the Islamic world is at war with us. Sadly, Gingrich, et al, are counting on such ignorance to advance their self-serving agenda.

For the rest of us, freedom of religion cannot exist only for a few nor only for those we approve of. The First Amendment is remarkable for its inclusiveness and breadth of equality. It is clear that if the proposed center were Christian or Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu, there would not be this outcry. Just how "American" are those who oppose Park 51 because it is Muslim? Without the Constitution, this would not be the United States and the freedoms we treasure so deeply, including the freedom of religion, would still be only a dream. How ironic that descendants of the American colonists should turn that dream into a nightmare!
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