Tag Archives: religion

American. Christian. One of these is not like the other.

19 May

Last week I finally started reading a slim volume that’s been waiting on my bookshelf since last fall. Not a moment too soon.

A Public Faith by Miroslav Volf (Brazos Press, 2011) tackles a chronic, nettlesome question: What kind of relationship should Christians (and perhaps by extension, other people of faith) have with their culture?

Writing “as a Christian theologian to followers of Christ,” Volf offers an alternative approach to the extreme positions that can define the boundaries of faith in the public square: “totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion” or “secular exclusion of all religions from public life.” (He might have added an older reflex among many Christians, to vacate and try to ignore the public square altogether.)

The timing was good because, along with the rest of the universe, I was trying to digest President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, which came on the heels of the North Carolina amendment that banned such unions in the state.

But that was only the biggest headline among several in recent weeks that reminded me how hard it is to navigate a believer’s “dual citizenship.” Michelle Bachmann’s recent Swissues are nothing compared to the complications of being a Christian and an American.

For starters, there was military college course, now suspended, that advocated total war on Islam, using the World War II firebombing at Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as models for how to deal with Muslim sites.

There was a budget proposal in the U.S. House that would have reduced the deficit by drawing down education, welfare and other social-aid programs, while increasing defense spending and not touching tax rates. (The Senate voted down this budget on May 16.)

Closer to home, several readers didn’t like a piece I wrote in a Christian magazine, which reported on a survey that found that Fox News viewers were not as well informed about the Occupy Movement as consumers of other news outlets and that Fox viewers have a significantly more negative view of the Occupy protesters.

I’m not surprised by criticism. But one reader baffled me when he said he didn’t want to believe that “a professor of communications from the restoration side could believe that swill.” (He was referring to my church heritage and that of the college where I teach, which has its roots in the Stone-Campbell, or “Restoration,” Movement.) His remark left me wondering: When did uncritically accepting Fox News—or any media outlet—become an essential of the faith?

Miroslav Volf

I can spot a thread running through these events: some American values and ideas—including good ones—are not necessarily Christian ones.

What I mean is that as an American, I cherish free speech, equal rights under law, freedom of religion and a long list of other civic virtues. But as a Christian, I have other principles besides, expressed most obviously in Sermon on the Mount and modeled most powerfully by Jesus himself.

No doubt that American and Christian values peacefully co-exist much of the time; sometimes they even agree.

But not always. As the last few weeks show, there’s often tension if not contradiction or outright conflict. For instance, I can’t see how to honestly interpret Jesus’ words or life as condoning “total war” against people of other faiths.

And maybe I’m missing something, but the thrust of that proposed budget seemed to turn upside down those Scriptures that warn against God’s people relying on chariots for their security, as well as dozens of texts that call for generosity and justice for poor people (Isaiah 1:17, 10:1-2; 25:4; 47:6; 58:7; Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 21:13; 22:9; 28:27; 31:8-9—just for starters).

Then there’s same-sex marriage. As an American, I believe in equal rights under law for all people, including gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, same-sex marriage is not biblical. We can debate whether all those Jewish and Christian Scriptures that govern sexual conduct are relevant or binding or even rightly interpreted, but four millennia of teaching and tradition places the burden of proof on those who say same-sex unions should be consecrated by the church.

To put it another way: While same-sex marriage may be American, a matter of equal rights and social order, I can’t say it’s Christian.

I find Volf helpful when thinking through these kinds of tensions, in large part because he starts by recognizing there’s no single way in which Christian faith ought to relate to culture as a whole. “The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that,” he writes. “Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet many more.”

Volf uses his book to answer three “simple questions”:

  1.  In what ways does the Christian faith malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions?
  2.  What should be the main concern of Christ’s followers when it comes to living well in the world today?
  3.  How should Christ’s followers go about realizing their vision of living well in today’s world in relation to other faiths and together with diverse people with whom they live under the roof of a single state?

I’m not sure they’re actually that simple, but if you’re interested in thoughtful answers to these questions, pick up this book. Volf is accessible—a fine, formal and clear writer who keeps the theological jargon tamped down. He’s helping me think about the tension I’ve been feeling, as keenly as ever, of living as a Christian in America.

Is this cat in heaven?

16 Apr

Stache

My cat, Stache, died almost six weeks ago. More precisely, I had him “put to sleep,” as the euphemism goes. Kidney failure finally brought him down, but it was only a matter of time in any case. He missed his 17th birthday by only a few weeks.

That cat was around for most of our family’s life. We watched him being born, one-fourth of a litter. He and his brother, Biggin (as in “Big One,” because he was), moved back and forth across the country with us and, odd as it seems, they became one of the few constants in our lives during those years.

I wrote this note and posted a photo on my Facebook page the night Stache died:

“RIP Stache (1995-2012), beloved and affectionate cat. (Pronounced “Stash,” as in ‘Moustache.’) Traveler (Ohio, Colorado, Tennessee), adventurer, hunter, sometime lord of the manor, and a virtual member of the family for almost 17 years. Peacefully “put to sleep” today with advanced kidney failure. Stache and his twin brother, Biggin (d. 2007) make me hope that animals are in heaven.”

The response astounded me: dozens of notes of sympathy and assurance, including this one from Paul, an esteemed church historian: “Yes, there will be dogs and cats in heaven, but the cats and dogs will lie down peacefully together next to the lions and the lambs. Really sorry to hear this, because pets are family members and they ‘make history.’”

When I went to bed that same night, I felt myself waiting for him to jump up and curl behind my knees. I mentally checked myself and then sat up and cried like a baby. It took about three weeks for me to stop looking for him to come out from the flowerbed or greet me in the driveway when I pulled in from work or jogged back after a run.

A 17-year habit is hard to break. A 17-year relationship, even with a cat, is hard to let go.

I let the subject slide until last week. Then a Time cover story (April 16) about heaven appeared, summarizing the view that heaven is more tangible than we often think. Would that include animals? (This followed a Feb. 20 cover story about animal friendships.)

And then Christianity Today published a forum in its April issue, specifically asking: “Do Pets Go to Heaven?

So between articles in major magazines, the overwhelming response from friends, including some I haven’t heard from in years, and my own experience (and the fact that Americans spent almost $51 billion on their pets last year, according to the American Pet Products Association), this seemed like a subject worth thinking about.

The three Christians who responded in the Christianity Today article, all evangelical Protestants, were hopeful but noncommittal. Reuniting with Fido (or Stache and Biggin, in my case) is a warm and fuzzy idea, but there’s not a theological consensus.

That’s pretty much the case if we look more broadly. The Roman Catholic Catechism, for example, doesn’t explicitly say one way or the other. It does, however, distinguish between “animal souls” and “eternal souls.” Thus, many Catholic and other Christian thinkers follow the logic and say that because animals’ souls aren’t eternal and because they can’t choose to believe or follow God, they can’t be in heaven.

Others, however, point to all the biblical verses that affirm the value of animals as part of God’s creation, as symbols of his “peaceable kingdom” (Isaiah 65, etc.), and even objects of his salvation. (Take a look at the last verse in the book of Job.) All this, many Christians say, would say that animals are part of God’s eternal plan.

We haven’t even considered what Jews and Muslims think. That’s in the next post.

Notes from England: A Christian socialist on faith, politics and Thatcher’s legacy

8 Mar

Terry Wynn, MEP

In the last post, I introduced Terry Wynn, a long-time friend from England: Wigan native, rugby league fan, Methodist lay preacher, veteran of the shipping industry, Labour Party leader, former member of the European Parliament, author of two books that outline his beliefs about the relationship of faith and politics, Onward Christian Socialist (1995) and Where are the Prophets? (2006).

I emailed him a few questions last week, asking him to reflect on the Thatcher years, when my family and I lived in England, and to find out what he thinks now. What follows, slightly edited, are my questions and his answers. (I’ve kept the British spelling.)

Dahlman: What do you think Margaret Thatcher got right for the long term? (She served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990.) What did she get wrong? What did the UK gain as a result of her premiership, and what did it lose? What might Europe learn from those years?

Wynn: My industry was shipbuilding, and it was wiped out because it was being subsidised. New yards were closed and ships were then built in Korea or Japan. She did the same with the mining industry and there have been lasting legacies. … So I could have lingering anger at what she did.

However on reflection (and I speak from a centre-left perspective, having moved further right as I have got older), she was ahead of many in Europe who saw subsidising traditional industries as the norm. Over the years I have come to realise that most industries have to work in the market.

Having said that, I’m not too sure that profitable industries, like the energy sector, needed privatising. The privatisation of gas, water and electricity just gave massive resources to a small group who bought them. When water was sold off, huge tracts of land, the water catchment areas, went with it. … This really was giving away the family silver and it applied to other sectors.

Taking power from the trade unions was inevitable; they had gone too far under Labour. (Thatcher’s) trouble was that she was ruthless, and once she knew that she could get away with whatever she wanted, with no-one advising against, she just went gung-ho in what turned out to be a suicidal course.

Tony Blair (prime minister, 1997-2007) had a lot of respect for some of the things she did, and I suppose his attitude remains mine. Not many Brownie points in the Labour Party for saying that.

Terry and Doris Wynn, at home in 2003

The long terms pluses were a slim-line economy ready to face the challenges of new technology.

The downside was that she created a me-too society, where caring for one’s neighbour was less important. Looking after number one was what mattered most. The UK became a selfish society, and she did say, “There is no such thing as community.” It was the time when materialism took centre stage.

I think Meryl Streep’s portrayal (in The Iron Lady) was pretty good, but I know Labour colleagues who didn’t like it. I thought it a great movie.

As for Europe: The single market demanded a free-market economy and many countries had to come to terms with competition. (Thatcher) had put the UK at the forefront and it was a benefit.

How have your politics changed over the years? I thought of your book, Onward Christian Socialists. If you were to revise it, what would you change, if anything?

I re-read (the book) some years ago and decided the only thing I would change were the two or three typos that I found.

I’d like you to finish this sentence, in your own voice: “Jim, if there’s one thing I want you to learn from your time over here, particularly about putting faith and politics together, it’s …”

“… it’s that if you live by the teachings of Jesus, you can’t help but to be political. Whether that be as politicians or being involved in everyday local politics, even church politics. Jesus demands that we act, we are our brother’s keeper, we have to love our neighbour. But above all we have to stop being judgemental of others and learn to empathise and understand their plight.”

 “Socialist” has become an even more loaded word in the U.S. than it used to be and can be easily misinterpreted. (I think some readers’ heads might explode when they see “Christian” and “socialist” together.) So how do you define the word “socialist” or “socialism” in this context?

Can Americans accept that Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela would describe themselves as such? … Don’t forget the old Labour Party Clause 4, which Tony Blair had to ditch for electoral reasons, is straight out of (the book of) Acts: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That’s my kind of Christian socialism.

Onward, Christian socialists! (Really?)

7 Mar

St. Tesco's: Yes, this was a church building. The former Westbourne Methodist Church in Bournemouth is now a supermarket.

The English church scene differed greatly from the U.S. in the 1980s, when my family and I lived there and worked with a small congregation near Wigan. (See my previous post.) It still does, starting with the fact of the state-supported Church of England. Entire books have been written describing the British religious situation, far too much to summarize here. But a few constants remain from the 1980s, including:

  • About 5 to 10 percent of adults attended church each week, most of them over 50 years old. That’s still the general situation, both in Britain and in Western Europe, although we can see some pockets of growth among younger adults.
  • While the cultural remnant of Christianity is very visible in everything from place names to historic buildings to the role and public pageantry of the Anglican Church, its day-to-day impact is minimal. By 1980, the UK and Western Europe were deemed “post-Christian.”
  • The Pentecostal-charismatic groups and congregations have made a strong impact, partly due to the lively worship, partly due to the sense of renewal, partly due to immigration. House churches mushroomed, and the charismatic movement was felt in virtually every church group, including Anglican and Catholic.
  • Immigration also changed the country’s general religious makeup. By 1985 more Muslims than Methodists lived in England.
  • No Christian group could be pegged to a particular political philosophy or party, at least not accurately. Even the institutional Church of England had already turned from being “the Tory Party at prayer” to being a frequent critic of political Conservativism.

Terry Wynn

Terry Wynn and I met in 1983, thanks to a mutual friend, and we’ve been friends ever since. He worked in the shipbuilding industry, but by the time we got acquainted he was a leader in the Labour Party and could reckon national party leaders among his friends. (He caught me off guard one day when he casually referred to Neil–as in Neill Kinnock, the Labour Party leader.) He was later elected as the Member of the European Parliament for our region, serving there for 17 years until he retired in 2006.

He and his wife, Doris, are also dedicated Christians, members of the Methodist Church. Terry, who came to faith as a young man, is a licensed lay preacher. So of course we talked a lot about religion and politics. (We talked about rugby league too, since like any self-respecting Wiganer, Terry loves that game.)

So last week, as I thought about our time in England, I sent him an email, asking him to reflect on politics and faith, looking back to when we lived there, back when Margaret Thatcher was in office. Had his views had changed with the times?

I already knew that Terry’s starting assumption is that people of faith can’t check their beliefs at the door when they enter the public square. No matter where they work or what they do, Christians can’t–and shouldn’t–stop thinking like Christians, including the political arena. He uses the word “integrity” a lot, which he knows is a rare thing in the political scrum.

With Terry, it’s not a matter of forming Christian political parties or assuming Christianity should somehow be favored in a diverse society, much less forcing nominally “Christian” policies on an unwilling or uninformed electorate. Instead, it’s a matter of individuals aiming to live out their faith–from examining their own motivations for being involved, to supporting particular policies, to treating other people as they would be treated, including their political opponents.

So far, so good. But consider this: When Terry wrote and self-published his first book about the relationship between faith and politics, he called it Onward Christian Socialist (1995). He wrote a follow-up book 11 years later, Where Are the Prophets?

Terry knows that many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic–especially in the U.S.–will choke on the S-word: socialist. Can “Christian” and “socialist” co-exist? He thinks so. Strongly.

He’s not alone. When the British Labour movement took root in the early 20th century, it grew fast and strong among working-class Christians in “nonconformist” churches, Baptists and Methodists and others. They were concerned about poor people who were stranded in a rigid economic and class system (often represented by the Church of England), about human dignity and human rights–and they found support in the Bible. Even as atheists and agnostics swelled the party’s ranks (many of them disenchanted with Communism) and sometimes dominated it, Labour retained its strong Christian base.

Yes, this is a church building: Hindley Green Methodist Church, near Wigan.

Terry knows the history, but he’s more concerned with the theology. Democratic socialism is a political outworking of a Christian point of view, he believes. The words “Christian” and “socialist” are inextricably linked for Terry. (He might say they’re joined at the hip.)

“My political beliefs are firmly rooted in the concepts of equality, fraternity and liberty and I could never agree to support the policies of a Thatcherite Government that has wreaked havoc on the weakest of our society,” he wrote in Onward Christian Socialist. “My politics and faith are inseparable: for me socialism and Christianity go hand in hand, from Christ’s teachings to the Apostles’ distribution of wealth where they gave ‘to each one according to his need’ (Acts 4:35).”

Food for thought. Something to chew on. Maybe even fodder for discussion.

More to come in Terry’s own words. Next post.

White House announcing ‘accommodations’ for religious objections to contraceptive rule

10 Feb

Today President Obama is announcing new “accommodations” for religious nonprofit organizations that object to a rule requiring them to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ insurance plans. The rule has brewed up a political and PR storm for the Administration since the Department of Health and Human Services announced it on Jan. 20.

While churches were exempted from the rule, other religious organizations and charities, such as hospitals and universities, were not, even those affiliated with denominations that teach contraception is morally wrong. Critics said the rule effectively trespassed on religious freedom.

During a Friday morning conference call with reporters, senior administration officials outlined the new “accommodations,” under which women will have free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where they work. “The policy also ensures that if a woman works for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to offer contraceptive care free of charge,” according to a White House fact sheet.

The officials, speaking on background, said these provisions will be “cost neutral,” pointing out that there were no insurance premium increases when contraception was added to the Federal Employees Health Benefit System and that one study found that “covering contraception lowered premiums by 10 percent or more,” partly because women who use contraceptives typically stay healthier.

So: religious organizations will not need to provide contraceptive coverage or refer their employees to organizations that provide contraception. They will not be required to subsidize the cost of contraception. Coverage will be offered to women by their employers’ insurance companies directly, “with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception,” according to the White House. Insurance companies will be required to provide contraception coverage to these women free of charge.

The White House has been under fire since announcing the rule last month, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops leading the charge, saying the administration was threatening religious liberty. Other religious leaders and groups, including Orthodox, evangelicals and liberal Catholics (as well as Republican party leaders and presidential candidates) also joined the opposition.

Administration officials insisted today that a one-year transition for religious organizations, announced Jan. 20, was intended to give time to “work out solutions” in implementation. But reporters pushed back, since the initial announcement stated the one-year period would give organizations time to “comply with the new law” and “adapt to this new rule.” One reporter asked if the White House had “a messaging problem.”

Polarized politics, righteous minds, and Dr. Who

6 Feb

Working on a project the other day, I came across this quotation, courtesy of that brilliant British social critic, Dr. Who (circa 1977):

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views—which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”

The quote is out there. When I searched on the Internet to confirm the source, I found it at several other web sites, including this one and this one.

See? The left and right really can find common ground. Except I have a hunch they’ll differ about who exactly are “the very powerful and the very stupid.”

But seriously, folks …

Bill Moyers broadcast a fascinating interview on Sunday with philosopher and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt about why American liberals and conservatives see the world so differently, to the point that our current political polarization seems inevitable. While U.S. politics has always been rough and tumble, the consensus is that we’re witnessing something different in our time, something toxic. It seems that most public debates don’t stop at disagreement these days. Now we push on to personal demonization. I’m not talking only about recent televised debates among professional politicians. I’ve been tempted to cancel my Facebook account a few times in the last six months because of the rancor coming from some amateurs.

Jonathan Haidt, appearing on "Moyers and Co."

“When it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but … the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise,” Haidt told Moyers. “Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

Haidt, who teaches social psychology at the University of Virginia and is a visiting professor of business ethics at NYU-Stern School of Business, traces the roots of our current state of affairs to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Moyers himself was involved in those pieces of legislation, as President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary.) He also offered a couple of realistic suggestions about how we might start reducing the temperature and return to more civil discourse and a more functional public life. To view the Moyers-Haidt interview, go here.

If you’re wondering where Haidt himself stands, he said he began his research as a confirmed liberal but now describes himself as a moderate. In his opinion, he said, conservative intellectuals understand basic human nature better than liberal intellectuals. That statement alone could prompt a good conversation either in a classroom or a dining room. (Go ahead. Don’t let me stop you.)

He has a new book coming out in March that explores the connections between morality and politics, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). I don’t pre-order many books, but after listening to Haidt, I think I’ll make an exception.

~~

Coming soon: Notes about the new rule from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will require all health-insurance providers–including religion-based organizations–to provide contraceptives to women, even if the religious organization believes it is wrong. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a growing number of other church leaders are calling this an infringement of religious liberty.

F2F Finale: That’s all, folks

16 Jan

This is my final “Face to Faith” column. It’s been a good run, since June 2003. If you’re keeping score, that’s 346 columns.

First, the thank-you notes. Thanks to the editors of the Johnson City Press for the opportunity to explore a lot of interesting territory. Thanks also to friends and colleagues who have generously offered their ideas, suggestions and encouragement.

Thanks to the countless people who let me share their expertise, insights, experiences and voices in this space. One of my favorite parts of being a journalist is the privilege of meeting people I would never otherwise get to know.

Finally, thanks to you for reading and for sending your comments, criticisms (honest!) and compliments. Even more, I appreciate your joining me in looking at all sorts of subjects through the lens of religion. One of my favorite parts of covering religion has been the variety, with the chance to write about everything from Trinitarian doctrine to tax law.

The breadth of religion, as well as its depth, is not a small point. More than ever, we need all the tools we can manage to help us understand our world, and it’s no secret that dozens of important news stories every week – whether in our front yard or on the other side of the globe – are ripe with religious meanings, causes and effects.

So before I go, let me suggest seven topics to keep tabs on, listed in no particular order. These aren’t predictions. Let’s just call this a kind of heads-up memo.

The unbuckling of the Bible Belt. I’ve regularly called our region “the area formerly known as the Bible Belt.” No doubt this place still has a different religious climate than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Even so, church attendance is lower than the national average and actual behavior and attitudes about several key social issues mirror the rest of America. With the increasing secularization of society and growing cultural diversity, we’re not as distinct as we used to be (or maybe like to think we are).

The continuing rise of syncretism. “Syncretism” is a fancy word for mixing beliefs and practices into a kind of spiritual stew, an inclination some people have tagged with labels like “me-ism” or “cafeteria religion.” This is a long-time trend, but I was reminded of its power and attraction when I saw “Avatar” last week. (See below, “impact of media, The.”) Regardless of what someone thinks of this development, it’s one that has real implications for how we view the world.

The politics of sex. I can’t think of one sex-related controversy being debated in the public square – birth control, homosexuality, the meaning of marriage (including same-sex marriage and civil unions) – that isn’t shaped by religious belief.

The impact of media. This issue goes beyond debates over the content of TV shows and movies. The media we invent – and how we use them – affect us. For example: In a digital world, how do you define a “community”? Is a church a church if it’s only on the Internet, or is a vague acquaintance on Facebook a “friend”?

The definition of “human.” Far from being a philosophical abstraction for eggheads, the question of what it means to be human is on our doorstep in a dozen ways. The abortion and end-of-life debates are prime examples. For future reference, we’ll also need to consider if there’s a point at which someone treated with cloning, genetic engineering or robotics might not be considered a fully human being anymore.

The spiritual dimensions of money. It’s not just the matter of garden-variety greed or even Bernie Madoff’s unfathomable fraud. Dozens of economic answers can raise scores of religious and spiritual questions. In other words: Are any religious, spiritual or moral issues connected to health care, jobs, welfare, education, foreign aid (think of Haiti this week), war, credit and debt (both personal and national), advertising and marketing, crime, the justice system or the care of elderly people?

The persistence of church-state controversies. Thanks to the massive gray area written into the U.S. Constitution and lived out in American history, the familiar tensions over faith and public life will continue. After 223 years, why stop now? This is part of our national DNA.

That’s all. In the words of an ancient Christian greeting: Grace and peace to you. Amen.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 Jan 2010.

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