March 2010

Trinity University is a “private, independent” institution of higher learning in San Antonio, Texas. It was started by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church back in 1869, and for a century was identified with Presbyterianism (its campus was moved to the city in 1941 when it “accepted an invitiation [sic] from the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce to establish a strong Protestant institution of higher learning in the Alamo city”). Now, however, according to the San Antonio Express-News, Muslim students are asking that the school not remind them of its kafir past:

A group of students at Trinity University is lobbying trustees to drop a reference to “Our Lord” on their diplomas, arguing it does not respect the diversity of religions on campus.

“A diploma is a very personal item, and people want to proudly display it in their offices and homes,” said Sidra Qureshi, president of Trinity Diversity Connection. “By having the phrase ‘In the Year of Our Lord,’ it is directly referencing Jesus Christ, and not everyone believes in Jesus Christ.”

“Diversity Connection.” In an academic setting, “diversity” used to mean, “let’s get lots of people from various backgrounds together in a place where they can share ideas and experiences.” Now it means, “never having to be exposed to any ideas or words you might find disagreeable.”

Qureshi, who is Muslim, has led the charge to tweak the wording, winning support from student government and a campus commencement committee. Trustees are expected to consider the students’ request at a May board meeting.

Other students and President Dennis Ahlburg have defended the wording, arguing that references to the school’s Presbyterian roots are appropriate and unobtrusive.

Apparently President Ahlburg, unlike the student government, is not ashamed of his school’s past. Diversity advocates are appalled at his lack of sensitivity, not to mention honesty:

The debate started last year when Isaac Medina, a Muslim convert from Guadalajara, Mexico, noticed the wording while looking at pre-made diploma frames in the Trinity bookstore. When Medina applied to Trinity, university staff told him it wasn’t a religious institution and that it maintained only a historical bond to the Presbyterian Church.

So the godly reference “came as a big surprise,” said Medina, who graduated in December. “I felt I was a victim of a bait and switch.”

A “bait and switch.” Because Trinity, like hundreds of colleges and universities across the country, continues to use the traditional language of “Year of Our Lord” on its diplomas, Medina feels that the secular environment he thought he was getting into is actually the gaping maw of the Christian evangelistic machine. Or something of that sort.

Medina, a former international student, said he always has felt welcome at Trinity. The chaplain on campus caters to students of all religions, and the university recently dedicated a Muslim prayer space in Parker Chapel.

“I never had the experience that Trinity was a closeted Christian institution,” Medina said.

Yeah, for four years the school makes non-Christians feel all warm and accepted, and then, when it’s too late to do anything about it, springs from the religious closet and forces–forces, I say!–its graduates to proclaim the terrible truth: that they attended a university that used to be connected to Christianity. What an outrage against tolerance and diversity! What a sin against charity! WHAT A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY!!!

I guess it never occurred to these Muslim students that, if they’d been observant, a terrible tragedy might have been averted.

They might have noticed that there was something, um, suspicious about the name of the institution. Little do they know that the seal on the left is also going to be on their diplomas.

(Via Layman Online.)

Public policy think tanks generally seek out scholars with expertise in whatever policy area they are expected to work in. Whether you’re talking about the liberal Brookings Institution or the conservative Heritage Foundation, there’s no doubt that those who work there know their stuff. Then there’s the Center for American Progress, which recently announced that its newest senior fellow is a guy known best for being gay and splitting the Anglican world. According to Jeff Walton of the Institute on Religion and Democracy:

A politically liberal Washington, D.C.-based think tank announced Tuesday that V. Gene Robinson, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, is joining the organization as a part-time senior fellow.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) said in an announcement that Robinson will focus on issues related to economic justice, immigration, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) rights, health care, and the environment, among others.

“Bishop Robinson will bring his well-respected perspective and experience to this fellowship, helping to discuss and analyze a wide array of policy areas in a progressive religious light,” the announcement said.

Though I disagree with him vociferously on the issue, I will gladly grant that Bishop Robinson has some expertise regarding issues of gay rights. In addition to his personal experience, I assume he has done some study on the matter. On the others, however, I suspect that his level of “expertise” is about the same as that of pretty much all ecclesiastical functionaries, which is to say no more than the average person on the street. Here’s one example:

The Episcopal prelate said he was interested in all of the issues that CAP addressed, but that some, such as economic justice, lent themselves to a religious perspective due to an emphasis on the poor in Abrahamic religions.

“Any of us in any culture is going to be judged by how we care for the most vulnerable among us,” Robinson said. “I hope to focus on issues such as health care reform, immigration reform, the economy, and the ramifications of this jobless recovery.”

“My biggest concern is that we have lost the notion of the common good,” Robinson said. “We are devolving into a, ‘If I’m OK, then to heck with the rest of the world’ attitude. We need to be called back to the common good. It was part of our Founding Fathers’ vision of this country and is certainly part of the progressive agenda in America.”

There’s some truth in this, but no depth whatsoever. It’s something you’d expect to hear from a mainline denominational church-and-society bureaucrat rather than a think tank senior fellow. So what does Robinson have to contribute to the mission of the Center for American Progress in areas other than gay rights? I don’t know. Maybe their cliché generator is broken?

The Pew Research Center recently asked 1500 adults to offer the first word that came to mind regarding Congress. The list, according to the Washington Times:

Dysfunctional, corrupt, self-serving, self-centered, selfish, self-absorbed, inept, confused, incompetent, ineffective, lazy, bad, suck(s), poor, crook(s), crooked, disappointing, gridlock, deadlock, idiots, idiotic, slow, mess, messed up, messy, lousy, terrible, disorganized, unorganized, divided, good, stupid, children, childish, child-like, dissatisfied, do nothing, failing, failure, inadequate, greedy, joke, jokers, not good, partisan, socialist, useless, worthless, bull(expletive), chaos, clowns, frustrating, frustrated, horrible, inefficient, liberal, liars, money-hungry.

Somehow they missed “moronic,” “infantile,” and “anti-democratic” (though admittedly there are synonyms for each), so I’ll supply them. Feel free to offer your own in the comments, but keep it clean.

(Via MCJ.)

Israeli- American relations have hit a rough spot lately, so that must mean its time for another one-sided anti-Israel screed from Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict only gets worse. An aggressively anti-Palestinian government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, holds power in Israel.

Netanyahu has agreed to the two-state solution, has eliminated some checkpoints and generally eased travel restrictions on the West Bank, indicated his desire to resume face-to-face negotiations that the Palestinians broke off early last year, and is even willing to discuss Jerusalem. He resolutely refuses to discuss giving permission for Hamas to fire rockets at civilians or turn over Tel Aviv to the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. That makes him “aggressively anti-Palestinian,” I suppose (unlike Hamas or Fatah, neither of which can fairly be called “aggressively anti-Israeli”).

Netanyahu regularly talks about peace, but his government continues to charge ahead with construction of ever-more illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.

Israel if observing a halt in settlement construction outside of Jerusalem, a city that happens to be its capital and that was explicitly exempted from the freeze last year. That means that Israel is abiding by the agreement it made with the United States, which is more than can be said for the Palestinian treatment of the Oslo Accords.

Vice President Joe Biden, a strong and nearly unquestioning supporter of Israel, was humiliated recently during a visit to Tel Aviv. In the midst of his visit, Israel announced plans to build 1,600 units of illegal housing on Palestinian land. Subsequently, Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama criticized such Israeli actions that have made a peace agreement nearly impossible to achieve.

I’m not sure that it’s possible to “humiliate” such a buffoonish character as Biden, but leave that aside. The reason this has become such a big to-do is because of three factors: 1) the lack of understanding about the way Israeli government works, which resulted in the actions of a municipal bureaucracy being attributed to “the Israeli government”; 2) the apparent desire of the Obama administration to make a much bigger deal out of it than necessary, even to the point of continuing to lecture Netanyahu in public after the prime minister abjectly apologized for something that wasn’t his fault to begin with; and 3) the creeping Alzheimer’s that seems to be afflicting the makers of American foreign policy, who apparently forgot that Netanyahu never agreed to stop settlement expansion in Jerusalem, and that the U.S. agreed to his everywhere-but-Jerusalem halt last year. As for “Israeli actions that have made a peace agreement nearly impossible to achieve,” does Winkler really think that the Palestinians would have made a big deal out of the expansion of housing at a location that everyone in the region agrees will be Israeli territory come peace treaty time if Washington had bothered to look at a map and kept its collective mouth shut?

U.S. military leaders have pointed out that Arab governments and Muslim leaders do not believe the United States has the strength or will to act as an honest broker for peace between Israel and Palestine. They contend that this puts our soldiers at risk.

I’d love to see a quote saying something like this. It wouldn’t actually say this, of course, because put this way it makes no sense.

Predictably, a harsh backlash against the Obama administration’s rebuke of Israel resulted. The Washington Post March 16 editorial strongly defended Israel and issued an implicit warning to President Obama. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the strongest pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, saw no fault with Israel’s actions and denounced President Obama.

Yeah, it never fails. Every time the administration sticks its foot in its mouth, along comes the Jooooish lobby and its bought-and-sold lackies in the press to point out inconvenient things like the facts.

Similarly, any criticism of Israel’s policies by The United Methodist Church are met with an unreasonable response. The General Conference, our denomination’s highest policy-making body, seeks “an end to military occupation, freedom from violence, and full respect for the human rights of all under international law.”

A resolution adopted in 2008 cites numerous abuses by Israel against Palestinians: confiscation of land for construction of illegal settlements; building a separation wall on Palestinian land; continued closures, curfews, dehumanizing checkpoints; home demolitions; uprooted olive trees; bulldozed fields; massive deterioration of the living standards of Palestinians. All of this has led to an increasing sense of hopelessness and frustration among Palestinians.

Well, yeah, Jim, that’s what happens when you jump with both feet into a mine field. Sometimes things go boom. And when American churches deliver pronouncements on one of the world’s most complicated geopolitical conflicts and turn it into a white hats/black hats Saturday morning cartoon, some folks are going to object.

General Conference condemns terrorism by either side. General Conference condemns targeted assassinations, suicide bombings and attacks against civilians by both Israel and Palestine. Wearing a uniform does not preclude committing acts equating to terrorism.

This is meant to show how even-handed the Winkler and his fellow United Methodist leaders are, but it does the opposite. Even the deliberate, indiscriminate blowing up and rocketing of civilians by Palestinian terrorists cannot be condemned without turning it into a condemnation of Israel (unlike any of the items in the paragraph above).

Jewish colleagues have told me they monitor our denomination’s websites, study materials, Sunday school curriculum and minutes of our meetings.

Accountability is a drag, ain’t it, Jim? That’s what you get for being a church that pretends to have public influence rather than a secret society.

Other organizations led by non-United Methodists actively organize among our clergy and laity to denounce our denomination’s stances. Most United Methodists are unaware of such scrutiny.

The organization in question would be the Institute on Religion and Democracy which is–surprise!–led by a United Methodist named Mark Tooley. Winkler has apparently not updated his roll-a-dex lately.

As for UMs not being aware of the scrutiny, that’s OK, because most UMs also don’t agree with the denomination’s demonization of Israel. Lots of them, in fact, welcome the scrutiny from outside, including the Good News and Confessing Church movements.

Oh, and I guess I should mention, in case there was any doubt, that I’m one of those evil people who “scrutinize” the doings of my former denomination. I’ll continue to do so, as long as one-sided anti-Israeli screeds like this keep wafting forth from leaders such as Jim Winkler.

This is the kind of story that makes one wonder if certain public officials got their ideas about city administration from Beijing or Soviet Moscow. According to The Church Report, the city of Rancho Cucamonga, certain religious activities in homes require a special permit, one that they’ve already said they won’t give:

A city in Southern California is demanding that a small home Bible study group stop meeting because it does not have an expensive permit. The permit is not required for similar-sized gatherings in homes, such as book clubs, birthday parties, or gatherings centered around sporting events. City officials have also indicated that they might not even grant a permit if it is requested.

The City of Rancho Cucamonga has sent a letter to the homeowner insisting that the home Bible study is not allowed because it is a “church,” and churches require a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) in residential areas. The City has also indicated that no CUP would be granted and the gatherings must cease by Good Friday, April 2. CUP’s require public hearings and regularly require the applicants to obtain traffic studies, architectural design reviews and even seismic retrofits.

In California, the process often costs churches hundreds of thousands of dollars-which probably explains why it is almost never applied to informal gatherings in homes.

“Imposing a CUP requirement on a home Bible study is manifestly absurd and unjust,” said Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute. “I don’t know of a single court in America that would approve their actions. We will give the City a chance to rescind its letter without litigation, but we are fully prepared to take this as far as is necessary to defend this Bible study group–and countless others like it.”

According to the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, the city is saying it’s the neighbors’ fault:

City officials said Tuesday they received a complaint in February from the homeowner’s neighbor that between 40 and 60 people were gathering in the house on Friday nights.

The city did, in fact, notify the homeowner through a letter that a permit was needed to operate a church, said Kurt J. Keating, code enforcement supervisor for the city.

“There’s also some supporting facts that they are advertising themselves as a church over the public domain, such as the Internet,” Keating said.

The city is not trying to place restrictions on home Bible studies, but the group cannot hold church services in a residence, Keating said.

I’m no mathematical wizard or police detective, but I would think it a simple matter to determine whether 40-60 or 15 people are meeting in a home on a regular basis. Given that the story doesn’t say that the city bothered to check the accuracy of the neighbor’s complaint, it sounds to me like they simply took the neighbor’s word for it. Then, they arrogated to themselves the ability to distinguish between “Bible studies” and “church services,” a novel power for city officials to possess under either the free exercise or establishment clause of the First Amendment. Then, they made clear that, even if the group went through the permit process, they wouldn’t get one. Put it all together, and it sounds like Rancho Cucamonga is run by people whose ideas about their own power vis-a-vis religious organizations would warm the cockles of any tyrant’s heart.

Let me put this as simply as I can: people have the right to practice their faith in their own home, and to open their home to others to do the same. Governments can enforce regulations regarding the use of public property such as parking in streets, but they can no more tell you what kind of religious activities you can do in your own home (as long as they don’t violate laws that have nothing to do with religion–for instance, sacrificing children to Moloch is prohibited regardless of the religious component) than they can mandate the color you can paint your rumpus room. If a group is violating parking regulations, the government should say that, rather than arrogate to itself the power to decide which religious gatherings pass muster and which don’t.

(Via Layman Online.)

I’ve been sent a copy of a report from the PCUSA’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (not yet online, unfortunately, but it should be before long). Viola Larson has already blogged on this today, and I’d ask that you also take a look at her post on the same subject. I’d like to offer a second perspective, though I don’t think my view of it will be substantially different from hers.

Entitled “Human Rights Update 2010,” it deals at length with three subjects: human trafficking, immigration detention, and torture. Interestingly, the introduction says that the paper is answering “several requests, or referrals, from the 2008 General Assembly.” Those requests didn’t include anything on torture (the first two items are included), but did include this:

2008 Referral: Item 07-01. On Calling for Tolerance and Peaceful Relations Between the Christian and Muslim Communities, Recommendation 6. Identify Violations of the Civil Rights of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the United States and Other Areas of the World, Along with Other Incidents of Violation of Religious Freedoms, as Part of the Regular Human Rights Report to the General Assembly—From the Presbytery of Newton (Minutes, 2008, Part I, pp. 14, 15, 507–10).

This is not dealt with at length, but instead is briefly handled in the introduction. I need to quote in full what is said about this subject, which looks meant to be wide-ranging and global:

To speak directly to this third referral, in the case of this General Assembly, the most substantial discussion of Muslim, Jewish and Christian interreligious incidents is in the historical perspective appendix to the Middle East report. They cite the U.S. State Department Religious Liberty report on Israel and the Occupied Territories, finding discrimination against both Muslims and Christians and neglect of their holy sites. The nature of Church/State or religion/state issues differs, of course, in Muslim majority countries and Israel. The instances of torture discussed in the third section of this Update largely include Muslim detainees, and certainly religiously linked extremism is affecting the conditions of Christian minorities in certain conflict areas. We expect to do more with this referral in the future.

In previous years, prior to the Internet posting of human rights violations, this update included surveys of human rights situations from each of the World Mission regional liaison offices. The Washington Office provided a brief survey of domestic U.S. criminal justice issues, such as prison over-crowding or needed rehabilitation. And a section from the United Nations Office contained information on significant new treaties or “conventions,” part of the continued construction of moral structures and expectations for the international social order. We continue that practice in the “For Future Consideration” section.

Because of the on-line availability of up-to-date information on human rights abuses, the Advisory Committee’s current approach to the Human Rights Update focuses on trends. In 2006, this was the acceptance of torture by the United States government, along with indefinite detention without due process and new forms of government surveillance. Five presbyteries also asked for action on this matter and called for an investigation by an Independent Counsel and possible prosecution by the Department of Justice. In 2008, the committee responded to a referral on human rights in the Philippines that also looked at the use of the “war on terror” as a justification for human rights violations. The General Assembly used part of that report to create an additional short resolution on human rights in Colombia, where similar dynamics are documented. In all such cases, we consulted with indigenous church partners. The Latin America regional office, the Peacemaking Program, and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship have also continued to monitor the situation in Colombia, and both mission co-workers, volunteers and notably the Rev. Larry Emery of Walnut Grove (CA) Presbyterian Church monitor the Philippine situation.

So, what’s missing from this recitation of human rights abuses and civil rights violations involving Muslims, Christians, and Jews, as well as violations of religious freedom, in various parts of the world? How about the following:

•Christians continue to be subjected to repeated lethal attack in Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Sudan, and Iraq, to name just a few.

•Religious freedom and civil rights for Christians are under attack or non-existent in Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Morocco, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, and Burma, to name a few more.

•Anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise throughout Europe, especially in countries with significant Muslim immigration, such as Great Britain, France, and Sweden.

•While there have certainly been human rights violations in Columbia and the Philippines (both of which are fighting ferocious insurgencies in the form of the Marxist FARC and separatist Muslims, respectively), there is no mention of far more widespread and systematic violations in any of Freedom House’s “Worst of the Worst” list for 2009: Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Chad, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Laos, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Zimbabwe, not to mention the territories of Chechnya and Tibet. Many of these are guilty of large-scale religious freedom violations.

So, with the human rights situation looking really bad for a significant portion of the world’s population, one what does the ACSWP focus? Israel, of course. Despite the fact that the average North Korean, or the average Sudanese Christian, would think that he or she had died and gone to heaven if they were able to move to Jericho or Ramallah, much less Israel, the Usual Suspect gets singled out, along with the United States (!), and two nations fighting civil wars. That’s not to excuse any human rights violations that takes place in any of those countries, only to say that the focus on them is at the very least a bizarre form of tunnel vision.

Now, I do need to add that the section on human trafficking does a good job of naming names as far as various countries are concerned, and that’s to be applauded. Evangelicals have been lifting their voices in Washington on this subject for over a decade, and have been heard at the State Department at least, and the participation of mainliners in the fight against human trafficking is only to be welcomed.

But then in the second section, the focus is again on one country, in this case the United States, which is apparently the only place where illegal immigration results in detention. The third section is also devoted exclusively to the U.S., and contains this utterly ridiculous statement:

What are the costs of allowing torture regimes all over the world to legitimate themselves by our example?…An increasing number of brutal regimes, including China, have defended their use of torture by citing the U.S. example.

Right. The Chinese, who have killed and tortured their own people by the tens of millions for the last sixty years, can use Guantanamo in their defense. If it weren’t for Guantanamo, China would be forced by an angry world to stop mistreating its people. And so would Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Zimbabwe, etc., etc.

So there you have it. A report that is supposed to look at human rights abuses and civil rights and religious freedom violations, and pretty much all of the most vicious regimes get a pass. By and large, it’s a report worthy of the U.N. Human Rights Council, from which it takes its cue.

UPDATE: I’m told this may not be the final version of this report. If not, I’ll come back to it with any further information.

UPDATE: According to Viola Larson, the report is final. So my comments stand.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State yesterday trumpeted a new low in the separation of education and culture: a Supreme Court declination of a case from Washington state that decided that certain kinds of beautiful music–namely, music that’s tainted by a religious association or title–may not be played at a high school graduation. According to AU:

Kathryn Nurre was a senior at Mill Creek’s Henry M. Jackson High School in 2006 when she and other members of a school wind ensemble sought permission to play “Ave Maria” during graduation.

School officials had permitted the ensemble to play the song during a school recital earlier in the year but decided they wanted the graduation ceremony to be wholly secular. The title of the song is Latin for “Hail Mary,” and school officials were cognizant of a flap that arose over the use of a different religious song during the 2005 commencement. They didn’t want to repeat that mistake.

The Los Angeles Times has a bit more information:

Administrators raised red flags at the Everett, Wash., school when they heard about the idea from the wind ensemble seniors, who had played Franz Biebl’s uptempo 1964 rendering of “Ave Maria” without controversy at a winter concert.

A year before, choral performance of the song “Up Above My Head” at the 2005 commencement drew complaints and protest letters to the town’s newspaper. Therefore, school officials said the seniors could not play the song since the title alone identified “Ave Maria” as religious and that graduation should be strictly secular.

You may never have heard of Biebl, or of his version of “Ave Maria.” If not, you can find several free versions of it here. It’s not Franz Schubert, but it’s pretty good, and the fact that it wasn’t the familiar version and that it was an instrumental meant that as “proselytism” material (yes, AU raised that dreaded specter) it was awfully weak. But the school administration was afraid that even putting the title of the piece in the graduation program would raise howls of outrage by the thin-skinned contingent, so it refused to let the student perform the piece. When she sued, AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in which it contended that letting Nurre play this piece at graduation “could have granted public school students sweeping new rights to impose prayer, Bible reading and other forms of religious worship on captive audiences at school-sponsored events,” dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. You know the drill.

So the net result is that within the Ninth Circuit at least, and certainly in a world in which AU gets to set the rules, students will no longer be permitted to hear “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Handel’s “Messiah,” Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” or any other great piece of music that is tainted by association with religion at an official school function. (Why stop at graduation ceremonies?) That presumably would not apply to performances such as this one:

No word yet on when AU will be siccing the lawyers on these kids or their school.

“The passing of this bill moves us closer to the realm of God, a realm where mercy, compassion and love for all reigns on earth.”

–The Rev. Geoffrey Black, president of the United Church of Christ, on the passage of the Senate health care reform bill in the House on Sunday

Well, I wasn’t planning on doing another one of these, but I can’t help it.  The Other Side has brought in a couple of Big Guns, so a response is called for. First, there’s Paula Kirby, last seen ignorantly slandering the Catholic Church:

I think it genuinely can be argued that these people are doing some good by staying in their posts, if only through the avoidance of harm. Even though, as Dan and Linda’s report points out, they are mostly avoiding seriously challenging the most extreme of their parishioners’ beliefs, at least they are not reinforcing them.

Given the contempt in which Kirby holds the entire idea of faith, I can see how she could conclude that someone hypocritically preaching as vague a message as possible while not “reinforcing” the superstitions of his flock would be “avoiding harm.” But she just can’t resist getting specific:

There is no danger of these pastors exhorting their congregations to live their lives in joyful expectation of the Rapture, or to hate atheists or gays;

The vast majority of faithful Christian preachers across the entire spectrum of denominations doesn’t do either of these things, of course, but Kirby apparently thinks that most Christians are dispensationalists, or takes take their cues regarding the treatment of gays and atheists from Fred Phelps. Pure, unalloyed, bigoted ignorance.

no danger of them abusing young children with monstrous tales of hell, no danger of them opposing the proper teaching of science in their local schools, or exhorting the sick to seek their cure in prayer and repentance rather than the more reliable methods offered by medical science.

The vast majority of Christian preachers don’t do these things, either. Given her track record, I wouldn’t expect her to know that.

If all churches simply reinforced people’s natural impulses to be good and caring, and offered them a sense of being part of a kindly and supportive community, there would be far less to object to in them.

“People’s natural impulses to be good and caring”: her contact with actual human beings seems to be fairly limited. And “if churches simply reinforced” people’s natural impulses, they’d be accomplices in great evil, or, at best, no different from the local kindergarten teacher or Lions Club. But most churches continue to insist on being, you know, churches.

Then there’s this:

But the nature of religious belief is such that we might feel justified in challenging the integrity of every pastor, no matter how truly committed to the role: for each and every one of them stands in front of their congregation week after week and preaches his personal beliefs as though they were indisputably true – even though none of those beliefs is founded on anything more reliable than the pastor’s subjective wishes, desires, hopes and fears.

Her bio says that Kirby is a “former Christian.” She would seem to have been one who received absolutely no biblical or theological education, which even considering her atheism is the only way I can conceive it possible to make such a foolish statement. Oh, she tries to justify it by giving a serious of polarities that are meant to illustrate how little agreement there is among Christians (“Some of them ‘know’ that every word of the Bible is literally true, others ‘know’ that it needs to be interpreted metaphorically; some ‘know’ that God is loving, compassionate and eager to forgive, others ‘know’ that he is angry, jealous and quick to punish wrong-doing”–you get the idea) which are also nothing more than caricatures of the worst in Christian thought. Of course, for her none of it matters, because it’s all based on “subjective wishes, desires, hopes and fears”:

[F]or some reason when it comes to religion, there is a general feeling that it doesn’t really matter what people believe, provided they believe something, and that this belief, no matter how ill-founded, must be cherished and protected at all costs. What clearer evidence could there be that religious faith is not particularly interested in truth? And, that being so, does it really matter what the man in the pulpit does or does not believe?

The “general feeling” that it doesn’t matter what people believe may be what Kirby experiences in her hometown in Scotland, or hears from some clergy in the Church of England, but it certainly is not the case in evangelicalism. For us, what one believes is indeed a serious matter, as it is for many, many people, which is part of the reason that evangelicalism continues to grow, while the latitudinarian mainline churches are in steep decline.

Finally–and you knew he just couldn’t let this go by without an exercising his famous Oxford donnish snideness–there’s Richard Dawkins. Given that he thinks the entire ecclesiastical enterprise is bunk, he’s got a lot of sympathy for those who livelihoods depend on deception:

These dissembling pastors might therefore be accused of betraying a trust when they continue, Sunday after Sunday, to get up in the pulpit and bemuse churchgoers who take seriously the words that the clergyman himself does not – and yet continues to speak. Are they not grievously culpable for deceiving their congregation and accepting a salary for doing so?

No, their personal predicament warrants more sympathy than that. They know no other way of making a living. They stand to lose friends, family, and their respected place in the community, as well as salary and pension.

You’ve got to wonder whether he’d have as much sympathy for an Oxford colleague who, having come to a point of conviction regarding the flaws of the Darwinian thesis, continued to teach in the biology department, couching his doubts or disbelief in terms of, “well, you know there are serious questions that need to be asked,” and “there are a lot of people who think there may be something to intelligent design.” Does anyone really doubt that such a one would be out on his ear as fast as Dawkins and his atheist colleagues could round up a hanging party? Oh, but that would never happen, says the don:

The singular predicament of these men (and women) opens yet another window on the uniquely ridiculous nature of religious belief. What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs….Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.

To which I have but one thing to say: Guillermo Gonzalez. The Iowa State University astronomer was denied tenure, not because he wasn’t eminently qualified, or because he didn’t have a stellar record of publications, but because of his involvement with a book entitled The Privileged Planet, which defends intelligent design. Gonzalez isn’t the only academic to feel the wrath of the oh-so-tolerant left/scientific orthodoxy on campus, but his case stands in sharp contrast to the picture presented by Dawkins. The difference, of course, is that churches are forthright about their devotion to orthodoxy, and their lack of patience with those who would repudiate the One who is at the center of our faith. Dawkins, not so much.

Now that I’ve given my answers to the “On Faith” questions, it’s time to listen and respond to the panelists. First up, the poster boy for Ecclesiastical Atheism, Episcopal Impersonator John Spong:

This question assumes that there is something called revealed truth that constitutes the content of a faith system. That is simply not so. Christianity is an ever evolving faith.

There is a development of doctrine in Christianity, true. But how does Spong know that there is no revealed truth in Christianity, despite the belief to the contrary of those who wrote the New Testament, the countless disciples of Christ who followed in their train, and Jesus Himself? Because Spong says so. Of course, it’s easy when you get to make up your own facts:

Miracles do not enter the Christian story until the 8th decade; the Virgin Birth and understanding the Resurrection as the physical resuscitation of a deceased body enters Christianity in the 9th decade, the story of the Ascension of Jesus is a 10th decade addition.

The creedal development that created the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity are 4th century additions.

Rarely has so ignorant a prelate felt so frequently compelled to demonstrate his ignorance for all the world to see. The purple-shirted windbag closes with another pontifical statement:

In the 4th Gospel the Johanine Jesus is recorded as saying that the “Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth.” That statement assumes, I believe, that none of us now possesses the whole truth. The question posed here assumes that we do or that some version of religion is “The Truth.” It is not.

To Spong, it would seem that this task of the Holy Spirit (in whom he does not believe) is still in the future. He has not lead us into all truth, or really any part of it. In fact, everything we know about God–including His existence and personality–are a human-created delusion. That being the case, the Sponginator apparently has no problem with atheists “re-educating” their congregations. Why would he? That’s what he’s been doing for decades, thanks to the Episcopal Church.

Next up, the Rev. Janet Edwards, who somehow manages to not mention homosexuality in this column, but who does use an expression of H. Richard Niebuhr’s to sidestep the real question:

[O]ne of the common definitions of preaching is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” This includes our comfortable assumptions, which members often insist are firmly rooted in the defining beliefs of a denomination or branch of Christian tradition. And it often feels like affliction for both pastor and pew to distinguish between what is central and what is not, what is faithful to Christ and what is extraneous.

Since Niebuhr was primarily talking about the application of the gospel to the moral lives of Christians, I’m not sure what it has to do with this issue, except that Edwards has twisted it from a call to preachers to courageously apply the truth of the gospel to seek transformation in the lives of hearers into a call to challenge the theological content of the gospel. The Dennett-LaScola paper isn’t about guys preaching social change, or even various interpretations of denominational teaching; it’s about guys who have rejected God, and in some instances are trying to get parishioners to do the same. Edwards is seemingly down with that, unless of course her answer is simply an excuse to go off on her own tangent. But that doesn’t make the questions any less important.

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg (got to have a representative of the Jesus Seminar in here) thankfully believes that if a pastor has genuinely lost their faith, they are “hypocritical” to continue in the pastorate. But he also doesn’t think that’s the real issue:

Rather, the issue is what they learned in divinity school versus what they think that many in their congregations think. Contemporary seminary education -mainline Protestant and Catholic – leads to a different understanding of what it means to be Christian than what much of “common Christianity” affirms.

By “common Christianity,” I mean what most Christians took-for-granted until a generation or two ago – and perhaps about half (or more) of American Christians still assume to be the heart of Christianity. This “common understanding” sees the afterlife as the central issue that Christianity addresses. Our problem is that we are sinners and deserve to punished, indeed condemned. This is where Jesus comes in: his death was the payment for our sins, and those who believe this will be forgiven and thus go to heaven.

This is undoubtedly what Borg believes “common Christianity” has consisted of. To say it is a caricature of historic Christian teaching is being charitable. Life after death, the sinfulness of humanity, the wrath of God against sin, the substitutionary atonement for sin, faith in Christ, eternal life–these are certainly important, even central aspects of Christian belief. But these is the “four spiritual laws” version of Christianity, and as such it is utterly incomplete. What’s missing? Oh, just little things such as the Trinitarian nature of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the Resurrection, creatio ex nihilo, the covenants between God and man, the place of Israel in salvation, the Holy Spirit, the Church–yeah, I’d say there are a few things missing from the “common Christianity” that Borg sets up as a straw man. That there are preachers and teachers who have reduced the Faith to nothing more than Borg’s caricature may well be the case. The answer to that isn’t to throw that out and start over with a program that is little more than warmed over politics and psychology (read the rest of Borg’s piece for that); the answer is to lay out the gospel in its fullness.

Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance is correct when he writes that “if careful communication ultimately reveals that a religious leader no longer represents or advocates the theological and moral views of a particular congregation, the leader has a responsibility to resign.” But for some reason, in a column supposedly about atheists in the pulpit he feels the need to make it all about the fundys:

In today’s world of schisms in all major religions, though a religious tradition does not change, the leaders of the institutions in that religious tradition change. Such was my experience as a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention founded on the “historic Baptist tradition.” In a pre-announced political movement aimed at taking over the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, fundamentalist Baptists successfully ousted cooperative leaders in the convention committed to the priesthood of every believer, the autonomy of each local congregation, church-state separation and a congregational polity. New leaders were elected and unprecedented emphasis was placed on creedal orthodoxy, biblical literalism, pastoral authority and a form of religious freedom that permitted entanglement between institutions of religion and government. My personal conviction was shared by many long-time members of that Convention: “I have not moved away from the convention, the convention has moved away from me.” Indeed, my Baptist identity would have been compromised by remaining a part of that movement.

For some people, it’s always about those one considers fundamentalists.

The Rev. Susan Smith, a United Church of Christ pastor, tells the story of Mohandas Gandhi being turned away from a white church in South Africa a hundred years ago in order to make this point:

I say all of that to say that I believe in God, but I believe less and less in organized religion. Christianity is a disappointment, not because of God and not because of Jesus, but because of people.

As an African American, I believe with every fiber of my being in God. It has been God, surely, who sustained black people through the horrors of what we have been through in this country. It has been God to whom we have turned for supernatural strength to hold on and push on, despite great barriers put before us.

But Christianity, or more specifically, Christians, have been a disappointment. Following Jesus should mean people know what Jesus taught and seek to do it. That has not been the case. Christians, too many of them, are Christian in name only.

You know, like the atheists in the pulpit, who barely make a cameo appearance in this response. No, the folks who are driving people away from Christ aren’t atheists, or liberals who have drained the faith of any and all content, or who are just political activists in fancy robes. It’s the ones who insist on all that yucky stuff:

So, too often, God has been taught as an arm of people who oppress others and use God as justification. This God has been at the helm of oppression, sanctifying racism, sexism, heterosexism, militarism, and exclusion of others.

But Smith isn’t surprised that there are atheists in the clergy. After all, you’re either an atheist or a fundamentalist in the church, no middle ground:

I am not surprised that there may be a lot of preachers/pastors who are non-believers, and the reason I am not surprised is because the state of the world bespeaks the phenomenon. We either have non-believers or fundamentalists. Non-believers leave God out of the picture; fundamentalists push a mean-spirited, racist, controlling God down our throats.

If this really is her experience of the church, all I can say is 1) I pity the people of the congregation she serves; and 2) she needs to get out more.

Not all of the responses are bad–in fact, some are pretty good. Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler‘s is as direct and fiery as you’d expect, as is journalist Cal Thomas‘ evangelical layman’s perspective (“Resign. Sell cars. At least with cars, you know you’re getting a ‘sales job.'”). Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who has become one of my favorite “On Faith” writers, offers this:

The challenge for clergy, not to mention any person of faith, lies in admitting the doubts and questions without turning them into new articles of faith which demand the denigration of the previously held beliefs. When that happens, the clergy should relinquish their pulpit.

Religious leaders should not use the pulpit to simply hammer away at the very ideas which people come to have affirmed, but neither should they shy away from leading people in the evolution of their own faith. That, too, is a failure of leadership which should lead to their relinquishing the pulpit.

I would substitute the word “growth” for evolution, in the sense of a directed process of increased understanding and faithfulness. And I’m all for challenging stagnant or complacent faith, but the challenge must come, not from mindless or destructive questioning for questioning’s sake (a la the clergyman in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce), but from the standpoint of the truth revealed by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Finally, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (you knew she’d be in here somewhere), a former seminary professor and president, actually has some sound advice for seminarians and clergy: if you encounter what she terms “grave doubts” (as opposed to garden variety doubts, I guess), one shouldn’t share those with your congregation, but instead seek out spiritual counsel elsewhere. I like this: “[D]on’t abuse the congregation by making them into a support group for you.” She also says this:

[W]hen you as a pastor and teacher of a Christian denomination no longer subscribe to most of the fundamental teachings of your faith tradition, you need to work through those struggles individually with a spiritual adviser. It may be that you need to find a different spiritual home where you can affirm the majority of the church teachings.

More than a majority, I’d say, and certainly what we in the EPC would term the “essentials,” but I basically think she’s got it. Credit where credit is due.

I doubt that Dennett and LaScola intended for this paper to be in any way helpful to the church. But the fact is that it can be, if the church is willing to hear it and recognize that there are wolves–wounded wolves, scared wolves, perhaps dreadfully misled and miseducated wolves, but wolves nonetheless–among the sheep. This ought to be a wake-up call especially for the mainline churches, who are headed for oblivion the more the preachers and teachers of those denominations preach and teach as if truth is a matter of little consequence. It ought to be, but I don’t hold out much hope.

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