December 2007

Jeremy Leaming of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (which, despite the name, is no longer simply a First Amendment watchdog, but a left-wing political organization that opposes various conservative policies regardless of whether they have anything to do with church-state separation or not) is ready to do battle with Gargantua in the new year:

Lots of those [New Year’s] resolutions will likely urge the citizenry to take all sorts of varying actions, such as resolving to stop overeating or watching too much television.

The lists are also frequently laden with triteness.

But not here at AU’s blog. Instead, we’ll urge citizens and our supporters to remain steadfast in supporting church-state separation and fighting the Religious Right’s crazed theocratic ambitions.

Note to AU: referring to the “Religious Right’s crazed theocratic ambitions” is itself the height of triteness.

Some among the cabal of Religious Right rabble-rousers will chafe at such a list and blast Americans United, likely lumping us in with other civil liberties groups whom they claim are actually out to muzzle religious people.

Contending that the public policy positions that many conservative Christians advocate–such as curtailing the abortion license, an issue that has nothing to do with church-state separation–constitute “theocratic ambitions” strongly suggests that AU would like to muzzle them.

The job of Americans United, however, is to protect one of this nation’s greatest gifts to mankind: freedom of conscience. The First Amendment is intended to safeguard the right to believe and practice any religion or not follow any faith at all. Yes, that’s right — in this country, we not only have the freedom to practice any faith we want but also to be free from professing any religion.

Gee, I didn’t know that. I though it was against the law to be an atheist in America. It isn’t? Well, surely some significant polit ical figure must be advocating that it be. They aren’t? Well what’s the great revelation here then? Oh, there isn’t one.

So, in the New Year, we should be resolved to take a number of actions.

Let’s remained committed to scuttling the efforts of our would-be theocratic brethren to push public policy infused with religion at all levels of government.

Note than Leaming doesn’t say the policies advocated by conservative Christians should be opposed. He says the advocacy should be “scuttled.” Once again, sounds like muzzling to me.

Yes, it’s tiresome. But in the 21st century, we are still confronted with forces that want to re-define science to include study of the supernatural and force public schools across the nation to teach creationism or its latest variant, “intelligent design.”

Intelligent design isn’t “creationism,” but then grasp of the facts in this area isn’t an AU strong suit.

The creationists and their supporters will continue to push the shopworn argument that evolution is controversial among scientists and that academic freedom requires teaching religious concepts alongside standard science. This is part of a broader campaign to turn our public schools into indoctrination centers that promote fundamentalism. Be resolved to confront these arguments and battle them.

Our public school must remain pristine as indoctrination centers for secularism! How dare you challenge our anti-religious monopoly!

There also will be attempts to push “family values” policies. Those policies, in truth, are anything but pro-family.

Why a church-state separation watchdog is even commenting on this is addressed in the first paragraph.

Remember, these so-called family values are based on creating a fundamentalist nanny-state of sorts.

Because no one but religious fundamentalists would ever oppose abortion. Except Roman Catholics. And some atheists and agnostics. And some feminists. And some progressives. Fundies all.

The Religious Right wants the government to tell gays and women how to live their lives.

Actually, they mostly want to protect unborn children and traditional marriage (the latter of which most gays aren’t interested in anyway).

These forces also want to tell everyone else what movies, plays and books we should and should not see and read. If Religious Right activists were to have their way, much more than Harry Potter books and movies would be a no-no. We must resolve to fight efforts that undercut individual freedom and equal rights for all Americans.

At this point Leaming simply slops over into religious bigotry. Are there nuts who would like to see the government, or other public institutions such as colleges, censor books and movies? Certainly there are, and a lot of them are on the political left. Do most conservative Christians want to do that? Of course not, and Leaming hasn’t got a shred of evidence that they do.

And in a presidential election year, we must also be resolved to speak out against the injudicious injection of religion into American politics.

Unless it’s done by Barack Obama and/or the United Church of Christ (which just happens to be the source of AU head Barry Lynn’s ordination). In which case, carry on.

UPDATE: Well, not just Obama. (Via Hot Air.)

chicken_little.jpgEarlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a boilerplate resolution recognizing Christmas and the importance of Christianity. Big deal–it did the same thing for Ramadan and Islam last month. Congress does this sort of thing all the time, presumably because it has so little interest in dealing with real issues. Anyway, the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” column this morning is about this, asking its panelists, “Would you have voted for it? How would you amend it?” That gives some an opportunity to go off screeding:

The importance of the day is not even the birth of Jesus but the profound message of love, goodwill and peace that he preached during his lifetime. And, mind you, his love and goodwill were unconditional. There is also the question of how do we celebrate this event inclusively. How do we make non-Christians realize that this is the day of Love and Peace and not about being a Christian? (Arun Gandhi, Mohandas’s grandson)

“Christmas is not about being a Christian.” “The importance of the day is not even the birth of Jesus.” Savor the inclusivist arrogance of that. What after all, does Christmas have to do with Christ? I wonder how Gandhi would feel about Indian Christians declaring that Ganesh Chaturthi had nothing really to do with Lord Ganesha, but should be celebrated with decorated trees and the singing of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

It is also alarming that the authors of HR 847 appear never to have read the U.S. Constitution, or at least to have understood it. This is a “Christian nation” bill swaddled up like the baby Jesus and laid in a manger. Just because it’s Christmas and we are all nearly comatose from overeating, that doesn’t mean we won’t notice that this establishment of Christianity tucked under a “Whereas”. “Whereas the House of Representatives acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization”. That’s establishment. (Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Seminary [UCC])

While I agree with Thistlethwaite that resolutions like this are a waste of time, the proper response to them is not establishment-hysteria. Her claim that this resolution constitutes an establishment of religion proves conclusively that she knows nothing about First Amendment law, nor anything about the history of such resolutions. This is the reason that the purveyors of “Christianist” conspiracy theories don’t gain any traction except among the true believers–they are utterly incapable of distinguishing between a real threat to the republic and a meaningless piece of paper.

But it isn’t funny that an overwhelming majority of legislators are so cowed by the power of the Christian right that they are willing to vote for a law that is clearly unconstitutional. Yes, yes, I know that this law will have absolutely no practical effect. But what could be a clearer violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from passing any law “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” than a resolution that directly expresses its respect for Christianity alone?

Only nine representatives voted against this meretricious resolution. They are all Democrats, and they deserve gold stars. They are Representatives Gary Ackerman of New York, Yvette Clark of New York, Diana DeGette of California, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Barbara Lee of California, Jim McDermott of Washington, Robert C. Scott of Virginia, Lynn Woolsey of California, and Fortney Pete Stark of Virginia. Several of these representatives are African-American, as it happens, and that’s interesting because African-Americans, as a group, are among the most devout Christians in the nation. Apparently these few lawmakers understand that the separation of church and state has helped religion flourish in this country. (Susan Jacoby, professional atheist)

What would “On Faith” be without Susan Jacoby proclaiming that the Christian Right is bringing down the atmosphere? Like Thistlethwaite, she knows nothing about First Amendment law, nor does she understand that resolutions of this sort are nothing more than expressions of opinion, without any force of law (it isn’t even correct to refer to it as a law). As for her citation of the reps who voted against it, I don’t think those votes mean what she thinks they mean. According to Lifesite, “All but two of the representatives voting ‘present’ or against the Christmas Resolution voted in favor of a resolution recognizing Ramadan, which passed by a 376-0 vote in October.” Apparently in the fun-house world of the far-left, it is a breach of the First Amendment for Congress to recognize Christmas and Christianity, but it’s OK for it to recognize Ramadan and Islam. (Rereading her piece, I just realized that Jacoby apparently didn’t even notice the Ramadan resolution, since she wrote, “I suppose that Congress will now be obliged to waste its time considering resolutions expressing respect for Jews, Hindus, Muslims (oh no, that would create a problem because we don’t respect every form of Islam), Pagans, Buddhists….” If I were that ignorant, I wouldn’t show it off to the world. But that’s just me.)

Sure, politicians are free to say whatever they will about their personal faith or lack thereof. In general, they tend to be lousy theologians (Lincoln excepted). But getting together as a body to write a declaration that amounts nearly to a recognition of a state religion…? That takes us back to Emperor Constantine, doesn’t it? (Gustav Niebuhr, Syracuse University religion professor)

Yep, right back to Constantine. Next up: George Bush calls for an ecumenical council to resolve the question of whether the Christian churches can ordain gays. Or whether universities and seminaries can hire know-nothing Chicken Littles to teach religion.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on Christmas Eve about a poll in which Rasmussen Reports asked people about the religious content of Christmas. The newspaper’s headline stated, “More people say there should be less of a Christian emphasis placed on the holidays,” and the story went on to say that “27 percent of respondents said that there should be less of a Christian emphasis on the holidays.” The headline is based on a one-year rise from 17% to 27%, though an essentially unchanged (from last year) 64% said that “the holiday season should focus more on the birth of Jesus.”

The interesting thing to me is this: Christmas is an intrinsically religious occasion. It is not about Santa Claus, winter wonderlands, trees or gifts. It is about the birth of the founder of the world’s largest religion. If you don’t like that, fine–start your own religion, and make up your own holidays. Or join a religion that has holidays that you like. Or don’t observe any holidays at all. But those who think that there should be “less of a Christian emphasis” at Christmas have got the ownership rights on this particular celebration all mixed up. For them, there’s Festivus, or Winter Solstice, or Kwanzaa, or whatever floats their boat. Christmas is Christian, and to claim otherwise is like demanding that citizens of the United States stop celebrating Independence Day because that makes the Fourth of July “too American.”

(Via Newsbusters.)

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” [Yossarian] observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

I’ve been thinking about this story for the last couple of days, and finally decided that, repulsive as it is, I just couldn’t pass on the sheer weirdness of it. It’s a story about the kind of thinking only an academic could love:

A research paper that won a Hebrew University teachers’ committee prize finds that the lack of IDF rapes of Palestinian women is designed to serve a political purpose. [Emphasis added.]

The abstract of the paper, authored by doctoral candidate Tal Nitzan, notes that the paper shows that “the lack of organized military rape is an alternate way of realizing [particular] political goals.”

The next sentence delineates the particular goals that are realized in this manner: “In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be seen that the lack of military rape merely strengthens the ethnic boundaries and clarifies the inter-ethnic differences – just as organized military rape would have done.”

The paper further theorizes that Arab women in Judea and Samaria are not raped by IDF soldiers because the women are de-humanized in the soldiers’ eyes.

It could be, of course, that the IDF is too civilized to countenance rape of any kind, much less organized military rape,  which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. And it is also undoubtedly the case that if the IDF was engaged in such a heinous practice, academics such as these would have been howling about war crimes for all they are worth. So, either the  IDF organizes rape and gets accused of war crimes, or Israeli soldiers don’t rape and get accused of de-humanizing Palestinian women. Either way, the military gets branded as pigs. But the head of the academic committee that awarded the prize to this piece of dreck had this to say when contacted by an Israeli TV station:

“I do not have the entire text in front of me,” Gurevitch said, when contacted by Arutz-7, “and I don’t think we can jump to conclusions based on partial sentences, but I can say the following: This was a very serious paper that asked two important questions: Is the relative lack of IDF rapes a noteworthy phenomenon, and if so, why is it that there are so few IDF rapes when in similar situations around the world, rape is much more common?”

Arutz-7: “Can’t it just be that Israeli soldiers come from a culture that very much condemns rape?  And why not mention the much-touted ‘purity of arms,’ i.e., the high moral conduct, of the Israeli Army?”

Gurevitch said that observers do not have the right to demand a particular explanation to a given phenomenon.  He said that the researcher had done a serious job, based on interviews with 25 soldiers and other accounts, and that the right-wing should not jump to the conclusion that this was simply another “secular, left-wing” generality. [Emphasis added.]

So observers can’t ask for explanations, but academics can provide the most dishonest, biased, scurrilous ones they can conjure up. Somewhere, Joseph Heller is wondering, “why didn’t I think of that?”

Many people have worried about what genetic engineering is going to do to child-bearing. Is it going to be possible to choose your children’s physical traits (height, eye color, etc.)? Is it going to be possible to design out undesirable traits (anything from Down’s Syndrome to cleft palate)? Is it going to be possible to design out traits that some considerable undesirable but others consider normal (homosexuality)? News from Britain via the Times of London offers yet another variation on this theme: what about people who want to design in disabilities:

DEAF parents should be allowed to screen their embryos so they can pick a deaf child over one that has all its senses intact, according to the chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People (RNID).

Jackie Ballard, a former Liberal Democrat MP, says that although the vast majority of deaf parents would want a child who has normal hearing, a small minority of couples would prefer to create a child who is effectively disabled, to fit in better with the family lifestyle.

Ballard’s stance is likely to be welcomed by other deaf organisations, including the British Deaf Association (BDA), which is campaigning to amend government legislation to allow the creation of babies with disabilities.

A clause in the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, which is passing through the House of Lords, would make it illegal for parents undergoing embryo screening to choose an embryo with an abnormality if healthy embryos exist.

Weird, isn’t it? The government wants to prevent people from deliberately saddling their children with disabilities, and others insist on the right to do so. Medical professionals aren’t thrilled with the latter’s efforts:

Doctors are opposed to creating deaf babies. Professor Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director of the Bridge Centre, a clinic in London that screens embyros, said: “This would be an abuse of medical technology. Deafness is not the normal state, it is a disability. To deliberately create a deaf embryo would be contrary to the ethos of our society.”

But deafness is now, to some, not just a physical disability but a “cultural” trait, and they want to be able to pass along their “culture” to their children:

Ballard, who previously ran into controversy as director-general of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) where she pushed through extensive job cuts, said in an interview with The Sunday Times: “Most parents would choose to have a hearing embryo, but for those few parents who do not, we think they should be allowed to exercise that choice and we would support them in that decision.

“There are a number of deaf forums where there are discussions about this. There are a small minority of activists who say that there is a cultural identity in being born deaf and that we should not destroy that cultural identity by preventing children from being born deaf.”

Ballard added: “We would like to retain, as far as possible, parental choice, but it has to be in conjunction with a clinician so that people know exactly what they are choosing.”

Ah, choice: the ultimate trump card of our age. I wonder how the Labor-dominated Parliament is going to stand up against that argument.

Francis Murphy, chairman of the BDA, said: “If choice of embryos for implantation is to be given to citizens in general, and if hearing and other people are allowed to choose embryos that will be ‘like them’, sharing the same characteristics, language and culture, then we believe that deaf people should have the same right.”

How deaf people view themselves and their community is up to them. They should leave future children alone, however. Children aren’t a commodity to be manufactured, and these folks have no more right to decide that their children will be deliberately bereft of hearing than they have a right to decide they will be born blind or without legs or with one kidney or with hemophilia.

The drama in Paola, Kansas is apparently over. Last week, just in time for Christmas, the PCUSA’s Heartland Presbytery defrocked the Rev. Kirk Johnston, the suspended pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Paola, according to the Layman Online:

Presbytery commissioners, at a called meeting Dec. 18, took three actions against the Rev. Kirk Johnston that were recommended by the presbytery’s committee on ministry:

1. They voted 131-35 to “concur with the administrative commission and committee on ministry that the Rev. A. Kirk Johnston has ‘after consultation and notice, persisted in a work disapproved’ by the presbytery and presume that he has renounced jurisdiction (G-6.0702), effective Nov. 18, 2007, directing the stated clerk to remove his name from the roll, and take such other actions of an administrative character as may be required by the Constitution.”
2. They voted 148-10 to “concur with the administrative commission and committee on ministry that the Rev. A. Kirk Johnston has ‘accepted membership of any character in another denomination’ (G-11.0416) since Nov. 18, 2007, directing the stated clerk to delete his name from the roll, and take such other actions of an administrative character as may be required by the Constitution.” Before the vote, commissioners agreed to add a second sentence to the recommendation: “The presbytery proceeds in this action with a sad heart, and offers its prayers for God’s grace and blessing in the future ministry of A. Kirk Johnston.”
3. They voted 108-39 to “determine that any further pastor or ministerial activities by A. Kirk Johnston (G-6.0200) in connection with ‘Lighthouse Presbyterian Church of Paola’ or any other worshipping community within the geographic bounds of Heartland Presbytery – including, but not limited to, preaching, leading worship, or the administration of the sacraments of baptism or the Lord’s Supper – is disapproved.”

After these votes, presbytery commissioners unanimously approved a motion from the Rev. Brian D. Ellison, moderator of the committee on ministry, to change the effective date of the first two action items from Nov. 18 to Dec. 18.

Pastor Kirk didn’t go without having his say, and while I don’t have a transcript of it, I think quoting the Layman’s account at length is worth it:

Johnston then had 15 minutes to make his case. “I’m not here to ask you to keep me a member of Heartland Presbytery,” he told commissioners. “I’m not here even to get in the way of lunch. I am here to ask you to hold your leadership accountable, to remove me rightly. Not by e-mails. Not with three days’ notice, thinking that’s enough. Not with no stated reasons in letters that don’t give reasons for administrative leave. Not by threats to withhold benefits and pay retroactively. I ask that matters happen as they should – in the light of day, according to the Book of Order, according to Heartland personnel policies, as brothers and sisters in the Lord.”

In the rebuttal portion of his statement, Johnston said the e-mail he received Nov. 14 placing him on administrative leave gave no explanation for the action. “This jumped the requirement of our Book of Order, chapter 14.0610 through 13, that a church’s session and a congregation concur when a pastor is put on leave or removed – even, you’ll notice in that language, when there’s an AC present,” he said. “This forces this whole thing to the presbytery. I didn’t ask Paola for severance. You are the body removing me.”

Johnston said he never became the pastor or even an employee of Lighthouse Church, and that he honored the terms of the administrative leave. “Why am I threatened retroactively?” he asked. “If you remove me today, as is your right, pay me till today. Allow my benefits to stand today. Why is no one from presbytery saying, ‘Kirk, you get 30 days’ benefits. Hey, I’m sure you’re pretty concerned about your family at Christmas, and I’m sure you’re pretty concerned about benefits. Here’s what your rights are.’ Never. Not once.”

If I’ve earned severance, pay it. If you don’t want to, don’t. There are rights – we’ll deal with them,” he said. “But I’ve not renounced jurisdiction. I’ve not indicated that I’d like to leave. I’ve not taken myself out of your discipline and authority. I come before you today acknowledging your authority.”

In the witness portion of his statement, Johnston said he was “here to avoid another pastor’s quietly slipping away in the night without witness.” He said he has not seen pastoral care extended to him by the presbytery’s leadership since the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission in 2004 upheld his remedial complaint against the presbytery over its per-capita policy and declared the policy unconstitutional.

“We are here because the session of the Paola church and I have asked some hard questions – and these questions remain,” Johnston said. “If I am to be strained from you today like a gnat, then so be it, but do it in the light. And I will not go without pointing out the camel that your local and national leadership have been asking you to swallow (Matthew 23:23).”

Johnston argued that the PCUSA has “renounced the once-clear message that Jesus is Lord, head of the Church, sole means of salvation and only name under heaven by which a man may be saved. When the purity of Christ is questioned, I find, like the reformers, it’s necessary to challenge the peace,” he said.

“In honor of Christ, I call the PCUSA back to her first love – a wholehearted obedience to Christ and dependence on God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” Johnston told presbytery commissioners. “I call you up to complete and unashamed reverence to Jesus as the unique and reliable and authoritative witness of God for matters of faith and practice. I call you out to a whole-bodied reverence for God’s Word so that, together, we pursue righteous and obedient living. I call you to unshackle the means of grace and let the full Word of Christ dwell in us richly. I call you to reject leadership that does not extend pastoral care.”

That reference to the 2004 decision is pivotal, I think. From what I’ve been able to learn, it seems that the Heartland leadership tried to impose something that the denomination wouldn’t allow them to impose, and like sore losers they took it out on Pastor Kirk and his congregation. That’s what happens when you stand up to bullies, and I applaud Rev. Johnston and his flock for their faithfulness and their courage. In the form of the new Lighthouse Presbyterian Church, they will be a tremendous asset to the EPC, which they will be formally received into on January 27. Welcome, friends!

tinfoil-hat200.jpgI wouldn’t normally pay much attention to such a hysterical article, but the link from the PCUSA caucus called the Witherspoon Society made it worth noticing. The article itself is by Chris Hedges, the former New York Times reporter who now specializes in demonizing everything connected with conservative Christianity. The Witherspoon folks say of his article:

Chris Hedges, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School and is the author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, analyzes the rise of Mike Huckabee’s standing in the Republican primary campaign as showing “a seismic shift in the tactics, ideology and direction of the radical Christian right.”

Hedges himself does his usual song-and-dance:

The rise of Mike Huckabee as a presidential candidate represents a seismic shift in the tactics, ideology and direction of the radical Christian right. Huckabee may stumble and falter in later primaries, but his right-wing Christian populism is here to stay. Huckabee represents a new and potent force in American politics, and the neocons and corporate elite, who once viewed the yahoos of the Christian right as the useful idiots, are now confronted with the fact that they themselves are the ones who have been taken for a ride. Members of the Christian right, recruited into the Republican Party and manipulated to vote against their own interests around the issues of abortion and family values, are in rebellion. They are taking the party into new, uncharted territory. And they presage, especially with looming economic turmoil, the rise of a mass movement that could demolish what is left of American democracy and set the stage for a Christian fascism….

Huckabee has close ties with the Christian Reconstructionist or Dominionist branch of the Christian right. The Dominionist movement, which seeks to cloak itself in the mantle of the Christian faith and American patriotism, is small in numbers but influential. It departs from traditional evangelicalism. It seeks to redefine traditional democratic and Christian terms and concepts to fit an ideology that calls on the radical church to take political power. It shares many prominent features with classical fascist movements, at least as such movements are defined by the scholar Robert O. Paxton, who sees fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cultures of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

There’s more in that vein, the usual paranoid drivel with no basis in actual events at all, but it’s apparently good enough to keep Hedges in steady work. Anyway, the point is that I found it interesting that the Witherspoon Society seems to put their stamp of approval on such nonsense, which is the far left-wing equivalent of the back helicopter fantasies of the far right-wing. So does that mean the Witherspoon Society has joined the Tin-Foil Hat Brigade? You be the judge.

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