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.

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