Originalism and Interpretation

October 22, 2020

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is a self-proclaimed “originalist.” I have no desire here to discuss Judge Barrett but I do have a special interest in “originalism,” because it resonates with my concerns about biblical interpretation.

In terms of United States law, “originalism” is a way of interpreting the US Constitution. It asserts that all statements in the constitution must be interpreted according to the original socio-cultural understanding when it was adopted. As Judge Barrett explained recently, the Constitution’s “meaning doesn’t change over time.” 

“Originalism” is in contrast to the interpretive understanding that the Constitution should be interpreted in the context of current socio-cultural realities, even when such an interpretation is different from the original interpretation of the document.

My field of course is not jurisprudence but historical theology. As an historical theologian I do have problems with “originalism.” Understandings do change. The old context is not necessarily the contemporary context. The meanings of words change as well. For example, the word “gay”was originally synonymous with happy or cheerful. In the later 20th century it gradually came to designate someone who is romantically or sexually attracted to someone of the same gender or sex. 

“Originalism” understood as “the original meaning theory,” is closely related to literal textualism. It maintains that interpretation of the written constitution or a law should be based on what people, living at the time of its adoption, would have understood as the ordinary meaning of the text. Most legal originalists, like  Antonin Scalia — Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court from 1986 until his death in 2016 — hold this view. Scalia was in fact the intellectual anchor for the originalist and textualist interpreters in the US Supreme Court’s conservative wing. 

When speaking or writing about “originalism,” I have often used the famous phrase from the US Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men…….” Words and their meanings…

If one goes back to the lived reality understanding of the signers of the 1776 document, they – all white MEN — certainly did not accept that native Americans and African slaves were equal to them. Nor did they think that women were equal to men. 

The inequality of women and men in US society, for example, has lasted a long time. Almost a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded, in 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1872 Susan B. Anthony then attempted to vote in the presidential election in Rochester, New York. She was arrested, convicted, and fined. Finally, in 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote in federal elections. 

When understanding a legal document – or a biblical text – one must consider: (1) the understanding of the people back then when the document was written, (2) how that text affected human behavior back then, and (3) how we understand such a text in terms of socio-cultural understandings today. I value tradition but have one foot in earlier tradition and the other in contemporary lived experience.

How, for instance, do “originalists” understand Hebrew Scripture texts like these from Chapter 20 of Leviticus (which reached its present written form between 538–332 BCE) “If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death….If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death….If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, …They must be put to death.”

Or, for example, these New Testament texts: Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Or Matthew 5:30: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.”

More recently in the news, thanks to Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett and her far right “Catholic” group People of Praise, there has been much discussion about their interpretation of Ephesians 5: that men are divinely ordained as the “head” of the family and that it is the duty of wives to submit to them. 

The textual interpretation of Judge Barrett’s group is very authoritarian and certainly tainted with a dose of patriarchal misogyny. Ephesians 5:22-24 (most likely written not by Paul but a student of Paul the Apostle) really did not say that wives are inferior to their husbands; but the text does reflect the cultural understanding of the time. The household of the first century Greco-Roman world was hierarchical, with the adult male firmly entrenched at the top and his wife, children and slaves below. Submission meant a woman was expected to center her life around her husband, avoid the assertion of her own desires, and conform herself to her husband’s will.

When first century authors of Scripture penned their words and first century audiences heard them they did so in the first century socio-cultural context. Contrary to what Judge Barrett says, we do grow in our understanding and we should not be controlled by a static and unchanging cultural understanding. Textual interpretations are provisional. We can and should understand the past and its cultural setting and language. We must, however, live in the present, with our contemporary cultural understandings, perspectives, and language.  And on that foundation we move toward the future, often speaking with another voice.

Jack

Polarization and Public Morality

October 15, 2020

There is no debate today….When I think about today’s extreme polarization in US society, however, I become concerned about public morality. It has nothing per se to do with being a Republican or a Democrat, or being left or right of center. It has everything to do, however, with our survival.

Public morality – what some call civic virtue — refers to ethical standards for public behavior. The survival of democracy depends on it. A democracy is a social system in which citizens are bound to fellow citizens, with each individual bearing social as well as personal responsibilities. Public morality governs everyday life: the decisions we make, how we treat ourselves and others, and what we think about the world — about nature, business, culture, religion, family life, and so on. Openness is essential as well as serious reflection and engagement.

Without a healthy public morality, democracy collapses into either chaos or authoritarian dictatorship.

Those dangers are very real today. Public morality is often cast aside in authoritarian dictatorships because social order is maintained not by adherence to shared public values but by fidelity to the dictates and wishes of the authoritarian leader. Authoritarian leaders like chaotic situations in which people living in fear can be kept obedient and dependent on the leader. 

In a healthy democracy there are certain generally held moral principles. Key primary values, for example, are that murder is immoral, theft is immoral, harming innocent people is immoral, and lying is immoral. When these immoral actions are turned into social virtues or social normalities, society is in trouble. Think about contemporary militia and vigilante groups. 

Public morality insures, in effect, the survival of the human spirit. By the “human spirit” I mean those positive aspects of humanity that people show toward one another: empathy, respect, generosity, connection, emotional bonding, and identifying with the other. These elements require a sense of equality and a demand for human rights and justice in all domains of life, especially social and economic justice. Extremely self-centered righteousness leads to conflict, not cooperation; to fear, not hope; to aggression, not mutual respect; and to suspicion, not trust.

People set and adjust their public morality through interaction with family and friends, and with social, religious, political, and educational groups with whom they identify. 

After the next presidential election, regardless who wins and becomes president in January, we will still need to safeguard our democracy based on shared common-good public morality. Maintaining the common good means caring not just for ourselves but taking responsibility for the well-being of others.

As the American philosopher, George Lakoff, stressed in a recent book: “Houses fall apart if they are not maintained, so do democracy and the gifts of democracy that we barely notice and take for granted: the right to vote, public education, human rights, due process, unbiased news, clean water, clean air, national parks, safe food, good jobs, ethical banking practices, affordable mortgages, fair elections.” [The Little Blue Book: Talking and Thinking Democratic]

And a closing thought from the French philosopher and writer Voltaire (1694 – 1778): “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

It’s all part of public morality and avoiding polarization and chaos. – Jack

US Catholics in National Politics

After this week end, the 2020 US presidential election will be just three weeks away. Since Catholics – e.g. the anti-abortion crusade and Biden and the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court appointment – are much in the news, I thought it might be helpful to get a perspective on contemporary US Catholics. If Joe Biden Jr. is elected president, he will be the United States’ second Catholic president. The first of course was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35thpresident of the United States, elected in November 1960. 

In the United States today, Christians make up 65% of the total adult population; and 43% identify as Protestants and 20% as Catholics. (In 1960 about 25% were Catholic.) According to the Pew Research Center, about one-fifth of the total US adult population today is Catholic; but Catholicism in the United States has experienced a greater net loss, due to religious switching, than has any other US religious tradition. Already in  2015 a Pew Research report noted that nearly 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. That loss continues today especially among the young. Those who currently identify as Catholic are generally older and more conservative. Today’s priests and bishops educated and trained under the influence of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI tend to be right or very right of center. And they tend to oppose Democrats on issues of abortion, birth control, and gay marriage.

There still are, however, a great many US Catholics who say they want to see their church make significant changes, even when most US Catholic bishops oppose those changes. For example, six-in-ten US Catholics  say they think the church should allow priests to marry and should allow women to become priests. Just about 50% of US Catholics say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

Catholics in the United States are racially and ethnically diverse. Roughly six-in-ten Catholic adults are white, one-third are Latino/a, and smaller shares identify as black, Asian American, or belong to other racial and ethnic groups. 

The US political climate for Catholics has changed considerably since the days of JFK. Former Vice President Joe Biden Biden was born into a Catholic family, baptized a Catholic, went to Catholic schools, attends church, and presents himself to the world as a Catholic. He is hardly right of center. On the far right, however, is Amy Coney Barrett. If she ends up in the US Supreme Court, replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she will bring the number of Catholic supreme court justices up to six out of the nine. (Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch is Episcopalian but was raised Catholic.) Barrett has been strongly endorsed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. Cardinal Dolan also likes to boast about his friendly relationship with President Trump.

Currently there are 22 Catholics in the United States Senate, and 141 Catholics in the United States House of Representatives, including the current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Vice President Mike Pence, who describes himself as a “born-again, evangelical Catholic” was raised Catholic and a Democrat; but he converted to Protestantism in college and became a “Ronald Reagan conservative” Republican. 

Newton Leroy “Newt” Gingrich, who served as the 50th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, became a conservative Catholic in 2009. Newt, who is a co-chair of the advocacy group Catholics for Trump, became a Catholic thanks to his third wife, the conservative Catholic, Callista Gingrich, who is the United States Ambassador to the Holy See. William Barr, United States Attorney General, like Amy Coney Barrett is an extremely far-right Catholic; and Stephen K. Bannon, former chief strategist in the Donald Trump administration is also an arch conservative Catholic. And, last but not least, First Lady Melania Trump is a Catholic, making her the only Catholic First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in 2016, 52% of US Catholics backed Republican Donald Trump while 44% voted for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Catholics also narrowly backed the Republican George W. Bush over the Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

How does one characterize US Catholics today? 

According to the Pew Research Center, today’s US Catholics are split down the middle politically. Around half of Catholic registered voters (48%) describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party, while roughly the same share (47%) identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. 

White and Latino/a Catholics are very different politically. Nearly six-in-ten white Catholic registered voters (57%) identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, marking a big shift since 2008, when four-in-ten (41%) supported the GOP. Most Latino/a Catholic voters (68%), meanwhile, identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, a share that has remained fairly stable in the past decade. 

In a Pew Research poll conducted in late July and early August of this year, 54% of white Catholics said they approve of Trump’s performance as president, but 69% of Latino/a Catholics said they disapprove of the way he is handling his job. And 59% of white Catholic registered voters said they would vote for Trump, or lean that way. (What would they say today?) Among Latino/a Catholic registered voters, 65% said they would vote for Biden. 

I think it is helpful to understand that US Catholics are often more aligned with their political party than with the teachings of their church. On abortion, for example, 77% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholic adults say they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 63% of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The official position of the Catholic Church of course is strongly opposed to abortion. 

Partisanship also colors US Catholics’ perception of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Around six-in-ten US Catholics (59%) say they think Joe Biden is “very” or “somewhat” religious, according to a February 2020 survey. Far fewer Catholics overall (37%) say Trump is at least somewhat religious, though the gap between Republicans and Democrats on this question is huge (63% Republican vs 10% Democratic).

President Trump and his brand of Republicans have worked hard to attract those Catholics who have made  opposition to abortion the key issue above all other issues. This strategy likely will be on vivid display in coming days as Donald Trump pushes for the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the  Supreme Court. 

Over the years, former vice president Biden, in fact, has earned much criticism and correction from US bishops because of his positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Foremost among them have been the former Bishop of Wilmington Michael Saltarelli, Archbishop Charles Chaput from Philadelphia, and Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence. Tobin suggested in a tweet on August 11, 2020 that Biden is not even a Catholic: “Biden-Harris. First time in awhile that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.”

Biden, however, continues to stress his background as a Catholic and to build affinity with more open-minded Catholic voters. He stresses other aspects of Catholic teaching, not just abortion, like caring for the poor and vulnerable, welcoming immigrants and refugees, and supporting labor unions and welfare programs.

Hoping that Biden will become the second Catholic president of the United States, three dozen Catholic lawmakers, ambassadors, educators and nonprofit leaders have signed on to serve as national co-chairs of “Catholics for Biden.”  A further Catholic endorsement for Biden has come from Sr. Simone Campbell and the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. Campbell noted: “Catholics cannot be true to their faith and vote for Donald Trump in November. Every day, I see the cracks in our nation’s foundational values growing wider. President Trump is doing everything in his power to divide us, while our economy and health care systems collapse under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a spiritual crisis, and our faith and patriotism compel us to speak and to act.”

While President Trump pushes the anti-abortion agenda and reversing Roe vs Wade, presidential candidate Joe Biden wants to build on the progress made by the Affordable Care Act, which covers access to preventive care and contraceptives. He proposes that “the public option will cover contraception and a woman’s constitutional right to choose.” He has no difficulty reconciling that with his Catholic faith. As of 2019,  83% of religiously unaffiliated US Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (64%), six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and a slim majority of Catholics (56%).

Contemporary US Catholics are quite a religio-socio-political mix. The old political theory of a “Catholic vote” is dead. There is no “Catholic vote” in the sense of a bloc that moves predictably toward one party or the other. Despite a certain convergence of views among Catholics—a concern for social justice, a collective dedication to the value of the family—Catholics haven’t voted as a bloc since the early 1960s, when they solidly backed the Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. I suspect Biden realizes this. I am not so sure about Donald Trump.

Jack

Alert Christianity

Last week I wrote about the historical evolution of the Christian Right in the United States. I thought it would be good to review where we have been…… This week a look forward. Where are we going?

As we move ahead we need to be alert Christians. I explain this in a number of what I call, socio-theological-political observations:

  • In the United States we are quickly moving from consensus to chaos. I am very concerned – alarmed actually – about the rigid, hateful, and violent polarization that has become a deadly social virus in the United States. It destroys the US ability to deal effectively with Covid-19, to live with an increasingly multi-racial USA,  to resolve unemployment and poverty problems, to provide national health care, to cooperate with other nations in our global inter-connectedness, and of course, to handle the next big catastrophe: climate change. Covid-19 is awful, but climate change could be much worse.
  • I am not a prophet of doom and I still believe in the human ability to resolve problems created mostly by humans….but the clock is ticking. The longer we delay the larger the problem and the longer it will take to resolve the problem. Being alert also means being active. And being alert and active is a community endeavor.
  • We need honest self-appraisal and respectful other-understanding. We need to think about what we are doing and why. I come from a strongly Republican family background. I respect and love my family, but I am a Democrat. And my theology is more left of center than their’s. Nevertheless, I do respect a variety of theological and political positions, as long as we can be mutually respectful and willing to reflect and discuss. I do not try to convert others to my viewpoint; but I do want others to understand my viewpoint and I want to understand their viewpoint. It is in our mutual interest. 
  • Viewpoints do change as well. I was once a very rigidly fundamentalist Catholic. In high school they called me ”Pious Dick.” Then, one day, I began to ask questions about God, the church, and Jack……… I came to realize that I did not have all the answers and that no one has all the answers. I became an inquisitive thinker, with a strong desire to know and to know why….. I realized as well that we live and learn with provisional understandings. Human life is an ongoing truth-journey. And sometimes we have to stop, reconsider, and rethink everything we think we know. 
  • Institutions – religious and political — often prefer obedient non-thinkers rather than articulate truth-searchers. Obedient non-thinkers are easier to control. And some institutional leaders try to hide the truth (e.g. clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church) or they manufacture “truths and facts” to suit their own political or religious agenda. Our challenge is to be courageous questioners and thinkers who observe, reflect, and then act.
  • There are often people who call themselves “Christian” but who behave in unChristian ways. Then there are authentic Christians. The indicators are clear. Authentic Christians do not mock, denigrate, terrorize, or violently abuse or kill those who do not agree with their religious or political positions. Christianity is not about holding a particular religious viewpoint nor belonging to a particular political party but belonging to Jesus Christ and holding on to and living his Gospel.
  • Healthy Christians are self-aware and other-aware. People who are only self-aware become selfish and vindictive. The authentically Christian God is not the punitive god of rewards and punishments but the parental God of Jesus of Nazareth  – the God of love, mercy, and compassion.
  • Regardless who wins in November, the United States is at a great turning point in its history. I am a patriotic citizen of the United States and I believe in a “UNITED States” not a polarized society in which a few authoritarians have power over others. Power over others is demeaning and dictatorial not democratic. Our focus must be the common good. Cooperation, community, and the good of all should be our national goals.

And I conclude this reflection with a quotation from one of my theological heroes, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed on April 9, 1945 in the Flossenbürg concentration camp. (The 90th Infantry Division of the United States Army liberated that camp on April 23, 1945.) Bonhoeffer courageously opposed Adolf Hitler and his inhumane authoritarian Nazi regime.

 Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should … shock the world far more than they are doing now… take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first of all the possible rights of the strong.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Sermon on II Corinthians 12:9)

The Christian Right

Two friends, Bill and jim, were chatting last week. Bill is a Catholic and Jim a Christian Right Protestant. Jim: “Bill if you are really a good Catholic you cannot vote for Biden because he favors the legalization of abortion.” Bill: “Actually I think I CAN vote for Biden. You, however, absolutely CANNOT vote for Trump. He may oppose abortion; but in no way is he pro-life….”

Fortunately, Bill and Jim are still good friends and both respect each other, even with their political and theological differences. They are good examples however of the variety of “Christians” today; and a good introduction to my reflection this weekend on “The Christian Right.”

Today’s Christian Right is well known for promoting socially conservative positions on issues like school prayer, intelligent design, embryonic stem cell research, homosexuality,  LGBT rights, and abortion. Most often the term “Christian Right” is connected with political action groups in the United States. In fact however, far right Christian groups are active in several contemporary European countries. I think immediately, for example, of Hungary under its far-right leader, Viktor Orbán and the far-right Catholic revival in Poland under its far-right president Andrzej Duda.

In the United States, evangelical Christians constitute a core constituency in the Christian Right but one should not therefore say that all evangelicals belong to the Christian Right. A large number of American Catholics also belong to the Christian Right’s core base; and 52% of US Catholics, remember, voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

An historical perspective helps one understand the contemporary Christian Right, which the investigative journalist, Katherine Stewart, calls the “Power Worshipers,” because so many of them are indeed cult-like authoritarian followers. [See Stewart’s book: The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.]

Already In 1863, representatives from eleven Christian denominations (Protestant leaders and Catholic bishops) organized the National Reform Association with the goal of adding an amendment to the US Constitution. They wanted to establish the United States as a Christian state. Their amendment stated that they would acknowledge “Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government….”

In 1895, the largest women’s organization in the United States, at that time, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union announced its solidarity with the National Reform Association, proclaiming “God in Christ is the King of Nations, and as such should be acknowledged in our government; and His Word made the basis of our laws.”

The National Reform Association never achieved its constitutional amendment goal and separation of church and state is still a key official US jurisprudential principle for defining the political relationship between religious organizations and the state.

In the 1970s, the Christian Right became a notable force in both the Republican party and American politics, when the Baptist Pastor Jerry Falwell and other Christian leaders began to urge conservative Christians to actively involve themselves in the US political process. A number of US Christian Right universities began, as well, to actively educate young Americans in the philosophy and theology of the Christian Right. Key among them are: Bob Jones University (Greenville, South Carolina) – Protestant Fundamentalist, founded in 1927; Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (Lynchburg, Virginia) –  Baptist, founded in 1971; Christendom College (Front Royal, Virginia) – Roman Catholic, founded in 1977; and Regent University (Virginia Beach, Virginia) – Evangelical  Christian, founded in 1977.

Members of the Christian Right hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible and a more static rather than developmental understanding of human nature. They see God as a rigid reward-and-punishment task master. The Christian Right’s “enemies” therefore are God’s enemies and deserve damnation, punishment; and some a cruel death.

Since about 1980, the Christian right has been the focus of several socio-political movements: Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council. The Christian Right strongly supported Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter; and Reagan was the first US president to describe himself as a “born-again Christian.”

More recently however members of the Christian Right —  much like Al-Qaeda – have begun to promote violent right-wing extremists who lash out and kill in the name of religion. They are terrorists who consider themselves “Holly Warriors” acting through paramilitary organizations, cults, and loose groups of people who promote hatred and chaos. They find support and promote the current US president as their God-sent savior, in a very cultic authoritarian way. They are indeed Power Worshippers.

So what is my point in all of this? I will pursue and explain that next week…..

Back-Pocket God

This past week, I set aside the Trump revelation books for a while to explore a book about the religious behavior and attitudes of young USA “emerging adults.” They are currently very important AND they will still be here when DT is just an old memory…..

More than fifteen years ago, a group of researchers — directed by Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame and Lisa Pearce, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — began to study the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers in what was called “The National Study of Youth and Religion.” They carefully observed these young people and reported on their findings in a series of books, beginning with Soul Searching (2005). Now, with Back-Pocket God, this extensive research project comes to its conclusion.

Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults by Melinda Lundquist Denton and Richard Flory (Oxford University Press) explores the continuity and change among young people from their teenage years through the latter stages of “emerging adulthood.” Denton and Flory have discovered and documented that the story of young adult religious behavior is one of an overall decline in commitment and affiliation, and in general, a moving away from organized religion. A great many young people are not so much anti-organized religion. They are simply disinterested.

Although the young people in this book – about a quarter of the current US population and already outnumbering the Baby Boomers– are considered within the age range of what is often called the “millennial” generation, the authors do not refer to them as “millennials.” They prefer the term “emerging adults.” The book is a thorough and balanced analysis of their spiritual and religious lives: what they currently think and believe about religion, their religious practices and affiliations, and how these have changed over the course of their development from adolescence to emerging adulthood.

God for emerging adults, the study behind this book confirms, has become increasingly remote from their everyday concerns and rarely enters into their thinking or occupies an important place in their lives. In a way, the authors say, God functions like an app on their phones. God is just one thing among many other things in their lives. One could say that God is really “more of the comfortable feeling that emerging adults have, when they know their Pocket God is with them, close at hand but safely stowed out of sight.”

The top three ranked items that emerging adults identified as very or extremely important in their lives are: (1) to have a good family life (92 percent), (2) a close set of friends (89 percent), and (3) a fulfilling romantic relationship (80 percent). Less than one-half of emerging adults (49 percent) said that having a close relationship with God is very important for them and only 23 percent said that having a close relationship with God was most important.

Perhaps the most dramatic change among the emerging adults in this study concerns attendance at religious services. Attending religious services weekly or more often has dropped to 19 percent of respondents.

Clearly, emerging adults’ views about organized religion are less than positive, with an increasingly negative view of organized religion mirrored across every religious tradition. Many express their dissatisfaction and disagreement with religious institutions, usually around issues like LGBTQ identity and rights, abortion, and gay marriage. Many view the leaders of organized religions as more interested in building their own empires than in serving others. Those who were raised Catholic showed the biggest declines in positive feelings about the religion they grew up in, followed by Mainline and Conservative Protestants. Emerging adults, overall, are moving away from formal religious beliefs, practices, and participation in religious institutions. Even for those who maintain a place in their lives for religion, it tends to be treated as just one part of their lives and not more important than other things they are involved in.

Do I find this book upsetting or depressing? Not really. After researching and teaching about theology and religion for more than fifty years, I find it realistic and challenging. The scope of this book speaks to a great pastoral void. A friend observed that maybe these young adults have not left the church but that the church has left them….What one could call an ecclesiastical failure. Emerging adults are not in general antagonistic toward organized religion. Most just don’t find it all that important. Certainly if the current trends of disaffiliation and lack of interest and participation continue, religious institutions of all types will have a seriously declining membership pool and a big void in their bank accounts. One strong assertion in this book is that – unlike earlier generations — this generation will NOT be returning to church when they start having children.

The future of communities of faith depends on religious leadership observing and listening to young people without judgment and with patience and openness. I still remember, with dismay, the observations of an American bishop acquaintance. He yelled at me that “those young people need to be educated, formed, and forced to obey and observe the teachings of their Holy Mother the  Church.” I told him, much to HIS dismay, that those days are over and that “Holy Mother the Church has to start truly LISTENING to young people.”

These young people – our emerging adults – are neither racists nor xenophobic. They are already multi-racial. They are not anti-gay. They are not motivated by hatred or self-aggrandizement. They are attentive to the environment. They will indeed shape the future. We can help them by encouraging them to love, to search, to ask questions, and to find satisfying answers…..In the process they will indeed reform society and, indeed, reform the shape and focus of organized religion.

Jack

Meditative Moment

September 11, 2020

A very short reflection this week end. Take some time to find a quiet place. Take a deep breath. Slowly reflect on Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “Prayer for the World.”

Let the rain come and wash away the ancient grudges, the bitter hatred held and nurtured over generations.

Let the rain wash away the memory of the hurt, the neglect.

Then let the sun come out and fill the sky with rainbows.

Let the warmth of the sun heal us wherever we are broken.

Let it burn away the fog so than we can see each other clearly.

So that we can see beyond labels, beyond accents, gender or skin color.

Let the warmth and brightness of the sun melt our selfishness.

So that we can share the joys and feel the sorrows of our neighbors.

And let the light of the sun be so strong that we will see all people as our neighbors.

And let the mountains teach our hearts to reach upward to heaven.

Amen.

[Harold Samuel Kushner, born 1935 in Brooklyn, New York, is a prominent American rabbi and a popular author. He first caught my attention in 1981 when he wrote the best selling book on the problem of evil, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.]

The 2020 Campaign: A Theological Observation

It will probably be at least two more months before we know the winner of the US 2020 presidential election. So far the campaign has broken all historic records with its promotion of polarization, violence, and deceptive rhetoric. So far it is certainly the most chaotic and consequential in USA history. Many observers see it marking an historic turning point in US identity and social behavior. I agree with them; but as an historical theologian I also see a major theological issue underlying the current presidential campaign.

The contemporary reality is that the GOP presidential candidate has successfully tapped into significant white disaffection, racism, and fears that “their” America is disappearing. The contemporary populist movement, with strong use of religious symbol and sentiment, is actually a form of “Christian nationalism,” which is neither Christian nor patriotic.

Fundamentally, Christian nationalism ignores the historical reality that, right from the beginning, America was pluralistically multi-religious: with native American religions, Judaism, Islam, and of course Christianity. The other historical reality, that is so often either unknown or simply ignored, is that the religious and philosophical perspective of the “Founding Fathers” was more Deist than Christian. Deists argued that reason and human experience, rather than religious dogma determine the validity of human beliefs. The 1776 Declaration of Independence is a great and important national document but it is not a Christian inspired document.

Christian nationalism denies and rejects our pluralistic society. It stresses a political ideology that holds that Christians (especially white ones) have the right to rule over everyone else in US society. Christian nationalists, believe that “religious freedom” means the right to impose their beliefs on others. Christian nationalists reject authentic US American history and advocate a narrow revisionist kind of history. They insist that the “Founding fathers” were devout Christians who never intended to create a secular republic. Separation of church and state, according to this revisionist history, is a falsehood perpetrated by God-hating (usually called “leftist”) subversives.

Christian nationalist ideology advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity. It uses and often manipulates scriptural texts to promote its perspective. Vice President Pence did that on Wednesday, August 26th, in his RNC speech from Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Using the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, Pence dropped the name “Jesus” and in its place substituted “Old Glory” i.e. the American flag. Paraphrasing the text from Hebrews 12:1-2, which states: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith,” Mr. Pence re-worked the text. “Let’s run the race marked out for us,” Pence said and continued, “Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.”

The “Christianity” of Christian nationalism includes assumptions of nativism and white supremacy, along with divine approval for authoritarian control and militarism, often under the banner of “law and order.” Christian nationalism uses violence and created chaos to enforce its rule. The authentic American democratic social system, however, depends on people’s ability to disagree peacefully and still work together for the common good. Communication, compassion, and collaboration are necessary virtues.

Christian nationalism relies on far-right Protestant as well as far-right Catholic supporters, who are anti-abortion (but not really pro-life) and anti-gay. They are strongly linked to what Mark Lewis Taylor, Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminar, describes as the US “corporate-warrior elite.”

The Christian nationalist corporate-warrior elite prioritizes the corporate interests of a small percentage of the US population (the wealthy 1% controls 35% of the country’s wealth) and then reinforces those interests with military-type force and surveillance. It is an old concept that President Eisenhower (a Republican remember) warned about in his January 17, 1961 farewell address to the nation. Eisenhower warned citizens about an emerging “military-industrial complex,” that was already beginning to erode democratic rule in the United States.

Today of course, the current US president has installed his corporate friends in government agency after government agency. They are now working with presidential authorization to undermine protections for ordinary people in favor of giveaways and rollbacks for big business. A shipping heiress runs the Department of Transportation. An oil lobbyist runs the Interior Department. A coal lobbyist runs the Environmental Protection Agency. A pharmaceutical executive runs the Department of Health and Human Services. An investment banker runs the Treasury Department. The Defense Department has been led by a who’s who of executives from the largest defense contractors.

Please note: the corporate-warrior elite are strong supporters of far-right, white, Christian nationalism.

Unfortunately most critics of the GOP presidential candidate limit their focus only to issues of his racism, misogyny, and narcissism. All these are worthy points of critique, but they fall short of the bigger issue. The most important issue today, in fact, is not simply critiquing presidential behavior but revitalizing a vigorous prophetic tradition that resists the corporate-warrior elite’s self-promoting and self-protecting narcism, racism, and injustice.

A strong element in that vigorous prophetic mission must be the repudiation of Christian nationalism, because Christian nationalism is a religiously sanctioned vision that defends, affirms, and protects the ruling elites’ nationalist projects. Contemporary Christian nationalism has the strong support of far-right militant groups like Qanon who use the politics of fear to whip up their supporters. Unfortunately the current US president supports them and calls their opponents “Anarchists, Thugs & Agitators.”

Christian nationalism is a corruption of “Christian” and “nation.” It has come to signify something mean-spirited, exclusionary, and oppressive. In theology, this is called blasphemy: a desecration of something sacred. There are strange configurations in today’s Christian nationalism: owning a gun is a right but having health care is a privilege. Anti-abortion is a key value but putting immigrant children in prison camps and cutting off health care and funding for the poor and hungry are also key values. Christian nationalists ignore the Sermon on the Mount and the story of the Good Samaritan.

One further clarification about Christian nationalists. It is neither appropriate nor correct to call them, as often happens, “evangelical Christians,” because that term indeed describes people who are committed to the authentic Jesus Christ. We should call Christian nationalists what they really are: people committed to a fabricated and false “Christianity” which has no link with the divinely inspired man from Nazareth. Their “theology” is based on distorted cultural and political beliefs rather than the Word of God.

In this 2020 election campaign it is essential that we help people distinguish Christian faith from the authoritarian ideology of the Christian nationalist movement. Christianity is a religion. Christian nationalism is a political program. There is nothing sacred about it.

Jack

[For further reading, I recommend: Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg]

R&R

ANOTHER VOICE is back and online again….

For many people, a vacation is a time of R&R: Rest and Recuperation. For me my days of R&R were that but also another kind of R&R: Reflections about Religion – with serious concerns about contemporary religious distortions, like QAnon.

QAnon is particularly alarming. The QAnon conspiracy movement uses overt religious language linking itself directly to the Bible, to Christianity, and to God’s work in the world. The current US president does not question the truth behind the claims of the QAnon conspiracy movement but offers them his help, praises them for “loving their country,” and for supporting him. QAnon members in fact are a politically-focused religious cult and they believe the current US president is a divinely-sent Messiah who is working at great personal cost to defeat “leftist evil” people and to usher in a great golden age American Utopia. QAnon, like a contemporary virus, is unhealthy religion.

All religions are organized systems of beliefs and practices (symbols, rituals, codes of conduct, etc.) that, ideally, point people to the Divine and help them find answers for the ultimate questions of human life. Ideally, religion interprets and strengthens authentic faith experiences. Sometimes however, religion focuses more on ideology than faith and becomes a an unhealthy cult that worships its leaders and controls people through emotionally-charged rhetoric, falsified information, and unquestioned obedience to authoritarian leaders.

The signs of healthy religion and unhealthy religion are very clear. Healthy religion maintains a balance between belief and moral behavior. When this balance is lost one risks slipping into a form of religion that becomes an impersonal and dehumanizing ideology.

Some R&R : “Reflections about Religion” for contemporary consideration:

1. Healthy religion is grounded in contemporary Reality with all of its ups and downs. Unhealthy religion is grounded in fantasy and longs for the good old days, which of course were only good for a select segment of society. Consider, for example, nineteenth and early twentieth century white, Anglo-Saxon, male-dominant, Protestant America.

2. Healthy religion builds bridges between people. Unhealthy religion builds walls and creates barriers separating people into qualitative classes of people.

3. Healthy religion promotes a basic sense of trust and relatedness to people and to the universe.

4. Healthy religion stimulates and encourages personal reflection, questioning, and responsibility.

5. Healthy religion promotes human sexuality as a mutually affirming way of living and being with self and others. It does not use and abuse others just for personal (“Grab ’em by the pussy”) genital gratification.

6. Healthy religion encourages intellectual honesty and a serious examination of doubts and uncertainties.

7. Unhealthy religion stresses feelings rather than thoughtful reflection. It is afraid to question.

8. Healthy religion supports and empowers people.

9. Unhealthy religion imposes power OVER people in often dismissive and demeaning ways.

10. Healthy religion promotes hope-filled love, compassion, and collaboration.

11. Unhealthy religion demonizes one’s opponents and validates hatred, cruelty, and violence.

12. The historical Jesus practiced and advocated healthy religion. Healthy and genuine Christians follow his example.

THE COURAGE TO BE

One of my Covid-19 lockdown activities has been sorting books in my home library: deciding which ones to keep and which ones to give to the university library. Something I do each year; but this year I was a bit more aggressive, thinking other people could use the books that now simply gather dust. As I was dusting and sorting, one book slipped off a shelf and fell on the floor: The Courage To Be by Paul Tillich. I picked it up and immediately said to myself: “That’s it!”

Paul Tillich (1886 – 1975) was a German-American theologian and philosopher who moved to the United States after fleeing from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Tillich taught at Union Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. He is recognized as one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. In his 1952 book, The Courage to Be, Tillich stressed the phrase I had underlined years ago: “courage is directly tied to being, or a self-affirmation of one’s being.” In his book, Tillich explored the conquest of anxiety and the meaning of courage in the history of Western thought.

My point this week is not to get into a philosophical discussion about Paul Tillich’s perspective but rather to stress the absolute necessity of maintaining and helping others to maintain the “courage to be” in our pandemic and chaotic days.

Courage affirms who we are. It enables us to maintain our sense of dignity and self worth. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The courageous person is not the one never feels afraid, but the one who conquers that fear. It is an individual and a group effort. Courage, compassion, and collaborative action create a hopeful tomorrow.

As Christians we draw our strength from the teaching and action of Jesus of Nazareth: the courageous man of God. The Gospel portraits speak loudly and clearly. Today I stress just a few that have always touched me:

– As I write a couple weeks ago, Jesus courageously worked against an ingrained prejudice against women. He defended the woman about to be stoned to death. He ignored the taboo about men speaking to women in public. And he welcomed women as his disciples. Later women were the first to announce that he had bern raised from the dead.

– Jesus courageously combatted the ingrained prejudice against foreigners. This of course is the focus of “The Good Samaritan.”

– Jesus courageously denounced religious hypocrites. He called them “blind guides” who “disregarded the more important matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 33 and Luke 11)

– And something that certainly has a contemporary ring: Jesus courageously struggled against angry and violent protesters. Recall for example the scene in Matthew 26: “At that time Jesus said to the crowd, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching and you did not arrest me. And the reaction from the crowd: “Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him….”

– It is important to remember as well that Jesus knew fear. As he realized his violent death was immanent, he experienced terrible anxiety and fear. After the “Last Supper,” he went to the olive grove Gethsemane with disciples. He began to be “….greatly distressed and troubled and he said to them: ‘my soul is very sorrowful, even to death’….and he fell on the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass from him.” (Mark 14) The,portrait in Luke is more dramatic. There the fearful Jesus begins to sweat drops of blood. (Luke 22:24)

– My favorite images of Jesus the courageous are in the Fourth Gospel. The Jesus who stands before Pilate is strong: “…the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone the side of truth listens to me.” Later as he carries his cross to calvary, he needs no help and he doesn’t fall down. The strong and courageous man. (John 18)

Courage is fortitude, strength, endurance and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.

Courageous people strengthen and enCOURAGE others.

In our Christian faith, hope, and love may we continue strong and supportive of others.

Jack

P. S. I am taking a couple weeks away from my computer for R&R and will return at the end of August.

Remember the Serenity Prayer attributed to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 – 1971)

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

Courage to change the things I can.

Wisdom to know the difference.