Echoes of Theocracy

November 11, 2017

The United States is a representative constitutional democracy. In our constitutional democracy the authority of the majority is limited legally and institutionally, so that the rights of individuals and minorities are respected. In this way – if it works properly — the common good can be maintained, the human dignity and equality of all can be assured, and everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be maintained.

At various times in the history of our country, however, echoes of an undemocratic theocracy have reverberated across the land. 

Nineteenth century Manifest Destiny, for example, stressed the virtues of the American people and their God-given mission to redeem and remake the world in the image and likeness of the United States.  

At the end of the Spanish-American War (12 April 1898 – 9 August 1898), as the United States was becoming an imperial power, President William McKinley felt called by God and addressed a delegation of Methodist church leaders: “I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way — I don’t know how it was, but it came….that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker) and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States.” 

Like many of you, I remember the words of former President George W. Bush about invading Iraq: President Bush claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When he met with a Palestinian delegation during the Israeli-Palestinian summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, four months after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bush told the delegation: “I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.” 

In a theocracy, religious belief shapes the law of the land, the head of state is considered divinely appointed; and religious leaders control society’s values and norms. Today we find powerful Islamic theocracies in Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. There is not much room in a theocracy for development, dissent, or debate because the society’s leaders are understood to speak and act with the authority of God. Most often, however, the theocratic God is one made in the image and likeness of authoritarian men and women. 

The United States is not yet a theocracy, but we hear strong echoes of theocracy coming from the Donald Trump/Mike Pence presidential administration and their key advisors. A few days ago, ex-White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, gave a speech at a Republican Party dinner in Warren Michigan, on the anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidential election. In Bannon’s words, the anniversary should be called “the first anniversary of the high holy day of MAGA.” Bannon is a strange fellow who compares himself to “Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, and Satan.” In his vision of America’s future, he calls for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” He considers himself a Catholic Christian, but I see little in his value system that resonates with Catholicism or Christianity. If one can say he has a theology, it is a complex amalgam of varied and sometimes contradictory ideas drawn from far-right nationalism, alternative Christianity, pseudo-historical narratives, and Islamophobic fiction. There are no doubts about his influence on the rhetoric and early policies of the Trump administration. He was a co-author of Trump’s first inaugural address, with its refrain of “America first” and God’s chosen and “totally unstoppable” nation. Yes, Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council in April 2017; but hestill holds a key position as White House chief strategist, very close to the ear of the president. 

One of Mr. Trump’s current key religious advisors is the Southern Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress. In early August 2017, Jeffress praised President Trump’s aggressive statement about North Korea as an expression of God’s will. “When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers,” Jeffress said, “the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.” Pastor Jeffress is using the Bible to publicly advocate for President Trump’s right to rule by divine fiat: basically that Trump can do whatever he thinks best. 

Another key presidential religious advisor is Ralph Drollinger, a former NBA player, who founded Capitol Ministries (CapMin) 20 years ago, which originally focused on evangelizing politicians in Sacramento, CA. Today CapMin has greatly expanded its Washington DC influence on the Trump cabinet with a clearly theocratic focus. Drollinger dreams of an American Christian theocracy; and he wants “disciples of Christ” to take over the US Government.  

Ralph Drollinger is ardently fundamentalist. He interprets the Bible literally. He believes the world was created in six days. He rejects the notion of human-made climate change and warns against the sin of homosexuality. A 2016 letter signed by Drollinger on the CapMin website says, “In no way is God’s Word pro LGBT. Only a Scripture twister could reason otherwise.” Drollinger also believes that women with young children who work outside the house are “sinners;” and he warns that Roman Catholicism “is one of the primary false religions in the world.”  

Since March, Drollinger has been holding weekly fundamentalist Christian Bible-study sessions, in the White House, for Trump’s cabinet members. Drollinger has become the in- house spiritual advisor to Vice President Pence and Cabinet Secretaries Carson (Housing and Urban Development), DeVos (Education), Perry (Energy), Perdue (Agriculture) and Pompeo (CIA), Attorney General Sessions, and others close to the president.  

Drollinger in fact now has three weekly Bible studies sessions in Washington DC: one for the House on Mondays, one for the Senate on Tuesdays, and the one for the Trump Cabinet on Wednesdays. His version of Christianity stresses that the state must become an “avenger of wrath” and pursue its God-given responsibility to “moralize a fallen world through the use of force.” His alternative Christianity has little place for Jesus’s stress on compassion, love, and tolerance. His vision is also strongly male-dominant. Drollinger again: “The Bible says that men need to be taught by men. It doesn’t ever say that women should be teaching men.… Of course, women can teach, but only women, or males under a certain age. But female legislators can also sit in on a male Bible study. I have a lot of female legislators that sit in on my ministry.… It’s hard to get around the fact God seems to be describing male leadership here. I may not have set it up the same way, but he did, and I just want to be true to that. That’s what it means to be a servant who just wants to carry the meal out of the kitchen correctly and not alter the meal.” 


Nevertheless, the United States, to stress it again, is not a theocracy. It must not become a theocracy. I think the greatest problem in a theocracy is that the leaders of a theocratic nation use the fear of God to impose laws and programs that directly benefit only themselves. For a country to develop and improve, its leaders must recognize when change is necessary. Theocratic governments, however, cannot do this because they are usually grounded in an unchanging religious belief which must be obeyed as the primary truth. Finally, the punishments that are imposed on troublesome citizens in a theocracy are often primitive, inhumane, and cruel.  

What to do? The biggest protection against theocracy is a strict separation of church and state. It protects the state. In ensures that legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government can freely exercise their responsibilities. It preserves, protects, and defends the constitution. A strict separation of church and state protects and safeguards religious institutions as well. It ensures that they maintain leadership and control over their own religious institutions.  

A strict separation of church and state also protects what we call public morality. Public morality maintains the moral and ethical standards in a society that protect individual life and freedom and support and maintain the common good. For all social groups. For all religious groups. For all non-religious groups. For all racial groups. Etc.  

Yes of course, religious institutions do have a responsibility to critique social attitudes and trends, and recommend appropriate changes and adjustments to public morality’s values and norms. They do not, however, control public morality. Their responsibility is to enter into the common good dialogue that must be part of any healthy society.  

To summarize: In no way does contemporary America need a self-promoting Christian ayatollah to run the show…. 
Take care. – Jack

Theses for A Contemporary Reformation 

4 November 2017

Martin Luther was a young theologian when he posted his 95 theses in 1517. As a much older theologian in 2017, I am posting 7 “theses”or areas where the need for church reform is contemporary and urgent. (There are of course many more areas but — unlike Martin — I need to pay attention to my word count.) 

(1) Youth Exodus 

          A bishop acquaintance emailed me this summer that young people have gone astray and lost their faith. “Too much sex and hedonism,” he said. “They are not interested in God anymore.” I emailed back that I still work with young people and my perspective is different. 

          Maybe the real problem is that too many institutional church leaders have gone astray and aren’t all that interested in young people anymore. Who is listening to their questions about faith and life? Who is paying attention to their search for God in our haphazard world? Right now, about 39% of our young adults (ages 18-29) are religiously unaffiliated.  

          A couple weeks ago I was in a taxicab, on my way from O’Hare airport to a conference center in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. It was a 40 minute drive, and 5 minutes into it the young cab driver asked me what I do. I told him I was an historical theologian. At that point, he turned off the radio and began to tell me his life story: married, two small children, Catholic Latino background, doesn’t go to church anymore, and feels estranged from traditional religion. He talked to his pastor, who told him he was a secularized sinner, should go to confession, and had lost his faith. He feels cut-off from his wife and is thinking about divorce. He loves her but is not sure she loves him. They went to a marriage counselor; but the counselor told him he was a “typical loose-living immigrant” and he had to grow up and become a man. 
          “Do you believe in God?” he asked. I told him I do. “Me too,” he said. “I often experience God, here in my cab, all alone, returning to the airport late at night.“ I gave him the contact info for a couple fine young Chicago-area ordained ministers whom I know. “You need a spiritual guide and a trustworthy spiritual friend,” I told him. “Someone who understands your search, who will listen to you, and who can help you….” 

(2) Hierarchical Power Out of Focus 

          We need some ecclesiastical restructuring, and the hierarchy is a good place to begin dismantling and rebuilding. Ordination and the episcopacy are not about sacramental power nor about having power over people. Ordained ministry is about service and leadership. Jesus did not ordain anyone. He did not confer the episcopacy on anyone. He called his followers — men and women — to bear witness, to serve others, to live in his spirit, and to spread the Goodnews. Ordained ministry was created by the community of faith many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The community of faith was creative back then. It needs the be creative today.

          In our institutional restructuring, we should establish guidelines to ensure quality ministry and service. Why not five-year terms of office for pastors and bishops, which can be renewed for a second or third five-year term? In-service training, ongoing theological education, and annual performance appraisals would be requirements for maintaining one’s certification as a bonafide pastor or bishop.   

(3) The Hegemony of the Old Boys Club Must Stop Now 

          Membership, ministry, and leadership in the community of faith must be egalitarian. Men AND women must be recognized as ministers and leaders, with no distinctions in roles and functions based solely on gender. We need to push now to make it happen. We need, as well, to be supportive of those contemporary women who are already ministering as ordained ministers.

          In breaking the dominant male hegemony, we need to use inclusive language. This is not a nicety. It is a necessity. Ecclesiastical publications, hymns, prayers, and websites should be monitored and corrected. Lectors and teachers should be informed and trained about inclusive language and Sacred Scripture. 

(4) Right-To-Life Must be Truly Pro-Life 

          It is not only amazing but terribly alarming how so many right-to-life religious advocates and politicians change their rhetoric, once the protected fetuses emerge as babies and become needy children. Protecting right-to-life and being pro-life demand concerted personal, political, and institutional efforts on behalf of disabled children, the impoverished, health care, universal education, aid to minorities and immigrants, dismantling capital punishment, establishing and maintaining programs to help people move beyond drug abuse, sex education programs and birth-control as ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortion. Yes the list can go on and on.

(5) Complacency  

          Complacency among church members, in civil society, and in both major political parties is today’s capital sin. It is far too easy today to watch the news, complain a bit, and then sit back and do nothing and watch things happen. Human problems do not solve themselves. Human problems require concerted human action to repair broken lives, transform evil situations, and correct defects in our social networks.

(6) Ignorance is Not Bliss 

          When people are fed a daily print and electronic diet of down is up, paralysis is progress, enmity is harmony, stupidity is brilliance, the villain is the victim, and disgrace is honor, we need to become strong advocates for good education, critical thinking, and filtering information in a genuine search for truth.

(7) The Heart of the Matter 

          My final thesis this week is without doubt the most important one. In all of our discussions, in our moral and religious argumentation, in our political rhetoric, in tweets and on Facebook, and in our noisy demonstrations, the most important element is honoring, safeguarding, and promoting the beating of the human heart. After all……God is love.

I always appreciate hearing from my readers. What are your theses for a contemporary reformation? I am happy to post them next week. – Jack

A Pre-Christmas Biblical Reflection…

October 28, 2017

The only biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth are found in Matthew 1-2 (composed most likely between 80 and 90 CE) and in Luke 1-2 (composed between 80 and 110 CE). The biblical authors were not eyewitness observers when Jesus was born….but their faith in Jesus Christ was strong indeed.

Contemporary theologians speak about “infancy narratives” about the birth of Jesus not about infancy stories. They stress that the narratives present more of a theological understanding of Jesus than a strictly historical one. The infancy narrative in Matthew was written for Jewish converts to Christianity, while the infancy narrative in Luke was written for highly educated Gentile converts to Christianity.  

Although I have rarely done it in the Christmas season, I have found the infancy narratives a helpful way to begin an historical-critical understanding of the Gospels. In these days of alt-truth and bizarre interpretations of Christian belief, a healthy and balanced approach to Bible study is of great contemporary importance. It requires faith and study.

With an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, we appreciate the great variety of literary forms in our Jewish and Christian scriptures (imaginative figurative language, simile, metaphor, symbol, history, etc.) and that while there is indeed history in Sacred Scripture, it is secondary to theological content: who God is for us and who we are in relationship to God.  The infancy narratives are a fine example. Taking a close look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, we see a variety of literary forms and some significant differences: 

(1) Luke mentions the census of Quirinius which requires Joseph to go  to Bethlehem.  

(2) Matthew, however, gives no details of how Joseph and Mary came to be in Bethlehem.

(3) In Luke, shepherds guided by an angel find Jesus in the manger.

(4) In Matthew, wise men from the East, guided by a star, come not to
Bethlehem but to Jerusalem to worship the Infant. 

(5) In Matthew Joseph flees with his wife and child to Egypt where they
live until Herod’s death; then they return to Nazareth instead of  Bethlehem.  

(6) Luke, on the other hand, does not mention the descent into Egypt.
Instead, he describes how the Infant is brought to Jerusalem for the ritual  of the first-born. 

(7) Luke and Matthew are not necessarily contradictory, but they are
quite different from one another. AND there are some historical problems if one sees them as strict history: Herod died in 4 BCE. The census of Quirinius was in 6 CE. 

By the way, there is no mention of three kings in either infancy narrative. ONLY Matthew mentions “some wise men.” 

A real expert on the infancy narratives was the US Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown (1928-1998). Brown would agree with the present consensus of scholars that the infancy narratives were created by the early Christian community primarily to express its theological belief about Jesus Christ.  

The central element in the earliest Christian Proclamation was the Holy Spirit’s “designating” Jesus as the Son of God in association with his Resurrection. As the Christian community reflected on Jesus as the Son of God—so designated by the Holy Spirit—this designation was projected back into Jesus’ life: (1) Because of their belief in his divinity, early Christians creatively imagined the birth of Jesus to have occurred in a certain way, and (2) Hebrew Scriptures events were re-interpreted as pointing to Jesus. Some specific examples and comments: 

(1) Matthew makes use of the story of Moses to explain who Jesus is as the New Moses. Matthew also reinterprets the prophecy found in Isaiah 7:14 that King Ahaz (742 BCE) will have a son and then applies it to Jesus: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Matthew also constructs a highly stylized genealogy to show a direct line from Abraham, father of the Jewish people, down to Joseph father of Jesus. Matthew has the wise men following the star of Jesus. In the ancient world every important person had his special star; and, therefore, the author of Matthew’s Gospel presumed Jesus had his special star. 

(2) Luke focuses more on Mary and the shepherds and angels, because his audience did not have much background in Jewish Scriptures: Mary learns from an angel, Gabriel, that she will conceive and bear a child called Jesus. When she asks how this can be, since she is a virgin, he tells her that the Holy Spirit would “come upon her” and that “nothing will be impossible with God.” At the time that Mary is due to give birth, she and her husband, Joseph, travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem to register in the census of Quirinius. Mary gives birth to Jesus and, having found no place for themselves in the inn, places the newborn in a manger (feeding trough).  An angel of the Lord visits the shepherds guarding their flocks in nearby fields and brings them “good news of great joy”: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem to be circumcised, before returning to their home in Nazareth.  

Over the years, and for Roman Catholics especially since the September 1943 encyclical by Pope Pius XII: Divino Afflante Spiritu, Christians have moved from a literal to an historical-critical understanding of the Bible. Before 1943, for example, Catholic teaching was that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). TODAY…we know this was impossible. We have grown in our understanding. Moses lived around 1648 BCE. The Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) was written between 950 BCE and 400 BCE. 

The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are creative interpretations of the birth of Jesus the Christ, written to explain Christian belief to religiously and culturally different groups: educated Jewish converts, in Syria, for Matthew; and highly educated Gentile converts in an urban setting in Greece for Luke. In their unique ways, they affirm that Jesus Christ is truly “SON OF MAN” – fully human in a very special way — AND “SON OF GOD” – truly Divine and God’s revelation for all humanity. 

Considering the creative imagery of the infancy narratives, one can ask about other New Testament imagery.  That may well be a future reflection………

Right now, in our turbulent world, it is enough to reassure one another that we are not alone in our human journey. God has not abandoned us.

It Started with a Letter to the Archbishop 

19 October 2017

He was born on November 10, 1483 and died on February 18, 1546. Martin Luther was a Catholic priest, composer, and professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. Protesting abusive indulgence practices in the Catholic Church, he became a key figure in the Protestant Reformation.

This year we celebrate his 500th anniversary. 

He may or may not have actually nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, (the majority of contemporary Luther researchers stress that Luther did NOT nail his theses to the door of the Castle Church) but on 31 October 1517 theologian Martin Luther did send his “Ninety-Five Theses” to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz. His theses were a list of propositions for an academic disputation about abusive practices connected with the Roman Catholic sale of indulgences. 

A bit of background: Although one does not hear much about it these days, medieval Catholics had a strong belief in PURGATORY: a place of temporal punishment between hell and heaven, a place to purge souls of the remnants of sin and enable them to eventually move on into heavenly glory. They visualized the time in purgatory the same way they understood earthly punishment or imprisionment for criminal actions: calculated in so many days, months, or years. 

An indulgence was like an official pardon that could wipe out all or part of the time one had to spend in purgatorial punishment and purification. Church authorities could grant indulgences for saying certain prayers, performing good deeds, or visiting and praying at special shrines. If one had a loved one who had died, for instance, a person could gain indulgences for him or her and lessen the number of days that person would have to endure the pains of purgatory. One could also pile up indulgences for oneself; and indulgences could be plenary (wiping out all purgatorial time) or partial (just wiping out a certain number of days). If, for example, one performed a pious act labeled as “300 days’ partial indulgence,” then that person would spend 300 fewer days in purgatory. 

By the late Middle Ages, granting indulgences became big time big business for the church. In Martin Luther’s Wittenberg, for example, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk and a popular preacher, visited churches and traveled through neighboring towns and villages selling indulgences at good prices. He was a top salesman. Legend says he even had a little jingle for selling his indulgences:  “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/ The soul from Purgatory springs.”  

The pope too was in the indulgence business. In the early sixteenth century, the current St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was under construction but the pope ran out of money. Indulgences solved his financial problems. More than a few coins of course had to ring in the
papal coffers…..

On March 15, 1517, Pope Leo X declared that anyone who contributed to the St. Peter’s building project would be granted an indulgence. His decree explains the product he was selling and its benefits: “…[I] absolve you …from all your sins, transgressions, and excesses regardless how enormous they might be…and remit all punishment which you deserve in purgatory on their account; and I restore you…to the innocence and purity which you possessed at baptism, so that when you die the gates of punishment shall be shut… If you shall not die at present, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death.” That’s quite an insurance policy. 

Luther of course was disgusted and flabbergasted at such a crass distortion of Christianity. The young theologian, was strongly condemned by church authorities and the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Nevertheless, he was a Christian prophet and his message endured. 

In every age we need to be alert and critical and prophetic believers. Institutions and institutional leaders (as we see in the political arena as well) often succumb to self-promoting power maneuvers that distort the truth, offer people false hopes, and end up using and abusing them. There will always be someone who takes advantage of people and offers them quick salvation by selling the latest golden calf. 

It would help if we could see the church not as an institution but as a community of faith: a vibrant community of brothers and sisters, united in the spirit of Christ, and constructively critiquing and motivating each other to be his living presence in our contemporary society.  

Jesus of course said absolutely nothing about indulgences. He never constructed a golden calf. He did say the Reign of God has already begun….He wants us to live the Reign of God here and now, today. 

We can ignore all the contemporary, and often colorful, Johann Tetzels. 

Thank you Martin Luther! 

Words — Reality — Bridges 

5 October 2017

I feel our language has been so impoverished by mass media headlines, Facebook exclamations, and twitter outbursts that it is difficult to express genuine concerns today about the demise of human solidarity, compassion, and civilityProtest movements and counter-protest movements, becoming increasingly violent, are tearing the country apart. These developments are hardly limited to the United States of course. Hardened Catalan attitudes against Madrid and vice versa, as both sides dig in, may very well trigger a constitutional crisis, with profound implications for Spain and Europe. 

Where do we go from here? We are caught in a kind of disruption, disorientation, and social malaise……..One only needs to mention names: Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Charlottesville …..Varieties of physical, psychological, and social climate change. Institutional and political impotence abound. Again on both sides of the Atlantic. This week in Rome at the famous Roman Catholic Gregorian University, a conference is being held on “The Dignity of the Child in the Digital World.” International experts are exploring the issue of child protection on the internet. At the very same time, a Vatican diplomat, accused by Canadian authorities of downloading child pornography in Canada, is living inside Vatican City and strolling in the papal gardens, protected by the Vatican’s sovereign diplomatic immunity.

People react in strange ways. And we hear strange voices. The Rev. Pat Robertson has blamed LGBTQ people for the recent hurricanes; and he says that disrespect for the US flag and the US president are the real cause of the Las Vegas mass shootings…….Simple explanations? An Arkansas firefighter wrote on Facebook that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be shot in the head. He wrote that President Donald Trump “should post snipers at every game” and they should fire their weapons at any player who refuses to stand for the national anthem.  

Words and actions. How they affect us, and how we react to them. How do we really handle angry rage? Right now it seems to me that more people are interested in yelling and screaming about athletes kneeling for the national anthem than they are about the men, women, and children dying in Puerto Rico. What words and actions best express a commitment to “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? 

Talking with an American friend this week, I said I was concerned about a loss of civility, the rise of vitriolic hatred, and a lack of compassion in contemporary society. He said he was more concerned about a loss of respect for the flag. I said perhaps respect for the flag is best demonstrated by concerted actions in support of people suffering and dying. “It is about symbols and meaning,” I said. 

“It’s about patriotism,” he said, “and a lack of traditional American Christian values.” 

Christian values. I chuckled and said I was happy to get into a theological discussion. Love and hatred, friendship and alienation, wealth and poverty, guilt and forgiveness, and most of the other things that make life happy or miserable for people are rooted in spiritual realities.  

“Acceptance, belonging, community, and forgiveness are spiritual realities” I said. “They take root in people, when they have shelter, warmth, nourishment, medication, and a healthy environment.” 

“Thanks for the pious talk,” my friend said. “I have to get back to reality.” End of that conversation. 

Reality….When we look at the life of Jesus in the synoptic gospels, we see it characterized by ministry to others, especially the sick and the suffering. In the fourth gospel, Jesus tells his disciples in no uncertain terms that they are to love one another in the same way that he loved them. 

We need conversion and bridge-building. Conversion means a serious examination of conscience and behavior. Are our attitudes and our behavior authentically Christian? This is the big reality question. 

If we are going to be authentically Christian we need to repair and construct some bridges: 

How about respectful dialogue bridges between far-right and far-left Christians? If we are all part of the Body of Christ, we need to get our behavior in sync. This is a bridge I need to work on…. 

How about respectful dialogue bridges between Republicans and Democrats? A house divided against itself will not survive. I am a Democrat and most of my family are Republicans. We do love and respect each other.  

How about respectful dialogue bridges between “straight” and gay and transgender people? Along with respectful listening and dialogue with researchers in the fields of human sexuality and gender issues. 

How about respectful dialogue bridges between the economically impoverished and the advantaged wealthy?  
Some quick thoughts, in our restless days. All of these issues would be great adult education themes….

I agree with Isaac Newton: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” 

America’s Changing Religious Identity

29 September 2017

We know September as the month of change. It brings the autumn equinox in the Northern Hemisphere and the vernal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere. As we move beyond September 2017, this week end, however, I have some thoughts about the tremendous socio-religions changes in the United States. Depending on one’s perspective, the good old days are gone forever. 

According to Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones, from the Public Religion Research Institute, the religious landscape in the United States is undergoing a truly dramatic transformation.  

Among the major findings: 

1. White Christians now account for less than half of the USA public. Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants. 

2. White evangelical Protestants are in decline—along with white mainline Protestants and white Roman Catholics. White evangelical Protestants were once thought to be bucking a longer trend, but over the past decade their numbers have dropped substantially. Fewer than one in five (17%) Americans are white evangelical Protestant, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23%) in 2006. Over the same period, white Catholics dropped five percentage points from 16% to 11%, as have white mainline Protestants, from 18% to 13%. 

3. Non-Christian religious groups are growing, but they still represent less than one in ten Americans combined. Jewish Americans constitute 2% of the public while Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus each constitute only 1% of the public. All other non-Christian religions constitute an additional 1%. 

4. America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups. At least one-third of Muslims (42%), Hindus (36%), and Buddhists (35%) are under the age of 30. Roughly one-third (34%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans are also under 30. In contrast, white Christian groups are aging. Slightly more than one in ten white Catholics (11%), white evangelical Protestants (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old. 

5. The Roman Catholic Church is experiencing an ethnic transformation. Twenty-five years ago, nearly nine in ten (87%) Catholics were white, non-Hispanic, compared to 55% today. Fewer than four in ten (36%) Catholics under the age of 30 are white, non-Hispanic; 52% are Hispanic. 

6. Atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. Most are secular. Atheists and agnostics account for only about one-quarter (27%) of all religiously unaffiliated Americans. Nearly six in ten (58%) religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as secular, someone who is not religious; 16% of religiously unaffiliated Americans nonetheless report that they identify as a “religious person.” 

7. There are 20 states in which no religious group comprises a greater share of residents than the religiously unaffiliated. These states tend to be more concentrated in the Western U.S., although they include a couple of New England states, as well. More than four in ten (41%) residents of Vermont and approximately one-third of Americans in Oregon (36%), Washington (35%), Hawaii (34%), Colorado (33%), and New Hampshire (33%) are religiously unaffiliated. 

8. No state is less religiously diverse than Mississippi. The state is heavily Protestant and dominated by a single denomination: Baptist. Six in ten (60%) Protestants in Mississippi are Baptist. No state has a greater degree of religious diversity than New York.  

9. The cultural center of the Roman Catholic Church is shifting south. The Northeast is no longer the epicenter of American Catholicism—although at 41% Catholic, Rhode Island remains the most Catholic state in the country. Immigration from predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America means new Catholic populations are settling in the Southwest. In 1972, roughly seven in ten Catholics lived in either the Northeast (41%) or the Midwest (28%). Only about one-third of Catholics lived in the South (13%) or West (18%). Today, a majority of Catholics now reside in the South (29%) or West (25%). Currently, only about one-quarter (26%) of the U.S. Catholic population lives in the Northeast, and 20% live in the Midwest. 

10. Jews, Hindus, and Unitarian-Universalists stand out as the most educated groups in the American religious landscape. More than one-third of Jews (34%), Hindus (38%), and Unitarian-Universalists (43%) hold post-graduate degrees. Notably, Muslims are significantly more likely than white evangelical Protestants to have at least a four-year college degree (33% vs. 25%, respectively). 

11. Asian or Pacific-Islander Americans have a significantly different religious profile than other racial or ethnic groups. There are as many Asian or Pacific-Islander Americans affiliated with non-Christian religions as with Christian religious groups. And one-third (34%) are religiously unaffiliated. 

12. Nearly half of LGBT Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Nearly half (46%) of Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) are religiously unaffiliated. This is roughly twice the number of Americans overall (24%) who are religiously unaffiliated. 

13. White Christians have become a minority in the Democratic Party. Fewer than one in three (29%) Democrats today are white Christian, compared to half (50%) one decade earlier. Only 14% of young Democrats (age 18 to 29) identify as white Christian. Forty percent identify as religiously unaffiliated. 

14. White evangelical Protestants remain the dominant religious force in the GOP. More than one-third (35%) of all Republicans identify as white evangelical Protestant, a proportion that has remained roughly stable over the past decade. Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Republicans belong to a white Christian religious group. 

More information here:

Yes “the times they are a changing.”


At the United Nations: A Bit of History 

21 September 2017

I remember the event. I had just arrived in Belgium to begin my studies at the Catholic University of Louvain. Pope Paul VI had arrived in New York, to address the United Nations. It was Monday, October 4, 1965. Gathered with my US classmates at The American College of Louvain, we watched the pope, speaking in French, on a small black and white TV with an occasionally flickering screen, because the rabbit ears were not working that well. Here, in English translation, are some excerpts from that historic address, because I believe they truly have contemporary significance:

Pope Paul VI at the United Nations

As I begin to speak to this audience that is unique in the whole world, I must first of all express my profound thanks to Mr. Thant, your Secretary General, who was kind enough to invite me to pay a visit to the United Nations on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of this world institution for peace and collaboration between the nations of the whole world…. This gathering, as you are all aware, has a twofold nature: it is marked at one and the same time by simplicity and by greatness. By simplicity because the one who is speaking to you is a man like yourselves. He is your brother, and even one of the least among you who represent sovereign States, since he possesses – if you choose to consider it from this point of view – only a tiny and practically symbolic temporal sovereignty: the minimum needed in order to be free to exercise his spiritual mission and to assure those who deal with him that he is independent of any sovereignty of this world….   

Permit me to say that I have a message, and a happy one, to hand over to each one of you My message is meant to be first of all a solemn moral ratification of this lofty institution, and it comes from my experience of history. It is as an “expert on humanity” that I bring this organization the support and approval of my recent predecessors, that of the Catholic hierarchy, and my own, convinced as I am that this organization represents the obligatory path of modern civilization and world peace. 

In saying this, I am aware that I am speaking for the dead as well as for the living: for the dead who have fallen in the terrible wars of the past, dreaming of world peace and harmony; for the living who have survived the wars and who in their hearts condemn in advance those who would try to have them repeated; for other living people, as well: today’s younger generation who are moving ahead trustfully with every right to expect a better humankind.  

I also want to speak for the poor, the disinherited, the unfortunate, those who long for justice, a dignified life, liberty, prosperity and progress. People turn to the United Nations as if it were their last hope for peace and harmony.  

I presume to bring here their tribute of honor and of hope along with my own. That is why this moment is a great one for you too. I know that you are fully aware of this. So, listen now to the rest of my message, which is directed completely towards the future.  

This edifice that you have built must never again fall into ruins: it must be improved upon and adapted to the demands which the history of the world will make upon it. You mark a stage in the development of humankind. Henceforth, it is impossible to go back; you must go forward. 

You offer the many states  which can no longer ignore each other a form of coexistence that is extremely simple and fruitful. First of all, you recognize them and distinguish them from each other. Now you certainly do not confer existence on states, but you do qualify each nation as worthy of being seated in the orderly assembly of peoples. You confer recognition of lofty moral and juridical value upon each sovereign national community and you guarantee it an honorable international citizenship. It is in itself a great service to the cause of humanity to define clearly and honor the nations that are the subjects of the world community and to set them up in a juridical position which wins them the recognition and respect of all, and which can serve as the basis for an orderly and stable system of international life.  

You sanction the great principle that relationships between nations must be regulated by reason, justice, law and negotiation, and not by force, violence, war, nor indeed by fear and deceit…. 

Here my message reaches its culmination…. These are the words you are looking for me to say and the words I cannot utter without feeling aware of their seriousness and solemnity: never again one against the other, never, never again! Was not this the very end for which the United Nations came into existence: to be against war and for peace? Listen to the clear words of a great man who is no longer with us, John Kennedy, who proclaimed four years ago: Humans must put an end to war, or war will put an end to humanity. There is no need for a long talk to proclaim the main purpose of your institution. It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that must guide the destiny of the nations of all humankind! 

Selective Christianity

15 September 2017

Selective Christianity is seductively attractive because it offers simple answers for complex questions, comforts the anxious without dealing with their anxieties, and equates fidelity to Christ with unquestioned obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons.  

Selective Christianity is a kind of pick-and-choose religion that makes people feel good by looking at life with a kind of self-stroking barrel vision. In the old days it was called heresy. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word hairetikos meaning “choice.” Heresies are always a selective choice. They take one part of a reality and proclaim it as the whole thing. The old Christological heresies, for example, either denied Christ’s divinity (as in Arianism and Nestorianism) or denied his humanity (as in Docetism and Marcionism). The orthodox Christian understanding of course is that Jesus Christ is human and divine.  And believers in every age ponder how to best understand and express this reality…

These days I prefer the term “selective Christianity.” People select what they like to hear and what makes them feel good and important. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister whom the Nazis executed by hanging on 9 April 1945, would have called it “cheap grace.”  

Selective Christianity is powerful reality in contemporary America and found among Catholics as well as Protestants….and among Republicans as well as Democrats. I guess it is not surprising that, in a time of great socio-cultural polarization, we see increased Christian polarization and unhealthy distortion and disturbances in contemporary Christianity. I resonate strongly with the recent observation of the “progressive evangelical” David Gushee, who is Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia: 

“American Christians are as hopelessly divided as the rest of American culture, these conflicts are rooted in fundamentally different perspectives on the massive social changes that have taken place in our country since the 1960s, and there is little evidence that the fight will end anytime soon. This capitulation to America’s “red” and “blue,” and the vicious conflict between them, marks a profound failure of American Christianity, reflecting weaknesses in our identity and theology that require serious reflection.” 

Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, is a case in point and high on my list of unhealthy selective Christians. He distorts the Gospel by equating far-right US politics with God’s will for America. Graham sees a “satanic liberal conspiracy” that is working against President Trump. In an interview with Charisma magazine at the end of August, Graham junior proclaimed: “Trump has the might of God behind him and liberals will be hit by thunderbolts if they try to remove him.” In sync with Franklin, televangelist Paula White, one of President Trump’s key spiritual advisers, has now declared that opposition to the president is opposition to God. This is not just selective Christianity. It is perverted Christianity.  

While Franklin warns of heavenly thunderbolts, his sister, Anne Graham Lotz, warns that God is punishing and speaking to America through record-breaking fires in the northwest, hurricanes in Texas and Florida, and even the earthquake in Mexico. According to Anne, God is punishing the United States for permissive homosexuality and transgender “silliness.” Earlier in August she had warned that the solar eclipse of August 21st was God’s early warning sign to Americans about impending disaster and destruction. 

Minister Kevin Swanson, a Christian broadcaster from Colorado, said Houston had sinned by having a “very, very aggressively pro-homosexual mayor.” He told his radio audience “Jesus sends the message home, unless Americans repent, unless Houston repents, unless New Orleans repents, they will all likewise perish.” His comments came just a few days after Christian radio personality Rick Wiles linked Houston’s progressive sexual attitudes with the storm. “Here’s a city that has boasted of its LGBT devotion, its affinity for the sexual perversion movement in America,” he said, and then he added: “They’re underwater.” 

Actually the idea of a punishing and vengeful God is nothing new in America. The Puritans brought it with them in the eighteenth century. Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” simply reaffirmed it. Can a vengeful God however be reconciled with the life and teaching of Jesus, who constantly reaffirmed God as “abba” his loving father? A vindictive and vengeful God, sending destructive storms, is a selective Christian aberration.  

From a vindictive, hard-nosed, and angry god one moves easily to vindictive, hard-nosed, and angry people. People perceived as enemies of the “faithful” become God’s enemies and should be irradiated. We saw it a month ago in Charlottesville, but we see it in our daily news as well. The list of enemies is long: blacks, gays, “liberals,” “bad hombre” Mexicans, foreigners in general, Jews, Muslims, “intellectuals,” “losers” and other “lazy bums”…..The vindictive thrive on a warped version of Christianity. They create division and destruction in the family of God. Their in-group love thrives on out-group hatred. Sin becomes virtue. When this happens, we are approaching what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.  

What to do? 

All — which includes you and me of course — who strongly profess to be Christian have to examine their consciences about their beliefs and actions. To what degree are they consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? We also need to be critical and dialogical bridge-builders: to enter into serious head-the-head, eye-to-eye, and heart-to-hear dialogue with other Christians about our understanding of the Gospel and how it challenges us to speak and behave in contemporary society. 

Some observations for reflection and dialogue: 

(1) Caesaropapism: This is an exaggerated political understanding which sees the head of state as the key religious leader: God’s spokesperson. Variations on the theme are that the United States is (or should be) a Christian theocracy, or even a “white Christian America.” Perhaps the “America first” doctrine is pernicious and anti-Christian because it really asks Americans to replace worship of God with worship of the nation?

(2) A conflictual relationship between science and faith: This is a false conflict actually, because both science and faith pursue ultimate truth. Red flags begin to wave however when religious leaders begin to warn about the dangers of asking questions about God, Reality, and human nature. Our theological and ethical understandings do change and evolve – along with our understanding of what it means that be a human person with dignity and self-worth, regardless of race or gender.

(3) A conflict between a literal and an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture: One of my favorite biblical scholars, John Dominic Crossan, summed it up this way: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

(4) Being pro-life: Being “pro-life” means being opposed to abortion but much more. Doesn’t being “pro-life” demand a consistent-ethic-of-life morality? For years I have been amazed by those once active anti-abortion pro-life people who seem to ignore human life once the fetus becomes a baby, a child dying of hunger, an impoverished person, the poor, the unemployed, even the criminal awaiting execution on death row. I agree wth Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich that being pro-life also means being pro-gun-control. Taking effect yesterday, Cardinal Cupich has issued a decree banning guns in all parishes, schools and other facilities across the Archdiocese of Chicago. Anyone found with a gun on archdiocesan property will be asked to remove it from the premises and will not be allowed to return until it’s gone. Clergy and Catholic institution staff members will also face disciplinary action if they fail to comply with Cupich’s directive.

(5) Taking the Incarnation seriously in today’s world: The Incarnation means that God is with us in our humanity — everyone’s humanity: black, white, every culture, every religion, every race and nationality. It is God’s amazing grace. Once we really begin to appreciate what this means and what it asks of us, we can all chant the lyrics of the old song: “I once was lost but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.” 

Hurricanes and Forest Fires

9 September 2017

Like so many people, my attention and my concern this week end goes out to all those people affected – and soon to be affected – by hurricanes and continuing forest fires. What do we say and do, when bad things happen?
Right now I am in more of a contemplative than a writing mood. I too have family and friends affected by this week end’s developments.

In 1981 the prominent American rabbi, Harold S. Kushner, published a book titled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” The book deals with questions about human suffering, God, omnipotence, and a contemporary theology. Perhaps next week I will explore a bit more of his thinking; but today I would like share a couple quotations that have helped me and kept me going over the years: 

God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal. living in a world of inflexible natural laws.  

The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes….. Given the unfairness that strikes so many people in life, I would rather believe in a God of limited power and unlimited love and justice, rather than the other way around.

One of the basic needs of every human being is the need to be loved, to have our wishes and feelings taken seriously, to be validated as people who matter.

Global Change: More Thoughts

Labor Day Week End – 3 September 2017

A few readers have asked me to briefly expand on my “Silk Road” and global change thoughts from last week. You can call today’s essay something for post Labor Day reflection……I am an historical theologian, not a political scientist. Nevertheless, I do try to stay alert to the ever changing world around us, because that is our Reality — the only place where we encounter God, the Spirit of Christ, and our ongoing Christian challenge. 

A New Silk Road?

What I found fascinating in Peter Frankopan’s book was: (1) his survey of past civilizations and the trade routes that brought them to power, and (2) his projections about a new global trade route and the contemporary shift in economic and political power from the West to the East.

Asian and other non-European countries are indeed ascending to central places in the global order and are refashioning its structure. A key development here is China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). It is unprecedented in its size and scope. China’s OBOR project promises investments of around $1 trillion, covering countries that account for 60 percent of the world’s population and one-third of global GDP. This dramatic change occurs at a time when Western global leadership is stymied by ineffective political and international leadership on both sides of the Atlantic.

OBOR, today, increases Beijing’s influence in states all along major trade routes, from East Asia, through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia, then the Middle East and on to Africa and Europe. It means, indeed, a galactic shift for international trade and global political influence.

Beijing is calling this 21st century initiative “Silk Road.” The project’s geography brings up thoughts of a grandiose past when European powers were not dominant and the New World was yet to be colonized. The Silk Road imagery portrays an interlinked Eurasian landmass that, frankly, does not include the United States.

My observations are not anti-American but realistic. We need to reflect about who we are and where we are going as we look deeper into the significance of this major global shift. How do we live on this globe in peaceful collaboration with differing understandings of nationalism and strong political ideologies? How do we promote and support human identity and human rights? How do we collaborate in safeguarding the environment as we confront increasingly dramatic and destructive climate change?

As our world changes, there are urgent ethical issues that we cannot ignore. There are major religious trends, as well, that cannot be ignored.

Five religions trends projected by the Pew Research Center pin point for me major global religious change and influence.

(1) Muslims today are the world’s fastest growing religious group because they have high fertility rates and the world’s youngest population.

(2) The share of the world’s population that is Christian is expected to remain steady (at about 31%), but the regional distribution of Christians is forecast to change significantly: 38% living in Subsaharan Africa by 2050, an increase from the 24% who lived there in 2010. The percentage of the world’s Christians living in Europe – which fell from 66% in 1910 to 26% in 2010 – will continue to decline, to roughly 16% in 2050.

(3) In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, with corresponding rises of religious “nones” as well as Muslims, Hindus and others. At mid-century, Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion in the US. Muslims are projected to be more numerous than people who identify as religiously Jewish.

(4) Indonesia is currently home to the world’s largest Muslim population, but that is expected to change. By 2050, the Pew Center projects India to be the country with the largest number of Muslims – more than 310 million – even though Hindus will continue to make up a solid majority of India’s population (77%), while Muslims remain a minority (18%). Indonesia will have the third-largest number of Muslims, with Pakistan ranking second.

(5) The farther into the future we look, the more uncertainty exists, which is why the Pew projections stop at 2050. But if they are extended into the second half of this century, the projections forecast Muslims and Christians to be roughly equal in number around 2070, with Muslims the slightly larger group after that year.