Friday, March 27, 2015

From the Crowd to the Cross: Indiana, California, and Palm Sunday

So, Indiana passes its "religious freedom" act.  And in California, a Huntington Beach lawyer takes advantage of the lax initiative process to file an initiative calling for state-sanctioned murder of LGBT people.

And it's almost Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

From Irreverin at Patheos:
I keep thinking this new law will not stand… The public outcry will be too tremendous; or the economic cost will be too great... I sure do think it will all backfire and, for money and votes at least, they’ll have to take it all back. Right?
Meanwhile. Back in California where the sun always shines and progressive is not a bad word and everybody loves the gays… this attorney in Huntington Beach wants to make it legal to execute homosexuals.
In the public eye, these stories must seem vastly disparate in their severity. Sure, open discrimination is terrible and backward and we’re not going to Indiana any more. But execution? Unheard of. That will never fly. It will never gain enough traction for a vote. No elected official would ever sign their name to such a thing. Compassionate, thinking people will prevail. 
I’m tired of talking about this. It is so asinine. Obtuse. Backward and SO two centuries ago. But I will tell you this: seeing these two stories back to back in my newsfeed today was jarring. Because really, how far is one from the other? 
If we are going back to ‘you can’t sit at the counter in this diner,’ then we aren’t too far removed from the return of the lynch mob. It’s just that simple. 
So. Maybe Holy week is the right time to talk about this after all. Because we know the distance from the legislative signature to the execution chamber is really not all that far. The journey from the thronging crowd to the cross? A matter of days. 
We’ve been here before. 
So go, Church. Go print those extra bulletins and carbo-load for next week’s marathon of holiness… Wave the palms and parade the children. Shine the brass and dust off the banners and keep dreaming of resurrection. But never forget…If we get tired, if we grow silent, if we stop banging and marching and singing, the rest of the thronging crowd just gets louder. And we get swept right along. 
It’s been known to happen. 

Our friend Doug Blanchard's image (from The Passion of Christ:  a Gay Vision)  seems particularly appropriate here. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Belief-less Christianity"

Is that a thing?  Apparently so.   Blogger and Presbyterian minister John Shuck writes that he does not believe in a supernatural God, and stories about Jesus are the stuff of legend.
 I think of Christianity as a culture. It has produced 2,000 years of artifacts: literature, music, art, ethics, architecture, and (yes) beliefs. But cultures evolve and Christianity will have to adapt in order to survive in the modern era.

I believe one of the newer religious paths could be a “belief-less” Christianity. In this “sect,” one is not required to believe things. One learns and draws upon practices and products of our cultural tradition to create meaning in the present. ....

Belief-less Christianity is thriving right now, even as other forms of the faith are falling away rapidly. Many liberal or progressive Christians have already let go or de-emphasized belief in Heaven, that the Bible is literally true, that Jesus is supernatural, and that Christianity is the only way. Yet they still practice what they call Christianity. Instead of traditional beliefs, they emphasize social justice, personal integrity and resilience, and building community. The cultural artifacts serve as resources.

Personally, even though I don’t believe in God as a supernatural agent or force, many still do. I utilize the symbol “God” in worship. This may be viewed as cheating but since our cultural tradition is filled with images of God, it is near impossible to avoid. As a symbol, I’m not yet ready to let go of God. It is a product of myth-making — I know that — but the symbol incorporates many of our human aspirations. I find that “God” for me is shorthand for all the things for which I long: beauty, truth, healing, and justice. They’re all expressed by this symbol and and the stories about it.
 Now, I don't see how you can be a Christian pastor without, you know, believing in Christ.  But perhaps that's because my familiarity is with traditional trinitarian sacramental theology (e.g., Catholic and Episcopalian) .  I don't know how the Presby's rock.  But this does seem a bit.... unconventional.

Update:  We have talked quite a bit about being a secular Christian, and in many ways I am one.   So that doesn't faze me.  But what I find interesting is that he's a "professional" God-believer....being a pastor and all... yet considers God just a symbol he uses in worship.

Shuck isn't belief-less, he's just without a conventional belief in God.  He believes in lots of things, as he has indicated here.

He's perhaps not that far from Karen Armstrong.
The myths and laws of religion are not true because they they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.” The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

Or from me, for that matter.  But I'm not wearing a collar. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Millennials, Religion, and sex

A religious studies professor sees the loss of the millennial generation from religion as part of a conflict over sex and authority:
It seems that there is a generation gap between the younger generation, the 18-22 year-olds that I'm teaching on a semester by semester basis, and they seem to be moving toward the direction of looking at the Christian tradition through the lens of love and compassion. And that any expression of love, of real love and compassion is consistent with the Gospel. Whether that's heterosexual love, whether that's homosexual love and even whether that's what is understood as asexual...or platonic love, that all of those are acceptable expressions and consistent with the Gospel message. They are less inclined — and maybe this is just students I'm teaching at this particular college, which is predominantly Roman Catholic, although that has shifted. But even among those Roman Catholics, there is a real disagreement around some of the questions of sexuality. So they're definitely moving in a direction that is away from the traditional or orthodox interpretation of the biblical text under the church's teachings.
They look at the BIble differently too:
I think that they're looking at the Gospel in the way many biblical scholars look at the biblical text, which is that this is understood as a Word of God with infinite and eternal truth but filtered through the finite and limited experience of human beings. So they are making that distinction between God's Word as truth and God's Word as literal truth. And leaning more in the direction as God's Word as speaking some kind of truth, that has to then connect with their own experience. So experience is an important source for Christian ethics in general and it seems to be more of a predominant source in young people's understanding of their Christian ethics. So they're looking at the biblical text, they're looking at tradition, but they're also then kind of testing that out with experience. 
 And then:
 I ask the question to young people of how do they reconcile, or where are the places where there's been conflict between their inherited or lived out faith tradition and their sexuality.

And what I've heard over and over, overwhelmingly is they want to reconcile the two and they can't seem to. In the absence of that reconciliation there are no resources for them to be able to think about and live out an ethical sexual life and still be considered part of a faith tradition.

Meanwhile, the Southern Baptists are recommending that their young people marry earlier, to avoid the temptation of sex.  One comment remarks,
Religion constructs an “impractical” ideal for human sexuality and burdens people with ideas of sin if they fail to live up to its mandates on the topic… and instead of reexamining the impractical rules, their solution is to add new ones.

Of course, it would also benefit churches if young people spent their early adulthood locking themselves into religious marriages, communities, and possibly new families, just as they were reaching a level of maturity and curiosity that might lead to questions that would prove uncomfortable to religion… particularly when such questions might imperil those new relationships.

When it comes right down to it, though, rushing into a lifelong commitment in order to avoid premarital sex seems like a terrible solution to a non-problem.
Is it really just about sex?

On leaving religion

It's common in certain places to claim that the decline in membership in organized church is due to liberalism.  This is false.  Every faith group is losing its members, from Roman Catholics to Southern Baptists.

 And the recent "gold standard" survey , the General Social Survey (GSS) funded by the National Science Foundation, makes the point.

From Religion News Service:
...we see between a one and three point rise in secularity since 2012, with 7.5 million more people never entering a church or other worship service than just two years earlier....The number of Americans who never darken a church door is also at a new high. Over a third of Americans (34 percent) never attend a worship service (other than weddings and other ceremonies). This is a 3.4 point increase from just a few years earlier. Put differently, the group of Americans who don’t attend church grew by a rate of over ten percent in two years.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Signs your Evangelical friend is succumbing to Episcopalianism

Are your evangelical friends safe from the menace of creeping Episcopalianism? Can you be sure? 
Here are 24 warning signs to watch out for.

1. You say “How’re you doing?” and they respond “And also with you."
9. They gave up something for Lent.
10. They know what Lent is.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The history of our "Christian nation" is a lot more recent than you think

From the NY Times:
[T]he founding fathers didn’t create the ceremonies and slogans that come to mind when we consider whether this is a Christian nation. Our grandfathers did.

Back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive. Their public prestige had plummeted with the Great Crash; their private businesses were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from above and labor from below. To regain the upper hand, corporate leaders fought back on all fronts. They waged a figurative war in statehouses and, occasionally, a literal one in the streets; their campaigns extended from courts of law to the court of public opinion. But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity....

Accordingly, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders marketed a new ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal libertarianism.
And it links strongly to Eisenhower:
Uncoupling the language of “freedom under God” from its Christian libertarian roots, Eisenhower erected a bigger revival tent, welcoming Jews and Catholics alongside Protestants, and Democrats as well as Republicans. Rallying the country, he advanced a revolutionary array of new religious ceremonies and slogans.

The first week of February 1953 set the dizzying pace: On Sunday morning, he was baptized; that night, he broadcast an Oval Office address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign; on Thursday, he appeared with Mr. Vereide at the inaugural National Prayer Breakfast; on Friday, he instituted the first opening prayers at a cabinet meeting.

The rest of Washington consecrated itself, too. The Pentagon, State Department and other executive agencies quickly instituted prayer services of their own. In 1954, Congress added “under God” to the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance. It placed a similar slogan, “In God We Trust,” on postage that year and voted the following year to add it to paper money; in 1956, it became the nation’s official motto.

During these years, Americans were told, time and time again, not just that the country should be a Christian nation, but that it always had been one. They soon came to think of the United States as “one nation under God.” They’ve believed it ever since.
So rather than being white-bread and boring, it turns out that the 50s were quite radical.  

And we're still paying for it.

Monday, March 9, 2015

New atheists, old atheists

John Gray in the Guardian takes on the fervant "evangelical atheism" of the "new atheists"
Roughly speaking, an atheist is anyone who has no use for the concept of God – the idea of a divine mind, which has created humankind and embodies in a perfect form the values that human beings cherish and strive to realise. Many who are atheists in this sense (including myself) regard the evangelical atheism that has emerged over the past few decades with bemusement. Why make a fuss over an idea that has no sense for you? There are untold multitudes who have no interest in waging war on beliefs that mean nothing to them. Throughout history, many have been happy to live their lives without bothering about ultimate questions. This sort of atheism is one of the perennial responses to the experience of being human.
I am with Gray.  Why do they fuss over religion, if it means nothing to them?
 ....beneath the fervour with which [missionary] atheism assaults religion there is an unmistakable mood of fear and anxiety. To a significant extent, the new atheism is the expression of a liberal moral panic. 
He sees in this a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  That would explain why prominent "new atheists" like Harris and Dawkins are so anti-Islam.

While moral behavior needn't rely on God, Gray argues that the IDEA of moral behavior may have its roots in monotheism.  That may be true, to some extent.  God and Jesus don't have to be REAL for their stories to have an effect on us.

Gray goes on to consider atheists like me, tolerant non-believers.
Above all, these unevangelical atheists accepted that religion is definitively human. Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion. What if the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind? If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?
Why indeed?
The answer that will be given is that religion is implicated in many human evils. Of course this is true. Among other things, Christianity brought with it a type of sexual repression unknown in pagan times. Other religions have their own distinctive flaws. But the fault is not with religion, any more than science is to blame for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or medicine and psychology for the refinement of techniques of torture. The fault is in the intractable human animal. Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience – in this case, conversion to unbelief.
I have often said that the "new" atheists  are practising a religion of non-belief.  And their intolerance and narrowness is just as offensive as the religion that they scorn.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The culture war and cultural dominance

The hysterical desire of some of the religious right to oppose recognition of LGBT people is beyond crazy.  In Alabama, the state Supreme Court is arguing that the Federal Constitution does not apply, so even though a federal district court found marriage bans illegal, they refuse to comply.  In Oklahoma,  a GOP lawmaker argues that "gay people don't have the right to be served in every specific store."
If Silk’s bill becomes law, it would mean businesses and individuals denying services to gay people, whom he considers unworthy of equal protection under the law.
Meanwhile, over 300 Republicans who "get it" have filed a pro-equality amicus brief with the Supreme Court.
“Although amici hold a broad spectrum of socially and politically conservative, moderate, and libertarian views, amici share the view that laws that bar same-sex couples from the institution of civil marriage, with all its attendant profoundly important rights and responsibilities, are inconsistent with the United States Constitution’s dual promises of equal protection and due process,” the brief states.

GOPlifer  places this in a culture-shift context
When same sex marriage is finally settled law in this country, religious people will remain free to hold their beliefs about the sinfulness of gay couples. They will lose their ability to use those beliefs to constrain the basic Civil Rights of other people. We all have a right to our religious beliefs. No one has a right to legislate their religious beliefs.

This isn’t a dispute about religious freedom. This is a dispute about cultural supremacy. That’s why the last, most bitter holdouts against gay marriage are the same institutions, people and states who were the last bitter holdouts against the Civil Rights movement.

Gay marriage is likely to destroy something, but it’s not marriage. The fight over gay marriage is going to severely damage the lingering cultural supremacy once enjoyed by white Protestants.

We are on the cusp of experiencing real pluralism for the first time in the country. That’s why same sex marriage matters and that’s why the battle lines are drawn across the same boundaries as in the Civil Rights movement.
It's the fear of losing privilege.  It always is.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Religion by the states

Following up on our previous post about the state of religion in the US, here's an interesting graph showing the top three religions in each state.  Among the data:
There are only five states where the unaffiliated is NOT one of the top three religious traditions: Alabama, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why people vote the way they do (4) : Last place aversion and race

Following up on our series why people vote in ways that potentially damage them, a discussion of how race yet again percolates to the surface.
Contrary to popular belief, the incomes of the very rich increase more under Democrats than they do under Republicans. While pretax and transfer incomes are rather similar, the main shift occurs posttax and transfer.

Similarly, in absolute terms, whites do better under Democratic than under Republican leadership. But that doesn’t really matter.  People weigh their well-being relative to those around them. There is strong evidence that whites often oppose actions against inequality because of “last place aversion,” the desire to ensure that there is a class of people below oneself. Among white voters, racial bias is strongly correlated with lower support of redistributive programs. For example, research shows that opposition to welfare is driven by racial anger. Approximately half of the difference between social spending in the U.S. and Europe can be explained by racial animosity.
I think one thing having an African American President has taught us, is that the toxic brew that is racism is far from being solved in this country.

And what is this "last place aversion"? It comes from this paper, which showed (my emphasis)
 In money-transfer games, those randomly placed in second-to-last place are the least likely to costlessly give money to the player one rank below. Last-place aversion suggests that low-income individuals might oppose redistribution because it could differentially help the group just beneath them. Using survey data, we show that individuals making just above the minimum wage are the most likely to oppose its increase.
So, rather than viewing it as an advantage to bring someone up to the next level, the person previously at that level resents now being at the bottom. And race, as in everything else, enters into it.

Or as Lyndon Johnson put it, "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

And yet, so many of these people who are unwillng to help their fellows call themselves Christians. I think it's no coincidence that, as the saying goes, Sundays at church are  the most segregated day in America.