Friday, October 29, 2010

Haunted Memories

This year, as children are playfully dressing up as ghosts and goblins for All Hallows Eve and Catholic churches prepare for All Saints day, I am haunted by the memory of Zack Harrington.

Zack is the young man who committed suicide a few weeks ago after experiencing the extreme hostility toward homosexuals that was demonstrated by some citizens of Norman when the city council approved a proclamation to recognize GLBT history month. Much of the hostility expressed at that city council meeting arose from fear that the council’s action would encourage the public schools to teach children to be tolerant of homosexuals.

More than schools are needed to teach tolerance. Our churches must also make a concerted effort to teach people to be civil and tolerant toward those with whom they disagree. That this is something long overdue is something else that haunts me. Zack’s tragic death reminds me of the untimely death of another young man years ago.

Years ago, when I was a sophomore in High School, five of my buddies and I would pile into one car to go to football games. On one occasion we made an extra stop and picked up another boy – let’s call him, Jack. Jack was a quiet guy and a loner. I had classes with Jack but had never ever spoken with him.

When we added Jack to the car, we had four in the back, seating was cramped and I was sitting next to Jack. Half-way to the stadium, Jack asked a strange question. He asked, “What do you guys think of guys who like guys?” Someone asked him what he meant. He said, “You know, guys who are attracted to guys.”

The thought that guys could be attracted to guys was completely foreign to my mind. I said, “Keep them away from me!” Everyone else agreed and we all made a joke out of it. I may have been the only one to notice that Jack just turned his head and looked out the window.

Hours later we were all back in the car and heading home from the game. Our team had beaten one of our arch rivals. Everyone was in a celebratory mood. Everyone, but Jack. Jack just stared out the window. Half-way home, he said, “I think I’m going to kill myself.” Someone in the front seat said, “Sure Jack, we’ll throw a party when you’re done” and all of us started making jokes again. The thought that he could be serious never entered our minds.

Within a week, Jack committed suicide.

At the time, I felt guilty for not taking Jack seriously when he talked about killing himself, but I still could not understand why anyone would want to kill themselves. The thought that a guy could actually be attracted to another guy was so incongruous to my way of thinking that it was still beyond my comprehension.

It took more than ten years for it to dawn upon me that Jack’s question might have been an indication that he was a homosexual.

I often wonder whether the response of my friends and I would have been any different if we had received some education about homosexuality. At that time, the issue was not a topic of discussion at my home or church or school. Frankly, when I look back at the Bible-toting, legalistic, inerrantist, fundamental Baptist boy that I was at that time, I’m not very optimistic about my own reaction. But, the reaction of one or more of my friends might have been different.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Top 50 Baptist Bloggers

A guide to online theology degrees has included the Mainstream Baptist blog in its list of "The Top 50 Baptist Bloggers."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Al Mohler, Southern Baptists and Lip Service Love

Ethics Daily has posted an outstanding essay by Christa Brown that asks "Would Tyler Clementi Be Loved by SBC Churches?"  Brown takes Al Mohler and Southern Baptists to task for their failure to match words with deeds in regard to homosexuals:
It is good for Mohler to talk about how churches should show love to gay people. But first things first. Before Southern Baptists can become more loving in their interactions with gay people in their midst, they must start by allowing gay people to come into their midst – and by welcoming them just as they are, as children of God.
No one is asking Southern Baptists to lie about their beliefs. But an essential first step for churches that want to show Christian care to gay people is to open their doors to gay people.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Political Electioneering by Churches Surveyed

Pew Forum just released the results of their 2010 survey of "Politics in the Pulpit." 

Those who attend churches where clergy urge their congregants to vote a certain way are receiving tax benefits that other Americans do not enjoy.  When they make contributions to their church, they are also making tax deductible contributions in support of certain political candidates and political parties.

Those who attend churches where clergy observe the laws of our tax code do not receive a similar benefit.  They must make direct contributions to support the political candidate or political party of their choice.  When they do so they are not able to deduct the contribution from their income tax.

In effect, all tax payers are now subsidizing the political choices of the people attending churches where the clergy violate the laws of our tax code.

Sooner or later, this inequity will be rectified. 

There are four possible remedies.  1) churches that violate the law could lose their tax exempt status 2) the law prohibiting politicking by churches could be repealed 3) all contributions to politicians and political parties could be made tax deductible 4) all tax deductions for contributions to churches could be rescinded.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Can Religious Leaders Influence Politics Without Undermining Pluralism?

I have had an inquiry as to whether religious leaders can work to influence politics without undermining pluralism.

My answer is, yes.

Religious leaders have a moral responsibility to address the injustices they see in society and a civic responsibility to work to secure justice.  When doing so, they are obligated to be strictly non-partisan.  Faith should be identified with justice -- not with specific individuals, political parties or political platforms.

Religious leaders have a right to speak out on issues of both morality and public policy.  They have a right to encourage and assist their adherents in becoming informed about issues of public policy and politics.  Again, they have an obligation to be strictly non-partisan.  Faith should be identified with the common good -- not with specific individuals, political parties or political platforms.

When addressing issues of injustice and public policy, they should speak freely in the language of their own faith and tradition within their faith groups.  When speaking to the larger public, appeals to the doctrines of particular faiths should not be expected to hold much weight.  We live in a pluralistic democracy.  People of all faiths and no faith have equal rights in our society.  In a pluralistic society, appeals to the public at large are best made on the basis of reason and in terms that could be persuasive to people of different beliefs and convictions.

Both religious and political leaders have a responsibility to observe the limits of their authority and to educate the public about those limits.  The constitution prohibits passing laws that establish any religion.  It also prohibits passing laws that infringe on the free exercise of religion. 

Separation of church and state means that the state maintains a benevolent neutrality in regard to religion.  The government preserves a public square where no religion holds a monopoly and the truth can shift for itself in a free maketplace of ideas.  The free marketplace of ideas in a pluralistic democracy ensures that religious truth is free to compete for the minds and hearts of the citizenry -- but it has to compete.  It has no privileged standing in the public square.

Separation of church and state means that the church (religion) relinquishes any desire to dominate the state, use its power to elevate itself over other faith traditions, and oppress other religions.  All religious leaders have a responsibility to see that no religion seeks to establish itself within the government and that the public square remains a free marketplace of ideas for people of all faiths and convictions.

Pluralistic democracy is threatened whenever some religious leaders determine to use their influence to secure a monopoly for themselves within the government and the public square.  This thrust generally springs from a desire to force all society to conform to the moral dictates of a particular religious perspective. 

Pluralistic democracy can only be preserved if the adherents of all religions accept two premises.  First, that civil law cannot prohibit every thing that faith groups consider immoral.  Second, that not everything that is legal is moral.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Creationism Ruled Inadequate Preparation for College

The Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal from the Association of Christian Schools that contended their constitutional rights were violated when their high school biology classes were determined to be inadequate preparation for college.

Michael White at the Science 2.0 website succinctly summarizes the tactics of creationists in this case:
This is yet another one of those instances in which creationists try to have it both ways: creationism is religion when it's convenient accuse people of religious discrimination, and it's science when they're trying to get it into the public school curriculum.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

American Economics: Policies That Enrich the Few at the Expense of the Many

Cliff Vaughn has posted some of the comments that were cut from Ethics Daily's new DVD on "Sacred Texts, Social Duty." 

A quote from Ali Faruk, a policy analyst at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, described the current American economic system most succinctly -- "It's about policies designed to further enrich the few at the expense of the many."

Ralph Martire, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability in Chicago, pinned the blame on "trickle down" economics:
"There is no data to support the stance that the way you grow the economy is to cut taxes on the wealthy and support corporate giveaways," said Martire, a Catholic. "In fact, all the data runs the opposite."

"Trickle-down has never worked," he continued. "The data are compelling."
"Our economy grew its best late '40s, after World War II, '50s and '60s, up until 1970, when low-income working families and middle-income families had their greatest growth in income,"
Martire said. "In real terms, after inflation, these families were getting paid more every year. And by getting paid more, they could spend more in the local economy and in the national economy."
Martire added that with the U.S. economy being nearly 70 percent consumer spending, growth in the bottom and middle sectors of wage-earners meant that "the entire economy took off."
It is obvious that we are now living in a banana republic.  I wonder what a chart of the wealth distribution of the U.S. population by percentiles in the 50's and 60's would look like.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

It's Getting Better for Gay Teens in Fort Worth

Wall Street Whiners Still Complaining

Larry Greenfield, Executive Minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, has an outstanding essay on the Ethics Daily website that addresses the callousness of the titans of our pampered finance industry.  He cites complaints voiced in a WSJ article:
The Wall Street Journal reported that major U.S. "securities and investment-service firms" are ready to break the record a second year in a row for pay – compensation and benefits – to employees. Last year these companies dished out $433 billion; this year the projected total is $448 billion.
 . . .
But evidently this wasn't enough to satisfy the highly paid employees. First they complained that the newly adopted reforms would limit their bonuses – bonuses that would have increased their compensation even more. And then, along with other wealthy folks, they've now become highly incensed that their tax rates will revert back to those in force during the Clinton administration – that is, before the tax cuts of the George W. Bush administration – as they were supposed to by bipartisan agreement.

It's an injustice, they claim. It's taking away money to which they think they're entitled.
Greenfield takes them and the Tea Partiers to task for their misreading of Luke 18. 

I think Greenfield is being too generous in his criticism.  I think they have torn Luke 12:15-21 completely out of their Bibles.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Georgia Baptist Heritage Council's Finale

I just received my copy of the Georgia Baptist Heritage Council's final newsletter.  The Baptist Heritage Council was the Mainstream Baptist organization in Georgia.  I'm sorry to see the organization come to an end, but all good things do come to an end in this world.

One-by-one formal Mainstream Baptist organizations have been shutting down as historic Baptist distinctives have lost their appeal to most Baptists in the South.

Principles that were forged while Baptists were an oppressed minority hold little attraction to Baptists who have never known a time when they were not the dominant cultural force within their region of the country.

Ever since the era of civil rights, unrelenting technological advances, shifting demographics and mounting religious and cultural diversity helped attune increasingly disoriented and insecure Southern Baptist ears to the siren song of authoritarian leadership.

Authoritarian Southern Baptists reacted aggressively to counteract an onslaught of what, to them, were unwelcome changes.

Prominent pastors concluded they could redirect social change if they could control their denomination. Evangelists shifted their message from saving souls to saving the culture. Revivals restructured from being spiritual movements and became political movements. Some pastors began assuming responsibility for leading their congregations to exercise dominion over all the civic and political life of their community and nation.

Other Southern Baptists noticed the dramatic changes taking place in their denomination and resisted it. The people in the Baptist Heritage Council of Georgia were among them. They organized to remind Baptists in the South of their historic commitment to liberty of conscience, the priesthood of all believers, congregational autonomy, and the separation of church and state. The more they talked about these historic Baptist principles, however, the more many Southern Baptist pastors felt the need to consolidate their authority. They asserted their control by making both Jesus and the Holy Spirit subordinate to a dogma of biblical inerrancy and by elevating the dogma of pastoral authority above all other doctrines.

Today, ten years after Southern Baptists traded their birthright for an authoritarian creed, a Baptist in the South who remembers what it is like to be a Baptist who is free-in-Christ is a dying breed.

Our children have never known a time when they had reason to be proud of the Baptist name. 

The churches of mainline denominations are full of Baptists recovering from abusive fundamentalist pastors. 

Oblivious to the impact on their congregations that the influence of the new politicized Southern Baptist Convention has wrought on American domestic, foreign, and economic policy since 1979, African-American Baptists have been disinterested bystanders.

There's little room for prophets in Baptist life any more.  Pharisees, Saducees, and Herodians own the brand.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Praying for Hali Thomas

Hali Thomas, who served as my intern in the summer of 2009 as we prepared for the Midwest Regional Meeting of the New Baptist Covenant, will be undergoing exploratory laproscopic surgery this afternoon in Australia.

For the past year, Hali has been a Peace Corp volunteer teaching at a local primary school on the Pacific Island of Tanna in Vanuatu -- an island with very primitive living conditions and an active volcano.

Last week Hali was medi-flighted to Brisbane, Australia to be treated for what was thought to be kidney stones.  Tests for kidney stones proved inconclusive and she must now undergo exploratory surgery.

Hali is the daughter of  T and Kathie Thomas who, after serving as Southern Baptist missionaries, served as the first missionaries appointed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  They now coordinate the work of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Oklahoma.

The picture above was taken at a private luncheon for the organizers of the Midwest Regional Meeting of the New Baptist Covenant in August 2009.  Former President Carter, whose mother served with the Peace Corp, was particularly pleased to learn that Hali would also be serving in the Peace Corp.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

On Evangelicals Shaping Society

The Patheos website has posted an interview with Rice University Sociologist Michael Lindsay entitled "New Ways of Shaping Society" as part of its examination of the "Future of Evangelicalism." Lindsay thinks evangelicals need to learn how to work with people who have different religious convictions:

I don't think evangelicals can continue to practice the rhetoric that they are an embattled minority group, because they are not. It's a successful rhetorical strategy, but it's empirically invalid. Evangelicals are significant players on the national stage, and they are not some marginalized group that sits on the sidelines of American culture. That said, they will have to do more to build bridges and alliances with non-evangelicals than they have done in the past. The only way that they will actually bring about social change is through alliances and coalitions on particular issues. At the same time, my hope is that they will retain their distinctive evangelistic fervor, which has served them well over the last hundred years.

As far as building bridges and alliances, one way in which the Religious Right has been criticized, and now the Religious Left is open to critique, is for becoming overly implicated with a political party, or becoming apologists for the party in general and not just on the points that led you to form the alliance in the first place. Those who have allied with the Right or with the Left can, when that party is in power, become court prophets who merely tell the king whatever the king wants to hear. So how do you form coalitions in particular issues without becoming so beholden to the party that you lose the ability to speak prophetically over against it?

We have to establish a deep relational network that can withstand tension and disagreement. Evangelicals have not been very good at building relational bridges, meaning personal friendships with those in leadership positions who are outside the evangelical community. This is where there is a real possibility of improvement in the days ahead.
In my opinion, the only way evangelicals will be able to relate with people of other convictions is for them to develop a genuine sense of humility. The evangelical quest for certainty of belief leads to arrogance among those who think they have found it and hostility toward those who decline to share the same religio-politico-moral perspective.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Too Hot for ABC-TV: You Get What You Pay for In Taxes

While Congress postpones resolving the contentious issue of taxes until after the November elections, Ethics Daily has stepped forward to put a spotlight on what has become "The Forbidden Topic" of fair taxes. Meanwhile, ABC television has decided that an authentic moral witness on the issue is too controversial for them to broadcast.

Over the past several years, Ethics Daily has produced a number of highly acclaimed documentaries on moral issues. Earlier this year their documentary on Baptists and Muslims working together for the common good entitled "Different Books, Common Word" aired on ABC Television stations around the country. Their new documentary on fair taxation was scheduled to air this month. ABC, however, refused to air the documentary when the documentary's producers -- Robert Parham and Cliff Vaughn -- refused to gut the documentary of specific moral critique in regard to tax policy. A press release from Ethics Daily explains,

"Sacred Texts, Social Duty" was originally produced as an ABC-TV interfaith special. However, network gatekeepers refused to air the program without the removal of the 10-minute segment evaluating regressivity/progressivity, sales taxes on food, and the lottery as a predatory form of taxation. was unwilling to gut the program of its moral witness.

"Broadcasting an hour-long documentary on sacred texts without an application of moral teachings to the public square says that religion is irrelevant, that faith has nothing to say to social justice, that the current tax system is a good one from a faith perspective," says Robert Parham, executive director of "Watering down the moral witness for the sake of an ABC broadcast is too much of a compromise."
An essay today by Robert Parham reveals how contentious honest dialogue about taxes has become in our society. Responding to a Tea Party suggestion that the government turn all charitable work over to the churches, Wayne Flint responds in an interview for the documentary:

He responded, "OK, I accept your argument. There are 10,000 communities of faith – Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Baha'i, Buddhist, Shintoist – in Alabama... Let's divide 10,000 communities of faith into the 740,000 people and how many does your church get?"

Noting that many of these communities of faith have less than 100 members, Flynt said each house of faith would get roughly 50 to 100 poor people for whom it would be responsible.

"We won't have to have Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, taxes of any kind... We can abolish taxes. We can abolish the IRS. And all you have to do is for your congregation to adopt 50 to 100 poor people, and mentor them, and love them, and educate them, and nurture them," said Flynt.
Here's a link to order the DVD or view additional clips from the DVD.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Receipt for Your Tax Bill

David Kendall and Jim Kessler at the Third Way Organization have published a valuable paper entitled "Your Tax Receipt" which gives people a helpful perspective on how their tax dollars are being spent.

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for calling attention to this report.