Saturday, June 11, 2005

Constitution Party, anyone?

WorldNetDaily notices that having Mary Carey dine with the President doesn't, uh, exactly fit the traditional definitions of moral values:
The spokesman for the NRCC, Carl Forti, told WND: "[Carey and soft-core porn king Mark Kulkis] paid their money. No matter what they do, the money is going to go to help elect Republicans to the House."

Would the Republicans take money from anyone? Would they take money from neo-Nazi skinheads who coughed up $5,000? Would they take money from environmental polluters or just polluters of our moral eco-system? Would they take money from mobsters? Maybe so, since the mob is known to be a major backer of pornography.

Millions of Americans may realize that morality is essential to good governance. But they have nowhere to turn to express themselves politically – at least not within either of the two major parties.


$690 million

Just in case you need to be reminded how much money moves around in the treatment of mental illness:
Trial lawyers say they agreed to an unusually early settlement with Eli Lilly and Co. on 8,000 claims of damages over the company's top-selling drug Zyprexa, as both sides saw the value of avoiding prolonged litigation that was full of uncertainties.

The $690 million settlement, announced Thursday, came after only five plaintiffs had given depositions in the mass litigation and before any substantive depositions had been taken from Lilly executives or scientists, said one trial attorney, Ramon Rossi Lopez, of Newport Beach, Calif. Also, the first trial from the hundreds of lawsuits was at least six months off.

"A lot of things came into play" to drive the seven months of talks that led to the proposed settlement, Lopez said. But both sides in the high-stakes litigation knew one thing: "There were too many variables out there that could have falsely driven the value of the case" to hurt either side, Lopez said.

Full disclosure: the bulk of my seminary scholarship came from Lilly funds, and I have benefitted from a continuing ed program they underwrote at Lancaster Theological Seminary. In fact, Lilly gave so much money to Emory's Candler School of Theology that we laughingly referred to it as the "Prozac Seminary," and joked that it was only fitting that they should support the program, since so many students were at the shrinks'.

Just in case you were wondering how much money floats around in the study of religion...


Mass Media

"People also felt a real need for something spiritual and religious in their lives," Powell said. "They wanted that but they just didn't know how to find it anymore."

The Houston Chronicle on denominational mass-media campaigns.


Linda Berglin

Hot damn, principled, obstinate legislators do exist. Kudos.


Wading In

From columnist Bill Wineke of the Wisconsin State Journal, writing on upcoming consideration of homosexuality-related resolutions in the UCC and ELCA:
The question of how to treat gay and lesbian people seems about to start causing even more division between church people.
But one example of hope comes from the Roman Catholic Church of all places. Not only that, but it comes from the man who is now the world's top Catholic doctrinal watchdog.

The Catholic position on gays and lesbians has been pretty much stereotyped as one of negativity.

Enter Archbishop William J. Levada, the man Pope Benedict XVI selected to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the job the pope held under Pope John Paul II. When Levada was archbishop of San Francisco, he found a way between competing factions.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Levada found himself in a conflicted situation in 1997, when San Francisco adopted a law requiring contractors receiving city funds to provide health benefits to gay, lesbian and unmarried partners of their employees.

Catholic charities in San Francisco at the time received $5.6 million in funds for programs helping the poor, homeless and sick. But Levada, as spokesman for his church, could hardly condone people living in "sin."

He might have stood on a soapbox and proclaimed morality topped making deals with Satan. He didn't.

What he did, the National Catholic Reporter said was to strike "a compromise that allowed employees to designate 'any legally domiciled member' of their household to receive 'spousal equivalent benefits,' whether the recipient was a mother, a brother or a gay partner."

Makes sense to me. The compromise took the Catholic charities off the hook. It took the city - which depends on those charities to offer care - off the hook. It not only provided benefits for gay partners, it also extended those benefits to others who provide care for loved ones.

Sounds good to me, too. But then Wineke's got to ruin it with his last graf:
Most UCC congregations already bless same-sex unions. I'm not sure why the church wants to get into the political battle about marriage. It might do better to hold up a standard of committed relationship that might serve as a template for all unmarried "couples."

Wineke seems to believe that the UCC is more hierarchical than it really is. In fact, the resolution being considered was brought to our "General Synod" in a referendum-style process. Resolutions, plural, really: there are two competing measures, one that would affirm a traditional definition of marriage, and one that would defer the decision. This is the way we talk things through in the UCC; we toss out ideas, see what sticks.

More to the point, social justice is a deeply-rooted tradition in the UCC. It may cause trouble, but then, who ever said Jesus Christ called us to make nice? Sometimes the waters need to be troubled and the shit needs to be stirred. I can appreciate Archbishop Levada's commonsense dealmaking, but I'm not willing to hold it up as the model of faith in our society, thanks.


Friday, June 10, 2005

This is truly bizarre

Do we even pretend to have such a thing as separation of church and state these days? The Madison (WI) Capital-Times:
An Arizona-based Christian group that provides legal help to fight same-sex marriage and similar causes asked Wednesday that the Wisconsin Legislature be made a co-defendant in a lawsuit seeking benefits for gay partners of state workers.

Six lesbian workers in the University of Wisconsin System and the Corrections and Transportation departments filed the lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court in April. The American Civil Liberties Union is backing them.

The lawsuit alleges a state law preventing state employees' gay partners from getting health benefits violates the Wisconsin Constitution's equal rights protection clause. It asks a judge to force state agencies to provide the benefits. Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager is defending the state.

The Republican-controlled Joint Committee on Legislative Organization voted in May to ask the Alliance Defense Fund in Scottsdale, Ariz., to represent the Wisconsin Legislature in the lawsuit.
The ADF motion argued that the Legislature has an interest in whether benefits are extended to gay workers' partners, because it would put more pressure on a state already dealing with a $1.6 billion budget deficit. The motion also said establishing budgets and social policy is a legislative prerogative.

So the Legislature thinks it might be on the hook for same-sex partner benefits. But rather than rely on the Attorney General, who is sworn to uphold the interests of the state, they turn to a bigots' advocacy group. What happened to the tolerant Badger State I grew up in?

And just in case we're unclear as to who's behind this:
ADF's co-founder, James Dobson, created a media stir earlier this year for criticizing a children's video that featured cartoon characters, including Spongebob Squarepants, saying it promoted homosexuality.
The AG's office calls this one exactly right:

Lautenschlager spokesman Scot Ross issued a statement saying the ADF was the one trying to inject politics into the case.

"It will be up to a judge to decide what, other than political venom, these Internet lawyers from the other side of the continent would bring to a Wisconsin courtroom," Ross said.



Christianity Today's Weblog spares no one in Texas Gov. Rick Perry's recent grandstanding bill-signing ceremony at a Fort Worth megachurch. They rake Barry Lynn over the coals pretty thoroughly, but it's the conservatives that get it the worst:
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who spoke before Perry at the rally signing ceremony, says he's disenfranchised.

"The issue is there is intolerance against Christians in America who simply want their voices to be heard," he said.

Note to Perkins: Simply having your voices heard is what the 250 or so protesters who showed up outside the Calvary Cathedral gym got. You're not being heard; you're being obeyed. You know that "seat at the table" you're always asking for? Might want to take a look at that cushy chair you're sitting on. When people treat you like Big Brother, it doesn't make much sense to keep complaining that you're the ignored red-headed stepchild.

Actually, whether it was the protesters' rantings outside the gym ("It appears that Gov. Perry believes he was only elected to serve conservative Christians," said Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller) or the rantings of those inside it, it's hard to pick the most over-the-top example.
But the winner has to be Don Wildmon, president and founder of the American Family Association, who said it's okay to use a church school gym because "This is not the sanctuary. God ain't in here." Then, pointing at the Calvary Cathedral sanctuary, Wildmon said, "He's in there!"
After all the hyperbole, the harshest critique that can be honestly leveled from the left is that Perry shrewdly used legislation to curry favor among religious conservatives. The honest critique that can be leveled from the right is—nothing. The right got its way. And what can be said honestly about Perry? He really seems to want a bill-signing ceremony at Wal-Mart.

Mental note: always speak nicely of Weblog. Do not piss Weblog off. Do not even so much as look funny in Weblog's direction.


Abuse cases cost Catholic Church $1 billion

...Or so the AP estimates.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe discusses the human costs:
Little children crying, locked out of their own school by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston two days before graduation. Police officers and security guards hovering over a makeshift ceremony in the square across the street. Parents standing in the pouring rain condemning the church leaders and demanding answers.
Article Tools

Images of a Catholic Church that seemed callous to the human impact of its decisions were broadcast across the state yesterday, after the archdiocese abruptly changed the locks on Our Lady of the Presentation School in Brighton Wednesday and canceled graduation ceremonies for children as young as 3. Church officials said the lockout was necessary to stop a rumored occupation of the school, scheduled to be closed permanently today.

But elected officials stood aghast, and public relations specialists could not fathom the reasoning of church officials in a city where the Catholic Church has been a dominant institution for more than a century, at a time when it is struggling to rehabilitate its image in the aftermath of the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

''We're not talking about Al Qaeda here," said George K. Regan Jr., president of the Regan Communications Group, a public relations firm. ''We're talking about nursery school kids."

A local pol gets it on the nose:
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who graduated from Our Lady of the Presentation 41 years ago, said the archdiocese could have easily called him or any of a number of mediators in the community to help head off a possible protest.

He said the principal of the school, Sister Mary Duke, begged the archdiocese to consider locking the doors after the ceremony.

''From a public relations point of view . . . it's not likely a rally would get much attention at 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday in June when the temperature is 90 degrees," he said. ''This whole sad, sordid episode is getting a lot more attention. They've reinforced every stereotypical bad opinion people have about them."


I was mentally ill and you admitted me to an emergency room

There's not much real news in this story from the Las Vegas Sun: mental health treatment budgets are woefully short all over the country. But this caught our eye:
Carlos Brandenburg, in charge of the state Division of Mental Health and Developmental Services, noted that support for mental health came not only from Democrats such as Leslie and Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, but also from conservative Republicans such as Heck, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno.

"It's been a great session for us, and the winners are all Nevadans who suffer from mental illness and their loved ones," Brandenburg said. "It's become a nonpartisan issue, a Nevada issue."

But he cautioned against complacency. "According to our prevalence study, we're serving only half of the severely mentally ill in Nevada," he said.

"Even with this (increase), 30 to 40 percent of the mentally ill are not going to be receiving services. We're not going to rest on our laurels."

Best case scenario. Meanwhile, back in our home state Pennsyvlania, the Department of Public Welfare is said to be running a $400 million deficit this year.

So glad to know we can take care of the least of these in the good old US of A.


They've noticed

The Richard Scaife-funded Institute on Religion and Democracy has a belated report on the "Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Right" Conference. Amongst all the usual crud, they give Fred Clarkson and Chip Berlet kudos of a sort:
There were occasional voices of moderation among the more secular speakers. "If we are going to ask the Christian right to stop engaging in demonization, we need to inspect some of our own language," suggested Berlet. He asked conference participants to "avoid terms of derision" such as "extremists" and "radical religious right." Berlet later expressed his disagreement with Bokaer's call to "shut down the government." He drew loud expressions of protest when he urged his audience to "acknowledge that the majority of Americans don't see the world the way we do."

Clarkson similarly encouraged participants to "be civil," noting that "radical religious extremist" is "just an epithet" with no descriptive value. Porteous said that liberals should not be afraid of "proclaim[ing] our ethics and our values" through opposing public indecency and working to reduce the number of abortions. The latter remark provoked a loud "No!" from the audience.

Wonder what they'll make of Talk To Action, where Fred, Chip (and I) are blogging?


Neat Things from the Guardian

The interior of St Paul's Cathedral has been restored:
The interior of St Paul's Cathedral gleamed whiter than its architect Sir Christopher Wren ever saw it yesterday, as a four-year renovation project that has cost nearly £11m was completed.
With bright early summer light streaming through the windows, the cathedral's great interior was revealed in all its shining glory, including some details scarcely seen since the building was completed and others shown for the first time since the Victorians painted them over.

"When it was murky you could not see the differences in the architecture or the carving as Wren intended," said Sir Christopher's successor as surveyor to the fabric, Martin Stancliffe, who has supervised the project, eight years in the planning and four years in the execution. "We have now installed new chandeliers and more lights but they are still using less energy than we used to need."

Not even the great Wren saw it like this. During the 35 years of its original building the architect had the Portland stone coated in several thick layers of oil and paint to protect it from the elements before the roof was put on, so it never was as white as now.

That sticky surface absorbed the dirt and smoke of the surrounding city for several hundred years,


Thursday, June 09, 2005

Progressive N.C. Churches Organize

A bit old, but still good.


Well, yes

I don't expect much out of Albert Mohler, but this has got to be one of the most mendacious, hostile columns I've seen in any paper, ever. He recycles the worn-out argument that liberal churches lose membership due to political stances, a position that hasn't been tenable in 15 years, and he uses the most sophomoric statistical dodges to bolster his argument:
Citing a study published in 2000 by the Glenmary Research Center, Shiflett reports that the Presbyterian Church USA declined by 11.6 percent over the previous decade, while the United Methodist Church lost "only" 6.7 percent and the Episcopal Church lost 5.3 percent. The United Church of Christ was abandoned by 14.8 percent of its members, while the American Baptist Churches USA were reduced by 5.7 percent.

On the other side of the theological divide, most conservative denominations are growing. The conservative Presbyterian Church in America [PCA] grew 42.4 percent in the same decade that the more liberal Presbyterian denomination lost 11.6 percent of its members. Other conservative denominations experiencing significant growth included the Christian Missionary Alliance (21.8 percent), the Evangelical Free Church (57.2 percent), the Assemblies of God (18.5 percent), and the Southern Baptist Convention (five percent).

Percent of what? If I start a church consisting of myself, and I add my wife as a member, that's a 100% growth rate. Without the overall membership numbers, these percentages are meaningless.

And so the shit goes.

But onto every cowpie a little sun must fall, and Mohler provides an unintentional gem in quoting the conservative partisan Hugo Blankenship on what liberal churches preach:
"God is love, God's love is inclusive, God acts in justice to see that everyone is included, we therefore ought to be co-actors and co-creators with God to make the world over in the way he wishes."

Okay, I'll take that.


American Religious Devotion?

Booman diarist hfiend wrote about this poll yesterday, but I want to renew the conversation here.

The results, I thought, didn't actually say very much. 2% of Americans say they don't believe in God, and better than 60% want religious leaders to keep their nose out of politics. Those figures are much lower than some other countries.

But this study mixes apples and oranges: unless I'm missing something fairly significant, the US and South Korea are quite different in socio-economic measures. And how in the world can you compare Mexico with Western Europe?

Even where there are points of comparison--as between the US, Canada, and Europe--it's long been acknowledged that the US is a religious anomaly. We've also had a distinct history. Go figure.

For that matter, judging a nation's religious fervor by asking if its citizens believe in God is a piss-poor measure. Though these responses match those of other polls on the subject, it's the wrong question to ask. A better one would be frequency of participation in worship. Ask that, and you'll discover that while the US is still more religious than other countries, the gap between them is smaller than the AP/Ipsos poll shows.

As for whether or not religious leaders should try to influence government decisions, let me just say two things.

First, I am a religious leader. Should I not try to influence government decisions? I'm not being facetious here. I just want to bring out a quintessentially American point: while I may be a pastor, I am also a citizen, and as such, entitled to my First Amendment rights.

More important, what is unique about America is the paradox at the heart of our separation of church and state: while the church may have lost formal power with the state, it has gained informal power, the power of moral persuasion, in our society. It's as if the further dance partners stood from one another, the more clearly they could speak to one another.

Which is not an argument for or against the separation clause or the normative position religion holds in American society. It is to say, however, that as long as there is a separation of the two elements, the one will have the ability to speak truth to the other--and their relationship will remain fraught. As long as there is the separation of church and state, in other words, the church will criticize the state and suggest that changes be made. That in turn will make folks in civil society very nervous, which in turn...

This democratic experiment of ours looks like high-wire act sometimes, doesn't it?

Originally posted at Booman Tribune.


Sunday, June 05, 2005

Pray for Fred Phelps

I try not to give Phelps or Westboro Baptist publicity, so I'll just say the good folks of Lexington, Massachusetts have got the right idea:
The Rev. Susan Morrison, pastor of Lexington United Methodist Church, said members of her church voted in 2000 to become a ''reconciling congregation," meaning church members ''celebrate people's gender identity, sexual orientation, race, and economic status, and open our doors to everyone."

Asked about the Kansas church's interpretation of Christianity, Morrison said, ''I just see that their intention is to condemn anything that is different than themselves. It appears that there's no room for any difference."

''It's not the same Gospel that I preach and teach," she said. ''The Gospel that I preach is one of forgiveness, loving one's enemy, everyone at the table."

The Bedford Board of Selectmen approved a statement Tuesday night calling the Kansas church's planned demonstration ''an insult to the values of this town and to all its citizens."

''With a united voice, we strongly condemn the language and underlying message of hate as a violation of human decency," the resolution said.


Brothers and Sisters,

I ask your prayers* for our community, the world, and all those in need.

For our community:

  • For those who suffer from fibromyalgia or other painful afflictions, and for those whose health insurance is exorbitantly expensive or is too limited in its coverage;

  • For those who continue to feel the repercussions of childhood, and who are anxious about their own worth;

  • For those who feel held back from taking on a new career, for those who are stuck in work without meaning, and for those who discover that their career is not what they had hope for;

  • For those who have tangled with another member of the community, with another online conversation partner, or who have borne the weight of another's displaced feelings;

  • For those who struggle with parenthood, whether their children are young or approaching adulthood;

  • And in thanksgiving and hope for those who embark on new beginnings: new marriages, graduations:

    We pray* to you, O Source of all Goodness.

*Meditate, hold in good and active thought.

For the world:

For all those in need:

  • For the young, and the old, that they may be safe from abuse, exploitation and thoughtlessness;

  • For immigrants, exiles and refugees, and for all those who long for their home;

  • For the GLBT community, and for all who suffer oppression for being different;

  • For the poor of all nations;

  • For the sick, the sorrowing, and the suffering;

  • For Norman and Mary T. and their family, struggling to come to terms with the death of an 8 1/2 year old daughter;

    We pray* to you, O Source of all Goodness.


The Word For the Week

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

The theme suggested for today by the UCC worship planners is "restored". It's apt: the Old Testament reading concerns Abraham, called by God to found the nation of Israel at age 75, long past the age when sane men start families. Paul picks up on Abraham's story in the epistle lesson, telling us the patriarch

Did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred† years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb.

To be restored, in these terms, means to have one's body returned to its full potential after having lost that ability.

In that sense, restoration is a hidden theme in the world, a yearning that often goes unvoiced. In America, we have entire industries devoted to it: beyond the obvious fields like medicine or health supplements (Bill in Portland recommends omega 3 fish oils), there's Hollywood, which thrives on selling stories about the magic of childhood, or how to recapture that magic once it's lost. If you have any doubts about what's at stake there, think about the number of male actors partnered with much younger female counterparts. Restoration, indeed: Viagra is a billion-dollar industry all by itself.

If you wanted to go further afield, you could look at funeral homes as being in the business of selling preservation, extending your chances of being restored even after you're deader than a doornail.

And I'm not pointing fingers here. You could make a fairly solid case that religion sells restoration as well--spiritual and emotional, if not physical. Walk down the "inspiration" aisle of your local bookstore if you don't believe me.

In any case, you wouldn't think such a concept would have political consequences, but restoration does.

You can see them at work in today's gospel lesson. In the first section, we read about Jesus' calling of Matthew the tax collector††. Through Jesus' grace, Matthew is restored socially; he goes from being an outcast to being a welcome member of the inner circle. When Jesus is challenged on this score, the metaphor he reaches for is one of physical healing: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick."

I wonder who would be an equivalent outcast in today's society?

We skip over a brief controversy story, which only underlines the political divisions between Jesus' camp and the Pharisees.

And then the evangelist moves in for the kill: we read the remarkable double-healing story of the girl thought to be dead and the woman who touches the fringe of Jesus' garment as he is on his way to the child's bedside.

The implications here are inescapable and unsettling. Jesus' power to restore us, to heal us physically, are linked to his power to cut across social divisions. The same grace that allows Jesus to bring a little girl back to life allows him to reach out to those found socially unacceptable. The woman who touches his garment understands this, and so she breaks social convention.††† Her boldness earns her not just healing, but a blessing from Jesus: "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well."

It's easy to read these words and congratulate ourselves as progressives on being "accepting" types. But if we confront them honestly, the answers might not seem so comforting.

Take the issue of stem cell research, for example. It seems like an easy call, right? Democrats are the party that advocates stem cell research, Republicans are the party that rejects it on religious grounds. Open and shut.

But what are we to do with the information that egg donors for such research have been paid for their contributions? This is not an abstract question; the donation process is invasive, painful, and carries a significant amount of risk for infertility and even death. At the same time, the therapies developed from such research will almost certainly be expensive, at least initially. We therefore run the risk of paying for the restoration of the bodies of the wealthy at the cost of the bodies of the poor.

Don't misunderstand me here. I am not saying that stem cell research is unethical, or that it should not be conducted. I am identifying a potential problem, however. How is it that we restore the bodies of poor women to their full potential without exploitation, while simultaneously restoring the bodies of those who would benefit from stem cell-derived therapies? More generally, how do we honor the priorities of such poor women, who are often economically and physically exploited, while doing the same for those who suffer from terrible diseases around the world?

You tell me.