Monthly Archives: March 2014

Fred Phelps

Some contrarian thoughts in the wake of Fred Phelps’s death:

1. Fred Phelps and the WBC have not been good for gay rights. I’ve seen gay folks asserting otherwise in the past few days, the logic being that Phelps’s vehement homophobia generated sympathy for gay/lesbian people by reaction.

Speaking as a gay man, I’m not really buying that argument. Certainly I’m appreciative of the straight allies who have participated in counterprotests against the WBC to show solidarity with gay/lesbian people. But I’m not convinced that we’ve done ourselves a favor by turning Phelps and the WBC into the number-one symbol of homophobia in America. Precisely because the WBC is so extreme, it’s easy for people who aren’t so vehemently homophobic to assure themselves–and the public at large–that they’re not homophobic; they don’t hate gay/lesbian people; their opposition to homosexuality is motivated by love, etc. But we’re trying to convince people of precisely the opposite.

If the goal is to stigmatize homophobia, keep the spotlight on the more mundane varieties of homophobia, the varieties that still enjoy mainstream cultural status, not on figures who are clearly marginal. Phelps and the WBC are easy to stigmatize; there are bigger fish to fry.

2. Fred Phelps was right: If you believe in hell, you believe in a God who hates people. That thought occurred to me last week after watching an online video clip in which Phelps justified his “God hates…” slogans by pointing to the Bible. Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated, he quoted. God hates sinners, not just sin. God doesn’t send people’s sins to hell; he sends the people to hell.

I think Phelps’s logic here is right on, with the crucial exception that this logic is why I, as a religious liberal, reject the notion of hell. Phelps, on the other hand, embraced the notion and then, unlike most contemporary American believers in hell, did not scruple to follow it through to its logical conclusion: a God who wills for people to suffer eternal torment has to be said to hate those people. If you believe otherwise–if you believe that the statement “God consigns individuals to eternal torment” is consistent with the statement “God loves those individuals”–then you have, in my opinion, an extremely twisted understanding of love. You therefore should not, as far as I’m concerned, be trusted to raise children for fear of what violence you might inflict on them in the name of love.

3. I, too, might be willing to carry a sign that begins “God hates…” Or at least I feel I ought to have the guts to appear in public carrying such a sign.

When the WBC protested at my university a couple years ago, I didn’t join any of the public counterprotests because of the position I laid out in point 1, above. But I felt agitated enough to want to generate some kind of counterdiscourse. So on the day of the WBC’s protest, I pasted the walls of my office with signs declaring things like “God hates homophobia,” “God hates poverty,” “God hates oppression,” “God hates racism,” “God hates slavery,” “God hates abuse,” etc. The objects of those statements were all abstract things, not people. But they are all statements that I consider theologically correct.

When I walked over to the student center to observe the WBC protest and counterprotests, I was unnerved by how angry the crowd was. Kudos to WBC for standing their ground in the face of that anger and for having the discipline to silently take it. It quickly became clear to me that most of the counterprotesters, including the honor guard vrooming back and forth on motorbikes, were outraged not by the WBC’s “God hates fags” message but by their “God hates America” message. “USA! USA!” the largely male crowd kept chanting.

So, I thought… The WBC’s great offense is that they have wounded your nationalistic pride. That realization put me in a bind, because I could envision myself in a situation where counterprotesters were shouting me down with patriotic cries of “USA! USA!” I don’t think God has a problem with America’s increasingly liberalized laws regarding homosexuality. But I do think there are plenty of things God is displeased with our nation for. I wouldn’t say “God hates America.” But I’ve stood in public to declare that “God deplores America’s use of a doctrine of preemptive strikes to justify going to war in Iraq.” I was standing in front of a friendly crowd when I said it, though. Fred Phelps has me beat on that count.

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Who’s afraid of Carry Nation?

Carrie_NationOn Monday, we were discussing the temperance and Prohibition movements in my introduction to American religious history. One of our readings was Carry Nation’s account of how God inspired her to go to Kiowa and smash saloons. When I popped onto the Internet to show students this photo of Nation, a male student in the front row expressed surprise that our reading had described men as cowering in the corner when she started doing her work. Why were they so afraid? She looks like such a little old woman, he said.

“She was throwing bricks!” I replied. “If an elderly woman walked through our classroom doorway and started hurling bricks, I’m willing to bet your reaction would not be to rush her, no matter how diminutive she was.”

He didn’t look convinced, so I turned toward the blackboard as if I were about to write something down–then I whipped around and flung the chalk across the room. It smashed into pieces against the wall (safely above students’ heads, I hasten to add). After the startled cries had transitioned into nervous laughter, I said, “That was a piece of chalk, people. Imagine what you’d be feeling right now if I’d thrown a brick.”

Little old women with bricks and hatchets need to get some respect, dammit.

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Ian Barbour and my sci-fi students

I’m in the middle of grading midterm exams for my 100-level “Religion and Science Fiction” course. The course uses science fiction as a lens onto different ways that people in modern societies understand the relationship between religion and science. Before we actually start looking at works of science fiction, I work students through a unit intended to give them a theoretical vocabulary for talking about science and religion. As part of that unit, we discuss philosopher of religion Ian Barbour’s classic fourfold typology for religion-science relations: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. I have students write short reflections articulating their own understanding of the relationship; then they have to classify their reflections using Barbour’s typology.

For one segment of the midterm exam, I presented students with (anonymous) quotations I had collected from a few of their reflections and asked them to tell me which of Barbour’s four models each quotation represented. The students whose exams I’ve graded so far have done well on this activity. I was pleased that all four of Barbour’s categories were represented among my students’ reflections: that fact helped drive home to the students how diverse people’s thinking about this question is–although if I’m recalling correctly, conflict and independence were the two most represented categories in this class by far.

If you’re familiar with the Barbour typology, can you match the students’ quotations to the correct category? Here are the quotations and instructions as they appeared on the exam. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for the answers.

On the next page you will find five quotations. Each comes from an Engagement reflection written by a student in this class. In the blank provided, write down which of the four models from Barbour’s typology the quotation exemplifies: conflict, independence, dialogue, or integration.

Note: There is at least one quotation to represent each of the four models. You will need to use one of the models more than once. If you would like to jot down a brief note to justify your answer, you may do so; but that is not required.  

I believe that religion and the scriptures from most religions are used for teaching moral lessons. While on the other hand, science is used to explain the physical world around us, and how and why it works in the ways that it does. . . . I do not see why these two very different entities need to have some type of connection or relationship.

5. ______________________________

As a science major I am always surrounded by and studying everything that my religion contradicts. . . . I am a strong believer that you either believe in creationism or evolution. I don’t believe you can have full commitment to both.

6. ______________________________

I myself am a very religious person and I still believe that God did create everything. I think that God created evolution. There is a way that evolution could be real and there is a reason for how everything turned out to be. God made everything in a certain way, from him creating the big bang to him creating evolution.

7. ______________________________

Many scientists believe that what occurs in our world can only come from science and that religion is somewhat of a superstition. Vice versa, religious people believe that science is very materialistic and that it refutes reality outside of the physical world. . . . [But] I do not think that heaven and hell and angels are superstitious [nor do I] think that every scientific teaching is correct, such as Darwinism. . . . This is where certain aspects of each must be carefully considered, and both sides must realize that not everything both believe can be correct.

8. ______________________________

I believe strictly in the Bible, and do not theorize or interpret anything that conflicts with what is explicitly stated in the Bible. For example, I disagree with theories involving a big bang or a god that uses a big bang to create a universe. I also disagree with the idea of evolution or a god that uses evolution to create humans.

9. ______________________________

5. independence   6. conflict   7. integration   8. dialogue   9. conflict

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Ash Wednesday in a diverse society

Two days ago, I met my husband for a noon-hour Ash Wednesday service at the Episcopal church close to campus. I told him about an exchange I’d had after one of my morning classes with a student who was already wearing an ash cross on his forehead. We’ve been discussing in class how heavily invested 19th-century American Protestants were in setting themselves over against Catholics as a self-defining Other (with attendant difficulties for American Catholics). My student told me that he found himself thinking about that history when his pastor announced that he would be conducting an Ash Wednesday service: this is, evidently, a Low Church group, so there was some rumbling in the congregation about observing such a “Catholic” tradition.

After the service, my husband dropped me back off at campus. I headed quickly for my office so I could wash the cross off my forehead: I wasn’t comfortable wearing it on my professional turf. I wouldn’t have been thrilled about parading around in public with an ash cross anyway, but I was particularly uncomfortable walking around a state university that way in my role as professor. One church I used to get ashed in, back in grad school, had the custom of wiping the cross off during communion. Their argument was that it didn’t make much sense to go walking around “ashed” after having just listened to a Gospel reading about not performing your piety to be seen of others.

It occurred to me that Ash Wednesday is one of the few Western Christian practices that, as an American, I have to “squeeze” into my work day. The school calendar is set up in this country to give me Sundays off. Christmas is not just a national holiday but a federal one. When I was in North Carolina, my state university actually gave us Good Friday off (under the guise of “Spring Holiday”). Even certain saints’ days have been absorbed into the cultural calendar: St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, All Hallows Eve. Easter and Lent are a little trickier, culturally, because they’re based on a lunar rather than a solar calendar, so you don’t automatically know what date they’ll come up on this year. On the other hand, Mardi Gras and Easter are observed “commercially,” so they still leave a big cultural footprint, even if that footprint isn’t always planted on the same day of the calendar.

It’s different, of course, if you’re Eastern Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, in which case you regularly face the problem of having to keep track of where your lunar holidays fall in relation to America’s Western Christian solar calendar, most likely without the mnemonic benefit of having those holidays observed in the “seasonal” aisle of your supermarket. As my husband and I were walking pass the Hillel Center on the way to the car, I thought: The minor inconvenience I faced today of having to squeeze an Ash Wednesday service into my lunch hour is a little taste of what my Orthodox Jewish colleague goes through with all of his religious holidays.

As we passed the Hillel Center, my husband asked, “Have you ever been inside?” I haven’t–and I experienced a moment of unease that my husband was about to propose we pop in at that moment for a look. Walking into a synagogue while wearing an ash cross on my forehead would feel even more uncomfortable than wearing it on campus. However pluralistic the folks at Hillel might be, history casts a long, cold shadow.

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