Tag Archives: religion in the news

Stephen Prothero on Indiana’s RFRA

There’s been some discussion on my Facebook wall about this USA Today editorial by American religious historian Stephen Prothero in support of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I haven’t been able to pin it down yet, but something strikes me as “off” about this particular analogy Prothero makes:

We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

And then there’s definitely a longer conversation to be had about why Prothero is willing to let a fundamentalist baker refuse to bake a cake for a lesbian couple, but would not let a fundamentalist restaurant owner refuse to serve those same lesbians a meal:

There is no excuse for refusing to serve a lesbian couple at a restaurant and to my knowledge no state RFRA has ever been used to justify such discrimination. But if we favor liberty for all Americans (and not just for those who agree with us), we should be wary of using the coercive powers of government to compel our fellow citizens to participate in rites that violate their religious beliefs. We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

I understand the logic of the distinction Prothero wants to draw: The fundamentalist who has to bake the lesbians a wedding cake is being compelled to “participate” in a “rite,” whereas the fundamentalist who’s compelled to serve them dinner is not. But three questions about this distinction:

First, is baking a wedding cake participating in a rite? (I guess this is part, at least, of what feels “off” to me about the analogy to sacramental bread.)

Second, are we sure that serving the lesbians dinner is not participating in a rite? (What if they’re celebrating their wedding anniversary?)

Third, would this distinction hold up in court–ergo, is it even relevant?

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Atheist Shoots Young Muslims in North Carolina

Although how pertinent the perpetrator’s and victims’ religious identities are to the motive remains to be litigated.

I was reading an update on this story a few minutes ago, and I watched embedded video footage of Craig Hicks’s first hearing (the arraignment, I believe it’s called?), and as the video ended, I started crying a little. That’s not my usual horrified-yet-cerebral response to this kind of thing.

I didn’t know Deah Barakat, or Yusor or Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. But Deah was attending college at my last alma mater. I immediately recognized the Old Well in one of the photos of Yusor and Deah that accompanied early news stories. I’ve been in the apartment complex where this shooting occurred. I guess that all makes this more tangibly real to me–more shocking–than if it had happened in some locale I’ve never been and don’t identify with.

This story mentions that Richard Dawkins, who Hicks admired, has done a horrified/outraged tweet about the shooting.

My brain’s on hold. In shock.

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Duke Divinity School on the adhan controversy

In response to the controversy over Duke University granting, then rescinding, permission for their Muslim student group to make the traditional call for prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower, the head of Duke’s divinity school has issued a letter defending the university’s decision to rescind permission. Time magazine has reported on this. The letter itself can be read here.

In the interest of bringing clarity to the on-going discussion of this issue—that is to say, in the interest of shoveling aside the bullsh*t—I’m providing below a paraphrase of the dean’s letter. It’s admittedly a very loose paraphrase, but I’m confident I’ve accurately captured the heart of what the dean is saying. Again, you can read the original letter here.

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Dear members and friends of the Duke Divinity School community—especially our valued donors:

First, let me make clear that this controversy has nothing to do with us. We at the Divinity School have no control over what happens at the Duke Chapel, a state of affairs that might strike you as ill-advised in retrospect, and perhaps the administration ought to rethink it. At any rate, if we had been in charge, I can assure you none of this would have happened. We have our own chapel here in the Divinity School, which is used strictly for Christian worship. “Faithful Trinitarian Christian worship,” I mean—no Unitarians, or Mormons, or Oneness Pentecostals, or anyone else heretical.

The fact that this controversy has nothing to do with the Divinity School isn’t going to prevent me from sounding off about it. But because I’m not responsible, please direct your outrage to the foolish administrator who is: Christie Lorr Sapp, the University’s Associate Dean for Religious Life, at christie.lorr@duke.edu. Fill her inbox with your hate mail. I’ve made damn sure not to put my email address anywhere on this letter.

Now, before we get to the points I’m most invested in making, let’s get the obligatory disclaimers out of the way: Obviously Duke University values diverse religious traditions—and we at the Divinity School go along with that, too, as long as those other religions keep to their own turf. Obviously, I’m appalled by the hateful and even threatening things people have been saying. No need to mention names, certainly no one nationally prominent headquartered here in North Carolina. But come on, people, you’re making Christians look bad! And obviously, Muslims at Duke should not be held responsible for the behavior of Muslims elsewhere in the world—their terrible, terrible behavior. Millions of Christians are being persecuted in Islamic societies today. They’re prohibited from practicing their faith. Did you know that? Millions. When is there going to be a rally on the quad protesting that?

But look, here’s the fundamentally important thing: The Duke Chapel is Christian turf. That’s what this issue boils down to. Plain and simple. The chapel is a “Christian place of worship.” Not a “neutral space” to be used for purposes of “interfaith hospitality.” Which could raise the question of why the Muslim students are being allowed to pray there at all . . . but I won’t raise that question here. Let’s just stay focused on the call to prayer. As long as the Muslim students worship in the basement, where no one can see them—or hear them—we at the Divinity School raise no objections. For now.

But letting the chapel’s bell tower be used as a minaret—that’s another matter. Because how will that be perceived in parts of the world where Muslims are persecuting Christians? You might as well hang a banner on the chapel that says, “Go, Islamic State!” I realize, of course, that Muslims here perceive the situation as communicating hostility toward them, and I lament that. Really, I’m tearing up about it as I write this. But it’s a question of priorities: How the situation is perceived by Muslims here is not as important as how it might be perceived by Christians on the other side of the globe. Nor as important as how it might be perceived by certain generous Divinity School donors (generous when it comes to money, at least).

Again, let me be clear. We’re not Islamophobes here at the Divinity School. We’ve hosted Muslim representatives for interfaith dialogue—Jews, too, for that matter. We even have a Muslim who teaches at the Divinity School. (Team-teaches, I mean; it’s not like we leave him alone with our students.) We’re proud to have on our faculty Davis Marschall, a leading specialist in Christian-Muslim relations, someone who would certainly know better—ahem—than to countenance anything that might give the appearance of blurring interfaith boundaries in a way that could trigger conservative Christian outrage. Regretfully, Professor Marschall was not consulted about the propriety of letting Muslims use the Duke Chapel for the call to prayer. He didn’t even know it was under consideration. Someone might expect that a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations would be in close enough touch with the university’s Muslim student group to stay apprized of such a development; but Professor Marschall has bigger fish to fry. Still, I can’t understand why no one thought to reach out to him about this.

I hope I’ve cleared up any misconceptions about the Divinity School’s responsibility for this sorry debacle. I hope, too, I’ve made clear that while we at the Divinity School bear no ill will toward Muslims (those millions of persecuted Christians notwithstanding), we firmly oppose allowing them to borrow Christian houses of worship. To our valued donors: Please keep those checks coming!

Grace and peace be with you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Richard P. Hayes
Dean

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Miscellaneous Christmas news stories

With Christmas approaching, here’s a miscellany of Christmas-related news stories that crossed my screen recently:

Satanic Temple Wins Battle To Bring Lucifer Display Inside Florida State Capitol” (Huffington Post): These people are obnoxious gadflies, but in a worthy cause. Beelzebub bless them, every one.

73 Percent Of Americans Believe Jesus Was Born To A Virgin” (Huffington Post): I confess to being surprised the figure came out that high. Following a link to Pew’s short report on the larger survey this figure came from, I learned that nearly half of Americans believe that nativity scenes either should not be allowed on government property, or should be allowed only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths (read: menorahs).

They’re Christian, but Christmas is off limits for several faiths (Deseret News): I want to say I’m not a fan of the DesNews (a Mormon-owned paper which is currently trying to buy out its competitor, the Salt Lake Tribune–a Mormon vs. non-Mormon battle dating back to the 19th century). But this was an interesting article about Christian groups that hang back from Christmas–Churches of Christ, Friends, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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Halal at Walmart

The student newspaper announced today that our local Walmart will now be selling halal meat, sparing Muslim students a two-hour round trip to the nearest provider in Cincinnati. Store management made the choice in response to a student petition. Our local Kroger (the major supermarket chain, for those in other parts of the country) and the Moon Co-op (which caters to the locally grown, organic crowd) have not responded to the petition, according to the article.

Read the story here: Walmart to sell halal meat option

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Ferguson clergy call police to repent

I was leafing just now through a free copy of USA Today, and this headline in particular caught my eye: “Clergy, activist arrested in ‘Ferguson October’ march.”

“Moral Monday,” as the activists called it, began at Wellspring Church in Ferguson. The demonstrators walked two blocks to the police station in heavy rain as leaders with bullhorns read the names of people killed by police nationwide….

Clergy members then faced the police officers and asked them to confess their sins and repent for the deaths of black youths.

“We are saying that these officers are members of our society and that they are part of a racist and sinful system,” [Rev. Osagyefo] Sekou said. “We are offering them the opportunity to repent and to be reconciled into our community.”

Sekou and Cornell West were subsequently arrested for crossing a police line.

An open-ended question (not a rhetorical one, though obviously my posing the question implies that I see the possibility for a certain answer): The non-violent black civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s prominently featured participation from ministers, rabbis, nuns. Does Sekou’s call to repentance carry today the same level of moral/rhetorical force that, I presume, the nuns at Selma carried? If not, why not?

Nuns marching at Selma, 1965

Nuns marching at Selma, 1965

Clergy protesting in Ferguson, Sept. 29, 2014

Clergy protesting in Ferguson, Sept. 29, 2014

Cornell West marching in Ferguson with clergy, Oct. 13, 2014

Cornell West marching in Ferguson with clergy, Oct. 13, 2014

I just found this article in The Guardian which speaks to the question I posed: Ferguson activists reject religious leaders’ platitudes.

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Protestant Ideals and the Know-Nothings

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Protestant Ideals and the Know-Nothings
Eddie Evans

Most Americans are acutely aware of the increasing Spanish populations in the southwestern United States. The inclusion or exclusion of this group is a platform issue for major political candidates. Even those of a more inclusive mindset debate the benefits that they should receive and the extent to which they can participate in American democracy. American Protestants of the first half of the 19th century were asking similar questions due to the arrival of Irish Catholics and other western European immigrants. This essay will examine the basis of nativist thought in America, and look at how the most famous nativist political organization, the Know-Nothings, was so influential.

History of Nativist Thought

Nativism is a response to increasing cultural pluralism that has repeated throughout American history. To better understand the environment in which 19th century Nativist groups flourished, one must go back to the Colonial Period and the Puritan establishments. In his 1992 article, sociologist Michael W. Hughey points out that both inclusive and exclusive values were fused in the sociopolitical systems of the Puritans. The democratic ideals of open government, egalitarian democracy, and the unalienable rights of man were cornerstones of Puritan republican government. However, these rights were not for everyone. Women and religious minorities were seen as “unsuitable” to uphold democratic and Protestant ideals, and therefore were excluded from practicing in the open form of government.

One specific religious minority that was seen as “unsuitable” was Catholics. In colonial Massachusetts, while Catholics were tolerated in communities, their Protestant neighbors could drive them out if they did not uphold certain moral standards. Even the morally suitable Catholics could not hold positions of public power since they did not belong to the state affiliated church.

The implicit link of Protestantism and democracy only became stronger during the revolutionary period. In the French and Indian War, “the battles were interpreted as cosmic contest between God and Satan.” Protestants believed that “Satan’s French Papist legions were committed to religious and political tyranny.” Since the Protestants and America prevailed “surely Liberty must be the cause of God.” This belief was confirmed a few decades later when the colonists defeated the British in the Revolutionary War. Hughes claims “liberty was thus elevated to sacred status and identified with the Kingdom of God, which in turn was identified with the American Republic.”

In the New Republic, Protestants continued to uphold their religious and political values. It is at this point that Hughes coins the term “Americanism”, to describe the entanglement of Protestant and Democratic values. Never before in history had a nation been built upon ideals more than geographic boundaries, and Americanism was this principal ideal.

As the Republic grew, it became increasingly difficult to orchestrate these ideals in every facet of a functioning democracy. John Adams confessed, “he never understood a republican government and no man ever will.” Hughes points out that throughout John Adams’ political career, politicians struggled to with the manifestation of Americanism in specific policies. Instead of defining “Americanism” explicitly, it became easier to define Americanism as what it is not. Groups that have, at some point, been labeled “un-American” include: Mormons, Jews, Freemasons, communists, and most important for our purposes, Catholics.

Political Landscape of Antebellum America

Preceding the Know Nothing party was a two party system composed of Democrats and Whigs. The rivalry between the two parties was known as the Second Party system. Southern farmers made up a large portion of antebellum democrats. They opposed government spending and wanted to keep intervention at a minimum. The Whig Party consisted largely of pro-business New Englanders (the decedents of the puritans) who wanted to see government regulate morality while still favoring market interests.

The collapse of the Whigs has historically been attributed to different opinions among party members about slavery. However, not all share this view. Historian Bruce Levine feels that “the Whigs disappeared in the early 1850’s because they failed to echo with sufficient force and unanimity the antiforeign and anti-Catholic sentiments of their native-born Protestant constituents.” Further evidence that slavery was not the most decisive factor: old Whig voters appreciated the creation of a party “whose focus was on Catholics, immigrants, and unresponsive politicians, not the slavery issue.” In this failure of the Whigs, rises the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Order of United Americans. They will form a political alliance and become nicknamed “Know-Nothings” because of the secrecy of their leadership. When asked to explain their political views or agendas, members would simply respond, “I know nothing.”

Early Political Momentum

1854 in New York City marked the first time a Know-Nothing affiliated candidate received significant attention. Lawyer and nativist, Daniel Ulmann received over 25% of the votes in New York City and State and was named a congressman. In fact, that year, over half of the New York congressmen aligned themselves with Know-Nothing principles. The group was growing, and fast. In 1846, The Order of United Americans had 2,000 members in New York City alone. By 1851, that number had grown to 7,000. By 1855, there were 30,000 men officially initiated the organization.

A Leader Rises

The Order of United Americans (official name for the Know-Nothings) most prominent member was Thomas R. Whitney. From a middle class background, Whitney was the son of a New York City watchmaker and followed in his father’s trade. During his apprenticeship, he inherited a disciplined work ethic and had access to his father’s wealthy network of clients. One of who was important Whig member and OUA charter-member, Mayor Harper. Whitney joined the OUA, and quickly gained recognition for his energy and work ethic. He attended a national nativist convention in Philadelphia in 1845 and became the editor of republican and nativist magazine, The Republic. In 1856 Whitney published his most influential piece of Know-Nothing literature, A Defense of American Policy.

The Know-Nothings’ America

The aforementioned 400-page Know Nothing Bible is an insightful look into the collective minds of the leadership of the organization. Interestingly, Whitney’s ideal America sounds very reminiscent to the Puritan society. Whitney and the Order believe that men “are entitled to just such privileges, social and political, as they are capable of employing and enjoying rationally. Since human beings exhibited this capability to differing degrees, they were naturally entitled different rights and privileges.” This is re-manifestation of Hughey’s theory about American democracy; a mixing of democratic and Protestant ideals that are simultaneously inclusive and exclusive.

The Puritans took this idea for granted. They had the privilege of establishment and few religious minorities to challenge their dominance. Whitney and other Know-Nothings were not in the same circumstance. Irish Catholic immigrants were arriving in massive numbers and flexing their political muscles. Unlike the Puritans, Whitney is acutely aware of the problems that exist while trying to promote both nativism and democracy. He writes, “I take direct issue with democracy. As I understand the term, I am no democrat. If democracy implies universal suffrage…without regard to the intelligence, the morals, or the principles of man, I am no democrat.”

Whitney’s character attacks could fall on any non-white, non-Protestant person living and working in America in the 1860’s. However, nativists had the harshest disdain for Irish Catholics. The vast majority of Irish immigrants brought their Catholic religion with them. In the eyes of a 19th century Protestant, Catholics were “hierarchical, philosophically monarchical, virulently antirepublican, aimed to subvert self government and individual freedom everywhere.” In other words, it is inconceivable to be both Catholic and democratic at the same time. This is a standard, Protestant critique of Catholicism that can be traced back to the Reformation, and the narrative was only strengthened in Colonial America.

Catholicism was not the only concern Know-Nothings saw in the Irish immigrants. The Irish were crammed into the poorest urban centers where they worked the most undesirable, and unskilled jobs. Overpopulation and crime were only a few of the side effects of the deplorable living conditions in major American cities such as New York. This led to the Irish being branded as “lazy, thieving drunkards, poor material for either a labor force or citizenry.”

The nativist groups that were able to gain so much momentum eventually declined due to the emergence of the Republican Party and the Civil War. Irish Americans were able to prove their allegiance to the nation by fighting in the war, and this helped alleviate some of their struggles. Though the Know-Nothings have long vanished, the nativist thought that fueled their rise to power still remained in America. Whether it was the Red Scare, or our current Spanish immigration policy, one can find remnants of the sociopolitical nativist background dating back to the Puritans.

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Satan at Harvard

So here’s my two bits, or three, about the black Mass controversy at Harvard.

1 bit. I’m not really buying the claim of the cultural studies club who sponsored the event that their “purpose [was] not to denigrate any religion or faith… but instead to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices.” I can see how they could convince themselves that was a sincere statement. But the Satanic Temple is an organization that engages in iconoclasm to make political points–like their petition to erect a statue of the devil at the Oklahoma state capitol in order to protest the erection of a Ten Commandments display. Great move, as far as I’m concerned. (If the statue gets the green light, I’m happy to pitch in a few bucks.) But you can’t pass iconoclasm off as a benign exercise in multicultural exposure. “We just wanted to observe Satanists at worship… Just like the Shinto tea ceremony we’re going to stage next week.” Oh please.

Iconoclasm is offensive: that’s the point. So have the backbone to stand by it as such if your club is going to sponsor it. Instead of this pablum about experiencing other cultures, issue a feisty statement about free speech. At the end of the day, Harvard’s president, eager though he was to appease Massachusetts Catholics, did a better job of defending free speech than the cultural studies club did.

2 bits. Opponents of the black Mass have been using the word “blasphemy” a lot. (High-ranking clergy have also used the occasion to affirm the reality of the devil and his works, which I found intriguing from a “post-secularization theory” angle.) If Harvard permits the “blaspheming of Catholic sacramental practice,” Francis Clooney asked readers of the Harvard Crimson, “what’s next?” “Historical reenactments of anti-Semitic or racist ceremonies?” “Parodies that trivialize Native American heritage?”

Before I go after Fr. Clooney’s rhetoric with my penknife, I’m going to submit myself to a discipline of empathy. I understand why he’s upset. If, let’s say, an evangelical student group on my campus were to invite a countercultist to come lecture on Mormonism, and if it were announced that this speaker were going to don Mormon temple robes and reenact portions of the ceremony which adherents treat as ritual secrets–that would get my blood boiling in much the same way, I imagine, that the black Mass upsets Catholics.

But if we’re going to play the “What’s next?” game, let me offer some alternative scenarios. If outraged Catholics can successfully pressure a student group to cancel plans to stage an event that the Catholics consider blasphemous–what’s next? Could outraged Catholics successfully pressure a student group to cancel plans to invite a member of Roman Catholic Womenpriests to celebrate Mass? Could outraged Muslims successfully pressure a student group to cancel plans to invite Salman Rushdie? Could outraged Hindus successfully pressure a student group to cancel plans to invite Jeffrey Kripal? Could outraged evangelicals successfully pressure a student group to cancel plans to invite, I dunno, John Shelby Spong or Gene Robinson? Those are all cases in which critics could invoke the term “blasphemy.” How far does Fr. Clooney expect his university to go in deferring to charges of blasphemy? I’d like to know.

3 bits. Let’s be clear about what happened here. A religious group that enjoys considerable clout on the local scene launched a protest against an event planned by a minority religious group that resulted in the minority group’s event being, in effect, shut down. (Emphasize “in effect.”) In these situations, my sympathies tend to lie with the underdog. How good does domination taste, Massachusetts Catholics?

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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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Exorcism, Skype, and the U.S. presidency

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A few days ago, The Daily Beast ran an article about Bob Larson, an Arizona-based minister who performs exorcisms via Skype. He’d been featured in The Huffington Post a few days before that. The Daily Beast piece wasn’t quite as snickery as the Huffington Post‘s: the Daily Beast author, Scott Bixby, noted that exorcism has a “relatively mainstream presence in most Christian sects (ever been baptized? Congratulations–you’ve had an exorcism).” Huffington Post author David Moye ended his piece with a little whipped-up controversy by getting a rival exorcist–head of the International Catholic Association of Exorcists–to cast doubt on the authenticity of Larson’s exorcisms, on the grounds that a truly possessed person wouldn’t sit still in front of a computer screen.

A couple questions that occur to me:

1. Presumably I, the online reader, am supposed to be snickering that there are people living in the modern age–as driven home by the fact that they’re Skyping, OMG–who nevertheless believe in demonic possession. But what does it say about contemporary American culture that these online news stories treating exorcism as laughable exist simultaneously with a film industry that seems to be advertising yet another horror flick about possession every time I go to a cineplex?

2. Did you know that the Book of Occasional Services of the Episcopal Church–the church so modern that it can boast having ordained the first openly gay bishop in the Christian mainline; the church so socially respectable that it runs the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and has produced more U.S. presidents than any other denomination–did you know that that church’s Book of Occasional Services, as published in 2003, includes a rite for exorcism? Well, more precisely, it contains a page explaining that exorcism is a rite of the church, so if a priest believes that someone is possessed, not mentally ill, then they should contact their bishop for directions about how to proceed. I would love to see those instructions.

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