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Topic: Church and State

NCC Urges Churches to Refrain From Intervening in Political Campaigns
5/4/2017 4:23:12 PM

The National Council of Churches responded to the Executive Order on "Religious Freddom" signed today by Donald Trump in the following press release:
WASHINGTON: The National Council of Churches expresses opposition to the regretful Executive Order entitled, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” signed today by President Trump. This executive order does not promote free speech or religious liberty.

Churches do not face or experience any discrimination because of the Johnson Amendment, the section of the Internal Revenue Code which states that nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations, including churches, cannot “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

Churches should and do speak truth to power. But, churches should not be intervening in political campaigns, endorsing or opposing candidates, or forming political parties. That would be dangerous both for the integrity of houses of worship and our democracy.

Despite this new executive order, we urge churches and clergy not to fall prey to the false notion they are victims of discrimination because they receive tax-exempt status in return for staying out of political campaigns. We affirm the role of the churches in proclaiming the power of God through Jesus Christ, preaching with a prophetic voice that both names God as the source of all salvation and holds the state accountable in the service of the common good.


Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for shared ecumenical witness among Christians in the United States. The NCC's 38 member communions -- from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches -- include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.

NCC News contact: Steven D. Martin: 202.412.4323 or


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Privatization of Public Land is a Bad Idea
1/22/2016 2:13:50 PM

In an article on two Mormon congressmen who want to privatize land owned by the federal government I wrote the following as an editor's comment. I think this issue is especially important because both private "religious" interests and private "business" interests have combined in current political movements to push for policies which really are bad for the general good of the community. In Oregon, for example, the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is an incredibly wonderful "public" space, public in the sense of available to nature, the birds and the animals, and public as in the sense of the thousands of people who are able to come to visit the place. The Bundy brothers want to privatize the place, turn it over to business interests to exploit however they want. What a genuine terrible tragedy that would be. It should lead all good people to completely reject this silly notion. Yet there are actually many Republican political leaders who are talking to the Bundys and supporting them. I would hope that ordinary Republicans around the country would think carefully about all this let their leaders know that there can be real value in "public lands".

Here is what I wrote:

Although the idea of "privatization" has been around quite a while now, people haven't really adequately understood what it actually means and its implications for changes in relations between church and state. When prisons are privatized, for example, a business corporation is paid by the state to run the prison; that gives an incentive to the business to lobby the legislature for more prison money. The idea is that business can run the prison more efficiently, but that idea has been severely challenged lately.

Concerning schools, the Catholic Church has run into difficulty being able to financially support their private schools. So they are working hard to encourage "vouchers" which would take money away from public schools so parents can send their children to private schools without having to pay for them.

The Republican Party is catering to this "private" religious interest. And now see the article below which shows how two Mormon congressmen from Utah, a predominately Mormon state, want to transfer public federal land to state and business control. The policy direction of this is to privatize the land, not for use and enjoyment and benefit by all the citizens, but for the use (and possible abuse) of people of a particular religion or business interest. Read the following article with this in mind and it may help you understand what is going on today in politics. Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican who strongly believed in the idea of public lands for the benefit of all. Not so much current Republican party leaders. Ordinary Republicans are encouraged to support what the Republican Party used to stand for.

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The Roman Catholic Supreme Court Decides What is 'Sincere' Religious Belief
7/1/2014 4:05:19 PM

The Hobby Lobby case decided yesterday by the Supreme Court contains logic about religious liberty, corporations, and sexuality which is based not on legal precedent but on the religious beliefs of five justices who are all Roman Catholic. They are Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. These five have decided that beliefs about sexuality and contraception should be singled out as "sincere" religious beliefs protected by the U.S. constitution. It just so happens, of course, that it is the Roman Catholic Church that has made contraception so central. But it is not the Catholic people who take the Pope and the authoritarian hierarchy of that church seriously; they practice birth control the same as other folks. But these five Supreme Court justices are following the Pope, doing what their Catholic Church says they should do, even though it is against the views of the vast majority of women of all religious persuasion.

The other Supreme Court justice who is Catholic is Sonia Sotomayor but she voted against the majority. The other three justices are Jewish, Elena Kagan, President Obama's latest nominee to the Supreme Court, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This is the first time in history that there have been no Protestants on the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg is getting a lot of media comment on her dissenting opinion in the case. So I went to the Supreme Court website and downloaded the opinion to see more clearly what she said.

But when any Supreme Court uses language like "sincere religious belief" as if it is necessary and desirable to have the Supreme Court deciding what such belief is, it is making a claim that it can make substantive decisions about what constitutes religious belief. Wow, this is a claim the Supreme Court has never made before.

The Pope decides what is a central issue, contraception. And then this Roman Catholic Supreme Court does just what the Pope wants. This is no little thing. More on this later.

Update 7/1/2014 - After reading the Ginsburg dissent it was wrong for me to say that the Alito majority opinion was argued on the basis of the Constitution, or the religion clause of the first amendment. The decision was argued on the basis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Ginsburg said this act was passed with no expectation it would be used for such a radical change in how the court understands religion.

Ginsburg says this ruling contains a logic concerning religion that is dangerous. I agree. For the court to even begin to claim it can define "sincere religious belief" is extremely troubling. To apply religious beliefs to corporations (which are organized for monetary profit, not for religious community) is also troubling.
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The End of a Catholic Moment
3/12/2013 1:13:10 AM

A recent column by Ross Douthat, a writer with whom I rarely agree, mentions the name of the late Richard John Neuhaus. Mention of that name always raises my interest because I wrote a long piece about him when he died in early 2009. There I said:
I would say from my own observation and experience that Richard John Neuhaus is the single person most responsible for the decline of moral influence of Protestantism in this country. He allowed himself to be used as a tool by forces of economic ideology to attack the church, a church otherwise concerned with social and economic justice for all. The IRD [Institute on Religion and Democracy, which he founded] continues today to hire organizers to cause mischief and trouble within Protestant congregations on issues of abortion and gay rights, still funded by those foundations which support so many of the think tanks which promote rigidly narrow business ideology and which have become known as "neoconservative," an ideology which has now broken the entire economy and will cause great suffering for the American people.
I also said that Neuhaus was not a man of serious principle as so many think, he was opportunistic. It is in this context that Ross Douthat mentions his name, that Neuhaus believed that there was a distinctive "Catholic Moment" which "began in the 1980s after John Paul’s ascension to the papacy and the migration of many Catholic 'Reagan Democrats' into the Republican Party." Neuhaus wanted to be a big public player intellectually and since the "Catholic Moment" had arrived he decided to leave the church that raised him (Lutheranism) and became a Catholic. The Lutheran church was not big enough for his inflated ego.

Now Douthat says the Catholic Moment has ended, that Catholicism is no longer a significant force in today's public life, due especially to the sex abuse scandal and cover-up in that church. At one point in my life I believed that Lutherans and Catholics would increasingly be able to understand themselves as one church with full mutual respect. However, in the last decades as popes became increasingly conservative, as they have attacked liberation theology and refused to allow women into significant leadership positions, for example, I have become more and more discouraged about the possibility of ecumenical relations.

Neuhaus wanted Catholics to join with evangelicals of the religious right in their crusade against abortion. This movement is having the effect of marginalizing both groups from serious public policy discussion. Hysterical rhetoric about abortion is not helpful in leading to rational public policy solutions about women's health in a mostly secular America. Neuhaus would have done much better by staying in the Lutheran church and promoting the more moderate policy position of that church toward abortion.

Let's hope that maybe, just maybe, a new pope will find a way to turn the Catholic Church toward a more moderate and open position.

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Romney is Not a Christian
11/5/2012 2:28:18 PM

If anyone needs another reason not to vote for Romney tomorrow let me say that Romney is not a Christian. Mormons are not Christian. Mormons want to be understood, in general, as "Christian" in terms of mainstream America. But the fact is Mormons are not Christians, that's why Mormon missionaries knock on doors across this country trying to convince Christians to become Mormon.

Mormons worship another god, not the Christian God. For Christians, God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, an understanding which developed after long centuries of debate within the church. Mormons reject this understanding of God as expressed in the historic confessions of the church such as the Apostles Creed. Baptisms into the Christian faith are done in the name of the Trinity, that's why Mormon baptisms are not Christian. If a Mormon joins a Protestant church he or she must be rebaptized.

The bible is not enough for Mormons. They claim a new divine revelation in textual form, the Book of Mormon, given to Joseph Smith in upstate New York. Since this revelation occurred on soil of the United States Mormonism is considered an American religion, but not Christian.

Christians who will vote for Romney because they believe he is Christian are profoundly wrong. Barack Obama is the Christian in this race, a child of mainline Protestantism. It is true the religious right in this country has itself moved away from historic Protestantism with its belief in this country as "exceptional", as having a divine mission, as being chosen by God to establish dominance in the world. The mainline Protestants understand themselves in the context of the historic Reformation in Europe, not merely the last 200 years of history of the United States. To make this nation an object of worship, as is done by the religious right, is idolatry, not Christian faith.

Such idoltry is exemplified in this prayer now circulating among some on the Internet:

Dear Beloved God in Heaven. Please give us a president that loves this country and everything it stands for. Please give us a president who respects you as the one true God. Please give us a president who will, with your help, restore this nation to its former glory, the way you created her. Please help us to respect what you have given to us and not take anything for granted ever again. Please God weaken the evil and strengthen the good both without and within. May our eyes be opened. In Jesus' name, Amen

It is good that religion is not to be considered by the state as a qualification for office in this country. But that does not mean that Christians should ignore matters of faith in their choice for president. Romney presumably shares the Mormon belief in this country having a sort of holy history, just like the religious right. It is precisely this that makes him a dangerous man to be president. He thinks God favors this country over all others; he thinks he will be acting not only in the name of this country should he become president, but in the name of God. That is not what is needed right now.

Christians worship a God who created all nations and who calls us to love all others as ourselves.

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Nazism and Public Schools: Catholic Bishops Want Public Money for Their Own Schools
2/25/2012 2:13:33 PM

For many decades now the Catholic Church has tried to find ways to get the government to fund its own schools. I cannot but help think that the Catholic bishops' current campaign about the contraception mandate is related to their promotion of school choice which has become a Republican policy position for some time now. The conservative bishops have decided to forego their church's concern for economic justice for the poor and a just and sustainable world and focus on what is a more compelling institutional interest, public funding for their schools. They have decided basically to join the Republican Party to see if they can get through a law on school choice.

These thoughts are stimulated by an article in the Christian Century which reports on the criticism a Catholic bishop has received for associating public schools with Nazism.
The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., is being criticized for saying Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would love the country's public school system because it teaches all children one set of beliefs. Bishop Joseph P. McFadden made the remark while advocating for school vouchers during a televised interview last week. "In totalitarian governments, they would love our system," McFadden said. "This is what Hitler and Mussolini and all those tried to establish: a monolith so all the children would be educated in one set of beliefs and one way of doing things."
When people use Nazism to justify their views you know that they are pulling out all the stops on behalf of their argument, they are speaking very loudly and hoping you don't think too carefully about what they are saying.

But think about it a little bit. Think about what this means for how this bishop views public schools. I don't know how much the bishops have promoted this view among Catholic laypersons, how much they are trying to undermine support for public schools, but the attitude of this bishop is extremely disturbing. It means that the Catholic Church has become a dangerous institution in society today. Hear what I am saying, the Catholic Bishops have become a serious threat to a democratic society and to democratic institutions such as the public schools.

Public schools do not teach "one set of beliefs." Public schools are not a monolithic organization governed autocratically from the top. In fact, that is what characterizes the Catholic hierarchy. Elected school boards all across the country manage the schools. Yes, federal and state governments have become more important in funding schools and providing standards for teachers. And, yes, there should be constant discussion about how best to educate our young and I believe there should be wider discretion given to local boards and more support for teachers as very important professionals in a very complex vocation.

But to attack public education as akin to Nazism is completely ridiculous. Such an attitude demeans this bishop and associates Christian faith with the worst form of religious hostility to the efforts of dedicated teachers working in our schools.

I think right now the Catholic bishops have made a political judgment that the religious right has become so powerful within the Republican Party that it may be possible to actually pass school choice which means the Catholic schools would be funded by tax money. Remember that the religious right began institutionally as a reaction against the Supreme Court decision of 1954 concerning school integration. White southern churches started their private schools to avoid have their children go to public schools with black children. They had to fight the Internal Revenue Service to justify their existence and that's why they started to come together as a political coalition to support their segregated schools. So "school choice" is a policy actually part of the political backlash against equality for black people. The "religious right" is the primary institutional vehicle of this political backlash and has become the "base" of the Republican Party. It is Southern religion as the central emotional core of a movement that has been able to spread throughout the country. That's what the Catholic Church is now making an alliance with.

Real Protestants should understand this and speak out much more clearly against it. And Catholic laypersons should start to actively organize against their own bishops who are going way too far in promoting what is bad for the church and bad for the country.

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A Phony Public Theology
2/22/2012 10:10:52 AM

When I began this website the purpose was to explore the notion of a public theology for the church, asking questions such as, what should be the posture of the church toward various public issues? It was not to create a public theology for the state. I am a critic of the notion of civic religion, the idea of an official religion of the state, though it is an open question whether a state can continue to exist without a religious-type justification.

But now Rick Santorum, seeking desperately to communicate with the "base" of the Republican Party which has come to be composed primarily of people identified as the religious right, has begun to explicitly use religious language to justify his policy proposals. In fact his policy proposals seem to be based primarily on his own religious views.

He has said that Obama has a "phony theology" which is not a "biblical theology" but "some other theology." The looseness of these words let others fill in whatever meaning they want, such as that the "other theology" of Obama is Islam. This makes Santorum's loose talk very objectionable and, I believe, disqualifies him for office. This is how demagogues speak, demagogues who appeal to hate and fear, who build up hostility to others. Religious language is prone to this kind of misuse, that's why pastors and theologians need to be very careful in how they express themselves, and even more so, politicans.

Asked what he meant on last Sunday's talk shows, Santorum said that he was really talking about Obama's phony ideology about radical environmentalism. He said Obama beieves that man should serve nature rather than nature be under the stewardship of man. This is very strange.

Some environmentalists do, indeed, believe the earth as a whole is more important than the human being, but this is because without a sustainable earth there will be no life on this earth for anyone.

But nobody asked Santorum for documentation of where Obama had said things that can be classified as radical environmentalism. The press often lets these radically conservative politicians make wild claims without asking them to document the claims or give specific examples of what they are talking about. They let them get by with stoking resentment against those terrible "elites" who don't care about real people.

At any rate we at this website are not interested in any phony public theology, but a theology for the church grounded in the reality of the present time as well as the faith and hope of the promises of God. On that score Obama's faith as a Christian (he come to faith in a Protestant mainline denomination, the United Church of Christ) is much more compelling than the wild and irrational ravings of Rick Santorum who appears to be promising to eradicate Satan from the earth. It is Santorum who has a phony theology which is not only phony but utopian and dangerous.

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Bishops Reject Obama Compromise, the Devil is Forcing Birth Control
2/14/2012 4:49:16 PM

Here is what is happening in politics these days: the Roman Catholic Bishops are debasing themselves and the language of Christian faith. What they are doing right now is the most terrible witness to Christian faith that I have ever seen in this country. They have raised the issue of birth control to the level of absolute hysteria, they are threatening the lives of all women, they are determined that women not have access to modern medicine, they are completely obscuring the terms of public discourse with their claim that "religious freedom" means they should be free to force all women to obey their narrow definitions of how women should live their lives.

President Obama has offered a compromise about whether Catholic insitutions have to pay for contraception services in health plans. But the bishops are now rejecting that compromise.
The bishops’ decision to rebuff the compromise means that “religious freedom” will continue to be a rallying cry for some Catholics who have heard it preached from the pulpit for the last three weeks, for evangelical Christians on the religious right, for Republican candidates on the campaign trail and for members of Congress who are supporting a legislative fix on Capitol Hill.
One of the bills the Republicans are preparing actually bans birth control coverage in all health insurance plans. So they are certainly escalating the issue beyond any rationality.

These bishops are willing to use the full language of Christian faith to support their narrow views on contraception. In a video presentation at the Family Research Council Walker Nickless, the Bishop of the Diocese of Sioux City, warns that the contraception mandate was literally a plot by the Devil to undermine morality and that Christians "have to stand up and violently oppose this" in order to avoid being overtaken by Darkness.

To use faith language in this way trivializes it and debases it in the eyes of the public. It reduces the authority of bishops in the first place. It reveals that these bishops are willing to use the language of faith in a cynical political power play to try to get their way in an election year. It reveals that these bishops are willing to identify themselves completely with one of the political parties in this country, on the basis of one issue, as if the Catholic Church stands only for birth control and not for those suffering economic injustice or the unborn millions threated by the ravages of industrial society on the environment.

These bishops also know that they are opposing the many Protestant bodies who do not teach that contraception is of the devil. These bishops are thus flagrantly sticking up their middle finger at all of these other Christians, many of whom may also be women working in Catholic institutions and should have access to health care, or choices for what services they want to choose for themselves. These bishops are setting back the ecumenical movement immensely by their outrageous actions. Protestants should let them know directly by contacing them at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Romney Believes Constitution is Divine
2/11/2012 2:25:18 PM

Yesterday in his speech before CPAC, a key gathering of conservatives (I watched it on C-Span), Mitt Romney said the constitution may have been of divine origin or have its source in human wisdom, and that he believes it is both. Here he is affirming, without explicitly saying so, that he as a Mormon believes one of the doctrines of the Mormon religion, that the Constitution was not a human product but has a divine source. The contitution must be obeyed because it comes from God.

This is quite different from the views of Thomas Jefferson who believed every generation should make its own constitution. And, of course, there is a word for this in Christian faith, idolatry. To make a human document divine is an act of idolatry, a sin against the first commandment to have no other gods.

This comment reveals that Romney is not a Christian. Mormons like to claim they are Christians, but here we see differences between the two faiths. To believe the constitution is divine is to view this nation itself as divine and superior to other nations and other constitutions. This justifies all manner of hostility and violence against other peoples and nations. Politics today has, indeed, become extremist in the worst sense. Anybody who loves the country should reject such exalted claims.

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Legal Aspects of the Contraception Debate
2/9/2012 1:12:57 PM

Below is an interview with lawyer David Boies at The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC. Boies makes the obvious point that religious employers are not exempt from state laws concerning employment. There are no constitutional difficulties with the the Obama administration guidelines requiring health insurance plans to include contraception.

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Then you may want to go to the website of the United States Conference of Bishops to hear Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the USCCB, as he
"sharply criticized the decision by the Obama administration in which it "ordered almost every employer and insurer in the country to provide sterilization and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs, in their health plans....Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn't happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights."
Notice the effort to link abortion to contraception with reference to "abortion-inducing drugs" which is not an accurate way to describe these drugs. This is a kind of public lying by a Roman Catholic bishop. It is also a form of lying to associate this with religious freedom as I have written in a previous blog item. Polls have shown that even a majority of Catholics are not opposed to the new Obama guidelines. So the guidelines do not begin to violate the religious freedom in the comprehensive way claimed by this false rhetoric. What the bishops want is to use the power of government to enforce a narrowly construed religious doctrine about contraception on women both Catholic and otherwise.

I encourage readers to send letters to the White House and local papers supporting the new Obama guidelines.

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Catholic Bishops Want Freedom to Oppress Women
2/8/2012 5:01:20 PM

When political debate gets too hot and heavy I tend to want to withdraw to think. I do not want to participate in screaming and hollering. I do not want to say unkind or untruthful things about others.

And that's how I approached this whole matter of the Catholic Bishops when I heard some time ago about their intention to use an argument of "religious freedom" to justify their efforts to influence the Obama administration on the provision of contraception in health insurance programs. I went to the website of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to read statements there. I have been following the news since the Obama administration published its guidelines requiring health care insurance to include birth control as preventive measures for women's health. And now there is a great deal of screaming and hollering going on by the Republican presidental candidates. Mitt Romney screams Obama is conducting a "war on religion." But his own Morman faith is not opposed to birth control; he is not following his own faith by jumping on the bandwagon of the bishops.

But what is Obama trying to do? He is trying to make sure that women, if they choose, have access to birth control measures as part of the preventive health care called for in the new health care bill. Most health insurance plans already cover contraception but may require co-pays and deductibles. Even many Catholic institutions like schools and hospitals provide such insurance already. The new guidelines call for giving all women the choice to receive free contraception because of its role in disease prevention, its a logical extension of current practices based on the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science. It is not Obama forcing a secular ideology on people, as Newt Gingrich says, it is using the best results of science for the benefit of women, if they themselves choose. No women are forced to used birth control by these guidelines, only access to what may be helpful for women's health.

The bishops want to deny that access for those working in institutions they control or influence. Although many of these institutions, schools or hospitals mainly, already provide such access, the bishops do not want to have to provide birth control to all employees even if many of them are not of the Catholic faith. This would mean that a Lutheran nurse working in a Catholic hospital would not have equal access to birth control as a nurse working in a non-Catholic hospital. The Obama adminstration is trying to make sure all women have equal access to birth control; the bishops are against this and therefore they are against what is best for women according to the best science available to us today.

Many Catholic institutions are very large hospitals and schools, employing thousands of persons. Furthermore, and this point has not been adequately mentioned in most press accounts about this issue, these institutions are massively funded by federal dollars. That is, these institutions would not exist at their current size without the federal government. Just think about Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, federal subsidies for education, and so forth. The federal government has an entirely legitimate interest in how these institutions are governed. The Catholic bishops want the federal money but they reject that they are then responsible for running them as the larger society thinks best through government policy.

So when the Catholic bishops say the government is violating their religious freedom what they are really saying is that they want absolute freedom as bishops to claim total and complete control over government funded institutions. It is not religious freedom for all, it is not religious freedom for women, the bishops themselves want the freedom to keep women in their place without access to those services which are best for women's health. This can only be called what it is, an effort to oppress all women with a narrowly construed religious doctrine opposed to any form of birth control in the first place. The government should not establish guidelines based on such a narrowly construed doctrine.

The Catholic Church is a hierarchial organization of authority. The bishops are expected to be obedient to the pope, the priests to the bishops, and the lay people to the priests. Obedience not democratic decision based on the best available science is the highest value. But in a democratic society such obedience is not the highest value. And the fact is that most Catholic women themselves ignore the hierarchy when it comes to their own free decisions about the use of birth control. So what is really going on here is that the bishops know that they cannot control women in the Roman Catholic Church without government help; the bishops want to use the power and authority of the government to enforce their own narrowly construed doctrine. This the government should not do. The government is not the church.

Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are Catholics and are using virulent rhetoric to attack the president. They use the language of democracy and religious freedom claiming Obama is opposed to the church and religion in general. This is ridiculous and a travesty for public discourse in the nation. We should expect a certain level of reasonableness from presidential candidates. What these two are doing is being obedient to their bishops; they support the hierarchial authority of the Roman Catholic Church. They do not support religious freedom for all women to make their own choices about birth control; they like the bishops want the government to do what the bishops dictate. It is cynicism and the worst form of hypocrisy to use the language of religious freedom to support what is really an effort of a religious organization to control the lives of women.

I have great admiration for the many outstanding schools and hospitals of the Catholic Church. All Americans should be grateful for these institutions. But the bishops are now acting in what can only be called a sort of hysterical manner, claiming they believe in religious freedom for all when they are really engaged in a power play to control the lives of women. It is necessary to think carefully about this matter and tell the truth about this.

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Facing the Reality of Conflict and the Problem with Liberal Neutrality
3/21/2011 3:29:26 PM

I just placed on the website an announcement for a new book called The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. This is the kind of book which must be taken seriously in any website calling itself Public Theology. I have read the books of all four of the key figures who write chapters in this new book: Judith Butler, Charles Taylor, Cornell West and especially Jurgen Habermas. The article by Craig Calhoun certainly seems to summarize fairly well what I know of the basic perspectives of these four thinkers.

And yet the tone of the article exhibits a fundamental problem with academic neutrality, the effort to stand back from conflicts refusing to take a position. This idea, that it is possible to stand above conflicts and view the world from some value-free position is exactly what has been itself a target of criticism in most critical social theory. In fact, the idea that it is possible to posit something in the world called "religion" and then describe the nature of specific religious experience is itself a highly problematic idea laden with presuppositions. Most of the participants at The Immanent Frame, where this article was published, know that. One theme under debate there right now is whether there is something called "post-secularism," the return of explicitly religious phenomena in private and public space.

But the idea of neutrality, coming out of the philosophy of liberalism, has become for me a real issue since what has been happening over the past three or four decades is a wholesale attack on liberalism in practical politics. All the liberals can do is stand back and analyse what is happening to them. They seem so unable to see that they are being destroyed that they are unable to come together to form groupings and organizations by which they can oppose the conservative onslaught. This is what is happening right now to the presidency of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Democrats elect poltical figures who turn out to promote that is best for Republican constituencies. Academics, who generally vote liberal, want to just think about it.

In the meantime liberal institutions are being systematically targeted, such as attacks on public schools and higher education. Governors are slashing budgets under the claim that taxes cannot be raised to raise funds needed to avoid budget deficits. The right wing political philosophy has become so dominant, and the power of corporate money in politics has become so absolute, that it is nearly impossible to even begin to actually discuss a more fair system of taxation in this country. There is a war going on right now and the wealthy elite are winning nearly every battle. But academic observers of religion want to continue to spend time, money and effort thinking about it. This liberal attitude is killing liberalism in the country.

Thus, even though it is part of my own self identity to read these sorts of books and think about these matters in rather abstract terms, I myself have come to believe that the academics are not going to help much unless they begin to have the courage to stand up as a "public intellectual" in the form of one of the thinkers mentioned above, Cornel West. The problem with the orientation of Jurgen Habermas is that it is so easily critiqued as causing "endless discussion" with no action, which was the way the German jurist, Carl Schmitt, viewed liberalism.

I believe Protestant pastors and congegational members must also begin to question "liberalism" in-so-far-as it is a dominate approach to politics. Politics has become entirely conflictual, one of the two political parties has now adopted a particular religious expression, the religious right, and the primary Protestants cannot just sit around at their congregational dinners enjoying one another's company. It is necessary now to see local congregations as outposts in a literal war concerning the future of the country and the world. Business corporations have now become so powerful that they want their views to become total, they want their way of thinking and doing things (profit calculation) to pervade all of the community, with no room for other civic or religious values. They want to return to the world of the 19th century before the progressive movements of the 1890s and 1930s. They want to destroy the social protections of the poor and unemployed created during these years. They want to control the thoughts of the common people through television and funding of religious right churches. The word "liberal" does not characterize the kind of more aggressive and assertive response which is needed today against the conservative corporate onslaught. It is necessary today to face the reality of conflict and take a side.

It is necessary for the church to think about a future beyond liberalism. That is what Clayton Crockett is doing in a book I am now reading, Radical Political Theology: Religion and Politics after Liberalism. He writes:
The problem of contemporary democracy directly concerns the crisis of liberalism. On the one hand, liberalism is under attack, both politically and theologically. Liberalism as an ideology is exhausted. On the other hand, a neoliberalism continues to function economically under the surface of a faltering American global empire. Part of the confusion about liberalism is caused by the question of whether it is an economic or a political form. In the modern world dominated by Europe, liberalism has functioned to support both capitalism and political democracy. If liberalism ceases to function, then capitalism and democracy must change or become extinct. Today we live in a political and theological climate in which liberalism is on the defensive ideologically, although economically neoliberalism has embraced an extremely savage form of capitalism.
Crockett in his book is promoting new ways to think about a "radical democracy" according to an immanent form of theological reflection. This is a more helpful project than those suggested in the book on religion and the public sphere.

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Religion as a Matter of Political Calculation
12/24/2010 2:25:34 PM

For anyone for whom Christian faith is a primary and central concern it is a dangerous time. This is because religion has become a more and more important factor in political calculations. That is, politicians running for public office (which means power over the lives of others) are calculating how what they do and say will or will not appeal to various categories of what are believed to be religious persons. Such politicians cannot help, in the process, to themselves be defining what is or is not appropriate and necessary in the use of religious language. And this means that politicians are defining what is good and right about religion, and that is dangerous, especially for Christianity, which has a very long history of being substantially influenced by the interests of the state, ever since Constantine made it the state religon of the Roman world in the fourth century.

The New Republic magazine is now running an article by Tiffany Stanley, Things Fall Apart: How Democrats Gave Up on Religious Voters. After talking about how Obama was able to appeal to religious voters in the 2008 election she says:
But, in just two short years, the left has become sluggish in its courtship of religious voters, significantly scaling back its faith-outreach programs. While many factors—primarily the economy—doomed the Democrats this fall, the consequences of this abdication nevertheless seem to be severe. In the recent midterm elections, House Democrats lost white evangelical voters in greater numbers than they did in 2004, when “values voters” flocked to George W. Bush. Reversing their Democratic allegiance from the past two elections, Catholics—nearly a quarter of all voters—favored the GOP 54 to 44 percent. Compared to 2008, the drop-offs were steep: a 20-point decline with Catholics, a 14-point decline with white evangelicals, and a 10-point decline with white Protestants.
Stanley thinks that Democrats need to take religion seriously:
To defend his record and contend with the right-wing grassroots, Obama would do well to articulate the moral-religious values that permeate his policies and initially energized his supporters. And, if the Democrats want to avoid the impression that such values messaging is merely a presidential-election-year tactic, they should probably begin reinvigorating their faith outreach efforts sooner rather than later. “Ninety percent of people believe in some sort of God,” {Rebecca Sager, a sociologist who studied faith outreach during the last two elections] points out. “It’s mind-boggling why you would cede those voters to the Republican Party.”
Notice that phrase, "some sort of God". Democrats, in order to compete with Republicans, must be able to speak about "some sort of God" as if whatever way of such speaking which gets votes is necessary. But such speaking also means that definitions of God are being made by politicians, which means that God is up for majority vote. God's will is determined by who gets elected. Religion here becomes that which serves the interests of the state. Such thinking is dangerous for the integrity of Christian faith. The church determines how to speak about God, not the state.

It is interesting that Rush Limbaugh picked up on the Stanley article and talked about it on his radio show. Limbaugh thinks that it is preposterous that Democrats should be talking about God, since they are opposed to God. Limbaugh says that Democrats believe the government is God and this is all so obvious because of their views on abortion and gay rights. Notice that Limbaugh does not see his position as contradictory; conservatives, indeed, want that bad government to be intimately involved in the reproductive decisions of women. And his comments about gays actually are not clear at all, not the established position of the religious right. But, for Limbaugh, Republicans have a corner on God-talk in politics and Democrats should not try to claim otherwise.

Well, as for me, as for the primary tradition concerning faith and politics for Christians in this country, neither Republicans nor Democrats should be engaging in any God-talk at all. God is not up for majority vote. I advocate the position of John Rawls in his book Political Liberalism where he says the constitution is not set up to handle the ultimate questions of the universal meaning of life. I believe that the so-called religious right and the television preachers should be severely criticized for allowing themselves to be used and abused by conservative politicians since Ronald Reagan.

Now, I believe that we in the church can gather together and have a vigorous discussion about how we should be involved in politics, how we should support or oppose particular positions, but we should do that as the church not as a political party. Then we can be involved as individuals and in various organizational means to try to influence politics, but using concepts and language from within civil traditions, what Rawls calls "public reason". Both justice and peace are central values of Christian faith, but we cannot in a democracy bring our religious motivations to the table, we need to argue on the basis of what others in the political community can also appreciate and affirm. We cannot claim God is on our side, nor can anybody else.

So the church is not the state. And the state is not the church. That's why I oppose Christmas religious displays sponsored on government grounds, why I oppose state-sponsored school prayers, why I oppose placing religious language in the constitution, and why I am a vigorous opponent of the way the religious right has involved itself in the political process over the past decades. It has skewed American politics away from the proper matters of government.

Rush Limbaugh represents a Southern, racist view of government. The South absolutely hates the federal government for its role in forcing it to change its ways of segregation. The South hates the supreme court for its 1954 decision on integration of schools. Abortion and gay rights are handy emotional issues around which Southern religion has organized itself against the rest of the country and the federal government. The religious right leaders and current Republican leaders all come out of the South. The civil war isn't over, even with a black president, perhaps now especially because a black president has been elected. The South claims God is on their side, but they are wrong, and their views are actually an abomination, a heresy in the history of Christianity, and represent idolatry, the association of God with particular politicians and positions. It is a trivialization of God and religion to subsume them to the political process.

But this further means that the typical "liberal" response among Protestants is not enough today. It is not enough for a Protestant pastor to just stay away from politics, or claim that both sides today are equally to blame for the cultural wars and nasty politics. It is a fact that the Republican Party has chosen to try to appeal to religious voters for pure partisan gain. Protestant pastors must stand up and say this clearly. If a politician claims to be representing God or Christianity that is a reason not to vote for him or her. If a Democratic candidate tries to speak about "some sort of God" then that candidate should be rejected. The content of Christian faith is not determined by political calculation.

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The Last Protestant is Leaving
4/9/2010 12:04:25 PM

The last Protestant is leaving, the Supreme Court, that is. Justice John Paul Stevens has announced he will retire this summer. Six of the nine current justices are Roman Catholic, two are Jewish. Nina Totenberg at NPR talks about whether religion is something that should be considered in appointing a replacement. Sarah Posner comments on the Totenberg piece. What does this mean for Protestants today?

First let's define who Protestants are. At this website we make the brash claim that the mainline Protestants should adopt the term "Protestant" for themselves. It's a general term, no denomination uses it in their name, but it clearly refers to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. So those who view their history and theology as clearly informed by the Reformation can claim the term for themselves, and that's primarily those who are referred to as "mainline" denominations today. What we call here the "religious right" are not Protestants, they are American inventions, the Pentecostals are clearly a religious innovation in the American conext and the Southern Baptists have turned themselves into a commercialized and Americanized denomination. This is how I read Mark Noll's book, America's God. Protestants today should claim the term for themselves and view it as over-against "evangelical," another good Reformation term but one that has been captured by the religious right in the public media.

So the last Protestant is leaving the court. Protestants today make up less than twenty percent of Americans claiming religious affiliation. In the nation's history Protestants have dominated the court, but no more. The age of "Protestant establishment" has long passed. It began to turn when Protestants decided to support the civil rights movement of the 1960s and were willing to criticize military adventures of the U.S. in places like Vietnam. Protestants became "critical" of the nation and thus began to lose their role as articulators of the moral public context of the nation. That role was taken over by the religious right, a development encouraged by neoconservatives who believed the nation needed a form of religion which would support military adventures abroad. Some conservatives, such as the late John Richard Neuhaus, actually gained funding from conservative foundations to mount media and organizational assaults on the mainline Protestants. The current editor of the Neuhaus journal "First Things" has recently written that the mainlines are dead. The power of the mainline churches as a Protestant establishment is certainly gone, and the leaving of Justice Stevens is a clear indication of that change.

What we Protestants have not acknowledged very well is that we have been systematically attacked again and again by conservative religious leaders and conservative politicians. When I sat down to systematically watch the emerging television preachers in the 1980s one of the constant themes was an attack on the mainline churches. And the whole thrust of the conservative backlash to the changes of the 1960s has been carried on by Republican politicians trying to get elected based on nativistic and racist appeals, the center of this being in the South where conservative religion comes from in the first place. In the face of a sustained, deliberate attack over several decades now the mainline churches have failed to mount any sort of response to this war against themselves. A sort of quietistic liberalism and mushy pluralism has led many pastors and leaders to sit back and basically ignore the fact that there are people out there kicking and slapping them and trying to destroy them. No wonder there are so few people now interested in becoming part of churches that don't seem to know what they believe anymore and let others kick them around.

That's part of what I mean to say that we Protestants need to remember our heritage of "protest" ourselves and the substance of our faith as articulated in those crucial years of the Reformation, which transcends the history of the United States as a nation. We need a new, compelling vision of a realistic global theology, a belief system necessary for the next stage of the future for which we accept responsibility as Protestants have historically done. Unless we do something like this the last Protestant will be leaving not only the Supreme Court but also our churches.
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About the New Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships
4/9/2009 3:35:13 PM

Here are some links about the faith-based initiative of Obama. We will comment on them later.

First announcement on February 5, 2009, with a list of appointed members. This includes text about the purpose of the office.

Second Announcement on April 6, 2009, with ten new members. This is a list of all the members of the advisory council. The "primary Protestants" (mainline churches) are not well represented. No Presbyterians. No Episcoplians. No Lutherans. There is one United Methodist but he, Harvey Knox, represents a gay advocacy group not the Methodist Church. Baptists have four members, Catholics three, Jewish three, seculars three.

Faith in Public Life has done some research on these appointments.

Time Magazine reviews a conference of the advisory council:

"While the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has been around for eight years, the Obama White House is very keen to stress that their version of the office will have an entirely different mission. Whereas Bush established the office to "level the playing field" for faith-based service organizations that he argued were unable to compete for federal grants, Obama intends to use his faith office more for policy matters. It operates under the Domestic Policy Council and is charged with focusing on four issues: domestic poverty, responsible fatherhood, reducing the need for abortion and preventing unintended pregnancy, and interreligious dialogue and cooperation."
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