Sunday, December 28, 2008

Religiously Informed Values

It used to be that everyone knew what the various denominations believed & stood for. The local papers published the sermons each week & everyone read them. Most folks knew the distinctions in doctrine between the various churches & most certainly the theological variations among the denominations. All knew, for example, the Methodists stood for social action & personal piety; the Baptists held tenaciously to "Soul Freedom" & the Separation of Church & State; the Presbyterians were big on the idea of Covenant & predestination; the Catholics proclaimed the rich history of tradition, the church universal, & the various orders; the Pentecostals delved into experiential theology, etc.

Sadly, today, folks don't even know their own theological distinctives, much less what other groups believe.

Thus, bringing us to the topic title: how can folks vote their "religiously informed values" if they don't even know what those values are, the history behind them, or the theological truths that give rise to the value?

I raise this question for two reasons. First, we need to realize that voting "religiously informed values" must never mean voting into law our religious dogma. Second, without an understanding of the theology, it is easy to be manipulated by religious leaders who rely on that ignorance to keep control of their power.

Let's think back to the early Colonists, many of whom came here to escape religious persecution. But what did they do when they got here? They set up the very sort of theocratic rule from whence they came. The majority's "religiously informed values" became the law. Dissenters were persecuted, whipped, shunned, or hanged. Is that the sort of society we want again?

The Founding Fathers intentionally drew a line of demarcation between the church & state. The gov't they established expressly forbade religious law from entering the civil code, even going as far to set up an entirely secular gov't with no place given for religious leaders.

Those theocracies were banned. And they should stay that way.

The difficulty people have is that they see their religious ideas as =the= truth for everyone. Now it may very well be that your religious ideas are 100% correct, but they may very well not be either. And even if those religious values you hold are entirely what God wants, God doesn't work through the legal code to carry out his plan. That is done via the spiritual establishment, not the gov't. Moreover, not everyone holds those same religious opinions & thus it is morally wrong to impose religious dogma onto others.

If there is no compelling =secular= reason for a law, the religious rational is simply not enough. Otherwise, the gov't is following the majority faith's religious dogma & establishing it with a Most Favored Status.

But the most ardent reason we don't vote our "religiously informed values" into law is the simple history of religious leaders in the past. History is replete with corrupt churchmen who rely on the theological ignorance of the people to manipulate policy. Just think of the charlatans past & present who misused Scripture to gain power for themselves.

And you're kidding yourself if you think there aren't charlatans out there who use faith as a means of gain. Tell the people what "God" wants them to do, rewrite the history, & suddenly the masses will do anything. With God on their side & a charismatic leader, there is no sin the people won't commit.

The danger of these "religiously informed values" become clear when applied to other faiths. What if the judge in Douglas County, GA, were Muslim & he insisted on the community's majority Muslim standards? What if "his courtroom, his rules" meant that every woman had to come in =with= a veil? What if women were not allowed to speak in his courtroom? What if he insisted on everyone swearing on the Koran & to Allah to tell the truth? What if Sharia Law was applied instead of the secular Constitution?

We've come too far & fought too hard for too long to let those sort of theocratic ideals have even a smidgen of a foothold. Not again. We've seen what happens in when faith & gov't become intertwined.

Not again. Not here.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Amish Boy to Have Surgery Thanks to Very Smart Judge

Sometimes judges do the most foolish things, e.g., the judge in Douglasville who demanded a Muslim lady remove her headscarf in order to remain in the courtroom. Goofy. And unconstitutional. That judge has been referred to an ethics board by the GA attorney general for his egregious misconduct. (Click here for link to that story.)

But every once-in-a-while, a judge does something that is so amazingly brilliant that I stand in awe. Such is the case with Barbara R. Potter, a Family Court judge in St. Lawrence County, NY. That lady is so intelligent that she =must= be Baptist.

Here's the dilemma that came before her. An Amish boy, Eli Hershberger, was born in April 2007 with a hole in his heart. The only way to save the boy's life was to have surgery. The parents' faith, however, demanded they not seek the surgery.

So what do we do? The parents' religion won't allow the surgery lest their version of faith say they sinned against God. The county social workers have to look out for the welfare of Eli. The judge has to follow the law that protects the religious freedom of the parents while also serving the best interest of the child. Eli has no say, despite it being a life or death matter --- so that is why the judge has to rule.

And what a brilliant ruling she made.

The judge ruled that it is obvious the parents cared for the child & were in every regard good parents. The issue was the parents' faith. So while protecting the child's life & the parents' religious beliefs, the judge issued a very narrow ruling, saying the child had only been 'medically neglected." That means the parents may retain custody of the child but are not required to sign the consent form for the surgery. Thus the ruling took the parents out of the decision making process regarding the surgery but retained all other parental rights & responsibilities.

Think of the challenge this was for the Amish community. Think of the challenge it was for the social workers. But the judge --- wow. What a lady. I'm certain she =must= be Baptist. Must be. A genius ruling like this =must= be Baptistic ... She just has to be ...

A narrow ruling like that is a win-win-win for everyone.

Here's a snippet from the Watertown Daily Times.

"I don't think it was a compromise as much as it was a way for them to avoid giving their consent," said William J. Galvin, the county's conflict public defender representing Mr. Hershberger. "Their religion doesn't allow them to consent to the surgery, so what we asked today is that the court make a decision such that they would essentially be taken out of it."
The neglect case could be dismissed, providing the Hershbergers comply with the conditions of the judge's ruling. Those conditions include taking Eli to all medical checkups and providing doctors with his medical information.

Thanks to Howard Friedman for this info. Religion Clause: Court Issues Finely-Tuned Ruling In Ordering Surgery For Amish Boy

Christmas Celebrated in Iraq for 1st Time


The AP has reported that Christmas is a legal holiday in Iraq, an act that is a first for the Iraqi gov't. According to the Orlando Christianity Examiner Iraq's Interior Ministry hosted the country's first-ever legal public Christmas celebration in a small Baghdad park. Even though most of those who came to the celebration weren't Christian, Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf said warmly: "All Iraqis are Christian today!"

Iraq has now allowed Christmas celebration. Now we know how the 1st Americans felt being able to celebrate Christmas after the "Christian Theocracy" was disestablished after the passing of the Constitution. Isn't it strange that Christian Theocrats & Muslim Extremists both have hard times allowing people to chose how to worship? Both force one belief & demand everyone worship a certain way while also banning choice & dissent. Amazing.

Religion Clause: Christmas Is Legal Holiday For First Time This Year In Iraq
(Thanks to Howard Friedman for the info. He does a great job on his blog. Well worth reading everyday.)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Can a Real Christian Ever Deny Christ?

I came across an article in Christianity Today a while ago & have been mulling the question over in my head: can a person who denies Christ still be a genuine believer?

There are several Bible verses that shed some light on this. Matthew 10:28-33 relates Christ saying that persecution will come & the context says if we deny Christ, he will deny us. 1 John has several references, e.g. 1JN 4:15, about denying Christ, but it looks more like a Christological confession than anything else, i.e., denying the unique Incarnation of the God-Man. Demas forsook Paul & Christ (2TIM 4:10). And there are some references about Christian martyrs, e.g., REV 2:13.

Now on the surface, it's an easy question. I'm sure we've all heard the pious proclamations of
I'll never deny Christ. And the trite I'm gonna do what God tells me to do no matter what. And the ever pious & clear I'm not gonna bow to any other god unless it is to offer my head for Jesus. Wow. Bet you've heard all those, right?

OK. I'm sure those folk mean well. And I'm sure they know Christ.

I'm just not so sure they know themselves all that well.

It is an old question, one even Peter struggled with. You know the story. Peter promised to never deny Jesus but did so not just once, but 3 times before breakfast (JN 18).

Now I'm not talking about casual stuff here. I'm talking the really big stuff. Life, limb & death ... or worse.

The early church struggled with the question as Christians were, off & on, persecuted. Pliny of Bithynia even wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan & detailed how he would threaten Christians to denounce their faith & offer sacrifice to other gods in order to spare their life, whereby Pliny said real Christians wouldn't make the sacrifice but would sacrifice themselves instead.

Really? Pliny knew what every one's breaking point is? We all know that the overwhelming majority of people will say anything to stop torture: does that include renouncing Christ?

The Middle Ages was a cruel time. Crusaders invaded the Middle East to reclaim the "Holy Land" & forcibly converted the Muslim to Christianity. The Muslims would then capture some Christians & force their conversion to Islam. All through the Middle Ages various wars were fought & persecutions raged on who was a
real Christian. Forced denouncements of faith were made all the time.

How about a modern example: Indian Hindus. The gov't gives assistance to Hindus but not Christians. So radical Hindu groups are giving the Christians an offer they can't refuse: sign the paper, go through the Hindu conversion ritual, & you & your family can live, even get gov't assistance. Don't convert, & you lose it all, maybe even have your family killed while you get to live. Some choice, eh?

The radical Hindu groups see the Christian missionary groups as a revitalized East India Company trying to recolonize the nation --- this time, they fear, the West comes with a religion instead of guns, something just as powerful. These radical Hindu groups want to change India from a secular nation to a theocratic one. Ridding the nation of Christians is, of course, the first step.

While it is easy to make such bold --- reckless & pious? --- statements about one's devotion to Christ, I have to wonder how strong that confession would be in light of torture. Or watching your family killed. Or knowing your kids will starve to death.

Or really coming face to face with one's own self.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

God of the Small Things

I think maybe our Gospel is too big. Yeah, that's right: too big.

I think God likes small. And I think he likes the inner, hidden things instead of the stuff everyone has to see.

Ever noticed the small things in the Bible? The mustard seed. The leaven. A small pearl, tucked away in a creature in the sea. A lost sheep or a lost coin. A worm to get the attention of a prodigal prophet. Children. The non-flashy, non-neon, non-anything that wouldn't seem to be "Biggie Things."

Instead, God uses the ordinary & the subtle. Of course, God can use the fire & lightening bolts & the earthquake. He certainly does at times, I think mainly to remind us of the small things.

Wanna bet on some ordinary things? How about a donkey speaking to Baalam. A basket-case of a baby floating down the Nile to be found by just the right daughter of Pharaoh, so that he could accomplish great things 40 years later. Or a shepherd boy & a slingshot up against the mighty giant with armor & a sword. One thrown stone; one fallen giant. David smiled. The people gasped. And God said, "Told ya."

Other subtle things. The still, small voice. The deep stirring of the heart.

And God has a way of favoring the small beginnings. The socially unimportant for whom he seeks justice. The widow whose mite was worth more than all the exalted & announced giving of the Pharisees. Eleven disciples that turned the world upside down. An old, childless couple with nothing but a promise of a nation from a yet unseen kid. A manger with 2 young teenagers, & an insignificant town was blessed with the Invasion of God into human history.

In fact, I don't think God likes the Big & Showy. Every time there is Big & Showy, people get involved, show themselves off with the 2x4 in their eyes, & just get in the way of God. The Pharisee on the street corner announcing his prayers & his work for God --- he has his reward, says Jesus. And all those rules those Big & Showy Godslingers like to force on everyone to make sure the small, inner attitude is forgotten --- typical of man; unheard of with God. When Christ spent time with the Down-&-Out instead of the Up-&-In, the Godslingers cried foul. How can anything good come out of partying with those people? They are not believers; don't' wash their hands; don't keep the rules; don't attend church; don't do the right things; don't ... the list just keeps going.

But God looks not at the Big & Showy Rule Book. In fact, I don't think God likes rules. God said he doesn't want Rule Keepers but Heart Followers who love justice & mercy & actually help folks. It's too small a matter to keep rules; that is what Pharisees do --- make the rules so everyone knows what to do & that makes everyone think they are righteous. But that is not what Jesus said: Unless your righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees ... (MATT 5:20).

It is far too easy to keep rules than to live the attitude.

It is too easy to compel behavior than to change lives. Come to think of it, Christ never tried to do the Big Thing & make any laws; change gov't; become a policy advisor to a political leader. In fact, Jesus didn't get involved with the Big Thing of politics at all. None of the disciples did either. No, it was the small things that changed lives --- feeding the poor; helping the homeless; demanding justice for everyone regardless of status or affiliation; laying down his life because the Pharisees didn't like it when the Rule Book Theology was challenged.

When we try to make it too big, we mess it up.

Yeah. Small things. Big results. What a concept. What a God.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Faith, Politics, & the Corruption of Both

Peter Suderman brings out the tired, contorted argument about faith, saying that if one is a real Christian, then he/she should be trying to implement Christian dogma into personal life & in the legal code.’s always struck as strange when people argue that Christians have every right to their beliefs, and that those beliefs ought to be firmly respected — but that in politics, those beliefs ought to be kept to oneself. For many Christians, it’s integral to their faith that every part of their life, including their work, be comported in accordance with their religious beliefs. The idea that one ought to turn off or conveniently ignore his or her faith when participating in public life is anathema to many devout believers, and when proponents of a purely secular politics suggest that believers should be able to do that without compromising their faith, they misunderstand the entire nature of religious belief. What the most ardent secularists end up saying is, "I’ll respect your beliefs — provided you never act upon them around me."

Peter, I think you're missing the point like an F22 Raptor going right over your head. You can do whatever you want in regards to your faith in your life. But when you want to compel others to conform to your beliefs & use the legal code to force that behavior, you have become a Godslinger: a modern day Pharisee with pious sounding words but is nothing more than a revisiting of the Pharisees.

The issue here is that some folks just can't stand it when others don't hold the same religious view. I'm not talking about evangelism or discipleship. No, those are things that change people internally. But when that religious conviction is forced upon others, the democratic process becomes another avenue of religious wars & theological wranglings, the very thing our Founders saw in Europe & in the colonies --- & they decided to stop it.

This is not a question of "is there a God;" or "is Jesus the only way;" or whatever theological question one wants to raise. No, this is a question about whether gov't should give favoritism to any faith & that faith's teachings.

Now I could go into the way our Baptist forefathers handled this, even talking about how John Leland dropped out of the election against James Madison on the promise that Madison would initiate the Baptistic principle of "separation of church & state" as a political reality. I could. But I won't. Most folks don't know about it, but they really don't care either, from what I've learned.

Godslingers --- modern day Pharisees who are more concerned about making & keeping rules than in impacting lives. Fundamentalism has shown it is no respecter of religion or nation. It has one goal & that is control. Add God to their side & there is nothing they won't do in the name of faith to coerce righteous behavior.

We need to realize the importance of why we hold the separation of church & state as a =political= reality. Try these:

1) It protects the church from the state. --- Corrupt politicians love to use the power of faith to manipulate the church to do its political Will, even an evil one. History is replete with those examples.

2) It protects the state from the church. --- Corrupt churchmen love to use the power of faith to manipulate the state to do the churchmen's Will, even an evil one. History is replete with those examples.

3) It protects the liberty of conscience from church & state collusion. --- The danger is a faith or political minority that is out of favor with both the church & the state can be doubly persecuted when they act in concert to wipe out an religious minority.

4) It protects the individual states from the Federal Gov't. --- Without the separation of church & state, no individual state can be compelled to act on the religious dictates of anyone politician in Washington. At the very least, the 1st Amendment refuses any national church.

5) It protects society from the requirement to support a faith via the Sword. --- The power to tax is the power to control. As long as there is separation of church & state, gov't is not allowed to use tax money to give special treatment to any religion. Madison's Remonstrance was very clear on this matter, for if 3 pence can support a general faith today, tomorrow it will be a particular church, & before long, a certain pastor or religious idea.

6) We've been down the road of melding church & state before --- Without exception, every nation/civilization that has melded faith & gov't, has ended up persecuting everyone, conscience is violated, & both faith & gov't become unbearable.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Kid's Clothes & Women's Smiles

I saw this today. In fact, I've seen it a gazillion times but it never dawned on me until this afternoon.

Why is it that when 2 or more women are together & they see baby clothes, they just get all giddy & start smiling & laughing &
gooing & gahing. I mean they can't help but smile. They gush smiles all over the place.

Today I worked the Rotary Club Overstock Clothing Sale. It's a neat idea. We take clothing from a charity clothing warehouse & sell it in our area, splitting the proceeds with the clothing charity.

Any who
... the women that came in had themselves a Good Ol' Time at the table with the baby-to-toddler sized stuff. You would have thought they were looking at a new transmission for a '67 Mustang. All those smiles --- & not a camera anywhere around.


Guys see the same outfit. Think of the same kid. Guys don't start a flowing river of smiles. Guys think of the necessity of clothes & the cost to our wallet. Women --- they just smile. And the bigger the smile the more they are willing to pay for the outfit.

I just don't get it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

History of American Christmas

For some reason, people have some really strange ideas about Christmas. Some folks think it is a Pagan holiday. Others believe it to be a uniquely Christian event. Neither are true & both are correct. Fact is, Christmas is a relatively new event in the US, with the secular celebrations not beginning until just after the close of the Civil War & the religious celebrations not until the late 19th century. In other words, when someone says we've "always celebrated Christmas in America," they really don't know what they are talking about.

The religious underpinnings of Christmas go back to Pagan origins with all sorts of festivities & emblems, many eventually incorporated into the modern celebration. (Click here for a link that discusses some of the Christmas emblems we have today. Click here for a brief history on the religious aspects that have blended together to comprise our modern celebration.) When someone passes along the God spam that talks about all the representations of Christ that are in the Christmas tree .... uh, no. Not true. Someone just made that up & passed it along. (Here's a reference that attempts to relate the seasonal emblems to Christianity, most of which are just bunk, since those emblems originated not with Christianity at all.)

We've all heard that the Roman festivals were eventually adapted into Christian celebrations under Constantine. True, Constantine needed the rising Christian population to fight his battles & the struggling Christians readily accepted the power that came from official endorsement. So the Pagan aspects became Christianized.

Through the middle ages, the Catholic Church expanded the Christmas celebration & other Pagan celebrations were assimilated.

Then came the Presbyterians. And the Puritans.

Finally, there came Cromwell.

The Presbyterians in Scotland & the Puritans (the same ones that came to America) completely rejected the celebration of Christmas. They called it a sinful & heretical idea that was nothing more than idolatry. In fact, Presbyterians in Scotland banned Christmas celebrations & those who observed the day were met with swift & severe punishment for their sins against God.
(Link.) It wasn't until the 1950s that Scottish Presbyterians removed the ban.

Cromwell became Lord Protector of England & with his Puritan forces banned the festival of Christmas in 1645.

Those same Puritans came the New World to escape the persecution of the Anglican & Catholic church, both of which celebrated Christmas. So when they came to America, Christmas was made illegal, with penalties imposed by the judge & the church, usually one in the same. The nativity, in particular, was believed to be the gross sin of idolatry. (Link)

So for most of the Colonies, Christmas was spent in work, not worship. (Link.)

Christmas was celebrated in a few areas of Colonial America, mainly where the Catholics & Anglicans had strongholds. Still, those were small & only religious in nature & were kept to the church, never spilling over into the community at large. In fact, George Washington even attacked a group of Hessians on Christmas day since he knew they would still be hung over from their celebration & the Patriot troops didn't regard Christmas as anything special, rejecting both Papist & English tradition. Even Congress was in session on Christmas Day doing the day-to-day work as normal. To the Colonists, Christmas was just another day.(Link.)

Like the rest of the colonies, Christmas in GA wasn't a big deal. The Congregationalist missionaries among the Cherokees at New Echota didn't regard Christmas with any significance, though the Moravians did make quite the party. (Link.)

In 1819, Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon,
gent., a collection of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house, that were based on "ancient customs." It was all made up, of course. But the idea began to take hold & gradually people began to have parties & give gifts to the kids. Even then, there was no relating the birth of Christ with the secular event. It as just a few parties & a few kids' gifts "like they do in England."(Link.)

Mostly Christmas was just a sparse religious event among the few Episcopalians & Catholics. There would be a few nativity scenes in the Catholic churches & a special mass, but that was it. Until the Civil War, the overwhelming majority of Americans didn't do anything special with Christmas, not even exchanging gifts or going to church.

The Civil War changed a lot of things & Christmas was no exception. More people in contact with each other meant learning new ideas. The idea of a winter party gained some acceptance & soon the thought of taking a winter break from the long hours in industrial plants swept the nation. In 1870, President US Grant made Christmas, Thanksgiving, 4th of July & New Year's Day official Federal holidays to accommodate family time, all completely secular & all without pay. (Link.)
By 1893, all states & territories had followed suit & made Xmas a secular holiday. (Link.)

As Christmas became more practiced, the religious connotations emerged & by the 1890s, Christmas took on a uniquely Christian overtone in America. Still, there were two distinct celebrations: one religious & one secular, with all faiths & no faiths getting in on the parties.

It is interesting to note that prior to 1945, there are no Supreme Court cases regarding Christmas. None. It is not until after WW II ended & the erosion of Xian hegemony that people began to have disputes. After all, until the 1890s, Christmas wasn't even celebrated. During the next 50 years, the majority Christian faith adopted & adapted the Christmas season. Before long, those majority religious ideas were clashing with the secular ideas, other religious ideas & legal principles And that meant lawsuits. (Link to some legal info on Christmas.)

Today, Santa is the premier secular Christmas symbol, first appearing in 1821 & widely accepted by 1897 with the classic, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. That did it. When kids expect presents, they get them & the modern secular Christmas was born. Today, Christmas begins a few days before Thanksgiving & lasts until the final college bowl game sometime after New Years. Of course, Christmas is celebrated all over the world in its secular form, in all nations & of all faiths. Yes, even in Muslim nations, the secular Christmas is celebrated.

The religious aspects of Christmas have certainly changed over the years. Christmas used to be viewed as sinful & something unholy by most Americans. Nativity scenes even 150 years ago -- would get you thrown in jail & kicked out of the church. Today, things are much different ... well, maybe not in some parts of the nation. Say anything about separation of church & state & ... whew.

No matter how one worships or chooses not to worship, it is entirely a matter of conscience & conviction, a right protected by the Constitution. Yet, we would be greatly amiss to say that our nation has always celebrated Christmas. That is false. Christmas celebration is a relatively new phenomenon, only having been around for roughly 110 years or so, & even then with many different meanings than what we ascribe today.
For some more info on Xmas traditions & their history, here's another link.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Baseball Logo Caskets?

I am not sure if this delves into the tacky, the funny, or the plain weird. Somewhere on the scale of "Lemme think about this" is the story I found in the Boston Globe for the serious baseball fan --- I mean the to die for fan.

A Boston Red Sox logo on casket.

For the serious fan only, of course.

My first thought was this is about the tackiest thing I've ever seen. It is just not appropriate.

But I thought about it. Thought some more. For some folks, it would be exactly what the person would want. Maybe there was a serious fan. Ever been in a restaurant after a University of GA football victory? Those people are beyond serious about their love for their college football. Granted, some folks would get this sort of casket out of devotion to their beloved team. Others would get it because it is the Redneck thing to do & they wouldn't give it a second thought.

Then there are those few folks who ... well ... they just have a sense of humor. These are the folks that are always thinking of ways to get folks to laughing or dreaming up some mischief. Not mean. Sometimes annoying. Can even get obnoxious. But everyone knows they just have a love for life & a passion for the human experience of fun.

To be honest, I can think of a lot of folks who would want a casket like this just to make sure the crowd had a good time at the funeral. Wouldn't even put it past 'em to have in their Will that there be an open bar, a DJ, & all sorts of finger foods --- to lighten the mood.

I remember one funeral I did in South Carolina. The lady had worked in a mill her whole life & she told me that when she passed, she wanted the funeral at night. 7PM. She insisted that it wasn't fair to make people choose between taking time off for a funeral & paying respects to the family. She went on to say that she didn't like to make those choices & she wasn't going to put that choice on others.

Actually, it was a packed house. I see the wisdom in her thinking. The next morning was the burial service with just the immediate family. Really a "good" funeral, if that is permissible to say.

I've officiated funerals where there were funny stories related about the deceased. Those, I think, are usually the better funerals as it is a celebration of life, not a grieving of death.

So I am not so sure what to make of the Official Major League Baseball's casket. It's weird. It's tacky. Certainly different.

But really. Who cares? Life is too short to not enjoy it. Maybe death should be a bit of fun too. Your mileage may vary.