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Terry Mattingly's weekly column on religion and the media.
Updated: 7 hours 48 sec ago

Complex facts on persecution hiding behind that Muslim Ban hashtag

Monday, February 13, 2017

The late 1980s were dark times for Jews trying to flee persecution in the fading Soviet Union.

Finally, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) acted, adding language to a massive 1990 appropriations bill to offer special assistance to refugees in persecuted religious minorities. Year after year, the Lautenberg amendment has been extended to provide a lifeline to Jews, Baha'is, Christians and others fleeing persecution in Iran, the former Soviet bloc and parts of Asia.

"There's nothing new about the United States taking religion into account when it's clear that refugees are part of persecuted minority groups," said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. He also teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

"Tragically, religion is part of the refugee crises we see around the world right now and that certainly includes what's happening in Syria and Iraq."

Thus, Tadros and a few other religious-freedom activists paid close attention -- during the #MuslimBan firestorm surrounding President Donald Trump's first actions on immigration -- when they saw language in the executive order that was more nuanced than the fiery rhetoric in the headlines.

In social media, critics were framing everything in reaction to this blunt presidential tweet: "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!" Trump also told the Christian Broadcasting Network: "If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States. … If you were a Muslim, you could come in."

However, the wording of the executive order proposed a different agenda, stating that the "Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

The New York Times, however, summarized this part of the order by saying it "gives preferential treatment to Christians who try to enter the United States from majority-Muslim nations."

The hottest debates, of course, focused on seven Muslim-majority lands -- Syria, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen -- designated as "countries of concern" by Obama administration security experts.

It's crucial that while Christians face brutal oppression in those lands they are not the only minorities being targeted, said Tadros, in a telephone interview. Anyone who has followed the chaos unleashed by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups has seen reports about the persecution facing Yazidis, Alawites, Baha'is, Druze and believers in other faiths, as well as the region's ancient Christian communities. Shia Muslims often face persecution by majority Sunni Muslims.

During the previous administration, Secretary of State John Kerry used the strongest possible language under international law to describe this crisis. In March, 2016, he told reporters that "Daesh" -- the Arabic term for the Islamic State -- is "responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shi'ite Muslims. … Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions, in what it says, in what it believes and what it does."

However, refugees from religious groups facing extermination have few options when looking at the map. Can Yazidis -- called "devil worshippers" by radical Muslims -- flee into other Muslim lands? Are Assyrians safe in Kurdish territories? Can Christians flee into Turkey, which continues to oppress its own ancient Christian community? Can devastated minority-faith families return to the burned-out shells of their Nineveh Plain homes?

Meanwhile, noted Tadros, believers in all of these religious minorities face persecution in the very United Nations refugee camps in which they are forced to survive in order to climb the bureaucratic ladder toward approval for immigration.

"These camps are a reflection of the cultures that surround them," he said. "The hatreds and divisions inside these communities do not simply disappear when these people become refugees and head into these camps. …

"Look at it this way: Can you afford to go to church on Sunday morning in a refugee camp when you know that doing this will identify you as a Christian and place the lives of your children at risk?"

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Quran in the cathedral: A symbolic window into soul of multicultural England

Monday, February 6, 2017

In Christian tradition, the Epiphany feast marks the end of the 12-day Christmas season and celebrates the revelation -- to the whole world -- that Jesus is the Son of God.

Thus, it was highly symbolic when a Muslim participating in an Epiphany rite at St. Mary's (Episcopal) Cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland, chanted verses from the Quran, Surah 19, in which the infant Jesus proclaims:

"Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet. … Peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!" The text then adds: "Such was Jesus, son of Mary: a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. It befitteth not Allah that He should take unto Himself a son."

Cathedral leaders took to social media to hail this as a lovely moment. But in the Church of England, one of the chaplains of Queen Elizabeth II was dismayed by what many would consider an act of blasphemy -- a reading of this clear Islamic denial of Jesus being the Son of God.

The Glasgow rite was justified as "a way of building bridges and a way of educating people," the Rev. Gavin Ashenden told the BBC.

Nevertheless, he argued that it was wrong to insert such a reading into "the Holy Eucharist and particularly a Eucharist whose main intention is to celebrate Christ the word made flesh come into the world. … To choose the reading they chose doubled the error. Of all passages you might have read likely to cause offence, that was one of the most problematic."

After hearing from Buckingham Palace, Ashenden resigned as one the queen's chaplains. Thus, he surrendered his unique status in a land in which the Church of England has been weakened by almost every cultural trend, yet retains a unique niche in the national psyche.

This was, Ashenden said, a matter of personal principle and ancient doctrine. He also noted that he asked cathedral leaders to apologize because "I think Western clergy in their comfort have responsibility towards other Christians who suffer for their faith. That's part of being the body of Christ."

That kind of language can get a priest in trouble in today's multicultural England.

"They might have pushed me. They didn't. But we agreed that the things that I wanted to say, about the Gospel, about the faith, were becoming sources of embarrassment to the establishment," he said, in a recent "Anglican Unscripted" podcast.

"It's not easy for people outside England to understand that the queen is not just a person, she's an idea. … She is an office. So, behind the office, you have bureaucrats and the bureaucrats have views. The bureaucrats can be leant on by other bureaucrats in other palaces or offices. So the bureaucrats were getting increasingly uncomfortable, and not just with this issue of the Quran being read in the cathedral."

If anything, he said, this collision with Islam's rising presence in the United Kingdom and Europe is a sign that doctrinal traditionalists now face challenges on issues other than marriage, family and sexuality. In this case, it's telling that a public defense of the Incarnation of Jesus as Son of God -- a statement of faith at the heart of creedal Christianity -- created so much public controversy.

Reached by email, Ashenden said he understands that this kind of doctrinal clash may seem picky and unimportant to the growing number of unbelievers in this secular age in Western culture. But doctrine matters to traditional Christians and Muslims who do not believe all religions are the same. It would have been impossible, he noted, to read a biblical passage about the divinity of Jesus during Friday prayers in a major British mosque.

Yes, public battles over sexuality make bigger headlines. Nevertheless, Ashenden said that this Epiphany dispute -- as a "creedal issue" pitting the Quran against the Gospels -- was important. It offered a revealing window into larger disputes in which advocates of "relativism and syncretism" are colliding with the "objectivity of Christian claims about the Universe and God," he said.

 "Our culture doesn't like objective differences," he said. "They require people to make choices. … That is embarrassing."

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Searching for 'subtweets' in prayers offered during the Trump inauguration rites

Monday, January 30, 2017

While the Beltway establishment gathered on the U.S. Capitol's West side with legions of Middle Americans in "Make America Great Again" hats, the House of Representatives approved the final pre-inauguration details.

The quick session opened with a prayer by the chaplain, Father Patrick J. Conroy.

"God of the universe, we give you thanks for giving us another day. You are the father of us all, and your divine providence has led this nation in the past," he said, before offering prayers for "your servant, Donald Trump." The Jesuit prayed for the new president to "see things as you see things" and strive to hold "all of us to higher standards of equal justice, true goodness and peaceful union."

Conroy closed with a poignant prayer for the blunt and ever-controversial New York City billionaire: "We pray that he become his best self."

Add that to the file of January 20 prayers to analyze.

As always with inauguration ceremonies -- the high-church rites of American civil religion -- references to God were almost as common as those to the nation's new leader. This ceremony included six clergy offering their own chosen prayers and scriptures and was framed by private and public worship services.

Journalists and activists then read between the lines seeking messages aimed at Trump and his fans, as well as at God. The bottom line: In cyberspace, combatants now "subtweet" their adversaries, offering subtle criticisms behind their social-media backs. This inauguration offered plenty of opportunities for participants to engage in some theological subtweeting. The eyebrow-raising messages included:

* At a rite in which the ever-confident author of "The Art of the Deal" became president, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York read words from the Book of Wisdom, including: "Indeed, though one might be perfect among mortals, if wisdom, which comes from you, be lacking, we count for nothing."

* The Rev. Franklin Graham added an improvised blessing that resembled a form of divine endorsement, noting: "Mr. President, in the Bible, rain is a sign of God's blessing. And it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform" to give the inaugural address.

* The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, had previously criticized Trump's rhetoric on Hispanics and immigration. Thus, was he sending a message as he read from a modern translation of the Sermon on the Mount?

The reading included: "God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy."

* Pope Francis took part, with a message to Trump that went viral online. Was there embedded criticism here?

"At a time when our human family is beset by grave humanitarian crises demanding far-sighted and united political responses, I pray that your decisions will be guided by the rich spiritual and ethical values that have shaped the history of the American people and your nation's commitment to the advancement of human dignity and freedom worldwide."

Then the message concluded: "Under your leadership, may America's stature continue to be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need who, like Lazarus, stand before our door."

The president, of course, included religious themes in his address, including, during a salute to the military, a promise that "most importantly, we are protected by God." At the end of his address, Trump offered these ringing words.

"Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And yes, together, we will make America great again. ... God bless you. And God bless America."

For one veteran evangelical communications professional, that final phrase sounded more like a command, as opposed to a prayer. It helps, said James A. Smith, Sr., to remember that song lyrics state: "Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, as we raise our voices in a solemn prayer: God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her, through the night with a light from above."

Thus, Smith tweeted: "Mr. President, we pray for God's protection; we don't presume upon it. #Inauguration"

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Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

NEW YORK -- The drama unfolds in a Gothic sanctuary in a limbo zone between heaven and hell.

In this new Off-Broadway play -- "Martin Luther On Trial" -- Lucifer requests new proceedings against the Catholic monk turned Protestant reformer, with St. Peter acting as judge and Luther's wife, former nun Katharina von Bora, as defense counsel.

The first witness is Adolf Hitler, who hails Luther as a "great German patriot" who saved Germany "by uniting all Germans against a common enemy -- the pope. … Luther's 95 Theses freed the German conscience from the clutches of Rome, creating space for a new moral system, one that would be distinctly German."

Luther's wife shouts: "Objection. Luther wasn't a nationalist. He wanted people to follow Christ first, nation second."

St. Peter sadly replies: "Overruled."

So the debate begins. Luther's defenders stress his struggles against worldly Medieval church structures, his work translating the Bible into German and his messages stressing that salvation was found through repentance and faith. It was a world-changing event when, on Oct. 31, 1517, the theology professor posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany.

The Devil says Luther's goal was to "Reform the Christian church. His result: fracturing it into a thousand pieces." Luther's work also unleashed a violent storm of change in Europe. Facing public failure, as well as success, the aging Luther lashed out at Rome and the Jews in language and logic later recycled by Nazi leaders.

"There is the mad genius thing here. Not in the sense that Luther ever went mad, but there were times when he gave into his anger," said Chris Cragin-Day, who co-wrote the play with Max McLean, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts, which is producing "Martin Luther On Trial."

Certainly, a "big idea" of this play -- one of many cultural events worldwide marking the Reformation's 500th anniversary -- is that "not all heroes are infallible. Not only that, they are not heroic all the time," said Cragin-Day (who is one of my faculty colleagues at The King's College in New York).

"Luther was a tormented man, in the end. The Thirty Years' War was coming and he knew it. … He knew that many people would die because of what happened with some of his work. That's a heavy burden to bear, even for a genius."

That's the painful reality at the heart of "Martin Luther On Trial," which will run in New York through January 29, before a summer U.S. tour. The trial arguments rush by, driven by passages from Luther's many books -- yanked from a stack that dramatically towers to the stage's ceiling. The reformer's brilliant "Commentary on Romans" is featured, but so is "Of the Jews and their Lies."

At one point, the audience hears Hitler sing a verse from Luther's great hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," before he condemns the theologian as a weakling "riddled with self-loathing" who ultimately rejected the scientific logic of progress.

"Faith is an unenlightened cop out," concludes Hitler. "Luther condemned the Jews because they rejected Christ. That's a stupid, ignorant reason. I killed the Jews in an effort to progress humanity. … Which is the higher calling?"

Other witnesses summoned to the trial include the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., C.S. Lewis, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche and, in one dizzying blitz, public figures ranging from Henry VIII to Steve Jobs, from Ayn Rand to Jane Austen, from Walt Disney to Kim Jong-il.

The final witness -- somewhat in a daze, since he arrives from the real world -- is Pope Francis, who defends Luther, in part, by stressing that leaders must learn to face their failures.

The Devil shouts back: "How the hell can you, of all people, sit there and defend him? … Martin Luther is the Roman Catholic Church's ultimate enemy!"

Pope Francis replies: "That would be you, actually."

St. Peter and Francis finally affirm the spiritual humility in Luther's last words on his deathbed, scribbled on a napkin: "We are all beggars, this is true."

No one condemned Luther's failures more than Luther, said Cragin-Day.

"Luther cried out for mercy," she said. "That word -- 'beggars' -- is so specific. It captures the fact that God's grace is completely beyond our control. For Luther, that was the final judgment."

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The real man behind that sympathetic priest on M*A*S*H

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

In the "Dear sis" episode of M*A*S*H, the frustrated Catholic chaplain at the military hospital camp near the Korean front lines writes a candid letter to his sister, a nun.

"I'm almost desperate to be useful, sis," writes Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy. "No one comes to confession. I have no one to grant absolution to, no one to give comfort to, no one who even wants to bend my ear for 10 minutes."

Later, a patient attacks a nurse and slugs the priest. By reflex, Mulcahy -- a former Catholic-school boxing coach -- punches back. The gentle chaplain is despondent afterwards and doubts that he is making a difference.

"I'm Christ's representative," he tells a surgeon. "Suffer the little children to come unto me. Do unto others. ... I'm not supposed to just say that stuff, I'm supposed to do it."

The actor behind this unique character was William Christopher, who from 1972-83 portrayed one of the most sympathetic priests in pop-culture history.

Here's the bottom line, according to Greg Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who now serves as a permanent Catholic deacon in Brooklyn: "For a time, he played the most visible Catholic priest on American television -- arguably the most recognizable man of the cloth since Archbishop Fulton Sheen."

Christopher, 84, died of cancer on December 31 and is survived by his wife of 60 years and their two sons. His M*A*S*H co-stars hailed him as a professional who -- to an unusual degree -- disappeared into this singular role in a show that, in reruns, remains popular with millions.

Alan Alda tweeted: "His kind strength, his grace and gentle humor weren't acted. They were Bill."

Loretta Swit released a statement calling him "TV's quintessential padre" and added: "Our dear Bill and his goodness are a great argument for there being a heaven. … It was the most perfect casting ever known. He was probably responsible for more people coming back to the church."

Few viewers realized that Christopher grew up in a devout Methodist home in Evanston, Ill. He graduated from Wesleyan University, where he learned Greek. His great-grandfather was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher and some family members thought Christopher would be ordained.

"I wish my grandmother had lived to see me play Father Mulcahy. I think it would probably have made her happy in a funny sort of way," Christopher told me in 1983, as he prepared for a M*A*S*H sequel.

To prepare for his signature role, Christopher interviewed priests to "help get the tone right." Finally, he created a Los Angeles-area panel of priests to help him deal with questions about how a Jesuit would have handled some rites, and tricky war-zone issues, in the era before the Second Vatican Council.

The goal was to show respect for the priesthood, while avoiding what he called "embarrassed priest situations and celibacy jokes." It was especially sobering to learn how to handle rushed deathbed confessions and Last Rites.

"I tried to humanize Mulcahy as much as possible, although I knew there was a certain danger there since he is a priest. But I felt there was an even greater danger if we let him turn into a stereotype," he explained.

In the M*A*S*H finale, a shell blast leaves Mulcahy deaf. Struggling with depression, he urgently prays: "Dear Lord, I know there must be a reason for this, but what is it? I answered the call to do your work. I've devoted my life to it, and now, how am I supposed to do it? What good am I now? What good is a deaf priest? I pray to you to help me, and every day I get worse. Are you deaf, too?"

The chaplain faced doubts, but never lost faith and he kept growing. In the classic "Mulcahy's War" episode, he slips away to the front in an attempt to understand the combat experiences of soldiers. He ends up performing an emergency tracheotomy, using a pocketknife and a ballpoint pen.

This is, said Christopher, a "priest who had been to war and and been changed by it -- forever. … What I learned was that all priests are shaped by their experiences. They live for other people. That's the reality I am trying to help viewers understand."

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Trump dominated 2016 news, but was not named Religion Newsmaker of the Year?

Monday, January 2, 2017

While Donald Trump's crusade to win the White House was the top story of 2016, journalists in the Religion News Association saluted the brash billionaire's opponents by giving their top honor to the Muslim parents who made headlines by denouncing him.

Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq, shared the Religion Newsmaker of the Year honor. The Khans made a dramatic Democratic National Convention appearance to proclaim that Trump's proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the country would be unconstitutional.

The RNA description of the annual poll's No. 1 story stressed that Trump received "strong support from white Christians, especially evangelicals. … Many were alarmed by his vilifying Muslims and illegal immigrants and his backing from white supremacists. GOP keeps majorities in Congress."

The No. 2 story continued: "Post-election assaults and vandalism target Muslims and other minorities. Some assailants cite Donald Trump's victory as validation. Critics denounce the appointment of Stephen Bannon as White House strategist over his ties to white supremacists." News related to Trump appeared in three other RNA Top 10 stories.

While white evangelical votes were crucial, I would have stressed two other religion trends linked to Trump's stunning win.

The first was captured in a mid-summer Christianity Today headline that, citing Pew Research Center polling, stated, "Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump." Pew found that more than half of white evangelicals were upset about 2016 White House options and said their aim was to defeat Hillary Clinton, not support Trump.

Election Night plot twists also showed that Clinton lost because she lacked support from Rust Belt working-class Democrats, many from Catholic, labor-union homes that twice backed President Barack Obama.

The RNA Top 10 selections did not include items linked to bitter battles over religious liberty, Obama White House orders on transgender rights or the Supreme Court opening caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. These issues were crucial in producing the strong Election Day turnout by religious conservatives.

Here's my take on the rest of the RNA Top 10:

(3) With strong support from religious activists, Standing Rock Sioux members protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they say will foul water and sacred lands.

(4) Creating new tensions with doctrinal conservatives, Pope Francis seeks -- in the apostolic exhortation "Amoris Laetitia" -- a vague, pastoral approach to Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics. He leads a symbolic Mass at the U.S.-Mexico border and tells reporters that Trump is not acting in a "Christian" manner, when calling for a wall on that border.

(5) At least 4,600 migrants are killed in shipwrecks while fleeing conflicts fueled by radicalized forms of Islam in North Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The crisis fuels tensions across Europe, including immigration policy debates before England's Brexit vote.

(6) Terrorists linked to, or inspired by, the Islamic State kill scores of civilians at airports in Istanbul and Brussels, at various German sites and in Nice, France. A terrorist killed 86 people in Nice by driving a truck through a seaside holiday crowd. Also, a suicide bomber killed 25 Copts -- mostly women and children -- during a Dec. 11 attack on worship in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, near Cairo's main cathedral.

(7) Some scholars hail the "end of white Christian America" and surveys keep showing growing secularism in the American population. Nevertheless, the former provide decisive votes for Republicans while the left-leaning "Nones," the "religiously unaffiliated," fail to provide crucial votes for Democrats.

(8) Backed by strong clergy support, #BlackLivesMatter protests continue after more police shootings of African-Americans. Religious leaders of all kinds play a prominent role in uniting communities after deadly attacks on police officers.

(9) Although white evangelicals voted Trump by a 4-1 margin, their leaders split sharply -- especially in the Southern Baptist Convention. Many evangelicals of color opposed Trump, although exit polls hinted at surprising support from Latino evangelicals. Supporters cited his pledges to oppose abortion, while opponents stressed character issues and his statements on race and immigration.

(10) Claiming allegiance to the Islamic State, gunman Omar Mateen kills 49 at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Homegrown terrorists injure dozens at a Minnesota mall, The Ohio State University and at New York-area targets.

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