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Terry Mattingly's weekly column on religion and the media.
Updated: 57 min 44 sec ago

Religious liberty, the Sexual Revolution and the importance of the 'Utah compromise'

Monday, July 25, 2016

PROVO, Utah -- From the start, the "Utah compromise" on religious liberty and key gay-rights issues had that special sex appeal that made news.

Journalists knew it was impossible to produce this 2015 Utah bill without the cooperation of leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons in the Republican-dominated state legislature. Powerful LGBT leaders were in these negotiations, as well, and endorsed the final product.

The key -- for politicians using Utah as a template -- was that both sides made important compromises, while defending their core beliefs and goals, said the church's top lawyer, at a recent Brigham Young University conference on "Religious Freedom in an Era of Social Change."

"Some may be shocked to hear this, but not all religious freedoms are equally important," said Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the LDS church. "Defenders of religious freedom have to decide what is closer to the essential core of religious freedom and what is more peripheral. To do otherwise risks weakening our defense of what is essential.

"If everything that could even loosely be considered 'religious' is treated as equally important, then effectively nothing religious is important."

Thus, the "Utah compromise" banned LGBT discrimination in housing and employment, while including explicit protections for religious organizations and their institutions, along with "carve-out" clauses protecting the beliefs of many individuals. County clerks, for example, are not required to approve gay marriages, but officials had to make other options easily available.

Wickman stressed that religious institutions must be able to defend and practice their own doctrines and traditions, selecting leaders and retaining members loyal to their faith. Believers must retain their First Amendment rights to politely share their beliefs with others, while fully participating in public life.

Recent flash points involving religious liberty and sexuality have centered on businesses operated by believers and religious institutions such as schools and social ministries, which often interact with the public, he said. Religious leaders must face reality and increase local, state and national efforts to defend the rights of believers who are doctors, lawyers, educators and small-business owners. Clashes over parental rights loom ahead, especially for those who choose to homeschool their children.

Powerful cultural forces are seeking to "characterize those with traditional beliefs as bigots," said Wickman. "The risk is that traditional believers and their religious institutions may eventually be relegated to pariah status -- officially recognized as 'equal citizens,' while in practical reality marginalized and penalized for their faith."

It's hard to believe that, as recently as 2013, coalitions of Democrats and Republicans passed religious-liberty bills in states such as Kansas and Hawaii, said law professor Brett G. Scharffs, director of the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies. Then, in 2014, major corporations began backing those who argued that bills defending religious liberty were merely shields protecting anti-LGBT forces. Political wars erupted in Indiana, Arizona and elsewhere.

Faith and sexuality are both powerful forces close to the heart of personal identity, stressed Scharffs. However, traditional believers cannot win a "zero-sum game conflict" with the sexual revolution in today's America. Thus, face-to-face efforts seeking compromise are crucial -- even as that work gets harder.

"We need strategies that will lower, rather than raise, the temperature and volume surrounding these controversies," he said. "We cannot expect the fire to be put out by people whose tools are matches and gasoline. We cannot allow the debate to be dominated by those whose primary tools are the bullhorn or math that requires us to express our ideas in 140 characters or less."

Obviously, added Wickman, pluralism is supposed to be the new American norm. The question is whether that pluralism will apply equally to all, requiring people whose lives center on radically different beliefs to find ways to live in tolerance.

The wisdom contained in the U.S. Constitution will not provide easy, automatic answers for all of these issues.

"As citizens of this nation, we have a duty to work with our fellow countrymen to find workable solutions to vexing problems -- including clashes of rights and fundamentally competing interests," said Wickman. "Making peace sometimes requires that we make compromises -- not compromises on our doctrines, beliefs or moral standards, of course, but compromises in the application of religious freedom to the practical realities of life in this diverse nation."

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Rural Methodist roots: Pat Summitt never hid her quiet, but deep, faith

Monday, July 11, 2016

Once a year, Seymour United Methodist Church held a "Laity Day" in which folks from the pews would handle all the clergy stuff one Sunday -- including the sermon.

The year was 1984, early in the Rev. Charles Maynard's decade at this fledgling congregation near Knoxville, Tenn. He already knew that one active member had a knack for motivational speaking, since she coached the University of Tennessee's Lady Vols basketball team.

"This was before she turned into 'PAT SUMMITT,' you know? For me she was just a lady at church named 'Pat,' " said Maynard, now the district superintendent of the region's Maryville District. "I asked her to speak and she said she didn't feel comfortable doing that sort of thing. …

"But the next year she said, 'Yes.' She talked about teamwork and linked everything to people having their own roles in the Body of Christ. It was all very biblical and she did a great job. I mean, she's Pat Summitt."

Things started changing after she coached the U.S. team to gold at the 1984 Olympics and the "Lady Vols started winning everything in sight," he said.

One thing didn't change. While Summitt's work demanded lots of time and travel, her family stayed as "active at church as the coach of a national powerhouse could possibly be," said Maynard. "It was pretty obvious that she had been raised in a Methodist church in rural Tennessee. It showed. Her faith went down deep."

Summitt's death at age 64, after a five-year fight with Alzheimer's disease, unleashed a national outpouring of tributes. With her intense, blue-eyed stare, she became an icon of excellence over four decades, eight national NCAA championships and 1,098 wins, the highest Division 1 total for any basketball coach -- male or female. Her athletes had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Then came the devastating 2011 diagnosis from the Mayo Clinic. Months later, in a dialogue included in "Sum It Up," her autobiography co-written with Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, Summitt was blunt.

"Sometimes I wish God hadn't given me so many issues," she said.

Jenkins replied: "What kind of issues?"

"Personal issues," said Summitt. "I guess they made me who I am. I guess they made me better. One thing I've learned. … How powerful God is."

Later in the book, Summitt said she realized that "none of us have a perfect life here on earth. … We're not here to be completely satisfied. Nor are we in command -- not even of our own bodies. We borrow, we don't own. I know that everything I've been given came as gifts from God, and he has a way of reminding us, 'This is my work.' "

Behind the scenes, Summitt endured six miscarriages before the birth of her son, Tyler, and faced divorce, after 27 years of marriage. Her body was ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis. Then came Alzheimer's disease.

As a sign of their unity, Summitt and Tyler -- active in Knoxville's giant Faith Promise Church -- were baptized together in May 2012 to "go public with their faith," according to the Pat Summitt Foundation obituary.

Tyler Summitt added: "For 64 years, my mother first built her life upon a strong relationship with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Her foundation was also built upon love of her family and of her players, and love of the fundamentals of hard work which reflected her philosophy that 'you win in life with people.' "

Anyone who worshiped and prayed with her knew that, said Maynard, who baptized Tyler as a baby. Summitt knew who she was, he said.

In another book with Jenkins, there's a scene in which the undefeated 1998 Lady Vols team, shortly before winning the championship, began singing the Gospel classic, "Love Lifted Me" in the dark on their bus.

"I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. When the master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters he lifted me. Now safe am I. Love lifted me."

"Pat wouldn't have broken out singing that hymn on her own, but she would have joyfully joined in and encouraged it," said Maynard. "She wouldn't have forced anything, but she would have embraced it.

"She was a doer of the faith, not a talker. But she wasn't hiding."



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Volume is rising in closed-door LGBTQ debates among Baptists on the left

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

If the liberal wing of Baptist life down South started naming saints, one of the first nominees would be former President Jimmy Carter.

But it's crucial to note that the man who put "born again" into the American political dictionary is Baptist, but no longer Southern Baptist. His theological views have evolved, leading to his 2000 exit from the Southern Baptist Convention. Take marriage and sex, for example.

"I think Jesus would encourage any love affair if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else, and I don't see that gay marriage damages anyone else," Carter told The Huffington Post last year.

Plenty of Baptists agree, but have not felt free to be that candid, according to Don Durham, a former leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. For 25 years the "CBF" has served as a network for Baptists on the losing side of the great Southern Baptist wars of the 1980s. Now, Durham said, the "volume has been turned up" in behind-closed-doors CBF debates about sexuality.

"It's time to have substantive and open conversations about the genuinely difficult disagreements we have over how to organize the institutional expressions of how we will relate to sisters and brothers who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or who
understand themselves as queer," wrote Durham, in an essay circulated by Baptist News Global, an independent website at the heart of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship life.

"I'm not naive. I know we will never have uniform responses to the many questions such conversations will hold -- and we don't have to. However, let's not be institutionally naive either. … There are now too many for whom our institutional expressions around LGBTQ topics are no longer tenable for us to pretend any longer that we can distract one another from that topic by focusing on all of the other things on which we agree."

It's crucial to understand that membership in the CBF is incredibly flexible and allows great freedom for individual Baptists and congregations that, to one degree or another, support its work, said Durham, reached by telephone. Many congregations in the network openly support gay marriage, in word and deed. Many others do not.

The issue is a CBF "homosexual behavior" policy. This institutional policy -- no longer linked to its website -- states in part: "As Baptist Christians, we believe that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness. … Because of this organizational value, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does this CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual."

It's hard to have an "honest, open dialogue" with LGBTQ people, "while we're stiff-arming them with this policy that just keeps pushing them away," said Durham. His essay noted that he left a key CBF job after being shouted down in a staff meeting, when he suggested that the network apologize for its stance on gay issues.

This Cooperative Baptist Fellowship struggle is similar to challenges facing many religious flocks in an era of rapid change, including the rising number of Americans who reject all denominational ties, said Baptist historian Nathan Finn, dean of the Union University School of Theology and Missions.

The CBF network, he added, is especially interesting since it links many who embrace the post-denominational age, others whose beliefs would be "right at home in liberal mainline Protestantism" and "progressive evangelicals" who continue to stress evangelism and missions.

"The era of safe, generic Protestantism is gone," said Finn, a theological conservative. "Small-o Christian orthodoxy is now considered weird and offensive in America. … At this point you have to decide what you believe and take a stand. That's the moment of truth the CBF is facing."

Indeed, many people are convinced, stressed Durham, that changes on LGBTQ issues will "scare lots of people and they'll leave," taking their checkbooks with them.

 "Well, people are already leaving," he said. "This issue is so important to many young Baptists that are still in the CBF, as well as to many who have left. We will not be able to avoid this conversation forever."

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It's tricky: Donald Trump tries, once again, to nail down a personal Christian testimony

Monday, June 27, 2016

It was a tricky question when Jesus asked his disciples: "Whom say ye that I am?"

This was still a tricky question when conservative columnist Cal Thomas posed a version of it to Donald Trump, while interviewing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

"You have confessed that you are a Christian," said Thomas.

Trump responded: "And I have also won much evangelical support."

"Yes, I know that," said Thomas. "You have said you never felt the need to ask for God's forgiveness, and yet repentance for one's sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?"

Trump responded: "I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won't have to be asking for much forgiveness. As you know, I am Presbyterian and Protestant. … We have tremendous support from the clergy. I think I will be doing very well during the election with evangelicals and with Christians. … I'm going to treat my religion, which is Christian, with great respect and care."

Thomas repeated the question: "Who do you say Jesus is?"

Trump tried again: "Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind."

For the record, here is St. Peter's response: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."

That isn't political language and people in pews and pulpits know that politicos fear being that blunt. Still, in a week in which Trump courted nervous religious leaders -- primarily in a closed-door United In Purpose forum in New York City -- it was obvious many were still struggling to discern if he could be trusted on issues crucial to millions of potential voters.

No one expects a "canned evangelical-sounding answer" when Trump faces religious questions, stressed historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, co-founder of the Gospel Coalition's "Evangelical History" website. The key is whether Trump can use personal language that rings true.

"If Trump was a believer, they'd want him to say, 'Jesus is the Son of God, and my Lord and Savior. He died on the cross so I could be forgiven of my sins,' " said Kidd. "I don't think he could say anything in evangelical-talk that wouldn't sound fake."

Before the New York gathering, Trump supporter Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, stressed -- once again -- that believers are seeking a political partner, not a pastor.

Trump "doesn't expect you to agree with him on every issue or to endorse or condone his style of leadership," Falwell told Time magazine. "If we all wait for the perfect candidate who has the demeanor of our pastors and agrees with us on every issue, including our personal theological beliefs, then we may all sit at home on election day for the rest of our lives."

The key issues? Trump offered a litany of pledges at a recent "Faith & Freedom Coalition" meeting, starting with, "We want to uphold the sanctity and dignity of life."

Trump punched on: "Marriage and family as the building block of happiness and success -- so important. … Religious freedom, the right of people of faith to freely practice their faith -- so important. … The importance of faith to United States society. It's really the people who go to church, who work and work in religious charities -- so important. … We will respect and defend Christian Americans."

At the New York forum, Trump made yet another attempt to state his faith-based credentials, according to recordings posted on Facebook by Bishop E.W. Jackson, of Exodus Faith Ministries in Virginia.

"Christianity -- I owe so much to it in so many ways," he told the audience. "I also owe it for, frankly, standing here, because the evangelical vote was mostly gotten by me. If you remember, I went to South Carolina, and I was going to be beat -- very heavy evangelical state -- and I was going to be beaten by (Ted) Cruz or somebody because he had a very strong evangelical vote, and I ended up getting massive majorities of the evangelical vote."

 The bottom line, said Trump: "I am so on your side. I am a tremendous believer."

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Bible Belt Catholic: From Central Texas to Tulsa, his homemade bishop's staff in hand

Monday, June 20, 2016

When the newly appointed bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa visited his future residence, one of the first things he checked out was the garage.

Father David Konderla didn't need extra room for a boat or an off-road vehicle or some other tie to the Heart of Texas ranch country that has long been his home. He needed room for his woodworking power tools.

The priest has crafted four crosiers -- the gracefully hooked shepherd's staff that symbolizes a bishop's pastoral work with his flock -- for bishops in Texas and New Mexico. He recently finished one for himself, preparing for the June 29 rites in Oklahoma in which he will be raised to the episcopate.

"I'm sure I don't know everything there is to know about Oklahoma, but it's a place that has a lot in common with Texas when it comes to how people see life," said Konderla, the second of 12 children, and the oldest son, in a Polish-Irish-German family in Bryan, Texas. The future bishop worked as a machinist for seven years after finishing high school, before entering seminary.

While people outside the Sunbelt think about Catholics in Texas, they think about the state's vibrant and growing Latino culture. That's appropriate, he said, but it's also important to remember the legacy of European immigrants in Central Texas from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Now those two historic streams of Catholic life are blending with Catholics from Africa, Asia, South America and around the world, as well as converts to the faith.

Bible Belt states like Texas and Oklahoma are changing, but much remains familiar, said Konderla. Today, they are nearly a million more Catholics in Texas than Southern Baptists. However, only 4 percent of Tulsa is Catholic.

"I expect to be working with many people who are really Catholics, but they just don't know it yet," he said. "We're talking about a part of America in which there's a lot of life and growth in Protestantism itself, as well as among Catholics. There are plenty of people here who are committed to the basics of the faith, but there are also lots of people in churches that have left behind some of the authoritative teachings of historic Christianity. … Some of the foundations are shifting down here."

It was not a surprise, for many insiders, when Konderla was selected as a bishop. He is, after all, the fourth priest from the thriving Diocese of Austin that the Vatican has raised to the episcopate since 2010. Also, Pope Francis has selected several former campus ministers as bishops.

Thus, it's significant that Tulsa's new bishop is the second leader of the giant St. Mary's Catholic Center across from Texas A&M University to be moved into the hierarchy, after Bishop Michael Sis of San Angelo, Texas. Catholic blogger Rocco Palmo has called this particular congregation in Bryan a "vocations factory," since it has regularly produced a dozen or so seminarians or members of religious orders a year.

Even more startling, considering wider American Catholic trends, is the fact that the parish offers Confession 10 times a week, as well as by appointment. The campus ministry has 50 full- and part-time staff members and standing-room only flocks in weekday Masses are not a surprise.

When Konderla carved and shaped his own crosier, he included wood from the Water Oak trees removed when the parish built a larger facility dedicated to student ministry. His episcopal ring -- crafted by his youngest brother -- includes gold from the wedding ring of his mother Ann, who died in 2012.

Whatever Sunbelt Catholics do in the future, he said, will have to be true to the church's teachings in the past.

"You have to have a foundation you can build on," said Konderla. "If everything is up for grabs, how do you live your life? There are things that are true, even if they are hard truths. …

"When some people hear those words -- 'hard truths' -- they think about truths that are hard and unyielding and constantly putting other things down. That isn't what people are looking for. They are looking for truths that are 'hard' in the sense that they are firm and can hold weight. They are truths you can build on."

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Baylor's clash of two religions -- Christian faith and big-time football

Monday, June 13, 2016

For half a century or more, journalists seeking insights on religion news in America have given a consistent answer to the question, "Who you gonna call?"

The proper response, of course, is "Martin E. Marty."

So it's no surprise that the 88-year-old historian -- author of 60-plus books -- has weighed in on the media storm surrounding Baylor University's Christian identity, big-time college football and the painful challenges facing educators wrestling with sexual abuse, alcohol and the law.

The key, according to Marty, is that Baylor is involved in a clash between two religions -- Christianity and football.

"But isn't football just football, a branch of athletics, classifiable as entertainment and capitalist enterprise?", he asked, in a "Sightings" essay for the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Marty's answer: "No." Anyone with a good world-religions textbook or encyclopedia will recognize the characteristics that define "religious" activities, he added.

Is this activity an "ultimate concern" for those involved? Put a checkmark there.

Does football provide "ceremonial reinforcement," adding a kind of "metaphysical depth" to life? Check and check. Are deep emotions involved in these rites, providing a crucial sense of "communalism" among the faithful? Once again, add two checkmarks.

Now what about football, especially in Texas?

Marty added: "Football, on the collegiate and professional levels and, in a world of trickle-down religions, often in high school and little-kid versions, fits most definitions of religion, some of them vividly at Super Bowls and Texas High School rites, sacrifices and glorifications, more than they might be visible at the friendly neighborhood church or synagogue or even in 'spiritual but not religious' (and yet 'religious') circles. We do not claim to be particularly original or perceptive in pointing here to the religious dimensions as seen … at Baylor but almost as dramatically year-round in the higher levels of football authority and engrossments."

Baylor officials are well aware that millions of sports dollars and national prestige are at stake. But at the same time, noted Marty, "Baylor does not hide its official and traditional faith commitment, and puts it to work in many policies, such as compulsory chapel for students for a year or two. Let it be noted … that some features of the commitment are strong: a 'Top Ten' (in some measures) religion department, notable graduate programs, and not a few eminent scholars. But they are in the shadows cast by the scandal right now."

When this story broke, even before the firing of head football coach Art Briles, The Washington Post contacted me seeking my point of view, as a journalist with two degrees from Baylor and two decades of experience teaching in Christian higher education. I noted that, even during my student days in the 1970s, Baylor was wrestling with public debates about sexual assault.

Here's the bottom line, I told the Post: It's already difficult for a university to defend centuries of Christian doctrines on sex in America's current legal and cultural climate. Meanwhile, as noted in media reports, nearly 200 colleges and universities are currently facing investigations under Title IX linked to sexual violence cases.

Baylor is one of a few major schools that face both tests.

After all, Baylor's "sexual conduct" guidelines proclaim that students, faculty and staff will be "guided by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity." In a support document, marriage is defined as the "uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime."

The Baylor regents, in their "Findings of Fact" about the current crisis, admitted that independent investigators said key administrators had a "limited understanding of the dynamics of sexual violence and existing barriers to reporting on Baylor's campus, including the impact of other campus policies regarding the prohibition of alcohol and extra-marital sexual intercourse."

Can Baylor honor the laws of God and man?

"Baylor is at least temporarily paying for its over-investment in the religion of football or in its failure to let norms of Baylor's faith-context and its monitors be alert, conscience guided and able to provide perspectives," noted Marty. "If the school can regain perspectives available in the better resources of its Baptist/Christian origins, it can serve as an alerter and guide for others."

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A powerful Catholic voice from Africa judges America on sex and marriage

Monday, June 6, 2016

When United Methodists argue about sex and marriage, these doctrinal struggles usually evolve into clashes between progressives in America and conservatives in the growing churches of the Global South, especially Africa.

When Anglicans knock heads over the same issues, the loudest voices on the doctrinal left are from America and Europe, while most of the conservatives are from Africa and Asia.

It's safe to call this an ecclesiastical trend, especially in light of recent debates about marriage, family and sexuality in the largest Christian flock of all -- the Roman Catholic Church. Consider, for example, the salvos delivered by Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea at the recent National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Catholics are now witnessing, he argued, the consummation of "efforts to build a utopian paradise on earth without God. … Good becomes evil, beauty is ugly, love becomes the satisfaction of sexual primal instincts and truths are all relative. So all manner of immorality is not only accepted and tolerated today in advanced societies, but even promoted as a social good. The result is hostility to Christians, and, increasingly, religious persecution.

"Nowhere is this clearer than in the threat that societies are visiting on the family through a demonic 'gender ideology,' a deadly impulse that is being experienced in a world increasingly cut off from God through ideological colonialism."

Cardinal Sarah is not the first prelate from the Global South to use "demonic" language in a public-square battle over marriage.

During Argentina debates in 2010, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said efforts to legalize same-sex marriage are "not simply a political struggle," but part of an "attempt to destroy God's plan." The legislation, he added, was a "move of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God."

The "father of lies" reference was drawn from the Gospel of John, chapter eight, in which Satan is called "a liar and the father of lies." Bergoglio, of course, softened his language -- but not his doctrinal views -- when he became Pope Francis.

Reacting to Cardinal Sarah's remarks, Michael Sean Winters of the liberal National Catholic Reporter said they contained few surprises, in large part because the "so-called National Catholic Prayer Breakfast" is actually a kind of "GOP at Matins" formality.

While praising the cardinal's views on economic justice and the radical individualism that shapes modern life, Winters claimed that he showed a tendency to "cherry-pick" Francis quotes that served his purposes, while ignoring "forward-thinking items" popular on the left.

Clearly, Sarah is not enthusiastic about the "winds of change" unleashed by Pope Francis, wrote Winters, who is currently part of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. Cardinal Sarah, for example, offered no sense that "God is active in the lives of all people, no sense that people who … think same-sex unions, while different from traditional marriage, should nonetheless be seen not as demonic but as an appropriation of healthy values into a situation that is different from that conceptualized by moral theologians for most of the last 20 centuries."

As for the African prelate's reference to transgender "bathroom wars," Winters added: "I would love to see the look on the cardinal's face if, while using the men's room, Caitlyn Jenner walked in."

While Cardinal Sarah mentioned other hot-button political issues, he placed a quotation from Saint Pope John Paul II at the heart of his remarks -- "The future of the world and the Church passes through the family."

"This is why the devil is so intent on destroying the family," said Sarah, who in 2014 was named leader of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis. "The rupture of the foundational relationships of someone's life -- through separation, divorce or distorted impositions of the family, such as cohabitation and same sex unions -- is a deep wound that closes the heart to self-giving love unto death, and even leads to cynicism and despair. …

"This is not about abstract ideas. It is not an ideological war between competing ideas. This is about defending ourselves, children and future generations from a demonic ideology that says children do not need mothers and fathers. It denies human nature and wants to cut off entire generations from God."

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Seeking a logical key to unlock mysteries of atheist Christopher Hitchens

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Shenandoah Valley was a spectacular place to spend Labor Day, even when rushing by car from Washington, D.C., to a public debate in Birmingham, Ala.

It helped that Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation had a lively conversationalist in the passenger seat during that 2010 road trip -- atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens. And as the mountains rolled past, they worked their way deep into St. John's Gospel.

Taunton called this exchange a "Bible study." Hitchens called it "mutual textual criticism."

So here was the author of "god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," reading glasses perched on his nose, reading some of Christianity's most cerebral words in his rich British baritone, a voice abused by countless cigarettes and smoothed by rivers of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch. He kept a glass -- damn the highway open-container laws -- locked between his knees throughout the drive.

Thus Hitchens read: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." At one point, Taunton suggested that Hitchens record this text to sell as an audiobook.

"With that voice, Christopher would have done an amazing job. … You can only imagine the shock this would have caused among atheists and Christians, alike," said Taunton, reached by telephone. Hitchens, however, "knew that he didn't have much time left and he had so much that he wanted to do."

The Shenandoah road trip is a pivotal scene in Taunton's new book, "The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World's Most Notorious Atheist," which is causing fierce debates on both sides of the Atlantic. That drive, and a second in Yellowstone National Park, took place during Hitchens' struggle with esophageal cancer, which took his life on Dec. 15, 2011.

Taunton makes no claim that Hitchens experienced a religious conversion during this time. In fact, his book closes with a chapter that -- while noting it's impossible to know what happens between a person and God -- stresses that Hitchens kept reaffirming his atheistic beliefs.

"What I am saying is that Christopher was asking serious questions and was sincerely interested in learning more about what Christians like me believe," said Taunton. "But if I was going to claim that he converted, then the Shenandoah and Yellowstone trips would have provided the perfect opportunity for me to lie about something like that, because those conversations were between the two of us."

It's crucial, said Taunton, that Hitchens was genuinely shaken by 9/11 and afterwards, in addition to embracing a fierce brand of patriotism, he dedicated more of his time to attacking forms of institutionalized religion, especially militant Islam, that he considered evil. However, he knew -- logically -- that it was hard for an atheist to talk about good and evil in absolute, transcendent terms.

Thus, Taunton argues that Hitchens had "faith" in something higher than atheism. That private faith may have been patriotism, or justice, or the importance of friendship, or a proud confidence in his own intellect and force of will.

"If you are trying to unlock the Christopher Hitchens black box, the tumblers just don't line up with the atheist key," he said. "They don't line up with the God key, either."

In the event following the Shenandoah drive, Hitchens kept trying to pull Taunton -- the moderator -- into the debate about the importance of faith. Finally, Taunton admitted that Hitchens was correct to state that any discovery that "Jesus was only a figment of my imagination" would "ruin my life. … Such a discovery would mean that this life is meaningless and a sham."

Urging him on, Hitchens replied: "Don't give up so easily."

A month later, Hitchens and Taunton met in a public debate of their own. At one point, they clashed over Hitchens' tendency to make absolute moral judgments, while denying the existence a higher "Law Giver."

Finally, Taunton recalled that Hitchens, during the Shenandoah trip, was surprised to see a store display of "No Tar" cigarette filters. Deadpan, Hitchens had quipped: "Oh, I wish I had known."

Turning serious, Taunton told the debate crowd that he feared "my friend will step into eternity and say, 'Oh, I wish I had known.' "

Taunton turned to Hitchens and added: "Don't give up quite so easily."

Hitchens whispered: "Touché."

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