Alabama Pastors Show Politics Trumps Faith

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You’d think evangelical leaders in Alabama would be brandishing their 10-foot poles in order to distance themselves from the child molesting Republican candidate Roy Moore in the race for the U.S. Senate. You’d be wrong.

David Floyd, for instance, pastor of Mervyn Parkway Baptist Church, rationalized that “all of us have sinned and need a savior” in his statement defending Moore. “I’ve prayed with him. I know his heart.” (“On morality, evangelicals get religion,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 19, 2017) Of course, Floyd was not so forgiving of President Bill Clinton back in 1998 when he told church members that Clinton had to go because of his sexual dalliances. Apparently Floyd is confusing himself with Jesus because he believes he has the right to judge who is morally worthy and who is not.

Moore himself brandished a list of 50 Alabama Christian pastors who still support him despite the growing number of women who say Moore made sexual advances upon them when they were teenagers.

What is happening here? The answer lies in an “end justifies the means” attitude that many Christians took to the polls with them to elect Donald Trump in 2016. Because Trump said all the right things about abortion, he passed the evangelical litmus test for office. Since his election, he has cemented evangelical support by appointing a conservative justice of the Supreme Court and coming out against transgender individuals in the armed forces .

With reference to Moore, evangelicals see him as a man who “hold[s] positions close to ours.” (Tribune) So they give him a pass on behavior that does not even meet legal standards, never mind moral ones. As evangelical professor John Fea states, “What you’re seeing here is rank hypocrisy. These are evangelicals who have decided that the way to win the culture is now uncoupled from character.” (Tribune)

But the hypocrisy goes deeper than that. Evangelical Christians also tend to be politically conservative in other ways, and so this latest instance of propping up a morally corrupt leader serves to advance the conservative agenda on other issues, such as taxes and immigration. Proof of this is something Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas First Baptist Church reminds us.

Said Jeffress, “A watershed moment was 1980. Evangelical Christians chose between a born-again Baptist Sunday school teacher and a twice-married Hollywood actor who had signed the most liberal abortion bill and whose wife practiced astrology. And evangelicals chose Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter.” (Tribune)

It’s clear that Roy Moore has no intention of stepping away from the Senate race in Alabama. And although many evangelical leaders there have denounced his candidacy, many others justify their support in this hypocritical manner. Whatever happens in Alabama, this abdication of moral authority will ultimately backfire on religious leaders, especially with the next generation, whose hypocrisy radar is often quite high.

But the American people may ultimately pay too high a price if we continue to choose politics over character in our leaders.

 

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The Supremacy of Hate

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It hurt my heart to watch HBO’s coverage of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on its news series VICE. The white supremacists wore their naked hatred towards Jews and people of color as a badge of honor.  While Donald Trump blamed the violence on “many sides,” it was the Unite the Right demonstrators who came armed to the teeth with bats and guns, helmets and shields. They were clearly spoiling for a fight.

Add to the mayhem the sight of a car plowing into the crowd and dozens of injured on the ground crying and screaming in pain. A black woman cried out in anger and frustration that this terror is what she and other blacks live with on a daily basis in an American South that is still nursing its wounds over the Civil War.

Leaders of Unite the Right ominously promised that this was only the beginning of their quest to “take back” the country for like-minded whites. One of them, Christopher Cantwell, spoke of his disgust that Trump would allow his daughter Ivanka to marry a filthy Jew. He proudly displayed the personal arsenal he was bringing to future demonstrations and predicted that many more people are going to die.

I feel as if a time machine has transported us all back to the 1950s. The threat of nuclear war hangs over us as our president gets macho with the unstable North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. And torch-wielding mobs of white men menace Southern towns.

Two days after I began writing this post, another scene of terror unfolded in Barcelona, Spain. The agent of death was the same: a motor vehicle plowing into a crowd. Yesterday 13 people were killed in that horrendous attack, and many more were injured. The terrorist group ISIS has claimed responsibility. Once again, an armed group of (mostly) men expressed their hatred for the “other” through violence and the threat of violence (fake suicide vests).

In my present mood, I am hard pressed to believe that “Love trumps hate.”

 

Mass Appeal

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If a church is God’s house, a cathedral is His mansion. Yesterday I attended Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, a magnificent edifice in the city of the same name. The church is a massive stone structure with a dome that dominates the skyline of St. Paul, the Twin City on the Mississippi River regarded as the little brother of Minneapolis.

There was quite a crowd assembled for 10 am Mass. I found a seat and gaped at the ornate marble altar, the stained glass windows, and the ceiling of the dome, adorned with gold-leafed paintings of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove along with its seven Heavenly gifts.

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What moved me the most, though, was when the Mass began and the sound of organ music and song soared up through the expanse of the cathedral. I experienced the otherworldly nature of a communion with God. As I joined the congregation in prayer and singing, I felt a sense of true and profound worship in this magnificent place  dedicated to glorifying the Creator.

The building of cathedrals in medieval times was truly a labor of love and devotion. With  virtually no machinery, thousands of men toiled to build these imposing stone structures. Thousands of artisans fashioned altars and shrines, frescoes and statues. While the Cathedral of St. Paul was built much later, in the early 1900s, the intentions were the same: to create a sanctuary worthy of the Lord and a place for believers to gather and worship.

As the Mass ended, I found myself wishing I could spend every Sunday morning at such a beautiful and spiritual house of God. But knowing that “wherever two or more of you gather in my name, there I am in the midst of you,” I will be content to give praise in my own humble home parish.

 

Behind the Veil

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Women and their head coverings have been much in the news lately. There have been alternating praise and criticism for Melania and Ivanka Trump, for instance, for their sartorial choices on their recent Mideast trip with the president.

Some found hypocrisy in the fact that the women refused to wear a hijab when in Saudi Arabia but were practically covered head to toe in black to meet the pope. Others cheered their spunk and refusal to bow to a hated Islamist ideology. Similar decisions to cover or not cover their heads have been the subject of criticism for other First Ladies, such as Michelle Obama.

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To all of this I have to ask, what’s the big deal? I am far more disturbed by the fact that President Trump said nothing about the dreadful state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia than whether the First Lady was making a pointed political statement by allowing her hair to be seen. On the other hand, such criticism might be seen as hypocritical coming from a man who does not seem to hold women in particularly high regard. Still, it’s all relative, and I hope that at least privately the president put pressure on Saudi Arabia to advance the rights of women as a condition for continuing to arm them to the teeth.

What I find most disturbing about the recent brouhaha over headwear for women is that society persists in judging every single thing about a woman’s choices, right down to her clothing and hair. It’s the 21st Century, and yet we’re still focused on women as ornaments, somehow not fully human. No one mused philosophically about what the color of Donald Trump’s tie or the cut of his suit might indicate about his beliefs or intentions.

Muslim women who choose to wear the veil do so for myriad reasons, most of them religious. Why that choice should be denigrated and looked upon as political is beyond me. The primary purpose in covering one’s head and chest seems to be modesty. What devout Christian would have a problem with women being modest? Yet because of terrorism and the need to demonize those who oppose us, Americans have taken a hostile stance against Muslim women in hijab.

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Years ago, there was a great TV series called Jack and Bobby. It was about two young brothers, one of whom would one day become the president of the United States. The boys’ mother, played by Christine Lahti, is a college professor, and she has a hostile exchange with a female student who wears the hijab. In a memorable scene, Lahti’s character attacks the woman for allowing herself to be controlled by a male-dominated culture. The young woman throws back her belief that American women are the ones being controlled by men’s need to see them as perfect physical specimens whose looks are constantly on display.

That exchange gave me pause back in the Nineties, and it sticks with me to this day. Women of all cultures should be free to dress and speak and act in whatever way they choose. And it should be their character, intelligence, and personal inner qualities that are focused on, not their clothing, their hair, their modesty, or the lack thereof.

The real veil women are often required to hide behind is the metaphorical one imposed by a society that still does not see them as equal to men. Until we address that reality, what a woman does or does not wear on her head makes very little difference at all.

Mother of All Mothers

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OLFatimaMother’s Day weekend in Chicagoland has been beautiful – mild and sunny, with flowers in bloom, lawns lushly green from abundant rainfall, and even little hummingbirds buzzing around the tree in our front yard.

Saturday also marked the hundredth anniversary of the miracle at Fatima, Portugal, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three young children, two of whom were canonized this past Saturday by Pope Francis.

Whatever one might think about such apparitions at places like Fatima, Lourdes, and Medjugorje, The Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, holds a very special place in the lives of Catholics.  She is considered the mother of all believers, as demonstrated at the foot of the cross when Jesus gestured to his apostle John, “Behold, your mother.”

The cult of Mary has been the source of much confusion and disagreement among Christians. Many Protestants believe that Catholics wrongly worship Mary through their prayers, feast days, and other honors bestowed upon the Mother of God. But Catholic devotion to Mary is not worship. We believe that, through her close relationship with her son, Mary is uniquely poised to intercede for us with Jesus. It is the same reason we pray to the saints: to ask for their continual prayer and intercession on our behalf. So it is natural for Catholics to turn to Mary, the greatest of all saints, for help.

The image of Mary as our mother can be of great comfort to us in our journey in life. Many of us have lost our mothers. Some of us are estranged from family members. All of us have endured pain and sorrow. To lay our cares at the foot of Mary as our spiritual mother is comforting indeed.

This weekend at Mass, we were called upon to bring flowers in honor of Mary, the Mother of God and the mother of us all. Every May, in churches all over the world, statues of Mary are crowned, signifying her place as the Queen of Heaven. This title, too, is steeped in tradition. In ancient Israel, the most powerful and important figure next to the king was the queen mother, as kings had many wives but only one mother. So it is with Mary. As mother of the King, she takes her place of honor next to her beloved son, Jesus.

On this Mother’s Day, I pray for all mothers – pray that they be honored and cared for and valued for their place in our hearts and homes. Happy Mother’s Day!

 

Religious Persecutors

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I recently watched the film Patriot Days, which tells the story of the Boston Marathon bombings. It details the lives of some of the victims as well as the bombers themselves and the law enforcement officials who apprehended them.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, like many fanatics, used religion to justify the murder and maiming of innocent men, women, and children. His brother Dzhokhar, who seems less ideologically driven, does not come off any better in the film, showing a selfishness and callous disregard for human life. He even ran over his own brother with a car in his haste to save himself. Tamerlan is dead, and Dzhokhar languishes in prison while lawyers appeal his death sentence for the bombings and the shooting death of an MIT campus police officer.

Today is Good Friday, and Christians all over the world commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus Christ at the hands of the Romans but at the behest of religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat to their power. These leaders used trumped up charges of blasphemy to justify handing over an innocent man to be crucified, a cruel and ignominious form of execution.

Although the larger story of Christ’s passion and death points to his resurrection and the salvation of the world, the actions of the chief priests and Pharisees of Jesus’s time are echoed in history’s many instances of people using religion to justify violence.

The world is filled with many faith traditions, each with its own beliefs, rituals, and customs. People of faith may disagree with and even criticize each other. But our religious beliefs should never be the basis for hatred or killing.

As Jesus neared his death, he prayed, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” If Jesus can forgive his tormentors, we too should seek to promote peace and healing, not violence and death.

Hate Has No Ideological Boundaries

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Wednesday’s attack on London’s Westminster Bridge has once again raised the specter of Islamic extremism and no doubt will unleash further animosity against Muslims living in the West. Although British authorities believe the terrorist, who died in the attack, had acted alone, ISIS claimed responsibility for inspiring the terror that killed 4 and seriously injured many others.

Without minimizing the effects of ISIS’s promulgation of hate against the West, I hope cool heads will prevail and leaders will not overreact to this instance of “lone wolf terrorism.” The truth is that hate, while inconsistent with the beliefs of any major religion, is unfortunately a universal emotion that plagues the human heart, and practitioners of religions ranging from Islam to Christianity to Buddhism have used a twisted take on their religious beliefs to justify their hateful and terrorist actions.

How else to explain why an Israeli Jew was just arrested for spreading bomb threats throughout U.S. Jewish centers? An attorney for the unnamed Jewish man is claiming mental instability as a cause for the cyberterrorism that has “sent a chill through the American Jewish community.” (Chicago Tribune, Friday, March 24, 2017)

And one need not go back very far to find instances of right wing Christian terrorism, such as the Planned Parenthood attack by Robert Dear or even the massacre of blacks in South Carolina by KKK admirer Dylann Roof. These individuals espoused extremist Christian ideology that justified attacking abortion providers and those who are not white.

Our great religions have striven over the centuries to inspire, comfort, and guide human beings in their quest for meaning. Many sacrifices and acts of heroism were guided by people’s religious beliefs. For example, numerous Christians acted to save Jews from the holocaust during World War II.

But humans being human, there are those among us who, for whatever reason, allow hate and anger to be the guiding forces of their lives. They also seek meaning in religion, but they must twist it to their violent desires.

At the risk of sounding trivial, the story of the Stars Wars saga puts it well: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to the dark side.”

We will not solve the problem of hate crimes and terrorism by unleashing more hate or violence. We can only do that by strengthening the forces of love and community that might help turn some of these marginalized individuals away from violence and help them gain a sense of purpose that comes from healing, not hurting.