Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Here comes Pope Francis

PHILADELPHIA - From the Pope Francis life-sized cardboard cutout in the gift shop at City Hall to the Shepard Fairey-style POPE cover on Philadelphia magazine, the upcoming visit of the pope dominates the rhythm of the City of Brotherly Love these days.

Not that there are not other things going on here. Lot of eyes were on TV screens Saturday as the Eagles sunk their talons into the Green Bay Packers in a pre-season game.  (The Eagles won 39-26.) And local officials are probably grateful that the 3,000 participants in the Naked Bike Ride got that adventure out of the way before the pope arrived.

For a couple of hundred journalists who cover religion, a three-day conference of the Religion Newswriters Association in downtown Philly was dominated by info about the papal visit. So here are some snippets ranging from logistics to meaning to humor (yes, you can send the pope a joke).

The pope will be arrive in Washington D.C. on Sept. 22, then head up to New York City on Sept. 24 after addressing Congress, and come here to Philadelphia on Sept. 26 and 27. He will have 23 scheduled events over five days – and there is anticipation that he will sneak in a few other events along the way. A number of speakers mentioned the “surprise factor” with Francis – you never know when he might break out of the plan and do something unexpected.

The Logistics

Helen Osman, secretary of communications for the U.S. Conference of Bishops, said her office now has about 8,000 names in the media database for the visit to the three cities. There are the Vatican press, the TV pools, journalists from all over the world seeking spots at the various venues.

Individual journalists will get access to one event per day, in large part because of the security logistics around each event. The Secret Service will require members of the media to be in place four to five hours before an event begins – and the traffic is going to be horrendous, so moving between events will be almost impossible for journalists outside the papal pool.

Just in Philadelphia, said Ken Gavin, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, there are applications from 6,000 journalists for 800 positions available at the events here.

But it’s not just the pope’s visit that complicates life in Philadelphia. The main reason that Pope Francis is coming to the U.S. and to Philly is the World Meeting of Families, which will be happening from Tuesday to Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

They are expecting about 17,000 participants from over 100 countries, said Donna Farrell, executive director of the event. They have 10,000 volunteers so far.  And then everything shifts to the “Francis Festival” for the weekend.

There will be 40 jumbotrons around the city so people who cannot to papal events can still see them without having to go through security. And traffic will come to a standstill.

On Sunday, when the pope celebrates Mass on the Philadelphia Parkway (CK), there may be 1.5 million people participating (eat your heart out, Donald Trump). But that will cause problems for other churches – especially those in or near downtown, where their regular worshippers will not be able to get there for their services.

“We’re excited for our brothers and sisters who are Catholic and will have Mass,” said Rev. Leslie Callahan, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church, a historic African-American congregation downtown. “But it’s not the same for us.”

But Callahan, an activist on social justice and racial issues in Philadelphia, said she hopes that Pope Francis’ visit bring some “moral muscle” to the issues she cares about.

The Meaning

And that gets to the expectations, the meanings around the pope’s visit.

Fr. John Wauck, a professor at the Pontifical University Santa Croce in Rome (CK) and one of the organizers of many of the presentations about the pope at the RNA conference, talked about how mercy has become a watchword for Francis’ papacy and said that “Pope Francis will demonstrate with this trip mercy in all its richness.”

A variety of speakers each had their own lenses through which to see the pope’s visit.

Maryann Cusimano Love is an associate professor at the Catholic University of America. As she began, she noted that she grew up in Philadelphia in a poor family and had worked as a young woman cleaning hotel ballrooms and scrubbing toilets. Now, she noted, she was the woman standing in the front of the ballroom.

When Pope Francis speaks to the General Assembly at the United Nations on Sept. 25, she expects to hear him call for a strengthening of the U.N. on the global stage and about things starting with the letter “P” :
People before profits

Alejandro Bermudez is executive director of the Catholic News Agency and an Argentinian who knew Francis before he became pope in 2013. He reminded people that the context for Pope Francis is Latin America and specifically Argentina – a place on the periphery. Francis sees change coming from places on the periphery.

Austen Ivereigh, veteran British journalist and author of an acclaimed biography of Francis, echoed that theme of the periphery. “The dynamic for change begins on the periphery,” he said. “Reform occurs when the center opens up to the periphery.” Francis is all about connecting the center to the periphery.

Other points from Ivereigh: Mercy is a key concept to Francis.  So is detaching from things to focus on mission. He challenges the spiritual idolatry of money and power as well as the legalism and rigorism that stifles God’s spirit. And he sees himself defending culture against the effects of globalization and commercialism.

Finally, said Ivereigh, noting the polarization of politics in the U.S., Francis has “a profound vision for a revival in politics by holding ideals in tension,” seeing how disagreements can be dynamic.

The key figure in the Vatican press office dealing with English-speaking journalists is Fr. Thomas Rosica. He offered his own set of lenses for viewing the trip:
Communication – speaking the truth with charity
Christian unity
Ecology – not just the ecology of the natural world but the ecology of human life
Mercy (there’s that word again)
The field hospital – that image from St. Ignatius of the of naming the battles facing the people of the world and being with them in the midst of those battles – not set apart from those in the midst of suffering

From across the country, Archbishop Jose Gomez talked about the changing face of the church in the U.S. with the upsurge in Hispanic Catholics. So for him, that forms a lens for the pope’s trip.

“I hope and pray that the Holy Father will speak about immigration,” Gomez said. “It's an issue he cares deeply about.” He said that immigrants are all children of God and “need to be treated with all the dignity we deserve.”

From the top of the American hierarchy, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville – president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop, offered his own quarter of themes for the pope’s visit. (It is worth noting that he has met twice in the past two years with Pope Francis to discuss the state of the American church.)
Pastor and prophet – bringing the love of Jesus to all people as he walks with theml calling people to conversion, to return to the ideal while rejecting the American tendencies toward being self-referential and living in a throw-away culture.
Freedom to serve – faith enriches public life, so freedom is not for self but for others. “He will encourage us not to leave the public square but to put faith into action.”
Put the person first – watch him interact with those he encounters – he is at his best when he is in dialogue
Family – he is coming for the World Meeting of Families, so he will be talking about “God’s plan for families and God’s love, desire and mercy for every person.”

Archbishop Bernardito Auza is the Vatican’s representative at the United Nations, so he focused on the pope’s speech to the General Assembly. Themes?
“The preoccupations of the United Nations are similar to the preoccupations of the Holy See – avoid war, make a better life for everyone.”

So listen there for talk about peace and security, economic development and the environment.

At the center of the Philadelphia visit with be the archbishop there, Charles Chaput, one of the more conservative members of the American hierarchy. He let out one interesting tidbit – it’s quite possible that the pope will quietly visit with victims of clerical sex abuse while in Philadelphia. That has been a big issue in that diocese, with Chaput brought in to clean up things.

Chaput also emphasized the social service work the archdiocese of Philadephia does, saying, “I hope when Pope Francis flies home, he’ll understand that American bishops share every ounce of his passion for the poor.”

So it gets back to the street level with Shane Clairborn, Christian activist around homeless issues in Philadelphia, author. He talked about the demonstrations being organized outside the prison that Francis will visit there, highlight issues of mass incarceration and the death penalty. (And he has invited Francis to come and jump in the fire hydrants in North Philly.)

Light notes

That would fit with some of lighthearted events at the World Meeting of Families like “Swinging with the Sisters” (that would be dancing) and “Wii-bowling with the Bishops.” And there is no shortage of humorous souvenirs available.  

But there is one official project in the works that is interesting – Joke with the Pope. This is a project of the Pontifical Mission Societies. People can post a short video of them telling a joke or send in a written joke. One joke will be chosen as a winner and $10,000 will go to the cause picked by the joke's creator - either helping children in Argentina, the homeless in Ethiopia or the hungry in Kenya.

The causes

This is one of a multitude of projects created around the pope's visit. In DC, there is "Walk With Francis." And when the Pope is speaking to Congress, thousands of people concerned about creation care will be gathered on the lawn outside the Capitol during a week of Moral Action for Climate Justice. In Philadelphia, there is the Francis Fund, hoping to raise $1.5 million to fight homelessness in that city. And those are just a few.

Monday, January 19, 2015

MLK, the Beloved Community and 2015

Remarks at the Martin Luther King Jr. Ecumenical Service, Jan. 18, 2015, at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Madison Wis.

Let’s go way back for a moment, back to 1956 at the successful end of the Montgomery bus boycott that won African Americans the right to sit anywhere on city buses that they wanted, not just to be shoved to the back of the bus.

Martin Luther King, Jr., the 27-year old minister who had led the boycott – and whose house had been bombed during that year-long struggle - said at the victory rally: “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.”

He used that term a lot – the Beloved Community. It’s pretty easy to think of the Beloved Community as some sort of idyllic place where everyone gets along – that means they all think the way we think, right? – and where everyone has good manners and no one even spits on the sidewalk.

I think King’s view of the Beloved Community was idyllic – we're a long ways from being there – but it’s not some pastel landscape of blandness.

A beloved community does not overlook injustice in its midst. It confronts injustice, but not with violence, not with hatred, but with the kind of love that can turn enemies into allies. Martin Luther King spent time with the teachings of Jesus – teachings about justice and about loving your enemies – yes, even your enemies.

As he said in 1959, “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle’s over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.”

Now here we are in 2015 and the Beloved Community still seems to be way out there on the horizon. You know the litany that undergirds the justified anger in our midst – the highest incarceration rate for black men of any state in our nation, the academic disparity between African American and white 4th and 8th graders is the highest in the nation, the unemployment here far higher for blacks than for whites social gaps all across our city and region.

And you know the litany of violent deaths over the past months that have ripped the hearts out of families and elevated confrontations in communities all across the nation. Will we ever get to the Beloved Community?

The only place we can start is right here, right now. We can carry on the legacy of Dr. King to stand with the excluded and the oppressed, to walk with those seeking justice, to hear the words of Common at the end of the Selma movie and then to live them out as we step by step get closer to that vision, that dream of a Beloved Community:

We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through
Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany
Now we right the wrongs in history
No one can win the war individually
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people's energy
Welcome to the story we call victory
Comin' of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory

Friday, September 19, 2014

God and Guns

Put a bunch of faith leaders together and you are not likely to find many of them arguing that Jesus really wanted everyone to have a gun. So the panel called God and Guns at the Religion Newswriters Association 2014 conference had activists who want to find ways both to regulate the proliferation of guns in American society and to change the culture that idolizes guns.

It’s not that there was not a spectrum of hackgrounds on the stage. The head of the National Council of Churches and someone with deep roots in Southern evangelical Christianity. Someone from the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and the Episcopal bishop of Atlanta.

In some ways, they covered familiar ground in the gun debate, but a recurring message was that this is an effort for the long haul. “Persistence” was the word of the day. But there were some vivid phrases in the discussion.

“We are truly messed up in this area,” said David Gushee of Mercer University, the evangelical as he compared gun violence in the U.S. with other nations. “We have a constant low-grade bleeding going on every day. A lot of our domestic problems are resolved by bullets.”

The disequalizer is the amount of money the gun manufacturers and gun lobby have in this debate. It is a classic example of “the power of vested interest money to override the public sentiment.”

What’s missing, said Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God’s Call, is the support of the grass roots. As if to reinforce what Gushee said about the U.S. standing apart in the world for its gun violence, he said that in a year, Philadelphia loses more people to gun deaths than all the developed nations in the world except one – the U.S.

“The faith community is the most logical one to take the lead,” he said.

Bishop Wright
Bishop Robert Wright, the first African-American Episcopal bishop in Atlanta, offered the theological rationale for that among Christians.

“Piece carry is at odds with the Prince of Peace,” he said, explaining why he banned guns from all Episcopal churches after a new George law allowed guns in churches.

He cited lax gun laws that reinforce people’s hostility to one another as being at odds with Jesus’ call to look out for our neighbor. “They are an affront to God,” he said.

He looked at Scripture and said there are no texts that affirm our obsession with self defense, adding, “You can’t put those words in Jesus’ mouth. Jesus is not from Georgia, he does not speak English and he is not a member of the NRA.”

Finally, he said that enlarging fear is not a very imaginative response to issues around neighborliness. “It is an absolute offense to human dignity,” Wright concluded.

This issue will get some attention in Madison next Monday. There will be a Hearts & Soles rally to prevent gun violence in Wisconsin at noon on the State Street steps of the Capitol. Here’s the explanation:

“Every year, an average of 467 men, women, and children in Wisconsin are killed by guns. One death is too many -- 467 is a crisis that requires decisive and meaningful action. That’s why WAVE is traveling across Wisconsin with a powerful display of 467 pairs of empty shoes, which serve as both a stark reminder of those we’ve lost and a compelling call to action.  

“We will be joined by elected officials, community and faith leaders, victims of gun violence, and other concerned citizens. Together, we will form a united front in the fight to prevent the tragedies that have devastated so many families and communities.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Immersed in immigration – 10 takeaways

Six hours, 21 speakers, four topic areas – it was day exploring immigration in the U.S. There were panels on politics, acculturation, faith communities and human trafficking. It was all part of the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference for 2014, held at the Law School at Emory University in Atlanta. 

1 – Obama’s basis for delaying executive orders on immigration – Merle Black, politics and gov prof at Emory and one of the nation’s pre-eminent (and oft-quoted) scholars of elections, cited poll data from the last few months showing that for Obama, “taking action would mean organizing the election around his weakest issue.” The data shows more disapprove of Obama’s stance on immigration than approve, it’s not a priority for voters and neither party has an advantage on this as an issue. And here’s a twist. Obama has said he would take action by the end of the year. But Black pointed out that in Louisiana and Georgia – two key states in the battle to control the U.S. Senate – the winners must have an absolute majority, not just a plurality. If they don't, there will be run-offs – in December in Louisiana, in early January in Georgia. Will Obama act before those if the Senate hangs in the balance?

2 – And it’s complicated for Latino voters as well – Robert Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute and one of my favorite sources on data, says that immigration is a critical issue for Latino voters, but not the most critical issue. The economy/jobs and the rising cost of health care rank above it for a majority of Latinos.

3 – Religious resonance or not? Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said “When you have read scripture week after week, when you have sung hymns weak after weak, the words of immigration have a familiar sound to them.” But Robert Jones noted that for folks not immersed in faith communities – like the growing portion of religiously unaffiliated Americans – the Biblical phrase “welcome the stranger” sounds strange when the dominant theme with kids is “don’t talk to strangers.”

4 – Family reunification – A recurring theme throughout the presentations was the issue of family reunification. This comes up when one family member is deported, it comes up when Central American kids head north to join family members here, it comes up in the reality that there are some 9 million people living in mixed-status families – one or more members have the needed legal documentation but at least one other person does not, meaning they always live on the edge of disruption.

5 – Domestic violence is an issue – Aparna Bhattacharyya is executive director of Raksha in Atlanta, an agency that works with issues of domestic abuse and exploitation of women from South Asia. Because immigrants may lack proper legal status or because they are vulnerable in other ways, when they are abused, they often do not know where to turn. There may be cultural inhibitions as well, so organizations like Raksha play a vital role (a counterpart in the Madison area is Freedom Inc.).

6 – Immigrants from Africa – We tend to think of immigrants from Africa as slaves brought here a few centuries ago. We tend to think of today’s immigrants as being from Latin America or Asia. But there is a significant increase in immigrants from Africa in the last decade, said Jehu Hanciles, who teaches world Christianity at the Candler School of Theology. Almost half of the African immigrants now in the U.S. have come here since 2000. They are dispersed throughout the U.S. Traditional patterns of assimilation may not apply, both because of their skin color and because they often tend to stay involved in life in their homeland even as they live here. They assimilate with language and social interactions and the roles they take on here, but they tend to retain their religion and cultural values and patterns of family life.

7– Rethinking diaspora – Don Seemnan teaches Jewish studies in the Emory Department of Religion. He noted how much of the Jewish story is built around ideas of exile and diaspora, yet today, the Jewish population of the world is largely concentrated in the U.S. and in Israel, not scattered through many countries as it once was. What does that do the meaning of Jewish life as it shifts from stories of migration and movement to issues of certainty versus vulnerability?

8– Breaking the bonds of sex slavery – Jeff Shaw directs at Organization in Atlanta called Out of Darkness that seeks to give women an escape from sex slavery. He talked about going out at night to hotels and truck stops and giving women working the sex scenes a rose, a card with the group’s phone number and the message “You are beautiful – there is a way out.” The group runs three safe homes with 14 beds and helps women who want freedom to get it.

9– The roller-derby nun – Well, that overstates it a bit. Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck lead her La Crosse congregation of Franciscan nuns from 2002 to 2010 and then was head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious from 2009 to 2011. That’s the group the Vatican went after. She is deeply involved in efforts to eradicate modern slavery (that’s what she was talking about during intermission at a La Crosse roller derby). She talked about nuns forming an underground railroad for contemporary slaves through the network of institutions that congregations of women religious run in this country, of nuns tackling investments in companies that profit from slavery, of working with hotels to train their staff to recognize the signs of human trafficking. And how might religion get in the way of breaking down slavery? “Any denomination whose exclusive focus is on abortion, contraception or sterilization will turn off victims. The only way is to walk with the victims one by one. Those doctrines are precious – we believe them – but it’s not where we start.”

10 – Check how many slaves you have – There’s a web site recommended by Luis CdeBaca, President Obama’s appointee to coordinate U.S. government activities in the global fight against slavery. It’s slaveryfootprint.org.  I took it quickly. I apparently have 34 slaves working for me around the world.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Smart-ass pastor, sexual deviant & Jesus

They were billed as “a smart-assed tattooed lady and a middle-aged sexual deviant talk about Jesus.”

Sara Miles and Nadia Bolz-Weber
The smart-assed tattooed lade is Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colo. and author of the new book, Pastrix, which has reached number 24 on The New York Times combined print and e-book non-fiction list for this week. Oh yeah, she is also an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, not known for smart assess (other than Martin Luther) or tatooes.

The middle-aged sexual deviant is Sara Miles, the directory of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. The sexual deviant reference is to the fact that she is lesbian. But the heart of her story (told in Take This Bread) is how she walked into this church one day, someone handed her bread at communion  and her life was changed. Now she helps run a food pantry out of the sanctuary of the church and writes compellingly about Jesus. Her new book, City of God: Faith in the Streets, will come out next February.

They sat together on stage, trading quips and insights in front of the roomful of journalists at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association in Austin, Tex. 

“What's you favorite thing about Jesus?” Nadia asked Sara.

“His mom,” was her quick reply. And then a bit more. “He tracks you down.” She told her story of eating bread and discovering Jesus when most of her adult life, neither knew nor cared much about Jesus or God or religion or any of that.

Nadia talked about the beginnings of her church community, a few people gathered at a house one of them a transgendered Unitarian who one day asked her out to coffee. “I think I’m having a crisis of faith,: the young woman said. “I think I believe in Jesus.” 

He tracks you down, Nadia echoed.

“Jesus has no taste,” added Sara. “He hangs out with all the wrong people.”

So it went, stories and insights mixed with laughter. 

Nadia talked about the emphasis on participation at her congregation. At both churches, the singing is without accompaniment and often in harmony because those who can harmonize, do so. At Sara’s church, to say they gather around the communion table understates how closely every bunches up.

“Here's the thing about Christianity,” Nadia said. “Bodies matter.” So people stand where they can see each other.

Sara’s forthcoming book is about her going out onto the streets of her on Ash Wednesday in a a church robe and offering to cross people with the ashes and remind them that they were going to die.

“I am always terrified to do it,” she admitted. “I am appearing in church drag in my neighborhood. 

Yet this challenges what she calls the chronic lie in our culture that we will not die. The ashes represent a welcome truth telling that we all have dying in common and that we can believe in something beyond death.

Both talked about realizing that if church is not about welcoming the stranger … whether it’s a suburbanite visiting Nadia’s church or babies making distracting noises or bad smells from street people – then it is missing an opportunity.

“We have to welcome strangers,” she said. “They are the ones who mess things up.”

Someone asked how they deal with the growing range of views in America about God, spirituality, religion.

“I feel I’m in no way responsible for what people in my church believe,” Nadia said. “They believe all sorts of shit. I’m only responsible for what I say,” adding that she is pretty conventional on Christian doctrine, if perhaps less sanitized in the way she presents it.

And then there was sin. Someone asked how they view that concept.

“Sin is the key to everything,” Nadia said, getting animated. “We all carry brokenness inside ourselves. We can do that in cunning, masked ways. If we didn’t carry these things, we wouldn’t need God’s grace.”

Sara added that repentance is not about saying “I’m sorry.” It’s about change in our lives. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ten words for Pope Francis

Alejandro Bermudez and
Greg Burke discuss Pope Francis.
Greg Burke tried to describe Pope Francis in 10 words.

That’s quite a challenge after a journalist who had covered the pope during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires,  Argentina had just finished describing him as “a complex personality.”

Alejandro Bermudez had interviewed then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio several times, had translated the then-cardinals in-depth conversations with the most prominent rabbi in Latin America (the book is called On Heaven and Earth) and had assembled interviews with some of those who knew Bergoglio best for a quick book after his election as pope (Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend).

The occasion was a presentation to the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association in Austin, Texas. And Burke was tackling this as a former journalist for FOX News and TIME who in June of 2012, became the senior communications advisor in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

He did allow as to how now that Francis was the pope, each day was a bit more unpredictable for the Vatican communications staff.

So his 10 words to describe Francis:

Mercy – He noted that over and over, Francis reminds people that “God doesn’t tire of offering mercy.”

Moxie – Another word for courage, Burke said. “We are all going to get challenged by Pope Francis, especially those who live comfortable lives in the First World. That’s a good thing.”

Margins – He talked about the pope constantly reaching out to the edges, a recurring theme of not getting closed in on one-self … and of the church not being so self-referential.

Prayer – Burke reminded people that the pope spends a lot of time in prayer and that he is open about his struggles with it … struggles just like other folks have. He told of workers in the building where the pope lives seeing him shuffle into the chapel in the middle of the afternoon, rustling around for his rosary beads just like any other old man. Later, he also noted a kind of “old-fashioned religion” that appeals to Francis reflecting the popular piety of Latin America where he grew up.

Encounter – This is a pope focused on engaging with the world’s many religious traditions, crossing the usual philosophical and national borders that separate people.

Joy – Burke acknowledged that John Paul II and Benedict talked about joy but said that Francis seems to be showing it in remarkable ways, even as he warns people to watch out for discouragement.

Proximity – One thing that has been clear over the past months is how much Francis likes to be physically close people. One of the most memorable phrases of these early months, Burke suggested, is that church leaders should “smell like the sheep” because they move so closely among them.

Simplicity – Lots has been written about Francis’ simple life style, his carrying his own briefcase, his paying his own bills. The message: It’s not about power and privilege, Burke said.

Humility – Burke recalled the moment when Francis was introduced to the world and he bowed and asked the crowd to pray for him. He noted the pope’s repeated references to himself as a sinner. And he said pointedly that Francis expects that of others in the church.

Compassion – He reaches out to embrace those who are suffering. At every audience, Burke said, Francis goes to those in wheelchairs, to those who are hurt and touches them.

A few other insights –

The pope’s extraordinarily popular tweets are drawn from his morning homilies and other writings. He signs off on each one before it is sent out.

Bermudez said that this is a man who has always been quotable because he shapes his messages in ways that there is a clear take-away with a quote that people can remember.

Bermudez earlier talked about the seeming obvious but deep impact on Francis both of being from Argentina and being a Jesuit. In Argentina, he said, there is a vibrant Catholicism with lively internal debate, lots of writers and historians and an excellence in canon law. And the Jesuit influence shaped his spirituality, his sense of going to the frontiers which in our era are the cultural margins and then making sure that what you do has results “for the greater glory of God.”

Obama reflects on death and resurrection

Joshua DuBois started working for Barack Obama in 2004 when Obama was running for the U.S. Senate. He guided Obama’s faith outreach efforts during his presidential campaign and then served as director of the White House office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2009 until this past February. Later this month, he has a book coming out called ThePresident’s Devotional: Daily Readings that Inspired President Obama. The book will include not just the readings, but some of DuBois’ reflections on dealing with the spiritual dimensions of the crisis that roll through the White House.

Joshua DuBois talks with
Manya Brachear Pashman
of the Chicago Tribune.
DuBois talked with journalists at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association today in Austin, Texas. There was some tension in the room, because journalists who cover religion found the Obama White House a very difficult place to get access to, but DuBois still praised them for their focus on the issues involving people’s search for meaning.

One fascinating tidbit. He talked about how Obama started an Easter Prayer Breakfast several years ago, inviting a wide range of Christian pastors to join him and then each year, revealing a little bit more about his own understanding of “what the death and resurrection of Jesus meant to him.” DuBois lamented that these did not get enough attention but said they offered a depth of insight into the spiritual side of Obama.

So for those who are interested, here are links to the speeches from the past several years:

April 6, 2010

1st Amendment for people or institutions?

One of the clearest delineations of the terms of the debate over religious liberty came in an unexpected place on Thursday.

Speakers and panelists from many viewpoints had offered their perspectives in a series of presentations in a conference room at the Texas State Capitol as attendees at the Religion Newswriters Association pre-conference probed contentious issues ranging from the Obama administration mandate on including contraceptive care in health insurance to the rights of high school cheerleaders in a small Texas town to put Bible verses on the banner that football players would crash through on their way into the Friday night game.

But it was at an unrelated session on the growing concern about sexual abuse by religious leaders beyond the well-documented Catholic priest scandal that William Bowen framed the issue in a way that I think covered so many of the issues discussed on Thursday.

Bowen, national director of Silentlambs, an organization dedicated to helping the survivors of abuse, was talking about the resistance of the Jehovah’s Witnesses hierarchy to efforts to hold them to account for child molestation by leaders in their communities. He said they always came into court waving the flag of the First Amendment, saying that the government could not touch them.

“The First Amendment was written to protect the rights of the people,” Bowen asserted, “not to protect religious institutions that hurt people.”

He was framing it in particular to argue that religious institutions ought not be shielded from religious accountability for lawbreakers in their ranks. But the broader issue, it seems to me, is whether the First Amendment is to protect people or institutions.

At an earlier panel, Jeff Mateer, general counsel for the Liberty Institute that aggressively pushes back at efforts to limit religious expression, cited the example of a student asked to write an essay about a hero who then picked God as her hero. She was told that was unacceptable. Matt Dillahunty, host of the Atheist Experience program and not normally an ally of Mateer, said, sure, she should be able to write that essay. It is her viewpoint.

The First Amendment was protecting both belief and speech, they agreed. 

Here's a good summary of that panel from Brian Pellot of the Religion News Service.

Laurie Goodstein of The NY Times
asks Steve Green a question
at the RNA meeitng.
The biggest battle over religious liberty at the moment is over the contraception mandate, of course. It pits groups like the Roman Catholic bishops and Hobby Lobby owner Steve Green against the Obama administration’s insistence that employers offer contraception within their health insurance coverage.

The Hobby Lobby case may well be the first one to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The Hobby Lobby position that including contraceptive coverage in its health plan violated the company’s Christian-based opposition to such coverage was upheld in a lower-court ruling.

Green said that he could not countenance the notion of his company being required to be, in his words, “an abortion provider.” That, of course, uses the disputed view that contraceptives don’t merely prevent conception but end an incipient life.

The Catholic bishops, interestingly, may actually have some more room to maneuver on this. Even though the church’s opposition to contraception is deeply rooted and well-known, Fr. Thomas Nairn, senior director of ethics for the Catholic Health Association, and Prof. Andrew Getz of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, talked about renewed attention to an old Catholic moral principal dealing with cooperation with evil.

In essence, the question is how close one is to the evil being done. The greater the distance, the lesser the moral culpability. In the contraception case, they suggested, there is some ability for Catholic institutions to work their way through this with the kind of exemptions the Obama administration has offered to require the insurance companies themselves to absorb the costs of contraceptive care.

Those exemptions are not available to non-church related employers, though. Cue the Hobby Lobby case, that will include the question of whether of corporation is a person.

Which takes us back to that framing of the religious liberty question. Whose freedom is being protected? Under what circumstances? And how to resolve those clashes.

The recurring answer throughout the day. These issues never get resolved. They are part of the tension of a democratic society.

The bright sport was the gracious spirit of everyone throughout the day toward people who were diametrically opposed to their viewpoint. Score one for civility.