The Culture Beat

July 28, 2008

When ‘Muslim’ is a political smear word

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics — Culture Beat @ 11:34 am

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It’s safe to say there are good reasons not to vote for Barack Obama as president. (That much could be said about any candidate.) Fair enough.

His being a Muslim should not be one of those reasons because – well, because he’s not a Muslim. He never has been. But that’s just one of the rumors that keep circulating among inattentive citizens, zealous bloggers and cynical talk-show hosts.

A Newsweek survey of registered voters this month found that more than half of them, 52 percent, believed at least one of four falsehoods about Obama’s connections to Islam. So many false rumors are flying around that his campaign launched a Web site just to combat them: www.fightthesmears.com.

In theory, Obama’s religion – or Republican candidate John McCain’s or anybody else’s – shouldn’t matter. The U.S. Constitution forbids using religion as a test for public office. In practice, it does matter. Polls consistently find that most Americans want a believer in the Oval Office, preferably some kind of Christian.

People spread rumors for a reason, and the Obama-as-Muslim lie isn’t meant as a compliment. It’s a smear.

But what if your beliefs were being used as a political slur? Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee, takes the insult philosophically.

“Given the current conditions in the country and the world, we’re kind of resigned to the fact that’s the way it is,” he said. “The mood of the country is very much anti-Muslim right now. I think everyone wants a hands-off policy as far as Muslims are concerned.”

Muslims in this region have always been treated with respect, Aziz said, even after the 2001 terrorist attacks. But they have noticed changes in the last six months.

For example, Aziz’s teenage daughter, who wears a traditional head scarf, a hijab, was shopping at J.C. Penney recently when a woman she didn’t know approached her. “You need to take that thing off,” she told the girl. When Aziz’s daughter replied that this is a free country, the woman brusquely turned and walked away. It was a brief but telling moment.

“People shout from cars,” Aziz reported. “It happened to me as I was coming out of Lowe’s one day: ‘Go back to Iraq!’ or something to that effect. For me it’s not a big thing. I’m just a person of color. But for women who wear the hijab, it’s more than that.”

Aziz, who was born in Bangladesh but has lived in the U.S. most of his life, said he doesn’t know where “that hate” is coming from. Maybe people are just nervous about the Middle East, he said – but he suspects political rhetoric is partly to blame.

“Some people think (all Muslims) are somehow involved in terrorism,” he said. “I can’t seem to say often enough that we condemned the 9/11 attacks and that targeting civilians is against Islamic law.”

The atmosphere is strained enough that when the New Yorker magazine tried to lampoon the Obama rumors with a satirical cartoon on its cover two weeks ago, the attempt backfired. (It portrayed him in traditional Muslim dress, and his wife, Michelle, as a 1960s black-power radical.) Both major presidential candidates criticized the magazine. Aziz said he was “disgusted.”

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The problem, he said, is that in a climate where people are eager to believe rumors, such images are easily misunderstood and exploited.

“You can get some people to vote based on fear,” Aziz said. “This makes me question where certain people in this country are heading. Their politics – these things you hear on the radio, spewing this hate, aimed toward a fear about Muslims – is troubling. I can’t put a finger on where that venom comes from or where it leads. Does it become hatred that permeates the whole society?”

Aziz tries to remain optimistic. He recalled how John F. Kennedy, running for president in 1960, faced bigotry about his Roman Catholicism.

“Kennedy overcame that, and I feel positive that we will, in time,” he said. “There are trying times now that we must go through.”

But a note of skepticism remains, understandably.

“We hear about bringing people together, about ‘the audacity of hope,’” Aziz said. “We kind of wonder if we’re included in that.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 July 2008.
Image from: tharwacommunity.typepad.com/…/index.html.

June 16, 2008

Holy Toledo! Free speech under fire … again

Filed under: Politics — Culture Beat @ 7:41 pm

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A university is a bastion of free speech, an academic haven for unpopular ideas. Keep telling yourself that as you read the story of Crystal Dixon, an administrator — well, a former administrator now — at the University of Toledo (Ohio), a public university. Last month she was put on paid leave and then fired after she wrote an unpopular opinion in the major local newspaper, the Free Press:

As a black woman … I take great umbrage at the notion that those choosing the homosexual lifestyle are ‘civil rights victims.’ Here’s why. I cannot wake up tomorrow and not be a black woman. I am genetically and biologically a black woman … Daily, thousands of homosexuals make a life decision to leave the gay lifestyle evidenced by the growing population of PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex Gays) and Exodus International just to name a few.

She wrote her column in response to an earlier column by FP Editor in Chief Michael S. Miller in which he discussed the university’s policy about benefits for same-sex partners. A few weeks after Dixon’s column ran, the university president, Lloyd Jacobs, repudiated her views in a column of his own, writing, “Her comments do not accord with the values of the University of Toledo.”

Apparently that wasn’t enough, and so Dixon was disciplined and eventually fired. Agree or disagree with her views, there’s a little matter of free speech.

Miller, to his credit, said that while he strongly disagreed with Dixon’s comments, he defended her right to say them:

The university operates in an atmosphere of idea exchange, and while I recognize the institution’s desire to distance itself from her, this is a basic free speech issue and I am disappointed she has been punished for expressing her views.

This is the latest in a string of recent stories about free speech being punished, particularly when it comes to religious issues. For instance, there’s also this and this. We haven’t even talked about the chatter about some future American legislation restricting hate speech. I’m not nervously chewing my nails yet, but we might want to keep our eyes on stories like these. Too many of them are popping up for my comfort.

PS: Dixon recently launched a web site to express her views and raise donations.

June 9, 2008

Obama starts in the old Bible belt: If he can make it here …

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics — Culture Beat @ 10:04 am

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Sen. Barack Obama has some nerve. I mean that as a compliment. His first stop on the campaign trail after effectively clinching the Democratic presidential nomination was Bristol, Va., of all places. During Thursday’s record-setting heat, more than 2,000 people squeezed into his “town-hall meeting” at the Virginia High School gym, and no one knows how many more would have attended if there had been space.

Imagine: His first real step of the national campaign came in small-town, NASCAR territory, the birthplace of country music, a region usually passed over by presidential candidates, especially Democrats. John F. Kennedy was the last one to stop here, almost a half century ago. Politics deal in symbolism, and Obama was sending signals.

And he came to the old Bible belt, where religion is part of the landscape and many citizens vote as an act of devotion. So while people of faith in this region – most of them evangelical Christians, by far – might appreciate how Obama writes and speaks about his own Christian faith, they won’t necessarily vote for him.

Not only do his positions on several hot-button issues, including abortion and same-sex unions, run counter to typical evangelical stances. Even his religion is a lightning rod, partly because of his relationship with a controversial former pastor and partly because of lies circulating on the Internet that have more to do with fear or bigotry than with fact. (No, Obama is not a Muslim and never has been.)

So how can he hope to appeal to voters here, at least well enough to gain a hearing?

That’s a question I asked several people attending Thursday’s event. (I picked them randomly, except to make sure I spoke with men and women, young and old, black and white. Everyone I talked with was either uncommitted or leaning to Obama.)

Carl Shoupe, a disabled coal miner from Benham, Ky., who introduced himself as a born-again Christian, said, “(Obama) has to make himself available in this area and show people he’s really concerned about the working class of people and about restoring the middle class.” (Obama talked about such topics Thursday, particularly the economics of health care.)

Shoupe, a registered Democrat and union member, attends a Pentecostal church. “It’s time for us to elect someone who knows about our common plight and has been there,” he said. “That’s basically where I think Obama is at. He was raised in single-parent family and all that.”

“He has drawn on his faith, and that should appeal to most people here,” said Brendan McSheehy from Abingdon, Va., a Roman Catholic who called himself politically independent. “He needs a reaching-out process, and he needs to understand the positions of those who would be his constituency. Today’s (meeting is) a good example.”

Jack Garland, a Southern Baptist minister from Emory, Va., is still undecided but thinks Obama is on the right track, largely because of the candidate’s opposition to the Iraqi war.

“He should continue to say what he’s been saying from God’s holy word,” he said. “He’s been clear in his stance as far as morality is concerned. I’ve heard him speak many times, and I see no inconsistencies at all in his comments.”

According to Donna Kuczko, a school teacher from Abingdon, Obama must “find a way to calm the fears” of people who are influenced too much by “media who taint the news” (naming Fox News in particular) and “crazy e-mails” that slander Obama or misrepresent his positions.

Kuczko, who grew up in the region and attends Highlands Fellowship, an evangelical congregation, said she is “totally against abortion,” but thinks Christians should not be one-issue voters.

“I’m concerned about a lot of other serious issues, such as the fact that we do not as Americans start wars,” she said. “As Americans, we don’t behave the way we are behaving with Guantanamo Bay. I’ve been around the world, and I am positive that global warming is a reality. It’s a serious issue.”

Paulette Cathey of Kingsport is a registered Republican and attends Colonial Heights Christian Church. She’s a social conservative, but she’s thinking about voting for Obama.

“I haven’t voted for a Democrat for a long time,” she said. “Nobody’s perfect, and candidates may not be everything I believe in, but that won’t happen until we get to heaven.”

Until then, Cathey said, “We need to continue to pray, whoever our leaders are.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 7 June 2008.

May 27, 2008

‘Going to the (fill in the blank) and we’re gonna to get married’

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics,The Church — Culture Beat @ 9:55 am

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Consider this paradox: The government of Germany supports religion, but clergy there are not allowed to perform official weddings. Couples must be wed by state authorities. For a church ceremony, the couple takes an extra step, and they often do, even a year after their official marriage.

In the U.S., however, where church and state are officially separate, clergy are allowed to perform state-approved ceremonies.

The irony is apparent to Scott Bartchy, professor of Christian origins and the history of religion at UCLA, who taught in Germany during the 1970s.

“Early on (in the U.S) we empowered ministers and rabbis to marry people,” said Bartchy, who graduated from Milligan College (where I teach), earned advanced Harvard degrees, and once taught at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City. “We hear it when they say, ‘by the authority vested in me by the state of Tennessee.’ What in the world is the ministry doing administering the laws of Tennessee?”

The complex relationship between marriage, the state and religion crashed the headlines again last week when the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in that state.

The ruling was close, 4-3, and it may be overturned if voters decide in November to amend the state constitution to define marriage as only between a man and woman. (In 2000, Californians passed a proposition saying as much, with a 61 percent majority, but that does not carry constitutional weight.)

Except for California and Massachusetts, which approved same-sex marriage in 2003, American laws recognize marriage only between a man and a woman. Several states, including California, already have domestic partnership provisions, which give same-sex couples some legal rights but are not considered equal with marriage.

But more than legalities are involved. There are cultural and economic dimensions – and religious ones, of course. People get married in church buildings, synagogues and mosques for a reason.

Faith traditions teach theological ideas about the meaning of marriage and family. For Christians and Jews, Genesis 2 portrays the relationship between man and woman as a reflection of God’s own nature. Popular notions of romance – “when two egos enter a relationship to maximize their own benefits,” as Bartchy put it – doesn’t play a big role. The biblical ideal of being “of one flesh” means more than being in one bed.

There was a time when such ideas were generally accepted, and common religious teachings coincided with the state’s interest in maintaining stable households. Church and state found it easy to meet at the wedding altar.

That cooperation was part of another legacy – the tangled and often troubled relationships between governments and churches dating back at least to 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and favored it with his patronage.

Before then, distinctions were clear between Christians and the society at large ad especially the government. Constantine’s edict made life easier for Christians, but it also smudged the borders between church, state and society.

The current disputes over marriage show just how long-lasting and messy that legacy has been. Here’s a question: If a minister believes – for theological reasons – that marriage is only between a man and a woman, but performs a wedding in Massachusetts or California, is he or she compromising a matter of faith by sanctifying that state’s broader definition of marriage? Or anywhere – what if a minister who believes Jesus’ words about divorce (Matthew 19:3-9) performs a marriage between two legally divorced people?

The state is interested in stability, but not necessarily in how or why people live together, other than a vague notion of “an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children,” as California Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote in last week’s majority opinion.

It may be time for church and state to separate at the altar, according to Bartchy.

“I think we would clean up our act a whole lot if the state alone issued marriage licenses,” he said. “Whatever form the majority thinks that should take ought to be case, since this is a democracy. Then whatever Christian or other religious groups do, that’s for them to decide.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 24 May 2008.

Going green as a matter of faith

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics — Culture Beat @ 9:38 am

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The Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Pat Robertson, politically poles apart, appear in a public-service TV ad together, promoting the “one thing we can agree on”: taking care of the planet.

A couple of months ago, a Vatican official made headlines when he offered his list of modern sins, including pollution. Not long before, the Vatican hosted a scientific conference to discuss global warming and climate change, and engineers at the Holy See are installing photovoltaic cells on some buildings to capture solar power.

In 2006, 86 evangelical Christian leaders signed a document to express concern over global warming, signaling a new level of concern among some theologically conservative Christians – and revealing a rift between some older leaders who consider environmental action a distraction from the work of saving souls, and a younger generation of leaders who see “creation care” as vital to the Christian message.

All of this is to say that around the world, religious movements – in this case, Christian ones – are talking green.

Locally, where churches seem to hug every bend in the road, such talk has been pretty quiet.

“I don’t see much evidence of faith-based initiatives here,” Johnson City Commissioner Marcy Walker said this week. She has been involved with development issues for years, including serving on the city planning commission and school board. “I know people who are very spiritual who are committed to protect the environment. I’d really like to see that here.”

Walker, who has lived in sprawling San Diego and Memphis, doesn’t want to see northeast Tennessee plowed under by development.

It’s not that she is anti-growth, she said. The question isn’t if the area will build more houses, shopping centers and business parks, but how best to manage that growth so it doesn’t spoil the beauty that attracts people to the area in the first place.

She is quick to point out that the city is already working on being more “green” by tapping and selling methane gas from the Iris Glen landfill, reducing the need for electricity production and netting almost $1 million for the city every year. Johnson City was among the first communities in the state to launch a recycling program, and it’s started to financially break even.

These and other efforts are “baby steps,” she said, but put enough of them together and the effects will be significant.

“We have a lot of creative people in this community, and we need grassroots initiative,” she said. “How do we build smarter, better?”

Roy Settle, the coordinator of the Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development Council, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is occupied with that same question.

“Balance is the key,” he said. “We need to grow, but people relocate here and talk about how green it is, about the mountains.”

How do we keep it green? Local governments, for example, can offer incentives for redeveloping property close to the central core of a city rather than converting farmland into new subdivisions.

When asked, Settle easily connects concern for the environment, economic policy and matters of faith.
“I always start with Genesis 2:15, when God told humans to till and tend the garden, not rape, pillage and burn it,” he said. “The Bible says that good stewards are rewarded, and it’s clear that civilizations that didn’t take care of their resources suffered.”

A practical man, Settle suggested how people of faith can practice good stewardship in their own backyards. He began with grocery shopping.

“Go to farmers’ markets,” he said. “The food is fresher, it’s more economical and by supporting local farmers, it gives them a reason to keep their farmlands.”

Buying local produce cuts down on transportation costs too, not a small thing in days of high gas and diesel prices.

“But faith isn’t about the effect on my pocketbook,” he added. “People can be mindful of the resources used. If we’re wasteful, we don’t have as much to share with other people.”

Religious belief is not necessary for taking care of the environment, Settle said, “but in fact it does give a basis for that. It’s in the Bible.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 10 May 2008.

May 3, 2008

Global shifts, national interests, spiritual kinships

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics,The Church — Culture Beat @ 11:43 am

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Some time ago I was behind a car plastered with three bumper stickers: “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace … One Nation Under God … The Power of Pride,” the last one decorated with an American flag.

It took a minute for the mixed message of cheek-turning Christianity, proud nationalism and support for the war on terrorism to sink in, partly because that blend is a common sight around here.

Not so in other parts of the world, not even where the Christian faith used to dominate, according to Dr. Brian Stanley, a church historian and missions specialist at England’s Cambridge University.

“There has been a massive shift since the Second World War,” he said, one that has moved the global weight of Christianity to the south and east – to Africa and Asia – and away from the “old heartlands of Christianity” in Europe and North America.

Almost two-thirds of the world’s Christians – about 65 percent – live in Africa and Asia now. A hundred years ago, at most 10 percent of the world’s Christians lived in those regions.

But since 1945, migration, improved mass communications and waves of independence movements that freed colonies from old European powers helped to alter the world’s religious landscape.

At the same time, Christianity began declining in Europe and in parts of North America. If this is a typical weekend in Western Europe, less than 10 percent of adults will darken the door of a Christian or Jewish place of worship, a percentage closely mirrored in many urban areas on this side of the Atlantic.

The growth of Christianity in Asia and Africa “surprised a lot of people,” said Stanley, who directs the Henry Martyn Centre, an academic institute specializing in the study of Christianity around the world. In the 1950s and ’60s, experts predicted that Christian religion would evaporate after Western colonists pulled out. Just the opposite happened.

“What was once Christian in the North – or West, if you prefer – is not Christian anymore,” Stanley said. Gone are the old distinctions between so-called Christian and heathen nations. No one can easily draw a religion’s territory on a map anymore.

If the geography of Christianity has changed, so has the environment in which it operates. It is a minority religion in most cultures, just one among many faiths.

“What is emerging in the South (hemisphere) is a very different form of Christianity,” said Stanley, who lectured at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tenn., in 2004. “Very few nation-states have governments that are explicitly Christian. The majority are Islamic or secular, such as India because it is so religiously diverse.”

That kind of atmosphere is “cutting away at a lot of deadwood,” Stanley said. “People are Christians because they choose to be, sometimes at considerable cost.”

In Iraq, for example, Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, was kidnapped and killed in March, but his high-profile death came after a series of abductions, murders and church bombings aimed at Iraq’s Christian communities.

In most places, Christianity is starting to resemble the church in its earliest days, according to Stanley, when “people were more at the margins of power rather than at the center of power, and often challenging the powers that be.”

This global shift will test Christians in the United States and other Western nations, even in the so-called Bible belt. Bumper-sticker slogans won’t work well.

“Christian identity and Western or American identity are going to pull further and further apart,” Stanley said. “More and more Christians will not be in free, democratic societies. That will challenge our view of Christianity in its connection with our national identity.”

In other words, Western Christians should expect to wrestle with political and economic policies that pressure fellow believers in other countries. Christians in Palestine, for example, are baffled and angry at the strong support that American church leaders such as John Hagee give to Israeli policies, even when Palestinian church communities are destroyed as a result.

American Christians are entering unfamiliar territory, where national interests collide with spiritual kinships.

“That will challenge Christians,” says Stanley. “Where is your ultimate loyalty?”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 3 May 2008.

Yeah. It’s the money thing again.

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics,The Church — Culture Beat @ 11:41 am

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Last fall Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, started poking his Iowan nose into the finances of six media-based ministries. Citing allegations of possible abuses – extravagant housing allowances, excessive compensation, personal use of assets such as private jets, lax board governance, unreported income – he wanted an accounting, literally, of how much money these ministries receive and how it gets used.

The targeted ministry leaders cried foul at first, saying the Senate was tearing down the wall separating church and state, but four of them have since started cooperating. Only Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar continue to resist. Life may get complicated for them.

Grassley said he simply wants to protect donors.

“Tax-exempt organizations rely on the generosity and good will of their contributors to help fill food pantries, clothe the needy and serve the underprivileged,” he stated. “Donors of modest means pinch pennies and make sacrifices so others less fortunate may benefit from their collective contributions. … Considering tax-exempt media-based ministries today are a billion-dollar industry with minimal transparency, it would be irresponsible not to examine this tax-exempt part of our economy.”

The Senate committee action might be necessary, but it’s unfortunate. Government intervention wouldn’t be necessary if donors were doing their job, which involves more than writing a check. They should also be asking questions.

“Ministries are responsive to donor enquiries,” according to Kenneth Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a voluntary accreditation agency for Christian nonprofit organizations. “Donors should understand they have a long-term relationship (with ministries). Healthy dialogues are always good. Self-regulation is better than government oversight.”

His organization, like a Christian Better Business Bureau, offers suggestions for wise giving (“know your charity … understand what your gift will accomplish … focus on the mission”). The bottom line: Donors should be both generous and informed. The Internet, Behr points out, makes active, educated giving easier than ever.

Concerns about mixing money and ministry are as old as the church itself — not surprising, considering the Bible’s general skepticism about wealth. Jesus said it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25), a verse not quoted much by the Rev. Dollar. Jesus sent his followers out to preach with necessities, not with some first-century equivalent of a Rolls Royce.

The apostle Paul wrote that “workers deserve their wages,” and that good teachers and leaders should be treated generously. But a few lines later, he warned that “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction, for the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Timothy 6: 9, 10).

Money itself is not evil, but perhaps dollar bills should be printed with warning labels: “Money can be hazardous to spiritual health.”

By the early second century, just a generation after Paul, church leaders were concerned enough about potential financial abuses that a Christian instruction manual, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (known in Greek as the Didache), addressed the issue.

“Let every apostle (messenger) who comes to you be received as the Lord,” the Didache instructed. “But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there’s a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet. … Not every one who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; but only if he holds the ways of the Lord.”

It’s impossible to say for sure what early Christians would think of a TV preacher who cries for cash and promises riches in return, but it’s obvious that their tests were more practical than mystical: If some teacher outstayed his welcome or scrounged for wealth, then he wasn’t to be trusted.

With 1,900-year-old wisdom like that, maybe Sen. Grassley wouldn’t need to protect donors from dodgy televangelists or, for that matter, from themselves.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 April 2008. This was the second of two columns on financial accountability; the first appeared on April 5.
Image from www.biblepicturegallery.com.

April 5, 2008

Grassley to televangelists: Pardon the cliché, but show me the money

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics,Television,The Church — Culture Beat @ 2:27 pm

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If televangelist Benny Hinn wants to say that Adam traveled to the moon, the law can’t touch him. Hinn has every right to teach wild stuff.

The same goes for Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar. If they can find a way to twist an obscure verse in Psalms to justify a fleet of Rolls Royces, there’s no earthly law to stop them.

And if Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa is launching a doctrinal witch hunt from the Senate, then I would stand with unorthodox televangelists, a copy of the First Amendment in one hand and a bottle of Pepto Bismol in the other, to defend their right to be wrong.

But if preachers are using the First Amendment to hide fraud or evade taxes, then somebody should hold them accountable. If churches or donors won’t do it, then maybe it’s up to the government.

Last November, Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, wrote to six ministries, asking dozens of questions about their expenses, treatment of donations, business practices, oversight and compensation for leaders.

The ministries under the microscope include Benny Hinn Ministries, based in Grapevine, Texas; Joyce Meyer Ministries, Fenton, Mo.; Kenneth Copeland Ministries, Newark, Texas; New Birth Missionary Baptist Church/Eddie L. Long Ministries, Lithonia, Ga.; Without Walls International Church/Paula White Ministries, Tampa, Fla.; and World Changers Church International/Creflo Dollar Ministries, College Park, Ga.

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Why these ministries? Grassley (pictured here) said he received information from watchdog groups and local news investigations that made him wonder if the organizations were hiding something, and so he began an inquiry. He gave the ministries a March 31 deadline to respond.

Predictably, some ministry leaders and supporters cried foul, saying the committee breached the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. But Meyer’s ministry answered the questions almost immediately, and three others later indicated a willingness to comply.

By Monday’s deadline, only Copeland and Dollar still refused to cooperate. They claim the committee singled out so-called Word of Faith ministries, which teach that faithful living – and giving – will yield financial riches now, not just spiritual riches in the hereafter.

Grassley, a Baptist, has been called a hypocrite, a persecutor of the church, a Judas. He said he’s just doing his job.

“I have an obligation to protect the integrity of U.S. tax laws,” he stated last fall. “If tax-exempt organizations, including media-based ministries, thumb their noses at the laws governing their preferential tax treatment, the American public, their contributors and the Internal Revenue Service have a right to know.”

What makes Grassley’s actions unusual is that it involves churches, according to Kenneth Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a voluntary accreditation agency for Christian nonprofit organizations. But he doesn’t believe any First Amendment issues are currently at stake.

“At the heart of the questions are IRS tax issues,” he explained. “It’s not so much how much is paid, but if they’re accountable to anyone else.”

He has encouraged the ministries to cooperate with Grassley’s inquiry. (None of them is among the 2,000 ECFA members.)

“Accountability and financial disclosure are key ingredients to integrity,” Behr said, “and as a pragmatic issue, we should ask what’s the best course, with the least amount of damage. It’s easier to comply and then worry about legislation coming out of it, than to tempt fate by frustrating the process.”

With the deadline passed, Behr thinks the Finance Committee will now increase the pressure on Copeland and Dollar, launching a formal investigation. That’s “a whole new ball game,” Behr said, which could lead from subpoenas to new laws governing nonprofit ministries.

He would rather see churches and ministries regulate themselves. But, he points out, accountability among American religious groups is difficult. Compared to other nations, more American churches operate under local leadership, which is both a source of vitality and of potential problems.

“The U.S. has a tremendous number of congregational churches, which function with a democratic process, with members who give money and elect leaders for oversight,” Behr said. “At the same time, we have many personality-driven churches, many of them megachurches today. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Pastor who start a ministry because of their personality and charisma, their calling.”

While most such ministries work fine, many succumb to the dark side of independence and operate without any accountability.

“Every church in the U.S., regardless of ecclesiastical structure, should understand they need to be accountable,” Behr said. “It’s very biblical.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press. 5 April 2008.

March 15, 2008

The president’s veto forces a choice

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics — Culture Beat @ 3:12 pm

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There’s so much we don’t know.

Few people know what goes on behind closed doors when CIA agents try to squeeze information from a suspected terrorist or informant. Probably fewer want to know.

I don’t know where exactly the line is between so-called enhanced interrogation techniques and torture, but even legal experts have trouble finding that boundary. I don’t know how many terrorist plots, if any, have been foiled by such techniques.

And I certainly don’t know how I would respond in a situation where getting a scrap of information would save the lives of family, friends or total strangers.

But I do know that President Bush vetoed a bill last week that would have restricted the CIA to the same practices allowed by the American military field manual, which forbids techniques that most nations and international treaties regard as abuse and torture. That is, the president apparently gave the intelligence agency permission to use those methods, such as electric shocks, sexual abuse or mock executions, as long as they are not called “torture.” (The CIA has admitted to using the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding in the past, but it has since been banned under recent political pressure.)

Bush defends his decision by saying the CIA needs such latitude to gain information vital to our national security. That’s something else I don’t know: Whether his claim is true.

We do know that the president’s assertion that the bill would have taken away “one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror — the CIA program to detain and question key terrorist leaders and operatives” is not accurate.

The field manual does not bar aggressive interrogation; it sets limits on how far interrogators can go. But President Bush is willing to remove such limits for the sake of national security. His reasoning is simple enough: If the enemy knows what techniques Americans will or won’t allow, they can train people to withstand what is allowed. Is this true? That’s something else I don’t know.

But this I do know: the veto effectively forces Christians – and other people of faith, for that matter – to make choices about their priorities and allegiances.

Except for those who think the legendary tormentors of the Inquisition were onto something, our implied acceptance of torture cannot be reconciled with Christian teaching.

This is a sadly ironic turn, considering how strongly Bush aligned himself with religious conservatives when he campaigned for office and began his administration. (How long ago that seems now.)

If we want to know what Jesus would do about torture, we only need to open the New Testament and read about his crucifixion. The coming observance of Good Friday is a reminder that Jesus received torture. He didn’t give it out.

The argument, of course, is that we’re talking about American national security. True. But then let’s be consistent and honest with ourselves. We must decide from where we take our cues about how we treat people, even those who would destroy us.

We can either say that national security is our priority, that our safety is more important than other people, especially our enemies. Or we can say we want to follow Jesus, who prayed for his enemies even as they abused, tortured and killed him. But we can’t say both.

That doesn’t keep some people from trying, however.

On Tuesday, the president spoke in Nashville at the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, spending most of his time defending the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He talked about progress and setbacks, about the spread of liberty, about increased security for America. He referred to Americans as “a compassionate people” who value life. He said the U.S. must “be determined to defeat this enemy.”

He did not discuss his recent veto, mention the word torture or discuss American interrogation techniques. Nor did he warn against letting fear drive us to embrace actions we once rejected as barbaric. He didn’t speak about the moral and spiritual risks that come with war.

During his 42-minute speech, the audience, mostly Christian radio and TV show producers and hosts, interrupted the president with applause 29 times.

I don’t know why.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 15 March 2008.

February 16, 2008

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics,The Church — Culture Beat @ 3:36 pm

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Balancing democratic values with religious conviction is tricky business, which the delightfully persistent presidential candidate Mike Huckabee knows better than most people.

Critics harrumphed, for example, when the former Arkansas governor and ordained Southern Baptist minister (above) salted his “Super Tuesday” primary victory speech with biblical allusions (which likely didn’t register with most Americans).

His speech, they said, was yet more evidence that a President Huckabee would transform the U.S. into a bigoted theocracy.

Overreaction? Scare talk? Certainly. On the other hand, Huckabee himself can pour fuel on such fires.

“I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution,” he told a crowd before last month’s Michigan primary. “But I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do – to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family.”

While the Constitution guarantees the right for Americans to practice, teach and encourage what they believe to be “God’s standards,” it was not written to enforce those beliefs. I’m not sure what Huckabee meant; maybe he was simply stating a benign personal preference. But I imagine his words could sound ominous to an atheist or agnostic, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist or even another type of Christian.

Incidentally, empowering the government with religious oversight seems odd for a candidate who pledges to “put the IRS out of business.” Does he trust the government more with citizens’ spiritual lives than with their money?

Making room for personal faith in the public square isn’t only an American dilemma. England got a fresh taste of the difficulty this week.

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Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (pictured here), the leading cleric in the Church of England and in the worldwide Anglican Communion, found himself under fire after remarks he made about the Muslim legal code, Sharia, and its place in British society.

“It seems unavoidable and indeed as a matter of fact certain provisions of Sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law,” he told a BBC interviewer. “So it’s not as if we’re bringing in an alien and rival system.”

Alarmed reports interpreted Williams’ words as an endorsement of – or surrender to – Islamic law, or as accepting a system that would allow Britain’s Muslims to live under a separate code. Not incidentally, the European Court of Human Rights has deemed Sharia as incompatible with modern democratic values, largely because of reports of extreme interpretations and atrocities from Middle Eastern nations, such as the execution of rape victims on charges of fornication.

It’s small wonder that the archbishop’s words stunned Britain. But reading the entire interview reveals a more sensible message. Naming the atrocities as the horrors they are, Williams said other aspects of Sharia would be acceptable.

“We already have in this country a number of situations in which the law – the internal law of religious communities – is recognized by the law of the land as justifying conscientious objections in certain circumstances,” Williams told the interviewer. “It’s not something that’s absolutely peculiar to Islam. We have orthodox Jewish courts operating in this country … not to mention the questions about how the consciences of Catholics, Anglicans and others who have difficulty about issues like abortion are accommodated within the law. So the whole idea that there are perfectly proper ways in which the law of the land pays respect to custom and community – that’s already there.”

For citizens to live under one law is “an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy,” Williams said, but people also have “other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society, and the law needs to take some account of that.”

In short, Williams thinks British law gives Muslims the same latitude to practice as other faiths, including Christianity – a notion not far from the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.

Considering early American history – how many people fled to the New World in search of religious freedom, often from the Church of England – it’s paradoxical that the archbishop of Canterbury may have a better grasp of what that freedom means than a presidential candidate does.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 Feb 08.

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