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“Christmas Joy Without Piety”: The Most Humble Holy Day

I once told a favorite pastor of mine that I liked him because he wasn’t too pious.

As soon as the words were out there, I wondered if I should have just kept my mouth shut — I’m not good at that — since he might have found my compliment offensive. After all, many priests aspire to being pious, which can be defined as “devoutly religious” or “prayerful.” This would seem to be part of a cleric’s job description.

But this priest ratified my original intuition by saying thanks. He knew I had in mind the other definition of pious, “making a hypocritical display of virtue.” I am always skeptical of those who present themselves as very holy and righteous. Their lack of humility blinds them to the sins that should matter to us most — our own.

The other thing about my priest friend is that he is a very cheerful man and thus never went in for the deadly seriousness that some pious people use as a battering ram against fun, laughter and joy. If religious faith isn’t about joy, there’s no point to it.

You can make the case that Christmas is the religious holiday best suited for those who are skeptical of piety. If you put aside television ads for BMWs and the like, it’s the most humble holy day and the one closest to where people live. It’s astonishing to have a religious celebration of God as a helpless child. The idea of God being self-effacing enough to enter such a state is revolutionary. And, yes, babies are incapable of piety.

Or consider “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” my favorite Christmas song. It was discovered and perhaps partly written by John Wesley Work Jr., the son of a slave and the earliest African-American collector of spirituals and folk songs who spent much of his professional life at Fisk University. The song embodies a joyous demand, much as a movement makes demands on its loyalists. One lyric tells us: “Down in a lowly manger our humble Christ was born.” Three things about this: The manger is lowly, Jesus is humble, and (in most versions, at least) he’s “our” Christ. Power and affection flow both ways.

Christmas also inspires a certain theological humility, or it ought to. The birth story appears in only two of the four Gospels, and the tellings are different. Luke describes the shepherds, the angels and the manger while Matthew introduces the wise men, who go to a home, not a manger.

That popular devotion merges the two narratives together should not offend us. It’s important to learn from what the theologian Harvey Cox calls “people’s religion” and to examine not only “what is written, preached or taught,” but also “the actual impact of a religious idea on people.” Cox is hard on his fellow liberals who look down condescendingly upon the religious faith of those whose side they usually take in social struggles. “Those who support justice for the poor cannot spit on their devotions,” he wrote acidly in his book “The Seduction of the Spirit.”

In fact, more than any other religious holiday, the widespread celebration of Christmas arose from popular demand. The holiday has been highly controversial within Christianity and celebrating it was once illegal in New England. The Puritans had some decent arguments that the day was a form of idolatry and paganism that could be traced back to ancient Rome and had little scriptural support. The pious Puritans also didn’t much like all the raucous revelry its celebration entailed. It was not until 1870 that President Ulysses Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday.

Might it quell the kerfuffle around the “Christmas wars” if we acknowledged that the original war on Christmas was waged by very devout Christians? Of course not, because the controversy is about politics and television ratings, not religion.

Still, I cannot go with those who simply see Christmas as a winter solstice celebration under another name. There is a radical intuition about God in that manger (even if it’s only in one Gospel). And nearly every Christmas story comes back to liberation and salvation, compassion and the quest for second chances. That’s true of Dickens’ tale about Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s true of It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s true of the lyrics of “Good King Wenceslas” (“Ye who will now bless the poor/Shall yourselves find blessing”).

And if this sounds a little pious, please forgive me. After all, it’s Christmas.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 24, 2014

December 25, 2014 Posted by | Christianity, Christmas, Religion | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“He Was Awfully Busy Last Time”: In Early Polling, God Remains Undecided On Pick For 2016 GOP Nominee

Had you asked me which of the 20 or so potential Republican presidential candidates would be first to claim that his candidacy was endorsed by God himself, I would have said Ben Carson, who has the necessary combination of deep religious faith and self-aggrandizing nuttiness. And today we learn that while the creator of the universe is still mulling his options, he’s not exactly giving Carson a no:

In an interview on Thursday with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Carson said he felt the hand of the Lord pushing him toward the White House.

“Has He grabbed you by the collar yet?” host David Brody asked.

“I feel fingers,” Carson said. “But, um, you know… It’s mostly me.”

Admirably modest and self-aware, I’d say. But I still bet that eventually Carson will announce that he’s received a signal from above that the campaign is a go. If and when he does, he’ll surely have some competition, that is if 2016 is anything like 2012. In case you don’t recall, God was awfully busy last time. Here are some highlights:

Michele Bachmann, when asked if she was being called to run, said, “Well, every decision that I make, I pray about, as does my husband, and I can tell you, yes, I’ve had that calling and that tugging on my heart that this is the right thing to do.” She also noted that God had called her to run for Congress in 2006.

In July of 2011, Rick Perry said his impending campaign was a God-sanctioned religious mission: “I’m getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I’ve been called to do. This is what America needs.”

While Rick Santorum didn’t say God had instructed him to run, his wife Karen did say that she put aside her initial reluctance about a campaign after concluding that it was what God wanted.

My personal favorite is Herman Cain’s story of how one day when he was tired from going out and meeting potential voters his granddaughter sent him a text telling him she loved him. The sweet act of a loving child? Heavens, no. “Do you know that had to be God?” Cain said. “I know that God was speaking to me through my granddaughter, that this is something that I have got to at least explore.”

And here’s a little bonus from four years prior, when past and future candidate Mike Huckabee, who may or may not have been called to run, explained a fleeting rise in his poll numbers by saying, “There’s only one explanation for it, and it’s not a human one. It’s the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people. That’s the only way that our campaign can be doing what it’s doing. And I’m not being facetious nor am I trying to be trite.” Apparently, God was only teasing, because Huckabee did not in fact become president.

Of course, just because God tells you to run doesn’t mean he’s promising you’ll win. Maybe it’s his plan that you run and humiliate yourself in order to make you humble, which looks like it might have been the idea with Rick Perry in particular (though I don’t know that the humility lesson really took).

All kidding aside, I understand that deeply religious people pray for guidance and wisdom whenever they’re faced with a big decision, and whether to run for president is about as big as it gets. It helps if you can attribute to God the thing you want for yourself. And this is really just a religious version of the reason every candidate says they’re running. No one says, “I’m running for president because I’m pathologically ambitious, it’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was 10 years old, and this is the year I think I’ve got a real shot.” Instead, they all say it’s a calling of one sort or another. It’s because the challenges the country faces are so enormous that as someone who cares so deeply about America, they just couldn’t stay on the sidelines. It’s because they have a vision that can lead us into the future. It’s because this is such a critical time in our history. In short, they all say, “I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for something much larger and greater.”

In other words, everyone who runs for president delivers a line of bull when asked why they’re running. Saying it’s because God demands it may at first blush sound particularly crazy, but it’s all the same.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, November 22, 2014

November 23, 2014 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Zimmerman Acquittal”: Is America’s God Racist And Carrying A Gun Stalking Young Black Men?

The not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman case has me thinking a lot about a book I first encountered in seminary, Is God a White Racist?, by the Rev. Dr. Bill Jones. As a budding seminary student, it took me by surprise. Now, as a wiser, older professor looking at the needless death of Trayvon Martin, I have to say: I get it.

God ain’t good all of the time. In fact, sometimes, God is not for us. As a black woman in a nation that has taken too many pains to remind me that I am not a white man, and am not capable of taking care of my reproductive rights, or my voting rights, I know that this American god ain’t my god. As a matter of fact, I think he’s a white racist god with a problem. More importantly, he is carrying a gun and stalking young black men.

When George Zimmerman told Sean Hannity that it was God’s will that he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, he was diving right into what most good conservative Christians in America think right now. Whatever makes them protected, safe, and secure, is worth it at the expense of the black and brown people they fear.

Their god is the god that wants to erase race, make everyone act “properly” and respect, as the president said, “a nation of laws”; laws that they made to crush those they consider inferior.

When the laws were never made for people who were considered, constitutionally, to be three-fifths of a person, I have to ask: Is this just? Is it right? Is God the old white male racist looking down from white heaven, ready to bless me if I just believe the white men like Rick Perry who say the Zimmerman case has nothing to do with race?

You already know the answer: No.

The lamentation of the African-American community at yet another injustice, the surprise and disgust of others who understand, stand against this pseudo-god of capitalisms and incarceration that threaten to take over our nation.

While many continue to proclaim that the religious right is over, they’re wrong. The religious right is flourishing, and unlike the right of the 1970s, religious conservatism of the 21st century is in bed with the prison industrial complex, the Koch brothers, the NRA—all while proclaiming that they are “pro-life.” They are anything but. They are the ones who thought that what George Zimmerman did was right, and I am sure my inbox will be full of well-meaning evangelical sermons about how we should all just get along, and God doesn’t see race.

Please send them elsewhere.

As a historian of American and African-American religion, I know that the Trayvon Martin moment is just one moment in a history of racism in America that, in large part, has its underpinnings in Christianity and its history.

Those of us who teach American Religion have a responsibility to tell all of the story, not just the nice touchy-feely parts. When the good Christians of America are some of its biggest racists, one has to consider our moral responsibility to call out those who clearly are not for human flourishing, no matter what ethnicity a person is. Where are you on that scale? I know where I am.

 

By: Anthea Butler, Religion Dispatches, July 14, 2013

July 16, 2013 Posted by | Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Atheists In Tornadoes And Foxholes”: If You Believe Only When There’s An Enemy Army Or A Tornado, You Don’t Believe

If you’ve watched the endless interviews with survivors of natural disasters, you may have noticed that the news media representatives, faced with someone who may be too shocked or nervous before the cameras to offer sufficiently compelling testimony, often do some gentle prompting. “When you saw your home destroyed, were you just devastated?” “You’ve never seen anything like this before, have you?” “Your whole life changed in that moment, didn’t it?” Not everyone who survived a disaster is YouTube clip-ready, so some need to be coached. There was one such interview after the tornado ran through Moore, Oklahoma that got some attention. Interviewing a woman as they stood before the tangled pile of debris that used to be her home and discussed her family’s narrow escape, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said, “You guys did a great job. I guess you got to thank the Lord. Right?” When she hesitated, Blitzer pressed on. “Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?” She paused for a moment before responding, “I’m actually an atheist.” Awkward laughs ensued.

Blitzer’s assumption was understandable; most Americans profess a faith in God, and there is an awful lot of Lord-thanking after a natural disaster. Atheists find this puzzling, to say the least; if God deserves your thanks and praise for being so merciful as to allow you to live through the tornado, maybe He could have been kind enough not to destroy your home and kill 24 of your neighbors in the first place. But at times of crisis, everyone looks for comfort where they can find it.

It’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I suppose Wolf Blitzer thought the same would be true of tornadoes. But when you stop to think about that old expression, you realize how insulting it is, not just to those who don’t believe in an almighty but also to those who do. It says that the primary basis for religious faith is fear of death, and one’s beliefs are so superficial that they are a function only of the proximity of danger. If you believe only because there’s an enemy army or a tornado bearing down on you, you don’t believe.

Wolf Blitzer will no doubt be more careful next time. And perhaps he’ll learn that those who hold to no religion are a fast-growing group, as many as one in six Americans in most polls, so there’s at least a fair chance that the next disaster survivor he interviews will also be an atheist. Some of those secular folks are becoming more open about it as their numbers increase; for instance, when last week it came Arizona state representative Juan Mendez’s turn to open the legislative session with a prayer, he instead chose an eloquent invocation of “my secular humanist tradition,” including a quote from Carl Sagan. Afterward, Mendez said, “I hope today marks the beginning of a new era in which Arizona’s non-believers can feel as welcome and valued here as believers.”

It’s a nice thought, but it may take a while. There are signs of progress, though. Last week, Pope Francis made news around the world when in a homily, he delivered to his flock the shocking news that atheists are capable of doing good. They may not get to heaven, but on this planet they are not necessarily gripped by evil. This was certainly a step in the direction of mutual understanding that his predecessor was not inclined to make; Pope Benedict was aggressively hostile to those who don’t believe in God, essentially blaming the crimes of the Third Reich on atheism.

But I was surely not the only atheist who was a little underwhelmed by Francis’ generosity of spirit. Atheists are capable of goodness? How kind of him to say. If you heard a man say, “You may not believe it, but women can be intelligent,” you probably wouldn’t respond, “What an admirable statement of his commitment to equality—thanks, Mr. Feminist!” But the bar is pretty low for religious leaders; we expect them to hold that all who do not share their particular beliefs are doomed to an eternity of the cruelest punishments the divine mind can devise. We speak of religious “tolerance” as the most we can expect when it comes to the treatment of other people’s religions. But we “tolerate” not that which we love or respect but that which is unpleasant, painful, or worthy of mild contempt. We tolerate things which we’d just as soon see disappear. You tolerate a hangnail.

Nevertheless, we can give the Pope credit for making a start, even if in public life the most vapid expressions of faith will continue to be the norm. Singers will thank the Lord for delivering unto them a Grammy, smiting the hopes of the other nominees, who are plainly vile in His sight. Football players will gather to pray before a last-second field goal, in the hopes that God will alter his divine plan in their favor and push the ball through the goalposts. And presidents Democratic and Republican will end every speech with “And may God bless the United States of America.” As The Atlantic‘s James Fallows has noted many times, this utterly content-free bit of religiosity means nothing more than “This speech is now over.”

I don’t know if hearing that at the end of a speech makes anyone feel more reassured or hopeful about our country’s future. Perhaps it does. But that woman Wolf Blitzer interviewed? The group Atheists Unite put out a call to help her family rebuild their house, setting a goal of raising $50,000. They’re already approaching $100,000. She no doubt feels thankful, but she’ll be thanking her fellow human beings.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 27, 2013

May 28, 2013 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mike Huckabee Just Keeps Digging”: Pushing A Bogus Culture War In The Wake Of A National Tragedy

On Friday afternoon, while details of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School were still coming to light, Mike Huckabee appeared on Fox News to complain about school prayer. “We ask why there is violence in our schools but we have systematically removed God from our schools,” he said.

Upon further inspection, Huckabee’s unfortunate comments didn’t make any sense. But instead of backing off, the former Arkansas governor and failed presidential candidate managed to make matters slightly worse over the weekend.

Reflecting on Friday’s murders, the Fox News personality argued:

“Christian-owned businesses are told to surrender their values under the edict of government orders to provide tax-funded abortion pills. We carefully and intentionally stop saying things are sinful and we call them disorders. Sometimes, we even say they’re normal.

“And to get to where that we have to abandon bedrock moral truths, then we ask, ‘Well, where was God?’ And I respond that, as I see it, we’ve escorted Him right out of our culture and we’ve marched Him off the public square and then we express our surprise that a culture without Him actually reflects what it’s become.”

So long as Huckabee is going to keep spewing rhetoric like this, we might as well take the time to explain how foolish it is.

First, the government is not forcing businesses to provide “tax-funded abortion pills.” As Zack Beauchamp explained, “The Obamacare contraception mandate, which is what Huckabee is likely referring to, does not provide coverage for any abortifacients — and will actually help reduce abortion rates.”

Second, the notion that the United States has a godless culture and a public square devoid of religiosity makes me wonder what country Mike Huckabee lives in. As best as I can tell, in America’s public square, we have religious television stations, religious radio stations, religious athletes who pray on the field, religious entertainers who thank God at award ceremonies, religious public officials who emphasize their faith when seeking public office, religious book stores, religious holidays, religious movements, religious references on our currency, and pastors who get their own television shows on cable news networks.

And third, to reiterate a point from the weekend, the fact that Huckabee continues to want to push a bogus culture war in the wake of a national tragedy suggests he just isn’t an especially nice guy.

For a guy with a jovial reputation, there’s something rather disturbing about Mike Huckabee’s worldview. Remember, it was earlier this year when he said he wanted to see President Obama’s college transcripts “to show whether he got any loans as a foreign student.”

Last year, Huckabee falsely claimed President Obama “grew up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather.” Soon after, he endorsed “death panel” garbage. By the early summer, Huckabee was equating the national debt with the Nazi Holocaust.

In August 2009, Huckabee argued on his own radio show that Obama’s health care reform plan would have forced Ted Kennedy to commit suicide. Ed Kilgore argued at the time, “This despicable rant should disqualify Mike Huckabee from any further liberal sympathy, no matter how much he tries to joke or rock-n-roll his way back into mainstream acceptability.”

That’s as true now as it was then.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 17, 2012

December 18, 2012 Posted by | Guns, Politics | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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