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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

“Footnote”: Sorry, Atheists Can’t Go To Heaven After All

A Vatican spokesperson is walking back remarks Pope Francis made last week suggesting that atheists and people of other faiths who do good deeds are also redeemed “with the blood of Christ,” a statement that seemed to contradict Catholic teaching that “outside the church there is no salvation.”

After lauding Francis’ ability to speak in a “language that everyone can understand,” the Rev. Thomas Rosica issued a corrective to the pope’s homily and suggested that, basically, people misunderstood the pope.

In a message delivered on Vatican Radio last week, the pope said: “The Lord has redeemed all of us… not just Catholics. Everyone!” Adding, in case there was any confusion: “Even the atheists. Everyone!” In response to the homily, Rosica wrote that, while the pope is a gifted speaker, Francis was not rewriting theological doctrine when he made his inclusive remarks:

Pope Francis has no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation through his homily or scriptural reflection when he stated that “God has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!” […]

This means that all salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her. At the same time, thanks to Christ and to his Church, those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church but sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation.

By: Katie McDonough, Assistant Editor, Salon, May 28, 2013

May 29, 2013 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Weird Science”: A Guide For Republican Candidates Asked About Earth Science

Twenty years or so ago, a few politicians got caught when somebody asked them the price of a gallon of milk and they didn’t know the answer. As a consequence, campaign managers and political consultants started making sure their candidates knew the price of milk and a few similar items like a loaf of bread, should they ever be called upon to assure voters that they do in fact visit the supermarket and are thus in touch with how regular folk live their lives. In a similar but somewhat more complex game of gotcha, Marco Rubio is the latest Republican politician to express discomfort about the question of the earth’s age. Unfortunately, unlike the price of milk, that’s not a question upon which people of every ideology agree. But if you’re a politician wondering what you should answer if you get asked the question, here’s a guide to the possibilities, and what each one says about you. There are four possible answers:

1. “The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old.” This answer says more than, “I have memorized this particular fact.” By being stated as a fact, it communicates not only that you accept that the work of physicists and geologists is a more helpful guide to this question than counting up the “begat”s in the Old Testament, but also that you also aren’t particularly afraid of those who believe otherwise. It also might indicate that you are a believing Catholic, since the Vatican, not exactly a bastion of progressive thinking, is totally fine with the science on this one.

2. “I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s in the billions.” Much like answer number 1, this one marks you as someone who is pro-science. But it says you aren’t a know-it-all, so that might make it go down a little easier with the folks back home.

3. “I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians…” This is Rubio’s answer, and it means, “I’m a Republican with national aspirations.” You’ll notice how he cleverly offers something for everyone. By saying “I’m not a scientist,” he acknowledges that a scientist might be able to tell you the age of the earth, as opposed to telling you the approved propaganda of the International Scientific Conspiracy. But then he says “that’s a dispute amongst theologians,” which I’m not even sure is true (do theologians really argue about this?), but in any case winks to the Republican base that maybe Rubio thinks the real answer is to be found in whether you assign each “begat” 20 years or 25 years. So if you’re a Republican, this is safe territory. Although I have no idea whether this applies to Rubio, this is also what you say if you know full well how old the earth is but are afraid that you’ll offend the rubes if you say so.

4. “The earth is somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 years old.” This answer says, “I’m a Republican from a safe conservative district.” Not all Republicans from safe conservative districts believe this, but I’m pretty sure that everyone in Congress who does believe it is a Republican from a safe conservative district. As Representative Paul Broun of Georgia recently put it so colorfully, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the earth’s but about 9,000 years old.” For the record, despite what he said, Broun is not actually a scientist, though he did somehow manage to obtain a medical degree, which of course makes him an expert in geology, enabling him to sift through “a lot of scientific data” and determine that every actual scientist is wrong about this question.

So those are your options. I don’t know if any of the Republicans who will soon be lining up for 2016 will be asked this question, but if they are, I’m betting they’ll all choose answer number 3.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, November 19, 2012

November 21, 2012 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Politics Of Sex”: The Bad News Is Good News

There was one brief shining moment last week when Mitt Romney appeared to be saying something sensible about sex.

“The idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I’m not going there,” he told reporters.

This was the way Republicans used to talk, oh, about a millennium or so ago. The state legislators wore nice suits and worried about bonded indebtedness and blushed if you said “pelvis.” A woman’s private plumbing? Change the topic, for lord’s sake. Now some of them appear to think about women’s sex lives 24/7, and not in a cheerful, recreational manner.

And it turned out that Romney misspoke. He apparently didn’t realize that the subject he was proposing to steer clear of was a Republican plan to allow employers to refuse to provide health care coverage for contraception if they had moral objections to birth control.

He was definitely going there! Mittworld quickly issued a retraction making it clear that Romney totally supports the idea of getting into questions of contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman. Particularly when it comes to reducing health insurance coverage.

Really, what did you expect? If Romney couldn’t even take a clear stand on Rush Limbaugh’s Slutgate, why would he say anything that forthright unless it was a total error? This is why we can’t get the dog-on-the-car-roof story straightened out. The reporters have their hands full just figuring out Mitt’s position on the biggest controversy of the last month.

We’ve certainly come to a wild and crazy place when it comes to the politics of sex. Perhaps this would be a good time to invest in burqa futures. However, I like to look on the bright side, and I am beginning to think we may actually be turning a corner and actually getting closer to resolving everything.

All of this goes back to the anti-abortion movement, which was very successful for a long time, in large part because it managed to make it appear that the question was whether or not doctors should be allowed to cut up fetuses that were nearly viable outside the womb.

But now we’re fighting about whether poor women in Texas — where more than half the children are born to families whose incomes are low enough to qualify them for Medicaid coverage of the deliveries — should have access to family planning. As Pam Belluck and Emily Ramshaw reported in The Times this week, the right has taken its war against Planned Parenthood to the point where clinics, none of which performed abortions and some of which are not affiliated with Planned Parenthood, are being forced to close for lack of state funds.

Or about whether a woman seeking an abortion should be forced to let a doctor stick a device into her vagina to take pictures of the fetus. The more states attempt to pass these laws, the more people are going to be reminded that most abortions are performed within the first eight weeks of pregnancy, when the embryo in question is less than an inch-and-a-half long.

And the more we argue about contraception, the more people are going to notice that a great many of the folks who are opposed to abortion in general are also opposed to birth control. Some believe that sex, even within marriage, should never be divorced from the possibility of conception. Some believe that most forms of contraception are nothing but perpetual mini-abortions.

Most Americans aren’t in these boats. In fact, they are so completely not in the boats that very, very few Catholic priests attempt to force their parishioners to follow the church’s rules against contraceptives, even as the Catholic bishops are now attempting to torpedo the health care reform law on that very principle.

Every time a state considers a “personhood” amendment that would give a fertilized egg the standing of a human being, outlawing some forms of fertility treatment and common contraceptives, it reinforces the argument that the current abortion debate is actually about theology, not generally held national principles.

And, of course, every time we have one of those exciting discussions about the Limbaugh theory on making women who get health care coverage for contraception broadcast their sex lives on the Internet, the more the Republican Party loses votes, money, sympathy — you name it. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which last summer found women almost evenly divided on which party should control Congress, now shows that women favor Democrats, 51 percent to 36 percent.

The longer this goes on, the easier it will be to come up with a national consensus about whether women’s reproductive lives are fair game for government intrusion. And, when we do, the politicians will follow along. Instantly. Just watch Mitt Romney.


By: Gail Collins, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times Opinion Pages, March 9, 2012

March 11, 2012 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rewriting History”: What Rick Santorum Doesn’t Understand About JFK

America’s only Catholic president referred to God three times in his inaugural address. He invoked the Bible’s command to care for the poor and the sick. Later in his presidency, he said, unequivocally, about civil rights: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

Yet, last Sunday, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who is also Catholic, told ABC News that John F. Kennedy’s classic 1960 campaign speech in Houston about religious liberty was so offensive to people of faith that it made him want to vomit.

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up,” Santorum said. “What kind of country do we live [in] that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?”

Either Santorum doesn’t know his American history or he is purposefully rewriting it. How can he seriously imagine that Kennedy, a person who got down on his knees each night to pray, who gave his time and money to win tough primaries in states with strong anti-Catholic traditions, who challenged us to live our Christianity by ending racial hatred, somehow lacked the courage of faith or tried to exclude people of faith from government and politics?

In his presidential campaign, Kennedy faced fierce anti-Catholic prejudice. He appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association because he feared that his faith was being used unfairly against him. Norman Vincent Peale, along with 150 other ministers, had issued a letter urging citizens to vote against Kennedy because, should he win, he would be controlled by the Vatican. Peale’s group called itself the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom. How ironic that the term “religious freedom” would be used as double-speak for religious hypocrisy — but it certainly was not the first or last time.

Anti-Catholic prejudice has a long history in America. Construction of the Washington Monument was halted partly because an anti-Catholic controversy erupted in 1854, when the pope gave us a stone from Rome for the project. (You can see a change in color partway up the monument between the initial structure and the rest, finished nearly 30 years later.) Catholic students at public schools who didn’t want to recite the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer were sometimes expelled. As late as 1928, voters rejected Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith, calling the Democratsthe party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.”

Kennedy, my uncle, hoped to make it clear that the pope would not control him. The government would not regulate church doctrine, and no minister would determine government policy. As he put it:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president — should he be Catholic — how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

He specifically referred to birth control, too, saying he would follow his conscience in accordance with what he believed to be in the national interest and not cave in to “religious pressures or dictates.”

Santorum is more like Kennedy than he may realize — he follows his conscience. It’s true that on some issues, such as contraception, where the bishops are at odds with many other Catholics, he sides with the bishops. (I’m tempted to recall my father Robert Kennedy’s observation that priests are Republican and nuns Democratic.) But Santorum has also taken positions at odds with the Catholic hierarchy. He has opposed the church’s pro-immigrant policies. He has attacked President Obama’s “phony theology,” which he says involves caring for the Earth — no matter Pope Benedict’s pronouncements on protecting the environment.

Nor in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed did Santorum cite papal views on the financial crisis. On Feb. 15, in an address at Rome’s Major Seminary, the pope said that “the world of finance, while necessary, no longer represents an instrument that favors our well-being or the life of mankind; instead it has become an oppressive power that almost demands our adoration.” Somehow Santorum missed that.

Can he be so ignorant of what Kennedy actually said and what the pope has actually preached? Or is he using his faith for political purposes?

Santorum has since expressed regret for his choice of words about Kennedy, but his words cannot be forgotten.The challenge is not Santorum — it is the 28 percent of Americans who think the separation of church and state should be abolished.

Santorum is encouraging division and intolerance. The subtext of his remarks is that America should be a conservative religious nation — and that Kennedy was denying it. Well, he was. Here are his words to the ministers in Houston:

“I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”

Perhaps Santorum should recall the Gospel’s teachings, which might direct us to positions different from those he advocates. Jesus told his followers that they would be judged on how they clothed the naked, fed the hungry and welcomed the stranger. His directive to love God and our neighbor leads many faithful Americans to support same-sex marriage and to see that marriage itself can be strengthened when couples make love without fear of an unplanned pregnancy. Each of these positions can be made in a secular setting, but they also have a moral argument, grounded in faith.

In 2012, people of many faiths are running for office — Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, my own godson, Joseph Kennedy — and one can disagree with their policies while respecting their religious views. Bishops, priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis and imams lobby Congress and state legislatures on various issues. They have a voice. They just don’t always win every election or argument. Welcome to democracy.


By: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, The Washington Post Opinion Pages, March 2, 2012

March 4, 2012 Posted by | Democracy | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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