May 31, 2013

Teachers v. church schools v. the government

The conflicting claims of legal rights of church teachers and church schools are being further tested in the federal courts.

In California this week, a federal judge ruled in the case of Family, Life, Faith and Freedom v. Lynda Serrano. In this case, a Calvary Chapel school sued two former teachers to prevent them from suing the school.

The teachers refused to submit statements of faith and pastors' recommendation letters, a year ago, and they were let go. The school deems its teachers to be "spiritual leaders," and considers the paperwork necessary in evaluating instructors' continuing spiritual leadership qualifications. It's not clear from the court documents why the teachers did not want to explain their faith and get pastors to write them letters of recommendations, but when their contracts were not renewed, they threatened to sue for wrongful termination. The church school then took its former teachers to federal court.

The lawyers for the school argued that if the teachers were allowed to make the case they had been discriminated against, that would violate the church's constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion.

Judge Dolly M. Gee, an Obama administration appointee, granted the teachers' motion to dismiss the suit on Tuesday. Interestingly, the ruling doesn't go so far as to say the teachers can sue their religious employer, but does say federal law cannot prevent them from filing wrongful termination suits in state court.

May 30, 2013

Stephen King and supernatural intervention

More than 100 million Americans say they believe in theistic evolution. According to Gallup polls, the percentage of people believing that humans evolved with divine guidance has declined a bit in recent years, but there's still more than a few who say that's what happened. These people look at nature and natural processes and see, à la Intelligent Design, that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process."

One of those 100 million Americans is named Stephen King.

King, the 66-year-old master of horror fiction who has sold more than 350 million copies of such works as Carrie,  'Salem's Lot, The Shining, ItCujo, and now Joyland, is obviously no stranger to the idea of the supernatural. But supernatural intervention into the normal course of events isn't, apparently, just a plot mechanism for King. He also sees signs of supernatural intervention in the world around him.

Interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR this week, King said:
If you say, 'Well, OK, I don't believe in God. There's no evidence of God,' then you're missing the stars in the sky and you're missing the sunrises and sunsets and you're missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But, at the same time, there's a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, 'Well, if this is God's plan, it's very peculiar,' and you have to wonder about that guy's personality -- the big guy's personality.
King notes he's not too worried about being consistent, and says he's not sure there's evidence for God but he's chosen to believe anyway. He offers a version of Pascal's wager. "I choose to believe it ... there's no downside to that."

King also talks about the religious influences of his youth in the interview. He says he watched a lot of televangelists as a child, specifically Oral Roberts and Jack Van Impe, who he calls "a real hellfire guys." He went to a Methodist church as a child, and says it was like a "bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours," real "Yankee religion."

"They tell you you're going to hell," he says, "and you're half asleep. What kind of preaching is that?"

Christian interpreters of Kings work have long noted the religious undertones. In King's work, when he tells you about hell, you're not falling asleep. And when the supernatural intervenes, the author thinks that might not be so unusual.

May 29, 2013

Nine months after resignation, American Orthodox primate is retired

Metropolitan Jonah was forced to resign as head of the Orthodox Church in America last July, but now, more than nine months later, the church and the former primate have reached an agreement on the details of his retirement. The brief and not-very-informative announcement from the OCA reads:
His Eminence, Metropolitan Jonah met with a number of members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America at Saint Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, PA and reached an understanding with the Holy Synod concerning his retirement.
The retirement agreement most likely has to do with finances. In his resignation letter, Jonah pleaded with the synod to consider his financial responsibilities, noting that he was the sole support for his parents and his (now deceased) sister. There is also speculation -- which I have no real way of evaluating, but which seems plausible -- that Jonah might want to leave the OCA altogether, negotiating to be released so that he could work with another American Orthodox church. There's some evidence Jonah has already begun to be active outside of the OCA.

If that's true, it might explain why the negotiation process has taken so long.

Jonah's resignation was offered and accepted last Summer. In his resignation letter, he noted he resigned "as per" the "unanimous request" of the Holy Synod, confirming rumors he was ousted. Since then, there's been confusion about whether or not his resignation meant he was retired or he was returning to duties as an archbishop, and a cryptic official announcement of "ongoing discussions" between the church and Jonah and lawyers, "motivated solely by a prayerful desire to achieve an appropriate resolution of matters of care and mutual concern."

In the last nine months there have also been calls from the OCA faithful for an investigation of the way in which Jonah's resignation came about, accusations that Jonah mishandled serious cases of clerical misbehavior, and lay investigations of the evidence supporting the allegations against Jonah.

He was head of the OCA for only about 3 1/2 years.

Jonah once described his time as primate of the American church as a "relentless barrage of criticism," but also "an administrative disaster."

Given the evidence, "an administrative disaster" also seems like to could describe the OCA itself.

May 28, 2013

Alton T. Lemon, 1928 - 2013

Alton T. Lemon, the plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case on the separation of church and state, has died at the age of 84. A very private man, little is known of his life apart from his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union and brief time as president of a Philadelphia Ethical Humanist Society. His obit didn't make the New York Times until 21 days after his death.

In the late 1960s, though, he lent his name to the lawsuit where the Supreme Court established the three-part legal test for determining whether or not a government has violated the constitution by "respecting an establishment of religion." Wherever American lawyers debate whether or not a government has, in fact, gone so far as to endorse a religion, Lemon's name is invoked.

Asked about his role in First Amendment history, Lemon said he was proud to have been involved in Lemon v. Kurtzman, but:
I have never sought public recognition for my role in the case. Almost all of our friends are Protestant and some don’t understand my position. We had one friend who was a schoolteacher who thought it was terrible that God was being removed from the schools .... Some people go down in history in famous books, but I might go in a dusty law book or something. I don’t view things out of proportion.
It's not just the dusty history books, though. The three-part establishment test that bears Lemon's name, the Lemon Test, is a contentious bit of jurisprudence. It has been attacked from a number of directions and may not survive the John Roberts court.

May 25, 2013

May 23, 2013

The Workingman of Nazareth




Jesus as socialist radical, by Art Young, in The Masses, circa 1913 (top) and 1917 (bottom).

Young said of socialism: "I think we have the true religion. If only the crusade would take on more converts. But faith, like the faith they talk about in the churches, is ours and the goal is not unlike theirs, in that we want the same objectives but want it here on earth and not in the sky when we die."

More of his work can be seen here.

May 22, 2013

An atheist prays in Az. state legislature

It's normally assumed that atheists don't pray. When an atheist state representative in Arizona -- one of the few openly atheist lawmakers in the country -- was tasked with offering a prayer to start an afternoon session of the state legislature, though, he stepped up. Juan Mendez, a 28-year-old Democrat who identifies labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez as his political hero, asked the legislators not to bow their heads, and then offered up a god-free prayer.

The Phoenix New Times reports:
'This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration,' Mendez said. 'But this is also a room where, as my secular humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.' 
Mendez continued, 'Carl Sagan once wrote, "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love."'
According to the Arizona Republic, the other lawmakers in the house had no response. In a comment Mendez left on the popular atheist blog The Friendly Atheist, he said "there are more non believers than you would think" in Arizona.

Mendez was elected to office in 2012. As a lawmaker, he has authored legislation that would bar credit card company marketers from college campuses, allow voters to register to vote the day of elections, reform the procedures for assessing affordable housing, require home owners associations to allow vegetable gardens, and start a micro enterprise development program. He hasn't sponsored or co-sponsored any legislation specifically related to religion or atheism.

Update (May 23): Mendez's secular humanist prayer did get some response, after all.

May 19, 2013

Biography for a Calvinist

A biography ... invites the reader (as it demands of the author) to come to terms with the person at the center of the story. Readers are free to draw their own conclusions about [Abraham] Kuyper as they move along through this volume; I only hope to have supplied ample, nuanced evidence to make theirs a balanced judgement. Here is mine: Abraham Kuyper was a great man but not a nice one. He was immensely talented, energetic, and driven to great exploits. He appeared always confident, partly to quiet his own insecurities. He was an ambitious person who sought power, and often felt uneasy over that quest. He could be congenial and polemical, sometimes to the same person in fairly quick succession. He loved radical options and was typically more generous to opponents than to spiritual kin who differed with him on details. He loved having collaborators and disciples but drove them away when they stepped up as equals. In public he often showed a better understanding of God than himself. He majored in ideas -- Big Ideas above all -- with some impatience over the intricacies of mid-range policy or scholarly discourse as it evolved in its own deliberate way [....] 
I will thus pain Kuyper warts and all -- both the real ones and the ones that might seem like blemishes only to us. As a real Calvinist he would understand such a portrait, even though he might not like it. My critical observations are not meant to disparage his motives, his goals, or his achievements; indeed, these are remarkable enough to survive any record of his personal foibles. Just as Kuyper would own that he was in part a child of his times, so he would, ultimately, appreciate the citation I make, as a fellow Calvinist, from the apostle Paul, that the treasure of the gospel comes to us in earthen vessels to show that its transcendent power belongs to God (2 Cor. 4:7).
-- James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat

May 17, 2013

The correlation of unaffiliated people, unaffiliated churches

There are two major changes in the recent American religious landscape, which both start in the 1980s and get to be really dramatic by the 90s but continue into the 00s. 

Here they are depicted in graphs created by sociology professor Bradley Wright:



Here we see that the growth of religiously unaffiliated people is quite similar, historically, to the growth of denominationally unaffiliated churches. 

Regarding the growth of "generic" Protestants, Wright reports it is "One of the more robust trends in American Christianity," that "the percentage of Protestants who are inter- or non-denominational has skyrocketed."

The growth of the religiously unaffiliated has been much discussed, here and elsewhere (see: Time, USA Today, PBS). Wright, with this second graphs, notes that three different polls, asking different questions, have ended up with very similar results.

Looking at the similarities between the two cultural shifts, I can't help but wonder if they're not best understood as connected. Not that these two distinct developments should be collapsed into one, but that they both result from underlying changes. My intuition is that a good explanation of one development would work, as well, for the other. 

May 16, 2013

Expanding the religious liberty argument against ObamaCare

A bill being considered in Congress would allow individuals a religious exemption from ObamaCare. The bill, named the Equitable Access to Care and Health (EACH) Act, would make it so people could opt out of the mandate to buy health insurance by signing a sworn statement saying they have religious objections to some of what is covered by health insurance.

The way the Affordable Care Act currently stands, when it goes into effect in 2014, individuals will be required to buy health insurance or pay a tax. This amendment would create away for those whose "sincerely held religious beliefs would cause the individual to object to medical health care that would be covered under such coverage" to not buy health insurance and not pay the tax. The exemption could be used by Catholics and evangelicals who oppose some or all contraceptives, as well as others.

Creating a legal exemption that more than 50 percent of the country could ask for would, presumably, effectively kill health care.

The bill is currently being reviewed by the House Ways and Means Committee, but may not ever go to a vote.

Whether or not the EACH Act becomes law, though, it shows another angle of the conflict between those who want universal health care and those who believe that infringes on religious liberty. It's also another way that those opposed to ObamaCare are seeking to undermine it anyway they can before it becomes law.

May 15, 2013

US federal court: Homeschoolers aren't persecuted in Germany

Homeschoolers are not a "particular social group" facing persecution in Germany, a federal appeals court has ruled, and homeschooling in a country where it's illegal is not grounds for asylum in the United States.

The ruling is a legal defeat for Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, a German homeschooling family, and the homeschooling activists who sought to use the case of Romeike v. Holder to get homeschoolers classified as a special, protected class.

The Romeikes have argued that they were being persecuted by the German government because they were homeschoolers; the Obama administration's Justice Department made the case that running afoul of the law does not amount to persecution, per se. In a ruling released yesterday, three federal judges unanimously agreed with the Obama administration.

Writing for the court, Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton wrote:
The question is not whether Germany’s policy violates the American Constitution, whether it violates the parameters of an international treaty or whether Germany’s law is a good idea. It is whether the Romeikes have established the prerequisites of an asylum claim -- a well-founded fear of persecution on account of a protected ground. [....]  
The Romeikes have not met this burden. The German law does not on its face single out any protected group, and the Romeikes have not provided sufficient evidence to show that the law’s application turns on prohibited classifications or animus based on any prohibited ground.
According to US law, five groups of people are eligible for asylum if they are being targeted by their home governments because they belong to one of those categories: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or belonging to a "particular social" group. The last is not defined by the law, and has been only vaguely defined by the courts. The Romeike's lawyers were attempting to argue that homeschoolers should be considered such a "particular social group," negatively targeted in Germany.

The court rejected that argument, finding that the German law was not directed at homeschoolers, to suppress or oppress them, but is a law of general applicability.

May 14, 2013

'Slap a bonnet on the cover'

Almost any popular discussion of Amish romance novels -- the very successful evangelical-produced fiction with Old Order Amish settings and characters -- includes mention of the iconic covers. These are the "novels with covers adorned with beautiful, bonneted women and buggies," as one reporter put it. Or, as another observer wrote more elaborately, these are fictions with
covers each backlit with the golden glow of God’s everlasting presence and bucolic perfection: wheat fields, corn fields, rivers and barns beneath cerulean or honey skies. A plain-clothed woman in some state of muted emotional duress gazed into the middle distance beneath her white bonnet
Famously, a marketing expert at a Christian publishing house told Newsweek "You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales."

It's probably the apparently ironic contrast between the crass commercialism of such covers and the alternative to commercialism represented by the covers that attracts such interest from those who don't read Amish romance. The incongruity can be jarring.

The incongruity can also be really interesting.

May 13, 2013

Churches and taxes

A Congressional committee working on ways to reform and simplify the US tax code has considered recommendations to change the tax exempt status of churches.

The working group hears and summarizes recommendations from interested parties and passes that information on to the elected representatives on the House Ways and Means Committee. There's no straight line from the working group's report to eventual legislation. It doesn't make recommendations, but considers them, digests them, and passes them on. In the more than 500-page report, however, this is the only reform considered that is specific to churches' tax status.

The committee heard three recommendations for change:
  • Require churches to apply for tax-exempt status, rather than receiving it automatically
  • Require churches to file an annual tax return, even though no taxes are being paid, as do other non-profits
  • Ease restrictions on IRS, allowing for more tax inquiries and audits of church finances
The recommendations seem to come from the Secular Coalition for America.

May 8, 2013

Another errand into the wilderness

A very American story about a group of people who probably don't think of themselves as American at all: The Old Believers of Russian Orthodoxy.

At the Atlantic Monthly, Wendy Jonassen and Ryan Loughin report:
Members of the Old Believers -- a Russian Orthodox sect that left the church in 1666, in the face of state-issued church reforms -- traveled more than 20,000 miles over five centuries in the search for the perfect place to protect their traditions from outside influences.
Minus a turkey or two and a friendly native who happens to know how to speak the newcomers' language, the travels and travails of the immigrants at Nikolaevsk, Alaska could be the story of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving. What they've done at this outpost in Alaska follows the form of a deep American myth. Even as -- but also sort of because -- it involves resistance to American culture, a passionate desire to be separate, seek a better country, go on an errand into the wilderness, build a city on a hill, and these sorts of things.

It's not just the ur-myth of the Pilgrims, either. As T.C. Boyle ably illustrated in Drop City, where a group of utopian-dreaming hippies move to Alaska and live side-by-side with utopian-dreaming right-wing survivalists, this idea and ideal re-emerges in many ways across American culture and history. Whether it's 16th century Puritans or the Mormons walking to Utah, the Free State Project or the leftist utopians who moved into the California redwoods in the 1880s and named the largest tree in the world the Karl Marx tree, the vision persists, and persists with such strength that people are compelled or inspired to try again what's been tried before. But different this time.

So these Russians in Alaska are reenacting an old, old story, one that's a deep part of the identity of the outside culture they're resisting:
Slight signs of assimilation had begun even in the community's shorter stops elsewhere in the globe, for example in Brazil. 'In Russian, beans is frazol,' Vasily says. 'But we say fijon. That is the Portuguese word for beans.' Yet a century after they left Siberia, many Old Believers still speak Slavonic, an old peasant dialect that dates back hundreds of years. The four to five hour long church service in Nikolaevsk is still completely in Slavonic. And in many homes, the elders only speak Slavonic and children are scolded when they slip into English in the wrong setting. 
But for the first time in Nikolaevsk the majority of the younger generation speaks English as their first language. While many of them can speak Slavonic conversationally, it's only a matter of time before the language dies out completely [....] 
The Slavonic church services may even be in danger. 'I am looking down the line, maybe not in my lifetime, but whoever is going to be the priest after me, is going to have to really consider incorporating more English into the services,' Father Nikolai says.
It's a fear that, at root, John Winthrop wouldn't have found strange.

May 6, 2013

Atheist takes questions in Mississippi church


A Mississippi Church of Christ -- a conservative church in a conservative state -- interviews an atheist, Neil Carter of Godless in Dixie, in a very open, cordial discussion. Carter starts the conversation:
People like me are out there, and it'd be interesting to have a conversation. What I have found is now that I'm on the outside of this tradition, I'm often misunderstood by people who just two or three or years ago would not have had such strange reactions to me. It's like I'm painted a different color and have a third eye on my forheard, sometimes, if I tell them I'm not a Christian.
Starting at 7:08, Carter lists top 11 things atheists wish Christians knew about them.

At 29:09, Carter talks about how Christians can better evangelize, and challenges American Christians to experience how atheists are treated in their communities.

At 30:05, Carter takes questions. The first is pretty fascinating, and represents the tenor of this conversation: "We as Christians have periods of doubt. Do you have periods of doubt in reverse?"

Hemant Mehta writes, "If you want an example of what an ideal Christian/atheist dialogue looks like, watch this video."

May 3, 2013

Social media's calls to prayer

A remarkable graph showing mentions of "pray for Boston" on Twitter in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing:


At The Atlantic, Eleanor Barkhorn notes anecdotally that the calls for prayer came from unexpected quarters:
What I saw on Twitter and Facebook in the hours after the Boston bombings and the Texas explosion wasn't just faithful people reminding other faithful people to drop everything and pray. It was also the non-religious invoking prayer in a way that they wouldn't under normal circumstances.
After a few days, though, those same friends found different vocabulary with which to relate to the tragedy:
My friends who wrote of praying on Monday night soon began thinking about Boston, or standing with Boston, or loving Boston. It's interesting to see what words besides prayer have emerged as the way to respond to and process the terrible things that happened, and continued to happen, in the city
Elizabeth Drescher names the spike in mentions of prayer the "active memeing of prayer."

May 2, 2013

Science vs. religion vs. facts

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, perhaps America's most popular promoter of science, pointed out several years ago that there's no necessary conflict between science and religion. Not if you're being scientific about it. As a matter of a concrete fact, discoverable by investigation of the world around us, there are people who are scientists and religious, and there are likewise many religious people who embrace science. The idea that there's an intractable, inevitable, necessary struggle to the death between the two abstractions, "religion" and "science," is not supported by any evidence that can be discovered by an empirical investigation.

"The notion that if you're a scientist you're an atheist, or if you're religious you're not a scientist," Tyson said, "that's just empirically false."

Historians have made this argument for a long time. The "warfare model," the "conflict thesis" offered to explain the relationship between religion and science, just doesn't work.

Over a decade ago, Colin A. Russell wrote that the narrative frame of opposition dates back to two anti-religious science history books from the Gilded Age, both of which had political reasons rather than historical reasons to use that frame. There were axes to grind. The historiography was problematic. The evidence didn't support the guiding metaphors of opposition, struggle, and conflict. The narrative of an age-old fight, Russell showed, obscured a lot of important details. Missing from all such histories is the recognition of the many cooperative relationships and cases of close alliance between science and religion. Relatively minor squabbles are exalted, according to Russell, and normativized. Besides: the assertion of conflict has come to stand in for any actual historical explanation of the conflicts that did happen. Conflict thesis histories don't say why conflicts happened, but assume that they have to.

The whole thing is "at best an oversimplification and, at worst, a deception," Russell wrote.

At the time, Russell's thesis was pretty familiar to historians. Changes in the study of history in the 1980s and 1990s led to a near complete rejeciton of the story of a triumphant, progressive march of science through history that was so easily accepted in the 1870s, '80s, and '90s. Concern about "Whiggishness," "presentism," and the "retrospective fallacy" changed how things were done. Now historians' totem was "complexity," and a standard test for historians was whether or not they could persuasively, sympathetically present an account of a position or figure or movement with which they personally disagreed. According to David B. Wilson, "This radically different methodology yielded a very different overall conclusion about the historical relationship of science and religion." The simplicity of the story that these two traditions of knowledge and practice had always and everywhere of necessity been opposed, and also has always and everywhere been clearly distinguishable, became very suspect. And that simple story didn't stand up to suspicion very well.

Ronald L. Numbers assessment was more blunt. Way back in 1985 he said the conflict thesis was "historically bankrupt," and persisted only because of "cliché-bound minds."

"Cliché-Bound Minds" might have been a good title for the new documentary that premiered this week to a full house in Toronto. Instead the film, which features Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and a raft of celebrities spouting about the conflict between science and religion, was titled The Unbelievers.