May 30, 2014

Men of Jakobus Kirche

The men of Jakobuskirche.

May 29, 2014

In God we (secularly) trust

"In God We Trust" on US money is secular, not religious, a federal court has ruled. The ruling is in line with other circuit courts' rulings on the question of the monetary motto in 1978, '79, '96 and 2010. The phrase does not violate the First Amendment of the constitution, officially establishing a religion.

In fact, the panel of three judges ruled on Wednesday, the laws that established the motto "do not have a religious purpose or advance religion, nor do they place a substantial burden on appellants’ religious practices."

The 1996 ruling on "In God We Trust" said the motto wasn't even basically religious, but really "a form of ceremonial deism."

The atheists who filed the suit argued that the motto was not only religious, but so powerful that just carrying cash and coins amounted to proselytizing. They also argued that the money's motto can be attributed to the person who has the money, so the government was in effect forcing them to "bear on their person" "a statement that attributes to them personally a perceived falsehood that is the antithesis of the central tenant of their religious system."

The court reject the argument, and disagreed that the motto amounted to a substantial burden on non-theists.

The ruling marks a legal setback who want to strengthen the strengthen the separation of church and state. As Laren Markoe reported for Religion News Service, this is only the most recent ruling that went against secularists:
Atheists have seen a spate of unfavorable rulings lately. Last week a federal court in Kentucky rejected atheists’ suit against the IRS, for the many breaks and privileges it offers churches and religious organizations. And in the 5-4 Greece v. Galloway ruling earlier this month, the Supreme Court affirmed that government bodies may convene meeting with highly sectarian prayers.
Even some who are sympathetic to the legal argument against the motto were skeptical about the lawsuit, though. Atheist Hemant Mehta wrote that "I didn’t think anyone would really take the complaint seriously, legal arguments notwithstanding." It appeared frivolous, even to some who were generally sympathetic.

Mehta: "I'm still on the side of the plaintiffs -- they're right that the phrase shouldn't be on the currency. It's absolutely a statement that favors religion over non-religion and the government shouldn't be taking that position, but at least for now, there appears to be no legal recourse to change that."

The phrase "In God We Trust" first appeared on American money in 1864, in the context of the Civil War. The phrase was made an official national motto in 1956, in the context of the Cold War. The U.S. Congress reaffirmed the motto in 2011, with a vote of 396 to 9. Virginia Republican J. Randy Forbes, who sponsored the 2011 bill, said the motto has both spiritual and psychological value for the American public.

May 26, 2014

Harold Camping as (tragic) American hero

A new documentary on the last days and last prophecies of Harold Camping seeks to humanize the man who was widely, roundly mocked for his repeated false predictions.

Director Zeke Piestrup says that, at least from one angle, the false prophet could be seen as an American hero with a tragic end. Looking not just at Camping's 15 minutes of fame but at the arc of his whole biography gives things a different sense. In an interview with Kimberly Winston of Religion News Service, Piestrup says,
He is the son of poor, immigrant parents, graduates with a civil engineering degree from Berkeley, starts a successful construction business, sells it in his 30s to build Family Radio from one FM station and he built it into a worldwide ministry. If you look at that arc, that is a great American. But I guess he blew it up in the end.
The trailer:

If Camping is to be seen as a tragic figure, his tragic flaw was a common one. Piestrup says that Camping was driven, personally, by the need to be right. Piestrup says:
For Harold it was ego. He told me a story about living with some college students when he was young and their conversations always turned theological and it was very important for him to “win” those arguments. And attention. Attention and at the same time a serious, incredible love of the Bible. Like Sue (Camping's daughter) says in the film, he loved nothing more than to talk about the Bible and figure out this riddle.
The documentary, Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping vs. the End of the World,  is not available in Germany, but can be seen on a variety of platforms in the US.

See also:
Being spectator to the predicted end of the world 
Harold Camping is not sorry
Harold Camping, prophet of apocalypse, dies at 92 

May 24, 2014

Hallelujah’s rise up

From her new album "One True Vine," Mavis Staples, singing "Far Celestial Shore":

Way beyond the surly bonds of earth and hate and war
On a far celestial shore
There’s a land of plenty where no child shall want for more
On a far celestial shore
Hallelujah’s rise up from a whisper to a roar
On a far celestial shore

May 23, 2014

Tax exemption as an IRS weapon

For religious groups at odds with the government, tax exemption can be a dangerous deal.

There's a persistent concern in some sectors of the religious right that when churches accept the legal conditions of tax-exempt status they sacrifice important freedoms. Internal Revenue Service rules, for example, forbid political endorsements and explicit campaigning from the pulpits of tax-exempt churches. There have been organized protests of this rule, but others, including Baptist pastor and sometimes-presidential-candidate Mike Huckabee, have suggested churches should be wary of tax-exemption altogether, whatever the rules. The very fact there are any rules is a problem, at least potentially. "Freedom," Huckabee has argued, "is more important than government financial favors."

A forthcoming study of U.S. tax law, to be published in the South Texas Law Review, argues there's good reason for conservative religious groups to be wary of tax-exempt status.

Tax-exempt status can be used as a weapon to force religious groups to conform.

Amy L. Moore, an assistant professor at Belmont University College of Law, in Nashville, Tenn., specifically looks at the laws pertaining to the tax-exempt statuses of religious institutions of higher learning. The IRS has the power, Moore writes, to force Christian colleges and Bible schools and seminaries to adopt policies on homosexuality or gender equality that violate the schools' religious beliefs. If educational institutions need that tax-free status to survive, the IRS can force them to either conform or die.

"The agency does not have to limit its power in this area and the judiciary cannot deny the exercise of this power," Moore writes. "The agency indeed has the power to destroy universities or other organizations that are dependent on their tax-exempt status to provide them revenue."

The IRS has a lot of leeway in granting or denying tax-exempt status, which means it is "rife with latent power."

May 20, 2014

Realigning with the presence of God through folktronica

David Crowder, the evangelical pop star previously of the very successful David Crowder Band, is releasing a new album next week under the name "Crowder." The album is called "Neon Steeple" and the single is "I Am."

Talking about the single in a promotional video, Crowder said the title is one of the Biblical names of God, and also names one of the greatest hopes of the Christian faith.

"No matter where you are in life," Crowder said, "you live and breathe in the very presence of God. And he has given access to himself. The creator of the universe has given access to us. And that's just, that's gorgeous. But so many times I forget about that and I need to be realigned to that reality."

He describes the music as "folktronica," explaining it is like "porch music and computer music at the same time."

In a review of the album, Kristen Solis of Breathecast writes that "Neon Steeple" is "very old school church" with a progressive sound. "It's a modern take on those classic outdoor church revival services that happened under big white tents," she writes.

Crowder will tour with the new songs at evangelical churches, colleges and music festivals, as well as a few secular venues such as Chicago's House of Blues, starting in August.

May 19, 2014

Jesus picks up the tab

Jesus picks up the tab

A little American folk art for my final morning in the US. 

May 16, 2014

Sources and supplements of faith

Philip Kitcher, a philosopher of science and a "soft atheist," on the substance of theism and the sources of faith:
The 'soft atheism' I defend considers religion more extensively, sympathizes with the idea that secularists can learn from religious practices and recommends sometimes making common cause with religious movements for social justice . . .

As to theistic arguments, some of the world's religions have offered such arguments in support of their doctrines, although often different groups within a religious tradition will differ radically in judgments about the value of these exercises. Rational theology proceeds partly on the basis of principles also used in areas of rigorous inquiry (logical principles, for example) and partly on the basis of metaphysical additions, frequently varying across traditions. To my mind all these metaphysical add-ons are dubious. Indeed, many of them seem purpose-built to generate the desired conclusions. Concepts like that of a 'necessary being' are problematic outgrowths of particular parochial traditions. We should think of the arguments of rational theology as supplements to a faith whose sources lie elsewhere (as, I believe, many theologians have always taken them to be). 

Some sentences on poverty and higher education

A twitter reflection:

Stats show strong correlation between parents' income, graduation rates. Matches my exp. exactly.

I dropped out of college. Only made it back because of a financial miracle that turned out, thank God, to have no strings attached. For a while there, my whole life hinged on $6000. That amount was impossible. Was my whole future, and I could do nothing about it.

Money was always an issue: One semester I had a total of $20 to live on. After a few weeks, I couldn't afford to wash my clothes.

But lack of support is never just $. When there's no one to call for help, calling those who should be able to help only makes everyone feel bad.

The biggest problem wasn't $. The biggest problem was shame.

Poverty feels like it's your fault. To ask for help is to expose family secrets, face question of whether you belong at all, and grovel.

Poverty feels like fate.

It turns out, looking at graduation rates, poverty kind of is fate.

I'm intensely grateful for all those who ignored my fate, and treated me like I did belong. I owe them a lot. I owe a lot to those who didn't think a poor 19-year-old should be able to navigate everything, be held responsible for what he didn't know.

And three cheers for anyone working to fix the system.

May 13, 2014

"A Conjoining of Ancient Song" by Willie Ruff and Gretchen Berland, from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

May 12, 2014

Ben-Hur's powers of conversion

Moving pictures have the power to move people. That is the belief underneath evangelicals' engagements with film. Cinema is seen as a uniquely powerful proselytization tool: people watch; people laugh and cry and are emotionally engaged; people are changed when they watch movies.

It's not clear that movies actually move people as much as evangelicals and the evangelical film industry imagines, though.

One significant survey of viewers of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, for example, found that about 31 percent of American adults saw the film, but only 9 percent of viewers felt like they prayed more after watching. And only about .0001 percent said they made a confession of faith in Jesus after watching his cinematic torture and death.

The film was promoted by evangelical celebrities as an opportunity for evangelism. Megachurch pastor Rick Warren called the film the greatest evangelizing opportunity in 2000 years. When the credits rolled, however, not a lot of evangelism happened. Measured by how much it moved people to faith, the record-breaking film was a dud. Tim Challies, who pastors a church in Toronto and reviews books for the conservative evangelical magazine World, recently wrote that "For all the good the movie did, we may as well have just written checks to Mel Gibson and skipped the movie."

But that's not to say the movie had no impact. It's not to say that movies don't convert people.

The history of evangelicals' and cinema suggests film is, in fact, a force for conversion. Just not necessarily the way it's usually imagined. Movies may not convert many moviegoers into evangelicals, but they do move lots of evangelicals to belief in movies.

The history of adaptations of Ben-Hur is filled with examples of this.

The 1880 novel, written by Civil War general Lew Wallace as part of his own conversion to Christianity, has been adapted numerous times, throughout cinema's history. And throughout cinema's history, the "Tale of the Christ," as the original subtitle had it, profoundly moved people. Not to Christ, necessarily, but certainly to belief in the power of cinema.

May 8, 2014

Cotton Mather comes to TV

Cotton Mather has come to American television with the new show Salem. Mather has a long pop-culture history -- from a Marvel supervillain fighting Spiderman to jokey New Yorker film reviews written in his name -- but this would seem to be the first time he's been a main character on a TV drama. Now, with Salem, Cotton Mather is at the center of a WGN America cable show airing on Sunday nights.


Or maybe not.

As Kelli McCoy and Rick Kennedy write of their review of the show for Books & Culture, "Cotton Mather continues in his standard role as the minister all viewers love to hate." Salem, it seems, has decided to follow the tradition that started in the slander of Robert Calef.

McCoy and Kennedy explain:
Although Mather never led a witch hunt, never was at any of the Salem witch trials, and did not agree that the evidence presented in the trials was sufficient to convict anyone of being a witch, Calef fixated on him as the cause of the witchcraft hysteria. Calef's wild and scurrilous collection of anti-Mather material was published in London, and ever since there has been a weak but written foundation for presenting Mather as somehow central to the Salem story.
Salem is not particularly interested in historical accuracy. It's probably not really helpful to judge it by that standard, though there are certainly also historians who take pleasure from pointing out anachronisms. Salem has enough, big and small, to keep such viewers busy.

The Mather of this show is the Mather who is obsessed with witches, with devils, with the Devil, and with the apocalyptic battle he believes is centered on the colonial town of Salem. Mather, played by Seth Gabel, is first seen in the first episode (spoiler alert) preaching this message from the pulpit. He is preaching about witches. It escalates quickly to a high-volume rant about the stakes of the Puritan vision of a city on a hill, the dangers of this errand into the wilderness.

"The Devil was never going to let a promised land be built here without a fight, without a battle," he yells as the gathered congregation.

May 7, 2014

Evangelical arguments for climate change

Katherine Hayhoe, a climate change scientist and an evangelical Christian in West Texas, says knows lots of religious believers don't embrace the science of climate change. There's a perception among evangelicals, she says, that the science "challenges things that we hold dear and near to our hearts."

Claiming the facts isn't going to convince most people, she said. It's not an issue of the facts. It's a problem of miscommunication, of misunderstanding evangelical Christian commitments, and how to speak to them.

Hayhoe's strategy: start from shared values and the identities people already have:

On the Inquiring Minds podcast, Hayhoe talked about how concern about the environment can be grounded in evangelical Christian faith.

"If you believe that God created the world," she said, "and basically gave it to humans as this incredible gift to live on, then why would you treat it like garbage? Treating the world like garbage says a lot about how you think about the person who you believe created the Earth."

About 44 percent of white evangelicals believe in climate change. That's 20 percent behind the American public as a whole. The majority of evangelicals do agree, however, that environmental laws and regulations are worth the costs, economically.

Hayhoe was recently named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people.

May 6, 2014

Official prayers aren't official religion, court says

The Supreme Court has ruled that prayers at the start of a town council meeting do not have the effect of establishing a religion. This is true, the court decided, even if all of the prayers are from a particular religion, and even those prayers are explicitly sectarian.

There are very few limits of officially sanctioned prayer, according to this decision in Town of Greece vs. Galloway. In fact, "Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissi­ble government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation."

Typically, questions about whether or not government action is establishing religion is decided by a legal test. The Lemon Test, the most famous of these, asks whether a law has a secular purpose, whether it's primary effect relates to religion, and whether it's an excessive entanglement of government and religion. Now the court has ruled, however, that officially offered prayers at government meetings are not subject to such tests.

Prayers can be entanglements without establishing religion.

Prayers can be primarily religious.

Prayers don't have to be secular, serving only to solemnize or something like that.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the opinion for the majority, cited the 1983 Supreme Court case Marsh vs. Chambers in explaining the decision. Formal tests, like the Lemon Test, are not necessary when the practice has a long-established history. Tradition trumps.

May 2, 2014

Satanists are making Oklahoma safe for the Ten Commandments

Satanists are not going to get a monument at Oklahoma's state capitol.

Though they've raised more than enough funds for the proposed statue, and the Baphomet-with-children sculpture is nearly complete and ready to be cast in bronze, it's not going to get approved by the state.

Satanic Temple's proposed monument in progress. Photo by Jonathan Smith.
Appeals to the federal court will undoubtably be filed but just as undoubtably they will be turned down. The Supreme Court ruled on a similar case in 2009. There are no new legal issues here, and this case is different than the case of the atheist monument in Starke, Florida, in legally important ways. It doesn't seem that the Satanists have much room to maneuver in the courts.

That might not matter to the Satanic Temple, the group behind the monument proposal. Though they are interested in getting their monument up in Oklahoma, the real point of the statue was to make a point. The point was that religious monuments don't belong on public property, because the government is constitutionally prohibited from respecting an establishment of religion.

Lucian Greaves, leader of the Satanic Temple, has been clear about the group's goals and tactics.

"We play upon people's irrational fears in a way that hopefully causes them to reevaluate what they think they know," he said in one interview. "I believe that where reason fails to persuade, satire and mockery prevail."

The question, really, is whether the Satanists will successfully make their point. There is an argument to be made that Satanists are inadvertently making the opposite case than the one they intend.

The proposed monument can be seen as an argument that religious statues don't signify religious establishment.