Category Archives: Religion

Heartland Proclamation

Heartland Clergy for Inclusion, a group of clergy in the midwest now numbering over 200, have signed a Proclamation declaring an apology for former silence, an affirmation that sexual orientation is “not a sickness, not a choice, and not a sin”, and an insistence on full equality for LGBT people in religious life and institutions. I’m very glad to see leaders of traditional, organized religion stepping forward to make this public affirmation. Too often, it seems that people try to speak as if all Christians are opposed to same-sex marriage or adoption. Those who insist that being gay is a choice or something that could be cured seem to think they are speaking on behalf of Christians in general.

However, those voices do not speak for all of us who are members of Christian churches and who welcome gay members and leaders in our congregations. I would feel that something was deeply amiss in the church if it did not welcome people and accept everyone equally! This also means that LGBT people cannot be accepted as people who have faults, as happens in some churches–the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality. Rather, it must be absolutely clear that there is nothing wrong with being LGBT, nothing about it that is incompatible with any Christian value or doctrine.

I remember a while back, talking to a young gay man who had been raised in a very religious family. When he found out that I was a church member, and also believed gays should be able to marry, adopt, or do anything that anyone else can do in our society, he was surprised. He wanted to know if I really thought that God was okay with all of these things, and that it was possible to affirm both one’s identity as gay and one’s firm Christian faith. I said of course, yes, and I didn’t quite understand at the time why he seemed very moved by this declaration. In my own narrow-mindedness, I had assumed that it was an easy thing to reconcile those positions, and that anyone trying to do so would find the necessary support and encouragement. Yet people do not find such support very easily, and are more likely to encounter hostility from all sides: from Christians who reject being gay as a sinful choice, or from gay advocates who assume that all organized religion is hostile to homosexuality, and therefore no place for LGBT people to develop their faith.

It’s high time that this changed, and terrific to see the Heartland Clergy for Inclusion leading the way!


Douthat on Hell

In April, Ross Douthat of the New York Times made the case for continued belief in Hell and damnation, a belief that seems to have been increasingly abandoned by the religious faithful in the U.S. One could make more detailed arguments about this based on Biblical interpretation, but Douthat’s argument has one obvious flaw from the get-go. As Douthat puts it, “If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either.” However, if we do believe in Hell, then it seems that “our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make.” Douthat’s assumption seems to be that two completely separate forms of eternal afterlife–paradise and damnation–are required in order to lend meaning or moral weight to our choices in this earthly life. Our choices have real consequences now, though, and could still have such consequences sufficient to lend them meaning and gravity in an afterlife, even if souls are not sorted into these two final resting places.

Even without a Hell of fire and brimstone and devils with forks, we might still be punished for our choices or end up “distant” from God in some respect. The idea of sin as separation from God is horrifying enough to the believer, but even outside this religious context one might argue, Platonist or Neo-Platonist style, that leading the wrong sort of life dooms one to becoming trapped in that wrong sort of life, which is ultimately miserable. If the part of the soul that is separated from this embodied life is the best, purest, least materially-concerned part, and one has consistently neglected that part, then one is likely to have troubles in any existence beyond death. In short, the usual stories about Hell don’t seem required to accomplish the purpose Douthat suggests.

Dan Savage on Good and Bad Christians

In a recent speech at Rhodes College, Dan Savage responded to a question about whether he engages in anti-Christian bigotry. Savage said he is aware that many “good” Christian churches welcome gays and reject the anti-gay bigotry of people like Tony Perkins. However, Savage criticizes these Christians on the grounds that they shouldn’t simply be “whispering” these sentiments in Dan’s ear, but should be loudly protesting against homophobic Christians. In other words, they should be in Tony Perkins’ face, rather than Dan Savage’s.

I’m happy to comply with Savage’s request that Christians speak out against anti-gay Christianity. Most anti-gay bigotry seems rather tenuously connected to Biblical commitments in the first place, but to the extent that it presumes to be Bible based, I would argue it assumes a faulty interpretation of that text. My church (which is part of the United Church of Christ) welcomes gays and lesbians in membership, ministry, marriage, and every other aspect of church life. I wouldn’t want to be part of the church if it discriminated against people, and I’m aware that some other churches do not allow full equality for gays and lesbians, with some going so far as to preach a message of active intolerance. One Lutheran church in my town, for example, still sponsors workshops about “curing” or “converting” gays to heterosexuality.

On the other hand, it’s hard enough for “open and affirming” churches to get their anti-bigotry message across in the wider world without people like Savage making frequent, disparaging generalizations about “Christians” as a whole. This angle is a regular feature on his blog, not just an occasional oversight or error. Savage reaches a wide audience, giving them further reason to believe that this is simply how Christians are. Meanwhile, all three of the major broadcast networks have refused to sell air time to the United Church of Christ, for its ads promoting an inclusive message! As recently as last month (May 2011), even the Sojourners website that serves many progressive Christians was unwilling to sell space for a UCC Mother’s Day video about a boy coming to church with two mothers. When Christians are willing to put their money behind their words in order to promote these messages, but are barred from even reaching an audience, it’s rather pointless for Savage to complain that “good” Christian churches are being too quiet. To put it in his own terms, why isn’t he getting in the face of organizations like ABC, CBS, and NBC, rather than complaining about the so-called “silence” of inclusive churches?

The other problem is that anti-gay Christians are more likely to agree on a cluster of issues that powerfully motivate their political choices. More attention is paid specifically to Christian anti-abortion and anti-gay voters, because those issues influence turnout in elections and can make or break a candidate’s campaign. For instance, even as the public increasingly accepts gay relationships, the Republican primary candidates uniformly reject gay rights positions. Meanwhile, Christians who base their voting choices on a variety of other issues are less likely to receive media attention for doing so as Christians, per se. This encourages a mistaken impression about what Christians believe, in general. Likewise, most Christians believe in evolution and would not attribute that commitment to their Christianity. However, most vocal opponents of evolution are Christians who do base their rejection on their religious views. This can lead to the false impression that Christians generally do not believe in evolution. I agree with Savage that Christians should be vocal in opposing bigotry, but he needs to stop lumping all Christians together, which only furthers the assumption that one point of view represents Christian thinking as a whole.

Banning Circumcision?

In San Francisco, supporters of an initiative that would ban circumcision of males under 18 say they have enough signatures to place the measure on the November ballot. I find it rather rude for some to suggest that the state should prevent parents from making this decision for their own children. I would find it equally unpleasant if the state were to mandate that boys be circumcised. I am not aware of any evidence about health benefits or drawbacks that is strong enough to compel only one decision about this issue. When reasonable people have legitimate disagreements about how to weigh uncertain evidence on both sides, it seems wrong for the state to mandate one approach or the other.

Though the proposed San Francisco measure would not offer a religious exception, my reasons for considering circumcision always had to do with health rather than religion or culture. According to the CDC, circumcision may reduce the chances of acquiring or transmitting diseases like HPV or HIV. A reduced incidence of penile cancer is also reported. I understand that some men end up seeking circumcision later life due to phimosis or other physical difficulties in older age, but by then the procedure is more likely to have complications or a difficult recovery. Thus, if circumcision is chosen for potential health benefits, it seems better to have it done during infancy.

Though the above reasoning led me to conclude that I would probably circumcise a newborn son, I certainly appreciate the gravity of the opposing arguments, and I understand why parents might come to a different conclusion even from the same evidence. Any time a parent makes a decision for a child that has permanent effects and could cause suffering, it should be undertaken with great caution after investigating the available evidence. The mild hysteria about this issue in recent years can make it more challenging to find quality evidence. For all I know, the medical evidence may someday change, and my decision along with it. However, based on what we know today, the state needs to allow parents to weigh and decide this question for themselves.

Now that the circumcision ban is in the news, one argument I often hear is that medical organizations like the AAP do not recommend routine infant circumcision. However, this does not mean that they recommend against it, as some people misleadingly allege. Rather, there is insufficient evidence of health benefits to support recommending that the procedure be done routinely. The AAP, like other medical organizations, acknowledges evidence of both risks and benefits of circumcision. This is why I think parents who choose not to circumcise are perfectly justified in that choice and should be free to make it. Similarly, parents who choose to circumcise should be afforded the same freedom under the law.

Powerful images

Since we cannot go to church today, and the theme of the sermon was to be something about “power”, here are some pictures to inspire reflection. My dad used to paint, and in the house where I grew up hung a painting of a scene much like the one above, in my parents’ light blue bedroom. The rocks were a little different, but the overall effect was quite similar. Now, the ocean scene calls to mind all the things that go along with memory of that room and its painting: security, comfort, relaxation, the presence of authority, the regular habit of reading, and little bowls of apples or oranges separated into segments! Parental power shares a few things with oceanic power: omnipresent, much greater than sometimes realized, with a natural ebb and flow, permitting and restricting, shaping and retreating.

Above is a volcanic rock from the Kona coast, Hawaii. This brings to mind not only the amazing activities of the earth that shaped it, but the ways that humans seek treasure from the earth and transform those treasures into instruments of power. Superstitions also tell against removing a piece of that lava from the Island. Maybe it’s always bad to give that sort of reason any power, but maybe it’s sometimes good when superstitious thinking leads us not to harm things?

And above is the kind of power I embrace and seek to cultivate in my life.