Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Thu, 03 Sep 2015 19:32:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Louisiana: A French Teacher Lives Among the Cajuns Wed, 02 Sep 2015 14:45:05 +0000 A French Teacher Lives Among the Cajuns.

An instrument and song book are displayed at the funeral of Jillian Johnson in Lafayette, Louisiana. (Paul Kieu/The Daily Advertiser/AP)

An instrument and song book are displayed at the funeral of Jillian Johnson in Lafayette, Louisiana. (Paul Kieu/The Daily Advertiser/AP)

“So, what do you think about moving to the Third World?” This was the first question that Lynn Blevins, the head of the upper school of the Episcopal School of Acadiana (ESA), asked me during a phone interview in April 2003 for a job as a French teacher at the small, independent day school located just outside Lafayette, Louisiana.

The question was a test. It was a test to see if a “Yankee” finishing up his senior year at a liberal arts school in Minnesota, viewed the Deep South as a cultural backwater and an economic dead zone.

Lafayette, of course, is far from the “Third World.” Recently rated the happiest city in the U.S., Lafayette is home to some 120,000 people. It is located a 120-mile drive west from New Orleans on I-10, the span of U.S. highway that has historically marked the boundary between Catholic and, until recently, Democratic South Louisiana and the rest of the state, which is predominantly Protestant and Republican. Ten years ago this summer, it also served as the evacuation route for tens of thousands of New Orleanians—18,000 of whom found temporary shelter in Lafayette’s “Cajundome.”

More recently, earlier this summer, this highway became part of America’s history of mass shootings, when it served as the likely route that a 59-year-old man took to travel to Lafayette where, in a crowded movie theater on July 23, he opened fire, killing two young women and wounding nine others.

Lafayette has always been a place where trials and triumph exist together just below or on the surface. It is the capital of Acadiana, the region of South Louisiana where, in the mid-eighteenth century, French-speaking Acadians who had been forced from their homes in Canada settled among the swamps and bayous. There, over the next two centuries the Acadians became “Cajuns,” overcoming geographic isolation, poverty, and antagonism from their non-French speaking neighbors, and developing one of the most unique linguistic, culinary, and musical cultures in the world.

Back in 2003, over the phone, I told Blevins that I knew about the important place that Lafayette occupies in the Francophone diaspora. And I told her that that I would be honored to be a “Yankee teaching French to the Cajuns,” and equally honored if the Cajuns would try to teach me how live, dance, speak, and eat as if I were Cajun, too.

I passed Blevins’ test. And I spent three years teaching and coaching cross-country and track at ESA. Located on a former sugarcane farm, most of the school’s classrooms are cottages, built on short stilts to account for the flood-prone region that stands just feet above sea level. Between classes students scamper across elevated wooden walkways that connect the school’s dozen buildings, canopied by massive, 100-year-old pecan and oak trees. More than one visitor has noted that the place looks more like a summer camp in Maine than an elite private school in Louisiana. And it does frequently send a handful of the fifty or so students it graduates each year north to the Ivy Leagues.

Though Acadiana is not the Third World, like many other French Catholic diasporas, Cajuns do live close to and off the land—land that is also surrounded by water in almost every direction. Many locals speak about how they are not just born into families. They are born out of the land and water of South Louisiana—the same land and water that nourishes the food in Cajun cuisine, that supplies the lyrics to Cajun music and that provides the setting for Cajun and Creole folklore. Caroline Helm, who also taught French at ESA and who co-founded “The Figs,” an all-female band, which Helm describes as “Americana with a Cajun spirit,” explained to me that the “adversity” created by the place—which has long been prone to hurricanes and floods and to the vagrancies of the oil industry—makes locals proud of their heritage rooted in overcoming hardship. It also makes them fiercely protective of their own.


THE IDENTIFICATION OF the Cajun people with place predates their ancestors’ arrival in South Louisiana. In what is often called “Le Grand Dérangement,” beginning in the 1750s, the English authorities in Canada expelled the Acadians from their homes. The English, then engaged in the Seven Years’ War with the French, believed that these French-speaking Acadians threated their colonization plans. More than 11,500 Acadians were deported, some ending up in other English colonies as faraway as the Falkland Islands or repatriated to French. By 1785, 6,000 had settled in South Louisiana.

After the U.S. acquired the area as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Americans left the Acadians alone to create, together with the region’s other cultural groups, a new ethnic community today known as the Cajuns. By the early twentieth century, the discovery of oil in the region brought more and more English-speaking Americans to the South Louisiana. As Cajun music scholar Ryan André Brasseux has explained, this influx of non-Cajuns, coupled with Progressive-era ideals that valued “Americanizing” regional communities, led to the stigmatization of the Cajuns as “off white.” It was thought they could be made “white” through compulsory public education. Starting in the 1910s, South Louisiana had “English-only schools” where the Cajuns’ “cultural annihilation was standard policy.”

However, by the 1950s this anti-Cajun campaign fell out of favor as Cajun music and Cajun food became increasingly popular outside of South Louisiana. According to Barry Jean Ancelet, the dean of Cajun scholars, the bicentennial of Le Grand Dérangement in 1955 “mildly politicized” the survival of Cajun ethnicity and ushered in what became the “Louisiana French renaissance movement.” In 1968, with the backing of Cajun politicians, the State of Louisiana established the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), with a mandate to “do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization, and preservation of the French language as found in Louisiana.” CODOFIL’s biggest presence is felt in education. Today, the grandchildren of Cajuns, who were sometimes beaten by their teachers for speaking French, can now choose to attend 26 public schools in which every subject except English is taught in French.

This renaissance of French and Cajun heritage can be heard almost everywhere in Acadiana—from conversations in French (or a French dialect) on the streets of Lafayette to the local public radio station. Every April, Lafayette hosts Le Festival International de Louisiane, which brings in the best musicians from Louisiana (the Figs have performed at Festival) and throughout the Francophone world and beyond, and which now boasts an annual attendance of more than 300,000 visitors.


I FIRST VISITED Lafayette the week after the Festival International during my campus visit to ESA. After she picked me up from the airport, Blevins drove me through Lafayette’s compact downtown where the festival is held, as trash crews tidied up the streets. With the festival banners printed in both French and English still hanging from the lampposts, we talked about how, for a French teacher, there is no place in the country where French is more relevant and alive than in South Louisiana.

That was true, but my tenure was not without its difficulties. Because of the intricacies of culture, Helm says she recognizes that moving to Acadiana for many can be “intimidating.” In a place where the rituals of music, food, and dance are revered like religious rites—and the rules of engagements are often mysterious to the uninitiated—a cultural misstep becomes more than a faux pas. “I had a friend from New York who once said that she was in more culture shock [in Lafayette] than in France,” Helm says.

The place can be hard for outsiders to navigate. As one of my former ESA students, Michael Barron, explained to me, because “families in Lafayette have been there forever and tend not to leave,” and because these families are so interconnected through blood or marriage, “people tend to really invest in each other’s lives.” But such investments take decades, even generations, to be established. This means that it’s hard for transients to feel at home in a city where the familial webs are so intertwined. “If you don’t know someone personally, you’ve got a cousin who does,” said Barron, who went to Harvard College before settling outside of New York City. Save for his younger sister currently in Baton Rouge attending LSU, the rest of his family still lives in Lafayette.

According to Barron, these familial webs don’t end at the city limits, but “spread to all corners of the region and state.” And ten years ago this summer, these webs were activated as many in Lafayette hosted family and friends retreating from the flooded streets of New Orleans for the relatively higher ground of their country cousins in Acadiana. I was starting my third year teaching at ESA when Katrina (and her less remembered sister storm, Rita) devastated the Gulf Coast. While the storm and the waters affected almost everyone in New Orleans, the storm was no great equalizer, as has now been well documented. Instead, Katrina mapped New Orleans’ preexisting economic and racial disparities onto the cities to which New Orleanians evacuated—including Lafayette.

Just days after the storm made landfall, wealthy and white families—most with family connections in the area—began showing up at ESA and other private schools around Acadiana to enroll their children in school. I remember talking to one new student about joining the cross country team while her father wrote out check for a full-year’s tuition at the same time he was on the phone with a realtor negotiating to buy a house sight unseen in River Ranch, one of Lafayette’s most expensive new developments. In the days to follow, mostly poor and black families—most with no connection to Lafayette—began arriving by the busload to the Cajundome, Lafayette’s aging sports arena, designed to host the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Ragin’ Cajun men’s basketball games, not mass evacuations. With little guidance from the state, FEMA, and even the Red Cross, the Cajundome staff and volunteers took charge themselves, triaging arriving evacuees as well as donated goods.

Those evacuees who showed up to the Cajundome brought with them little more than the clothes on their backs. But the fears of violence, which had dominated the media coverage in New Orleans, did follow the evacuees to Lafayette. Before entering the Cajundome, new arrivals had to pass through a metal detector manned by armed guards in camouflage. Racially tinged rumors of young men leaving the Cajundome to rob residents spread throughout the city. In response, for a few days in early September, some parents pulled their children from school and local sporting goods stores saw a spike in firearm sales.

The rumors were unfounded. In the 58 days that the Cajundome remained open as a “mega shelter,” and in the months and years that followed, Lafayette experienced no significant increase in the crime rate related to people displaced by Katrina. While the increased population put a strain on municipal and educational resources, it was a temporary one. Most of the Cajundome evacuees did not stay in the area. Of the 4,600 new students who enrolled in Lafayette public schools in the weeks after the storm, by the end of the 2005-2006 school year, only a few hundred remained.

Katrina was a trial for Lafayette, but one that, some have argued, left the city in better shape than before. Many of those who did stay in the area not only bought houses or condominiums, but also relocated their businesses, leading to an expansion of the local economy and tax base. As part of its ten-year anniversary coverage, in a not-so-subtle juxtaposition with the failures of the state and federal agencies, Lafayette’s daily newspaper, The Daily Advertiser, described the ingenuity and professionalism exhibited by those who ran and volunteered at the Cajundome as setting a new “standard” for how to best respond to future, large-scale disasters. The paper also published a report praising the brave actions of the “Cajun Navy,” some three to four hundred fishermen from Lafayette and surrounding communities who took their boats—which they normally use to fish and hunt in the bayous and basins of South Louisiana—to the flooded streets of New Orleans, where they rescued scores of people trapped on their roofs.


THIS SEASON, as Lafayette joins the rest of Louisiana in marking the ten-year anniversary of Katrina, the city is also grappling with another tragedy. My former ESA colleague Caroline Helm lost her bandmate Jillian Johnson, who sang and played ukulele in the Figs in the Lafayette theater shooting on July 23. Johnson, 33, was killed alongside Mayci Breaux, 21, a local college student. ESA’s most prominent benefactor Dwight “Bo” Ramsey and his wife Gerry were also shot at the theater, though they are both expected to survive.

Theodicy fails us in the wake of shootings. Lafayette’s State Representative Terry Landry, Sr., has called for more gun control legislation, especially in relation to the mentally ill. Yet, aware of the intractability of the politics, Caroline Helm has told me, “Jillian’s family are focused less on guns and more on shining a light on the life that she lived.”

What I found striking, and particularly true to the culture of South Louisiana is how the family and friends of Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson chose to “shine this light” not only on the lives that they lived, but how their virtues reflected the particular place they called home. In the Advertiser’s remembrance of Mayci Breaux, mourners pointed to the fact that, as the carnival queen for her high school in Franklin, Louisiana, she represented the school community in the town’s Mardi Gras celebration. Mayci’s mother, Dondie Breaux, spoke about plans that her daughter had to marry her longtime boyfriend, Matthew Rodriguez, who was also wounded in the shooting and who like Mayci came form another family who has been in the area for generations.

The remembrances that have been offered for Jillian Johnson are similarly moving and self-referential. In perhaps the most circulated obituary, in the Lafayette-based Independent, Christiaan Mader wrote that Johnson “adopted Lafayette, but reminded us of what was best about us: our self-effacing self-aggrandizement, our love of swamp pop and plate lunches. She sold Lafayette to Lafayettians. And she succeeded because she probably knew this place better than any born native did.”

Caroline Helm told me that actually Johnson didn’t need to adopt the city, because she was a native-born Louisianan, with deep family roots in Cajun Country (Perhaps Jillian’s not-so-Cajun last name was the source of the confusion about her true origins). While she did grow up in Nashville, she returned to Lafayette for college. After earning an art degree, Johnson became a central figure in the art and music scene in Lafayette. She did the art design for prominent Louisiana musical acts, including the Red Stick Ramblers (who were featured on HBO’s Treme) as well as her own band, the Figs. With her husband, Jason Brown, she owned Red Arrow Workshop with locations in Lafayette’s River Ranch and in New Orleans, which sells Louisiana-themed gifts, including a line of apparel produced by Parish Ink, which Jillian ran with her brother. Friends said her most popular t-shirt design was a silk-screen of the I-10 logo. “This is our little tribute to the beautiful ribbon of highway that stretches from sea to shining sea,” reads the Parish Ink description. “It just so happens to run though our very favorite place, south Louisiana.” Helm told the Advertiser for that Johnson helped create the “brand” that is Lafayette. “There are politicians and people that sit around and talk about what they can do for Lafayette. Jillian just did it with her creativity. We are all better for it.”

The morning after Johnson’s death, Helm, still in tears from a night spent reeling after the loss of her dear friend, was in her car, waiting in the drive-thru line at Community Coffee, the Baton-Rouge based coffee chain. “I don’t know if the person in front of me knew me or saw me crying,” she told me, “but I approached the window and my coffee was already paid for.”

It was a small gesture, but for Helm it signifies something particular to her hometown. In Lafayette, Helm explains, “People do allow tragedies to change them. All the time, I notice most everyone being nicer and more giving. Of course, this will fade into the new norm, but I believe we are forever changed as a community.”

Still, this new norm will not include the one-time carnival queen from Franklin, on the cusp of her building her own Louisiana life. Nor will it include the “Nurturing Queen of Lafayette,” as Helm described her friend Jillian, deep-voiced, “tall and powerful.” A new norm perhaps. But without Mayci and Jillian, who loved their South Louisiana home and whose South Louisiana home loved them back, it’s not necessarily a better one.

Long live Queen Mayci. Long live Queen Jillian.

Max Perry Mueller is a contributing editor to Religion & Politics.

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New Clash over Religion in Schools: Communities Face Backlash for Lessons on Islam Tue, 25 Aug 2015 13:39:31 +0000 Five Pillars of Islam

Many of the speakers wore red shirts in solidarity. Dozens of them took turns standing at the microphone to lash out at the members of the school board in front of them. The offense? A Tampa high school had dared to allow an imam and head of a Muslim civil rights group to deliver a lesson on Islam to students.

People in the crowded boardroom whooped and applauded when a speaker said the school system needed to protect children from a group that advocated hate and violence. And others cheered when another protester accused the school system of wasting students’ time on a subject that shouldn’t be allowed when Christianity had been kicked out of the schools. It was February 28, 2012, and the Hillsborough County School Board found itself in the middle of a battle over religion in the public schools, the kind of clash that has surfaced in numerous school systems around the country in recent years.

The Tampa controversy dragged on for months, and speakers at board meetings ranged from supportive to hateful. At a late March 2012 meeting, a woman was frank about her distaste about Islam. “It is not tolerance when we make deals with the devil … There is no talk of Hindus and any other religions because the other religions don’t teach hate, they don’t teach that God is ashamed of women, that they need to be covered up like pigs in a blanket,” she said, and later added, “They are a religion of Jihad, and in the Koran, they teach it’s okay to lie to the enemy, and guess what, any religion that is not Islam is the enemy. Coexist? Please.”

This is a new, yet again ugly chapter in America’s history with religion in public education. In the past, debate centered on religiosity and such issues as the legality of teachers leading students in prayer and Bible verses. The Supreme Court tried to settle that dispute a little more than 50 years ago in the landmark 1963 Abington v. Schempp case. No longer could educators start the day with the Lord’s Prayer or a recitation of Bible verses, a common practice until the court ruling. Schools had to strictly follow that line separating church and state by not promoting one religion over another. The ruling, while emphasizing that separation, also urged educators to teach about comparative religion, given religion’s role in history. In response to state curriculum standards set in the 1990s through the early 2000s, many schools have incorporated lessons about Islam in history classes. They also teach about Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and in some cases, Sikhism. But Islam has been the flash point for controversy in public schools as tensions in the Middle East and fears of radical Islamic groups, such as ISIS or ISIL, increase. Disputes over lessons on Islam have flared around the nation, in Tampa and other Florida cities; Wichita, Kansas; Lumberton, Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; and in Wellesley and Revere, Massachusetts. Sometimes, a field trip to a mosque caused the stir. In other cases, just seeing the mention of Islam in a child’s homework led to a parental complaint. Parents and policymakers, namely in Texas and Florida, also have taken aim at social studies textbooks, charging that Islam was treated more kindly than Christianity and other religions. Educators have countered that such claims were bogus.

The reaction to a Muslim speaker’s presence at Steinbrenner High near Tampa illustrates the layers of the debate today over teaching about Islam. Kelly Miliziano, the chair of the history department at Steinbrenner High School, had invited Hassan Shibly, the executive director of CAIR-Florida (a state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations), to speak to the school’s world history classes and its elective comparative religion class. Steinbrenner, based in the Tampa suburb of Lutz, had been using guest speakers to talk about different religions for years. Miliziano and her colleagues invited people of various faiths, but were particularly intent on inviting a Muslim because the school had so few Muslim students. Shibly, an imam who frequently gave sermons at area mosques and also gave public talks on Islam to community groups, came to Steinbrenner at the recommendation of a local imam. He came with a controversial history partly because he led CAIR-Florida. CAIR is a Muslim civil rights organization that represents Muslims dealing with bullying and various civil rights issues. But at the national level, CAIR has been in the news many times because of battles with the U.S. Justice Department over its characterization of the association. In 2007, the Justice Department named CAIR, along with more than 300 organizations and individuals, as an unindicted co-conspirator in a trial of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a Texas-based charity accused of funneling millions of donated money to Hamas. The government shut down Holy Land in 2001, and a federal judge later ruled that the foundation had financed Hamas and thus supported terrorism. CAIR was never convicted of anything, but remained a target of anti-Muslim groups.

According to teachers and students, Shibly delivered a PowerPoint presentation on the basic practices and obligations of Islam and revealed some of his own life as a Muslim. He was just 25, and teachers and students described him as a hip speaker who gave Islam a human face. “He talked about the pillars of Islam, right out of the textbook,” Miliziano says. “Nothing occurred. There was no indoctrination. Even when presented with that, these groups continued to portray it as if it were something different.”

Many opponents did not seem to care what Shibly actually said to students, and instead they argued that Islam should not be taught in school at all. At a January 2012 school board meeting, a woman said she wouldn’t put her child in the Hillsborough County school board system because she feared that it was teaching propaganda promoting Islam. “It’s a threat against our children, ultimately our nation, and our freedom,” a Tampa-area businessman told the board at the same meeting. “CAIR promotes Sharia law. They want to establish a global fundamentalist Islam state.”

Other opponents gave more nuanced reasons for their opposition, saying schools had to be sure they taught about Islam in the most unbiased way and avoided sugarcoating the fact that Islam has a radical element. And then there was the “We’re a Christian nation” stance, the idea that schools in America should pay homage to Christianity only and allow prayer to return. “Today, Christianity in any form is considered to be persona non grata in our public schools. Why then is a radical Muslim organization such as CAIR allowed to come in and explain their belief system?” said a speaker who described herself as a concerned grandmother.

Interestingly, these opponents didn’t say they opposed that schools were now also teaching about Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism and other religions. They tossed all of the darts at Islam.

Pamela Geller, a New York City-based political activist and author, helped grow the controversy from a single parent’s complaint to a national issue. She quickly built opposition to Shibly’s talks at Steinbrenner with a series of blog posts and articles. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks hate groups, Geller is the anti-Muslim movement’s “most visible and flamboyant figurehead.” She is the author of a book called Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance, and CAIR has been one of her frequent targets. In her opening salvo against Shibly’s visits to history classes, she wrote: “Hamas-linked groups are talking to high school students? Co-conspirators in the largest terror funding trial in our nation’s history? Is that what our public schools are doing with our children – subjecting them to indoctrination and propaganda?” In a January 2012 post, she listed the email addresses and phone numbers for Miliziano and Steinbrenner’s principal and urged readers to “work the phones, demand equal time and a cease and desist from inviting Muslim brotherhood groups to speak to public school students.” Miliziano received numerous hateful voice mails, emails, and a threatening call at her home.

As the controversy escalated, Miliziano began to have self-doubt. “I did wonder, ‘What am I doing? Have I ended my career? I’ve been teaching 27 years. Do I really need this?’ ” she recalled.

David Caton, the Tampa-based head of the Florida Family Association, a Christian conservative group, also accused Shibly of indoctrinating students. Caton had led a statewide campaign to pass a measure to ban the practice of foreign law in the state, a bill that was an attempt to stop Muslims from using sharia law in Florida. That measure never passed, but Caton succeeded in other anti-Muslim activity, persuading the multi-billion dollar retailer Lowe’s to remove its advertisements from a new national cable reality television show about American Muslim families. As part of his campaign against Shibly and CAIR speakers, Caton persuaded his supporters to send thousands of emails to school board members in protest. The school system ultimately passed guidelines requiring administrative approval for guest speakers, but Caton was dissatisfied that the school board left the door open for CAIR speakers to return to schools. In the furor’s oddest turn, he offered a $3,000 reward to anyone providing tips about future speaking presentations by CAIR at Steinbrenner and paid for a billboard to advertise the reward.

Locally, at the Hillsborough County School Board meetings, Terry Kemple became the main face of the opposition. The former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, Kemple had run for school board several times and lost. In 2012, he would recruit dozens to join him at the meetings to oppose Shibly and CAIR speakers. Each time he had the mike for public comment, he pronounced: “I would like to ask everyone who is here because you don’t want CAIR in the classroom to stand up briefly.” He would state that CAIR had links to terrorism. He distributed flyers, including one headlined: “Parents say NO to HAMAS! In Our Schools.” Pressed further in an interview with me on his views regarding teaching about world religion in school, Kemple emphasized that he believed America was founded primarily by Christians and on Christian ethics.

What could have been a healthy discussion about the best way to educate children about religion largely became a political tussle between conservative activists and the majority of the Hillsborough County School Board. One school board member openly supported the anti-Shibly, anti-CAIR camp. The opponents typically focused on the fears many Americans have of Muslims in the aftermath of the 9/11. Supporters of Shibly’s appearances spoke up, but often found themselves simply pleading for decency from one human to another. A Baptist minister, for example, stood up and recalled how the United States imprisoned Japanese families during World War II and how it took decades for the country to acknowledge its overreaction. “I thought perhaps we had learned from our mistakes and would never fall into a trap of ostracizing a whole section of our society,” he said. “Now I see groups trying to demonize a whole group of our society because they’re Islamic.” He made a plea for all faiths to work together. So did leaders of area civil rights organization and a Muslim father of four.

Shibly himself also made an appearance at a school board meeting. In February of 2012, right after Kemple gave his latest speech against CAIR, Shibly walked up to the front of the board room, stood at the lectern and wasted no time expressing his frustration. “With everything that’s been said, I’m just waiting for the marshal to jump out at any moment and arrest me,” he said and held out his hands as if to mime getting handcuffed. “My name is Imam Hassan Shibly. From those who know me, from those who know CAIR, they have nothing but good things to say about us. Unfortunately, the reality is there has been so many lies said against us today that I feel like I have to come out and say the world isn’t flat.” Some of his supporters in the school system had hoped Shibly would speak gently, but he was too angry to be meek. Still, he included a plea for understanding, for respect for Muslims simply trying to live productive lives in America. “We cannot let those who are promoting hatred and bigotry raise a flag of victory over our schools. Thank you, and God bless you. God bless America.” Driving home to his wife and children that night, he felt tears come to his eyes for the first time since his visits to Steinbrenner had made news.

Other school districts have fought similar battles. The Wellesley, Massachusetts, school system received a death threat after news broke of a sixth-grade field trip to a mosque. A Wichita, Kansas, elementary school added extra security because of ominous emails in the aftermath of opposition to an almost blank bulletin board display labeled the “Five Pillars of Islam.” A set of parents and a state lawmaker publicly opposed the display, saying the heading should have said six pillars and included a reference to the sixth pillar of jihad. They claimed jihad obligates Muslims to kill infidels, or all non-Muslims, a claim mainstream Muslims steadfastly refute.

In the face of public outcry, school systems have stood by teachers and lessons about Islam taught as part of social studies or geography classes. Miliziano had taught for more than two decades when her school was lambasted for inviting the Muslim speaker. She teaches Advanced Placement World History and touches on religion as it comes up naturally. The course looks at the spread of Islam during history, but rarely covers anything contemporary. Miliziano thought Shibly, as a twenty-something Muslim, could provide a glimpse at how some Muslims live and practice their religion today. She had used guest speakers on different religions for most of her teaching career and never faced a controversy till now. She devotes only three days of instruction to Islam based on the world history curriculum. The students learn about how Islam has spread and how it looks different, depending on the country. If anything, she says, the opponents’ comments affirmed why she and other teachers needed to keep educating students about other religions.

“I’ve gone back and forth in my head, is it CAIR or is it Islam?” Miliziano says. “But if you listen to people who spoke at the school board meeting, they are so derogatory toward people who are Muslim. And they’re talking about people sitting in the audience. They’re talking about people who live and work in our community who are professionals. It’s very clear it’s anti-Muslim. Calling women who were covered up pigs in a blanket, saying ‘those people,’ it was just a low level of discourse.”

Teachers I spoke with around the nation said they did not avoid talking about the negative sides of religion but were careful not to promote stereotypes. At Wellesley Middle School, sixth-grade teacher Jonathan Rabinowitz begins a four-week unit on Islam by asking students what they view as common stereotypes of Muslim. Then, using facts, Rabinowitz dispels many of those stereotypes. He points out that Indonesia, rather than Middle Eastern countries, has the biggest population of Muslims. He and his students talk about the claim that all Muslim women are oppressed and learn that the treatment of women varies by country.

In Modesto, California, Sherry McIntyre has taught about world religions since 2000, when the school system first began requiring high school freshmen to take a nine-week course on the world’s religions. The students study at least six religions and may cover up to 10, always including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Modesto, which does not allow field trips or guest speakers for the religions course, has never faced controversy in the class. The 9/11 attacks happened a year after the course began, and the teachers stuck to their plan to teach about Islam in December. They teach about Mohammed, his growing up years and the nuts and bolts of the religion. They talk about jihad and describe it as a holy war but also as an internal struggle rather than an external one against others. The teachers use a video of an American Muslim woman to support that point, and the woman explains how to her, jihad is a war within herself to be a good person. But McIntyre does not avoid what students may hear about on the news. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, she explained jihad the way she has for more than a decade, then added her own take. “I really want them to understand that people who are terrorists are awful people, and it’s no big surprise they’re going to drag their religion into the mud with them, and there are people with other religions who screw things up,” she says. People, not the religion, are responsible for the wrongs, she emphasizes. Neither McIntyre or Rabinowitz felt they had to tiptoe around the subject when teaching about Islam. It was just another religion relevant to history lessons.

But other teachers have been more nervous. At Wichita’s Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School, which faced backlash in 2013 for a bulletin board display on Islam, some fourth-grade teachers said they worried every year that someone might object to their lessons on Islam. They followed a prescribed curriculum, created by the Core Knowledge Foundation, and taught about the basics of Islam and how it spread throughout history. They did art projects with the fourth-graders and other activities to bring the religion alive. But these teachers also knew the fears that many people had about Islam. Wendi Turner, who had taught at Minneha for 14 years, said she initially was uncomfortable teaching about Islam because she knew so little about it. A Methodist, Turner grew up in Andover, a town east of Wichita. She trained herself so she became more knowledgeable about Islam. When 9/11 happened, she looked at the few Muslim students in her classroom and realized they were no different than she. “They just pray to a different God,” she said during an interview in the school’s conference room. “They pray to Allah. I pray to God.”

I asked her if she saw Allah as a different God, the very notion mainstream Muslims would like to dispel. Turner said that as a Christian, she saw the Muslim view of God as much different from hers because she attaches the face of Jesus Christ to God. She said, though, that her personal belief did not interfere with her ability to teach about Islam. She put her own religious beliefs aside. The more she learned, the more she realized that the three main world religions had similarities, too. She resented the opposition to the fourth-grade bulletin board display. “Ignorance is stupidity,” Turner says. “I’m not converting children.”

In Tampa, students at Steinbrenner High who heard Hassan Shibly cringed at outsiders’ contention that the speaker had brainwashed them. They thought Shibly was engaging, entertaining, and informative, teen after teen told me. “It really frustrated me that they were attacking this man who I thought did a great job showing us and sharing his religion,” says Rachel Evans, an agnostic who had never met a Muslim before Shibly spoke to her class. She regretted that others turned the presentation into something ugly.

In 2014, Miliziano invited Shibly back. The school’s principal at first said yes, then vetoed the idea, preferring to avoid more brouhaha. She knew that some of the same CAIR opponents still hovered in the background, waiting for a reason to renew debate over how and even whether lessons on Islam should be taught in an American public school.

All Miliziano wanted to do was bring world history alive for her students. Some public speakers, during the heat of the debate, called for schools to let parents know when a speaker was coming when the topic was religion. That way, students could opt out of a talk and do an alternative assignment.

“That’s ridiculous,” Miliziano says. “Then what are you going to do? Are they going to opt out of Chapter 14? Are they going to opt out of studying the Christian crusades? I don’t want to give the idea that they have a choice to attend, that there’s a choice to learn about it. It’s part and parcel of world history.”

Linda K. Wertheimer, a veteran journalist from the Boston area, is the author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance (Beacon Press, August 18) from which part of this article was adapted. Find her on Twitter @lindakwert and her website.

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When Our Truths Are Ignored: Proslavery Theology’s Legacy Mon, 10 Aug 2015 14:08:28 +0000 (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

For an African American writer during slavery, there was an expectation that a “white envelope” framed the “black message.” For autobiographers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, or for poets like Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, this convention dictated that their written work feature a statement of authenticity from a white voice, proving that the black writer had indeed crafted the message. And so, white abolitionists, lawyers, prominent citizens, and sometimes even former slaveholders, wrote a letter or a preface or an addendum to the works of the black author, certifying that what was contained therein was truthful, authentic, and crafted by the author. In other words, whiteness was necessary to validate black veracity.

There are a number of reasons for this need for whiteness to validate black truthfulness during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The horrors of slavery were so unbelievable, that someone like Harriet Jacobs needed this “white envelope” to confirm that she had hidden in crawl spaces and attics for seven years in order to escape her brutal owner. Frederick Douglass’ descriptions of the particular brutalities that both enslaved men and women faced, as they were systematically beaten, sexually abused, and financially exploited by “kind” slave masters and mistresses, would have been quite offensive to the ears of his “tender” audience. His white authenticators reassured what was mostly a Northern Christian reading public, that Douglass’ words barely scratched the surface of the indignities of chattel slavery.

These white voices functioned to certify that black men and women were capable of intellectual thought; these white voices provided proof that those whose legal status rendered them property, were actually able to read, write, and participate in higher levels of reasoning. In other words, it took white writers to affirm that black writers were fully human and not the animals to which they were often likened. In the case of poets like Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon, white voices were necessary to prove that both these writers knew Greek, Latin, classical mythology, and literature. At the age of nineteen, Wheatley had to undergo a trial in which she was examined by an all-white jury of “prominent” Boston citizens in order to prove that she had the intellectual ability to compose her own poetry.

Of course, legal documents that involved African Americans during slavery were their own separate case in terms of whiteness and black veracity. Enslaved men and women were not citizens and could not enter into or uphold legal contracts without white authority. Even free blacks, presumably citizens, could not conduct legal business on their own terms, lest a lawyer or judge invalidate their legal documents on the basis of race. Far too many slave narratives deal with both free and enslaved African Americans being cheated, exploited, and taken advantage of despite obtaining proper legal documents. There was no justice to be had within the judicial system for African Americans without the authentication provided by white benefactors or supporters.

But the underlying issue during the antebellum era of the need for whiteness to verify black truthfulness was a moral and theological matter. There was a fundamental assumption in the proslavery theology born in the New World, that men and women of African descent were not truth-tellers and that they could not morally and ethically discern right from wrong. Enslaved men and women were not considered trustworthy, even after they converted to Christianity, because they were deemed inherently sinful and morally inferior. Proslavery theology simply maintained that a creature that God had cursed, as evidenced by the Myth of Ham, could never be a truth-telling, law abiding, and morally upstanding Christian. In his work Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South: A Brief History with Documents, historian Paul Finkleman reminds us that many slaveholders believed that Christianity was the only force keeping enslaved people from being lawless and godless, arguing: “If freed and denied the guidance of white masters, Africans and their descendants might very well revert to their pre-Christian ways.”

We often fail to deconstruct how proslavery theology still influences American Christianity. But simply put: Theological arguments upheld the institution of slavery long after every other argument failed. American Christian theology was born in a cauldron of proslavery ideology, and one of the spectacular failures of the Christian church today is its inability to name, interrogate, confront, repent, and dismantle the cauldron which has shaped much of its theology. We are daily living with the remnants of a theological white supremacy, coupled with social and political power, which continues to uphold racist ideologies.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, black acts of resistance and agitation for emancipation were read as acts of sin and willful disobedience. The enslaved were seen as unruly children who refused to listen to their white parental authorities. And slaveholders viewed themselves as benevolent patriarchs, biblically justified in their keeping of human chattel. Because of their “disobedience” to their earthly masters, enslaved people were assumed to be in rebellion against God, their Heavenly Master. By far, the most common sermon preached to the enslaved community was for “slaves to be obedient to your masters.”

Proslavery theology saw willful disobedience to God’s authority instead of the actual reality of black resistance and revolution. When enslaved men and women escaped, or broke their tools, or sabotaged their work, proslavery theology preached to them a gospel of blackness as sin, needing to be washed white as snow. There was no room for understanding the radical, liberatory gospel in which many enslaved people believed: a God who came to set the captives free, who did not will perpetual servitude for God’s people. Proslavery theology preached patriarchal guardianship and generational curses, insisting that even if individuals opposed slavery, the institution itself was God’s will. There was no room for understanding how enslaved men and women themselves were pondering deep theological questions. Within their slave narratives, some asked, “How can a stolen ‘thing’ steal other things?” Others wondered, “Is it better to disobey man in order to live righteously for God?”

One of the most pernicious legacies of proslavery theology, with implications for the twenty-first century, is a world in which black people are still being asked to frame their stories and words with white envelopes. It is a world in which, as African Americans, we are assumed to be lying unless our stories can be authenticated by a white lens; we are assumed to be guilty, unless our innocence can be proven. Mainstream media reported that Walter Scott was justifiably killed after taking a police officer’s Taser; no one believed that Scott was unarmed and fleeing, until video evidence proved otherwise—video which also showed evidence being planted besides Scott’s dead body. Somehow, our own lived experiences and our very lives have to be verified, again and again, and checked against the legitimacy of white authority. African Americans are often not believed when we insist we are targeted for traffic stops or we face harsh penalties for daring to “drive while black.” Many of us are not believed when we insist we are being followed in stores or being racially profiled in certain businesses. Many of us are not believed when we share experiences of racial micro-aggressions that we experience daily in our work places. Short of having a cross burned on our front lawns, we are not believed when we discuss the weight of living in a world in which we fear being the next Twitter hashtag, or the next victim of police brutality or a racist shooting. Even when we dare to share our stories, as painful as these stories may be, we are constantly told: “Show us the evidence” that racism still exists.

And so, we provide the evidence, the research, the statistics, and the social-scientific data which confirm racist environmental policies, or disproportionate rates of traffic stops, or cradle-to-prison pipeline numbers, or racial inequities in public education. We demonstrate how people of color are literally breathing more toxic air or how African Americans are 75 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers in a place like Missouri, despite being less likely to have contraband like in their cars. A series of recent studies found that African American children receive less pain management in the emergency room; another study reported that white Americans believe that black children, as young as seven, simply feel less pain than white children. All of these studies relate to the legacy of slavery: a) the stereotype that black people are just physically stronger and can endure harsher conditions, and b) the stereotype that there is more drug abuse and addiction in black communities. But the most painful outcome of these studies was the unfortunate confirmation that black children are simply not believed when they indicate that they are in severe pain, and so their pain is undermanaged. We live in a nation where the medical establishment can insist that a black child, fresh out of surgery, is not a truth-teller and is lying about his or her pain. That child suffers unnecessary bodily pain when his or her truth is ignored. It is unfortunately a cruel foreshadowing of the psychic and spiritual toll of living a life in which black truth, unless confirmed by whiteness, is not considered truth at all.

The evidence is amply available, but the message that African Americans receive is also quite clear: Your personal stories of experiencing racism in America will not be believed unless the data is produced by upstanding white academic institutions; peer-reviewed by white university presses; and corroborated by trusted white scholars and white journalists. And this demand for evidence applies not simply to the larger culture, but to white churches that have systematically failed to come alongside black communities during times of racial unrest, as these white churches wait for more data, more facts, more evidence before they “risk” supporting hurting black people or commenting on burning black churches. As one journalist suggests, we are more interested in seeing these recent church burnings as individual acts that exist in a vacuum rather than confronting a narrative of terroristic racial violence which stands within a long tradition.

And while African Americans struggle with being seen as truth-tellers, even as we struggle with bearing the burden of both proving and resolving our oppression, we also resist the white lens that dares to shape the racial narrative. We know far too much about systems of whiteness and the lack of truthfulness that these systems represent. We have too many painful experiences with false police records, criminal evidence being planted, crime scenes altered, statistics only confirming racist biases, and mainstream media outlets reinforcing racial stereotypes. African Americans live in this liminal space: Our personal stories of racism are not believed, and yet the white-dominated narratives often do not tell the truth about race. When anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells wrote that “those who commit the murders, write the reports,” she sums up this contradiction. When the victim is dead and the body cam is non-existent (and even when it is present), the assumption is that the words of the official report must be true. Where does that leave the person seeking justice when racism harms, wounds, and kills, but cannot be verified with white-supported data?

August 2015 marks one year since the killing of an unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. In July 2015, a 28-year-old African American woman, Sandra Bland, died in jail three days after being pulled over and arrested for failing to signal a lane change. In both these cases, and many more, the “facts” remain in dispute. We are told to trust the official records generated, even as the victims are killed again and again through character assassination. These families are still grieving and justice seems elusive to those of us who do not believe the “facts.” But can this nation afford to keep ignoring the truth that black people in America live under a threat of racial violence, never quite feeling that we are fully equal citizens in the nation that our enslaved ancestors built?

Yolanda Pierce is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature, and director of the Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. 

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Born Again, All Over Again Tue, 04 Aug 2015 14:47:41 +0000 (Getty/Paul Smith/For the Washington Post) A Jewish convert lights candles in her home to mark the Sabbath.

(Getty/Paul Smith/For the Washington Post) A Jewish convert lights candles in her home to mark the Sabbath.

It all started with a question. On what day did Jesus die?

Which led to more questions. Who wrote the Gospels? Is the English translation of the Bible accurate? What is the truth?

“It just started falling apart,” says Gillah Palumbo. Deeply affected by a church trip to Israel, Gillah and her husband Mark grew curious about Jesus’ world. Upon return to their Seattle-area home they got involved in the Hebrew Roots movement, which infuses evangelical Christianity with Hebrew Bible literacy. But as time went on, their Christian faith continued to erode. Ten years after meeting each other at their Pentecostal church, Gillah and Mark completed an Orthodox conversion to Judaism.

The Palumbos are not alone. While statistics are hard to come by, growing numbers of evangelical Christians are leaning toward Jewish theology and practice. Most settle in messianic churches or with the Hebrew Roots movement, which are Christ-centered. But there is also a small, possibly growing number of evangelical Christians who, at the end of their exploring, become Jews. Restlessly pursuing truth, these seekers gather in Facebook groups and download Jewish informational and spiritual videos on YouTube by the thousands. Rabbi Michael Skobac, the education director of Jews for Judaism’s Toronto office, recalls a decade ago receiving one or two calls a month from curious Christians who’d come across his literature or videos. Now Skobac receives, on average, one call a day. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying this if I didn’t hear the same thing from my colleagues,” Skobac confesses. “There’s something going on.”


BY THE 1960s, two thousand years of Christian antipathy to Judaism was wiping off the ashes of the Holocaust, and Israel’s victory over the Arabs in 1967 was viewed as nothing short of miraculous. Christian Zionism was spreading along with premillennial dispensationalist hopes for the messianic era. Supercessionist theology was partly replaced with the idea that God’s covenant with the People of Israel was still binding. At the same time, the breakdown of the age-old Jewish-Christian divide made way for Jewish converts to Christianity and, in an effort to hasten the Christ’s return, missionary attempts got a twentieth-century makeover.

In 1973 Moishe Rosen, a Jew turned Baptist minister, launched the most famous of the missionary organizations, Jews for Jesus, which states its goal as “to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide.” In a revolutionary move, Jews for Jesus invited Jews to Christianity without divorcing their Judaism. To the horror of the Jewish community—which typically regards Christian interest in converting Jews as amusing at best—the new strategy took hold. According to the Jews for Jesus website, somewhere between 30,000 and 125,000 people subscribe to the syncretic new faith worldwide.

“What happens next is what no one expects,” says Rabbi Tovia Singer, director of Outreach Judaism, a Jewish counter-missionary organization. “Christians were going, ‘Perfect! We love everything Jewish. We want to get back to the Jewish origins of our faith. We want to call him Yeshua instead of that Greek ‘Jesus’ thing.’ It became a magnet for Christians who were looking to infuse their Christianity with something more authentic.”

What became known as the messianic Jewish movement began attracting more Christians than Jews, drawing heavily from evangelical churches. For many evangelicals, an interest in the early church—formed by Jesus, a Jew, and his Jewish followers—drew them in. Hillary Kaell, a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal who has written about messianic Judaism, estimates that 70 percent of attendees at messianic congregations are Christians. “The search for Biblical truth or proper translation is very much usually what brings people out of these charismatic churches,” Kaell explains.

“Many non-Jews who became interested in the Jewish roots of their faith became drawn to [Judaism],” Skobac says. “They have the impression that Jesus would be more comfortable in a messianic synagogue than a Baptist church. It’s part of this quest to find out what was going on 2,000 years ago.”

Messianic congregations may or may not actively proselytize to Jews. But realizing the threat of Jews for Jesus, by the 1980s the organized Jewish community launched counter-missionary organizations like Jews for Judaism to empower Jews in their own beliefs. (Jews for Judaism’s executive director in Canada, Julius Ciss, was involved in the messianic movement before returning to mainstream Judaism.) Now, in a doubly ironic twist, the anti-missionary materials put out by Jews—the readings and online resources that promote Judaism—are attracting the interest of Christians. The very materials meant to be a bulwark against groups like Jews for Jesus have become one of the conduits for Christians to convert to Judaism.


WHEN MARK PALUMBO suggested they join their Pentecostal pastor’s church trip to Israel in 2007, Gillah shrugged off the idea. “Why Israel?” she wondered. “I think we can see the Bible in 3-D!” was Mark’s reply. To both of their surprise, the connection to the land was so strong that returning to Washington felt like leaving home. “We were never the same,” Gillah says. “We were sojourners back in the U.S.”

The Palumbos joined a small group of Christians studying Jewish scriptures. It was the first they’d ever heard of the Israelite feasts and other practices that affected Jesus’ life and form the basis of Jewish life today. What started as a study group of 50 to 75 people grew in 10 years to El Shaddai Ministries, a Hebrew Roots church led by Pastor Mark Biltz in Tacoma, Washington. On average, 600 people turn out for El Shaddai’s Saturday services, but according to El Shaddai’s webmaster, the streamed sermons receive around 10,000 hits a week from viewers around the world, not including the YouTube videos, which in a month’s time bring in some 47,000 more views.

But the Palumbos weren’t satisfied. Then they discovered “Let’s Get Biblical,” Rabbi Singer’s 24-part audio series directed to Jews that comprehensively dismantles Christian claims. Thirsty for knowledge, they drove around the Olympic Peninsula for eight hours listening and discussing his points. When they finished, they pointed the car toward eastern Washington and did it again. When Rabbi Skobac came to Seattle for a weekend in 2013, they and six friends met with him to discuss the options for living more Jewish lives. Skobac encouraged them to look into the Noachide movement—the diffuse movement of non-Jews committing to the seven Noachide laws—but that didn’t feel like enough. They wanted to talk about conversion.

Conversion to Judaism through the Orthodox movement is a notoriously grueling process that involves first getting accepted as potential converts, followed by a crushing literary review, oral exams, and drastic lifestyle changes, including: moving to a Jewish community, swearing off non-kosher food, observing Shabbat and myriad holidays, sometimes changing names and dress, and often losing an entire network of friends and even family. Gillah, who changed her name from Jill, says she sent an email out to every rabbi in the Seattle-Tacoma area expressing her interest to convert. Only one responded. “If he hadn’t replied, we’d still be out there,” she says wearily.

The Palumbos had just finished renovating their dream home when they learned that to become Jews, they had to move within the geographic parameters of the Orthodox Jewish community in Seattle. “We had just put $100,000 into our house,” recalls Mark, who also goes by Moshe. “You’re telling me we’re going to move?”

It’s no wonder their friends who were also interested in conversion fell away. “It’s a real financial hardship,” Mark says. They now live in a squat brick house on a small lot worth twice as much as their large home outside the city. He estimates the transition to a Jewish life cost them $250,000. “Our friends bowed out because they couldn’t handle it,” Mark says.

Rabbis, Singer says, are not usually prepared to deal with Christians, and they are ill equipped for large-scale conversions. That’s why so many Christians come to him — including a group of Koreans who had called him the morning we spoke. “If Judaism would make it easier to convert, they would smash the doors down,” he says. “The only reason they’re not is because the rabbis are saying this is a long process.”

For those Christians who don’t go through with conversion, some remain in their former tradition, some end up as Noachides, some continue searching, and others fall away completely. A small number of seekers are also drawn to the Karaite movement, an ancient Jewish community that adheres to the literal Torah but not the rabbinic tradition. Since 2007 a small American Karaite community in the Bay Area has converted some 70 people—many of whom are former Christians.


MUCH OF THE fluidity of individuals moving between Christianity and Judaism is due to the Internet and social media, and during the spiritual search, the Internet often stands in for community when individuals have nowhere to express their struggles. Aprill Nefores is the founder of the public Facebook group “Leaving Christianity and Finding the Truth,” as well as a private group for individuals not ready to expose their doubts. In December 2014 the former Baptist appeared on the Israeli radio program “A Light to the Nations,” hosted by Ira Michaelson and former evangelical pastor Rod Bryant (now also known as Reuven Dovid, who co-runs the outreach organization Netiv). When Nefores began questioning the tenets of her faith, she felt her pastor wasn’t able to answer her questions adequately. “The answer was always the same: you need to go on faith,” she said in the interview.

Nefores began studying with a friend coming out of the messianic movement, and describes her journey in strikingly hybrid Christian-Jewish language. “She and I came out of idolatry together, baruch Hashem [thank God],” she told her interviewers. “I could no longer go back to my church. Every time I drove by one it was just graven images and idols. I felt ill going by them.”

Lonely and confused, Nefores figured others might be going through the same thing. So she launched her Facebook groups. Both have around 1,000 members now. “It’s absolutely mind-blowing,” she said on the radio. “I can’t keep up with how fast it is growing.”

Nefores also discovered Jewish lineage she didn’t know she had. Her father was Jewish, but only in her own spiritual quest did she discover her maternal grandmother was, too, which precluded her from conversion. (Judaism traces lineage through the maternal line.) “It’s like being born again, again, but for real this time,” she said.

Discovery of Jewish roots is a common part of the self-discovery narrative and can take a number of forms, says Kaell: actual discovery of a Jewish relative, a hunch that a grandparent was hiding his or her Jewishness, a suspicion that one’s family is descended from converted Jews, or simply the sense of a “divine Jewish spark” from within. Whether or not the claims are proven true or simply deduced, finding Jewish heritage can validate a Christian’s interest in Judaism, and it can serve as a “born again” moment—as a Jew. “The [evangelical] Christian idea is a sudden discovery of self, where one’s true self is there, but you need that moment of recognition to know it’s there,” says Kaell.

Gillah Palumbo was adopted and does not know her biological origins, and Mark hasn’t found evidence of Jewish roots in his family. But something strange happened on their third trip to Israel. At the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, they found the name Palumbo on a list of victims from the island of Rhodes. “That struck me hard,” Mark says. He sports a fading eagle tattoo on his right forearm and admits his only friends since leaving Christianity are his old biker buddies. He doesn’t like to cry. But, he says, “There was a tear out of the old eye there.”


OUTREACH PROFESSIONALS like Skobac and Singer admit they never intended to be counseling Christians in crisis. To begin with, Judaism shuns proselytizing to non-Jews, focusing instead on bringing secular or lapsed Jews into the religious and cultural fold.

“I have to confess, when I went into this work it was just to help Jewish people in the Jewish community,” says Skobac. “I never expected this to come out of it.”

Given his extra workload, Skobac speculates that in 20 years there could be full-time Jewish professionals devoted to incoming Christians. “It’s just the beginning,” he says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Singer, like his colleague Skobac, claims not to have any stakes in the game. His work, as he sees it, is altruistic. “Many of these people are losing their families, their friends won’t talk to them, their siblings cut them off,” he says. “They think I’m just being humble, but they gave up everything.”

Mark and Gillah Palumbo not only gave up their dream home, but they also lost most of their friends and some of their family. Gillah’s adult children think they’ve joined a cult. Their friends accused them of “crossing over” to Judaism, and their pastor didn’t lead trips to Israel for a number of years, for fear other parishioners would return a little too inspired. Yet as converts they say they haven’t been fully absorbed into their new community, either.

In spite of it all, the Palumbos say they wouldn’t change a thing. “We wouldn’t go back,” says Gillah. “Once you find the truth, how can you go back?”

Emily Alhadeff is a writer and editor in Seattle whose writing has appeared in Tablet, Moment, and The Times of Israel. She holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.

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For All the Sinners and Saints: An Interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber Tue, 28 Jul 2015 15:18:29 +0000 (Getty/Craig F. Walker)

(Getty/Craig F. Walker)

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is one of the leading voices in progressive Christianity. In 2008, as a Lutheran seminarian at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, she planted a new church called House for All Sinners and Saints. Since then, she has preached to nearly 10,000 people at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and lectured to tens of thousands more around the United States and overseas. But her congregation has committed to remaining no larger than 200, going so far as to issue a statement asking tourists to stay away as they try to maintain their close-knit community with a celebrity pastor.

A recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic, covered in tattoos with a cussing cadence, Bolz-Weber has become a sought-after speaker in mainline Christian circles for her crass honesty. She is author of The New York Times-bestselling memoir Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. Her latest book is Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, due out September 8.

I met up with her at the January Adventure in Emerging Christianity, held this winter at Epworth-by-the-Sea, a United Methodist conference center in St. Simons Island, Georgia. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

R&P: In Pastrix, you write that Christianity has been wildly misrepresented in American society. What do you mean?

NB: When you have images on right-wing postcards of Jesus holding an AK-47, for instance. It’s just not borne out in the text, as I read it. I don’t understand how in mainstream, middle-class America, Christianity became about pretending you had your shit together, and putting on nice clothes for an hour every week, and keeping a smile on your face. It started with rank fishermen, and prostitutes, and tax collectors, and people who were eating with their unwashed hands, and somehow it became that. What the hell happened?

Think about the Christmas story. How did it go from what it was originally—a story of political tyranny, alienation and working-class people, with Herod, an insecure troglodyte who puts a hit out on a toddler, and the Magi, these weird pagans, to what it is today? This snow-covered, sugar-cookie, Norman-Rockwell delusion? I don’t know how we got from A to B. I really don’t know.

At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, and he appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and all of Jerusalem and Judea came to be baptized, confessing their sins, right? Um, probably not all, because the people who didn’t think they had any, who thought they were just nailing it, the people who can just dress up and keep the smiles on their faces, and show everyone they have their shit together, they’re not running to the rivers of Jordan. They’re not the ones going, “Oh, repentance for the forgiveness of sins? Sign me up.” The unclean—those are the people who’ve always run to the shores, man. And somehow everything flipped, and it became about pretending to be the people who stayed in the city because they’re fine.

R&P: Do you think the Church still has any credibility?

NB: I think a post-Constantinian Christianity is maybe the best thing that ever happened to Christianity. Now that we’re not aligned with empire and not maintaining our status in society and our power and our influence anymore, now we can get back to being people who love mercy and seek justice and walk humbly.

[Franciscan priest and spiritual writer] Richard Rohr said this: The people who’ve really, really received true grace, which means you don’t deserve it, which means some kind of gift came your way, like Mary Magdalene, you have some sort of deliverance, or some sort of joy or good news that came to you from somewhere else. Only the people who have received true grace, they are the people who are never any longer in a position to decide who the deserving poor are. You can have a compassion towards others because of the way in which you understand yourself and what you’ve received in the world. I think that’s something that can change our towns or our families—more people like that. That I’m on board for.

But extending influence and power in the corridors of government? I’m just too suspicious of human beings to think that our projects are going to be anything but self-serving. I’m not idealistic about human projects or our ideas, but I really am idealistic about God’s redemptive work in the world. I mean, I’ve just seen it over and over, and I’ve seen it despite myself and my own heart and my own life. That I believe in. We do the best we can as humans with our projects, but if that’s the thing we’re banking on or we have idealism about, we’re always going to be disappointed. Something ugly will always rear its head. The great news is that sometimes God does redemptive things through our projects and our institutions and ourselves despite us. I just kind of always look for that.

R&P: Your friend, the religion writer and editor Phyllis Tickle, talks of “The Great Emergence,” saying the Church is in a period of grand upheaval that seems to happen every 500 years—the early medieval monks rejecting imperial power, the Great Schism between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Protestant Reformation and now this postmodern turn. How do you see yourself and your church fitting into this emergence?

NB: That’s why Phyllis and I do so much speaking together. She does these big, huge swaths of history and cultural theory, and then I get up and read a personal essay that demonstrates what she’s saying, in a way, without it meaning to. What Phyllis consistently says is, “What is the locus of authority? That is the issue of postmodernity. That is the thing we are struggling with.”

When the Leelah Alcorn suicide happened, with so many trans people in our community, I went to them and said, “What do we do?” And so, they organized and got one of our members, Asher, to write a prayer, they put up a shrine, and we read it. And so it was the trans people who read the prayers of the people that day, and I said to them, “Do you want me as the clergyperson to read the prayer that Asher wrote, or do you think it’s more important to have another trans person read it?” And they talked to each other, and they said, “We want our clergyperson to read the prayer.” There’s a lot of permission-giving in our community.

Boy, that’s a different model of leadership and authority than we’ve seen in the church in a long time, maybe ever. They trust me, and these are people who are pretty suspicious of institutions and definitely suspicious of presumed authority, and I somehow have authority to them, and I think it’s because I’m consistently letting go of it, asking for other voices, and unafraid to share leadership. I don’t always get that right. Sometimes I hold on too tightly when I should be letting go. And sometimes I let go when I should be holding on more tightly. So I don’t get it right all the time, but they know that there’s no curtain that they have to peek behind. Consistently, when we’ve looked behind the curtain, we’ve always found scared little men and women, and we’ve never found the Wizard of Oz like we thought we would.     

House for All Sinners and Saints is filled with people who have issues with authority and who are cynical, and yet I’m their pastor. They allow me to be their pastor. But they confer that title. They allow me to hold that office for them. On behalf of the whole community, I’m sort of set apart to have a particular office within the community, and they continually allow me to have that authority. It has nothing to do with my collar or my education or my ordination. It’s that I’m consistently the same person in every situation they encounter me in. They never feel like they have to look behind the curtain. And when I’m full of shit or I’ve made a mistake, I just say it. I spend zero energy defending or protecting my own authority. You know what that allows for? People to actually trust me. They know that I’m fallible, but that I’m transparent enough about it that they don’t have to worry about it. It’s not going to sneak up on them.

R&P: What about the so-called “Nones,” the non-affiliated, the spiritual-but-not-religious? Aren’t they part of this trend away from authority? How can you commend organized religion to people who say they find God on their own, maybe in nature or somewhere else?

NB: A lot of them end up at my church. I think a sacramental life—it’s Christianity. It’s not spiritual, it’s physical. You can’t even get started without a loaf of bread and a jug of wine and a river. There is this incredible physicality to what we believe. This is spirituality in the dirt. We have a God who slipped into the vulnerability of human skin, and walked among us, and was born amongst straw and animals, and walked the earth, and ate with his friends, and spat in the dirt, and used mud and his own spit to heal people. This is not an ethereal, transcendent, otherworldly, escape-this-earth kind of god. Even after his resurrection, he was disturbingly physical about all of it. He was grilling fish on the beach and having people touch his actual wounds.

This is why I am not a fan of the liberalism in Christianity. I actually believe in the physical, actual resurrection of Jesus. You can’t have a Gospel that’s that disturbingly physical the entire time, and then at the end, it’s just an idea. It’s just a memory. I think the actual wounded body of the resurrected Christ is of great importance to humanity, given the fact that we walk around with bodies that are also wounded in the same way. I think that that says something important to us.

Take St. Peter. He couldn’t have been filled with anything but shame, not being the man that he wanted to be, having denied Jesus three times around a charcoal fire. And then after the resurrection, he’s fishing, and he sees Jesus on the beach, and what is he doing? He’s grilling fish on a charcoal fire, you know, this sort of olfactory-triggered memory of shame. It’s not like Jesus mentions it. He just gives him three opportunities to say he loves him, one for each denial. And the physicality of that is important. That’s not an idea or a memory or a feeling. So I think that if people sense God in nature, then a sacramental life is definitely for them.

R&P: You’ve written about the Virgin Mary’s physicality. Why is that important?

NB: I don’t really like those doctrines that are written as though the reason she found favor with God is that she wasn’t normal. Because we know, “Women are really fleshy temptresses, and she was so not like that, that’s why God favored her.” I think there’s a kind of misogyny within that kind of stuff.

I think that she is worthy of devotion. I always have her on me in some way [Bolz-Weber indicates her big Western belt buckle with a Marian icon framed by a Holy Dove]. Mary’s very important to me. Her fierceness came from ignoring every other message about her identity and actually believing that God favored her. That’s a powerful thing for a sort of marginalized Jew in an occupied land, who was young and pregnant out of wedlock, to believe of all things that God favored her. She’s got some chops.

There was one human being in history who bore God in her body, who is the theotokos as the Orthodox say, the godbearer. That’s an extraordinary thing, and it’s a sort of mystery to meditate on. What does that mean that God would choose to make God’s home in a woman’s body? That’s so beautiful, especially given the horrific messages we constantly get about women’s bodies.

I think that if God deemed to sanctify something, to make holy something through God’s presence, that that says something about all human bodies, all of them. There’s a history in religion of saying, “Well, when the deity shows up somewhere, if there’s an appearance, or there’s a theophany of some sort, that that place is holy, that there’s something sacred about that place that has to be honored.” Well then, why is that not constantly being spoken of in terms of the human body, then, in Christianity? How did we become a disembodied faith? “Hate the body!” “Discipline the body!” “This is where all the sin is coming from!” So one of the reasons that I have images of her everywhere is that reminder.

R&P: What would be an embodied faith?

NB: Well, for example, at House for All Sinners and Saints, we sit in the round, so we’re seeing each other—not just the backs of each other’s heads, but there’s this physical sort of accountability of presence with each other in the way we do the liturgy. You’re singing, you’re sitting, you’re standing, you’re walking, you’re putting your hands out, you’re receiving bread and wine, you’re eating it, you’re taking it into your body, and then your body is leaving into the world. When that type of worship is done well, it has a profound physicality to it.

R&P: You’re imbuing everyday things with a sense of the sacred.

NB: Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made. When God created the heavens and the earth, God said it was good, not perfect, but good. And yet we judge everything as to whether it’s perfect or not in a way that God never really has. So you know I think that there’s something to be said about how we relate to our own bodies. Are we judging them according to some value of perfection that we never had any business buying into to begin with?

R&P: You sing without instruments? It’s all a cappella?

NB: And it’s glorious. It’s like sitting in the middle of a 200-person choir. They all sing in four-part harmony. It’s this huge sound that fills the entire space. It’s transcendent. We only sing old, early American hymns, so nothing contemporary. These older hymns were meant to be sung and not performed. And so the way the harmonies are and the way the rhythms are make them very singable for people. Whereas a lot of modern praise music, if you don’t know how it goes, there’s not this sort of logical pattern. Same with really contemporary hymns—they change meter, they change key, and it’s like they’re overly fond of themselves as pieces of music. If you have musicians and they’re playing it, that’s nice and I can kind of sing along with it. But you don’t have any chance of singing along as just a group of people. It doesn’t have that kind of same cadence to it, that simplicity to it.

R&P: What else are people looking for when they come to your church?

NB: A place where they don’t have to culturally commute in order to show up. Culture has to do with aesthetics, it has to do with humor, it has to do with pop culture references, it has to do with so many things, and there’s a commute that postmodern people have to make if they’re going to show up to a mainline church because culturally it’s so different, it’s just so different, and you just feel uncomfortable when you’re in a context that so culturally different from what you’re native to. And I don’t know that the church realizes that there’s that crevasse culturally between who they are and who young folks are. It’s massive. So there’s no sort of outreach strategy that’s going to bridge that.

R&P: How do you talk to your congregation about sin when you know some of them have been beaten up by that language?

NB: When I talk about sin, and I do, I do preach about it, I try to be particular. I try to pull it into the dirt of our own lives. I’ll talk about how prideful we are about our social convictions, or I’ll talk about how much self-loathing we actually do have and don’t want to talk about. It’s always in the particulars of my parishioners’ lives and in the particulars of my own heart.

So, for instance, when the guy was acquitted for murdering Trayvon Martin, I wrote a very confessional piece that talked about my own internalized racism and how I live in a black neighborhood but yet admitting that when a group of young black men pass me on the street, I brace myself in a different way than if they were white, and I hate that. Forty-five years of every message in society saying that I’m superior by accident of birth doesn’t go away with my university education and my “Eracism” bumper sticker.

So the purpose of me saying these things that are always confessional, is to open the space where other people can step into the truth for themselves. So if I say something confessional, and their response is to consider how that might be true about themselves, I’ve done my job. If their response is to have a reaction about me, “Oh, my god, my pastor’s a racist. I can’t come here anymore,” I’ve failed. So there’s a way in which, it’s like, “Okay, screw it, I’ll go first.” I’ll be the one to say how this is a problem for me or how I’m challenged by doing this well, or whatever, as an invitation.

The first time I lectured at the national Festival of Homiletics, I emailed my congregation as asked, “What do you guys want me to say about preaching?” So it’s important to me that their voices are in the room when I’m speaking about them. And consistently they said, “Well, we love having a preacher who’s clearly preaching to herself and allowing us to overhear it.”

R&P: A doctrine of something like “sin” might be obvious when you look at the state of the world. But how about another Christian belief like the Resurrection? You think it’s true, historically, like you and me sitting here?

NB: I think it’s true as a metaphor, and I think it’s true as an actual event. I don’t think that that’s the litmus test for if you are Christian. I really don’t care what my parishioners believe. I care what they hear, and they hear a very deeply rooted, very orthodox perspective from the pulpit and in the liturgy. What they believe just has to do with a lot of things I have nothing to do with. I think that sort of separates me from a lot of other clergy who feel like it’s their responsibility to convince other people. I’m not an apologist. I’m not a Christian apologist. All I ever do is confess my faith.

Take Thomas. I think it’s very unfair that we call him Doubting Thomas. I think he was just a tactile learner. When Thomas said, “I won’t believe until I stick my fingers in the wounds,” that wasn’t a lack of faith. That was just somebody saying, “The things around me have to bear witness to the truth that I believe.” When he stuck his fingers in the wounds of the Resurrected Christ, and said, “My Lord, and My God,” that’s a confession of faith. He wasn’t trying to prove something. He wasn’t making a case for something. It was just confession. So I feel like I just end up confessing my faith a lot and letting it sit there. What it does, it does. I’m not responsible for that. That’s the weird thing about me. I’m this really orthodox Lutheran theologian. I’m not this liberal that’s just quoting Thich Nhat Hanh in her sermons and saying every religion’s the same, and yet I’m very socially progressive.

R&P: Would you consider yourself a universalist? Does everyone get saved in the end?

NB: I confess that I am a Christo-centric universalist. What that means to me is that, whatever God was accomplishing, especially on the cross, that Christological event, was for the restoration and redemption and reconciliation of all things and all people and all Creation – everyone. Whatever God was getting done there, that is for everyone. How God manages to play that out through other religions, other symbol systems, I will never understand. I have to allow for the idea that God is actually nimble enough and powerful enough and creative enough to do that.

Now, that will never be my truth. I couldn’t be Buddhist to save my life, man. God didn’t come and get me through any other symbol system but this one. This is my truth, and this is where I sort of stake my claim and my life, and whatever God was up to at the cross, it has to be accomplished through means I’ll never understand. How could it be limited to what I understand? That’s so arrogant. 

R&P: In Pastrix, you wrote about worshiping with Wiccans in your twenties and how it opened your eyes to the Divine Feminine. Where do you see that in Christianity?

NB: It’s definitely in Scripture. I mean, there you see God being described as Lady Wisdom, the sort-of Mothering Hen, you know, there are all these different female images for God. And, certainly, the “Spirit” being a feminine word in Hebrew. I really love that it says in Genesis that God created humanity—and actually, when it says God created man, the Hebrew could be interpreted, as saying “earthling”—but then it says God created them in his image, male and female. And to me that doesn’t mean some were created men and some were created women as much as it means the image of God is both male and female. It doesn’t say “or.” I think that’s really beautiful.

And I think also what we’re seeing with these younger generations of queer folks, they’re really sort of playing—there’s a lot of this fluidity of identity, and I find that there’s a spirituality to that. We really want to be dualistic about the way that we see things and ourselves, and I don’t think that God is as oriented to that as we are. So I think when things are queer, meaning when something doesn’t fit, I think it’s something to really pay attention to in the way it might reveal God to us.

This is what we see at the end of Job. Throughout Job there’s basically what we call theodicy: If God’s all good, why are we suffering? And Job’s friends end up going, “Well, either you did something wrong, you know, you’re bad and God’s good, and that’s why you’re being punished, or you’re good and God’s bad, and that’s why.” You know, there are just really simple categories. It’s either black, or it’s white. And then at the end, God speaks up and is a little snarky, and is like, “Where were you when I created the foundations of the earth?” So God finally speaks up, and God goes through and lists these animals that are glorious to God: Every single one of them defies category, like ostrich, a bird that can’t fly. So it’s almost like saying, “My wisdom is not your wisdom.” We like black and white, dualistic categories, and we love nothing more than to project those onto God. But yet, I think that we see a queerness at the end of Job, God saying, “I love these things, and they’re glorious, and they don’t fit your categories.”

We’ve been struggling with this sort of dualistic thinking since the very beginning. You know what’s really weird? To be human and God. It kind of has to be either-or, right? No, it’s queer. It’s like being sinner and saint. Like Martin Luther said, imul justus et peccator. We’re 100 percent of both all the time.

R&P: Do you think the future of the Church involves synthesis with other faiths?

NB: Syncretism has always been part of Christianity. There’s a reason why the Virgin of Guadalupe is huge in Mexico, and it has to do with the goddess religion that existed before that. I don’t think it’s something to fear. I think it’s the way that Christianity has survived. It lends itself in a sense towards it. And that’s why it can exist in so many different places in so many different forms.

R&P: Did Wicca teach you anything else that you brought back to your Christian faith?

NB: It was what I wanted out of a spiritual community. There really was an intimacy. It was a very small group of women, and we met every six weeks or so, and we did share our lives. We would be honest with each other about what was going on, and then do that in the context of trying to hold a sort of sacred space for each other. I wasn’t going to go back after that. I wasn’t going to go back to some sort of formal worship service where nothing really feels like it’s at stake or any sort of truth about people’s lives is being spoken out loud. I think that had an impact. We could be really creative. We didn’t have some set thing that we had to follow, so we could be really creative with how we addressed these things with our lives in the world, and I think that transferred over to my parish.

R&P: Paying more attention to the Divine Feminine, how do you deal with biblical and traditional sources of misogyny?

NB: This is where it’s very convenient to be a Lutheran, because Lutherans very admittedly have a canon within the canon. So not all Scripture is the same to us. The Gospel of Jesus, the good news of who Jesus is, whether those texts are found in the Old Testament or the New, is at the very center of our understanding of why the Bible even exists. The Bible is the cradle that holds Christ. The cradle’s not Christ. If you understand that that is the importance of the Bible, then suddenly Scripture is read in concentric circles around what it is at it’s center.

Sometimes you read Paul, and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever read. I actually can feel it in my body. I’ll read something gorgeous from Paul, and just be like, “That’s breathtaking. That is the word of God. That is the word of God. There’s something eternal about what he’s saying.” And then other times you read Paul and you’re like, “Good lord, what is that?”

Women have to find scraps where they can find them. That’s what we’re doing. The texts were not written by us. We have to discern the echoes of the women who were there and the female divine that was there that didn’t ever get to have a pen in their hand. Anyone looking for that, of course it’s scraps, but they’re ones we’re going to claim as our own, because we weren’t the writers and editors.

R&P: How can you be a feminist and a Christian, if all you get is scraps?

NB: It won’t let me go. It’s not like, you know, out of all the options available, to me I am going to choose one where I’ve historically been oppressed and not represented in the sacred text. That’s not the process. It’s not a choice.

I’ve gotten some criticism from feminists because I don’t use a lot of feminist language or analysis, or I don’t call stuff out enough, or use my platform to do XYZ. I have my platform because I’m a preacher and a public theologian, not somebody who calls people out. What do you want from me? I feel like being a powerful woman and figure in a historically male-dominated field: Is that not enough? To me, me being me should be enough. But I can either be that person, or I can spend all my energy thinking of a feminist analysis of things and calling people out. I don’t feel like I can do both, and I feel like one is more important for me to take on than the other. I feel like just being me in the world, that is a feminist act, even if I am not referring back to feminist language and scholars all the time.

R&P: As a hospital chaplain, you once tried to pray with a grieving woman who turned out to be an atheist, and you told her, “Man, I wish I could pull that off.” What did you mean?

NB: Flannery O’Connor said, “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.” Man, if I could be something cooler than a Christian, I would so do that in a heartbeat. Sign me up. I can’t. I can’t. I cannot do it. There is this thing that I am so compelled by, it won’t leave me alone. It doesn’t really feel like a choice. It’s just formed how I am and how I see the world and myself. I can’t shake it. Especially the Jesus thing. It’s unnerving how much I can’t shake that. It’s not like a comfortable thing.

R&P: People love to implicate Mary Magdalene in one sex scandal or another. You’ve got her tattooed on your right forearm. What do you think is important about her?

NB: She was a powerful woman who had a lot of money. She helped pay for Jesus’ ministry. The text tells us that. This was not an inconsequential sort of figure. She helped fund it. She’s bankrolling it. Nobody ever talks about that.

On a personal level, it’s the fact that she was delivered from so much by Jesus. She wasn’t a prostitute. That’s a bad reading of the text. She wasn’t a prostitute. But according to Luke, she was a demoniac. She had, you know, seven demons cast from her. So she was delivered from this self-abuse, some torment that she was delivered from. She spent her life as an act of gratitude for that. “I can’t not follow this Jesus.”

She was so incredibly faithful. All the guys who have books named after them and who are these big figures and who all the stories are about, they f**king abandon him, and Mary didn’t. She was there. She was there when the media left. How distraught she was at the empty tomb and not knowing where they laid him. She mistakes him for the gardener. (If her friends are anything like mine, they did not let her live that down). I love that she didn’t recognize him until he spoke her name – you know, it’s so personal and beautiful. Especially in a text where we don’t get the names of a lot of women.

She was the one chosen to go and tell. She was the apostle to the apostles. She was the one who was chosen to be the witness to the resurrection and to tell everyone else. If she had done her job, we wouldn’t have a religion – if she had not been faithful. But I think that she didn’t have a choice. She didn’t say, “Out of all the teachers that I have available right now, I like this one. Every morning I’ll wake up and decide.” No, man. She was compelled. I don’t think it was a matter of choice to her. I think she had that sort of deliverance, and she went, “How can I keep from singing?”

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What Should Be Made of the Undercover Planned Parenthood Videos? Tue, 21 Jul 2015 20:02:54 +0000 (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle/Mike Hutmacher)

(AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle/Mike Hutmacher)

It is indeed terrible to watch: A doctor arrives for lunch, breezily chats about L.A. traffic, casually gives out medical advice (drink water if you have a headache and are having alcohol), and then sits down for a lunch chat: salad, red wine, and abortion.

The video, distributed in two versions—an edited tape of about 9 minutes, and three-hour tape of the entire conversation—is then posted on the Internet, and becomes the focal point for an intense debate about abortion. The debate spills over, in conservative circles, to death threats, Nazi parallels, and now a congressional investigation of the event. Planned Parenthood—the employer and the largest provider of clinical abortions in the county—issues a statement calling the practices described legal. Then, after more criticism, including the outrage of bioethicists, two days later the organization agrees that the doctor’s tone is not reflective of compassion.

But after the first video is released, a second video is released a week later, and it is even more explicitly disturbing: another doctor, another meal, and more talk about money, secretly filmed (one wonders how many Planned Parenthood executives were swept up in this scheme). In this video, a woman identified as Dr. Mary Gatter, a medical director for Planned Parenthood, starts by giving a price of $75, then $50, to cover the costs of preparing fetal tissue. She jokes that she “wants a Lamborghini” in a particularly cringe-worthy moment. Perhaps the very worst ethical problem is when she discusses changing the abortion procedure—despite noting there are consent forms to make no such change—to retain a more intact specimen. “We’re not in it for the money,” she says, adding, “We don’t want to be in the position of being accused of selling tissue.”

What can be made of this entire story, of the videos, with their grisly description of how tiny liver, heart, and muscle tissue are taken from aborted fetuses and shipped to tissue companies?

First a caveat: The films are political, made by a group committed to anti-abortion politics, furtively filmed. The organization is clear that it considers abortion murder, and morally impermissible. They made the films (and possibly more films to come) to ramp up the debate that the Right has largely lost, since there is consensus that abortion should be legal but rare. Few Americans want to jail women or doctors, nor force women into state-sponsored, unwanted pregnancies. This is largely because of these facts: According to the Guttmacher Institute, “At least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45; at 2008 abortion rates, one in 10 women will have an abortion by age 20, one in four by age 30 and three in 10 by age 45.” And Guttmacher notes that 51 percent of women who have had abortions used a contraceptive method in the month they got pregnant. Abortion is a private, deeply personal decision, made most commonly early in pregnancy (89 percent) and yet it has been used as a descriptor of an entire political position, a sign that stands in for ideas about the family, faith, freedom, sex, race, and especially, women’s bodies and women’s power. The religious objections derived from Catholic moral philosophy have been used in arguments made by Protestants who would scorn the pope, and by many political conservatives to screen judges as a surrogate for other issues. The films focus on two (very obtuse) doctors to make a critique of Planned Parenthood’s entire existence, and one of their long-standing goals is to close the clinics that provide safe abortions.

And yet, despite the political agenda, and despite the “gotcha” method, these videos must be watched, I would argue, their essential point debated: Is the collection and exchange of the tissues and organs of aborted fetuses an ethical gesture? Here are some issues that should be raised in such a debate.

Take the first video: It is terribly disturbing, not just because the word “crush” appears in the same sentence as the body parts of a fetus, but because the physician, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, seems to be engaged in a transaction, an exchange of goods at a business lunch, utterly confusing persons and things. She explains to the two actors posing as employees of a fetal tissue procurement company about how she would position her forceps in order to keep the fetus’s body intact. “You’re just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers,” she says. She continues: “We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part.”

The actual event—an abortion—is occluded, changed into a site of production, where the goal is to extract tissue to meet the needs of a company, rather than being focused on the core purpose of the clinic, which is to provide a safe medical procedure. Turning the fetus around in the womb, with the sole goal of protecting organs, seems to compromise this purpose. This calculated deliberacy is unjustified, for it may well extend the time of the medical procedure, and it creates risks that could well be avoided. Even dilation of the cervix more than is needed would be unethical. The doctor’s focus on the “tissue” that “they”—the company—wants makes the women and their situation invisible.

There is an obvious conflict of interest here. For while it seemed clear that the ethical problem was not really the money, nor was there “selling,” nor were the patient, doctor, and clinic making a profit from the tissue exchange, unlike much hostile social media suggested, the focus of the clinic procedure had slid into procurement. The doctor seemed only to be asking for money from the company for shipping—it was the least of the moral problems. The issue is subtler: the doctor was eager to please the company, and astonishingly enough, was willing to change her practice and her training duties to give the company what they asked for when her only concern should have been her patient. And her rationale seemed vague. The doctor seems to have no idea where the tissue goes, or why it is needed. She seems to have no idea of the nature, goal, and meaning of the actual science, which is a pity, since research on fetal tissue has been conducted for years, serving, for example, as a basis for early work on gamete-derived stem cells.

The decision to end a pregnancy is private, and it can be difficult and emotional—the woman is herself quite vulnerable. It is true that the chance to donate to science may offer a small chance to do something good and meaningful at this time. Extra care must be taken when getting true informed consent for anything, especially if the plan is to take the fetus and dismember it as a source of tissue. One would have to actually check the consent forms, of course, to be sure this entire project was realistically described as frankly as it is told to us on the videos—I doubt if the doctors say the same thing to patients that they say to these fake companies—and this is a problem.

An abortion is not like other medical procedures—it has a moral gravity that is not present in other surgeries, or other tissue donations. When Planned Parenthood made this an issue of equality of opportunity to participate in research, they did not really address this considerable difference. Donation of fetal tissue can be an important part of basic research science, and it has been, which is precisely why the careful structure of consent, the rules of procurement, and the medical guidelines are so carefully maintained.

Research on the earliest stages of human development is very important, but it must be carefully carried out. The work must be funded privately because of the Hyde amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for fetal tissue research, and there must be full and well informed consent prior to the abortion. The abortion itself or any medical procedure associated with it must be carried out with the entire attention of the doctor on the women. No change in the procedure merely to get “better” tissue is acceptable. And, finally, every single staff member must be aware of the moral gravity of the situation and must be at all times serious, professional, and compassionate.

The doctors in these videos seem extraordinarily cavalier, morally unaware of their role and their specific duties as physicians to protect the women under their care. Having this discussion over a meal takes this further from the realm of professional clinical medicine and into the realm of business. Of course, this is nothing new for anyone who works in a hospital, where dismissive language is too often used to create an odd verbal shield between the terrible starkness of illness, death, and loss, and the day-to-day practice of medicine, but it is inexcusable.

Within many religious traditions, the act of abortion itself is morally impermissible. The specter of cutting up fetuses and using hearts and lungs and legs from aborted fetuses disturbs even supporters who are pro-choice. Even religious traditions, such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many forms of liberal Christianity, all of which allow abortions under certain circumstances and have a developmental view of moral status of the fetus, have ethical norms that would limit such a practice, and surely they would abhor the way it was discussed. This violates both prohibitions on abortion and prohibitions on how the bodies of the dead are respected. These physicians seem, in the videos, to be unaware of these basic moral problems. One of the basic requirements of moral citizenship should be an awareness of your neighbor’s deepest convictions.

Moral status issues have long been at the center of the most intense American debates. Think of the treatment of Native Americans; of the “three-fifths” status issue of personhood for slaves; of the long debate about women; on the ongoing debates about immigrants. Abortion is only one in a long line of intense and furious conflict about who counts as fully human—and that is why the first video went viral. The videos do indeed raise at least two important points, ones not addressed in most of the debate. First, they highlight the distinction between what is legally permissible and consistent with the widest view of an American as an autonomous citizen, and the creation of a person as a moral agent, whose words, work, and actions can be called to a different sort of standard. Second, they remind us, especially those of us with traditions that allow abortion and who work to be sure it is legally available (such as this author) of the tragic reality of the act, and of the stakes at play in research with human fetal tissue. The videos remind us of the need for attention, mercy, and care at every moment of this act, and of why our language, even in private, must remind us of the gravitas and responsibility of medicine.

Laurie Zoloth is a professor of religious studies and a professor of bioethics and medical humanities at Northwestern University.

*This post has been updated with more information about the second video.

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Mormonism and the Problem of Jon Krakauer Tue, 14 Jul 2015 14:03:19 +0000 (Getty/George Frey) Many members of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints reside in Colorado City, Arizona.

(Getty/George Frey) Many members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints reside in Colorado City, Arizona.

Jon Krakauer got lucky. When Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith first went on sale in the summer of 2003, Krakauer hoped that the many sins of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) he set out to expose would not go unpunished forever. And he certainly believed that his own book—framed as muckraking of faith gone bad—would help bring this day of reckoning forward. Yet Krakauer couldn’t have imagined the FLDS Church would soon become headline news for much of the next decade. In 2004, child sexual molestation charges against the FLDS Church’s reclusive prophet Warren Jeffs made him one of the most notorious men in America. Krakauer also could not have foreseen that Jeffs’ subsequent trials and police raids of FLDS communities in Utah and Texas would overlap with Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns, not to mention with the hit Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon. The fact that the “Mormon fundamentalist moment” of the aughts intersected with the latest “Mormon moment” in American history helped make Under the Banner of Heaven the bestselling book on Mormon history in recent memory.

Krakauer knows the work of Warren Jeffs well. Much of Under the Banner of Heaven examines how, starting in the 1980s, Warren and his father Rulon (who died in 2002) ruled with a potent mix of religious zealotry, intimidation, and corruption the 10,000-member sect, most of whose members reside in Colorado City, Arizona, located on the Utah-Arizona boarder. According to Krakauer, in the FLDS Church, men who do the church leaders’ bidding were rewarded with power, wealth, and very young wives. Dissenters and young men, who were seen as potential threats, were often run out of town. In 2004, just after Krakauer’s book debuted, Jeffs’ nephew filed a lawsuit accusing his uncle of abuse. That scandal was followed by allegations that Jeffs had presided over the marriage “sealing” of a fourteen-year-old girl to her nineteen-year-old cousin. Those accusations set in motion a series of events that began to dismantle the religious community, which was built on a “patch of desert,” as Krakauer put it, on the upper rim of the Grand Canyon. Church members had hoped that such isolation would allow them to be “left alone to follow the sacred principle of plural marriage,” which the LDS Church had officially abandoned in 1890. In May 2006, a nation-wide manhunt began after the FBI placed Jeffs on its “Ten Most Wanted List.” In August of that same year, Jeffs was arrested following a traffic stop in Las Vegas. Along with one of his estimated 80 wives, in Jeffs’ Cadillac SUV police found more than a dozen cell phones, a police scanner, dozens of pairs of sunglasses, three wigs, and $54,000 in cash. In 2011, Jeffs was convicted of aggravated sexual assault against two of his “spiritual brides,” aged 12 and 15, and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.

These events kept journalists, pundits, and casual readers coming back to Under the Banner of Heaven, in hopes of understanding the origins of this violent and abusive faith. After all, what Krakauer claimed on the pages of his book—that the church is run by pedophiles claiming to speak to and for God, and who use their prophetic authority to insist that teenage girls submit to their often octogenarian husbands—was borne out in the court documents and witness testimonies produced during Jeffs’ trials.

As Matthew Bowman, the author of the Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, explained to me, Under the Banner of Heaven “rode the wave of Warren Jeffs for a few years until it became entrenched” as the single most influential book on Mormonism published this century. (Full Disclosure: Bowman is a friend and colleague and I consulted on much of his book.) The popularity of Krakauer’s book occurred despite the LDS Church’s efforts to keep modern-day Mormon polygamy and the LDS Church separate in the collective American mind. In fact, while Jeffs was on the run in 2006—and HBO’s Big Love was all the rage on TV—the LDS Church declared that “there is no such thing as a ‘Mormon Fundamentalist.’” Instead, the LDS Church insisted that journalists refer to Jeffs’ church as a “polygamist sect,” not a Mormon one.

Yet Krakauer, who grew up in heavily Mormon Corvallis, Oregon, doesn’t believe that the chasm between the two faiths is as vast as the LDS Church claims. After all, “Mormons and those who call themselves Mormon fundamentalists believe in the same holy texts and the same sacred history,” Krakauer writes in Under the Banner of Heaven. “Both believe that Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism in 1830, played a vital role in God’s plan for mankind; both LDS and FLDS consider him to be a prophet comparable to Moses and Isaiah.” And like fundamentalists who claim to be his true spiritual descendants, Joseph Smith also took teenage girls as his plural wives, a fact that the LDS Church has only just recently acknowledged.

Based on this shared history, Krakauer claims that LDS authorities have learned to tolerate Mormon fundamentalists like “a crazy uncle,” but nevertheless an uncle within the same Mormon family. Despite their church’s protestations, many if not most Mormons still have “‘polygs’ hidden in the attic,” as Krakauer puts it. Even Mitt Romney’s father, George who also ran for president, was born on a polygamist compound in Mexico that was established by Mitt’s great-grandfather in the 1890s to avoid anti-polygamy prosecution.

But Krakauer is (mostly) wrong here. In fact, in their efforts to distance themselves from their polygamist past, the LDS Church and its members have become virulent “polyg” hunters. They are quick to call church officials and the cops on any suspecting offenders of the Utah State Constitution, which explicitly outlaws polygamy, or of LDS marriage norms of traditional, heterosexual monogamy.

The fact that the LDS Church hasn’t been able to shake off the scarlet letter of polygamy has a lot to do with, I would argue, the continuing popularity of Under the Banner of Heaven. This is what I call the “Krakauer problem”: more than twelve years after it was first published, and after Romney’s presidential campaigns helped make Mormonism an acceptable American religion, Under the Banner of Heaven remains the definitive book on Mormon history in popular culture. Under the Banner of Heaven spent months on The New York Times bestseller list, and it is still ranked number one on Amazon’s bestsellers in the “Mormonism” list. Its popularity is also reflected at social events—even social events with other scholars of religion. When historians of Mormon history like me explain what they study, most of those who have read one book on the faith will tell us that they’ve read Under the Banner of Heaven. And, as Krakauer himself intended, they will also tell us that they understand it to be not only an exposé of Mormon fundamentalism, but also a reliable history of the origins of the LDS Church, too.

To be sure, this is a problem for the LDS Church and for its members. Mainstream Mormons don’t want to be called upon to answer for Jeffs anymore than “mainstream” Muslims want to be called upon to answer for jihadists. Yet, this is also a problem for scholars of Mormonism, a problem that we’ve yet to solve. Scores of both scholarly and popular books on Mormonism have been published since Under the Banner of Heaven was first released in 2003. Yet none have come close to displacing it as the dominant portrayal of Mormon history in American culture.


THE QUESTION IS, WHY? What’s so compelling about Under the Banner of Heaven? That is, what makes it such a gripping and troubling read? The primary answer is perhaps an obvious one. Krakauer knows how to write a page-turner. “In its depiction of that strange American blend of piety, violence and longing for the End times,” wrote Don Lattin in his review of the book in the San Francisco Chronicle, Under the Banner of Heaven is a true-crime thriller “right up there with In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song.” In the late 1990s, Krakauer became one of the most celebrated and controversial narrative non-fiction writers of his generation. All of Krakauer’s stories focus on the human desire to conquer their environment. Whether it’s in recounting a catastrophic Everest expedition or the story of a promising young man who dies alone in the Alaskan wilderness, Krakauer imbues his writing with a feeling of impending doom—when humans let their own hubris go unchecked, disaster is unavoidable. In Under the Banner of Heaven the disaster occurs in 1984, when brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, recent converts to a brand of Mormon fundamentalism, cut the throat of their young sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty, in her home in American Forks, Utah, and subsequently the throat of her infant daughter. Krakauer uses these murders as an entrance into three narrative strains that he interweaves throughout the book, the three narratives ultimately becoming one on Brenda Lafferty’s doorstep.

The first part of Krakauer’s narrative is focused on the early history of the LDS Church and centers on the life and leadership of the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. Krakauer follows Smith from the founding of the church in Palmyra, New York, through the nascent church’s tumultuous attempts to establish permanent settlements in Ohio and Missouri, to Smith’s eventual murder at the hands of an anti-Mormon mob in Nauvoo, Illinois. Krakauer describes Smith as a religious genius who taught an “optimistic cosmology” that departed radically from the Calvinistic doctrine of total human depravity that many of his earliest followers inherited from their parents’ Yankee Puritanism. Instead, as Krakauer explains Smith’s basic theological beliefs: “Anyone who elected to obey church authorities, receive the testimony of Jesus, and follow a few simple rules could work his way up the ladder until, in the afterlife, he became a full-fledged god—the ruler of his very own world.”

According to Krakauer, Smith’s success at attracting converts led him make increasingly brazen theological innovations. Smith’s revelations about “the Principle of celestial marriage” sparked internal feuds among the Saints, then gathering in Nauvoo, and angered the Illinois public at-large. After Smith’s death, the Mormons left the United States to seek isolation in Utah. Yet polygamy did not die with Smith. Instead under Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, “the Principle” became the defining organizing principle of Mormon culture as they built their Zion in the high plains desert. Only at the end of the nineteenth century did continual conflict with the federal government force the Mormons to give up polygamy.*

This drastic departure from what had been the defining organizing principle of early Mormons leads to the second part of Krakauer’ narrative—the history of Mormon fundamentalism, which emerged in 1890 when then-LDS President and Prophet Wilford Woodruff declared that “‘it was the will of the Lord’ that the church stop sanctioning the doctrine of plural marriage.” Most Mormons eventually accepted the change. But small groups of Mormons felt that the LDS Church had betrayed the true faith. A small number broke from the church, settling small communities throughout the American West. More than a century later, much to the dismay of the mainline LDS Church, not only do Mormon fundamentalists continue to practice polygamy, but they also “consider themselves to be the keepers of the flame—the only true and righteous Mormons,” Krakauer explains. The fundamentalist prophets like Warren Jeffs taught that plural marriage brings order to this world and the next. It forces women into their proper roles as servants to their husbands, and provides for their eternal salvation as no woman can enter the kingdom of heaven if she has not practiced the Principle. Unwilling to compromise celestial marriage for acceptance into the American mainstream as the LDS Church has done, Mormon fundamentalists leaders, who run Colorado City, Arizona “like Kabul under the Taliban” believe they alone carry forth Joseph Smith’s true message.

The story of the Lafferty brothers’ gruesome murders of their sister-in-law and infant niece in 1984 is the third and most problematic part of Krakauer’s narrative. He uses the Lafferty brothers to tie the present-day LDS Church to Mormon fundamentalism by demonstrating that, at its core, the LDS Church has not abandoned its violent polygamous past. After all, the Lafferty brothers were not raised as Mormon fundamentalists, but were reared in what Krakauer describes as a model LDS family. They were known as “hundred-and-ten percenters” in their Provo, Utah community, fully dedicated to living saintly lives—lives that today’s LDS Church maintains would be theologically and culturally incompatible with Mormon fundamentalism. And yet according to Krakauer, it was exactly this dedication to their faith taken to its logical conclusion that drew Ron and Dan Lafferty to begin studying Mormon origins, especially Joseph Smith’s revelations on plural marriage. After meeting a Canadian Fundamentalist prophet, Ron and Dan, along their other brothers, quickly worked to establish their own fundamentalist community based upon the principles of plural marriage and strict patriarchal control. While most of the brothers’ wives went reluctantly along with their husbands’ drastic changes, Brenda Lafferty, the wife of the youngest Lafferty brother, Allen, refused and urged her sister-in-laws to do so as well.* When Ron’s wife Dianna divorced him, Ron received a revelation from God to kill Brenda and her infant daughter, Erica. Ron and Dan carried out the revelation and after living on the run for a time, the two brothers were apprehended, tried, and convicted of the murders.


SCHOLARS OF MORMONISM—both within and outside the LDS Church—have taken Krakauer to task for his richly detailed, but ultimately self-serving research. (Following the initial publication of Under the Banner of Heaven in June 2003, the LDS Church published a lengthy critique of both Krakauer’s sourcing and his interpretation of Mormon theology.)

Bowman explains that because his book is so thesis-driven, in telling his tale about the origins of polygamy and about the Mormons’ propensity to violence in the nineteenth century, Krakauer “sacrifices accuracy on the alter of sensationalism. He treats as facts rumors and unreliable sources, which serious historians have debunked.”

J.B. Haws, a professor of history at Brigham Young University and author of The Mormon Image in the American Mind, notes that of particular concern is how Krakauer “makes little distinction between [LDS] polygamy past and [FLDS] polygamy present.” According Sarah Barringer Gordon, a renowned legal scholar on church-state relations who has written extensively on the history of Mormon polygamy, Joseph Smith built from the ground up a radical new Christian society, of which a radically new approach to marriage was one part. On the other hand, as Gordon explained to the Salt Lake Tribune a few weeks after Jeffs’ 2011 conviction, “[Warren] Jeffs inherited a great deal of religious power and spent his life exploiting it,” including teaching his young brides that their highest calling was to please him sexually. To be sure, historians continue to debate Joseph Smith’s fundamental motivations behind introducing polygamy to his followers. However, most agree that in the early 1840s, Joseph Smith revealed a theological system that empowered polygamous wives to participate in the civil and religious governance of Mormon communities. In the 2000s, Jeffs delivered prophecies that required that FLDS women submit unconditionally to their husbands.

And yet the Krakauer problem doesn’t end with problematic sources and faulty interpretations of theology. To contextualize Under the Banner of Heaven as a piece of writing, the literary “parents” to Krakauer’s book are not only twentieth-century true-crime thrillers and captivity narratives like Capote’s In Cold Blood (which, of course, has also been criticized for blurring the lines between fact and fiction in service of a better story). Bowman says Krakauer’s version of Mormon history is “descended from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London who all wrote nineteenth-century dime novels premised on the notion that Brigham Young’s Zion was a totalitarian dictatorship complete with secret police and young Mormon maidens pining for rescue from the grimly-bearded elders of the church.”

Part of the Krakauer problem then becomes a problem of genre confusion. To be sure, Under the Banner of Heaven is meticulously researched with extensive endnotes. And Krakauer’s hours of interviews with former members of the FLDS expose the abuses that the leadership of this insular community have long perpetrated. And he does so with arguably more authority than even the many Mormon fundamentalist captivity narratives published before or since. Yet, more than history or investigative journalism, Under the Banner of Heaven is first and foremost a page-turning polemic against religion in general and Mormonism—in all its forms—in particular. As such, if it can be solved at all, the Krakauer problem cannot be solved by peer-reviewed biographies of Joseph Smith, like Richard Bushman’s celebrated and exhaustive Rough Stone Rolling, published in 2005.* Nor can it be solved by trade press books like Bowman’s own The Mormon People, which came out in 2012, and has been perhaps the best single-volume history of Mormonism published in the last decade. Krakauer tells a better, more gripping story because he writes by a different set of rules that values thesis over fact.

Krakauer believes that there are degrees of difference—not distinctions of kind—between the murderous Lafferty Brothers, the Mormon fundamentalists, and the LDS Church. This despite the fact that the Lafferty brothers never belonged to Warren Jeffs’ church. And this despite the fact that the mainstream Mormons are, as Gordon has put it, “the most antipolygamy people you could meet.” Yet Krakauer, like others before him and since, makes the argument that because each group claims to be the true heirs to Joseph Smith’s legacy, whether they recognize each other as such or not, they all belong to Joseph Smith’s Mormon faith. However, while they all might belong to the Mormon movement, Warren Jeffs is not LDS. For that matter, Lafferty brothers aren’t FLDS. In fact, most Mormon polygamists look and live more like TLC’s Sister Wives—consenting adults with jobs and careers, who wear clothes from the Gap instead of long prairie skirts and bonnets, whose children attend public schools in communities far away from Colorado City, and who reject the FLDS as dishonoring the Mormon tradition even more vociferously than the LDS Church. When I had the chance to visit with Sister Wives’ Kody Brown and his four wives when they came Boston in 2011 to film an episode of their very popular reality show, they told that the main reason that they chose to “come out” as polygamists was to try to displace Warren Jeffs as the dominant face of Mormon polygamy.

At its core, Krakauer’s thesis is that faith corrupts. And absolute faith—like those held by Mormon fundamentalists—corrupts absolutely, to the point that brothers kill another brother’s wife and child; to the point that thousands of parents allow their teenage daughters to become the spiritual brides of church leaders. The closer the faithful hue to the origins of the faith, the more radical the faithful. As such, the difference between the FLDS and the LDS is that the LDS has moved away from the founding principles (notably the “Principle” of polygamy) to become the kind of friendly, family-oriented Mormon friends and playmates, teachers and coaches, whom Krakauer encountered when he was a child in Oregon. But, according to Krakauer these Mormons’ faith still corrupted their ability to reason, to “sustain belief when confronted with facts that appear to refute it.”

And yet for Krakauer the corrupting power of faith isn’t particular to Mormonism. Mormonism—in the extreme form he presents it—becomes a case study of the irrationality and violence inherent to all faith. “As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane,” Krakauer explains in the book’s introduction, “as a means of inciting evil, to borrow the vocabulary of the devout—there may be no more potent force than religion.”

Krakauer’s view on Mormonism in particular and religion in general is a problem. But it’s a problem not only for scholars of religion but also religious people, whose faith Krakauer reduces to a tool of coercion. And as such scholars of religion should pay attention to how, beyond just the FLDS and Warren Jeffs, the lives of the religious people whose sins and traumas Krakauer profiled with such pathos have unfolded since the publication of his book.

The case of Elizabeth Smart might be a good place to start. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer chronicles the then-14-year-old’s abduction from her Salt Lake City home in 2002 at the hands of another self-proclaimed polygamist Mormon prophet and his wife. Krakauer argues that it was Smart’s devotion to her LDS faith that made her susceptible to the manipulation of her kidnapper, who allegedly quoted revelations from Joseph Smith while he raped her almost nightly during her nine-month captivity. In recent years, Smart, who has become an advocate for victims of sex crimes and human trafficking, has herself spoken out against how traditional Mormon sexual purity lessons kept her from simply running away from her captures while they were walking the streets of Salt Lake City, just miles from her home.

Yet, as JB Haws pointed out to me, Elizabeth Smart, who recently gave birth to her first child with her husband whom she met on her Mormon mission in France, has also spoken about how her faith sustained her during and after her captivity. “I wonder if Elizabeth Smart’s resilience, activism and strength and religious commitment will give readers [of Under the Banner of Heaven] pause—a sort of a decade-later postscript,” Haws suggested. “Will it make readers ask, ‘What is it about Mormonism that produces more Elizabeth Smarts than Laffertys?’”

Max Perry Mueller is a contributing editor to Religion & Politics.

*Corrections: The youngest Lafferty brother’s name was Allen, but he was originally misidentified as Dan. The LDS Church ended polygamy in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth. Richard Bushman’s book was published in 2005, not 2007 as originally stated. The paperback version came out in 2007.

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The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court: Richard Nixon, Billy Graham, and White House Church Services Tue, 07 Jul 2015 16:00:14 +0000 (AP Photo/Charles W. Harrity)

(AP Photo/Charles W. Harrity) President Richard Nixon talks at the White House on March 15, 1970, following church services conducted by the Rev. Billy Graham, left.

When Richard Nixon entered the White House, he brought his good friend Billy Graham with him. A constant presence and trusted adviser, the minister became, in the words of biographer Marshall Frady, “something like an extra officer of Nixon’s Cabinet, the administration’s own Pastor-without-Portfolio.” Others were more critical. Will Campbell, a liberal southern preacher, denounced Graham as “a false court prophet who tells Nixon and the Pentagon what they want to hear” while journalist I.F. Stone dismissed him as a “smoother Rasputin.” Whatever the critics said, Graham’s influence in the Nixon White House was profound. With his blessing, the Nixon White House gave new life to old public rituals and, more importantly, created religious ceremonies of its own.

Of all the religious rites and rituals launched in the Nixon administration, the most remarkable was the new practice of church services held inside the White House. “I’ve never heard of anything like it happening here before,” White House curator James Ketcham told Time. The semi-regular services took place in the East Room, a showcase space noted for its sparkling chandeliers and gold silk tapestries. Instead of pews, oak dining room chairs with seats of yellow brocade were arranged in rows of twenty. A piano and an electric organ, donated to the White House by a friendly merchant, were positioned at the north end of the room, with space to the side for a rotating cast of choirs to perform. Between them stood a mahogany podium where the president and the “pastor-of-the-day” would make remarks.

Naturally, Billy Graham presided over the initial White House church service, held the first Sunday after the inauguration. As worshippers entered the East Room, they picked up liturgical programs, adorned with the official presidential seal, and found their way inside, while a Marine master sergeant played soothing hymns on the organ. Soon, every one of the 224 seats in the room was taken, with two thirds of the Cabinet and several senior staffers on hand; still more stood at the rear. As large portraits of George and Martha Washington looked on, Nixon strode to the podium, welcomed the assembled to “this first worship at the White House” and invited up his “long-time personal friend.” Graham graciously returned the compliment, using the president’s inaugural address as the basis for his remarks. He urged the country to heed Nixon’s warnings about the “crisis of the spirit” that was sweeping across college campuses and asked God to guide the administration as it dealt with that problem and others. When the service concluded, White House waiters ushered guests into the State Dining Room for coffee, juice and sweet rolls. As they went, they passed through a receiving line made up of Nixon, Agnew, Graham and their wives. Shortly after, Graham and the Nixons posed for photographers on the north portico. A delighted Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman raved about the day in his diary: “Very, very impressive.”

Some outside the White House were less impressed, denouncing the services as crassly political. One minister, for instance, complained to the New York Times that “the president is trying to have God on his own terms.” The administration and its allies replied indignantly to allegations that Nixon was politicizing religion. “The President would be appalled at the thought,” insisted Norman Vincent Peale. “The White House, after all, is Mr. Nixon’s residence. And if there’s anything improper about a man worshiping God in his own way in his own home, I’m at a loss to know what it is.” Graham agreed that the White House services were simply a private means of sincere worship.   “I know the President well enough,” he protested, “to be entirely sure that the idea of having God on his own terms would never have occurred to him.”

Behind the scenes, however, ulterior motives were clear. “Sure, we used the prayer breakfasts and church services and all that for political ends,” Nixon aide Charles Colson later admitted. “One of my jobs in the White House was to romance religious leaders. We would bring them into the White House and they would be dazzled by the aura of the Oval Office, and I found them to be about the most pliable of any of the special interest groups that we worked with.” The East Room church services were crucial to his work. “We turned those events into wonderful quasi-social, quasi-spiritual, quasi-political events, and brought in a whole host of religious leaders to [hold] worship services for the president and his family – and three hundred guests carefully selected by me for political purposes.” Notably, Haldeman was deeply involved in the planning. Before joining the administration, he had been an advertising executive at the J. Walter Thompson Company, back when it handled promotions for events such as Spiritual Mobilization’s “Freedom Under God” ceremonies and the Ad Council’s “Religion in American Life” campaign. Well versed in the public relations value of public piety, Haldeman exploited the services to their full potential. At his suggestion, for instance, the supposedly private programs were broadcast over the radio, with print reporters, photographers and TV cameramen on hand to record the spectacle for wider distribution.

In keeping with this political stagecraft, the White House staff went to great lengths to guarantee that clergymen invited to preach were conservatives connected to a major political constituency. In recommending Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Cincinnati for a service before St. Patrick’s Day, a cover memo noted bluntly that “Bernardin was selected because he is the most prominent Catholic of Irish extraction and a strong supporter of the President. We have verified this.” Harry Dent, a former aide to Strom Thurmond who directed the administration’s “southern strategy,” likewise forwarded a list of “some good conservative Protestant Southern Baptists” who could be trusted to preach a message that pleased the president. Graham helped as well. When Nixon sent an emissary to the Vatican and unwittingly upset Baptists, Graham suggested inviting Carl Bates, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, to preach in the East Room “might negate some of the criticism.” Likewise, in 1971, Graham encouraged the White House to invite Fred Rhodes, a lay preacher who seemed sure to run for the SBC presidency that year. An internal memo enthusiastically noted that Rhodes was a “staunch Nixon loyalist.” “A White House invitation to speak would aid greatly in his campaign for this office,” the memo continued, “and if elected, Colson feels that Rhodes would be quite helpful to the President in 1972.”

Political considerations dictated the selection of speakers in more obvious ways. In September 1969, for instance, Reverend Allan Watson of Calvary Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, served as the East Room officiant. After the services, Watson posed with the president for the now-customary photograph on the north portico. They were joined by his twin brother, Albert Watson. A congressman who had abandoned the Democratic Party over its support of civil rights, he was at the time running for governor of South Carolina as a Republican. To the delight of Harry Dent, who had made arrangements for the visit, the photograph circulated widely in the campaign. Likewise, in February 1970, Reverend Henry Edward Russell of the Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis was given the honor of leading the East Room services. Many of his family members attended, but reporters paid particular attention to his brother, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who happened to chair the committee that would soon pass judgment on Nixon’s prized plan for an antiballistic missile treaty.

Political concerns also dictated who attended each service. The congregation was typically composed of prominent members of the Nixon White House and its supporters, so much so that the New York Times joked: “The administration that prays together, stays together.” Invitations usually went to allies in Congress, but occasionally they were used to lobby more independent members about particular bills. In July 1969, as the Senate deliberated the antiballistic missile treaty and the House considered an anti-inflationary surtax proposal, Nixon instructed his aides to invite legislators who would cast crucial votes on both. “The President would like to have a heavy ‘sprinkling’ of the Senators who endorsed the ABM program and ‘four or five other Senators’” who were “marginal,” explained Special Assistant to the President Dwight Chapin. “In regard to House Members, he would like to have conservative Republicans – he said ‘some who have not been here previously and supported the surtax.’”

With the bulk of the seats reserved for administration officials and congressmen they might sway, the remaining few were precious political commodities. Potential campaign donors were always given preference. An early “action memo” to Colson ordered him to follow up on the “President’s request that you develop a list of rich people with strong religious interest to be invited to the White House church services.” At this, Colson had quick success. The guests for an ensuing East Room service, for instance, included the heads of AT&T, Bechtel, Chrysler, Continental Can, General Electric, General Motors, Goodyear, PepsiCo, Republic Steel and other leading corporations.

As the political purpose of the White House church services became obvious, criticism from the press increased. In July 1969, for instance, the Washington Post challenged the sincerity of this “White House Religion.” “Unfortunately, the way religion is being conducted these days – amid hand-picked politicians, reporters, cameras, guest-lists, staff spokesmen – has not only stirred needless controversy, but invited, rightly or not, the suspicion that religion has somehow become entangled (again needlessly) with politics,” the editors chided. “Kings, monarchs, and anyone else brash enough to try this have always sought to cajole, seduce or invite the clergy to support official policy – not necessarily by having them personally bless that policy, but by having the clergy on hand in a smiling and prominent way.” In the end, the Post gently suggested it might be best “to avoid using the White House as a church.”

Religious leaders began to denounce the East Room church services as well. Reinhold Niebuhr, once an outspoken critic of Spiritual Mobilization, now targeted its apparent heirs. For an August 1969 issue of Christianity and Crisis, the 77-year-old theologian penned a scathing critique titled “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court.” The Founding Fathers expressly prohibited establishment of a national religion, he wrote, because they knew from experience that “a combination of religious sanctity and political power represents a heady mixture for status quo conservatism.” In creating a “kind of sanctuary” in the East Room, Nixon committed the very sin the Founders had sought to avoid. “By a curious combination of innocence and guile, he has circumvented the Bill of Rights’ first article,” Niebuhr charged. “Thus he has established a conforming religion by semi-officially inviting representatives of all the disestablished religions, of whose moral criticism we were [once] naturally so proud.” The “Nixon-Graham doctrine of the relation of religion to public morality and policy” neutered the critical functions of independent religion, he warned. “It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties, thereby confirming the fears of the Founding Fathers.”

Despite criticism from liberal critics and the press – or perhaps because of it – the East Room church services continued for the remainder of Nixon’s term in office. According to social secretary Lucy Winchester, they were “the most popular thing we do in the White House.” “People don’t identify very well with state dinners, but they are familiar with prayer,” she noted on another occasion. “The honor of being able to pray with the President is something that they regard as special.” And, by all accounts, the East Room church services were immensely popular. “Congressmen have flooded the White House with the names of clergymen constituents wanting a turn in the Presidential pulpit,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Hundreds of ministers have written directly, some enclosing photographs and programs of services they have conducted.”

Critics continued to scoff. “It gives the White House an unpleasant touch of Mission Inn,” Garry Wills wrote with disdain. But for many Americans – especially the ones whose support Nixon so avidly desired – there was nothing unpleasant about it, or the Mission Inn hotel and spa, for that matter. “And so they come,” a New York Times reporter noted in 1971, “not the poor and oppressed or the minorities that make for discomforting headlines, but the powerful in Washington and a healthy sprinkling of the people who put Mr. Nixon in office, and they sit around him, in worship of the Almighty.”

In many ways, the White House church services represented the climax of both the long postwar growth of religious nationalism in the United States and its process of partisan polarization. “Every president in American history had invoked the name and blessings of God during his inauguration address, and many … had made some notable public display of their putative piety,” religious scholar William Martin observed, “but none ever made such a conscious, calculating use of religion as a political instrument as did Richard Nixon.” Unlike prior presidents, who used a broadly-drawn public religion to unite Americans around a seemingly nonpartisan cause, the starkly conservative brand of faith and politics advanced by Nixon and Graham only drove them apart.

Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, from which this excerpt was taken. 

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Obergefell and the End of Religious Reasons for Lawmaking Mon, 29 Jun 2015 17:19:33 +0000 (Getty/Alex Wong)

(Getty/Alex Wong)

In Obergefell v. Hodges, marriage equality for same-sex couples became the law of the land. In the wake of the decision on Friday, focus has intensified on religious freedom for traditionalists. Few of the questions about religious accommodation are novel—they had been playing out in the states for some time. Yet the decision did have important ramifications for the relationship between religion and government in the United States, and it does mark the formal beginning of a new phase in the so-called culture wars.

The most significant impact of the Obergefell decision for the relationship between religion and government is that it put an end to lawmaking solely on the basis of religious reasons. From the beginning, the only real basis for excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage was religious. At the oral argument in the Supreme Court, as in lower courts, the states struggled to justify marriage exclusion in terms that all citizens could understand. Their theory that expanding civil marriage would weaken a conception of marriage linked to procreation, and thereby lead opposite-sex couples to remain unmarried, was nonsensical. In the Obergefell opinion, the Court called it “counterintuitive.”

So when the Court struck down exclusions of same-sex couples from civil marriage, it implicitly—but clearly—rejected the idea that such a law could be based on religious reasons alone, without understandable secular aims. Those justifications could not suffice to justify discrimination with respect to a basic freedom like the ability to marry.

To be sure, in Obergefell, the Court did not equate religious convictions with animus, hatred, or bigotry. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy recognized that “[m]any who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.” But religious convictions may be decent and honorable without providing sufficient grounds for determining the content and scope of our constitutional liberties.

In this case, Justice Kennedy made exactly this point with respect to prohibitions on same-sex marriage, stating that when “sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the state itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those who liberty is then denied.” Religious traditionalists may hold their views in good faith, and still the imposition of their beliefs through law cannot be justified to those who do not share their religious perspectives. Without some significant and publicly justifiable basis for rejecting same-sex marriage—which was never forthcoming in the public and legal debates leading up to Obergefell—excluding same-sex couples is arbitrary. And a state that violates fundamental rights on arbitrary grounds ultimately disparages and demeans those it governs.

Obergefell should put to rest the idea, which had been persisting, that American law touching on fundamental rights can be based purely in religious reasons. The Court leaves open some important questions, such as whether legislation may be based on nonreligious moral disapproval alone, independent of any concern for whether regulated conduct harms others. But its statement on the impermissibility of religious reasons for restricting basic rights is impossible to miss.

Now, after the decision in Obergefell, attention is shifting more strongly to the question of whether religious traditionalists should receive accommodations from laws guaranteeing equality to LGBT citizens. In some sense, that is a canard. Nothing in Obergefell directly affected the most pressing questions. Because comprehensive civil rights laws protecting LGBT citizens do not exist on the federal level or in the majority of states, marriage equality does not affect the ability of businesses to discriminate against gay people in most jurisdictions. (The ability of public officials to decline to administer same-sex marriages is an exception—it is directly raised by Obergefell).

Yet the Obergefell dissenters gave the impression that the Court’s decision had direct ramifications for religious freedom—an impression that was misleading and should be corrected. Chief Justice Roberts, for instance, said, “Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage.” He gave as examples a religious college that excludes gay couples from married student housing, and an adoption agency that refuses to place children with same-sex couples. But Obergefell does not create either of these conflicts.

After the decision, religious colleges can continue to exclude same-sex couples from married student housing, unless the state or town happens to have an independent law protecting against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status. And adoption agencies may continue to disfavor gay couples in those jurisdictions. Moreover, the withdrawal of tax-exempt status for organizations that oppose same-sex marriage, which Roberts also mentioned, is extremely unlikely. Certainly nothing in Obergefell requires the IRS to take that step. Thus, Chief Justice Roberts was warning about conflicts that are either already underway or unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Justice Thomas was closer to the truth when he said that the Obergefell decision changed the political dynamic in the clash between LGBT rights and religious freedom. Before the decision, religious traditionalists could advocate in democratic politics for the preservation of traditional marriage. “Had the majority allowed the definition of marriage to be left to the political process,” he wrote, “the People could have considered the religious liberty implications of deviating from the traditional definition as part of their deliberative process.”

After Obergefell, that political strategy is no longer available. To the extent religious traditionalists continue to oppose same-sex marriage, they cannot demand robust protections in exchange for agreeing to marriage equality, as they did in each of the states that enacted same-sex marriage by statute. Instead, they must oppose civil rights protections for LGBT people. Or they must demand religion accommodations in exchange for civil rights guarantees, as they did in Utah.

The Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith, written in 1990 by Justice Scalia and endorsed by the Court’s conservatives, prevents these religion accommodations from being required as a matter of federal constitutional law (and much state constitutional law follows suit). That means advocates for religious accommodations must rely on statutory protections for religion, and they must do so using the methods of ordinary politics. Unless the justices are willing to reconsider Smith, religious traditionalists will continue to pursue accommodations in legislatures, administrative agencies, and through ballot initiatives. They can do that because legislatures can accommodate religion for reasons that are not themselves religious—like solicitude for the burden that some laws may place on citizens’ deeply held convictions. For example, the Court recently accommodated a prisoner who wished to grow a half-inch beard despite prison grooming regulations. That was perfectly appropriate.

What lawmakers can no longer do is burden basic rights for purely religious reasons. Obergefell puts an end to that campaign. Laws supported by religion can continue to be enacted, but only if they can be justified by concern for harm to others or some other public rationale. Chief Justice Roberts understood this implication when he argued against the majority that the Constitution does not enact John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which famously defends the view that infringements on personal liberty can only be justified to prevent harm to others. Whether he is right about that or not, the Constitution does not permit the government to pass laws that interfere with individual rights on the basis of religious reasons. That too is now the law of the land.

Micah J. Schwartzman is Edward F. Howrey Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Richard C. Schragger is Perre Bowen Professor and Barron F. Black Research Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Nelson Tebbe is Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and Visiting Professor of Law at Cornell Law School.

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The Pope and Laudato Si’: Is the Ecology Encyclical a Moral Analysis or a Political Indictment? Wed, 24 Jun 2015 15:50:38 +0000 (Getty/Vatican Pool)

(Getty/Vatican Pool)

U.S. politicians who happen to be Catholic in the age of Pope Francis display a knack for religious privatization that would impress even the most avowed secularization theorists. “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals, or from my Pope,” shrugged Catholic convert Jeb Bush on the campaign trail. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” Slightly less blunt was Catholic-Baptist hybrid Marco Rubio’s assessment that the pope speaks with moral authority on humans’ obligation to care for the environment—but economic well-being remains a politician’s domain. Why the fuss?

Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’: On the Care of our Common Home, offers significant and trenchant critiques of contemporary economic assumptions that beguile U.S. political leadership. While environmental degradation is a moral problem, it argues, ecological paroxysms are also linked to failures of the world’s dominant economic paradigms. Laudato Si’ lays out a case that, while economic and technological prowess have certainly improved the living circumstances of millions of people, these paradigms also contain internal dynamics that benefit the few at the expense of the vulnerable. Thus, in the encyclical’s introduction, Francis writes: “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (13).

It is this Catholic moral concern for protecting the dignity of the vulnerable—in this case, people living in poverty and the planet’s life support systems—that has given U.S. politicians occasion to pontificate on where the Pope’s domain ends and theirs begins.


THE VATICAN IS CLEAR that environmental problems, social inequities, and economic paradigms are linked—and that addressing that intersection is the proper purview of moral leadership. “Morality has to do with the decisions and choices we make in certain concrete situations, including economic situations,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a recent interview with journalist Christiane Amanpour. (He also noted how surprising and unfortunate it is that political leaders would deny such an obvious connection.)

In fact, this idea—that moral principles can and should be brought to bear on contemporary social and economic realities, and therefore bear political implications—is at the heart of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine, a tradition that began in 1891 with Leo XIII’s encyclical on the rights of laborers. Encyclicals written throughout the past forty years by Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have consistently raised questions about economic practices and their resulting inequalities, while laying out the requirements of an “authentic” or “integral” development (an idea that points to the pursuit of multi-dimensional well-being for every person as an individual, and for all people around the world—not merely on the sole metric of economic growth).

In their encyclicals, John Paul II and Benedict XVI highlighted linkages among economic globalization, social injustice, and environmental degradation. Both leaders talked about climate change as a moral problem and about the obligation to care for creation, while clarifying that biblical injunctions to have “dominion” over nature should not be interpreted as “domination.”

Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical, Caritas in veritate was promulgated within a year of the global financial crisis and critiqued excessive speculative finance while also calling for super-developed nations to take up considerable duties in light of global inequalities and ongoing environmental problems. These themes percolate throughout Laudato Si’, which (unsurprisingly) draws heavily upon the teachings of Francis’s predecessors, as its quotations and footnotes indicate. But Francis’s ecology encyclical is new in that it centralizes environmental themes and raises the level of moral analysis and exhortation.

Something else is new: more people in the U.S. are taking note of these teachings than ever before. The body of Catholic social doctrine is no longer out of sight and out of mind. Thus, the Pope’s encyclical has evoked some consternation: Is it, or is it not, a political document?


THE POPE BEGINS Laudato Si’ by addressing himself not just to Catholics but also to “every person living on the planet.” Chapter 1 details some of the most egregious planetary shifts that have resulted from human misuse of the earth’s goods (including climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and economic inequality). Chapter 2 recalibrates Christian biblical understandings of human beings and creation.

But it is Chapters 3 and 4 that hone in on how humans have become an earth-altering force; it is here that Francis analyzes the moral fissures wrought by our industrial, technological, and economic powers.

Among Francis’s concerns is what he sees as a misplaced faith in economic structures, which he also refers to collectively as a “technocratic paradigm.” He sees contemporary, political and economic leaders and their institutions as focused on market efficiencies, profit and growth, and technological solutions—but without sufficient accountability to the people or environments that bear the burdens of these structures.

Such an approach makes some North American pundits nervous. Some commentators have charged Francis with a blithe “catastrophism” that refuses to recognize the benefits of economic and technological progress. Such an analysis may be politically appealing in the U.S. context, but it is overly simplistic and simply incorrect.

As Francis sees it, technology and economics are proper expressions of the unique human capacities for reason, creativity, and sociality. His worry, however, is that these products of human ingenuity can be perpetuated in ways that bring significant harm to vulnerable forms of life. (These ideas appear consistently in the encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well.) It is irrational for human beings to behave “as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such,” says Francis, but this is precisely the assumption built into contemporary forms of political economy (105).

But let’s be clear on two things that the encyclical is not doing. Francis’ line of critique is not endorsing socialism or communism (see para. 104 for critiques of those specters). Nor is Laudato Si’ a simplistic exhortation to return to an imagined, nostalgic pre-industrial pastoralism: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age,” the pope writes, “but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur” (114).

Instead, Francis calls for a dynamic, global moral conversation that entails conversion and transformation on all levels of scale, from the individual to the societal. In this way, Laudato Si’ can be read as a summons to rectify widespread moral confusion over means and ends. What goals are being sought through economic and social relationships? Are those goals worthy and just? Have political economic arrangements become ends in themselves, instead of means to integral development?

Francis’ constructive upshot is to put forward an idea of “integral ecology,” which he develops in chapter 4. Humanity must reinvigorate a broader, moral vision of what it means to be embodied, dependent, and in healthy relationship—with God, other people, and the earth that sustains all life.

Certainly, the notion of integral ecology has distinctly Catholic tones in this encyclical. But it is also a notion that appears in ecological theory, environmental and social activism, and constructive political and economic efforts (including, for example, attempts by environmental leaders like James Gustav Speth to re-integrate human and ecological values into a “new economy” that conduces to the good of all people and the planet, now and in the future).


WHAT IS THE upshot for citizens and politicians in super-developed nations like the U.S.? Is there a moral imperative for us?

This encyclical on environmental, economic, and social ethics is a call to action, both in the concrete lives of individuals and in the functioning of societies. It is a dialogue that must include everyone—and “dialogue” implies more than a congenial chat. “Dialogue,” here, is the first step in setting ethical goals and then pursuing a noble, just course of human affairs. Such a trajectory, Francis insists, requires leaders (in business and in politics) to re-evaluate and revalue their actions.

Protection of the planet for current and future generations, and pursuit of dignified living circumstances for all people, requires people in power to attend to big-picture concerns. A renewed commitment to truly moral leadership means eschewing “the myopia of power politics” and remembering that “true statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy” (178).

This is not an easy task in contemporary U.S. society, obsessed as we are with election cycles and fiscal quarters. Laudato Si’ continues:

Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government’s term. … To take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics. (181)

Granted, Laudato Si’ doesn’t name names of particular nations that need to come to the table. But it is not hard to read between the lines. As Benedict XVI put it in 2009, these critiques apply in particular ways to “super-developed” nations like the United States. And Francis offers numerous, specific, and exquisitely salient challenges to the interpretative biases of pundits and politicians in the United States, as the following three examples show.

First, there is Francis’s acceptance of scientific consensus on climate change and other environmental problems. He has little patience for those who would denigrate or ignore the facts: “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” (14). Surely, James Inhofe’s infamous presentation of a snowball to the Senate—part of an attempted argument against global warming—is but one example. Even so, politicians are merely the most visible face of the American denial problem, which is not only an intellectual failure but also a spiritual malaise. “This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices,” writes Francis later in the encyclical: “trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen” (59). Denial, obstructionism, and indifference must give way to real conversation about global responsibilities.

Second, consider how Francis insists that wealthy/industrialized nations owe an ecological and social debt to other countries, as a result of disproportionate consumption of the earth’s resources. The pope speaks of common but “differentiated responsibilities” for social and environmental justice, an oft-invoked term in global geo-diplomacy: industrialized nations and developing nations all share in responsibility for planetary realities, but not every nation’s obligations are the same.

With his papal predecessors, Pope Francis insists that highly developed nations should bear most of the costs (economic and otherwise) of remediating environmental ills from which they have disproportionately benefited. In the case of global warming, “reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage, and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are the most powerful and pollute the most” (169). With a fraction of the world’s population but a dramatic share of its carbon emissions, the U.S. is directly in this line of critique.

Finally, Francis critiques the history of “weak international political responses” to problems of poverty and environmental degradation. He notes, too, how “economic powers” (presumably including strong U.S. lobbies and multinational corporations of many types) “continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain,” while ignoring negative “effects on human dignity and the natural environment” (54, 56).

Here, Francis delivers a succinct rhetorical salvo for super-developed nations: “We believers,” Francis writes, “cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to these present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.”

Of course, the responsibility to act is not God’s. It is ours.


Christiana Z. Peppard is an assistant professor of theology, science, and ethics at Fordham University and the author of Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Follow her @profpeppard.

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