Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Tue, 28 Jul 2015 16:06:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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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For Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E., a Legacy of Hope and Resistance Thu, 18 Jun 2015 23:09:00 +0000 (Grace Beahm/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool)

(Grace Beahm/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool)

Charleston is known as the holy city, for its many steeples and spires that tower above the landscape. On Wednesday night, a most unholy act happened in one of the city’s congregations. Suspect Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, is believed to have entered the doors of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. According to authorities, he sat among church members for nearly an hour before he started shooting. A state senator and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was murdered along with six women and two men in his congregation. “I do believe this was a hate crime,” the police chief said. Black men and women were targeted while they held Bible study. An act of terror happened in a sacred space.

There are still so many questions. In the hours and days and weeks to come, details and analysis will surface: who are the victims and what are their stories; how do we combat racism and violence; where did the shooter get a gun; did he suffer from mental illness; how much was he known to authorities. But some things we may never know, or understand. This is not the first attack on an American house of worship. But in a year of cries for justice over police brutality and lost black lives, this mass shooting again brings us to the dreadful realization that injustice continues and tragedies mount.

I was born and raised in South Carolina. Last fall, I got married in a church three blocks west and a half-mile south of Emanuel A.M.E. I am a descendant of the region’s white Methodists, the same people who so ostracized their black congregants that the Rev. Morris Brown left in 1818 and formed a church for black members, who would later comprise Emanuel. And, if early reports are true, the alleged shooter attended high school in the same town where I did. I am angry. I mourn. I want to atone. My destiny is tied up with their destiny, both the oppressed and the oppressor.

It is impossible to see the attack on Emanuel apart from the church’s history. Emanuel has been a symbol of resistance since its inception, when Brown gathered more than 1,000 black Charlestonians into the African Methodist Episcopal Church. One of the group’s founding members was Denmark Vesey, who had bought his freedom and began organizing a slave uprising. When the plot was discovered in 1822, Vesey and 34 others were hanged. In retaliation, his church was burned to the ground. But it rebuilt, again and again. In 1834, when all-black churches were outlawed, it resurrected itself with underground meetings. In 1865, it was again publicly recognized, taking on the name Emanuel (“God with us”). The church hosted Booker T. Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And in recent months, the slain Rev. Pinckney fought tirelessly for legislation for police to wear body cameras, which passed in the wake of the shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston.

“This church is more than just a local congregation. It is a jewel that represents the rich heritage of worldwide African-Methodism and its commitment to preach the liberating Gospel of Christ,” wrote my friend, the Rev. Marcus McCullough, in an email exchange. (McCullough is a lifelong member of the A.M.E. and an ordained A.M.E. minister, but he did not speak to me as a representative of his denomination.) He continued, “This isn’t just about a church or even a denomination, rather it’s about a people and the relentless desire to extinguish its past, present, and future. It is then, perhaps, no coincidence at all that this occurred amidst the clarion call that #BlackLivesMatter. And that, for sure, is what makes this hurt so bad.”

History pervades Charleston, but publicly it often offers a selective memory. The city and the state have been slow to reckon with their legacies. Just off the coast, the first shots of the Civil War rang out. By some estimates, nearly half of all Africans who were brought to America during the slave trade entered through the ports of Charleston and its surrounding areas. The legacy of racism, of Jim Crow, and of slavery’s brutality mark each cobblestone step and grand home that still stand.

And yet, visitors are too often given a sanitized image of the Old South—genteel accents, hoop skirts, and sweetgrass baskets. The Confederate flag still flies on the state house grounds in Columbia, and it lines the walls and hallways of many of Charleston’s historic buildings. Charleston is a city full of museums, but it was just in 2007 that the city officially opened a museum dedicated to understanding the slave trade. In 2014, after a nearly 18-year effort, a monument to Denmark Vesey was unveiled in one of the city’s parks.

Michael Altman, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Alabama and a high school classmate of mine, went to college in Charleston. When I reached out to him over email, he wrote, “The Civil War isn’t distant there. Slavery isn’t distant there. It’s not uncommon to happen upon a guy dressed up like a Confederate soldier. The Confederacy is banal in its ubiquity in town.” He continued, “So, when this happens, when a white man walks into a historic black church—a church literally driven underground by Southern white supremacy—it feels like all of those ghosts, all of that cultural memory bubbling just below the surface has violently erupted. All of those moments where you noticed the Confederacy was still around that seemed ‘historic’ or ‘cultural’ suddenly seem insidious.”

Emanuel, like many black churches, has countered these insidious narratives. The church offered a defiant history and a subversive spirit in the face of opposition, before emancipation and during Jim Crow, through the civil rights movement and to this moment. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Barbara Savage has argued, “African American religion and political struggle [have] seemed poignantly and inextricably intertwined.”

In the churchyard where I got married, there is a marker to honor the memory of the enslaved workers who built the church. Covering the bricks is a sculpture of a bird looking over its back. It is a sankofa, a Ghanaian symbol that means “looking back in order to look forward.” It is a reminder to learn from the past.

There is no sense to be made from senseless violence, no meaning that I can make. But we can remember. In this time of uncertainty, I am certain that Emanuel A.M.E. will continue its legacy of defiance, of resistance, of hope. Now it is needed as much as ever.

Tiffany Stanley is managing editor of Religion & Politics.

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Franklin Graham Is Winning at Facebook Tue, 16 Jun 2015 16:21:58 +0000 (AP Photo/Erie Times-News, Greg Wohlford)

(AP Photo/Erie Times-News, Greg Wohlford)

On June 5, Franklin Graham took to his Facebook page to provoke a boycott of Wells Fargo. The bank has released a series of nine new commercials profiling their customer diversity, including one featuring a lesbian couple learning sign language in advance of adopting a deaf child. Incensed at the “tide of moral decay that is being crammed down our throats,” Graham announced that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, of which he is CEO and president, would be “moving our accounts from Wells Fargo to another bank.” He encouraged his Facebook followers to think of other pro-gay companies to boycott: “Let’s just stop doing business with those who promote sin and stand against Almighty God’s laws and His standards. Maybe if enough of us do this, it will get their attention. Share this if you agree.”

As of this writing—72 hours after that post—more than 90,000 people agreed. Rather, more than 90,000 people had clicked “Like” on the post, which is the most basic Facebook way of saying “I agree.” Nearly 41,000 had followed Graham’s instructions to “Share” the post onto their own pages. Both types of clicks register affirmation, and both drive more attention to Graham’s post—in Facebook’s system, any sort of user interaction can boost a post’s visibility.

At the risk of playing gotcha, it’s worth asking whether Graham’s boycott of pro-gay businesses will extend to Facebook. If so, he’ll need to delete his very successful page. In February 2014, the company added a “custom” option to the Gender field in profiles, and they’ve indicated their support of gay marriage on multiple occasions. Everyone who uses their Facebook profile does business with Facebook—indeed, users are the product Facebook sells, and users improve the product line and build Facebook’s advertising revenue with every post, every click, every moment of attention they give to the site. Thanks in no small part to people like Franklin Graham, Facebook’s business is very good.

Aside from the televangelists Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, Graham appears to be the most popular Christian leader on Facebook. In an era where Facebook has become a primary filter—in many cases, the primary filter—for what people pay attention to online, Graham is building a Facebook presence that surpasses every other vocal Christian leader in America. Graham wears multiple hats—he’s the president of the humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse in addition to the BGEA—but his Facebook page is mostly a fount of advocacy for his vintage Christian Right political worldview. Graham’s forbears, such as Jerry Falwell, would have salivated at the easy attention-gathering power of today’s social media platforms. Culture war leaders of yesteryear worked hard to gin up media attention, spinning out urgent press releases and offering inflammatory quotes on trending national news. Franklin Graham simply has to go to Facebook and fill out his answer to the status update box: “What have you been up to?”

Well, maybe not “simply.” Graham is winning at Facebook because he—along with, one presumes, his communications team—is smart about using Facebook.

At the height of his career, Billy Graham could speak to half a million people or more during a preaching crusade, though it often took several consecutive days of work. Thanks to Facebook, Franklin Graham can speak to that many people every day. Osteen and Meyer have more likes than Graham—10 million and nearly 9 million, respectively. The piety page Jesus Daily, which posts inspirational pictures and quotes, is even larger; its 26 million likes rank it among the most popular pages on all of Facebook. Jesus Daily is beating Kim Kardashian and Christina Aguilera, who have roughly 25 million each, though it is well behind Taylor Swift (71 million) and Shakira (100 million). Those are impressive numbers, especially compared to Franklin Graham’s 1.6 million likes. Yet in terms of actual visibility on Facebook day in, day out—in terms of gaming Facebook for peak user engagement around the clock—Graham is outgunning them all.

When I visited the page on June 5, 709,022 people were “Talking About” Graham’s Facebook page, about 45 percent of his total fans. The number of “People Talking About This” fluctuates, and I happened to check that stat at a high water mark—when it was buoyed by his bank boycott. But Graham’s figure is often strong: I’ve seen it go as high as 908,228, and never as low as 400,000 since I began paying close attention in April. The “Talking About” metric is a measurement of fan engagement—not “How many likes do you have?” but “How many people are interacting with your posts right now?” Joel Osteen’s number of likes is many times higher than Graham’s, but when I’ve looked a few times recently, only around 23 percent of those fans were talking about his page. At Joyce Meyer’s page, 17 percent of her fans were talking about her posts. Rick Warren? Nearly 2 million fans, but barely 1 percent of them are engaged. Graham is far and away the leader of the pack.

That’s in part because Graham gives his fans much more to talk about. He posts at least twice per day, nearly every day. The page is sprinkled with amusing personal miscellany—one recent post extols his Fitbit—and Christian quotes or Bible verses. He also reports occasionally on the vital aid work of Samaritan’s Purse and calls for prayer on widely felt tragedies. But most of Graham’s posts are conservative Christian hot takes on the news. This spring, he has touched on the Baltimore riots, Bruce Jenner (and, later, Caitlyn Jenner), Hillary Clinton’s cash, homosexuality, and militant Islam. Those last two subjects predominate. In all cases, his tone tends toward the visceral—appeals to emotion primed for clicks.

Consider this post from May 16: “Can you believe these idiots? Gender fluidity? Here’s an example of some of the wicked things misguided educators today want to expose our children to—look at this Fox News story. It should make your blood boil that they want to brainwash our children!” The post links to a Todd Starnes op-ed—not, nota bene, the same thing as a “story”—with the headline: “Call it ‘gender fluidity’: Schools to teach kids there’s no such thing as boys or girls.”

Or consider this post from May 28: “CNN reported today that scientists have discovered ancient jawbones and some teeth in Ethiopia that they say may shed new light on our earliest ancestors. If you really want to know where our earliest ancestors came from, check the original source, God’s Holy Word.”

Both posts are longer than the above quotes, though not much longer—Graham’s lengthiest Facebook posts hover around an economical 150 words. On Facebook, that’s enough material to proclaim a position and engender weeks of reaction. The comment threads on Graham’s posts can run on for weeks. The two posts above have (again, as of this writing) 10,654 and 5,198 comments, respectively, and are still active. The threads themselves are about what you’d expect if you’ve spent any time at all reading web article comments on religion and politics topics. Let the reader beware.

But constructive dialogue, of course, is not the goal of media strategies like Graham’s. The goal is attention. That’s what Franklin Graham and Facebook are winning together. Facebook has 1.4 billion users, and roughly half of them get their news from the site. More and more people are tuning into Facebook as a front page of world events and commentary. All sorts of media companies use Facebook, but the ones that perform best are the partisan outlets—conservative outlets like The Blaze, liberal outlets like Mother Jones. The same holds true for partisan persons like Franklin Graham.

Successful Facebook pages have a way of compromising one’s mission. Once you figure out what people click on, you start creating posts that get those clicks. There are a few tricks to the Facebook trade, and they’re fairly easy to reproduce. We’re awash in evidence of this today—it’s why so many web headlines sound the same; it’s why so many viral posts are viral in the same way; it’s why BuzzFeed works; it’s why Clickhole exists (and is necessary).

But if you’re committed to an editorial mission, or a political mission, or (to be sure) a religious mission, what works on Facebook may not be what’s best for that mission. Sure, you can figure out how to get clicks on Facebook. But is getting clicks on Facebook consistent with your larger purpose? Can you go viral repeatedly on Facebook and maintain your intellectual integrity? Can you go viral and still care for people—for the human beings who have lives beyond their Facebook user profiles? Once you have a smart Facebook strategy and a successful Facebook page, you tend to stop asking.

A question for Franklin Graham: Do you want to address the problem of radical Islam? Refusing to admit Muslims into the fabric of American life (as you do here and here) runs directly counter to that aim. Another: Are you serious about ensuring a place at the table for traditionalist Christian views on marriage? Rather than boycotting Wells Fargo into submission, it might be wise to build strategies for a true democratic pluralism that makes room for your perspective. Your Facebook speech acts are the inverse of real-world action that might protect and advance your views.

Graham is clearly—and rightly—concerned that his Christian worldview is on the wane in America. He also clearly—but wrongly—believes the wisest response is to fight for that worldview by lobbing truth bombs into the public square. That sort of approach is increasingly puzzling. Technologies like Facebook are laying the strategy bare. Full of sound and fury, it accomplishes nothing. Except sound and fury.

Think about the basic structure of a Facebook post on pages like Graham’s. Consider its potentiality as a cultural product. Graham shares his opinion. Maybe he asks a broad question or two, inviting response. That’s the full extent of his participation. He does not moderate the discussion. He does not try to win people over to his ideas. He certainly does not consider his interlocutor’s ideas and figure out how they might challenge his own, even for the purpose of improving his own position. His goal is not persuasion. It is not participation in a public discussion. The only goal is proclamation.

Like all of the big media that preceded it, Facebook turns out to do proclamation very well. This is what a successful Facebook strategy looks like for anyone nurturing a bully pulpit: Post your opinion. Make it as provocative as possible. Encourage people to like and share if they agree. What if they disagree? Or what if they agree but have some questions? No room for that. Due consideration is not a viral strategy. Proclamation is. Promote yourself. Get as much attention as possible. Ignore dissent. Reject intellectual modesty. Refuse charity. Assume the worst of your opponents.

Now, watch the likes roll in.

Franklin Graham is winning Facebook. But winning this game does not seem like a very Christian thing to do.

Patton Dodd is a writer and editor in Maryland.

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The Rise of Christian Conservative Legal Organizations Wed, 10 Jun 2015 16:30:35 +0000 Conservative Christian Legal Organizations

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Law students visiting from Liberty University arrive at the Supreme Court. The students are with Liberty Counsel, a non-profit public interest law firm and ministry.

Two years ago, a longtime customer walked into Barronelle Stutzman’s flower shop with a request: the customer—who is gay—asked Stutzman to provide flowers for his wedding. Stutzman declined, citing her Christian faith’s objections to same-sex marriage, and was eventually charged with violating Washington’s state anti-discrimination statute. With Stutzman facing thousands of dollars in fines, attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom stepped in to defend her in court. Today, the case is under review at the Washington Supreme Court, where Stutzman’s attorneys are hoping for a reversal of a lower court’s ruling against her.

“Barronelle and numerous others like her around the country have been more than willing to serve any and all customers, but they are understandably not willing to promote any and all messages,” Kristen Waggoner, one of Stutzman’s attorneys, said in a statement. “No one should be faced with a choice between their freedom of speech and conscience on one hand and personal and professional ruin on the other.”

Alliance Defending Freedom—a legal organization with a multi-million budget, several regional offices, and more than three dozen staff attorneys—has specialized in taking on these types of cases. But it’s not alone. ADF is just one of many Christian conservative legal organizations, or CCLOs, that rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. These groups promote and defend the interests of the Christian conservative community in the legal arena, with activities ranging from filing legal briefs and arguing at the Supreme Court to educating public school officials on the legality of after-school Bible clubs. Included in their ranks are the Liberty Counsel, which is tied to the law school of Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, and the American Center for Law and Justice, which was founded by Pat Robertson as the Christian Right’s response to the American Civil Liberties Union.

But who exactly are these organizations? What do they do? How do they differ from one another? And what does the future hold for the Christian legal movement? Examining CCLOs not only sheds light on an influential legal community in the United States—it shows how a broader political movement has tried to adapt to new challenges in a changing society.


ALTHOUGH MANY CHRISTIAN Conservative legal groups dot the current American legal landscape, it has not always been this way. For decades, legal advocacy—that is, marshaling legal tactics in support of broader policy goals—was a tool of the political left in the United States, dominated by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Traditional outlets of political engagement were generally unsuccessful for these groups, due to the unpopular nature of their beliefs or the lack of political support for their goals. Legal advocacy gave these marginalized peoples victories unavailable to them otherwise.

Eventually more established, conservative interests saw the value of legal advocacy. The Federalist Society, organized at various law schools in 1982, provided an outlet for conservative legal ideas in an environment traditionally dominated by liberals. Today it is arguably the most influential conservative legal community in the United States, supporting libertarian, business, and socially conservative legal interests.

The 1980s also saw the emergence of expressly Christian legal interest groups. John Whitehead’s Rutherford Institute was one of the earliest of these, focusing mainly on defending religious freedom and opposing abortion. And though its mission has since evolved beyond the Christian legal movement, Rutherford’s successes helped set the stage for the CCLOs active today.

Just as the Federalist Society spurred and lent credibility to the conservative legal movement, the Christian Right did the same for CCLOs. Specifically, elites in the Christian Right, sensing the promise of legal advocacy for their causes, lent organizational support and resources to new legal interest groups: Pat Robertson founded both the National Legal Foundation and the American Center for Law and Justice; James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, and Bill Bright (among others) were instrumental in organizing Alliance Defending Freedom; and Jerry Falwell lent Liberty Counsel institutional support. Without this early assistance from the Christian Right, many CCLOs would not exist as we now know them.

Today, CCLOs generally focus on three major issues: strengthening religious liberty, supporting the traditional family, and defending the sanctity of life. CCLOs uniformly take the position that religious liberty is crucial in a thriving society, even when exercised in ways the broader culture deems unpopular—as is the case with Barronelle Stutzman. Likewise, most CCLOs take an accommodationist approach to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, arguing that public displays of religion—such as crèches and displays of the 10 Commandments—are consistent with the Judeo-Christian roots of the country. CCLOs’ work on religious liberty and establishment illustrates the flexibility of legal advocacy, emphasizing that lawsuits are not necessary for success: Sometimes the mere threat of a lawsuit may be enough for victory, as is often the case when dealing with public schools and local governmental agencies.

For CCLOs, marriage is more than a legal contract: it is a union between a man and a woman ordained by God with enormous cultural significance. Thus, these groups uniformly oppose expanding marriage rights to same-sex couples. Their past arguments have included appeals to the religious foundations of marriage, but more recently they have relied on controversial and largely debunked research suggesting children are raised better by a mother and father than parents of the same sex. They have also emphasized the importance of the democratic process in defining what marriage is, taking jabs at “unelected judges” redefining the institution. Opposing abortion also remains a critical element of their advocacy—and one where they have been making gains at the state level in creating more abortion restrictions, most notably through supporting “personhood” amendments to state constitutions. CCLOs have also defended pro-life protesters and supported “conscience clause” protections for doctors and pharmacists opposed to abortion and contraception. Here, attorneys appeal to broad rights like free speech and religious exercise, downplaying the content of the activity—namely, opposition to abortion—and focusing on the activity itself. In doing so, CCLOs highlight their clients’ expressive freedom, a value familiar and popular among most Americans.


WHILE DEFINING “CHRISTIAN Conservative legal organization” is in some sense a subjective task, one definition is that it is a multi-issue organization dedicated to the interests of Christian conservatives primarily through legal strategies and tactics. There are several groups that can be identified according to this definition, a testament to the growth of the Christian legal movement in the United States:

Alliance Defending Freedom – Founded in 1994, ADF was originally a funding source for other legal interest groups, but transitioned into direct advocacy and case sponsorship in the early 2000s. Led by Alan Sears, an attorney with roots in the Reagan administration, it has a network of affiliated attorneys around the country to go along with staff attorneys in several areas of law and policy. With annual revenue approaching $40 million, ADF boasts an impressive media presence and sponsors a series of legal training programs for law students and seasoned attorneys alike.

American Center for Law and Justice – Since its inception in 1990, the ACLJ has been led by the most well-known Christian conservative attorney in the country: Jay Sekulow. Under his leadership the ACLJ has grown into perhaps the best recognized CCLO in the country, and rivals ADF in terms of overall resources. The ACLJ is officially tied to Regent University School of Law (also founded by Pat Robertson), and has established branches overseas in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Center for Law and Religious Freedom – The oldest of the CCLOs, the CLRF was founded in 1980 as the advocacy arm of the Christian Legal Society. Today the CLRF is small, with only one attorney—senior counsel Kim Colby—working full-time. But it is active nonetheless, especially in filing amicus briefs and writing statements for public consumption.

Liberty Counsel – Mat Staver founded LC in 1989 out of his private practice in Florida. Since then, it has grown into an active, well-funded ($6 million annually) organization with its own policy office and educational arm. Staver is still in charge, along with his wife, Anita, and several staff attorneys. Like the ACLJ, LC is also tied to a law school: the Liberty University School of Law, where Staver served as Dean for several years.

Liberty Institute – Based in Texas, LI was born of a marriage between the Free Market Foundation and Liberty Legal Institute, founded in 1972 and 1997, respectively. Kelly Shackleford heads the organization, which includes several staff attorneys, an affiliated network of pro bono attorneys, and over $8 million in annual revenue. LI is especially active on religious freedom issues, but also tackles other issues of importance to Christian conservatives.

National Legal Foundation – One of the older groups on this list, the NLF was founded in 1985. For years it was led by Robert Skolrood, who argued Westside Community Schools v. Mergens before the Supreme Court, which upheld the Equal Access Act for religious student groups. Steven Fitschen is now the group’s only attorney, although it remains active primarily in filing amicus briefs.

Pacific Justice Institute – PJI was founded in 1997 by Brad Dacus, who currently serves as its president. With annual revenue nearing $2 million, the group is the only CCLO based in California, and most of its legal work is focused there. PJI is perhaps most famous for its defense of the phrase “In God We Trust” in federal court. The group is particularly active in migrant communities in California, touting the similarities of their beliefs to the views of recent immigrants.

Thomas More Law Center – Founded in 1998 by Catholic businessman Tom Monaghan, TMLC is based in Michigan and led by Richard Thompson, who successfully prosecuted Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the 1990s. With $2 million in annual revenue, TMLC is staffed by three attorneys and numerous affiliated lawyers, and is one of the few CCLOs with explicitly Catholic foundations.

Thomas More Society – In the midst of defending pro-life activist Joseph Scheidler in a lengthy court battle, Thomas Brejcha was told to cease his pro bono work. Instead, he left his firm and founded TMS. In the years since its 1997 founding, TMS has expanded its agenda beyond the sanctity of life to include other issues prominent in Christian Right circles.

Noticeably absent from this list is the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has made a name for itself by winning a number of recent Supreme Court cases, including Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and Holt v. Hobbs. This omission is intentional: just as the Christian Right is concerned with more than one issue, CCLOs should be defined by their attention to multiple issues and causes in their advocacy. Due to its focus solely on religious liberty and the fact it represents non-Christian clients, the Becket Fund does not belong to the community above, despite some overlap with CCLO interests.* 


WHILE AGREEING ON MAJOR issues, CCLOs are not, it should be noted, copies of one another. These groups have carved out niche identities in an otherwise crowded field. The American Center for Law and Justice consistently critiques the Obama administration on issues beyond the traditional purview of Christian legal advocacy, like immigration, gun control, and the separation of powers. Liberty Counsel has made support for Israel and the Jewish people a central component of its agenda. The Pacific Justice Institute routinely opposes the normalization of homosexuality and transgender identity, especially in public schools. Alliance Defending Freedom has encouraged pastors to “break the law” by taking political stances from the pulpit, in order to challenge IRS regulations prohibiting such activity. And the Thomas More Law Center is active in opposing the advancement of Islam in the United States. Despite an overarching agenda, there is diversity within the ranks of the Christian legal movement.

Christian legal organizations of all kinds have undeniably proliferated over the past three decades, building their fundraising capabilities and gaining important court victories. But now, there is evidence that the groups’ primary constituencies—conservative Christians—are becoming less wedded to the culture war battles that gave CCLOs their initial footing. What, then, will be the future of the Christian legal movement?

Most CCLO attorneys I speak with express optimism about the future of their organizations. This optimism is laced with disappointment, though, as future opportunities depend on legal challenges. Much of the future of this movement is linked to the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. If the Court determines there to be a right to same-sex marriage, CCLOs will shift their attention to carving out exemptions for individuals and businesses (such as florists and photographers) morally opposed to participating in same-sex weddings. Some legal observers also believe sexual orientation will soon be considered a protected class, along with race, gender, and other categories. Should this happen, CCLOs will move to shield religious institutions—including churches and universities—from new anti-discrimination laws. In framing these battles in broad terms, CCLOs will paint their advocacy as less about disagreement with homosexuality and more about protecting constitutional freedoms for everyone—which is essentially how they portray their efforts now.

Regardless of the Obergefell decision, the Christian legal movement is too well funded and organized to simply disappear. Armed with million-dollar budgets and attorneys committed to a broader cause, CCLOs are not built to fade away. Some of its groups may dissolve over time, but the broader Christian legal movement is poised for a sustained presence on the stage of legal and cultural conflict.


Daniel Bennett is assistant professor of political science at Eastern Kentucky University. His book on the Christian legal movement in the United States is under contract with the University Press of Kansas.

*This sentence has been updated to clarify that the Becket Fund does not just represent Christian interests.

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Mad Men and the Enlightenment of Don Draper Mon, 08 Jun 2015 16:48:18 +0000 (Courtesy of AMC)

(Courtesy of AMC)

The pleasures of Mad Men were many. Fans of the recently concluded AMC series about advertising in the 1960s obsessed over the meticulous detail of each episode, the hair and clothes and furniture rendered in such loving beauty. We watched as the characters witnessed, through the TV sets in their offices and hotels rooms, the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the March on Washington, the Kennedy assassination, the King assassination, the moon landing; history re-told as image and emotion. And of course, the gender politics: the emerging feminism of Joan and Peggy; the style and swagger and frat-house boorishness of Roger; Betty’s deep sadness, born of the “problem that has no name,” as another Betty so famously described the plight of the era’s housewives.

But mostly we were consumed with Don. His life of deception and reinvention, of reckless indulgence, of promises kept and (mostly) broken, testified to the magic—the tantalizing hope and inevitable disappointment—of the very art form he so deftly practiced. He was advertising embodied. From the very first season we knew that the entire arc of the show, ultimately, would hinge on one question: What, in the end, would become of Don? At first, the scope of the questions seemed rather narrow: Would his great secret—that he had stolen another man’s identity—be discovered? Would he achieve the wealth and power, the respect and dignity, he so coveted? But before long, we realized the stakes were much higher. Would Don drink himself to death? Would he die by suicide, as the image of him tumbling through space in the opening credits seemed to portend? For most of the run of Mad Men such dire fates were all that seemed possible—and indeed even just—for Don. And yet, in moments of hope, or weakness, we fantasized about redemption as well.

Midway through the final season I experienced such a moment of hopeful weakness. I began to believe that Don just might be saved. Saved, that is, as in Billy-Graham-style saved, as in come-to-Jesus, born-again, praise-the-lord saved. A friend suggested such a possibility on Facebook, and even looked up the dates and locations of Billy Graham-led revivals in 1970, the year in which the final season was set. It was possible. The more I pondered the possibility, the more it even made sense. He had already been born-again once before, after all, when Dick Whitman, his name at birth, became Don Draper, his assumed identity. It could happen again.

Once I had taken to this idea, the signs seemed everywhere. As Don rambled across the country in the show’s final episodes, a road trip likened by the show itself to Kerouac’s On the Road (and recall, Kerouac described the book as “really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God”), I waited. He would find the God he was looking for, or that God would find him. At the end of the third-to-last episode, the ex-husband of Don’s latest love-obsessions says to Don (who had pathetically used yet another fake name to ask after his lover), “You can’t save her. Only Jesus can. You know he’ll help you too. Ask him.” Here it comes, I thought.

The very idea of watching a great American ad man come to Jesus sent my mind reeling. Advertising and evangelicalism are deeply entwined in American culture, and have been for more than a century. The great revivalists—Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham—have all been showmen and entrepreneurs, the lords of great media empires. One of the pioneers of modern American advertising, Bruce Barton, a preacher’s son, wrote in 1925 the bestselling biography of Jesus ever published, The Man Nobody Knows, in which he presented Jesus as the archetype of the modern businessman.

But the ties go deeper. Recent historical scholarship from Kevin Kruse and Tim Gloege has shown how corporate titans funded much of twentieth-century evangelicalism, and most especially how advertisers—the J. Walter Thompson Company, the Ad Council, and others—aggressively pushed evangelical Christianity in the mid-twentieth century as a path to personal betterment and social stability. And the ties go deeper still. As historian Jackson Lears demonstrated in his pioneering cultural history of advertising, the very idioms of modern advertising—its promises of the transformative, the redemptive, the miraculous—emerged from the pitches of nineteenth-century patent-medicine salesman, itinerant faith healers on their own sawdust trails. Lears calls advertising “the modernization of magic,” yet modern evangelicalism, with its focused-grouped worship centers and media-driven spectacles, just as surely represents the sacralization of advertising. American advertising offers redemption, a new self and new life, while prosperity preachers promise health, wealth, and a great sex life. Don would get saved. It made sense.

And yet, as we all now know, this did not come to pass. Don Draper did not come to Jesus. He did something even better—if not better for himself, certainly something better for the show, something better to dramatize the spiritual allure and danger of advertising. Don meditated. As we watched the final episode last week, we witnessed showrunner Matthew Weiner find the only corner of American religious life more deeply entwined with consumerism, more fully a creature of advertisers’ dreams, than evangelical Christianity. Don, if only for a moment, joined the “spiritual but not religious.”

In the climactic scene of the series, Don found himself alone at the Esalen Institute in Northern California, the epicenter of the human potential movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Desperate, confused, and alone, Don sat in a group encounter session. Overwhelmed by emotion, Don finally let go. He hugged, he cried, and soon he meditated, back to the breathtaking cliffs of Big Sur. And there he achieved enlightenment, revealed by a sly knowing smile.

In his moment of insight, however, we soon came to see that Don did not realize the root of suffering, the importance of right intention, or any other great spiritual truth. Rather, Don used his clarity of mind to write an ad, in fact to write the greatest ad of all time, the “buy the world a coke” ad:

I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,
Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,
I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.

Some fans of the show, I learned over the next few days, were outraged by this turn of events. How could the great arc of the show end here—not in final glory or despair, not with Don drunk or dead or redeemed, but with a Coke ad? Yet Weiner would have none of it. In an interview published after the final episode, he proclaimed, “It’s a co-option, but it’s pure.” Elsewhere he noted, “I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny. It’s a little bit disturbing to me, that cynicism … Five years before that, black people and white people couldn’t even be in an ad together! And the idea that someone in an enlightened state might have created something that’s very pure — yeah, there’s soda in there with a good feeling, but that ad to me is the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place.”

I think Weiner indeed got the ending just right, but not quite for the reasons he’s stated here. Don in no way created something “pure” in his enlightened state; he created a Coke ad. But he did create something that, like the best of all advertising, tantalized us with the promise of something pure, and if Don in his rapture believed in its purity, all the better.

The “buy the world a Coke ad” was so groundbreaking, and so successful, because it offered precisely and exactly what Americans in 1970 wanted—after assassinations and riots, war and Kent State, it offered “turtle doves” and “perfect harmony.” It offered what we wanted and what it—a can of fizzy sugar water—could in no way, shape or form, deliver. The ad was so great because it lied so spectacularly and shamelessly. A great ad must tap into our deepest longings and lie to us. Don, ever the deceiver, understood this better than anyone. Advertising must tell us that it and it alone can satisfy, and yet it can never, must never, deliver on that promise, or else we’d be relieved of the longing that keeps us coming back for more.

An ending with Don dead by suicide or drink—or with Don redeemed and saved—would have been too thick, too meaty and real, for a show about advertising. Fittingly, it ended instead with spiritual banality, with a tasty empty-calorie buzz, with a promise of the real thing but no such thing at all.

Matthew S. Hedstrom is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and the author of The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century.

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