“Religious Liberty”

For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?

In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”

Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.

But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)

This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.

This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage.  (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)

The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster.  Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)

This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”

Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.




On Issuing Marriage Licenses

I was watching The Nightly Show this morning, (I time shift) and Larry Wilmore had a segment on conservative it-girl Kim Davis. For those without cable news Davis is the Democratic county clerk in Kentucky (yes, she is a Democrat) who went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

There was something so surreal and vaguely disturbing in her victory lap along side presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. When I saw the crowd waving crosses I had a similar feeling to Wilmore who called it “a little bit lynchy.” But then there was the Rocky vs. Mr. T music. (Eye of the Tiger had been a staple at my junior high school dances.) Was Davis a champion? Did she win something? What was her victory? Her court issued licenses without her and she was released on the condition that she not interfere with the process. That hardly seems like an Olympic level accomplishment. Well, she did get attention and we do admire people who manage to do that.

I found myself googling Survivor “Eye of the Tiger” and Kim Davis figuring that the band probably had something to say about its use as a “don’t marry the gays” anthem. I found the answer on a site called Consequence of Sound. And no, Survivor wasn’t thrilled with the unauthorized use of their song. But it was a snarky little aside that caught my attention.

“Eye of the Tiger” blasted from the speakers while Davis, her (fourth) husband, her lawyer, and Huckabee took the stage.


So I want use this moment to point out, once again, one of my pet peeve Biblical arguments against homosexuality. When it comes to Biblical arguments against same sex romantic or sexual relations there are only a handful of passages and there are various, more or less technical reasons why a lot of them are problematic. I won’t go into that except to say that a lot of Christians who want to make a Biblical argument against homosexuality try to steer away from the two least ambiguous condemnations of sexual activity between those of the same sex. They are both in Leviticus and both refer specifically to men (so maybe lesbians are OK after all). “Man shall not lie with man” says one verse. The other says that the penalty is death by stoning. Modern people are squeemish about the death by stoning part and try to draw attention elsewhere. There is also the whole problem inherent to Leviticus– even the most ardent fundamentalists do not follow a lot of it and do not consider this contradictory with Christianity. In this very blog some time back I quoted from a fundamentalist blog that made the argument that there was nothing wrong with tattoos even though Leviticus condemns it. “If someone chose to consider a tattoo sinful, then they would have to toss all their cotton/polyester clothing too!”

But if you don’t want to give burnt offerings of animals as dictated in Leviticus, and you’re fine with eating lobster, then you open yourself up to the logical conclusion that maybe the men lying with men thing falls into that same category.

This, of course, leads to a strong desire for Jesus to have repeated the commandment. Jesus offered very few commandments, and when he was asked direct questions about law he tended to take a “context matters” approach. You weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, for example, unless someone needed a healing, and then the goodness of the action overrode the law. He was much more of a parable guy than a law giving guy.

Just the same, the desire to have Jesus re-enforce the parts of Leviticus some of us like is so strong that people get creative as when they cite Matthew 19.5 on billboards in opposition to same sex marriage.

In Matthew 19 Jesus is asked whether couples should be allowed to divorce. In his reply he mentions “man” and “woman” coming together in marriage. To read it as an anti-gay passage you have to ignore the actual subject of the text, which is not ambiguous. Jesus is asked if a man should be able to divorce (it is entirely the man’s prerogative, of course). He says, no. “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”

So the question is should divorce be legal and the answer is only in the case of adultery (on behalf of the wife). Any other reason is illegitimate. Not only that, but anyone who marries a divorced person is committing adultery.

So let’s review, Kim Davis, who was married four times and divorced three does not want to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples because:

“To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience,” Davis said in a statement published on the website of her lawyers, the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel. “It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s word.”

Now, as a matter of journalistic fairness, I will note here that Davis only became a Christian four years ago. So her serial adultery (as Matthew 19 labels it) was in her pre-Christian past.

But here’s the thing, how many marriage licenses has Kim Davis issued in the past four years to divorced people? I did a quick search to try to figure out how many marriage licenses the Rowan County Clerk’s office issues in a year, and I couldn’t immediately find it.

The number of licenses Davis may have unwittingly (and probably without any twinges of conscience) issued to divorced people is not even the real issue.

Suppose Davis, or someone like her, who divorced in the past and now has been born again, wants to make a fresh start in Christian marriage. Does it matter that she is now Christian and has asked for forgiveness of her sins past, or should it be up to the clerk to decide whether her conversion is sincere? If the person issuing the license agrees that Davis has given up her sinful ways, can the clerk still refuse to give her a license because doing so would mean that she would marry after having been divorced– which would make her an adulterer? Would Davis be thankful that the clerk took that position to save her soul and relieved her of the responsibility of her own religious choices? I suggest she would not.

The First Amendment is to protect individuals from government interference in their religious practices, observance and belief. It is not to protect the government from individuals religious choices. In this instance, Kim Davis, as the county clerk is cast in the role of the government. She represents the government agency. She cannot, as a representative of the government, tell people that they are sinners. That’s how the First Amendment works.

Who Should ‘Scape Whipping?

My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
After his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
They deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.

“Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping” is one of my favorite lines from Hamlet. It came to mind today as I read an article in Bondings 2.0.  Bondings is an LGBT positive Catholic publication which does a lot of reporting on how the church as an organization and how Catholics as individuals respond to social change.

In one article Jesuit friar Thomas Reese makes a well-reasoned case that U.S. bishops have a tradition of making accommodations with civil laws that do not match their stated beliefs, notably the way the church responds to divorce and people who have been remarried. Therefore, he writes, there is no reason the church should expend resources and energy trying to fight same sex marriage.

(Christian ministers of many stripes have become so accommodating to divorce that they use a passage from the New Testament in which Jesus specifically says people should not divorce as if it were instead a prohibition against gay marriage.)

Bondings said Reese’s  “analytical response (to the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality) stands out over the rest of them for its incisive distinctions and its hopeful suggestions.”  While I applaud the article overall, one troubling thing kept jumping out at me. Reese repeatedly makes the case that the Catholic church can change its approach without “endorsing the lifestyle.”

Today, Catholic institutions rarely fire people when they get divorced and remarried. Divorced and remarried people are employed by church institutions, and their spouses get spousal benefits. No one is scandalized by this. No one thinks that giving spousal benefits to a remarried couple is a church endorsement of their lifestyle.

If bishops in the past could eventually accept civil divorce as the law of the land, why can’t the current flock of bishops do the same for gay marriage? Granted all the publicity around the church’s opposition to gay marriage, no one would think they were endorsing it.

Reese goes on to say:

…Catholic colleges and universities that provide housing for married couples are undoubtedly going to be approached for housing by same-sex couples. Unless the schools can get states to carve out an exception for them in anti-discrimination legislation, they could be forced to provide such housing.

But since they already provide housing to couples married illicitly according to the church, no one should see such housing as an endorsement of someone’s lifestyle. And granted all the sex going on at Catholic colleges and universities, giving housing to a few gay people who have permanently committed themselves to each other in marriage would hardly be considered a great scandal.

The italics in these quotes are mine. Reese re-assures his peers that churches still have the right to express anti-gay views and to fire clergy for being gay, or for whatever reason they see fit.

I’m struck by all of that hang-wringing over whether or not an institution can be considered to be “endorsing” the lifestyles of anyone it does not actively condemn. In this, the church seems to have the mindset of a junior high school student who is afraid that if she is seen with the wrong people she will be judged uncool. It is generally taken to be a sign of maturity when you stop shunning those who you think might make you look bad and stop worrying about how other people might feel about your friends.

Putting that aside, there is a practical problem with this whole “endorsing” thing. What aspects of a person’s “lifestyle” warrant scrutiny? Look around you at the vast variety in the ways of life of your friends and associates. I am willing to bet that there are life choices that almost everyone makes that you would not personally “endorse” but then, who asked you?

If you wanted to play judge, though, I am sure you could find a Bible verse or several to support your distaste for your neighbor’s choices.

Should churches allow people with poor dietary habits and sedentary lifestyles to take part in services, even to serve as ministers? Does that constitute an endorsement of gluttony and poor health? Should the faithful refuse to serve obese members at the church potluck in order to demonstrate their disapproval of the lifestyle? Should pious business owners have the right to refuse to serve fat customers to preserve their religious freedom?

If you allow parents who are too strict or too lax with their children to take part in your religious education program would doing so constitute an endorsement of their parenting styles?

If you allow the church gossip (or gossips) to take part in coffee hour, are you endorsing gossip?

Is allowing a banker to be a prominent member of the church an endorsement of usury?

Incidentally, my book Broke is Beautiful recounts the story of the 19th Century Irish priest, Father Jeremiah O’Callaghan who gave many sermons against church’s tacit endorsement of usury and his outspokenness did not sit well with his superiors. While the church was not ready to reverse its stand that usury was a sin, it was too pragmatic to be comfortable with a priest who branded some of its most influential and prominent members as sinners. O’Callaghan was dismissed. He spent years protesting his firing and writing pamphlets about the sin of usury before eventually resettling to the United States.

I really could go on and on, but I won’t. My point is that if you only want to associate with those whose lifestyles you can fully and unquestionably endorse in every way, you’re destined to be very lonely indeed.

The Wrong Carlos

I have always had a great interest in stories of wrongful convictions. The judicial system presents one of the starkest examples of the power of narrative. In court two opposing sides use a handful of verifiable details to craft their own narratives explaining events. The more persuasive story wins and it becomes the officially sanctioned truth. The consequences of story-telling are never more pronounced, they can literally be a matter of life and death.

I recently read a book called The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution by James S. Liebman. It is the story of Carlos Deluna, whose “Some other guy named Carlos did it” murder defense seemed so absurd on its face that he was easily convicted and sent to his death for a crime… committed by some other guy named Carlos.

There was one particular detail in the story that stood out to me. The book quotes the Christian minister who accompanied DeLuna to the death chamber.

“My responsibility, according to the warden, was to be there in the Death House… when [the condemned prisoner] walked in. I was to be the face that he saw outside of the guards… [The warden’s] charge to me was, and these are his words, ‘to seduce their emotions so they won’t fight getting out of the cell or getting up on the table.'”

My Novel is Growing Obsolete- And I am Glad

Angel by Laura Lee A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier.  A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.

In only three years, the novel has become  a period piece.

Writing the final version of the book in 2009 and 2010 I described a mainstream church with a congregation divided on the question of whether or not to accept a gay pastor.  At this time, there was a widespread view that Christianity and homosexuality were simply in opposition.  In my depiction, I wanted to make it clear that this was not the case and Christians held a wide range of views.  At the time, I was trying to show, in essence, that churches were more progressive on this issue than many outsiders think they are. Two years after the book came out, reviews tell me that some readers are now seeing the church as more conservative than mainstream.

When I was writing, I drew on official church statements from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. By the time the book was in print, the Presbyterians had already changed their stance and were ordaining gay ministers.

While there were those who talked about the “controversial” nature of my book when it came out (one web site refused to run ads for it), I never felt as though it was all that controversial. By now, I feel as though its point of view is entirely mainstream.

I discovered something recently while searching through an old journal.  I have told the story many times of how I came to write Angel, how I was inspired by a trip to Mount Rainer and the question of why a man would leave the ministry for a career as a mountain tour guide. “Why did the minister go to the mountain?” was a regular writing prompt for years. I wanted to bring out all those themes of natural beauty, transcendence, and the impermanence of life in the shadow of a sleeping volcano. I knew what the heart of the conflict had to be– a minister had to fall out of step with his congregation. He would have some sort of change in his worldview.  I kept going back to what that change might be. Over the years I tried a number of different plots and nothing quite worked until I saw an image of a beautiful man, and meditated on my aesthetic response to his beauty.  That is when the idea hit me that my minister might do the same, and this might be the thing that would put him in conflict with his congregation. From that point the story flowed as if it had already been written and I just had to take dictation.

That is how I thought it had happened. But memory is not always a faithful recorder of events. Apparently my subconscious had been at work on the novel for some time when I had that eureka moment. When I looked back in my journal at my earliest ideas for the novel I was then calling “The Minister and the Mountain,” written in 2000 immediately after my return from Seattle, I discovered two things.  There was a draft of what is now the final scene in the book. It is quite similar to the final version. There was also my first idea of what the plot of the book should be. My very first idea for the central conflict had been that the minister would fall in love with another man. Why did I abandon that promising plot line and put it so far out of my mind that I forgot I’d ever thought of it? I don’t remember, and the journal doesn’t really say. The most likely explanation is that the idea scared me. It seemed too incendiary and I was not yet brave enough to tackle it. I ran away.

That was only 14 years ago, but it seems a world away.



On Being Condemned to Someone Else’s Hell

While we were on tour, a woman we know from our travels gave my Russian partner a gift, a copy of The Book of Mormon in the Russian language. He was confused by it. “I have my religion. I am Orthodox,” he said. He had not encountered evangelists before. Although Russia has large populations of different religions: Jewish, Muslim, Russian Orthodox, the religions are considered to be a part of cultural identity, not a lifestyle choice. So there are not a lot of people going around asking anyone to change.

I told him that when someone evangelizes to me, I try to take it this way: She has discovered something meaningful to her and she wants to share it with you. Accept it in that spirit.

Being a Unitarian Universalist born and bred, I fall into a category that Christians are especially prone to want to save. If you are not from one of the non-Christian biggies: Judiasm, Hinduism, Islam, you must not have a religion at all, and somehow you failed to get the memo on the whole Christianity thing.

Of course, UUs do have a religion, community and traditions of our own that we do not feel any particular need to be “saved” from. It’s an understandable mistake though. UUs often describe themselves as agnostic, a word that means “not knowing.”

I am firmly of the belief that 90% of the time when people call themselves “agnostic” it does not mean that they do not know what they believe, it means that they believe something that is not so easily summarized and they don’t want to get into a heavy conversation about it right now.

(As in, “Tell me what you mean by the word ‘God’ and I’ll tell you if I believe in that or not” or “Why are you assuming that belief or non-belief in God is the central spiritual question?”)

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood before moving to a smallish Ohio town with a mostly Evangelical population. I had many friends who felt they had a duty to save me. Surrounded by Christians, it was the only time in my life when I have felt so harshly judged. One of the stand-out moments was when a neighbor told a friend of mine that she would never have me babysit for her children because I was not Christian, as if “not Christian” were some kind of contagious disease.One evening, she must have been desperate because she called and asked if I would watch the kids. She instructed me that when I put them to bed I should say a prayer with them and sing “Jesus loves me.” I had no problem with that. When I told my friend, who also sat for them, about it later she said, “They never have me do that.”

Another stand-out moment was when I mentioned to a friend’s mother that I did not like hot dogs and she gave me a 10 minute lecture about how when the Rapture came I would have to eat whatever there was, so I had better get used to it. Then she put a plate of hot dogs down in front of me.

For many years after this experience, any time I saw a picture of Jesus, a cross or a Bible verse on someone’s wall, it seemed to scream at me: “You are an outsider. You are not one of us. You are not welcome. We know you are dangerous and immoral. We think we’re better than you.”

I was hardly devil spawn, just a shy, bookish kid.

It is a shame that I developed this aversion. For the past few years I have become fascinated with the New Testament. It took many years before I could stop feeling a bit threatened by the Christian text and fully claim that interest as my own.

It’s a strange thing being damned to someone else’s Hell.

As I recently explained to a Baptist friend of mine, Universalists (that’s the second U in UU) believe in universal salvation. That’s where the word comes from. It’s a contradiction for a Universalist to be afraid of Hell.

My friend was shocked by this because she’d been fairly certain that both of the Us in UU stood for “Believe whatever you want.”

In any case, when someone condemns you to a Hell you don’t believe in, it tells you much more about the person doing the damning than it does about the future of your immortal soul.  If a Christian friend admits that she thinks I will go to Hell after I die, it is not a big problem because that’s not a reality for me. But it does hurt my feelings that she would be fine with the idea that I would spend all of eternity enduring the most foul and painful torture she could imagine for the sin of failing to hold the same opinion she does.

(There was an odd moment in Inside Man on CNN the other night in which Morgan Spurlock quizzed a mega-church pastor on the idea that non-Christians were damned. Spurlock asked the pastor whether Gandhi was in Heaven or Hell. This is a non-sequitur when speaking about a Hindu whose cosmology is based on and endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.)

Not being Christian, a friend once assured me, “doesn’t make you a bad person.”

Why on Earth would I think it did? If I thought what I believed made me a bad person I would believe something else.

(I was reading the first Epistle of Peter the other day and it struck me that Peter’s community was responding to just such a situation. The Gentiles mistrusted these strange Jesus worshippers. “How do we know you’re moral if you don’t worship our gods or join in our rituals?” Peter’s response was that they had to be the most moral, upstanding people around so no one could have any doubt. It is a position modern Christians rarely find themselves in any more.)

This was the confusing message I got from a lot of my Christian friends growing up, “I think you’re a good person. I love you. And you’re going to burn in Hell.”

Although I love the Bible and think it’s important for a lot of reasons, I do not take it as literal, infallible or as a divine instruction manual for life. I don’t think it works all that well when you try to read it as a rule book. What is the moral of the story of Lot and his wife supposed to be?  There are a lot of people who consider themselves to be Christians who agree with this notion.

A Christian friend who does not recently asked me “How can you know right from wrong if you don’t follow the Bible?”

I knew better than to go into the rather long history of people using the Bible itself as justification for all manner of foul deeds. I didn’t even want to get into the “how to interpret the book” discussion. Instead I asked this: “Are you saying that if it weren’t for the ten commandments, you would not know not to kill people?”

I was a bit shocked when she said, “Yes.”

I said something like, “Really? Huh.”  What I was thinking was, “I hope you never convert, then.”

I can’t agree that Christians have cornered the market on wisdom and morality and that only their book contains the true rules for life.

I do not think all religions are essentially one in different forms, but I do believe that they point to universals. Can you imagine a religion that made a virtue of non-compassion over compassion or a lack of love over love?

Here’s the thing, in my experience the big moral problem is not actually that people don’t know right from wrong. The problem is that they do know and they fail to do it anyway.

All the Single Ladies

I was flipping through the channels today and I happened upon a segment on MSNBC’s Up with Steve Kornacki. The discussion this morning was about the gender gap in Republican and Democratic voting. There has been a lot of commentary about the advantage Democratic candidates have had among female voters, but the voting differences emerge, Kornacki said, when you compare the voting habits of single women to married women.  Single women are more likely to vote for democrats, while married women are more likely to vote republican. Kornacki asked his panel why this should be. I have a theory on this, and it has to do with how we define “family values,” an idea more associated with the Republican than the Democratic party.

I was reluctant to use this as the topic of a blog post, because I am much more interested in talking about cultural assumptions than politics. In this case, however, the political question points to a deeper cultural one.

People talk a lot about conservative stances on same sex marriage– which are rapidly changing– but what gets much less discussion is the notion, inherent to almost all “family values” discussion that singleness should be discouraged and that only married life with children is a legitimate (and moral) living arrangement.

Robert A. Moffitt, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University, recently released the results of a study on government spending on social programs to alleviate poverty. What he found was that although the United States is spending more on welfare than ever before, most of that money is going to better-off families rather than the very poorest.  There was the marked shift away from those earning the least money, as little as 50 percent of the federal poverty line, to those with incomes as much as 200 percent above the poverty line.

“Overall, Moffitt discovered a distinct trend of welfare benefits going to those who are regarded as ‘deserving’ of support.  More directly put, the government and voters prefer that aid go to those who work, who are married and who have kids.”

Being single means you are less deserving.

And let’s be clear: this is a greater problem for women than men. When a marriage fails, the woman is more likely to be plunged into the ranks of the “undeserving” because the overall economic quality of a man’s life, based on earnings and amount spent on living expenses, increases after his divorce. He continues to earn more but bears fewer family expenses. The overall economic quality of a woman’s life, post-divorce, decreases. So the stigma and consequences of a marital failure are inevitably felt more by the ex-wife. Even though the man benefits financially from non-marriage and the woman is harmed financially by non-marriage it is the woman who has to deal with most of the stigma.

A couple of years ago, I recall seeing this video by an evangelical professor Matt Jensen called “Reflections for Singles and Those Struggling with Homosexuality.”

The novel Angel had recently come out, and I was reading and watching a lot of material on how Christians were responding to social change around homosexuality. While I would not, myself, use language like “struggling with” to describe same sex attraction, the video has a positive message about the church welcoming homosexuals as part of the Christian family.

But that was not why this video made an impression on me. What really struck me was what Jenson had to say about the first part of that title. “Reflections for Singles.” Jenson, in this presentation, speaks as a single man about how he was often made to feel like an outsider in his own religion, which places such a high value on married life to the point that the image of a certain form of family has become almost a form of idolatry. This image, is, incidentally non-biblical. (Which does not make it a bad model.) Jesus says to leave your family and follow him, an instruction that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Jenson spent some time in contemplation, trying to come to a positive understanding of what Jesus was trying to say with that command. His conclusion:

“The church is right to tell me the Good News and call me to a life of discipleship as a single man if and only if it is willing to live as my family. Conversely, if the church is not willing to be a family to me as a single man it has no business telling me the Gospel.”

It’s easy to see why the focus on the family would become so central to Christianity. It is based on a positive value that is entirely uncontroversial, unlike so much of what Jesus had to say. No one can be against the notion of providing a secure home for your children, making them your priority, and trying to raise them to be good people.

Our notion of “family” in America is based on a pair of spouses and their children.  We’ve rightly focused a lot of attention in the past few years to the way LGBT people were left out of this vision of acceptable households, and our society is changing in that regard. Yet the notion of singleness as a problem remains.

Our national discourse sets up a false choice for divorced women. Marriage or welfare.  We talk about  the tragedy of the high rate of divorce rather than thinking about whether we need to create different social support structures for people who have different family configurations. The only alternative to marriage is usually imagined as promiscuity. Yet there are any manner of constructive ways people could live in supportive environments besides marriage.

We do not, for example, promote living in an  extended family of cousins and aunts and grandparents, where all share in the responsibility of family well-being. Nor do we prefer a model where members of a village or tribe are expected to take part in raising all of the children. We don’t encourage inter-generational homes– either the older or younger generation in such an arrangement is thought to be dependent on the other in a way that is a bit unfair and not as healthy as the way spouses lean on each other. In most of our discourse, if you are mutually reliant on anyone besides a spouse you are immature, dependent, selfish.

Shouldn’t we at least have the discussion?  Should your security in society–especially as a woman–be based on your success at romance? Is that really the ideal model?

If you ever have the idea that women are frivolous when they read advice columns in Cosmo and compare fashion and cosmetics, go back to the previous question.

The notion that some people will not marry and have children, or will not be successful in marriage, is often described as “the breakdown of the family.” It is assumed to be something new, a response to modern life. Yet the ways we have lived together have shifted and changed constantly throughout history. I recently read a fact in a book on Shakespeare that surprised me. In Elizabethan times, it said, a surprising one in five people  did not have children at all. (Humankind survived.)

There is no one who is against “family.” There is no one who is against people living in supportive environments. There is no one who is against prioritizing the well-being of children.

When we talk about “family values,” we should be sure that we are not excluding entire segments of society and labeling them as a problem.






When I was a girl I was a Monkees fan. I remember a scene in an episode in which Davy Jones, dressed as Paul Revere, held up his lantern and shouted “The British are coming! The British are coming!”

To which Micky Dolenz replied, “Davy, you are the British.”

I was thinking about that the other night when I saw a clip on The Daily Show, which featured a bunch of back to back clips of Fox News hosts complaining about “the mainstream media.”

Fox consistently receives the highest ratings of any news network in America.

I have an interest in how language is used. This confuses me.

They have to be using a different definition of “mainstream” than most of us do.  As the MacMillian Dictionary defines it: “considered ordinary or normal and accepted or used by most people.”

To be clear, I am not talking about “conservatives” here or “Republicans.” What I am talking about is a particular odd stance in which a person or organization that, in fact, is mainstream–in the majority– claims outsider status, even to the point of believing themselves to be a persecuted minority.  Although many who adopt this posture also call themselves conservatives, it doesn’t follow that conservatives as a group are of this mindset.

I came across another example of mainstream confusion about a month ago when a friend posted a video of an interview with the pop star and activist Bono. In it, Bono talked about his Christian faith. He said that he believed Jesus was divine. His reasoning was that in the Bible Jesus claims to be the son of God. Thus there were only two options, either he was a madman or he was telling the truth and Bono, as a Christian, could not believe that people for hundreds of years would be moved by a madman. There is nothing that I see in this that is remotely controversial. Stating that Jesus was the son of God is nothing more than a definition of Christianity. His reasoning takes a page right out of C.S. Lewis.

Yet my friend’s comment on the post called him brave for his bold stance. She wrote something to the effect that it was great to hear someone speaking about his faith without fear.

Why should he be afraid? There was a time when Christians were thrown to the lions, but this is certainly not the case today.

According to the Pew Research Center, 2.2 billion people– 32% of the world’s population– call themselves Christians. It is the largest religious group in the world. Most Christians (87%) live in countries where Christians are in the majority. In North America, 77% of the population is Christian. It is hard to imagine anyone taking a serious run for the U.S. presidency without affirming that he or she is Christian. In Europe 75% of the population is Christian. So for someone from Europe, as Bono is, to state that he thinks Jesus was divine, seems anything but dangerous. It is, in a word, mainstream.

This is not the first time that I have encountered a post in my Facebook stream from a friend who felt that Christians were somehow outsiders. Why is that?

“Davy, you are the British.”






“A Good Person”

ImageWhat does it mean to be a “good person?” What drive is it that makes us want to be “good people?”

Yesterday, I wanted to read a bit more about this notion of the “good person.”

When I typed “good person” into Google most of the top references were in some way related to Christianity.

This implies that people become Christians, at least in part, for some sort of reassurance that they are “good people.”

But what is a “good person?” How does being a “good person” compare to being “an honorable person?”

Both can be thought of as people who do right– but there are subtle differences between the two.

In older times people were more apt to speak about being a person of honor than a “good person.” Honor derives from what a person does, his actions in the world. Being “good” is more of a personal quality. It is who you are, not what you do. A person can behave honorably or dishonorably regardless of his personal qualities. In terms of how these expressions “feel,” being honorable is attached to righteousness while being “good” is attached to innocence or purity.

I imagine the angel representing the “honorable person” looking like this:


And the angel of the “good person” looking like this:

ImageThere are plusses and minuses in each of these conceptions of moral identity.  One of the positives about “the good person” is that goodness is portable. That is to say that the good person’s sense of morality is internal and it is thought to be consistent regardless of changing external circumstances. If a nation is engaged in an immoral war, for example, the good person should follow his conscience rather than the will of the crowd even if it seems more honorable in the moment to be a war hero.

Honor is dependent on other people’s praise or scorn. To be honorable is to be aligned with what society considers moral. You can, as the heroes of the Iliad did, engage in all manner of brute violence and slaughter and still be praised for honor.

On the other hand, the “good person” model is passive. To achieve honor you have to do something. You can be a “good person” while sitting on your couch watching TV. It is nice if a good person does good things, but what matters in the good person model is not so much the actions as the quality of the person.

(It would be interesting to know if anyone has done a study to see whether forms of Christianity that are more focused on belief and faith use more “good person” language than those that are more focused on social justice issues.)

There is some evidence that seems to suggest aiming to be a “good person” might make people feel less able to make a difference in the world. Studies of children, for example, have shown that those who receive “person praise”– that is praise of their personal qualities as opposed to their action–develop a notion they have a stable, trait-like ability. “I am a good artist.” When they subsequently encounter feedback that challenges this notion of self they suffer a loss of morale and are more likely to give up on the task all together. “Oh, I guess I’m not a good artist after all. I guess I shouldn’t try.” On the other hand, children who are given process praise– that is praise for their specific actions– responded better to the criticism, and came up with ways to fix their mistakes. “I did a good job drawing the first time, but not as well the second, so let’s see how I can improve…”

It is probably no accident that the image of the angel was transformed from a male warrior to a cherubic female as our framework shifted from the “honorable person” to the “good person.” Men are more likely to receive process praise. Women are more likely to be praised for what are seen to be personal qualities. Thus we still have “men of honor” in the military and the image of the “good person” is represented by a passive female or a child.

It seems to follow, then, that praising people for being “good” would make people doubt their sense of self when confronted with their own misdeeds. Once a person has given up on being a saint and embraced the notion of being a sinner, there is not as much of a press to change one’s ways.

Whereas in a more instrumental model, the “process praise” of honor or dishonor, a person might do the right thing and then do the wrong without having to assume doing wrong one time means he is “bad” rather that he can learn to act more honorably.

As I wrote in an article last October:

The idea that we have one nature– good or bad– leads us to all kinds of crazy behavior in order to bolster and preserve our images of ourselves as the “good people” we want ourselves to be.  The things we do to preserve our self-esteem are not always the healthiest for society…There is no great moral value in  feeling good about yourself when you have done a wrong…

In a culture that attributes most behaviors to inner qualities and makes them one’s unchanging identity, the stakes are very high to think of yourself as a good person and to get to work explaining away your misdeeds…

So do those in a “good person” framework behave more ethically than those in an “honor” framework or vice versa? It’s hard to say. I suspect the truth is that neither model makes a person moral. That people, in general, want to do the right thing and not the wrong thing and that they have always slipped up from time to time and always will. They’ll get up, brush themselves off, and try again.


Incompatible with Christian Teaching

Angel by Laura LeeIn the novel Angel, minister Paul Tobit is forced to confront his church doctrine and his role in the community when he realizes he is falling in love with a young man.  While I purposely do not identify Paul’s denomination, the official position of the fictional church hierarchy, including some of its language, was mostly based on the United Methodist Church.  (I wrote an article about this process back in March.)  The UMC’s official policy is not to exclude LGBT people from worship, but not to allow homosexuals in the ministry or to perform gay weddings because it is, in the words of the Book of Discipline, “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

So I have followed the continued conflicts over this issue within the UMC with some interest. This week Retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert performed a same sex wedding at his church in Alabama.

“We as the church have the privilege of inviting people to come to God’s table, but we do not say which ones can and which ones can’t,” Bishop Talbert told “They are all created in the image of God. They all have a place at God’s table. They should not be excluded.” had an in-depth article by Greg Garrison about whether these types of actions will change the UMC.  I was interested to learn more about church politics from this article. It turns out the international reach of the UMC may make it slower than other denominations to embrace change on this issue.  UMC membership in the U.S. has been on the decline, but world wide, especially in Africa it has grown. So members from Africa have an increasingly strong voice in General Conference debates.  Even if the voices in favor of social change here in America get louder, they increasingly have to shout to be heard over their international peers. The African delegation alone, the article says, will have about 40 percent of the delegates at the next UMC General Conference.  This makes the denomination that I chose as most representative fairly unique.

Without the church’s growing global membership, the United Methodists would Very likely have taken a turn towards acceptance of gay marriage, like several other mainline Protestant denominations, Tooley said. The United Methodists are shrinking in America, but growing elsewhere, with 12 million members worldwide…

While the number of United Methodists in Africa grows by about 250,000 members a year, the number of U.S. United Methodists shrinks every year, by more than 50,000.

At the 2012 General Conference there were 300 delegates from Africa. The General Conference usually has about 850 voting delegates, split between lay members and clergy, who decide church policy. Representation from outside the United States will likely make up half the delegates in 2016.

So while gay rights activists and lobbying groups have achieved major successes in the Episcopal Church, the UCC, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA), it’s not likely to happen in the United Methodist Church…

In my Facebook feed today was a post from Faithful America, a group dedicated to “putting faith into action for social justice.” They have started a petition asking the UMC not to prosecute ministers who perform same sex weddings.  It looks as though they have gathered about 15,000 signatures at the time of this writing.  It will be interesting to see how this schism in the UMC plays out in the coming years.