Religion

Just Like a Prayer?

AP Photo/Kevin Wolf

In 1999, when John Auburger was elected supervisor of the Town of Greece, he decided to introduce a change of policy. Instead of opening the Rochester, New York suburb’s monthly town board meetings with a moment of silence, Auburger invited a rotating slate of local religious leaders to give an invocation. For the following nine years, every chaplain who delivered the opening prayer was a Christian. In February 2008, two Greece residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, sued the town, arguing that the prayers violated the First Amendment by endorsing Christianity.

On November 6, the case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, will go before the Supreme Court. It’s the first time in three decades that the Court has taken up a case on legislative prayer. In Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 case that tackled the constitutionality of prayer before legislative sessions, the Court upheld the practice of using taxpayer funds to pay state chaplains.

Values Voter 2013: War, War, Everywhere, and Not a Stop to Think

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

When Senator Rand Paul took the stage at last weekend's Values Voter Summit, it was clear he needed to up the stakes. Alongside a handful of other 2016 presidential contenders, Paul was auditioning for the far-right’s support in a speech to the annual conference of Christian conservatives hosted by the Family Research Council at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. Making his task far more difficult was that fact that one of his rivals had just hit a home run.

Blurred Lines at the Border

AP Images/Matt Rourke

Last year, during the height of the “religious freedom” fracas over the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraception-coverage requirement, three Catholic laywomen made the church’s case to an audience at the Catholic Information Center (CIC) in downtown Washington, D.C. Housed in an unassuming bookstore on K Street and operated by the controversial Opus Dei order, the CIC claims to cater to the spiritual needs of Washington’s political elites with daily mass as well as lectures and panels featuring prominent conservative pundits and activists. The “Women for Freedom” panel aimed to teach lay Catholics to “convince rather than antagonize” the public about the church’s stances on divisive issues, and, in the words of one panelist, “share and show love.”

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Pray

AP Images/Jacksonville Journal-Courier/Robert Leistra

Tim Tebow won’t be praying on the football field this fall after being repeatedly cut from NFL teams, but it’s proving more difficult to take religion out of high school games. Despite a string of Supreme Court precedent prohibiting prayer at any school-related activity, every football season, a handful of schools come under fire for permitting students to offer prayers over the loudspeaker before the kick-off or allowing coaches to pray with their teams.

Rise of the “Nones”

America’s rapidly changing religious landscape

AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan, Thomas Barker

In the two years leading up to his death this past February, the legal and political philosopher Ronald Dworkin was completing a slim volume with a weighty title. Religion without God, which began as a series of lectures in 2011, set a lofty goal: to propose a “religious attitude” in the absence of belief. Dworkin’s objective was not just theological. The book, he hoped, would help lower the temperature in the past decade’s battle between a group of scientists and philosophers dubbed the New Atheists and an array of critics who have accused them of everything from Islamophobia to fundamentalism to heresy.

A New Plot to Change the Pledge

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Last week, as children across the country returned to school and struggled to remember the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, the Massachusetts Supreme Court was considering whether to make it easier for them by removing “under God.”

This might seem like déjà-vu. Church-State separationists have been trying to pry “under God” out of the Pledge since Congress inserted the phrase in 1954—more than a decade after it was adopted. But the case filed by the American Humanist Association (AHA), which is representing an atheist family from suburban Massachusetts, may be different. Rather than contesting the language in federal court—where any challenge is likely to come up against an unsympathetic Supreme Court—lawyers have opted to sue in state court. The legal angle is also new. Traditionally, lawsuits challenging the “under God” in the Pledge have hinged on concerns over the separation of Church and State. But lawyers in the Massachusetts case are charging that the practice violates the state’s Equal Rights Amendment, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religious creed. The Pledge, advocates say, ostracizes nonbelievers by linking patriotism to belief in God. “Children every morning are pledging their national unity and loyalty in an indoctrinational format, validating religious God belief as truly patriotic and invalidating atheism as second-class citizenry at best, unpatriotic at worst,” David Niose, former president of the AHA and lead counsel on the case, told the court.

Back to the Future in Egypt

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

It’s too soon to say whether the Egyptian coup that overthrew the elected government of Islamist Mohamed Morsi—and the ensuing crackdown that has now killed more than a thousand people—has squashed any chance for democratic reform in Egypt. I think it’s safe to say that its short-term prognosis is grim.

What seems clear, however, is that the Egyptian military crackdown has ended talk of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” At the very least, it has revealed that many of its supporters weren’t that serious about it to begin with.

The End of the Evangelical Era

GOP presidential hopefuls are still kissing the rings of Christian conservative leaders in Iowa. But it's an increasingly empty ritual.

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

This past Saturday, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz, two of the many candidates whose names are being bandied about for the 2016 presidential race, made a pilgrimage to Iowa to speak at the Family Leadership Summit. There, as part of a nine-hour marathon of speeches to an audience of 1,500 evangelical Christians, Cruz and Santorum joined a host of conservative politicians and public figures—including Donald Trump, that standard-bearer of wingnuttery—in lambasting Obamacare, the Internal Revenue Service, and the GOP establishment. Pastor Rafael Cruz, father of Senator Cruz, spoke vividly and at length about liberals’ attempts to turn the country into a socialist paradise. “Socialism requires that government becomes your god,” he said. “That’s why they have to destroy the concept of God. They have to destroy all loyalties except loyalty to government. That’s what’s behind homosexual marriage.”

God Was My Freshman Roommate

flickr/Illinois Springfield

Later this week, Troy University, located 50 miles south of Montgomery, Alabama, will open its first-ever faith-based dormitory. The brand-new building—which cost $11.8 million—will house nearly 400 students, and is already at the center of a debate about whether faith-based dorms represent a violation of the separation of church and state at a public university.

To live in the dorm, students must maintain “an active spiritual lifestyle and maintain an active engagement in a campus faith based organization.” Maintaining a GPA of at least 2.5, refraining from drug and alcohol use, and participating in community service projects are also requirements for living in the cushy new quarters. The building will also include a Catholic ministry—which is being leased to the nearby Catholic archdiocese of Mobile by the university—a chapel, and an office for a local priest. Three Catholic and three Baptist residential assistants will live in the dormitory with the students.

Pray the Atheists Away

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Earlier this week, two Democratic representatives felt the sting of the old adage, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Earlier this summer, Colorado representative Jared Polis and New Jersey representative Robert Andrews tried to push through an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act—a large defense budget bill—that would allow the Department of Defense to add nonreligious chaplains to the ranks of the military. Not only did the amendment fail, its opponents were so incensed that they introduced their own amendment, requiring any chaplain appointed to the military to be sponsored by an “endorsing agency,” all of which are religious. The new measure passed resoundingly, 253 to 173.

More Than a Hobby

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

The Religious Right's Terms of Surrender

Rachel Ensign/Twitter

Last week's Supreme Court rulings striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and denying standing to California's Proposition 8 supporters have brought out the usual clown show of conservative religious leaders proclaiming the end of days. It's the standard stuff from the activist right: Here comes pedophilia, incest, polygamy, and bestiality. Christian florists will be dragged to jail for refusing to cater a same-sex wedding. School children will now be forced to simulate lesbian sex with their Barbies. Stirred to action by the decision, the Christian right has vowed to resist the spread of same-sex marriage nationwide, using civil disobedience if necessary. There's even talk of reviving the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would amend the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Rand Paul Plays God Politics

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

As Sen. Rand Paul delivered his keynote speech on immigration reform at yesterday's gathering of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, anxieties about the GOP’s identity crisis rippled through the room. The likely 2016 presidential hopeful spoke briefly in Spanish before discussing his Christian faith and opposition to abortion. He assured his audience he got them: “Man’s humanity to man is how we will be judged,” he said.

Atheists in Tornadoes and Foxholes

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

If you've watched the endless interviews with survivors of natural disasters, you may have noticed that the news media representatives, faced with someone who may be too shocked or nervous before the cameras to offer sufficiently compelling testimony, often do some gentle prompting. "When you saw your home destroyed, were you just devastated?" "You've never seen anything like this before, have you?" "Your whole life changed in that moment, didn't it?" Not everyone who survived a disaster is YouTube clip-ready, so some need to be coached. There was one such interview after the tornado ran through Moore, Oklahoma that got some attention. Interviewing a woman as they stood before the tangled pile of debris that used to be her home and discussed her family's narrow escape, CNN's Wolf Blitzer said, "You guys did a great job. I guess you got to thank the Lord. Right?" When she hesitated, Blitzer pressed on. "Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?" She paused for a moment before responding, "I'm actually an atheist." Awkward laughs ensued.

Blitzer's assumption was understandable; most Americans profess a faith in God, and there is an awful lot of Lord-thanking after a natural disaster. Atheists find this puzzling, to say the least; if God deserves your thanks and praise for being so merciful as to allow you to live through the tornado, maybe He could have been kind enough not to destroy your home and kill 24 of your neighbors in the first place. But at times of crisis, everyone looks for comfort where they can find it.

Government Oppression of Religious People Continues With National Day of Prayer

Flickr/C Jill Reed

One summer when I was in college, I worked for a tiny lobbying firm, most of whose clients were disease-related. If the firm wasn't able to get you increased funding for research into your disease, at the very least it could get a friendly member of Congress to introduce a proclamation about it. Framed on the office walls were documents declaring the first week in June to be Copious Earwax Awareness Week or November to be Toenail Fungus Month.

The government declares lots of national days of this and weeks of that, most of which go unnoticed. Today, however, is the National Day of Prayer, in which, that pesky establishment clause notwithstanding, the federal government encourages you to get down on your knees and implore your deity to deliver whatever you happen to lack, or to be merciful toward those he might otherwise smite. Don't confuse it with the National Prayer Breakfast; that's an entirely separate national prayer event. Here's Barack Obama's proclamation of the day, though beyond that I don't think the government is actually doing much to honor it. That slack is picked up by the quasi-official National Day of Prayer Task Force, a decidedly evangelical Christian group chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson. This year's honorary chair is California megachurch pastor Greg Laurie, whose participation led to protests from gay rights groups unhappy with Laurie's particular view of sin and sexuality. Laurie will be leading prayer events on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon today. The theme of this year's events is "Pray for America," the message being that everything is pretty much going to hell (so to speak) in our country, and the only thing that can get us back on the right track is Jesus.

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