“Scoring” at church?

MadonnaCemeteryI am not a frequent reader of the magazine Maxim, but it did carry a rather humorous article on how to “score in church.” While the article is quite crude in its advice and I would not encourage anyone to try “this at home,” or at church for that matter, it is an interesting look at how a different worldview sees Christianity and the American church scene.

The excellent Indiana-based blog In the Agora first tipped me off to the article, with writer David Darlington stating that the article was “creepy and funny at the same time.” I agree on both accounts:

1. Find Your Faith
Macking in a holy place is easier than almost anywhere else — the good girls never see it coming. Plus, “every girl wants to tell her father she met her boyfriend at church and not at a bar,” says God-fearing cutie Erin Howard, 25. Look for progressive sanctuaries that offer “contemporary” services (to attract a younger, hipper crowd) and coffee hours (so you can actually talk, as opposed to just ogling from afar).

2. Enter the Kingdom
Scope out the finest churchgoer, then snag the pew in front of her. You won’t appear too eager, yet you can make eye contact easily — and shake her hand if there’s a “sharing of the peace.” Avoid making moves mid-service. “You’re in a place of bloody worship; you have to be respectful,” notes Tracey Cox, author of Superdate. Instead, listen to the sermon, which’ll give you plenty to talk about later.

3. Get Religion
Despite the communion wine, forget your sloppy bar tactics. After the service, just introduce yourself and act genuinely curious about the church. Say, “I’m new here. Are you a regular?” This’ll transition to the coffee hour, where you can quiz her about the service and how she ended up there. If all else fails, say something about looking for a higher meaning in life. She may make it her goal to “convert” you.

4. Reach the Promised Land
At this point patience is key. “A lot of repressed religious girls are damn hot in bed,” notes Cox. “But you’re not getting a quick shag here.” Provided she’s sending positive signals (e.g., laughing, smiling, not making the sign of the cross), simply tell her you’d love to meet up, outside of church, and ask for her digits. And no matter where it goes from there, try to think like the Browns do: There’s always next Sunday!

If you attend a church that is largely made up of singles like mine is, reading this article can be quite a downer on first thought. The likely motivations of many of the young people attending church these days is probably not the most pure.

But then deeper thoughts hit me and I realize that the premise of this article — attending church in an attempt to “score” as if one is at a bar or a nightclub — is quite ridiculous. That said, this is Maxim and it’s not exactly known for great insights on how to live life. People have been attending religious services for the purpose of finding their life partner for centuries (see here for how the Mormons handle their single population).

Females, last time I checked, do not attend church with any notion of being “scored” on, and those females foolish enough to fall for even the smoothest of the smooth, well, I don’t know what to say. Sure there is a darker side of the church singles scene, in that some people do attend church with the primary motivation being the opportunity to meet singles of the opposite sex, but Maxim has not caught up on anything earth-shattering or even legitimate.

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An evangelist visits the Naval Academy

usnavalI ran into a minister the other day over at the Naval Academy, a man I’ve known for about 10 years. He was leading a really interesting project, one directly linked to a topic that comes up often on this blog — offensive free speech.

His goal, along with about 50 of his friends, was to do some one-on-one evangelism on the campus, attempting to win friends and influence people. In some cases, he even hoped he could convince people to change their religious beliefs and join his cause.

More than anything else, he hoped to change the hearts and minds of the leaders of the institution so that the leaders could then help change the hearts and generations of midshipmen to come.

It was, pure and simple, a case of religious activists offering a public witness for their faith and their own beliefs, hoping they could win some converts.

At first, academy officials planned to have this evangelist and his followers arrested if they entered the academy grounds and attempted offensive speech with visitors, staff, faculty and the students. After all, the activists were asking for changes in military policies. They were pushing the envelope.

No, this evangelist was not linked to the dangerous work of people like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell — although he worked for both of those men a decade or so ago.

This was the Rev. Mel White, once an evangelical superstar and now one of the nation’s most articulate gay-rights leaders. He had come to the academy with about 50 other gay-rights activists to try to convince campus leaders to reject the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies that require gays, lesbians and bisexuals to be silent about their beliefs and sexual orientation. This was one of the Equality Ride protests organized by Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, Va. The main organizer of this rally was Jacob Reitan.

The Washington Post led the rather low-key media stampede that surrounded the event, producing some nice quiet photo opportunities during the misty day before a football weekend on the Annapolis campus. Here is a lengthy chunk of reporter Ray Rivera’s main report:

The protesters wore bright pastel t-shirts printed with the words, “Equality Ride,” which organizers have dubbed the roving protest. The Naval Academy was the second stop in what organizers hope will be a nationwide bus tour to visit college campuses where homosexuality is either prohibited or discouraged.The rally began with a few tense moments. The protesters, mostly students from the Washington area, held hands forming a line along the brick wall outside the academy’s main gate. After a brief news conference, they walked single file through the gate. Reitan was first and, met by two Marine guards, he gave his name and showed his driver’s license. …

(After) a few moments of discussion at the gate today, the guards let Reitan and the rest through. A horde of television cameras and reporters followed close behind. Academy officials insist they did not back down from the arrest threat but that organizers agreed to their terms.

“They came to the gate, they were asked what their intention was and they said they were there as private citizens, and that’s when the decision was made to the let them aboard,” said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, an academy spokesman.

I ran into White later, while he was working the crowds in the academy visitor’s center and bookstore. He was glad that officials backed down and let people talk. He was very pleased with the heavy media turnout, of course.

At some point, government officials have to realize that people have a right to talk to one another and even to argue and disagree, he said. This doesn’t mean that people — on the right or the left — need to be loud or rude. If you start talking to someone about religion and they don’t want to talk, then you just say, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you” and walk away, said White.

“It’s like all the people who want to censor television,” he said. “You keep trying to tell people like that, ‘Don’t censor us. Just change the channel.’ That’s what this is all about, too. We just want to talk to people and let them know what we think. What’s so scary about that?”

Precisely. The problem, of course, is that one person’s free speech is another’s evangelism or even worse — proselytizing. This is why it’s hard to write speech codes without affecting the left as well as the right.navy chapel int

Rather than talk about something really dangerous — like sex (the Naval Academy) or salvation (the Air Force Academy) — let’s look at another issue. Consider this a parable.

Let’s say some people in authority at a military academy, like teachers or deans, decide to use their clout to change hearts and minds about the environment. Let’s say they show movies about the environment and use standard academy media, bulletin boards and email to publicize the films. Let’s say that, on their own time, they organize meetings — with equal standing to other voluntary assemblies on campus — to discuss environmental issues. Let’s even say that they talk with students about environmental issues and urge students to talk with one another. Perhaps, when students express interest, they even urge students to change their beliefs about environmental issues.

So far so good. Right?

But let’s say that these officials go further and require students to attend these sessions. Let’s say they test students to make sure they have the right beliefs. Let’s say that they even push students to talk during off hours on campus and refuse to back away when students decline to dialogue.

That would be wrong. Right? You bet it would. That kind of behavior is bad — on the left or the right. I would even say it’s wrong in newsrooms.

But what is wrong with talking? What is wrong with free speech and debates about public issues? What’s wrong with people changing their minds on topics, after debates and dialogues in which they are free to take part or to walk away?

I’m glad that White and his associates were allowed to visit the Naval Academy. I don’t think it would have hurt for them to talk to students, if the students had the freedom to walk away. Soulforce teams are planning to visit a number of Christian college campuses later this year. I hope that honest conversations and forums can be held during those visits, without people on either side turning things into tense media events. I hope the press quotes people on both sides accurately.

Free speech is a messy thing and so is religious liberty. But it beats all the other alternatives.

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Coven and state clash, yet again

ALTAR2Maybe it’s just my church-state studies background, but this case about Wicca and public prayer strikes me as a major story and a sign of things to come. We may have heard the last of a witch named Cynthia Simpson at the U.S. Supreme Court, but the splintering of the old Judeo-Christian (and now Islamic) civil religion will continue. Here’s the lead from the Richmond Times-Dispatch story, the only MSM coverage that really mattered.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal yesterday from the Wiccan priestess who was excluded from giving the opening prayer at meetings of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors. Cynthia Simpson, who calls herself a witch as do others of the Wiccan faith, sued because the county limits its list of clergy invited to pray at meetings to those of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions.

And I loved this final detail:

Simpson is now studying for a master’s degree in divinity at a Pennsylvania seminary and hopes to be ordained in the Unitarian Universalist Church. She said that church’s beliefs are compatible with the Wiccan faith, which is based on unity with the Earth and the idea that humanity and all things are part of the deity.

A note to newcomers on the religion beat — I heard about this case (more than once, in fact) through journalists operating on the Baptist left. If you care about religious liberties issues, it pays to read Associated Baptist Press on the left and Baptist Press on the right.

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Malcolm Gladwell on Intelligent Design

TimeOct24This week’s issue of Time features a wide-ranging discussion that links to its cover theme of “What’s Next?” The participants, identified by Time as “some of the smartest people we know,” include author Malcolm Gladwell, techie lecturer Clay Shirky, New York Times columnist David Brooks and author Esther Dyson.

On the opening page of this discussion, above a photo of Gladwell, comes this teasing callout: “In the future, we’re not going to have the kinds of arguments about religion that we have today.” Well, that certainly grabs the attention of people who enjoy arguing about religion (and I happily count myself among them).

Gladwell’s broader context appears on the final page of the feature, under the subtitle — wait for it — “Getting Religion.” (OK, folks, we enjoyed the phrase enough to choose it as the name of our blog, but please don’t overdo it.)

Gladwell gets the segment rolling with a reference to how evangelicals are adapting to the surrounding culture, and suddenly the panel is discussing Intelligent Design, creationism, designer babies, Down syndrome babies, abortion — in short, many of this blog’s hobby horses.

Here is the spirited exchange:

GLADWELL: One of the big trends in American society is the transformation of the evangelical movement and the rise of a more mature, sophisticated, culturally open evangelical church. Ten years from now, I don’t think we’re going to have the kinds of arguments about religion that we have today. Even the fight over intelligent design, to me, is a harbinger of a trend, which is that the religious world is increasingly willing to put its issues on the table and discuss them in the context of the secular world. Let’s argue about evolution vs. creation, using the framework that secular science has given us.

SHIRKY: That’s wrong. Intelligent design is a stalking horse for creationism against a particular enemy, evolution.

GLADWELL: I disagree. This is part of an ongoing transformation. We will not continue to have this kind of divide between Evangelicals and the rest of society. I just went to an interesting evangelical conference, and throughout, rock bands were playing. The rock-’n’-roll culture within the evangelical world is indistinguishable in terms of the sound of the music from the rock culture that came out of a very different, irreligious secular tradition, except that the words are about Jesus — love and all that. They’re not resisting outside culture, they’re embracing it and kind of making it their own. I think intelligent design and Christian rock are similar. It’s about taking up form from the outside and trying to Christianize it. Does the debate over evolution matter? Isn’t it really a nondebate?

SHIRKY: No. It matters a lot because medicine is starting to become evolutionary, and we want to continue to have doctors who understand that.

GLADWELL: But that’s not being threatened. The intelligent-design debate is about what you teach 7-year-olds.

DYSON: What you teach 7-year-olds matters because they grow up.

GLADWELL: But we’ve already been talking about how great Google is. They can just Google evolution.

BROOKS: I think the debate is unimportant for a different reason, which is that 40% of people in the country don’t believe in the theory of evolution, and yet we seem to march on regardless.

GLADWELL: None of this affects the way science is conducted in this century. Does it change you as a software salesman whether you believe in evolution or not? No — no more than it changes you whether you believe in Einstein physics.

DYSON: You can’t limit your concern to short-term economic impact. This attitude closes off inquiry. It creates an approach to science that I think is dangerous.

GLADWELL: But keep in mind the idea we’ve discussed of the multiplication of identity. We will have more debates and disputes, like the one over creationism. When you’re having 100 arguments at once, no one of them matters the way it used to. It’s important not to use a 19th century moral lens to evaluate the kind of debates we’re going to have in the 21st century. We have to accept that the general noise level will increase, but that doesn’t matter. You can be a creationist at night and go to work in the morning as a pediatrician and save lives.

DYSON: The real challenge is going to be for the next generation of pediatricians who have to design your baby. It’s in the field of genetics and genetic engineering where faith and morality questions will play out. Is it immoral now to abort a Down syndrome baby? In the future, should you use technology to create a perfect baby, finding the right genes? And then you’ll be responsible for what you have created in a way that you never were before. No more “will of God . . .”

The group also includes the musician Moby, who contributes — this will shock you — the roundtable’s first reference to sex. Moby pronounces himself disconcerted about what he describes:

I have a friend whose Swedish mother — she’s in her mid-60s — goes online to meet men. I was with my friend as he drove her to the Hilton to meet a Canadian doctor she’d encountered online, and I thought, How disconcerting. Because it was 10 at night and most likely she was going to meet this guy and stay in his hotel room. Go back 50 years, and she would have been in her Swedish village, depressed, a bit lonely and sad. Instead she’s in midtown Manhattan, preparing to spend the night with a doctor, and her son is driving her to the hotel!

If only someone had thought to ask what Moby found disconcerting about this, because he sounds more impressed than troubled. Was it the horrifying thought of two elderly people who want to <Grandpa Simpson’s voice>have sex? Or that her son serves as the chauffeur for this frisky encounter?

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The abortion coverage gap

Baby1I know this is not a news story, but this column by former Washington Post journalist Patricia E. Bauer is deeply moving and will hopefully — I say hopefully — encourage America’s mainstream media to explore the damage legal abortions have done to our society. The column by Bauer deals with how abortion has started to weed out children with disabilities. Reading it this morning nearly moved me to tears, and in conversations with friends of mine in the medical profession and parents (I am neither) I have learned even more that makes me think this is a huge story that has gone completely uncovered.

Bauer, the mother of Margaret, a Down syndrome child, opens her heart to us and explores the ethics of prenatal testing:

Whenever I am out with Margaret, I’m conscious that she represents a group whose ranks are shrinking because of the wide availability of prenatal testing and abortion. I don’t know how many pregnancies are terminated because of prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome, but some studies estimate 80 to 90 percent.

Imagine. As Margaret bounces through life, especially out here in the land of the perfect body, I see the way people look at her: curious, surprised, sometimes wary, occasionally disapproving or alarmed. I know that most women of childbearing age that we may encounter have judged her and her cohort, and have found their lives to be not worth living.

To them, Margaret falls into the category of avoidable human suffering. At best, a tragic mistake. At worst, a living embodiment of the pro-life movement. Less than human. A drain on society. That someone I love is regarded this way is unspeakably painful to me.

In my discussions with parents and those in the medical field I found out that prenatal testing merely gives the likelihood of a disability — does not prove anything — and that the test puts the mother at risk for a miscarriage. How many lives have been snuffed out unnecessarily? And what does this tell use about the direction our society is heading? Bauer gives us some context:

In ancient Greece, babies with disabilities were left out in the elements to die. We in America rely on prenatal genetic testing to make our selections in private, but the effect on society is the same.

Margaret’s old pediatrician tells me that years ago he used to have a steady stream of patients with Down syndrome. Not anymore. Where did they go, I wonder. On the west side of L.A., they aren’t being born anymore, he says.

And what of the emotional impact on women who do choose to abort their baby because the test showed a likelihood of a birth defect or disability? I am told that it is not healthy and has wrecked lives. It’s time for the mainstream media to take a serious look at the impact abortion has had on our nation.

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Covering those dummies on the right

crash test dummies2As I said a week ago, I really think the MSM are stuggling to cover the HHGR division within the camps of cultural, religious and political conservatism. What does it mean when journalists find themselves cheering for Bush, in opposition to Rush Limbaugh? What does it mean when you are an elite blue-zone scribe and you are tempted to line up on the same team as Dr. James Dobson?

In the past day or so we have seen all kinds of evidence of this confusion. Where to begin?

* Over at The Washington Post, Howard Kurtz has a nice look at the groundbreaking work of former Bush White House scribe David Frum. It’s full of punchy material. Check this out:

The spectacle of Frum, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, John Podhoretz, Kristol and other conservative commentators breaking with their president over Miers has the feel of a messy family feud. These, after all, are the political pugilists who are usually slapping around liberals and Democrats. But there is something about Bush picking his White House counsel and longtime personal lawyer — and passing over a batch of conservative judges with sterling credentials — that has inflamed his normally loyal media supporters.

Former Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie says he’s detected a whiff of sexism in the opposition to Miers. Fox News anchor Brit Hume has noted that many critics of the Southern Methodist University graduate went to elite Eastern schools. This prompted Frum — a proud graduate of Yale and Harvard Law — to fire back at “Brit Hume’s and Fred Barnes’ embarrassing repetition of Ed Gillespie’s talking points: ‘Brawwwwwk-sexism; brawwwwwwk-elitism; brawwwwwwwwwk-Harvard; brawwwwwwwwwk; brawwwwwkk; brawwwwwk.’”

My take? Howie talks about Frum taking a “Passover break” from blogging. Is this part of the ghost? Has HHGR turned into a battle between lots of evangelicals (not all) and the world of conservative Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants?

• That brings me to a nice blog piece by Roberto Rivera, a Catholic writer known for his work with evangelical leader Chuck Colson. This post titled “Crash Test Dummies” is at a new blog operated by some friends and associates of mine — The Culture Beat.

Rivera is reacting to a piece at The New Republic by Jonathan Chait (“Conservatives Get Taken for a Ride”) that is rather hard to get to. Here is the Chait lead:

There are two basic ways to think about President Bush’s relationship with the religious right. The first is that Bush is a genuine ally of social conservatives who, while often cagey in public, takes every opportunity to advance their agenda. As liberals would phrase this interpretation, Bush is a tool of the religious right. The second — utterly diametrical — theory is that Bush is mainly interested in harvesting votes from religious conservatives in order to implement an agenda dominated by his economic backers. In liberal-ese: Social conservatives are hapless GOP dupes. At this point, five years and two Supreme Court nominations into the Bush presidency, we can arrive at a definitive answer. And the verdict is: hapless dupes.

Rivera follows this line of thinking into several other pieces and reaches a simple bottom line — the world of religious conservatism is much, much more complex than many people let on and there are all kinds of attitudes in conservative pews about Bush, Harriet Miers and who knows what all. But the feeling of betrayal is real. Can journalists report that?

Meanwhile, check out The Culture Beat for yourself.

• If you think the MSM are having trouble deciding who to cheer for in the HHGR story, put yourself in the shoes of the Democratic Party leadership. Is Miers a closet country-club soft conservative or a secret-weapon theocrat? Who knows?

Now, imagine that you are reporter Charles Babington at The Washington Post and you are trying to figure out what the Democrats are saying and what they really mean as they say it. You might end up writing this:

Jim Jordan, a former presidential campaign manager for Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), agrees that Democrats will have plenty of reasons to oppose Miers, but he said some worry that Bush might replace her with a more forceful and effective conservative. “Even though she’s undoubtedly a mediocrity,” he said, “philosophically she’s probably the best they [Democrats] can do.”

Jordan added: “If the Republicans splinter, as looks likely now, the Democratic caucus will be in the bizarre position of having to decide whether to bail Bush out.” The choice will not be easy, he said. “From a purely political standpoint, they’ll have to decide whether to add to his humiliation,” Jordan said. A Miers rejection, however, would allow Bush “a do-over” that could improve his relations with his conservative base.

Which conservative base?

• Fun, right? But what if the president is convinced that he can force this nominee through? So he could — now that the religious right has seen the strong wink and nod — stop the God-talk and fight to take Miers back to the mainstream. Maybe this is what the White House is doing. Maybe. Maybe not.

• But what if — during the God-talk stage, when there were supposed to be talks about Miers and God, but not Miers and Roe — the White House left some fingerprints that could be detected by reporters with the right sources over on the right? At that point, you might be able to do what John Fund did today at The Wall Street Journal. He was able to write this:

On Oct. 3, the day the Miers nomination was announced, Mr. Dobson and other religious conservatives held a conference call to discuss the nomination. One of the people on the call took extensive notes, which I have obtained. According to the notes, two of Ms. Miers’s close friends — both sitting judges — said during the call that she would vote to overturn Roe.

The call was moderated by the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association. Participating were 13 members of the executive committee of the Arlington Group, an umbrella alliance of 60 religious conservative groups, including Gary Bauer of American Values, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and the Rev. Bill Owens, a black minister.

Well now, do you think some folks on the Hill might want to see those conference-call notes?

Stay tuned. Lots of reporters have calls to make to people they are not used to calling.

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Old ghost in the Iraqi vote

mosqBagd2I don’t know about you, but every now and then I get two emails and, because I read them back to back, they become connected. This happened today, when I reached Jackson, Tenn., to visit Union University. I thinned out the deluge of email from the previous day or so and then started reading.

The Iraqi vote, of course, is one of the biggest stories out there today. I read the main Washington Post piece and, to my way of thinking, there was something missing. If the White House is going to be excited about this election and its impact on something that can be called a “democracy,” then I want to know about the impact of this vote on issues such as free speech, women’s rights, religious liberty and other related topics.

It may not be fair to read this story and let it stand alone, without taking into account other Post stories from the recent past. Still, read it and tell me what you think. Early on, we are told:

The strong overall turnout in the west, however, raised the possibility that the disempowered Sunni minority could defeat the draft charter, which endorses a loose federal system with a weak, religiously influenced central government. Many Sunnis fear the draft would bring the breakup of Iraq into ethnic and religious substates, and make permanent their loss of power to the Shiite Muslim majority after the toppling of Hussein. …

In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Bush said that the referendum dealt “a severe blow to the terrorists” while sending a message to the world. “Iraqis will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgency.” Bush said the referendum was “a critical step forward in Iraq’s march toward democracy.”

The religion element is there, but quickly vanishes. We learn valuable information about the strong turnout, the threat of violence, the potential political impact of the votes and other topics. But if religion is at the heart of these issues, what happened to that information? How will the vote and this new constitution affect basic human rights?

At that point, I opened another email. Click here to read a fresh Freedom House release on the vote. Then read the Post report again.

I don’t know about you, but I want the excellent reporters at the Post to answer some of the questions raised by the Freedom House activists.

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Katha Pollitt to the rescue

pollitKatha Pollitt shows an occasional capacity for self-mocking humor — I remember her offer, several years ago, to rename her Subject to Debate column to Subject to Everett if two philanthropists by that name would send some jack over to The Nation. (Ideological bonus: Mother Jones reported in 1996 that Edith Everett is “staunchly anti-school prayer.” Blessed be!)

Her column for the Oct. 31 issue lives up to the smile-inducing premise of its headline: “If Not Miers, Who?” The column is noteworthy for two other reasons — her tortured reference to Valley View Christian Church in Dallas as “an antichoice church” (so congregations are now pigeonholed by their beliefs about abortion rather than, say, about God?) and the most candid description I’ve ever seen Pollitt offer of her worldview:

I am not a Christian. This may not strike you as an advantage, given the nature of your base, but think about it. Right now, the Christian right is split: James Dobson says you told him something on the phone about Miers that reassured him greatly, but Gary Bauer doubts she is “a vote for our values.” At Miers’s own evangelical church, the congregation stood up and applauded; but at other churches the pews are in revolt. Honestly, who can figure these people out? They only stopped burning each other at the stake a few centuries ago. Nominating me will unify them instantly: I’m a half-Jewish half-Episcopalian atheist. When they make a fuss, just tell them God told the President to pick me. Given the other advice God’s been giving him — to invade Iraq, for example — it could even be true.

So she’s half-Episcopalian, eh? Based on my onetime coverage of the Center for Progressive Christianity, I’m confident that at least a few [PDF] Episcopal churches would offer Pollitt not just a place at the table but perhaps even put her on track to becoming a priest or — hey, aim high — a bishop. After all, shouldn’t the church’s heinous discrimination against Brights (stake-burnings included) finally be rectified?

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