Pullest thou my finger, Bart

williams_miterThis week in religion news begins with glad tidings for Anglicans and comedy fans alike: the producers of The Simpsons have invited Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, to consider a guest appearance.

A few copyeditors around the world have risen to the occasion, offering such headlines as “The Arch Bartship,” “Praise Be! Rowan role on Simpsons?” and “Will Rowan be First Archbishop of Springfield?”

Williams has been a fan of the show for seven years. He praised the show in a 2000 address to the Governing Body of the Church in Wales, soon after becoming archbishop to Welsh Anglicans. He has endorsed Mark Pinsky’s Gospel According to The Simpsons.

The culture-savvy Williams is a patron of the annual Greenbelt arts festival, and will speak there later this summer.

Sara Thomas of the Wales Daily Post delivers the best quote from Simpsons producer Al Jean: “We’d love to have him on the show if he doesn’t mind Comic Book Guy calling him the ‘worst archbishop ever.’”

Even GetReligion, which wrings its hands regularly about the state of the Anglican Communion, would not join Comic Book Guy in such a withering assessment of Williams’ brief tenure. But with Williams’ bushy beard and rich voice, and Anglicans’ never-ending debates about sex, the Simpsons team will have plenty of source material.

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Scandal goes global? Bishops tell politicos they can go to hell?

empty_altarFriend of GetReligion Rod Dreher at the Dallas Morning News has flown a red alert flag on the blog operated by the newspaper’s editorial page staff.

It’s the rare case of a newspaper using the blogosphere to point its readers toward a national radio report that previews a major series that (are you following this?) is about to be published in the same newspaper. Dreher writes:

The DMN’s Brooks Egerton appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning to preview a massive series the paper is going to roll out this weekend. Here’s an audio link to the interview. Brooks spoke of the results of an 18-month global investigation he and other reporters have been doing, in which they’ve documented the systematic shuffling of clerical sex abusers from country to country, in many cases just ahead of the law. Brooks said that the DMN found priests who admitted to, or even had been convicted of, child sex abuse working in ministry overseas, in some cases with access to children.

This is a bombshell series. It’ll be in your Sunday paper, but I’m told that it will likely go up on the Dallasnews.com website on Saturday, when the early Sunday editions hit the street.

posted by Rod Dreher @ Jun 18, 11:42 AM

To hear the report, click here. This is your basic question-and-answer session that outlines the report, which stresses how hard it is to trace any kind of illegal activity over borders and around the world, especially in a church that is also the world’s largest voluntary organization — period.

Meanwhile, out in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the Denver Post has hit the web with the first report on the U.S. Catholic bishops’ decision to, basically, leave the status of pro-abortion-rights Catholics up to prevailing legal authorities — the local bishops. In other words, they voted to keep the status quo (which is Latin for “punt”). This will please the vast majority of American Catholics and tick off an already furious minority of intense, dedicated Roman Catholics who live in America. Eric Gorski reports:

The statement strongly reiterates the church’s core teaching against abortion while making clear that individual bishops ultimately decide how to deal with Catholics’ standing to receive the sacrament at the center of Catholic life, said Bishop Richard Hanifen, who retired as bishop of the Colorado Springs diocese last year.

`There’s a balance,` Hanifen said shortly after the vote on Friday, which was said to be strongly in favor of the statement. `There’s an obvious renewal of the clear commitment we have to life from the beginning of life to the end.” …

The statement approved by bishops on Friday … does make clear that consequences are potentially grave for Catholic candidates who take a stand in favor of laws affirming abortion rights.

In other words, the bishops are divided and cannot agree on a common strategy. However, they know what the church teaches and they need to affirm that in light of the rather strong opinions of Rome (those shadowy documents that loom in the background on the Vatican website).

The final result is an equation that, bluntly stated, goes like this: Supporting abortion on demand is a very serious sin, but if Catholic politicians want to risk their souls they can continue to take Holy Communion and it really isn’t anything that bishops need to do, unless they choose to do so. In the New York Post, that would make a great “Bishops to Kerry: Go To Hell!” headline. This presumes the existence of hell. Sin, too.

Meanwhile, a very vigilant reader recently dropped me a note to say that Time wins the prize for mentioning — even briefly quoting — the Vatican documents on politics and abortion. The recent “Faith Factor” cover included a sidebar (subscription required) on the Kerry Communion story that noted:

As it happened, Kerry’s candidacy came on the heels of a “doctrinal note” from the Vatican warning Catholic lawmakers that they have a “grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life.” Some influential Catholic leaders say the bishops are merely doing their job. “These bishops are not interested in helping George W. Bush, at least most of them certainly are not,” says Father Richard Neuhaus, founder and publisher of the neoconservative interfaith monthly First Things. “You have very prominent people — John Kerry being the first Catholic presidential candidate in 44 years — who seem to be fundamentally misrepresenting the teaching of the church. The bishops have a responsibility to say, ‘Hey, just a minute — that’s not right.’”

Congratulations to the winner. Now, how about a whole paragraph from the document?

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Got Jesus™?

bobblehead_jesus.jpgSharon Tubbs does a great job in today’s St. Petersburg Times of relating the play God’s Man in Texas to church-growth pressures faced by clergy across the nation.

The play is by David Rambo, a writer for CBS-TV’s CSI, and is inspired by Too Great a Temptation, a book by Joel Gregory that’s critical of the legendary pastor W.A. Criswell of First Baptist, Dallas.

Tubbs’ best detail is in describing Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church in Tampa:

At Without Walls, children worship in their own sanctuary, called the “Faith Fortress.” Ministers dress in costume as members of the “Bible Squad” to deliver the messages.

In the adult sanctuary, prerecorded announcements are broadcast on big screens like the evening news. Charisse Strawberry (wife of former baseball star Darryl) acts as the anchorwoman, articulating the week’s upcoming events. An outline of White’s sermon appears on a PowerPoint display as he speaks. Studies show that people typically have a four-minute attention span before they need a “commercial” or a new idea, so he tailors his messages to hit points quickly and move on.

He suggests that every pastor go to a secular concert to get tips on lighting and format.

“I don’t think the church competes with what the world is doing. I just think (some ministers) say, “It’s ministry, so if they come, they come.’ And that’s why a lot of churches are empty.”

The goal is to grow, to have an impact on the Tampa Bay area, he said. “The city is our church.”

So is this ministry or marketing?

“I believe everyone needs to believe in their product,” White said. “Well, what is my product? My product is Jesus.”

Some pastors — at least those who’ve never heard of No More Plastic Jesus — could be accused of treating Jesus as a “product.” But it’s a rare cleric who puts the words product and Jesus in the same sentence without a hint of embarrassment.

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The perils of monotheism

timecov6_16The June 21 issue of Time devotes a 10-page cover story to the volatile questions of faith and politics. Time supplements other recent stories about the religion gap:

According to a Time poll, those who consider themselves “very religious” support Bush over John Kerry, 59% to 35%, while those who are “not religious” favor Kerry, 69% to 22%. Asked if a President should be guided by his faith while making policy, 63% of Democrats say no while 70% of Republicans say yes. The gap would probably be even wider if it were not for those black voters who tend to be socially conservative, attend church regularly but nonetheless vote for Democrats.

Ron Reagan added fuel to the debate when he said his late father was never guilty of “wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage.” Indeed, the eulogies delivered last Friday by Reagan’s three grown children represented dueling worldviews: Michael Reagan spoke as an evangelical Christian, Patti Davis described death as an inescapable experience for any child of earth and Ron Reagan, like many other of Reagan’s eulogists, described a paradise awaiting everyone.

Time‘s story is even-handed, informative and well-sourced, but it does include one strange paragraph that takes the concept of moral equivalence to a new level of absurdity:

But at some point [Bush] risks becoming trapped in contradiction when he tries to separate the jihadists from the God in whose name they fight. Many Americans who support the war on terrorism do so because they view al-Qaeda and its ilk as an implacable enemy anchored in a radical, though by no means typical, Muslim faith, willing to strap on explosives and blow up a nightclub because of a vision of heaven and earth and right and wrong that we may not understand but can’t just ignore. It is as though Bush can’t allow the possibility that the enemy is motivated by its understanding of God’s will lest his critics note that he believes the same of himself.

Got that? If you believe that one God exists, that he is active in human lives and that it’s a good thing to conform your life to God’s will, you too could become a terrorist!

Still, Time also found Charly Gullett, a gun-shop owner who sounds like a fun contrarian:

“I’m not a believer in God,” he says, “but I recognize that faith is a morally guiding force in most people’s lives. I believe President Bush has brought honor back to the White House because of his faith. I don’t see the religious community being upset with him. I see the nonreligious community being upset with him because they see faith as a threat to liberal thought. There’s nothing about Bush’s faith that makes me uncomfortable.”

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Getting religion: So many God-beat stories, so little time

under_godYesterday was one of those days when it was frustrating to be a God-beat blogger. You may have noticed that the U.S. Supreme Court punted on the “Under God” pledge case. I’m sure this was a great relief on the Democratic side of the church aisle and a disappointment to the Republicans. A strong, clear decision would have been great for fundraising on both sides.

Meanwhile, we saw a wave of ink — analog and digital — in the media. This was a story, but not a rock-solid story. It was almost an anti-story. The usual suspects said all the usual things and it was reported from coast to coast. It would be impossible to read and compare all of the mainstream news reports on the issue.

Which brings us back to something that Dr. Debra Mason of the Religion Newswriters Association wrote the other day about this blog, TheRevealer.org and others of our ilk. What can we hope to accomplish, if there are so few of us, so many stories to cover and, right now, so little time in which to do the work? Doug is still on the road and I am still in Washington, D.C., on a four-week teaching gig that runs (roughly) from 8 a.m. to midnight every day, including tons of work on weekends. I responded to some of her concerns the other day, but could not get to all of her points.

Truth is, Mason is dead-on when she says that it is hard — even in the age of Google — to track 10 percent of what is going on out there on the God beat. This is especially true far from the dominant WWW sites of the elite papers. I’m surprised that someone hasn’t created a blog just to respond to the United Nations of Spirituality approach of Beliefnet.com. Wait, is there one? Have I missed it?

Here is part of the finale of Mason’s blog about the God-beat blogs.

Critique of religion coverage, particularly, becomes effective rationale by some groups for avoiding the press, which can further hostilities or exacerbate difficulties in reporters writing fair coverage of some religious groups.

The good stuff you don’t necessarily find with a Google search or querying Lexis-Nexis, and it’s not always evident in the East Coast elite press. And my definition of good likely differs from others.

I think what she is saying is that noting when religious groups or issues have been ignored or covered poorly (in the opinions of the people doing the blog, of course) only makes it harder for reporters to deal with these religious groups the next time.

This may be true and you could say the same thing of efforts to improve coverage of issues of race, gender, economics, disease, etc. If the media establishment consistently hears complaints from African-Americans that coverage of their lives is shallow, twisted or just plain wrong, these complaints should be taken seriously. The same thing is true for believers both inside and outside the pews. After 25 years of studying this, I am well aware that journalists hear many, many complaints from traditional religious believers, especially all of those born-again press bashers. So be it. They have concerns and it is in the interest of people who sell newspapers to take those concerns seriously.

So how can we try to get it right? The goal of the God-beat blogs is to share information and opinions about what is happening on this very emotional and complicated beat. It will help greatly if readers let us know the good and the bad of what they see and hear in the press. It will help if professionals offer feedback. And, of course, it will help if we can find an international-news specialist for this blog. And get our clocks to slow down.

Oh, right, what about the Supreme Court decision? You will be glad to know that there were professionals at work yesterday on other blogs who did great things. This is one of those days when, with a thankful tip of the hat, I can point readers to bloggers who rode the waves of ink that Doug and I had to (what’s the surfing term?) let pass us by in the past 24 hours.

The omnipresent Ted Olsen of Christianity Today offers a massive round-up of media coverage and reactions from the conservative Christian establishment. And the RNA has released another of its ReligionLink posts, offering links to a host of resources on the decision. Now, I have a religion column to write. Feel free to offer your own information and opinions. That’s what we’re here for.

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The national funeral in less pastoral hands

On Friday the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane welcomed retired Senator John Danforth as celebrant and homilist during the national funeral for Ronald Reagan. In this interview with Nan Cobbey of Episcopal Life, Chane discussed the elaborate advance preparations for the funeral. Some of Chane’s fellow bishops, who have shown certain imperious tendencies in recent months, would have behaved more like this.

The homily
National funeral for Ronald Wilson Reagan
The National Cathedral, Washington

Good morning!


I’ll try again. Good morning!

[Mumbled, reluctant response from the congregation.]

Thank you!

I should begin by thanking the Reagan family for agreeing, after a few days of tear-filled negotiations, to respect my canonical authority to preside at this service and to preach this homily.

I was unable, as a matter of conscience before God, to allow John Danforth to preside at this service. John Danforth was the protector and patron — the Sugar Daddy, if you will — of the Supreme Court “Justice,” Clarence “Uncle” Thomas. Such a person has no place in the inclusive Realm of God, as I think we all agree.

Don’t even get me started on the idea of Billy Graham occupying this pulpit yet again.

Besides the inappropriate beliefs of John Danforth and Billy Graham, there was the far more important doctrinal issue of episcopal jurisdiction. I do not wish to bore you with minutiae, but Title III, Canon 9, Section 6(b) clearly states: “No Priest shall preach, read prayers in public worship, or perform any similar function, in a congregation without the consent of the Rector or Priest-in-Charge of that congregation” — and in the absence of a dean at this cathedral, I am that authority.

A pretty heavy thinker once put it well: Where the bishop is, there is the church. I am here this morning, practicing the ministry of presence, because I am a humble servant.

So thank you, Nancy, Patti, and Ron — oh, and I almost forgot you, Michael. None of you had any real choice in this matter, of course, but you were gracious in defeat.

[Soft weeping by Nancy Reagan.]

I never much liked Ronald Reagan. I considered his movies corny and sentimental at best and, in their darkest moments, crypto-fascist. You cannot watch his performance as the heavy in The Killers, originally shot for television in 1964, without seeing a blueprint for the “greed is good” America of the 1980s. The very best film critics are pretty much unanimous on this: When Ronald Reagan slapped down Angie Dickinson, he was subjecting of all us to domestic abuse. And yet we loved him anyway, like so many passive victims, because he knew how to tell a good yarn!

[Confused mumbling among the congregation.]

I did not vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980. I did not vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984, when the bitter harvest of his policies was becoming clear to anyone paying attention. But we live in a democratic republic, for better or worse, and Ronald Reagan was the choice of the people, or at least of the privileged elites who can take 15 minutes out of their day to vote.

In Lady Thatcher’s videotaped remarks — nice impersonal touch, there Lady Thatcher — she referred to Ronald Reagan’s calling God “the Big Fella.” So impressed was she by this colloquialism that she repeated it in her closing remarks. I must rebuke this appalling lapse in liturgical taste and orthodoxy.

We all know that gender is a social construction. We all know that God is genderless. To refer to God as “the Big Fella,” especially in the sacred space of my — pardon me, our — National Cathedral is sexist, patriarchalist and heterosexist. If you were a priest, Lady Thatcher, I would depose you. This will not stand.

[Shouted response from a Brit: "Would you be so kind as to get round to your point? Cheers."]

I thank you for the cheers. While it would be gauche to dwell on the worthiness of the minister, I would insult God if I did not accept your compliment. As Jesus taught us, you cannot love others until you first love yourself. Or, in the more cornpone version I have seen on fliers from ministries in Appalachia, “God don’t make no junk.”

Before I close,

[Vigorous applause, whistles and one "Whoo!"]

Oh, thank you again. Yes, I know.

Before I close, please indulge me as I offer a few basic words of comfort from my seminary days, including my doctoral and postdoctoral studies.

Jesus was a sinner, just like you and me, which made Jesus fully human and actualized. But Jesus accepted God’s forgiveness, and — more important — Jesus accepted Jesus’ self as God made Jesus’ self.

[Scattered hissing.]

I shall not patronize you with saccharine language about heaven or seeing our loved ones again or slipping the surly bonds of earth or touching the face of God. We all know those are mere symbols for a most primitive and childish set of beliefs.

Ronald Reagan is dead. His body will rot. I seek no false comfort in the heaven described by fundamentalists. If the God they describe is so unconcerned with justice as to allow one soul — yes, one soul — to choose an eternity apart from God and God’s people and God’s Realm, well, the conclusion is obvious: This God is not worthy of my respect, much less of my worship.

My God, the God who has revealed Godself through the collective experience of God’s people, expects us to make our own meaning.

[Occasional booing.]

Some of you will find it through money. If you are a Republican, I expect you know this temptation perfectly well. If you are a Democrat, I expect you know that you’ve atoned for any sins of Mammon by writing indignant letters to your Congressperson. The issue is not whether you have much money or even how you spend what you have. The issue is how frequently you speak truth to power by urging the government to do your works of mercy.

Some of you will find it through the sacrament of sex, and we’re doing our best to find a liturgical language for naming and blessing that sacrament in all its configurations.

Some of you will find it through power. I love power as much as the next person, but may I point out the obvious? As you’re exercising your power, be sure to do a little good out there. Practice random acts of kindness. Leave a dime in the proverbial expired parking meter of your neighbor, and no — don’t ask a network news camera to record your generosity, even if you are the president.


Today we commit Ronald Reagan to the earth. This is the day the Lord has made!


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Limbaugh's disciples: Will he take their calls with marital advice?

rushThrough the years, I have heard many people speculate about the percentage of Rush Limbaugh’s listening audience that would fall into the “Religious Right” camp.

Has anyone out there ever heard a number? My guess would be way over 50 percent.

Yet it was clear that Limbaugh’s call screener has always been careful not to let many questions and comments about faith issues get onto the show. Cigars and football, yes. Salvation and Christology, no.

There was a reason for that. Limbaugh’s own background was on the progressive mainline Protestant side of the church aisle. He is the loyal son of a liberal United Methodist father whose views of the Bible were quite unorthodox.

Limbaugh is kind of an in-the-closet Libertarian, trapped with a Bible-believing audience. In the early radio days, he quietly voiced a modified pro-abortion rights perspective that evolved into a “leave it to the states” position. When hard-right religious conservatives have made it onto the air with the radio superstar, the results have often been tense. Check out this fundamentalist stab at Limbaugh online.

Now, Limbaugh’s dear friends at the Palm Beach Post are getting to glory in the news that his third marriage is on the rocks, adding another layer of legal and personal pain to his battles with authorities over claims that he illegally shopped for doctors to obtain painkillers. This also adds a sour last note to a week dedicated to the legacy of the president who once called Limbaugh the emeging voice of American conservatism.

No news yet on whether it was Marta or Rush Limbaugh who filed for the divorce, according to a spokesman for Limbaugh. But the news media will be all over the story, no doubt led by Limbaugh’s other dear friends at Air America. Inside the Beltway, many will ponder whether this will have an impact on President Bush and the Republican Party’s fortunes in the fall. It will also be interesting to see how the conservative Christian press plays the story. Will Focus on the Family address this?

What a world. The Post not-so-gently offers a foretaste of the stand-up comic barrage to come.

Limbaugh’s divorces haven’t stopped him from dispensing marital advice. “If you want a successful marriage, let your husband do what he wants to do,” he once said.

Limbaugh, who has no children, also has opined about gay marriage. “Marriage is about raising children. That’s the purpose of the institution.”

The press will certainly tune in on Monday to see if Limbaugh retreats with a “Best of Rush” re-run. Millions of his religious listeners will do the same.

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George Bush's Catholic moment

PopeDubyaThe indispensable John Allen Jr. of The National Catholic Reporter writes this week about Pope John Paul II’s visit to Switzerland and President Bush’s visit to the Vatican.

Two items stand out in Allen’s 4,000-word post.

First, Allen paints a vivid picture of young people who consider the Pope objectionable on every front, yet are drawn to him:

On the streets of Bern, criticism was much more blunt. A small but determined group of young radicals staged a rally in the streets of Bern the night before the pope arrived, chanting, “To the devil with the pope.” As John Paul was getting ready for Saturday’s youth rally, local college students were wandering around the downtown area handing out lengthy tracts against Opus Dei, as well as condoms bearing the label “Protect yourself … the pope won’t do it.”

“We don’t want the pope,” Mike Dee, 24, told me over a beer Saturday afternoon in downtown Bern. “He is too conservative on AIDS, on women, on everything.”

Despite the fact that Dee and several of his friends, all from Protestant families, conceded that they never go to church, they insisted on feeling hurt because the pope would not give them Communion.

Second is a detail that’s entertaining — if only because an evangelical Methodist president cares more than his Catholic challenger about making common cause with the Vatican:

During his June 4 visit, Bush asked the Vatican to push the American Catholic bishops to be more aggressive politically on family and life issues, especially a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

A Vatican official told NCR June 9 that in his meeting with Cardinal Angelo Sodano and other Vatican officials, Bush said, “Not all the American bishops are with me” on the cultural issues. The implication was that he hoped the Vatican would nudge them toward more explicit activism.

Other sources in the meeting said that while they could not recall the president’s exact words, he did pledge aggressive efforts on the cultural front, especially the battle against gay marriage, and asked for the Vatican’s help in encouraging the U.S. bishops to be more outspoken.

According to sources, Sodano did not respond to the request.

The days are gone, thank God, when a Catholic candidate must assure twitchy Protestant elites that he will not take orders from the Pope in Rome. Will some American bishops now want assurances from the Vatican that it takes no orders from an evangelical president?

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