Daily RNS News

Top brass say they’re not aware of bias against military chaplains


© 2014 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers peppered Pentagon officials on Wednesday (Jan. 29) about claims that military chaplains have faced discrimination for their beliefs, and time and again, chaplains and personnel officials said they were unaware of any bias.

Virginia Penrod, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, told the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel that she could not cite specific instances where chaplains had to preach a sermon or oversee a ceremony that conflicted with their beliefs.

“There’s absolutely nothing in policy or code that prohibits a chaplain from praying according to the dictates of their faith,” she said.

In recent years conservative activists have complained that some military chaplains have been restricted in fully preaching their beliefs or have been muzzled or forced to follow policies they disagree with.

The hearing came a week after the Pentagon released an updated “instruction” on accommodating religious practices. Additional updates, including specific policies about chaplains, will be completed this summer, Penrod said.

Members of the panel questioned whether military commanders are allowed to proselytize. Brig. Gen. Charles R. Bailey, the Army’s deputy chief of chaplains, said it would be “wrong” for commanders to say that their faith is superior to any other, but other kinds of private conversations about faith are permitted.

“They’re never told they cannot share their own personal faith of any sort,” he said.

Some members of Congress seem to have a different impression from the military’s top chaplains about the state of religious accommodation in the military, said Bishop James B. Magness of the Episcopal Church’s armed services office.

“There’s a real disconnect,” said Magness, “if things are being said to members of Congress that are not getting to the chiefs of chaplains. I don’t have a reason for why.”

Sikhs concerned about the need for greater accommodation showed up at the packed hearing room and provided written statements to the committee saying a “presumptive ban on Sikh articles of faith” remains in the new policy. The military has said that Sikhs, who wear turbans and beards in accordance with their faith, must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nevada, expressed concern that Sikhs “still require a new waiver every time there’s a change of assignment.”

Penrod said the military “tries to balance the needs of the service member with the needs for mission accomplishment.”

Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, who attended the hearing in his camouflage turban, said afterward that Sikhs will continue to petition Congress and the military to change the policy to prevent Sikhs from having to “choose between God and country. Nobody should be put into that situation.”


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Conservative leader Bill Gothard resigns following abuse allegations


© 2014 Religion News Service

Bill Gothard, an Illinois-based advocate for home schooling and conservative dress who warned against rock music and debt, has resigned from the ministry he founded after allegations of sexually harassing women who worked at his ministry and failing to report child abuse cases.

Gothard’s resignation from the Institute in Basic Life Principles, according to a letter sent to families affiliated with the ministry he founded, comes a week after he was put on administrative leave. According to an organizer involved in the whistle-blowing website Recovering Grace, 34 women told the website they had been sexually harassed; four women alleged molestation.

RNS spoke with several women who alleged they were sexual harassed, including one woman who alleged that Gothard molested her when she was 17.

Gothard is 79 and single.

Gothard told the Board of Directors he wanted to follow the New Testament command to listen to those who made accusations against him, according to an email sent from David Waller, administrative director of the Advanced Training Institute to families involved in the ministry.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus directs his followers to “go and be reconciled” if “your brother or sister has something against you.”

“To give his full attention to this objective, Mr. Gothard has resigned as president of the Institutes in Basic Life Principles, its Board of Directors, and its affiliated entities,” Waller’s email said.

Waller said the two institutes will continue under interim leadership, including upcoming conferences in Nashville and Sacramento under ATI president Chris Hogan.

Gothard’s ministry had been a popular gathering spot for thousands of Christian families, including the Duggar family from TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting.” Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute conferences were also popular among families within the Quiverfull movement, who eschew birth control and promote big families.

Gothard has also rubbed shoulders with Republican leaders. He and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee were photographed at a campaign lunch together; former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue spoke at one of Gothard’s conferences; and Sarah Palin, when she was a small town mayor in Alaska, attended his International Association of Character Cities conferences declaring  Wasilla among Gothard’s “Cities of Character.”

The allegations against Gothard dovetail with financial woes. In recent years, IBLP’s net revenue has dropped significantly, and the ministry is losing money. Between 2009 and 2012, it lost $8.6 million. Its net assets dropped from $92 million in 2010 to $81 million in 2012. It held 504 seminars in 2010, but that number dropped to fewer than 50 in 2012.


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Survey: Americans turn sharply favorable on gay issues


© 2014 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — Americans’ attitudes toward the lives and choices of gays and lesbians have changed radically since Massachusetts first legalized same–sex marriage a decade ago.

A new survey finds a significant shift toward tolerance across every religious, political and age group and every region of the country, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. PRRI’s survey, released Wednesday (Feb. 26), reveals the ramifications of these changes in family, church and community life.

“Only the issue of marijuana looks anything like this in terms of rapid movement in favorability,” Jones said. “But with that one exception, it’s unusual to see this much change in a relatively short amount of time.”

Overall support for same-sex marriage jumped 21 percentage points, from 32 percent in 2003 in a Pew Research survey to 53 percent in 2013 in PRRI’s survey. During this period, gay marriage became legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, that blocked federal recognition of legally wed gay couples.

Since 2003, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America opened their doors to gay bishops and clergy, even as most other major U.S. denominations kept their teachings against homosexual behavior intact. Yet over the decade, PRRI found, the number of people who say same-sex marriage is against their religious beliefs dropped, from 62 percent to 51 percent.

Within specific groups, the drop was less dramatic but still apparent:

* For white evangelical Protestants, the number fell from 84 percent to 78 percent.
* Black Protestants, down from 66 percent to 61 percent.
* Catholics, down from 65 percent to 53 percent.
* White mainline Protestants, down from 59 percent to 45 percent.

Only one group, the fast growing numbers of people who say they are not affiliated with any religion, showed an increase, rising from 18 percent to 26 percent. Jones said the increase came largely from less educated minorities who have moved away from church but still consider themselves religious.

Overall, most people (51 percent) say sex between adults of the same gender is morally wrong. Still, 43 percent — and 56 percent of millennials (ages 18-33) — say it is morally acceptable.

Even so, “support for legality outstrips moral acceptability in several religious groups,” said Jones. For example, 47 percent of white Catholics find gay sex to be morally acceptable, “but 58 percent of the same group say they favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. It is not only that they are more tolerant of a legal norm. They are shifting their own moral lens on the issue.”

Meanwhile, religious leaders’ continued preaching against homosexual behavior is driving some people out the church doors, Jones said. PRRI found people perceive three major religious groups to be “unfriendly” toward lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people:

* The Catholic Church (58 percent)

* The Mormon church (53 percent)

* Evangelical Christian churches (51 percent)

Among those who say they left their childhood religion and now have no religious identity, nearly one in four (24 percent) say their church’s negative teachings or treatment of LGBT people was an important reason they left. That rises to 31 percent of millennials, damaging churches’ ability to bring in — and keep — young adults, Jones said.

At the root of change: A personal connection to someone who is LGBT. The number of Americans who say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian rose from 22 percent in 1993 to 65 percent today. Again, millennials lead the way: 71percent say they have a close friend or relative who is gay or lesbian.

“We looked at the power this has over views toward social policy issues,” said Jones, and found that the two related factors — age and social connection — “overlap to create a different worldview of ‘normalcy.’”

And those with personal ties to an LGBT person are almost twice as likely to favor same-sex marriage (63 percent to 36 percent against). PRRI reports: “This ‘family and friends’ effect is present across all major demographic, religious and political groups.”

Republicans with personal ties are doubly likely to support same-sex marriage than Republicans with no such connections: 43 percent vs. 21 percent. For Democrats, the “friends and family” split is even greater: 73 percent vs. 44 percent.

Political divisions remain sharp, although all major groups moved toward more support for gay marriage:

  • ·        Democrats, from 39 percent in 2003 to 64 percent today;
  • ·        
* Independents, from 39 percent to 57 percent;
  • ·       

There’s also a change in how people would like to see same-sex marriage become legal. In 2006, 46 percent thought it should be decided by the states. Now, it’s 52 percent.

The survey did find several issues of widespread agreement on LGBT issues:

* About seven in 10 surveyed say LGBT people face “a lot of discrimination.”

* 72 percent favor laws protecting LGBT people from workplace discrimination, although only 15 percent of Americans correctly say such discrimination is currently legal under federal law.

* Roughly 6-in-10 (58 percent) Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children.

* Almost all Americans overestimate how many people are LGBT. The median estimate is 20 percent of the U.S. population — four times the correct number of 5 percent.

“Americans are terrible demographers,” said Jones. “We asked them to estimate a number of minority groups and every category was wildly overestimated.”

Neither are many people good at projecting public opinion. Despite multiple surveys in the last two years showing majority support for same-sex marriage, PRRI finds, “Nearly half (49 percent) of the public incorrectly believes that most Americans oppose same-sex marriage, and roughly 1-in-10 (9 percent) believe the country is divided on the issue.”

The survey of 4,500 U.S. adults was conducted in English and Spanish, on landlines and cell phones, between Nov. 12 and Dec. 18. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.



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Slow church movement fights the ‘McDonaldization’ of church


© 2014 Religion News Service

Going to church these days can be a bit like eating at a fast food joint.

It might be quick and tasty.

But it won’t satisfy your soul.

You can’t franchise the kingdom of God, say the authors of “Slow Church,” a new book from InterVarsity Press that applies the lessons of the slow food movement to congregational life.

C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, the book’s authors, are part of a loose network of writers, friends, theologians and pastors worried about what they call the “McDonaldization” of church. They say too many small churches try to mass-produce spiritual growth by copying the latest megachurch techniques.

Instead, Smith and Pattison advocate for “slow church” — an approach to ministry that stresses local context and creativity over pre-packaged programs.

About 15 years ago, Pattison said, leaders from his home church in Lincoln, Neb., tried to import some programs from Willow Creek, a megachurch outside of Chicago.

But those programs didn’t fit in their small town, he said. And he sees other churches doing the same thing today.

Neither writer is a fan of megachurches, which they say can allow people to remain anonymous rather than being part of a community.

Smith said megachurches are often disconnected from their geographical neighborhoods.

“Our biggest concern with megachurches,” he said, “is the fact that they typically draw their members from such a large area that they become churches of nowhere, not belonging to any particular place.”

Both Smith and Pattison are members of small urban churches that have reinvented themselves in recent years.

Smith, who runs an online magazine called the Englewood Review of Books, is a member of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. The church was once booming — drawing more than 1,000 people to services in the 1970s. Today the congregation is more modest, around 180 people. Most of its ministries are focused on improving life in the neighborhood. The church runs a well-respected day care ministry and has renovated a number of local homes.

Most Englewood members live in the neighborhood around the church. Many gather on Sundays for an all-church conversation about social issues and faith.

“Conversation is a lost art in our culture,” he said. “People don’t talk to one another. And the church can suffer from that lack of conversation.”

Smith and Pattison hope to expand on their ideas about slow church during an upcoming conference, planned for April 3-5 at Englewood.

They’ll talk about some of the ideas in the book, but plan to spend most of the time hearing about what other churches are doing.

Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., says the slow church movement makes for good theology.

But it likely won’t work for most churches, he said, for the same reason that the slow food movement failed to gain mass appeal.

“We’d all like to have a slow-cooked, three-hour meal, with locally grown produce,” he said. “But few of us have the time or money for it.”

Likewise, few people would be drawn to the ideas of slow church. All the pressures of modern society, he said, would be against them.

“This would likely appeal to an educated, younger hip group of people,” he said. “There aren’t many of them in small churches.”

Joshua Stoxen, pastor of Vineyard Central Church in Norwood, Ohio, is one of the 100 or so people who have registered for the conference.

Stoxen first met Smith a few years ago, at a conference on urban gardening — something that Vineyard Central focuses on.

Like other slow churches, Vineyard Central is inspired in part by a verse from the book of John, as translated by Eugene Peterson.

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood,” says John 1:14 in the Message translation of the Bible.

The slow church conference isn’t the only group of people thinking about the troubles of industrialized faith. There’s also the Parish Collective, based in Seattle; the new monastic movement; and the Ekklesia Project, which made the idea of slow church the theme of its 2012 national gathering.

Phil Kenneson, professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College, just outside of Johnson City, Tenn., spoke about slow church at that Ekklesia Project meeting.

He’s also speaking at the upcoming slow church conference at Englewood. Kenneson says the pace of American culture isn’t very conducive for spiritual growth, which requires stability and patience. It often means staying put in one place long enough to develop deep ties with a specific place and groups of people.

“You need to commit to a place and people — and let God throw you into the rock tumbler with those other people until the rough edges get rubbed off.”

Kenneson says the language of slow church is helpful in getting people to pay attention to the need for deliberate spiritual development.

But he also said the term is often used in a tongue in cheek fashion.

“This isn’t some great new thing,” he said. “This is an old thing that we are trying to slow down and pay attention to.”


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Evangelical campaign says everyone — even gays — reflect God’s image


© 2014 Religion News Service

NEW YORK — A group of Christian leaders has set up a new campaign to emphasize that all people — gay, liberal, undocumented or otherwise — reflect the image of God.

Six Christian leaders, including Focus on the Family President Jim Daly, “Touched by an Angel” star Roma Downey and her producer husband Mark Burnett, have created a coalition called “Imago Dei,” Latin for “image of God,” to encourage people to treat each other with respect.

“If we had the image of God in mind for every human being, we could change the world,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who is leading the cause. “I want Christians to not be known for what we oppose but for what we propose.”

The campaign, also joined by Liberty Law School Dean Mat Staver and Life Today’s James Robison, is intended to include all human beings, but it offers specific examples.

“For the image of God exists in all human beings: black and white; rich and poor; straight and gay; conservative and liberal; victim and perpetrator; citizen and undocumented; believer and unbeliever,” the campaign states.

Rodriguez said it’s not intended to target a specific group or issue, even as the campaign has raised eyebrows for attracting the support of conservative leaders who have vocally opposed gay rights in recent years.

“We intentionally listed groups to capture the idea that there’s no exception to the rule. Our emphasis is not LGBT or political ideology or color of skin,” he said. “It’s not germane as to whether or not people can change sexuality or not. It’s not about condoning a lifestyle, political ideology, worldview.”

Rodriguez said he got the idea for the campaign when he was at a restaurant with his family in Sacramento, Calif., and saw girls as young as 12 and 13 who he believed were involved in sex trafficking.

“I looked at my wife and said, ‘That girl has the image of God,’” he said, before launching a sex trafficking ministry in his church and eventually in NHCLC.

The biblical emphasis of Imago Dei stems from Genesis, where God said he would make mankind in his own image. Evangelicals have signed similar kinds of statements in the past, but this campaign is more focused and simple, said Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family.

“If someone says something out of line, someone else can say, ‘Hey remember this, how you signed it?’” Stanton said. “Each one of us are image bearers in the sense that each one of us bear the image of God that others don’t.”

Rodriguez and Daly were included in a movement of religious leaders that created the Manhattan Declaration, a 2009 manifesto that emphasized protecting religious liberty and resisting abortion and gay marriage. The document included a section on the idea that humans bear the image of God.

“We shouldn’t forget that the doctrine of Imago Dei necessarily leads to other commitments, especially as it relates to life, marriage and religious freedom,” said Eric Teetsel, director of the Manhattan Declaration. “Christians have been emphasizing the Imago Dei for a long time. It’s often fallen on deaf ears. If this movement causes people to hear it for the first time, that’s a wonderful thing.”

Rodriguez declined to disclose how much money is involved in the campaign, saying they are creating financial support, eventually aiming to hire Danielle Jones, who currently leads NHCLC’s initiative on sex trafficking. He said Imago Dei plans to create wristbands and launch public service announcements next fall.

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