Friday
Dec062013

Daily RNS News

Bible study: More people say the Good Book isn’t a God book

 
By CATHY LYNN GROSSMAN

© 2014 Religion News Service

Bible films may be raking it in at the box office, but fewer people are reading the original and taking it seriously.

The American Bible Society’s latest State of the Bible survey documents steep skepticism that the Good Book is a God book.

“We are seeing an incredible change in just a few years time,” said Roy Peterson, president of the society.

The study, conducted annually by Barna Research, finds:

* The most “engaged” readers — who read the Bible almost daily and see it as sacred — are now matched by “skeptics” who say it’s just a book of stories and advice. Both groups measured 19 percent.

* While the engaged stayed steady since 2011, skeptics grew by 10 percentage points — since the same survey was conducted in 2011.

* Skeptics cut into the number of folks Barna calls “Bible friendly,” those who read the Bible occasionally and see it as inspired by God. The “friendly” demographic fell to 37 percent, down from 45 percent in 2011.

* The percentage of people who view the Bible as sacred has dropped to 79 percent, down from 86 percent in 2011.

The study is based on 2,036 interviews with U.S. adults in January and February.

Peterson told RNS on April 9 that the statistics are “sobering but not discouraging.”

The key, he said, is “adjusting our outreach” to reel in the next generation. Millennials, ages 18 to 29, lead the skeptics tally:

* 64 percent say the Bible is sacred literature, compared with 79 percent of all adults.

* 35 percent say the Bible offers “everything a person needs to know to lead a meaningful life,” compared with half of all adults.

* 39 percent of millennials admit they never read the Bible, compared with 26 percent of adults as a whole.

“We have to find where they are hurting, what questions millennials are asking,” he said.

The society has already started down that road by creating Bible-reading “journeys” to meet people’s needs, he said. On its website, people can key in a word such as “hope,”  ”parenting,” “job loss” or “loneliness” and be steered to a seven- or 10- or 40-day journey of Scripture selections designed to address that concern.

There are already more than 90 topics listed, he said, and “we are adding more strategic journeys every day. We’re being invited to youth conferences as a Scripture partner. So we take it as a very urgent mission.”

The data confirms, Peterson said, that “we just can’t hand them a Bible and expect them to find the answers. We have to get out the word to give God’s word a chance. It’s urgent.”

Friday
Dec062013

Daily RNS News

70 years after Nazi occupation, anti-Semitism still a problem in Hungary

By TREVOR GRUNDY

© 2014 Religion News Service

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Seventy years ago today (March 19), shortly after the German army invaded Hungary, thousands of Jews were prodded by bayonets and swords into the freezing waters of the River Danube.

But first, they were ordered to remove their shoes so that others could walk around in them.

For Jews worldwide, March 19 is a horrific anniversary.

During the 12 months after the invasion, more than 450,000 Hungarian Jews were rounded up by the Gestapo with the enthusiastic help of its Hungarian equivalent, the Arrow Cross Movement, and sent by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps in Poland.

Of an estimated 800,000 Hungarian Jews at the beginning of 1944, fewer than 200,000 were alive at the end of the war. The Nazis and their allies murdered three-quarters of Hungary’s Jewish population in the last year of the Second World War.

Today, many Jews are wondering whether the passage of time has done much to quell this nation’s troubling history of anti-Semitism.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is seeking re-election on April 6, said at recent meetings of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest that his government is determined to stamp out the rising tide of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. He described the latter as “unacceptable and intolerable.”

Earlier this month, unidentified vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery in Tatabanya in northwest Hungary, daubing slogans such as “Stinking Jews” and “There was no Holocaust but there will be” on gravestones.

In February, the Israeli Foreign Ministry called in the Hungarian ambassador to Jerusalem in a rare move to voice Israel’s “deep concern” over growing anti-Semitic incidents in his country.

The envoy heard Jewish concern about the Hungarian government’s apparent unwillingness to deal truthfully and courageously with its past.

Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party last week held a pre-election rally in a former synagogue at Esztergom, 60 miles north of Budapest. Jewish demonstrators stood outside waving Star of David flags, calling Jobbik members “Nazis.”

“This is a disgraceful event,” Agnes Drelvo, one of the protest organizers, told a reporter from a local paper. “Any normal person who is morally OK will not agree with what’s happening.”

Jewish pressure has persuaded the Hungarian government to delay erecting a disputed memorial of Germany’s invasion of Hungary in one of Budapest’s main squares. Pressure groups said that a memorial showing a German eagle swooping down on Archangel Gabriel (symbolizing Hungary) minimized Hungary’s own involvement in the Holocaust and placed all blame for the deaths of Hungarian Jews on Hitler and the Nazis.

A new memorial to all those who died in the war will be unveiled after next month’s election.

“We’re here on a visit,” an elderly Jewish American couple said outside Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest in Hungary and second largest in the world. “But to live here again, as our parents lived before the war? Never.”

Thursday
Dec052013

Daily RNS News

Franklin Graham: Putin is better on gay issues than Obama

By KEVIN ECKSTROM

© 2014 Religion News Service

Evangelist Franklin Graham is praising Russian President Vladimir Putin for his aggressive crackdown on homosexuality, saying his record on protecting children from gay “propaganda” is better than President Obama’s “shameful” embrace of gay rights.

Graham, who now heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association started by his famous father, praises Putin in the March issue of the group’s Decision magazine for signing a bill that imposes fines for adults who promote “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.”

The Russian law came under heavy criticism from gay rights activists, and from Obama, ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In response, Obama included openly gay athletes as part of the official U.S. delegation to Sochi.

“In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues,” Graham writes. “Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”

“Our president and his attorney general have turned their backs on God and His standards, and many in the Congress are following the administration’s lead. This is shameful.”

With the caveat that “I am not endorsing President Putin,” Graham nonetheless praised Russia’s get-tough approach toward gay rights.

“Isn’t it sad, though, that America’s own morality has fallen so far that on this issue — protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda — Russia’s standard is higher than our own?”

Graham also implicitly seems to side with Putin’s ally, embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, in the ongoing civil war that has claimed more than 140,000 lives. Syria’s small Christian population has largely sided with the Assad regime throughout the three-year conflict.

“Syria, for all its problems, at least has a constitution that guarantees equal protection of citizens,” Graham writes. “Around the world, we have seen that this is essential where Christians are a minority and are not protected. … Christians in Syria know that if the radicals overthrow Assad, there will be widespread persecution and wholesale slaughter of Christians.”

Graham’s father was a virulent anti-Communist in his early years; in 1949 he called communism “a religion that is inspired, directed, and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.” But as he took his message around the world, he softened his rhetoric on a host of issues, including politics and hot-button fronts in the culture wars.

“If I had it to do over again, I would avoid any semblance of involvement in partisan politics,” the elder Graham, now 95, wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am.”

For years, Billy Graham sought to take his gospel behind the Iron Curtain, ultimately preaching to huge crowds in Moscow in 1982. At the time, Putin was a young agent in the KGB. “In fact, he was in charge of monitoring foreigners in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) when my father preached there in 1984,” the younger Graham wrote. “If he was eavesdropping on our meeting, which I hope he was, he heard the Gospel!”

Since Franklin Graham took over in 2001, he has steered the Graham franchise in a more political direction by openly questioning President Obama’s faith, endorsing a North Carolina measure that banned gay marriage, calling Islam an “evil and wicked religion” and implicitly endorsing Mitt Romney’s 2012 White House bid.

Michael Hamilton, who has studied the Graham legacy as a historian at Seattle Pacific University, said both father and son have been known to wade into controversy, but Franklin Graham responds differently.

“When the firestorm would hit, Billy Graham would always backtrack or walk back his comments in some way,” Hamilton said. “But when the firestorm hits Franklin, he doesn’t seem to really care.”

Hamilton also questioned why Franklin Graham — who has received wide praise for his relief work through his organization Samaritan’s Purse — didn’t approach Syria through the lens of “its enormous humanitarian crisis.”

A spokeswoman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association said Friday (March 14) that Franklin Graham was traveling and unavailable for comment. A statement from BGEA noted his article went to press before the current crisis in Ukraine that’s pitted Putin and Russia against the West.

“Franklin Graham consistently encourages Christians to be informed and take a stand for biblical values and biblical truth,” the statement said. “The Putin cover article was a way to provoke engagement of readers on this important issue and encourage further thought, prayer, and action.”

But Marianne Duddy-Burke, who heads the gay Catholic group DignityUSA and is a member of the National Religious Leadership Roundtable of gay-friendly religious groups, said she’s met with gay and lesbian Russians who have been beaten, stabbed and burned as Russia cracks down.

“It’s really disturbing when a religious leader seems to endorse laws that lead to this kind of behavior,” she said.

(Adelle M. Banks and Cathy Lynn Grossman contributed to this report)

Thursday
Dec052013

Daily RNS News

ANALYSIS: Fred Phelps’ hateful legacy may be the opposite of all he intended

BY CATHY LYNN GROSSMAN

© 2014 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — Fred Phelps, the 84-year-old founder of Westboro Baptist Church and media-master of hate speech campaigns, died March 20 after devoting decades to damning Americans for tolerating homosexuality.

“God Hates Fags” was the Westboro philosophy, detailed in vile slogans on signs that a tiny band of relatives toted to 40 sites a week around the country. All told, the church in Topeka, Kan., claims to have staged some 53,000 protests.

Whenever there was a newsworthy death — be it Matthew Shepard, the gay teen murdered in 1998, or a soldier killed in action, a movie star, or an innocent child victim in a mass murder — Westboro would add it to the church’s picketing calendar.

But by the time of his death, Phelps had lived long enough to see American public opinion soar in exactly the opposite direction — in favor of gay rights, including marriage.

The message he spread across the country never took root, and in fact helped galvanize the gay rights movement and put other Christians on the defensive. The image of Christianity he painted was a hateful, judgmental collection of rabble-rousers — an image that, paradoxically, did more to help his targets than it advanced his message.

Experts say Phelps’ ultimate legal and social impact on the American religious landscape will be a footnote. Religious leaders lament the damage they say he did to Christians who preach God’s love and mercy.

Free speech icon

Born on Nov. 13, 1929, in Meridian, Miss., Phelps reportedly quit West Point to study at Bob Jones University and became an ordained Southern Baptist minister in 1947. But he left the SBC for a more fundamentalist theology and launched the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka in 1955. While once considered a champion of civil rights, Phelps turned to focus lifelong enmity toward gay rights and began his notorious picketing campaign in 1991.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that Westboro’s picketing was “free speech however hateful,” said Steven Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Association, which filed a friend of the court brief on Westboro’s behalf. Free-speech advocates uncomfortably embraced Phelps’ cause, if not his message.

“That’s how protest buffer zones and picket pens” came about, said Shapiro. They allow for free speech so long as protesters do not impede the event or harass the mourners. Phelps’ lasting legal impact may be the 2006 Fallen Heroes Act and similar laws in 20 states that drastically limit where, when and how people can protest at military funerals.

Kansas acted years earlier. In 1991, Westboro began daily picketing at a city park that was reportedly a hot spot for gay meet-ups. In 1992, state legislators passed laws against funeral picketing and banned stalking and outlawed telephone and fax harassment — early tactics of the church, said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.

Phelps and his congregation of “mini-me people just as vicious as he was” claimed to picket 40 sites a week. But it was the 1998 Westboro presence at the funeral of Shepard that brought the church to the national spotlight, said Potok.

The cascade of outrage stories continued in 2001 when Phelps said the 3,000 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks deserved to die. He called a co-pilot of one of the planes hijacked on 9/11 the “filthy face of fag evil.”

“He specialized in being impossible to ignore in the modern media climate,” Potok said. “No one could pretend if he was ignored he would go away, not when they showed up at funerals of little girls killed in a school bus crash.

“Still, I think his lasting impact was on the other side of the debate. He turned people off from the far right to the far left.”

A skewed gospel

Yet Phelps drew no new followers to Westboro’s ways and he lost generations of children and grandchildren. According to The Topeka Capital-Journal, Phelps had 13 adult children, nine of whom remain in the church and four of whom left, along with about 20 of his grandchildren. His son Nathan, who first told news media last weekend that Phelps was dying, became an outspoken atheist.

Ties of Christian faith were no stronger than family ties for Phelps as fellow Christian faithful — mainline, evangelical or Catholic — faced his wrath.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, made a souvenir of the time Westboro picketed Lifeway’s Nashville offices. His desk nameplate is taken from a sign calling Stetzer a “Lying whore false Prophet.”

Stetzer called for people to do “the opposite of Fred Phelps and love the people that we don’t like — and tell them (or better yet, show them) God loves them too.”

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, a retired Episcopal priest and an editor and writer at Episcopal Cafe website, recalled that delegates to her church’s General Conventions “would have to walk through a gantlet of his people on the way to our meetings. And yet, he did more to move Episcopalians towards gay rights and rites than many. People were sure they did not want to be Freds.”

When the Episcopal Church voted in 2003 to accept its first openly gay bishop, “no one wanted to be seen as agreeing with his views. People who were on the fence about marriage equality and gay priests realized they had to make a decision and many moved on the spectrum toward support,” she said.

When openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson was formally installed, Phelps’ band of picketers came out in force, and Robinson wore a bulletproof vest beneath his vestments.

The Rev. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a leading evangelical voice, said, “Phelps was so engaged in denouncing sin that the good news, the grace and mercy of God in Christ, was never made clear in his message.”

By making religion appear hateful and intolerant, Phelps actually served as “an effective agent for the normalization of homosexuality,” Mohler said. In fact, LifeWay Research found that Americans who called homosexual behavior “sinful” slid from 48 percent in 2008 to 37 percent by 2012.

“He made it easy for people to point to him and say theological opposition to homosexual behavior was rooted in nothing more than animus and hatred,” Mohler said. “He will be held accountable for a massive misrepresentation of the Christian faith, the Christian church and the gospel of Christ. He single-handedly committed incalculable damage by presenting an enormous obstacle to the faithful teaching of the gospel.”

Predicting the future for the Phelps franchise is complicated, said University of Kansas religious studies professor Tim Miller, who has tracked Westboro through the years.

“They have one terrible problem in succession. The one very capable, smart, educated, technologically adept person to take over is a woman. Shirley Phelps-Roper is a very effective and capable leader but she told me their theology teaches that women can’t be ministers,” said Miller.

Earlier this year, Phelps-Roper, who represented the church along with her sister, Margie, in the Supreme Court arguments, was reportedly exiled from a leadership role by current Westboro church elders. A church spokesman, Steve Drain, told The Topeka Capital-Journal, “We don’t discuss our internal church dealings with anybody.”

Tuesday
Dec032013

Daily RNS News

More protests over Koch gift to Catholic University of America

By DAVID GIBSON

© 2014 Religion News Service

A group of leading Catholic activists and academics has renewed criticism of Catholic University of America over a large gift from the billionaire industrialist and conservative funder Charles Koch, and over a school official’s statements that seem to endorse Koch’s questioning of climate change and the right of public workers to unionize.

In a letter sent on Monday (Feb. 10) to CUA President John Garvey and Andrew Abela, dean of CUA’s new business school, more than 50 Catholic signatories said Charles Koch and his brother, David, “have a clear political and ideological agenda.”

The Kochs’ libertarian-leaning positions, they said, “are in direct conflict with traditional Catholic values.”

CUA’s announcement last fall that the Koch Foundation had given $1 million to the School of Business and Economics to fund lecturers and courses in “principled entrepreneurship” sparked concern among some faculty and champions of Catholic social teaching.

In December, dozens of them wrote to Garvey and Abela expressing concern that “by accepting such a donation you send a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops.”

CUA, based in Washington, has an especially high profile in part because it sits in the nation’s capital and it operates under the aegis of the U.S. bishops.

The university responded with unusually pointed and personal criticisms of the signatories, calling them “presumptuous” and accusing them of trying to “to manufacture controversy and score political points.”

Abela, who is an exponent of conservative free-market policies that are gaining traction in some Catholic circles, also gave an interview in which he said that “Catholic social teaching says nothing” about public sector unions. He also said that while Catholic teaching affirms respect for the environment, “it doesn’t say if you question global warming or climate change that’s a sin.”

Joseph Fahey, head of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice and chief organizer of the latest letter, said the assertions were misleading when it came to long-standing church teaching on unions and misconstrued repeated church and papal pronouncements on the environment.

“In the face of growing threats to workers’ rights, Catholic university leaders should be especially mindful not to give moral cover to well-funded anti-union activists,” Fahey said. “It’s essential that universities protect Catholic identity when it comes to worker justice and the common good.”

The critics’ letter noted that Pope Francis has been outspoken on the Christian duty to protect the environment — a cause the Koch brothers have strongly opposed.

On global warming it also quotes former Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers?”

CUA said that it would have no statement beyond its response last December to the initial letter.

Other CUA defenders have said the Koch critics are themselves tainted because they received help in publicizing the letter from the progressive religious lobby Faith in Public Life, which receives some funding from the Open Society Institute backed by liberal-leaning billionaire George Soros.

Faith in Public Life says it receives about $200,000 a year from Open Society, about 13 percent of its annual budget. Officials there say they work with Catholic leaders in support of Catholic teaching, whereas Koch money is used to oppose Catholic teaching.

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