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Daniel Love Glazer

  • 2013-12-20 11:59 AM | Daniel

    Many Christians and other non-Muslims who want to understand the Christ of Islam turn to the Qur’an, yet the Qur’an won’t tell them much about Jesus. It mentions his miraculous birth. It refers to miracles such as raising the dead and bringing a clay bird to life. It speaks of his disciples, although it does not give them names.

    Otherwise the Qur’an has precious little to say about Jesus’ life. There is nothing in the Qur’an, for example, of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, his confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees, his entry into Jerusalem, or the Last Supper.

    As for his death, the Qur’an relates laconically that the Jews “did not crucify or kill Jesus” and in a following verse that “God raised him up to Himself.” Whether Jesus was killed by someone else and then rose again, or whether he escaped death entirely, is left for the reader to ponder. The Jesus of the Qur’an, in other words, is a figure shrouded in mystery.

    Muslim scholars, however, have not left him that way. Instead they record a great variety of stories about Jesus, some of which describe episodes the Qur’an never mentions and others of which offer definitive explanations for things the Qur’an leaves ambiguous.

    This history of storytelling, more than the Qur’an itself, shapes the common Islamic understanding of Jesus today, by which Jesus is a prophet who emphasized the spiritual life above all, who valued austerity, and who taught his disciples always to think about the fate of their souls on the Day of Judgment. Any serious appreciation of the Christ of Islam—and in particular of how Muslims think about Jesus today—must involve this history of storytelling. The Christ of Islam, in other words, is not simply the Christ of the Qur’an.

    This is evident, for example, in The Messiah, a 2007 Iranian film directed by Nader Talebzadeh. Also titled Jesus, The Spirit of God, The Messiah was a considerable success in Iran and was later dubbed into Arabic and shown widely in the Middle East. It opens with a lone figure—Jesus—walking in a desolate landscape through the fog as an eerie soundtrack of acoustic guitar and female chanting plays in the background. Jesus is found next in front of his twelve disciples, looking a bit like Gandalf the White with long wavy hair and a white robe as he gazes off into the distance.

    He preaches to them in a way that calls to mind the Beatitudes, yet which also reflects a special concern with self-denial: “Happy are the poor who truly turn their face away from worldly enjoyments, for they shall soon be blessed with enjoyments from the kingdom of God.” And: “Will the true wayfarer carry with him the heavy burden of what is afar? No; he carries with him what is light and useful. Take this as an example for your life.”

    In The Messiah, the disciples of Jesus call their master “Spirit of God,” a title based on a verse in the Qur’an that calls Jesus “a messenger of God, a word which He cast into Mary, and a spirit from Him.” Jesus is so spiritual that he is only just barely on earth. He has no concern for the burdens of this world, and teaches those around him to think only about the next world. Self-denial aside, he seems to be something of a Muslim hippie.

    The end of the film, or rather the two ends of the film, complete this portrait. The Messiah first presents a version of the crucifixion of Christ as recounted in the Christian gospels. It then presents an alternative ending offered by (post-Qur’anic) Islamic tradition, in which someone else—in the film, Judas—is transformed into the likeness of Jesus and killed in his place. Thus Judas is tortured, crucified, and killed, while Jesus ascends, like a spirit, into heaven.

    For its part the Qur’an does not make Jesus a wandering guru. It never suggests that Jesus had a particular interest in asceticism, or that he taught his followers to meditate on the day of judgment. Nor does the Qur’an have Judas crucified; indeed, it does not mention Judas at all.

    The Jesus in Talebzadeh’s film is recognizable instead from medieval Islamic traditions. Medieval Muslim scholars of all sorts, but especially those with mystical (or “Sufi”) tendencies, present Jesus as a spiritually enlightened master who taught renunciation of the world and its pleasures. They seem to have developed this idea about Jesus, on the one hand, because of the Qur’anic statement that he was “a spirit from God” and, on the other hand, because of the doctrine (accepted by Muslims though not explicit in the Qur’an) that Jesus was celibate.

    Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad prohibited Muslims from consecrating themselves to a life of celibacy. He is said to have declared on one occasion, “The monasticism of Islam is jihad!” However, most Muslim scholars accept the possibility that earlier prophets might have allowed, and practiced, the celibate life. The tradition that Jesus did just that seems to have inspired a certain fascination with Jesus among Muslims concerned with spirituality.

    First among these are Sufis, Muslims dedicated to a spiritual practice that leads to mystical union with God. In order to advance, they live lives of prayer, self-deprivation, and obedience to their spiritual masters.

    Medieval Islamic traditions make Jesus just such a master. One such tradition has him declare, “Blessed is he who guards his tongue, whose house is sufficient for his needs, and who weeps for his sins.” Another (with echoes of Matthew 7) has Jesus ask his disciples, “Which of you can build a house upon the waves of the sea? . . . Beware the world and do not make it your abode.”

    A third medieval tradition suggests that Jesus indeed was wary of the world: “The day that Jesus was raised to heaven, he left behind nothing but a woolen garment, a slingshot, and two sandals.” Still other traditions relate how Jesus would forgive sinners of all kinds. The thirteenth-century Sufi writer Ibn al-Arabi notes how Jesus taught people to turn the other cheek and adds, “This aspect [of his teaching] derives from his mother, since woman is lowly and humble, being under the man, both theoretically and physically.” None of this—neither the spirituality of Jesus, nor his asceticism, nor the maxim of turning the other cheek—is found in the Qur’an.

    Yet neither do these traditions reflect the Bible, even if they include biblical, or biblically flavored, material. In these traditions Jesus plays no particular role in salvation history. He does not fulfill prophecies. He does not transform the Passover meal into the Eucharist. He does not establish a new covenant between God and humanity. Like a sage or a guru, he offers timeless wisdom, but he does not really do anything meaningful at all.

    This Jesus of medieval Islamic traditions is the Jesus of most modern Islamic representations of Jesus. The well-known 1959 novel Children of the Alley (or Children of Gebelawi, according to the first edition of the English translation), by the Egyptian Muslim Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, tells the story of a neighborhood in Cairo, its troubles, and the men who fix its troubles. At the same time, it is an allegory for the history of man and the prophets whom God sends to help him.

    The first hero of the neighborhood is a man named Gabal (“mountain”—a reference to Sinai and therefore Moses), who deals with the neighborhood’s oppressors by collecting a chosen group of people who lead a rebellion and establish a just—yet severe—law. Next comes Rifaat (a name that means “lifting up” and is meant to call to mind the ascension of Jesus), who is gentle and prayerful. He preaches forgiveness to the people of the neighborhood. While some are attracted to his message, the troublemakers plot against him and kill him.

    Finally, Qassem (an allusion to Abu l-Qasim, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s names) arrives. Qassem is a reliable and practical leader who drives out oppressors and hooligans alike, and establishes an equitable law.

    While Rifaat is a sympathetic character in Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley, his role in the story is to highlight the excesses of Gabal and to prepare the way for Qassem. If Mahfouz’s story later led some Muslims to accuse him of blasphemy (in part because even Qassem has character flaws, including an unseemly love of women), it nevertheless reflects a standard trope of modern Islamic apologetics: Moses was a prophet of law, Jesus a prophet of mercy, and Muhammad a perfect combination of both.

    According to this way of thinking, Muhammad is the only prophet who is both good and practical and Islam is the only religion that can lead to flourishing societies. Muslims find support for this notion in the Qur’an: “Thus We have appointed you a middle nation, that ye may be witnesses against mankind.” This notion, furthermore, explains the confidence with which the Muslim Brotherhood employs the slogan: “Islam is the solution.”

    To Muslims who share this perspective, Jesus was a good prophet, a holy prophet, and yet his principal contribution to humanity was to correct the excesses in Jewish law and thereby to prepare things for Muhammad. Jesus taught his followers to focus on the next world because Moses taught people to focus on this world. Muhammad, on the other hand, taught his followers to focus on both. Jesus was the prophet of forgiveness because Moses was the prophet of justice. Muhammad was the prophet of both. Thus Muhammad, and only Muhammad, is the prophet who can set things straight.

    The portrait of Jesus as a prophet of spirituality and gentleness is meant in part to distinguish him from Muhammad. The Jesus presented by Talebzadeh and Mahfouz, the otherworldly figure who preaches rather endlessly about otherworldly matters, is not the sort of prophet who could organize military campaigns and build a small empire.

    The contemporary Islamic conception of Jesus is hardly a simple reflection of what the Qur’an says about him. Indeed, in many ways this conception developed despite the Qur’an, and not because of it.  

    Gabriel Said Reynolds is professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame.

  • 2013-12-19 11:53 AM | Daniel
    One day, just over 2000 years ago, the angel Gabriel appeared to a young woman named Mary and told her that she was to give birth to a son named Jesus, who will be called ”Son of God.” Today’s scripture reading, from the Gospel of Luke, relates Mary’s response.[1] She exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

    But I am here today to proclaim that the Mighty One has done great things not only for Mary, the mother of Jesus, but has done great things for each and every one of us. Every one of our souls glorifies and magnifies the Lord. We can all rejoice in God our Savior, holy is his name.

    To begin with, we live in a world created by God. As Isaiah says, “God created the heavens and formed the earth; he established the universe and created this world not in vain; he formed it to be inhabited.”[2]  No, the world is not a fortuitous combination of molecules which, in a purely random way, has resulted in the flight of birds, the beauty of sunsets, the ability of our eyes to see, glorious sounds of Mozart’s music, the discoveries of science, the wisdom of our great thinkers, and the love we share with each other. Evolution is real, but it is a process initiated and guided by God. As the Apostle Paul says, in God, “we live, move and have our being.”[3]

    And God not only created the universe, but he created man in his own image. This does not mean that we look like God, but rather that God has indwelt us with his own spirit, sent from Paradise and living in the depths of our minds. Jesus taught that “The Kingdom of God is within you.”[4] We do not have to wander the world, like a lost soul, searching for God. God’s Spirit is within us. This Divine Spirit is God’s will for us. It partakes of God’s perfection. It ever stimulates us to greater realizations of the Truth, Beauty, and Goodness which are part of God’s nature. And by following this Spirit’s guidance, we will eventually fulfill the great commandment Jesus proclaimed to us, to “be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”[5]

    Mary was blessed by a visit from the angel Gabriel. Likewise, you and I are blessed by our own guardian angels, ministering spirits who strive to help us as we pursue our lives in this challenging world. They may rarely appear to us in the way Gabriel appeared to Mary, but they do watch over us and guide us in life. Perhaps at times you have sensed their presence.

    And our God is much more than a creator spirit. Jesus told us that “God is love.”[6] He taught that God is our “heavenly Father,” [7] and that he loves each one of us with an infinite love. God the Father treasures each one of us as a unique personality, without a duplicate in the whole universe. We are precious in the Father’s sight. Yes, God loves us. He delights in us and rejoices when we follow the guidance of his indwelling spirit and his ministering angels. He longs to be in communion with us for all eternity.

    And since God is our Father, we are all brothers and sisters in his family. Because we know this truth, we reach out to each other in love.

    Let me ask you, how would you define love?

    As we see, there are many possible definitions. A favorite of mine is, “God is the desire to do good to others.” Recently a number of children were asked to define what love is. A seven-year old named Bobby said “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” I pray that this Christmas, each of us will stop and listen, listen for the voice of our guardian angel, listen to the still, small, voice of the Divine Spirit within us, listen to the love expressed by our brothers and sisters. When we do that, our souls, like Mary’s will magnify the Lord. We will rejoice in God our savior, holy is his name!


  • 2013-11-07 11:52 AM | Daniel
    ;A few years ago a group of salesmen went to a regional sales convention in Chicago .. They had assured their wives that they would be home in plenty of time for Friday night's dinner. In their rush, with tickets and briefcases, one of these salesmen inadvertently
    kicked over a table which held a display of apples. Apples flew everywhere. Without stopping or looking back, they all managed to reach the plane in time for their nearly-missed boarding...
    ALL BUT ONE!!! He paused, took a deep breath, got in touch with his feelings and experienced a twinge of compassion for the girl whose apple stand had been overturned.  He told his buddies to go on without him, waved good-bye, told one of them to call his wife when they arrived at their home destination and explain his taking a later flight.

    Then he returned to the terminal where the apples were all over the terminal floor. He was glad he did. The 16-year-old girl was totally blind! She was softly crying, tears running down her cheeks in frustration, and at the same time helplessly groping for her spilled produce as the crowd swirled about her; no one stopping and no one to care for her plight. The salesman knelt on the floor with her, gathered up the apples, put them back on the table and helped organize her display. As he did this, he noticed that many of them had become battered and bruised; these he set aside in another basket.

  • 2013-11-07 11:47 AM | Daniel
    About 600 years before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed:

    The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah….I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [1]


    This notion, of God writing the law on the hearts of the people, was revolutionary.  The Jewish religious authorities believed that the divine law had been given by God to Moses and this law was fixed for all time. It defined what was holy and acceptable and what was not. This law, as interpreted by the recognized authorities was final. There could be no challenge to it.

    The Jewish leaders believed that God had given the law, called the Torah, to Moses at Mount Sinai. The Torah consisted of two parts: written and oral. The written Torah was recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, called the five books of Moses. But in addition, there was an oral Torah, which was also binding. This too came from God and had been preserved by tradition.

    The Jews took the law very seriously. After all, it was God who had dictated it. The observation of the commandments of the Torah ensured salvation.

    The Jews were highly nationalistic. They believed that they were the chosen people and they looked down on non-Jews, called gentiles, whom they considered to be heathen. So Jeremiah‘s proclamation that God would write the law in men’s hearts was a radical departure from tradition. In other words, Jeremiah said the law was not what was written in the five books of Moses or even  what the religious authorities asserted to be tradition, but rather it was to be an affair of the heart, something each individual could know personally in his own heart and soul.

    The Jewish priests, along with the Pharisees and the scribes, held the Jews in a terrible oppression of rituals and laws, an oppression that was even more onerous than that of Roman political rule. These legal traditions, as interpreted by the religious authorities, dictated the details of every area of both personal and social life.

    So it was revolutionary when Jeremiah said, on behalf of God, “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their heats; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

    Jeremiah also boldly asserted that Yahweh was not simply the God of the Hebrews, but rather the God of the entire world, of all nations and peoples. He dared to say that that God was not on the side of the Jews in their wars with other peoples. He said, “Righteous is our Lord, great in counsel and mighty in word. His eyes are open upon all the ways of all the sons of men, to give everyone according to his ways, and with the proper fruit of his deeds!”[2] 

    When Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, Jeremiah advised that the city should be surrendered. The civil rulers and priests regarded this counsel as treason and blasphemy; they threw Jeremiah into the miry pit of a dungeon.

    Six hundred years after Jeremiah was cast into the pit, another prophet arose in the land proclaiming a radical message, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus taught that “God is love,”[3] and also that “The Kingdom of God is within you.”[4]  He proclaimed that “God is your heavenly Father,”[5] and that “you are all brothers.”[6]  God’s love need not be coaxed through some ritual or sacrifice, for “The Father himself loves you.” And rather than our approaching God with “fear and trembling,” [7] Jesus assured us, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”[8] And one enters the kingdom simply by accepting that God is his Father. “Whosoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”[9] More important than the specific rules of the Law of Moses were “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”[10] And the greatest commandment is to love.[11] [Matthew 22:36-40] “Goodness flows from the fullness of the heart.” [12]

    Jesus was not bound by the rules laid down by the religious authorities. He allowed his hungry disciples to pluck ears of corn from a cornfield and eat them, even though it was the Sabbath.[13] When the Pharisees saw this they complained, “Look your disciples are doing what is forbidden on the Sabbath.”[14] And when, on the Sabbath, a man with a withered hand asked for healing, Jesus healed him.[15] He said that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”[16] When a Pharisee was surprised that Jesus did not wash before a meal, he said, “You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside you are full of great wickedness.”[17] They also criticized him for eating with sinners, but Jesus said, “I come not for the righteous, but for the sinners.”

    And like Jeremiah, Jesus’ message was not just for the Jews but for the entire world.

    So it is little wonder that Jesus’ fate was no better than that of Jeremiah. The religious authorities of his day could not tolerate one who broke the law when the spirit moved him and proclaimed that salvation was not just for the Jews, but for all. Jesus was crucified.

    But, as we know, he had the last laugh. He was resurrected. And after his resurrection, he appeared to Mary Magdalene and told her, “I go to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.”[18]

  • 2013-11-07 11:44 AM | Daniel

    The religious freedom policy mandated by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act has now been in operation for fifteen years. Notwithstanding the hard work of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, it would be difficult to name a single country where that policy has reduced persecution or increased freedom. In most of the countries into which the United States has in recent years poured blood and treasure—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia in particular—freedom is on the decline, persecution on the rise.

    The basis of America’s support for religious freedom abroad is the assertion that religious freedom is not only a good in itself but one that also advances our national interests. In approximately seventy countries, persecution and restrictions on religion are severe. That list includes virtually all the nations whose internal stability, economic policies, and foreign policies are of substantial concern to the United States, including China, Indonesia, Russia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq, as well as Egypt, Libya, and most of the nations comprising what was once called “the Arab Spring.” In many of these countries, the lack of religious freedom has led to religious conflict and has increased social, economic, and political instability.

    The terrible Syrian civil war in large part stems from generations of religious persecution, first of Alawites by Sunnis, and then of Sunnis by the Alawite regime of the Assads. Today the religious dimensions of the conflict have deepened with the entry of Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) Shia terrorists in support of Assad’s Alawites, and of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in support of Syrian Sunni insurgents.

    With the passage of IRFA, Congress provided several vehicles to advance religious freedom. The centerpiece is the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by a very senior diplomatic official—an ambassador-at-large—who has authority to represent the United States in implementing American policy. The act also requires the department to issue annual reports on the status of religious freedom in every country abroad, and an annual list of the most severe violators, the “countries of particular concern.”

    IRFA also created an independent advisory Commission on International Religious Freedom with a mandate to issue its own reports, make recommendations to the president and Congress, and act as a watchdog over American policy. Unlike the State Department office and its ambassador, both of which are by law permanent diplomatic entities, the commission requires periodic reauthorization by Congress.

    The “countries of particular concern” list has had virtually no impact. The president is required to take some action against those on the list or explain why no action is warranted. IRFA requires that the list be issued annually, but as of this writing the Obama administration has not done so since 2011. Congress, it seems, takes little notice of this omission, although the commission, under its new chair, Robert George, has publicly and vigorously voiced its concern.

    IRFA permits economic sanctions against the nations on this list, but in fifteen years only one country, Eritrea, has ever been sanctioned anew, and religious freedom has declined there. For the most part, the “actions” taken against severe violators (as permitted under IRFA) have been to reaffirm existing sanctions, such as those in place barring the export of crime-control and detection equipment to China. In countries where there are no sanctions in place, such as Saudi Arabia, the president is permitted to waive any action if a waiver will further the purposes of the law or is deemed to be in the “important national interests of the United States.”

    In other words, nothing has ever really been done, except perhaps to irritate our banker (China) or our erstwhile ally in oil (Saudi Arabia). I know of no evidence that either the listing or the sanctions have improved the status of religious freedom in any country. At one time there was an argument to be made that Vietnam had improved, but that no longer seems to be the case. The commission has recommended that Vietnam, which was removed from the list a few years ago because of improvements in religious freedom, be returned to the list this year.

    Religious freedom has played little or no role in diplomatic programs to achieve fundamental American interests. Officials, including presidents and secretaries of state, have done almost nothing to integrate religious freedom into our democratic, economic, and counterterrorism strategies. Some have spoken publicly about religious freedom, but foreign policy speeches are empty words if they are not followed by strategic planning and policy action.

    In June 2009, President Obama traveled to Cairo to give his first major address on Islam and American interests. In that speech, he identified a number of issues, including religious freedom, that were to be part of his new engagement with the Muslim world. Afterward, our foreign policy agencies geared into action, forming interagency working groups to develop strategies on all the issues identified by the president in the Cairo speech—except for one. There was no working group on religious freedom. Indeed, it took the administration two and a half years even to get its ambassador for religious freedom in place. Since then, the administration’s religious freedom policy has largely been passive and ineffective.

    But there is substantial evidence that an increase in religious freedom in the Middle East, China, India, Russia, Nigeria, and elsewhere could enhance American interests by helping to reduce religious violence and religion-based terrorism. Religious freedom plays a necessary role in the consolidation of democracy, in economic development, and in social harmony. Sociologist Brian Grim has written in the International Journal for Religious Freedom that “the empirical data are clear [that] religious freedom is part of the ‘bundled commodity’ of human freedoms that energize participation in civil society by all religious groups, which is conducive to the consolidation of democracy and to socioeconomic progress.” And yet American programs to advance and support religious freedom have played little or no role in American strategies to stabilize key struggling democracies such as Iraq or Pakistan, encourage economic growth in places like Egypt or Nigeria, or undermine the religion-related terrorism that is still being incubated in many nations of the broader Middle East. 

    What is the explanation for this ineffectiveness? There is much to be said here, but let me focus on two problems: first, the anemic, largely rhetorical methodology employed by all three administrations under which IRFA has operated, and second, the decline among our policy makers of the conviction that religious freedom is “the first freedom” and that religious freedom benefits all people, whether they are religious or not.

    None of the three administrations responsible for IRFA have adopted a capacious view of the law and the policy it mandates. Each has assumed a narrow, highly rhetorical approach—characterized by reports, speeches, lists of severe persecutors that have little effect on the persecutors’ actions, and a State Department activity known as “raising the issue” with governments (an activity that should not be confused with “solving the problem”).

    IRFA has driven some internal progress at the State Department. For example, in Afghanistan the American embassy has established a program “to support traditional [Afghan] voices that oppose violent extremism.” There is a powerful logic here: Muslims throughout the Middle East who want to make liberal arguments from the Qur’an—for example, that God forbids suicide bombing and stoning, that men and women are equal, or that non-Muslims must be treated with respect—risk criminal prosecution for blasphemy. A few years ago, an Afghan graduate student was sentenced to death for writing a paper arguing that the Qur’an supports the equality of men and women. In 2011, two Pakistani officials, one a Christian and one a Muslim, were murdered for opposing blasphemy laws and supporting religious freedom. Polls showed support for the laws, and for the murderers.

    Anti-blasphemy laws and practices ensure that public discourse in these countries is dominated by extremists. The United States should be doing everything it can to convince erstwhile democracies such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Egypt that they will not succeed unless they move toward greater religious freedom. Their failure to do so will not only prevent the emergence of stable democracies but also increase extremist threats to American national security. Unfortunately, American programs designed to address this problem, such as that in Afghanistan, are entirely ad hoc. They are not part of a comprehensive religious freedom strategy.

    Indeed, there is no comprehensive American strategy in place to advance religious freedom in the Muslim world or anywhere else. While Congress appropriates millions of dollars annually for democracy and counterterror programs, little of that money is spent on promoting religious liberty. All three presidents, and all secretaries of state who have presided over the implementation of IRFA (Albright, Powell, Rice, Clinton, and Kerry), have insisted that they support international religious freedom.

    But none has made any serious attempt to integrate the advancement of religious freedom into the foreign policy of the United States, even though that is the express purpose of the International Religious Freedom Act. Madeleine Albright admitted as much in her book The Mighty and the Almighty. Religion, she wrote, “was above and beyond reason; it evoked the deepest passions; and historically, it was the cause of much bloodshed. [American] diplomats of my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion.”

    The State Department’s annual report has had some positive effects, and Ambassador-at-Large Suzan Johnson Cook and her staff are to be congratulated for its quality and breadth. It has taught younger American diplomats (who typically provide the initial drafts) to ferret out the status of religious freedom in the countries in which they serve. The report has long been considered the gold standard in showcasing the facts. But illuminating the persecutory acts of governments and others, and the fates of victims, has, at best, limited effects. Rarely does it lead persecutors to change their behavior.

    Chinese actions, for example, have no more been affected by these reports than they have by China’s perennial appearance on the list of “countries of particular concern.” Beijing still imprisons, tortures, and generally terrorizes religious groups that don’t conform. It still supports forced sterilizations and abortions and forbids Catholic priests and Protestant ministers from criticizing the “one-child” policy from the pulpit. It continues to brutalize Uighur Muslims in China’s northwest province, and to attack the culture and religion of the people of Tibet.

    IRFA also mandates training for diplomats, a necessary element of any worldwide foreign policy initiative. The Obama administration has experimented with a potentially useful training program conceived under its predecessor. I have had the opportunity to teach in this program at the Foreign Service Institute, and several scores of foreign service officers have attended the courses offered.

    Unfortunately, the program remains voluntary, which ensures that the busy diplomats who run American foreign policy seldom participate. Moreover, the overall curriculum is diffuse and confusing on the meaning and value of religious freedom. Some presenters suggest that a vigorous American policy may transgress the constitutional ban on establishment of religion, or that advancing religious freedom constitutes cultural imperialism (do we really have the right to “impose our values” on others?). Diplomats who attend these courses have the right to wonder whether they are being trained to advance religious freedom or to protest the religious freedom policy mandated by Congress.

    The stark reality is that fifteen years after IRFA’s passage, our diplomats are not being trained to know what religious freedom is and why it is important, let alone how to advance it. This deficiency reflects a continuing, deep-seated skepticism in our foreign policy establishment. Its members continue to doubt that religious freedom should be considered real foreign policy.

    That skepticism also helps explain why all ambassadors-at-large for religious freedom have been isolated within the State Department, and severely under-resourced. Other ambassadors-at-large report directly to the secretary of state (for example, those for global women’s issues and for global AIDS coordination). But the religious freedom ambassador and office have been placed many levels below the secretary. The ambassador has reported, and reports today, to a lower-ranking official. It is as if an army general were reporting to an army colonel. The religious freedom ambassador does not attend meetings of other senior State Department officials on a regular basis.

    In addition, the ambassador-at-large and the Office of International Religious Freedom are marginalized in a bureau (Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) that itself has long been marginalized at the State Department, notwithstanding the outstanding people who serve there. Sadly, foreign service officers tend to avoid that bureau in general, and the religious freedom office in particular, as dead ends for their careers, places where real foreign policy is not practiced. Neither the office nor the ambassador have direct control over the modest amounts of funding available that could be marshaled to develop effective strategies abroad.

    Given this isolation, it is hardly surprising that neither American diplomats nor foreign governments see religious freedom as a priority for American foreign policy. Many diplomats seem already to believe that a vigorous pursuit-of-religious-freedom policy would be unconstitutional, or would constitute cultural imperialism. Others think it is a policy imposed by Christians and is designed to clear the way for Christian missionaries. Some conservatives are hesitant to support religious freedom for Muslims around the world.

    This latter attitude is particularly damaging. Conservatives, for the most part, are defenders of religious freedom in the United States. Given the well-founded fear of Islamist terrorism, the hesitancy of some conservatives to afford the same right to Muslims abroad is perhaps understandable. But their logic rests on the erroneous assumption that religious freedom means clearing the way for extremist versions of Shari’a law or other forms of Islamist extremism. As Richard John Neuhaus was fond of saying, religious freedom carries with it a self-denying ordinance. In a democratic polity, religious liberty does not mean “anything goes.” To the contrary, it imposes its own limits, the most important of which is equality under the law.

    An Egyptian democracy grounded in religious freedom, to take but one example, would permit Muslim reformers to speak openly about their own religion, criticize the Muslim Brotherhood, and present liberal conceptions of Islamic practice without fearing criminal prosecution for blasphemy. It would broaden and deepen public debates over what stable democracy requires of Islam. To date, that debate has been dominated by the extremists, as it is in most Muslim-majority countries. Equally important, religious freedom would not only provide protections to Coptic Christians. It would also grant them the right to build churches and establish Coptic institutions in civil society, run for political office, and make Christian arguments in debates over Egyptian laws and policies.

    False perceptions and destructive attitudes exist among secular liberals and conservative Christians—I personally have encountered each of them. But they do not, in my view, sufficiently explain our diplomatic ineffectiveness. The major problem, it seems to me, is that a significant proportion of our foreign policy officials no longer believe that religious freedom is the “first freedom”—of American history, of the Constitution, and of all people everywhere.

    At the State Department, and in the foreign affairs establishment in general, too many have rejected the proposition, central to our founding, that religion is necessary for the survival of democracy. For America’s founding generation, and most generations since, religious freedom constituted the “first freedom” because it was thought necessary for the well-being of individuals and societies. In particular, religion in the public square was considered crucial for the health of democracy. The founders believed that religious freedom entailed not only the right to believe and worship but also the right to act on the basis of religious belief, individually and in concert with others, privately and in civil society and political life—all within broad and equally applied limits. James Madison viewed religious actors in civil society as a critical check on the power of government. In his farewell address, George Washington argued that religion was necessary for the “dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity.”

    Many of our political and foreign policy leaders today, however, see religious freedom as a private matter with few legitimate public purposes. Religious liberty is in no sense necessary to individuals and societies. Rather, it is merely one in an ever-growing list of rights claims—in this case, a claim of privilege by religious people. As such it warrants no special protection but must be “balanced” against all other claims. Such views are reflected in positions taken by the Obama administration on the HHS mandate, but also in its international religious freedom policy. In a 2009 speech on the importance of human rights in foreign policy, which remains the clearest explanation of the administration’s human rights priorities to date, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that “to fulfill their potential, people . . . must be free to worship . . . and to love in the way that they choose.”

    Secretary Clinton invokes the freedom to worship, not religious freedom. But “worship” is essentially a private activity, with few if any civic implications. It is certainly easier to balance against other rights claims. Clinton also suggests that a putative “right to love” is a comparable right. Clearly the Obama administration has in its domestic policy weighed religious freedom against other rights claims it believes important, such as the right to contraceptives and abortifacients, or to same-sex “marriage,” and religious freedom has been found to be an inferior right. This helps to explain why, in its foreign policy, the Obama administration has applied far more policy energy in its international pursuit of a “right to love” than in its pursuit of religious freedom.

    It is no accident that the first affirmation in our Bill of Rights is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Establishment Clause was intended to protect the free exercise of religion, in part by ensuring that no particular religious group was given any privileged position within the country.Today the threat of “establishment” comes not from any church but rather from a secular ideology quite willing to abridge religious freedoms. For these new ideologues, “error has no rights.” Religious individuals and entities must toe the line on abortion, contraception, and the redefinition of marriage. Recently, the New Mexico “Human Rights” Commission swept aside concerns about religious liberty and fined Elane Photography over $6,000 for refusing on religious grounds to participate in a same-sex-commitment ceremony. In August, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously upheld that ruling. In his decision upholding the Obama administration’s position on same-sex “marriage” (U.S. v. Windsor), Justice Anthony Kennedy declared that those who resist this innovation in human affairs—that is, those who continue to support a religious view of marriage as between one man and one woman—are acting with malice, seeking to “disparage and injure,” to “demean” and “humiliate” same-sex couples.Is it any wonder that this new aggressively secular creed, which privatizes and relativizes religious freedom, undermines our will and our capacity as a country to defend religious freedom abroad?

    Europe provides an example of what lies ahead. The official American understanding of religious freedom is in many ways reminiscent of the French ideology of laïcité, which relegates religion to an entirely private role in society and politics. Roger Trigg, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, notes that one of the characteristics of the European privatization project is its willful dilution of religious freedom to a right of freedom of “religion and belief.” The problem here is that “belief” can mean virtually anything one feels strongly about, from environmentalism to the Manchester soccer club. Religion in Europe has long since lost much of its special status in law, society, and politics and is now routinely treated as merely one human preference among an infinite possible number of preferences.

    Thus the problem with the appearance of the following sentence at the beginning of the 2012 State Department annual report, in a section describing why this right is important for the United States: “Freedom of religion and belief and the right to worship as one chooses fulfill a deep and abiding human need.” To drive this point home, Secretary of State John Kerry, in his remarks on the release of the report, used the “worship” phrase twice to describe the content of U.S. policy. Regarding his own actions, Kerry said he pressed foreign leaders “to safeguard freedom of belief.”

    Although the problem is deeply ideological, some concrete steps can be taken to remedy it. Members of Congress should speak out about the value of religious freedom as the first freedom, pay more attention to this issue in our foreign policy, and demand answers from State Department officials in public hearings and private meetings.

    In addition, five simple amendments to the International Religious Freedom Act would remove some of the institutional obstacles to a more effective religious freedom policy.

    First, require that the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom report directly to the secretary of state and attend all regular meetings of senior State Department officials. This will ensure that foreign governments and American diplomats alike see that the administration takes religious freedom seriously enough to give it the same priority they do other key issues.

    Second, give the ambassador resources to develop and implement new strategies. This need not involve the appropriation of new monies. Funds can be reallocated from existing appropriations for programs such as democracy promotion and counterterrorism. For example, require 20 percent of congressional appropriations for the promotion of democracy abroad to be allocated to the Office of International Religious Freedom.

    Third, make training of American diplomats in religious freedom mandatory at three stages: when they enter the Foreign Service, when they receive “area studies” training prior to departing for post, and when they become deputy chiefs of mission and ambassadors. This training should tell them what religious freedom is, why it is important for individuals and societies, why advancing it is important for America’s national interests, its status in the country and region to which they have been assigned, and how to advance it.

    Fourth, amend the IRFA to require that the list of particularly severe violators (the “countries of particular concern”) be issued annually with the report. Require the State Department to provide a comprehensive analysis of policy tools being applied in each country, including programs that target democratic stability, economic growth, and counterterrorism.

    Fifth and finally, require the State Department to respond in writing to recommendations by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. At the same time, require the commission to report on why the United States is not succeeding in advancing religious freedom, as gauged by objective reports such as those by the Pew Research Center.

    Such changes will not transform our policy overnight. But until they are made, America’s religious freedom policy will remain a powerful idea that has not yet gelled, one that is not reducing religious persecution, advancing the institutions and habits of religious freedom, or serving the national security of the United States. 

    Thomas F. Farr is director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He was the first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

  • 2013-11-07 11:38 AM | Daniel

    The idea that American Protestantism has a “mainline,” or ever did, was born in irony. The mainline is usually identified with seven Protestant denominations, all of which were small in their heyday of the 1950s. Moreover, just after they acquired the name “mainline,” they began to shrink. The idea of the mainline had a basis, but it had little to do with numbers. The mainline churches assumed a leadership role in American society, they built a large stock of cultural capital, they crafted a persuasive rhetoric about modern Christianity and America, they built an ecumenical national church, they were (and still are) overrepresented in the corridors of power, and they served as guardians of America’s moral culture. One of the best ways to see how they did it is to track the history of the Christian Century magazine, the flagship of mainline Protestantism.

    For many years I have been telling colleagues and graduate students that somebody ought to write this story. Nobody understood twentieth-century ecumenical Protestantism better than the founder and editor of the Christian Century, Charles Clayton Morrison. Though forgotten today, he influenced this tradition more than almost anybody. In addition, Morrison wrote an unpublished autobiography chock-full of insights about his ambitions for the Century and how he kept it going.

    Academic fashions long ago turned against everything associated with the unfortunately named mainline. The mainline would have done slightly better to stick with its other names, “liberal” and “ecumenical.” But denominations and formal ecumenism are hopelessly passé by any name, so Morrison and the Century had to wait for Elesha J. Coffman, whose graduate advisor at Duke, Evangelical historian Grant Wacker, realized what was odd about this situation. Thus, we finally have an account of the Christian Century’s role in the rise of the so-called Protestant mainline, in a book that tells only part of the story, but does so splendidly.

    Coffman, who teaches church history at Dubuque Theological Seminary, presses hard, with a nod to social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, on the concept of cultural capital. She argues rightly that mainline Protestantism richly illustrates both meanings of the term “mainline”: principal, as belonging to the first rank, but also conventional, as belonging to the mainstream or middle-of-the-road. It is exceedingly difficult to be first rank and conventional at the same time.

    The story begins with a tiny Disciples of Christ magazine, the Christian Oracle, founded in 1884 in Des Moines, Iowa. A typical denominational organ, it helped Disciples carry on their early nineteenth-century Restorationist heritage, which had Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian roots. The church’s Presbyterian founders, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, sought to restore the anti-hierarchical democracy of early Christianity; their efforts yielded a Disciples tradition advocating church unity and minimal church tradition. By the late nineteenth century the Disciples had a conservative wing and a liberal one, the latter especially in Chicago, where the Christian Oracle moved in 1900 and changed its name to the Christian Century. Eight years later the magazine folded, and young Disciples minister Morrison bought it at a mortgage foreclosure.

    Like many Protestant ministers of his time, Morrison came from a clerical family of humble means, and he cherished the liberal theology movement for rescuing him from an unhappy choice between letting go of Christianity and trying to believe unbelievable things. Liberal theology taught that the Church had no future if it opposed modern science and biblical criticism, and the Social Gospel taught that Christianity has a mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice.

    From the beginning, Morrison wore his Social Gospel liberalism proudly, already writing in his distinctly forceful, clear, vivid, and arresting prose style. He later recalled: “By the end of my first year, the Christian Century had become something more than a journalistic organ; it was distinctly identified with a cause—the cause of liberalism.” 

    The Century was pushy about its ecumenical bias. Morrison said that denominationalism was a spiritual disaster that prevented the Church from winning souls and society to Christ. The Church should be unified on the basis of Christ and his Gospel and nothing else. This was in fact conventional Disciples’ theology, but Morrison called it ecumenism. He knew very well that the tiny and mostly conservative Disciples church did not provide much of a basis for the magazine. To succeed, he had to attract the audience of progressive ministers that he believed was out there. In 1917, the Century quietly announced that it was no longer a Disciples organ, having become “An Undenominational Journal of Religion.”

    Morrison never really acknowledged that he had a business model or even business acumen. In his telling, he gave himself wholly to a winning idea—Social Gospel liberalism—and the Century “just growed,” like Topsy. What mattered was that he stuck to this idea, he had the independence to do so, and he resisted the secular temptation, enabling the Century to thrive while rivals struggled and crashed.

    The Century pulled away from a crowded field of denominational periodicals and from the two gold-standard magazines of religious journalism, the Independent and the Outlook. Some denominational organs were ably produced, but all suffered from a headquarters mentality and a numerically small base. The Independent and the Outlook, though historically Congregationalist, were independent and thus did not face the temptation to the parochial and party-line. But the Social Gospel had a tendency to breed secular children, and both of its major magazines turned secular in pursuit of social relevance and larger audiences.

    Morrison knew he was getting somewhere when, in the 1920s, Congregationalists became the Century’s leading audience, followed by Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians. By 1928, he had 35,000 readers—impressive for a magazine featuring seminary-level theology. Morrison always hoped for lay readers, but targeted the intellectual and spiritual needs of ministers. He yearned for the cachet of Harper’s or the New Republic and thus felt the temptation to secularize. Yet he stuck to what had already worked for him, judging that the Independent and Outlook had lost their way by secularizing. Morrison had a favorite story about a dream his business manager had in approximately 1926. In the dream, Morrison was drowning in Lake Michigan, and just before he drowned he thrust up his hand and cried, “Keep it religious! Keep it religious!” 

    In the 1920s Morrison had two obsessions: abolishing war and defending Prohibition. Social Gospel ministers were ashamed of the pro-war sermons they had given in 1917 and 1918. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, and many other ministers vowed never to do it again, and the Century cheered them on, promoting Morrison’s involvement in the international movement to outlaw war. His other obsession, Prohibition, flowed straight from the Social Gospel commitment to Christianize society. For Morrison, Prohibition was a milestone moral achievement. A good society cared about the moral character of its people and the social ravages of alcohol.

    Morrison found a fire hydrant of opinions in Niebuhr. He urged Niebuhr to keep sending articles, although he and Niebuhr disagreed about the 1928 presidential election, an augur of things to come. Niebuhr was turning socialist at the time; Morrison held out for Herbert Hoover and Prohibition, and Niebuhr was incredulous. As usual with Niebuhr, he changed his mind about politics before rethinking what he believed theologically. But Coffman keeps theological discussion to a minimum, which is problematic when dealing with a profound theologian like Niebuhr. Morrison, too, though hardly a profound theologian, had an operative theology that influenced the Protestant mainline.

    Though Coffman does not mention it, in 1933 Morrison published The Social Gospel and the Christian Cultus, the most illuminating account ever written of the legacy and limitations of the Social Gospel. He observed that the Social Gospel had succeeded spectacularly at the seminary level. It was taught at every seminary that he respected. An entire generation of pastors had been trained in it, but its reach usually stopped with them. Every minister knew somebody who got fired for preaching about economic democracy or biblical criticism, and as a result many preached innocuous church-talk and kept their real beliefs to themselves.

    Morrison had a theory about what happened and what to do about it. The Social Gospel recovered the religion of Jesus, he reasoned. “Thy kingdom come” was the center of Jesus’ teaching, and the Church was supposed to be a Christ-­following fellowship that welcomed the stranger, loved its enemies, and helped to bring about the commonwealth of God. But this idea of what the Church was supposed to be contradicted the church that existed. Modern Christianity proposed something that had never been done—making the kingdom ideal of Jesus central to the Church’s religion.

    Early Christianity had the kingdom ideal, Morrison explained, but without an established church. Then the Church obscured the kingdom ideal by building an institutional church. Then the Social Gospel tried to reclaim the kingdom within the established church. But that did not work. The radical religion of Jesus did not fit into the “cultus of existing Christianity—its total theological, ethical, liturgical, and cultural expression.” Morrison put it emphatically: Christianity had never taught that the Church should exist for the sake of the kingdom. This idea was distinctly modern, a novelty of the Social Gospel. If modern Christians wanted to reclaim the Gospel of Jesus, they had to completely reinvent the cultus of the Church.

    Meanwhile, ministers labored in churches where congregants still believed in biblical inerrancy, six-day creation, and a myth of origins about the exclusive truth of their denomination. Coffman has a poignant section about the letters that ministers wrote to Morrison. Many thanked him profusely, grateful for the Century’s substance and inspiration. Some were feisty, telling Morrison that he should get a clue about what they were up against. Many were sorrowful, telling stories about dogmatic congregants, anti-intellectualism, reactionary politics, and having to hide their beliefs. “An acute sense of isolation permeated many of the letters,” Coffman notes. “For them, the Century constituted the only link to the kinds of people and conversations they had found so stimulating in college or seminary.”

    In the 1930s, nearly every mainline denomination vowed never to support another war. Some issued ringing statements condemning the war business as anti-Christian. Niebuhr, having played a sizable role in building up Social Gospel pacifism, began to turn against it in 1932 with his icy, slashing, brilliant polemic, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Human groups never willingly subordinate their interests to the interests of others, he argued. Morality belongs to the sphere of individual action; there is no such thing as a moral group; and politics is always about struggling for power. Thus the Social Gospel’s appeal to reason and Christian love was maddeningly stupid.

    Liberals howled that Niebuhr had invented a Christian ethic that got rid of Jesus, so, three years later, he addressed this issue in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, contending that the teaching of Jesus has no relevance in the social sphere except as an impossible ethical ideal. A very personal debate erupted over this argument, yielding further charges of misrepresentation and “fighting dirty” between Niebuhr and the Century editors. Coffman skillfully recounts the in-house back-and-forth, noting that by 1941 Morrison detected an “evil spirit” in Niebuhr’s polemics, and Niebuhr sharply told Morrison to stop claiming that they were friends.

    Each side offended the other with statements about what counted as a Christian position. The Century urged that it was possible for a mainline denomination to become a peace church. The anti-war proclamations of the 1930s suggested that Morrison might be right. By 1941, however, liberal Protestants fiercely debated whether Nazi fascism had changed the moral calculus, and Niebuhr broke from the Century to found Christianity & Crisis magazine. Then, one December morning, the Empire of Japan obliterated the pacifist ethos of the Protestant mainline, leaving Morrison with little company.

    Had the Century stuck with Morrison’s tendency to equate his anti-war position with the mind of the Church, the magazine would have disqualified itself from its leading role in the glory years of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It should be noted, however, that Morrison would have disputed Coffman’s repeated description of him as a pacifist. He regarded himself as a pragmatic peacemaker—not a doctrinaire pacifist—who took the teaching of Jesus as seriously as possible. He had a similar position about liberalism. Liberalism was simply the method of free inquiry, not a position about anything. On the latter issue, Niebuhr rightly countered that liberalism had an ample supply of doctrines and presuppositions. Liberals did not deserve to win if they were unwilling to defend their position in an argument.

    Nine months before Pearl Harbor, Time magazine magnate Henry R. Luce issued a manifesto in his other magazine, Life, on what he called “The American Century.” The entire world, Luce proclaimed, stood to gain from being led by the great American colossus. Morrison blasted Luce incredulously, calling his pronouncement a “counsel of madness,” an obnoxious call for “American imperialism,” and “an appeal to our national egotism.” The previous year, Morrison had opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection, charging that FDR was an American-style fascist who militarized a peaceful nation. Now Time and Life wanted America to dominate the world, just as Morrison pleaded that it was not too late to stay out of World War II. At the end of that fateful year, he bitterly contended that Pearl Harbor could have been prevented, but now Americans had to support their nation at war.

    Coffman aptly sets Luce’s “American Century” against Morrison’s Christian Century to account for the postwar establishment. Both visions were loaded with mainline presumption, but Luce’s routed Morrison’s, shaping a new public consensus that the Century struggled to accommodate. By the end of Morrison’s editorial run in 1947, much of what he cared about had been eviscerated, yet the Century came into a moment of glory for things it shared with Luce, Niebuhr, and the Protestant establishment. These things defined the idea of the mainline. Coffman calls it the idea of “a unified American Protestantism, culturally dominant, socially progressive, fulfilling its obligation as a shepherd of the nation’s soul.”The Century had to scale back to a modest version of a still-grandiose agenda. There was plenty of work to do if liberal Protestants were willing to make the essential adjustments. It was still their job to look after America’s moral culture, preserve a role for religion in American life, expand the ecumenical movement, and, perhaps, revive the dream of a cooperative world order, or at least contain communism. The mainline could still claim its Social Gospel legacy, while dropping the fantasies about economic democracy and reinventing Christianity. By the end of the 1950s, the movement even had a new name befitting its establishment status: the mainline. It was enough to be culturally powerful—except that this was threatened too.

    Morrison saw it coming. His last editorial series for the Century, published in 1946, was titled “Can Protestantism Win America?” Despite being progressive about almost everything else, Morrison had never granted that religious diversity beyond the boundaries of the Federal Council of Churches added anything of value to the nation. His editorial successors at the Century, Paul Hutchinson and Harold Fey, tried uneasily to sustain this presumption without saying it too impolitely. Morrison shook his head: Ecumenical Protestantism was killing itself with politeness. 

    The book version of Morrison’s plea, published under the same title, put it aggressively. There were two rising threats to American Christianity: Roman Catholicism and secularism. Billy Graham was not yet famous, and Morrison could not imagine that fundamentalism would become culturally powerful. He was very worried, however, that secularism and Catholicism were getting stronger. Atheists and Catholics had every right to vie for influence, he allowed. What galled him was that liberal Protestants refused to fight, or even recognize that they were in a fight for America’s soul.

    Morrison admonished that winning converts was the mark of any serious faith: “The missionary spirit is of its essence.” After the Social Gospel petered out, though, liberal Protestantism stopped trying to win converts. Liberal Protestants shunned all words smacking of missionary zeal; they liked to pretend they were not in competition with Catholicism, and they took pride in being secular, which was a self-liquidating attitude. They were too ecumenical, too secular and soaked in relativism to evangelize for anything.

    Within Protestantism, Morrison argued, ecumenism was a good thing; in fact, it was desperately necessary. But liberal Protestants were making ecumenism look ridiculous by asking Catholics to join it. Protestantism was about freedom and democracy, while Catholicism was about dogmatism and authoritarianism: “Protestantism cannot cooperate ecclesiastically with a dictatorship. It must make a clear-cut decision to accept its task of winning America to Christ without any illusion that it has a collaborator in Roman Catholicism.”

    Morrison implored liberal Protestant leaders to stop minimizing their core beliefs in the hope of creating a wider ecumenism. This strategy, he insisted, was a loser. It would not modernize Catholicism, and it would never win America. Moreover, the greatest threat to America’s soul was ascending secularism. Protestantism was not losing members to the Catholic Church, but it was losing multitudes to the culture of disbelief.

    There was a bitter irony here, which Morrison stressed. Liberal Protestantism had tried valiantly to accommodate modern culture, only to be snubbed by it: “The assumption that modern culture has been moving toward a Christian goal has been the undoing of Protestantism. It has weakened its will and confused its faith. Too long has Protestantism stood in awe of modern culture. Its sense of mission has been obfuscated by the messianic pretensions of science, by the prestige of public education, and by the benefits which technology and an ever enlarging state paternalism were conferring upon the people.” 

    Though mainline Protestants were building churches across the landscape and setting attendance records, Morrison was not impressed. Postwar America, oozing superficial religiosity, didn’t come close to the Social Gospel vision of a good society. It had no spiritual depth and no passion for social justice. Moreover, the Protestant churches were disadvantaged by lacking a competitive history. They had never had to “win” America, since they assumed that America was culturally Protestant. Now they were paying for their privileges and their secularism.

    Morrison urged them to change course before it was too late. The resurgent Protestantism that was needed would be militant, united, and theologically purified. It would get rid of the denominations, form an ecumenical super-church, and proclaim that Christ is Lord. Everything else was divisive and sectarian; it had to go.

    In other words, Morrison ended exactly as he began, learning nothing from the decades of cultural pluralization that he lived through. “Can Protestantism Win America?”was an echo from a lost world. A few years later the terms “WASP” and “mainline” gained currency. Both were markers of a changing cultural consciousness. The former term reflected the startling idea that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants constituted one American ethnic group among others. The latter term registered that there were other kinds of Protestants, although the term obscured that they, whoever they were, were the majority. With this shift in consciousness, Morrison’s dream of a victorious “Protestantism” became an object of ridicule. The bland unconsciousness of hegemonic white Protestant Americanism was no longer possible.

    Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray does not play a role in Coffman’s account, but Morrison clashed with him over these issues. Murray stewed over Morrison’s book, wrestling with a belief that Murray was trying to give up, that the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism were incommensurable. Murray struggled with the disagreements among American Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and secularists that seemed, to him, to obviate meaningful discussions across religious lines. Yet Murray burned at Morrison’s prejudiced way of putting it. He countered that no group should have dominant cultural privileges, and he insisted that pluralism was a justice issue.

    Murray was sensitive to the irony of Morrison’s argument that Protestantism had wrongly accommodated secular culture and thus lost its spiritual and public power. Like Morrison, he believed that American Christianity was in a life-or-death struggle with secular disbelief. Like Morrison, he believed that nearly everything precious in the American experiment was at stake in the secularization of American culture.

    But Murray had a contrasting strategy for holding off the tide of secular destruction. It was to respond creatively to religious pluralism. To respect the diversity of religions was to reject the usual options of watering down Protestantism, stripping religion from the public square, treating democracy as a substitute for religion, or reducing religion to values. Murray got many things wrong, and some of his claims are still up for grabs. But the crucial thing—respecting religious diversity—he got brilliantly right.

    There are four main interpretations of the 1950s heyday of the mainline. Some say it was the golden moment of American Protestantism, when Protestant leaders forged a national church featuring commanding assemblies of the National Council of Churches. Some say it was a triumph of illusion, when Protestant leaders built an impressive façade upon sand. Some say it hollowed out the historic denominations and contributed mightily to their demise. Coffman affirms all three while adding her version of the fourth option, the “cultural victory” thesis. Several others have taken this line, notably Jay Demerath and Christian Smith, but Coffman provides ballast for the case that liberal Protestantism succeeded by insinuating its values into American culture.

    The mainline helped to unify American society, and it spoke for American values in ways that most Americans appreciated. It preserved the idea that the United States was a nation with the soul of a church, and it did so in a way that made religion respectable. But most Americans were not interested in formal ecumenism, or even weekly low-key organized religion, so Protestant churches got diminishing returns for their efforts.

    During these years, however, America experienced a resurgence of fundamentalist and near-fundamentalist religion. In 1956, a handful of conservative Evangelicals clustered around Sun Oil millionaire J. Howard Pew, and the now-famous Billy Graham founded Christianity Today magazine to provide an alternative to the Century. It dwarfed the Century from day one. Christianity Today issued an initial print run of 285,000 copies, secured nearly 40,000 subscribers in its first year, and went on to more than triple that figure. The Century, meanwhile, had oscillated between 30,000 and 40,000 subscribers since the mid-1920s, as it still does.

    In 1958, Christianity Today commissioned a nationwide survey of Protestant ministers conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey. It asked ministers to categorize themselves theologically. The results were: 39 percent conservative, 35 percent fundamentalist, 14 percent liberal, and 12 percent neo-orthodox. The Christian Century had probably never represented more than 15 percent of America’s Protestant clergy. But it made an outsized imprint on American society by presuming and acting otherwise. Coffman notes that the Century carried on as though it spoke for the American Church, “convinced that a statistically accurate picture could be utterly wrong.”

    Vast parts of this story are left untold in Coffman’s account, notably the American liberal Protestant role in creating the United Nations and World Council of Churches, and how the mainline dealt with America’s original sin of racism. Near the end Coffman mentions a scathing letter from Gardner Taylor, a Baptist pastor in Brooklyn, protesting that the Century did not mention a single black congregation in its series on great American churches. And she notes that the mainline played an active role in the civil rights movement. Otherwise, racial justice is barely mentioned in this book, which ends the story in 1960, five years after Martin Luther King Jr. entered the national stage.

    But subverting an established narrative is precisely what dealing with racism does. The Christian Century espoused a theology of progress and idealism during the very period that African Americans were stripped of their voting rights, subjected to the brutalities of Jim Crow segregation and abuse, and terrorized by an epidemic of lynching. If Christianity had any ethical meaning in this context, it should have given highest priority to the ravages of racism. Instead, the Century rarely said anything, even about lynching. What it did say, here and there, sometimes with a brave word, is important for the record. What it did not say, while the Congress on Racial Equality organized sit-ins through the 1940s and early 1950s that the white press ignored, is equally important.

    In its own way, however, Coffman’s book makes a powerful point through its silence. Had the book crossed into the 1960s, there would have been a chapter featuring King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which the Century published, and clergy getting arrested to abolish Jim Crow. As it is, we are left with a picture of white supremacy playing out in the heyday of the mainline, with very little notice from its flagship journal that American religion contributed mightily to America’s greatest evil. 
  • 2013-09-19 11:35 AM | Daniel
    Dearly beloved Jesus, please join us as we gather to study the teachings of the Fifth Epochal Revelation. We seek your amazing grace in order to be more cognizant of your presence among us. We know your Spirit of Truth blesses the whole world, but this is an invitation directly and personally from us to you. We reach out to you in friendship and gratefully acknowledge what you do for us:


                You bring peace to our hearts.

                You fortify our souls.

        &nnbsp;       You unite us when we come together in an attempt to comprehend more of God’s creation.

                You steady our aim in the search for truth.

                We seek some of your wisdom—the quest of the ages—in order to center our learning around you.

                Master, you foster within us a respect and interest in the art of listening.

                Indeed, you enhance our discernment of facts, meanings, and values.

                Your Spirit of Truth leads to a greater sense of truth co-ordination.

                You help us to realize that study is really the search for God.

                Your light of truth enables us to think more clearly.

                Through you, our conversation is elevated to the greater glory of God.

                You encourage love between brothers and sisters, strengthening their gentle ties.

                In you, we are all family.

                Your very presence aids us in appreciating the Father’s spirit in our fellow mortals.

                You whet our appetite for unselfish service motivated by love.

                It is your good cheer that causes laughter and study to go hand in hand.

                Experiencing the joy of knowing you dispels a myriad of cares.

                We are comforted in the moment and feel secure about our future when you embrace us, oh Lord.


                Your very name, Jesus, is a tonic for heart and soul.

                You are both God and friend to us.

                Thanks be to you, we are blessed with an intimacy of divine spirit and material mind.

                The convergence of mind and spirit, in your name, opens up new social possibilities for sharing insights with others.


    Jesus, we love you very much. We will continue studying with faith and intelligent inquiry. And as we go forward, please bless our efforts to create, maintain, and perpetuate a worldwide network of new study groups in the beautiful hope of contributing to the eventual rehabilitation of Urantia.  Amen.



    Written by Charles Laurence Oivea © 2013

    For Michael’s sake


  • 2013-09-19 11:31 AM | Daniel

    The Boxer Rebellion did not end until eight colonial powers, enraged by the attacks on their embassies and missionaries, shipped an expeditionary force to China, ending a fifty-five-day rebel siege of Beijing’s Legation Quarter. By then, the Boxers had slaughtered two hundred Western missionaries and tens of thousands of Chinese Christians. Peace was won with a lopsided treaty that infuriated the Chinese, especially in the context of the concessions already imposed after the nineteenth century’s Opium Wars.

    Sidney Brooks’ story has haunted me. He died for Christ at twenty-four; at twenty-five, I moved to China, writing about Christianity as a Robert Novak Fellow with the Phillips Foundation. To some extent, our experiences bookend the changing history of Christianity in modern China. He had come to spread the Word; I had come to report back on how the Word was doing. He was an unwelcomed ambassador of a foreign religion; when I arrived, I was foreign but my faith was not. Christianity had endured and adapted, becoming one of the few cultural commonalities I shared with my sources.

    I crisscrossed China, attending state-sanctioned churches and “underground” or “house” churches and talking with Catholics and Protestants. And through my travels, I discovered that Christianity in China is entering a new phase: Where it once carried thick association with Western cultural influence, it has now developed into something truly Chinese. It is no longer a niche religion, either, having become something with mass appeal.

    Christianity has struggled to find its place in China for centuries. And although the message of Christianity is culturally neutral, the medium rarely was. Western missionaries long sought cultural converts to Christianity. The Jesuit Alessandro Valignano (1539–1606) was among the first to articulate missionary policies, not only emphasizing the importance of “accommodation and adaptation to Chinese culture,” as historian Daniel H. Bays writes, but also “indirect evangelism by means of science and technology to convince the elite of the high level of European civilization.”

    But the Chinese already had a high civilization when Christianity arrived, so the religion was often viewed as a cultural threat. This tension intensified particularly beginning with the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s. European missionaries faced a moral dilemma. On one hand, they had witnessed the drug’s deleterious effects on Chinese society and understood the push for prohibition.

    On the other hand, European victory in the Opium Wars meant greater opportunity for spreading the Gospel. Indeed, the first round of treaties, from 1842 to 1844, stipulated that Westerners be permitted to build churches, schools, and other community buildings in five key coastal cities. The second round, from 1858 to 1860, granted Western missionaries extensive travel rights, and in­cluded, explicitly or implicitly, the right of Chinese to become Christians.

    The result was to link Christianity to colonialism, which would bear catastrophic consequences. The Chinese despised the treaties imposed upon them, reasonably considering them humiliating and unequal. And Beijing already feared faith for legitimate reasons; historically, religion had already played a central role in the Yellow Turban, White Lotus, and Taiping rebellions.

    The Boxer Rebellion was the first violent national expression of these frustrations. The ensuing violence undermined the legitimacy of the beleaguered Qing dynasty, contributing to its collapse in 1911. The second expression began in 1949, when Mao Zedong founded the decidedly atheist People’s Republic of China. He sought to purge the country of superstition, religion, and foreign influence. Christians became a special target. Foreign missionaries were expelled, and the Church’s fate fell to the indigenous leaders who had emerged since the Boxer Rebellion.

    Persecution was most intense during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), years when Christian faith could become a death warrant, as it was for Chinese pastor Wang Zhiming, executed in 1973. In Liao Yiwu’s God is Red, which recounts the struggles of the Chinese Christians in the Maoist and post-Maoist years, the pastor’s son recalls how, because of their faith, his family was beaten, bound, and spit upon during public condemnation meetings. The communists then cut out the pastor’s tongue so he couldn’t preach, paraded him around the village, and shot him.

    Christianity was forced underground. Most believers from this era are dead or elderly, so I rely on the second-hand stories of those who inherited their faith. A church worker in Beijing repeated to me the tale of a church that had worshipped in a cave during the Cultural Revolution. These Christians had somehow saved a single Bible from destruction, but they lived in terror that it, too, would be lost. So the believers each memorized a book—as long as they lived, so did the Word.

    Ironically, persecution strengthened Chinese believers’ faith and determination, and religion eventually proved stronger than its opposition. Document 19—one of the primary policy statements on religion in China, derived from the same party gathering that established Deng Xiaoping’s rule—states that “those who expect to rely on administrative decrees or other coercive measures to wipe out religious thinking and practices with one blow are even further from the basic viewpoint Marxism takes toward the religious question. They are entirely wrong and will do no small harm.”

    That’s an incredible acknowledgement of failure from the government. Since Deng Xiaoping, Beijing has attempted to manage and control religion through an elaborate religious bureaucracy, all the while predicting religion will die out naturally.

    But statistics, however fuzzy, suggest precisely the opposite has happened: Christianity’s growth in China has been dramatic. Some believers worship in the state-sanctioned churches, but most still worship in so-called house or underground churches, which operate outside the sanctioned system—making them tough to number. But there are rough estimates. The Chinese government’s lowballed statistics numbered twenty-three million Protestants and 5.7 million Catholics. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported fifty-eight million Protestants and nine million Catholics; other plausible studies suggest the total number of Christians has surpassed one hundred million.

    It’s true that persecution still endures—and it’s been meticulously documented each year by the Texas-based ChinaAid, an organization founded by a former Chinese house-church pastor who was himself targeted once. I saw that persecution myself, visiting the Qiao Tau Mang Catholic Church in Wenzhou. Two months before my visit, the local police had essentially kidnapped the underground bishop, Peter Shao Zhumin, taking him to Sichuan Province, where Catholic leaders had bent to Beijing’s control. It was an attempt to coerce Shao to likewise yield to government control, but it failed, and he was eventually returned to his congregation.

    Church members spoke to me about how the government had cut them off from the Vatican and the global Church, and how their isolation weighed on them. They met relatively openly—in a five-story building next to a state-run hospital—but were ever aware of the potential for a crackdown.

    But, to my surprise, I learned through my reporting that as Christianity finds its place in Chinese culture, its adherents are less defined by how they cope with state-sponsored adversity.

    Part of that is Christianity’s unique theology: Its fundamental prerequisite is belief, not adherence to specific rules or customs. As a rule, the Christians I met wanted to both honor God and obey the government whenever possible. One businessman I met was part of the underground church, and he prided himself on his openness with the local officials. He invited them to Christian functions and notified them when he was hosting a big event, essentially acting as a PR rep for God and trying to persuade them that they had nothing to fear and much to learn.

    Other Chinese Christians avoid politics altogether. I met a young man in Beijing who led a Bible study at a house church. He was endearingly blunt, talking to me over pizza about his mother’s illness and how it had led him to God, and about his longing to find the wife God had reserved for him. But when I brought up politics, he clammed up completely. Chinese Christians invite trouble when they get political, he suggested before changing the subject.

    Nevertheless, Christianity’s explosive growth has undeniable potential for political reform. Religious practice assumes freedom of speech, assembly, and even some property rights.

    And Christians are also working to improve rule of law; a disproportionate number of Chinese rights lawyers are Christian. Some theorize this is because legal theory drove them to natural law, which in turn directed them to God. Others speculate it’s exactly the opposite. Nearly all these supposed subverters of state power work within the existing legal framework, trying to reform China by forcing it to adhere to the laws established by existing authorities. Of course, the powerful and politically connected are the ones undermining rule of law, but challenging them takes courage, which rights lawyers often derive from their faith.

    But Christianity’s biggest legacy may be its restoration of the nation’s fractured civil society. China’s Christians, I observed, feel compelled to change every aspect of their lifestyle once they convert. They are radical in their dedication to service. They define themselves by the way they change their own lives and the lives of others. And that has a cultural impact.

    It’s hard for a Westerner to understand just how morally destructive communism has been. Famine drove many to thievery, and neighbors murdered or beat neighbors under the guise of revolutionary heroism. One simply doesn’t ask elderly Chinese about the sixties; some speculate the whole generation has post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Interviewing migrant workers at the Beijing West Railway Station earlier this year, I met an old man with twisted hands and a compelling face who was willing to talk about his life. He briefly referenced the Maoist era, and I pushed the topic. His friend nearly slapped the chopsticks out of his hand—there’s peer pressure to stay silent, too. And earlier this year, a sixty-one-year-old official in Jinan, Shandong Province made international news when he printed an apology—“despite huge family pressure,” as media accounts noted—for acts of violence he had committed as a teenage Red Guard.

    The enduring ethic from this era became self-preservation at all costs. Older generations view money as the only guarantor of safety, and younger generations were raised to revere wealth. Greed is prolific, and power is envied and abused. Occasional horrific news stories hint at the me-first legacy of Maoism: A toddler was run over by a car, and no one stopped to help; a greedy company put melamine in milk destined for baby bottles; a Red Cross worker apparently pilfered funds meant for victims of the Sichuan earthquake, spending the money on designer bags and fancy cars.

    Christianity becomes an appealing answer. Both Catholic and Protestant churches are extraordinarily charitable, creating communities by engaging in philanthropy and social work. They also forge kinship in China’s urban centers, where mass migration has left many feeling isolated. These developments, though not directly political, have the potential to change China by addressing some of the most fundamental material, emotional, and spiritual needs of its people.

    And, to bring it full circle, Chinese Christians are now sending missionaries of their own. They’re avid proselytizers within their own borders, spreading the Word across provinces. Many feel a special calling to bring the Word back to the Middle East; others become unintentional missionaries as their work carries them to the West and beyond. Christianity has become Chinese. Now, its converts are paying it forward.  

  • 2013-06-19 11:25 AM | Daniel

    It is no meager feat to defend a man whose own mother could not bring herself to forgive his sins—but this is the task to which Frederic Raphael sets himself in A Jew Among Romans, his apologia for the classical Jewish historian and arch-turncoat Titus Flavius Josephus.

    Little is known about the biography of Josephus, born Joseph ben Mattathias in 37 c.e., other than his claim to priestly and royal lineage. The historical record—largely his own hand—first encounters him as leader of the Jewish rebels of first century Judaea in their Great Revolt against Rome. He offers himself as a pious Jew who is also a pragmatist, resisting the Empire’s petty impositions but equally frustrated by the Zealots who agitate for all-out war. Josephus is dragged into direct conflict with Rome and tasked in 67 c.e. with defending Jotapata, modern-day Yodfat, against Vespasian’s men.

    When the hilltop fortress falls, Josephus escapes the suicide pact struck by his comrades and surrenders to the Romans, becoming first a prisoner and later, by dint of his supposed prophetic abilities, a counselor to Titus. He takes the Empire of its coin, even adopting the Romanized name Titus Flavius Josephus, and begins to document the ensuing sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple from his handsome sinecure as defeated Jewish rebel turned Roman stenographer. His Jewish War rails against the fanatic garrisons who, as he saw it, provoked the suppression of the Jewish polity in Judaea before dying by their own hand at Masada.

    Josephus provided the world’s first case study in the internal struggle of the defector who reaps execrations from his ex-friends while being eyed suspiciously by his new ones. His decision to switch sides marked him as a shameful figure in Jewish history, serving the emperor whose army laid bloody siege to Jerusalem.

    Raphael—novelist, screenwriter, translator, and Commentary contributor—does not seek to exculpate Josephus of the self-interest that partly motivates all defectors. A Jew Among Romans is no hagiography. But he casts his subject as a Judaean Cassandra, who “tried to talk the Jews into surrender, for as long as there was any hope of averting the culminating horror.” Once his people were defeated, he chose to live: “If he was a coward because he had failed to die, he was also egregiously brave; if a traitor, it was to a reckless nationalism he never favored, not to Judaism.”

    Although Jewish historians, led by Louis H. Feldman, have come to recognize Josephus’s contributions to classical and biblical scholarship, his critics remain. The most compelling, Martin Goodman, frames Josephus as a creature of the Judaean and later Roman elite and suspects that his “instinct for apologetic overcame his conscience as a historian.” But it is against Yigael Yadin’s glib epigram—“he was a great historian and a bad Jew”—that Raphael sets his argument. The real offense of this “bad Jew” was not apostasy or treason but endurance: “He survived to report news no one wanted to hear.” Josephus had admonished his Zealot compatriots against suicidal extremism. He proved horrifically prescient, and lived to record the downfall of those who dismissed him. “Memory was the vessel of Jewish solidarity,” Raphael notes. Josephus tainted the heroics with ugly facts.

    The Judaea of Josephus’s time was, for Desmond Seward, an interregnal land that “had long ceased to be Israel while it was not yet Palestine.” This duality was reflected in Josephus, the Hellenistic Jew who was a rigorous follower of Jewish law; the traitor to the Jewish cause who would write a defense of Jewish history and philosophy; a Romanized Jew who, for Raphael, “was never one of them, nor could he ever again be what he was before.”

    In the eyes of Josephus, his nemesis, Zealot leader John of Gischala, was a man whose “desires were ever carried to great things.” He did not intend this as a compliment. Here Raphael’s apologia runs into trouble. If we are to draw parallels between Josephus and modern-era assimilated Jews, as Raphael thinks we should, may we not also read the cautious pragmatist as a forerunner to those integrationist and internationalist Jews who agitated against the establishment of a Jewish state in the 20th century? They also damned their opposite numbers as fanatics whose needless provocations would bring misery and destruction upon Jews everywhere. The reader who wonders if Josephus would have deemed Menachem Begin a latter-day John of Gischala, obsessed with “great things,” will not be alone.

    There is another significance to Josephus’s legacy often overlooked in academic debates. His narrative, the sole surviving account of the fall of Jerusalem, documents the simple but stark fact that the Jews were there. The object of much contemporary anti-Zionist scholarship is the dejudaization of Palestine—writing the Jews out of the history of the land until the 19th century in order to characterize Zionism as an alien colonialism. This revisionist project has been so successful that statements of historical fact can be judged inflammatory or (that weasel word of enforced non-offensiveness) “unhelpful.” Whenever an Israeli politician commits the sin of referring to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria,” a sort of linguistic settlement expansion in the eyes of liberal commentators, the New York Times rushes to label these terms “biblical names.” The secular schoolmarms of Eighth Avenue deem that a demerit, but thanks to Josephus’s writings, we know that these Jewish provinces thrived long after the days of the Torah just as they thrive once again today. Wherever the borders of Israel and Palestine are drawn in an eventual peace treaty, the scholarship of this “bad Jew” reminds us to whom the land ultimately belongs.

    Raphael joins a distinguished line of historians of Josephus, but few have accounted for the outcast sage so vividly. Raphael’s motion for acquittal is written in such spirited, lambent prose that he deserves to succeed where previous scholars have failed. Far from a “bad Jew,” his Josephus is a chronicler of Jewish courage, misjudgment, and ruin. A flawed character, for sure, but a consequential historian, and despite his traitorousness, a Jewish one at that.

    About the Author

    Stephen Daisley is a British journalist whose blog is the Eclectic Partisan. He writes regularly for Commentary.

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