The Christian Century

Waves of transgender news add to difficult agenda confronting religious traditionalists

Waves of transgender news add to difficult agenda confronting religious traditionalists

A bit of U.S. “mainline” Protestant history was made May 11. The Rhode Island State Council of Churches announced that its 70-year-old executive minister, American Baptist Donald Anderson, will take three months off for an unspecified “process of transitioning” to female identity.

The council’s board is “totally supportive,” stated its  president, a United Church of Christ pastor, and anticipates Anderson’s September return under the new name of Donnie. The council sponsored an April 24 “merciful conversation on gender identity and expression” at an Episcopal church.

By coincidence, the April 25 edition of The Christian Century, a prototypical “mainline” voice, published a noteworthy article on “nonbinary gender” as part of God’s good creation.

The piece was an excerpt from a new release by the Presbyterian Church (USA) book house, “Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians.” Author Austen Hartke, creator of the youtube series “Transgender and Christian,” is a recent graduate of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he won an Old Testament prize.

This frontier in modern moral theology confronts many U.S. religious groups head-on, and just after legalized same-sex marriage, causing religious-freedom disputes the news media will be covering for the foreseeable future. 

The transgender cause contrasts with the heavily “binary” and “cisgender” culture throughout the Bible and the Quran that shapes the beliefs of traditional Christians, Jew and Muslims.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

With apologies for a tired old pun: Should church leaders talk about going to pot?

With apologies for a tired old pun: Should church leaders talk about going to pot?

As California this year becomes the eighth state to legalize “recreational” marijuana (as opposed to “medical” uses), what do American religious groups have to say about this cultural lurch?

Not much, says an accurate complaint in The Christian Century’s Jan. 3 cover story “Talking About Marijuana -- in Church.” Author Adam Hearlson laments that churches are hesitant to openly discuss such a pertinent issue, and implies they should consider support for liberalization. 

It's past time for the news media to consult religious thinkers about this.

Church wariness is reflected in the fact that the “mainline” Protestant magazine itself identified Hearlson only vaguely as “a minister, writer, scholar.” In fact he teaches preaching and worship and directs the chapel at the nation’s oldest seminary, Andover Newton (which after years of decline is about to shut down and be absorbed by Yale Divinity School).

One obvious story peg is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has overturned Obama Administration policy, giving federal prosecutors discretion to enforce anti-pot laws, even in states where it’s legal. Both parties in the U.S. Congress have kept such laws on the books, and Department of Justice concern did not originate with the Trump Administration (.pdf document here).

Leaving aside libertarians who insist government should simply leave us alone, proponents offer three key arguments for an open “recreational” market:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

The Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations have scumbled long-standing visions of America's role in the world. During times past, the then-regnant “mainline” Protestantism might have addressed matters, but its intellectual impact has eroded. Are any resources from this or other segments of American religion equipped to provide moral guidance on foreign policy for such a confusing time?

 That’s a big fat story theme, which brings us to the current boomlet to reclaim the “Christian realism” of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Niebuhr was deemed the nation’s “greatest living political philosopher” by his ally Hans Morgenthau, a noted foreign policy analyst. In more recent times, Niebuhr has been lauded by former Democratic Presidents Obama and Jimmy Carter.

Yet, surprisingly for a theological liberal and longtime Socialist, Niebuhr also has moderate and conservative disciples. Jack Jenkins proposed in a May 18 ThinkProgress piece that President Trump’s “greatest ‘conservative’ opponent may turn out to be” Niebuhr. Others utter hosannas in a Niebuhr documentary premiered in January at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where he taught for 32 years.   

Another fan, of all people, is the hyper-newsworthy James Comey, late of the FBI, who mentioned this to New York Magazine years ago. In March, Ashley Feinberg of gizmodo.com even unmasked Comey as a Twitter user under Niebuhr’s name. The Comey angle is fleshed out in “The F.B.I. and Religion,” co-edited by Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman (University of California Press) and in a May 19 Weitzman article for Christianity Today.

Comey’s 1982 senior thesis at William and Mary compared the Reverend Niebuhr’s political theology favorably over against that of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Moral Majority. Both men cited Scripture and advocated Christian political involvement, Comey observed, but Niebuhr always recognized the ambiguities and shunned “America-first” fulminations.  

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Hopeful sign? Brazil's Christian right and secular left want Carnaval to cover up and tweak its tunes

Hopeful sign? Brazil's Christian right and secular left want Carnaval to cover up and tweak its tunes

These are not happy days in Brazil, the South American colossus that's home to more Roman Catholics than any other nation. Political, economic, social, and health problems abound, as does crime.

Plus there's this: Brazil's famed and raucous carnival season, Carnaval, as it's called in Portuguese -- the pre-Lenten blow out that begins this weekend and ends the first week of March (exact dates vary by city) -- has been caught up in the nation's very own culture war.

Interestingly, both Brazil's conservative evangelical and Pentecostal Christian communities and the nation's secular left are both upset at what until now have been hallowed carnival traditions.

Conservative Christians are upset by the striking, to put it mildly, amount of female flesh on display during Carnaval. (Unfortunately, evangelical and Pentecostal are often incorrectly used interchangeably in news reports about conservative Brazilian Christians in the American press.)

Meanwhile, the progressive left says it's time to do away with long-popular carnival songs featuring racist, sexist and homophobic lyrics.

The Washington Post ran this solid overview of the situation. Here's a taste of the Post story that notes how the right-left criticism has already impacted carnival traditions.

Brazil’s increasingly powerful evangelical church and its progressive movements are both pushing to refine Carnaval to match their often opposing priorities. As a sign of the times, the Brazilian city of Olinda, famous for its street festival, has two new additions this Carnaval: a “Gospel zone” and an “LGBT zone.”

I guess it's up to visitors to make sure they don't stumble into the wrong zone. (I'm jesting, folks.)

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Gay and transgender issues underscore a Godbeat rule: Carefully monitor parochial media

Gay and transgender issues underscore a Godbeat rule: Carefully monitor parochial media

In late 2016 the Colson Center for Christian Worldview assembled endorsements from dozens of Christian leaders for a conservative declaration decrying problems with religious freedom with the gay and rapidly emerging transgender issues.

Coverage to date underscores a perennial rule of thumb in religion coverage: Carefully monitor parochial religious media -- and in this case also gay media -- to catch developments that might have broader significance.

Apparently the earliest story on this occurred in the Seattle Gay News (December 2), and then online postings by religious and conservative media. Eventually, mainstream press articles appeared, but in outlets like the Deseret News of Salt Lake City (January 12) and Colorado Springs Gazette (January 13).  As of this writing, The Guy found nothing in major national media (or The Advocate).

Did the sponsors try and fail to gain publicity? Or was this designed to rally activist insiders, not to sway public opinion?

Either way, there’s ample room left for reporters to take a look.

Activists and ideologues continually pepper the media with such petitions on this or that, signed by the highest-profile endorsers they can manage to muster. Amid the glut, why would this document be worth journalistic consideration? Hold that thought till we scan what the text says.

It contends that laws and administrative rulings to protect “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (SOGI) interests “threaten basic freedoms of religion, conscience, speech, and association” and “violate privacy rights.” Such pressures “attempt to compel citizens to sacrifice their deepest convictions on marriage and what it means to be male and female,” through a range of penalties for both individuals and organizations.

On marriage, it explains, a small business may be willing to “serve everyone” yet in conscience cannot be involved with a same-sex wedding. On the transgender question, people may want “to protect privacy by ensuring persons of the opposite sex do not share showers, locker rooms, restrooms, and other intimate facilities.” 

What’s significant?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

What four-letter words are now OK? What politically-correct doctrines are mandatory?

What four-letter words are now OK? What politically-correct doctrines are mandatory?

It doesn’t rank with July 4, Dec. 7 or 9-11, but Oct. 8, 2016, is a journalistic date to remember, if one cares about the tone and content of journalism and, thus, American public discourse.

There it was in an A1 lead in The New York Times.

The F-bomb.

No “expletive deleted,” no euphemism, no cautious dashes. In this article a newspaper so dignified it uses honorifics in second references (“Mr. Hitler”) included the B-word, P-word, and T-word in the first four paragraphs above the fold.

What hath Citizen Donald Trump wrought? 

Dirty words can still hit broadcasters with federal government wrath. Yet Boston-NYC-DC and Left Coast editors (not so much in Flyover Country) are certainly influenced by the cultural coarsening from showbiz. Now there’s academic imprimatur from cognitive science professor Benjamin Bergen, whose new book “What the F” contends that uttering four-letter words is good for your mental health.

Journalists are still coming to terms with the grammatically incorrect but politically correct pronoun shift as they/them/their supplant the dreaded he/she/her/his. One Times contributor has employed the xe/xim/xir pronoun plan devised by the transgender movement, and another informs us that in this “age of gender fluidity” the recently coined “cisgender” is now the “preferred term” for those whose sex is defined the old-fashioned way, by anatomy, not psychological “sense of gender.”

“Cisgender,” New York Post columnist Maureen Callahan alerts us, is among the neologisms added this year by dictionary.com, alongside “misgender” (mistaking someone’s preferred gender identity) and “panromantic” (“romantically attracted to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities”). Also new to the lexicon is “woke,” to label someone who’s not merely awakened to his/her/their “white privilege” but super-vigilant about “systemic injustices and prejudices.”

Ignoring the new pronouns can get you in trouble, perhaps even in pews and pulpits.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Overwhelmed: Trying to see the big, historic picture in Iraq and Syria

Overwhelmed: Trying to see the big, historic picture in Iraq and Syria

Several times a year, a major national or international story simply takes over the news. The bigger the story, the more likely -- in my experience at least -- it is to have a religion-angle linked to it, often an angle of historic proportions.

However, since the primary religion of journalism is politics, in the here and now, religion angles often slide into the background in the coverage until, finally, the role of religion in a major story is so obvious that it cannot be denied.

This is what is happening right now with the story of Iraq, ISIS (or ISIL) and the persecution of religious minorities, especially in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain region.

The truly historic story that looms in the background is -- literally -- the death of Christian communities that have existed in this region since the early church. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy