Monday, January 31, 2011

Religious Health Care

Nicholas Kristof recently commented on the hospital controversy that took place in Phoenix over the last year. A Catholic hospital, St. Joseph's, performed an abortion on a woman to save her life. The local bishop, Thomas Olsted, objected because Catholic teaching, unlike American constitutional law, does not allow abortion to save the life of the mother. The bishop first excommunicated Sr. Margaret McBride, a nun on the hospital's ethics committee who approved the abortion. Then the bishop removed the hospital's Catholic affiliation so that St. Joseph's is no longer Catholic.

Kristof--under the headline Tussling Over Jesus--focused on the theological aspects of the debate, contrasting the bishop's emphasis on dogma and rules with the hospital's espousal of compassion and mercy. He and others cited in the article anticipate a moment of change in the church when rank and file Catholics may finally confront the hierarchy over its rigid dogma.

What Kristof doesn't say is that the American bishops continue to be deeply involved in restricting women's right to abortion in religious and non-religious settings around the country. They opposed the health care bill last year because of concerns that insurance companies would fund abortions. Although the bishops are not supporting Republican calls to repeal the entire health care bill, recently they urged Congress to take up two bills introduced last year that they believe would ensure the new health care bill maintains longstanding prohibitions on federal funding of abortion and bolsters conscience rights for health care workers.

In reality all the Catholic bishops are like Olsted. They are opposed even to a non-Catholic woman's right to have an abortion in a non-Catholic hospital when her life is at stake. By taking on insurance and the health care legislation, they strive to cut back abortion everywhere, not just in Catholic hospitals.

The bishops' commitment to conscience clauses is even more dangerous to women's rights. Conscience clauses mean that a woman whose life was endangered by a pregnancy could show up at a secular hospital and still encounter a doctor who refuses to help her....because he follows his conscience instead of her need and her right.

Unfortunately the whole health care system is tussling over Jesus and using him to block women's rights.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Giant Foam Fingers and Blue Cotton Candy: The New Civil Religion?

Some commentators have criticized the atmosphere at the memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shooting. Michelle Malkin complained about the blue-and-white "Together We Thrive" banners created for the ceremony and asked Will there be giant foam fingers and blue cotton candy, too? Others have suggested that the event was more like a campaign rally or a pep rally. The Washington Post observed that President Clinton's speech at Oklahoma City was more somber. A writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education argued that University of Arizona officials should teach their students how to behave at a memorial service, which is different from a pep rally.

Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs was more positive; he diplomatically suggested that the crowd was celebrating the miracle of those who survived

Presidents are the leading spokesmen for the American civil religion. In times of war, sorrow and tragedy, they are expected to address the nation and find the proper words to unite citizens. The presidents usually turn to the Bible to express their sentiments, as Obama did twice in his speech in Tucson:

Scripture tells us:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "When I looked for light, then came darkness."

As George W. Bush did in his speech responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11:

Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a Power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.

As Bill Clinton did in his speech responding to the bombing in Oklahoma City:

Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness: Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind.
As St. Paul admonished us, Let us "not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
It embodies the lesson of the Psalms -- that the life of a good person is like a tree whose leaf does not wither.

Right now, religious services--especially Christian ones--still provide the models and sources for the American civil religion. As the nation, especially the young generation, becomes less religious, however, we need new models for public ceremonies. Today or tomorrow a pep rally may capture the positive spirit of the American people more directly than a traditional church service that appeals to Christian scripture. 

If giant foam fingers suggest that America is #1in lending a hand to the victims of the Tucson tragedy then why not encourage the new civil religion to flourish? 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Religion and Politics 2010-2011

David Gibson, the incisive religion reporter for PoliticsDaily, posted an interesting take on the top religion stories of 2010. Everyone who missed the end-of-the-year, top-religion-stories-of-2010 lists can find them linked at the beginning of Gibson's article. As usual, Gibson takes the next step and gives more meaning and context to those stories.

Included on Gibson's analytical list, which anticipates what will happen in the new year, are the following:

The tea party huffs, the religious right puffs. Will there be a truce between religious conservatives and the tea party? Will the economy override the social issues favored by religious believers, right and left?

American exceptionalism is the American religion. Gibson argues that the current American civil religion is the belief that America is a divinely inspired nation of chosen people with a God-given duty to be a light unto the rest of the world. 80% of Americans believe this...but only 58% think President Obama shares that view. This may explain why Obama tried to Christianize his rhetoric over the Christmas holidays.

Islam is not an American religion....yet. Are Muslims the new Catholics? Not yet. Gibson links this conclusion to another point, namely that gay rights are not so wrong....meaning that Americans today are more supportive of gay rights than of Muslim religious freedom. This is a good reminder that it can take a long time for new or unpopular groups to gain full freedoms under the Constitution.

Finally, Sex is easy, economics is hard.... and The Catholic Church never gets rid of scandals.

So expect to see more battles over religious diversity in 2011...always with the possibility that the bad economy will force people to put aside religious differences and find common ground on non-religious issues.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Glamour Woman of the Year

Glamour Magazine honored as a woman of the year Dr. Hawa Abdi, a Somali ob-gyn who  protects women and children by running a camp that gives them food and shelter.

The camp grew up around her clinic and hospital. The camp now houses an estimated 90,000 displaced persons. Dr. Abdi also developed a school, teaches literacy and health classes, and opened a jail for men who beat their wives.

Dr. Abdi has even confronted armed militias in order to protect the women and children in her care. Her opponents in the Party of Islam believe that it is inappropriate for women to be community leaders. But Abdi stood up to the militia members and retained control of her hospital.

Read more details about Dr. Abdi's hospital at her website.

Kudos to Glamour for expanding our understanding of what's glamorous.

The Unaffiliated Gap in Congress

Unaffiliateds--agnostics, atheists and those who declare no religion--are more underrepresented in Congress than any other group.

According to the Pew Forum, the biggest mismatch between numbers in the Congress and percentage in the general population occurs in the unaffiliated category. Although 16% of Americans say they are unaffiliated with any religion, only 1% of congressional representatives self-identify as unaffiliated.

The new Congress remains a majority (57%) Protestant and 29.2% Catholic. Methodists and Baptists are the largest Protestant groups. Episcopalians, Jews and Presbyterians enjoy greater percentages in the Congress than they do in the general population. Muslim and Buddhist representation in Congress matches their percentage in the general population. No Hindus or Jehovah's Witnesses serve in Congress. There are 2 Muslims and 3 Buddhists.

Instead of worrying about whether the president goes to church or is really Christian or Muslim, we should worry about whether the unaffiliateds' interests are represented in the government.

Religious Freedom Day, 2011

January 16 is Religious Freedom Day, which honors Virginia's 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom. Thomas Jefferson wrote the statute, which was a precursor to the First Amendment. According to Jefferson's document, no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

Noteworthy is  Jefferson's focus on individual freedom. In the opening section of the document, Jefferson warned against civil as well as ecclesiastical rulers who try to set limits on the free mind, recognizing that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time.

In the age of government aid to faith-based organizations, championed by George W. Bush as well as Barack Obama, it is worth reconsidering how we should interpret Jefferson's strong criticism of forcing individuals to support religions that they oppose: to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Atheists' New Year

On Wednesday (Jan. 5, 2011) an atheist will give the invocation at a Colorado city council meeting for the first time ever. The Western Colorado Atheists & Freethinkers (WCAF)  have worked for the last two years to participate in the Grand Junction City Council's meetings. In 2008 WCAF studied the prior invocations and noted that 90 percent of the invocations before the council were Christian with a token Jew about 10 percent of the time.

WCAF first asked the council to ban specific deities names' from the public prayers. The atheists had good reasons for their request. The name of Jesus or Allah or any other deity is not inclusive. A city council is not like a church, synagogue or mosque; it is supposed to include all citizens. When people pray in the name of one deity before a city council meeting, believers in other deities and non-believers are excluded.

The City Council refused WCAF's request but came up with an alternative. They decided to make the process more inclusive by opening the invocation process to more community groups. Finally the atheists will have their turn. This is a good compromise option that should be adopted around the country as long as governments continue to open their meetings with prayers.