Sep 2010

Abortion - Part 1

Recently, I was informed by some friends that my blogs are long. And I thought they knew me! Although I understand a blog to be shorter, in principle, than an article, I still like to make it comprehensive and complete. BUT, I have heard, so I will divide the topic of this blog into parts.

For some time now I have been trying to develop an approach to the abortion debate that might achieve some civility between the camps and perhaps even lead to an acceptable compromise or national consensus.

In a conversation I had recently with a friend, I raised this issue. His response was something to the effect that the debate over abortion is over. Since we did not pursue it, I'm not sure what he meant. Abortion is certainly established law in terms of Roe v. Wade. Yet the current Supreme Court, while upholding elements of the 1973 ruling, has also continued to chip away at the legal protections to a woman's right to choose. The fact that abortion is not as prominent an issue in this election cycle also does not mean that it is settled as far as the general population is concerned. And it clearly is not settled as far as politicians are concerned. There is a bill proposed in the House of Representatives to make the Hyde amendment permanent U.S. law. Sadly, but predictably, it is supported by the U.S. Catholic Bishops. The Hyde amendment, in force now for over 30 years, requires renewal every year. It bans the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life. What about the President?

One of the responsibilities of the President of the United States is to appoint Justices to the Supreme Court. For the foreseeable future, abortion will continue to be raised each time a vacancy occurs on the high court, which means the President will seek a nominee who is confirmable, read one who can pass the abortion litmus test--a test administered from both sides of the debate. During the confirmation process, senators will attempt to get the nominee to commit himself or herself to a legal position regarding Roe v. Wade. Correct that. The senators will try to get the nominee to commit to a political position on Roe v. Wade, with the more clever appointees dodging the issue--just like politicians! At the same time various pundits will weigh in on the issue. We will hear the voices of those who support Roe v. Wade and those who oppose it. We will be subjected to the ideologies of those who support a woman's right to choose and those who are adamantly opposed to abortion. In the simplistic dialogue and labeling that characterize so much of our national discourse, we will hear from those who are "pro-choice" and those who are "pro-life".

In an ideal society, abortion should not be part of a litmus test for being confirmed as a Justice of the Supreme Court. The Justices do far more than hear abortion cases, and their decisions have profound impact on nearly every aspect of American life. We, of course, do not live in an ideal society. Nonetheless, to begin a process of moving away from the abortion litmus test, let me suggest the following:

First of all, sound bites and labels. While they might score points and be successful in the short term are ultimately degrading in the long run and contribute to what has now become one of the greatest tragedies of modern U.S. life: the dumbing down of America. Take for example the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life". Of these two, "pro-choice" is the more accurate, since it primarily indicates support for a woman's right to choose. However, there exist many nuances to being pro-choice and a certain amount of complexity exists in trying to define someone who identifies with this label. As for the "pro-life" label, it is even more complex. The only so-called pro-life issue for most of this movement is being anti-abortion. That much is clear. How else to explain their total disregard for all other aspects of life that allow people to actually live, such as feeding food for the hungry, caring for the homeless, providing universal health care? The list goes on. Clearly, complexity defines this group since major church organizations that are anti-abortion also identify as pro-life in many other areas. I must, however, give the political arm of the "pro-life" movement credit. For while they often oppose all legislation that truly advances human life and dignity for the born, they remain steadfast in their opposition to aborting the unborn. Two results? They have hoodwinked good religious people, and the dumbed down American public actually buys the pro-life label!

So, if not sound bites, then what? I deplore the kind of labels that drive people into opposing camps and create walls of separation over which none can speak nor hear. At the same time language, or more precisely terminology, is essential to understanding another's speech and analyzing another's concepts. It is to this task that I suggest we turn our attention in an attempt to move the abortion debate toward a national consensus. It will require a willingness to think, to talk and to listen. The extremes from both sides will probably refuse to engage. We cannot control them. But we should not let their refusal control us. So for the rest of us....

It seems to me that the first hurdle we must get over is the term "human life". Religious groups as diverse as Christians and Mormons have held that human life begins from the moment of conception. In the past some scientists have opposed that notion. But today, even most scientists would agree that the life process that begins at conception is a human one. It is a long process and the majority of fetuses will actually spontaneously abort. But all things being equal, when human beings conceive, what emerges nine months later is another human being. Still, "human life" and "human being" are not co-terminus. We must ask the question: At what point does the human life that began at conception become a human person with the dignity and rights afforded every other human person?

Up next, an attempt to answer that question.


I have updated the Questions - A from the Q & A section. I have also corrected the link problem that caused both Questions - A and Questions - B to link to the identical page. Sorry for the error.

Death Penalty--Who Cares?

What is it that actually interests and moves people in our society? At 9:21 AM yesterday, September 24th, a once proud newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, sent out a breaking alert that Lindsay Lohan was being sent back to jail. Nine hours later, at 6:17 PM, the same paper sent out a second alert that another judge overturned the jail sentence setting a $300,000 bail. Please forgive me, but who really gives a damn? What is it that makes American society so shallow that we obsess over the adolescent, one might even say infantile, behavior of celebrities? Maybe it is commonplace in other countries, as well. Certainly British society long ago surrendered itself to sensational tabloids, nearly forsaking anything close to journalism.

But back to the Los Angeles Times. Between the two inane Lohan stories, the paper also issued another alert that a federal judge denied a stay of execution for Albert Greenwood Brown, thereby enabling the state of California to execute a convicted criminal for the first time in almost five years. Of course, once one clicked on the newspaper's website, there were numerous lead stories about Lohan. It took a bit of searching to find the stories about the upcoming execution of Albert Greenwood Brown, and the paper did little justice to his impending death.

I suppose in the same way that I suggest no one should care about the penal fate of Lindsay Lohan, others might say that we should not care about the penal fate of Mr. Brown. He is, after all, a convicted criminal. However, both of the these stories approach an American problem from opposite ends of the same spectrum. In truth, there are very few serious issues that Americans are actually willing to commit their intellects to. I presume, of course, that I am not being overly generous in the use of the word intellect. Even when it comes to government, the general population is more interested in themselves, in their own pocketbooks and in the sex lives of politicians than in any principles they may stand for. And since, on virtually every issue we are inundated with sound bites instead of in-depth analysis, the seriousness of crime and punishment and the moral questions surrounding capital punishment are left to those who win the sound bite wars. Is it any wonder then that the moral character of America is in a deadly decline?

There may be no more appropriate issue to begin the process of moral ascent than capital punishment, for it touches the deepest elements of pain, sorrow and revenge. It also reaches into the deepest recesses of the human heart and helps us to define what it means to be both human and God-like. In my last blog about Iran and its practice of stoning, I suggested that an accurate interpretation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights should outlaw capital punishment in every nation. But the UN does not have that kind of power, and the arrogance of the U.S. implies that we are above anyone else's judgments or principles, in spite of the fact that we also signed onto the UN declaration.

Both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, state that all people possess a right to life. The U.S. Declaration of Independence even claims that the right to life is bestowed by God. And yet, when it comes to capital punishment, we seem to have little problem setting aside, indeed stripping from others, a God-given right and over which God alone should have control. It has been noted before that capital punishment also causes us to slide into the grossest and most debased of double standards: We claim life is so valuable and precious, that if you take a life, we will take yours in return. That does not even make for good common sense.

Still, it is not the double standard of capital punishment that sinks the aspirations and diminishes the moral integrity of a great people. It is the seeming inability and, worse, the complete lack of desire to rise above our animal instincts of revenge and reach for the highest levels of human idealism and existence; to actually attempt to achieve a common good. Such idealism is initially rooted in the fundamental reality of being human. For this reason, humanists, atheists and agnostics are among the strongest supporters of moral values. For believers, this same idealism is rooted in our call to become more God-like, which makes it more than just a little embarrassing that believers lag so far behind in this pursuit. Perhaps part of the problem is that there are so many different and competing understandings of God in our society. Let me then, as a Catholic priest, speak to the Christian God.

The four Gospels that begin the New Testament are remarkable not just for the various ways they present the person of Jesus, but also for the equally various ways that Jesus gives us insight into God and what it means to be human. There exist many similarities among the Gospels, particularly the three that scholars refer to as "synoptic" precisely because of their similarities: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Yet all four Gospels retain their own unique character.

Mark's Gospel is the earliest, and is filled with short, quick sentences, that are designed to get people moving and ready for Jesus' return. Many of those sentences involve Jesus scandalizing people by forgiving sins and eating with sinners and outcasts (the kind of people we dismiss to death row and forget about until we can kill them). Jesus responds that he has the power to forgive sins. As to his dining with the outcasts, he points out the obvious: "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners". Even more to the point, Jesus states explicitly that even the commands of God must be understood in the context of human life and well-being. One of the Ten Commandments is keeping holy the Lord's day, which, in Jesus' time at least, included avoiding any kind of work, even the preparation of food. But when the disciples are caught doing just that, Jesus responds: "The sabbath was make for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath."

Matthew is more direct and challenging in his Gospel. For he has Jesus telling us: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgments you give are the judgments you will get, and the standard you use will be the standard used for you." Even more stunning are these words: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust....So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."

John's Gospel is arguably the most inspiring for the way that Jesus identifies himself with God, and then goes on to identify us with him, thereby making us one with God. At the last supper he says: "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing". He goes on to pray for his disciples in these words: "I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth. I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one".

Luke presents us with a truly compassionate Gospel. It is here that we find the most popular and beloved of Jesus' parables, that of "The Prodigal Son". Since the central figure in the story is the father, a more appropriate title might be "The Forgiving Father". Be that as it may, the central action in the story is forgiveness. Note that when the younger son, who had turned his back on his father returns, he does so without any contrition in his heart and never asks forgiveness. He returns only because he is hungry. Nonetheless, the father rushes out to meet him, embraces and kisses him, and restores him to his place in the family. The older son, as self-centered as the younger, and clearly more self-righteous, refuses to join the celebration. So the father addresses this recalcitrant older son in these words: " we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."

This may all sound theoretical and others interpret differently than I and choose to disagree. That is the foundation of dialogue and the building of consensus. So let me conclude with these two brief links that are anything but theoretical. The first is from a woman whose husband was killed in Minnesota. The second is from the parents of a daughter who was killed in California.

I remain deeply saddened that so-called Christians seem unable or unwilling to embrace the truth and challenge of the Gospel. But my passion pales in comparison to the personal and compelling statements of these two families. One thing remains clear. It is time for us to abandon the death penalty once and for all. For reasons of humanity and for reasons of faith.

Iran, Stoning, the Koran and the Bible

As a matter of full disclosure, I am unabashedly pro-United Nations. If that loses some readers just as I begin, I make no apologies. I consider it their loss. At the same time I am a committed Christian, specifically, Catholic. Finally, I am profoundly anti-death penalty. Just how much can be covered in one blog? Let me try to limit it this way.

It is embarrassing to me as an American that our country is the only developed nation that still executes convicted criminals. There is an English phrase that some might want to resurrect and reconsider: "A man is known by the company he keeps". As countless others have pointed out, capital punishment puts us in league with Iran, Iraq, North Korea (the three countries designated as the Axis of Evil by former President George W. Bush), Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, and a number of other less objectionable countries. One thing that sets the U.S. apart from some of our death penalty pals, is that for the United States, capital punishment is not a command of God. It is enacted for purely secular, and, I might add, unsupported reasons, such as deterrence. In the quiet of our solitude and the recesses of our hearts, I suspect we all know that the only reason for capital punishment is revenge. Unfortunately, that cannot be voiced aloud in our current political climate.

America's problems with the death penalty might best be served in a future blog. For now, the real concern is religion and its misuse in determining the laws that control governments and their citizens. Recently, much unfavorable coverage has fallen on Iran. That in itself is no surprise, since Iranian President Ahmadinejad continues to offer reason for disdain. But recent coverage has dealt with decisions to stone people to death, in particular a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. It is very reminiscent of biblical times. Except that for educated Jews and Christians, their sacred writings have been subjected to the tools of literary criticism, thus enabling them to filter out those elements of the Bible that are conditioned by the social structures and mores of the times in which they were written, thus approaching a more accurate understanding of what God is saying through the writers of the Bible.

I say educated Jews and Christians, because among both groups there are still those who take a literal view of the Bible suggesting that the Bible is inerrant and every word should be accepted exactly as it is written. It is somewhat sad that in this day and age it is necessary to point out the absurdity of such a position. There were no secretaries taking shorthand notes, no dictaphones and no digital recorders when the Bible was written. The Holy Spirit inspired people to reflect on their situations, on God's presence in their lives and on how they might respond to God's call. But they did not always get it right. There are contradictions throughout the Bible beginning with two different and irreconcilable creation stories presented in the first two chapters of the very first book, Genesis.

When I was in the seminary I was fortunate to be taught by an internationally recognized Scripture scholar. One of his favorite statements was: "The Bible is the Word (read singular) of God in the words (read plural) of the men and women who wrote it" (The parentheses are mine). He also suggested that no significant conversation can take place with someone who does not acknowledge that the Bible can be subjected to the same principles of literary criticism that every other writing can.

To be fair, there are educated Muslims who understand that the same principles of literary criticism must be applied to the Koran, though for some reason that seems to be a far more difficult process--perhaps because there are several countries that have established Sharia, or some form of it, as their civil law. This makes it quite difficult to read the Koran and conclude that stoning a woman for adultery is neither the will of Allah, nor an acceptable practice under any concept of human rights.

Thus we arrive, once again, at the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It can be strongly and accurately argued that the Declaration should outlaw capital punishment in every country. It should also be noted that there are a number of articles that many, if not most countries violate in the name of national legislation, and which should bring down condemnation by the UN as a whole. Unfortunately, that might actually lead to the dissolution of the only organization capable of moving the peoples of the world toward some kind of order and peace.

I would like to suggest that those countries that implement the death penalty because of religious law are especially onerous. It seems to me that they stand in violation of at least the following articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 and 28. As such they deserve their own form of condemnation, while not excluding or exonerating more secular governments such as the United States. It also seems that countries that impose Sharia, or some other form of religious law upon its citizens stand in violation of articles 18, 29 and 30. Given the extremism of some elements of Islam, I guess this is where I consider myself lucky to be a Christian.

I realize that the United Nations, both by its structure and mission cannot exclude or expel countries that rule under some kind of religious law. But I would like to suggest that no religious text can supplant the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This includes the texts that the three Abrahamic faiths consider to be revealed such as the Bible (Hebrew and Christian writings) and the Koran. It also includes writings that are deemed sacred and holy such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, the Tao Tse Ching, etc.

As a Catholic, I am committed to the truths contained in the Bible and I believe that it offers time honored principles of justice and peace that are often dishonored by its most vociferous defenders. But I also believe that in the effort to bring about cooperation among the world's nations and eventually to achieve world peace, there may be no greater writing than the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

It may be acceptable in some countries to establsh a law that adultery is illegal (though I would have difficulty finding such justification). But to suggest that the penalty should be death is as great an affront to Allah as it is to the person caught in the act.

France and the Burqa

There are probably scores of people who find it presumptuous and more than a little arrogant for an American to lecture France, or any other country, on religious tolerance. I have never been given to a great deal of modesty, but let me begin by saying that I abhor the intolerance and xenophobia rampant in the United States today, particularly the anti-Latino and anti-Islamic fervor that seems to dominate the daily news. That said, there are some significant problems with both houses of the French parliament passing a law banning Muslim women from wearing the Burqa in public and this is an issue that needs to be addressed and challenged even if it comes from an American like me.

One of the most amazing elements of planet earth is the extensive diversity of culture, religions, and other traditions. I live in Los Angeles, perhaps the most diverse city on the planet. A great deal of its charm is the exposure to and interaction with so many of these different cultures. Not everything can be justified in the name of religious traditions and cultural differences. This is profoundly acknowledged in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those rights cannot be subverted by differing understandings of God or diverse religious and cultural experiences. By definition these rights are universal and belong to all. Not even religious traditions can claim superiority over them. At the same time objecting to certain traditions and religious beliefs does not necessarily equate with intolerance. So what about the French situation?

It is by now a truism that in times of economic hardship and uncertainty, people in almost every country will look for a scapegoat, and that scapegoat is defined as "the other", usually aliens (legal or illegal) who have come into the country to take away jobs from citizens. The xenophobia that surfaces from such economic stress extends not just to the job market, but embraces the idea that foreigners have come to our lands to change who we are and how we live. The general populace is frequently caught up in a collective memory, or better a collective amnesia, about how things used to be. With little in the way of reality, politicians charge forth with the claim that we can take back our countries from "the other" and restore them to what they used to be. There's just one problem, or maybe two. One, the way our countries used to be exists mostly in the minds of the disillusioned. And two, politicians who play on that amnesia and fear do not really care about the poor or middle class. They simply manipulate suffering and distorted memories for their own self-serving agendas.

In the movie "The American President", Michael Douglas plays a first term president whose reelection is not guaranteed. Attacked relentlessly by a senator from the opposition party named Bob Rumson, he initially remains silent. Finally, in a compelling scene before the White House Press Corps, the president says the following: "Whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: Making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections."

Sadly, that statement could have been issued by the president or prime minister of any democratic country today. And the accusation is certainly apropos to the French leadership. Some people credit President Sarkozy and other politicians with cleverly taking charge of phrasing the issue of the Burqa, namely, that it violates the rights of women and the traditions of France. Phrasing the issue in that vein would be clever were it not so deceptive and insidious. Let's first take a look at deception. The Burqa may be a bit extreme by Western standards, but it is worn by a clear minority of Muslim women and it is not contrary to the traditions of France.

The history of the Catholic Church, particularly throughout the Western world, should serve as a foundation of reason and tolerance regarding the wearing of the Burqa. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, it seemed as though there was a competition among religious orders of women as to who could design the most outrageous habit. Though clearly not a Burqa, the only body parts of Catholic nuns that were visible were their faces and their hands. Yet no one suggested that Catholic religious habits were contrary to the traditions of France or any other country, or that the habit made Catholic nuns subservient. In fact, history arguably demonstrates that much more societal good was accomplished by nuns than by priests.

The second element in the way Sarkozy phrased the debate is despicable for its insidiousness. In recent years, parts of the Muslim world have come under intense scrutiny and condemnation for the practice of female genital mutilation. While considered a religious practice by some, it is a clear example of religion not being able to trump the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is simply unacceptable and barbaric for any religious group to engage in this mutilation for the sake of advancing an outdated and restrictive approach to sexuality--one that clearly makes women subservient. Sarkozy is a smart politician, and he knew that by appealing to the rights of women and claiming that they were made subservient, he would at least subconsciously play to the appalling practice of female genital mutilation.

Of course, there is no correlation between the wearing of the burqa and female mutilation, but then such problems have never stopped a politician with unbridled personal ambition. It seems hard to imagine, especially living next to the state of Arizona, but the xenophobia of Western Europe is even stronger and more destructive than in the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic it is an offense to the dignity, equality and inherent worth of all human beings and the fact that we share this planet together.

Given that the burqa is worn by such a small minority of Muslim women in France, Sarkozy might consider that by attacking those women who do wear the burqa, all Muslims in France have now been served notice that legitimate traditions of their faith are subject to prejudicial political will, and the oppressive power of the state, especially if provides a scapegoat for society's problems. Not unlike the governor of Arizona, Sarkozy may score the political points he so desperately needs. But in the end, the cost to his own soul and that of the people of France may not be worth it.

More Update Sections

In order to provide sufficient time for readers (especially new readers) to catch up on the recently posted questions and answers, I have added a second "Recent Questions" category. One is "A" and the second is "B".

I have also added yet another new category, called "Church and State"

Web Update Sections

Two new categories have been added to the Questions and Answers page: "Religion and Science" and "Catholics, Protestants and the Pope". The first one will offer answers to questions that deal with issues of science and religion, specifically in areas where there appears to be some conflict. The second page will answer questions about the difference between Catholics and Protestants and the role of the Pope in Catholic life.

The Pledge of Allegiance

American citizens are notorious for lacking historical knowledge. I guess it should not have been surprising then, that while Sarah Palin was running for vice-President she could only name one Supreme Court decision. On the one hand, she is not the best example of American historical knowledge, on the other hand, she is indicative of an appalling and almost ubiquitous ignorance. The Pledge of Allegiance is a poignant example of this historical ignorance primarily due to the attempt of the religious right to hijack the U.S. Constitution and even more so to their efforts to make the United States a religious country--specifically, a Christian one, and fundamentalist Christian at that. In the process, they have no qualms about trampling on the rights of the minority.

In the case of the Pledge of Allegiance, the pertinent part of the history is that Congress passed legislation inserting the words "under God" into the pledge in 1954. President Eisenhower signed the bill into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. Perhaps most noteworthy is this happened during the height of the "Red Scare" and the now disgraced antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. In truth, the United States was never under serious threat of being taken over by Communists. But that is somewhat beside the point. By definition fear is not driven by reason or facts, and a whole host of Constitutional violations followed the rantings of McCarthy.

I was educated in a Catholic elementary school in Norwalk, CA. The sisters were Irish and obsessed with the need to prove that Catholics were loyal Americans. Perhaps because of the strong push by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, the sisters quickly picked up the revised pledge and made it the start of our school day. The fence in my parents' backyard separated our property from a local public school, and the contrast between the two schools could not have been sharper. Many of the kids on our block attended that school, while my siblings and I went to the Catholic school two blocks away.

In the charm and innocence of youth, we used to refer to the "under God" edition as the Catholic Pledge of Allegiance, and the original edition as the Public Pledge of Allegiance. It was not quite that simple. And yet, "out of the mouths of babes"... There seemed to be an inherent sense among children that the phrase "under God" did not belong in the nation's pledge. In Catholic school, we were inundated with religion all day long. Each class began with a prayer, there were frequent celebrations of Mass and regular trips to the confessional. It was all part of belonging to the Catholic ghetto. Mind you, this was before John F. Kennedy ran for and was elected the first Catholic President.

There was nothing unseemly about being immersed in Catholicism as an expression of family beliefs. It ingrained in us not just a faith in God, but an awareness of the history of the Catholic Church and a belief in God as worshipped in that Church. Still, the Catholic school was about more than just religion. In the midst of Catholic indoctrination, we were also well educated in civics. One of the hallmarks that stood out in our classes was the non-religious character of the American government. Today one might use the term secular in an attempt to denigrate our society. But the secular nature of the U.S. Constitution was seen as a gift and a national treasure. After all, it left us Catholics, as well as other peoples, free to express and practice our religion as we chose. Inserting "under God" into our pledge of allegiance was easily seen as an integral part of our faith. Since it would have been unheard of for an atheist to attend a Catholic school, no undue pressure or constitutional violation was at issue.

That was not the case for those attending state schools when President Eisenhower signed the bill into law, and it is not the case for state schools, or state organizations, today. Decent American citizens who for reasons of their own conscience do not believe in God, should not be forced to pledge allegiance to God at the same time they pledge allegiance to their country.

It is popular for people who support the "under God" phrase to point to the use of "In God we trust" that appears on our currency. A similar lack of historical knowledge comes into play, for that phrase did not begin to appear on coinage until the civil war and was not declared by Congress to be the official motto of the United States until 1956. Even more blatantly than altering the pledge of allegiance, establishing the national motto in 1956 was specifically connected to the cold war and the fear of communist aggression.

Though never formally and officially proclaimed, it had long been understood that the motto of the United States was "E Pluribus Unum" (From many one). It is, I suppose, debatable as to whether the Latin phrase should have been officially designated the U.S. motto. Certainly, there is greater weight in its favor than "In God we trust". From the beginning, the United States had been a country that was forged from many cultures and traditions to form a singular bond of unity. Those many cultures and traditions include religions that were once foreign to the new world. Included also were and are those people who hold no religious faith at all. Yet all these peoples are equal in the eyes of the Constitution.

One further illogic in comparing the motto on currency to the pledge is that currency is essentially passive. Nobody cares or pays any attention to what is written on our coins and bills other than the denomination. They are simply passed from person to person to satisfy monetary debt. Reciting the pledge of allegiance is active and requires in its recitation the acknowledgement of and implied submission to God. It does not take much reasoning to see that the modified pledge is a violation of the Constitution.

The pledge is a statement of allegiance to the flag and the country it represents. It is not a pledge to a God that people may or may not believe in. In the United States people are free to believe in any kind of God they choose. They are also free to not believe in any God. "Under God" simply has no place in a pledge to a flag and a country whose constitution forbids the establishment of religion. If religious schools and institutions want to use the amended pledge, that is their right, although one might question the wisdom of such a decision and wonder if they are not, in fact, establishing two nations. But schools that are paid for by public monies simply have no right to place God in the nation's pledge any more than Congress had the Constitutional right to do so in 1954.

If little children were able to see that placing "under God" in the pledge of allegiance made it a religious statement, why cannot adults comprehend the same? The real question, of course, is whether or not we have a congress with the integrity and moral conviction to return the pledge of allegiance to its original and inclusive form.

9/11--A Day of Remembrance and Forgiveness

The 20th Century has often been cited as the most violent in human history. The two world wars, coupled with seemingly unending civil conflicts; military coups and repressive dictatorships; genocide in all regions of the globe; the rising specter of street violence and escalating terrorist activities; all these succeeded in nearly numbing the world to the horrors of violence. It is almost surprising, then, that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 should have so stunned the sensitivities of the world, that for a brief moment there arose a renewed sense of humanity and common purpose.

More than stunned, the world found itself in a state of shock. Partly because nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in a matter of minutes, partly because more than 70 countries lost citizens in the attacks, and partly because this all happened on U.S. soil--a land often thought to be immune from such foreign violence. For almost everyone, the attacks shattered the routine of a tranquil September morning. As we look back on the past nine years, we find so much to commemorate on this anniversary, the most treasured being the lost lives--not only of innocent workers and travelers, but also of the heroic emergency personnel who risked everything to bring others to safety.

Few, if any, experiences in life are as emotionally draining as the death of a loved one. When that death is caused by unprovoked violence or terrorism, the bonds of love only grow stronger. In the process, the human heart is stirred to canonize the memory, and the will is driven to avenge the lives of those so unjustly reduced to an untimely death. In reality, however, that stirring of the heart and driving of the will are polar opposites that cannot coexist in any kind of peace or harmony. The bonds of love that are sealed in the heart end up shattered by the pursuit of vengeance. The memories of loved ones lost are betrayed in a relentless desire for retaliation. Such is this tragic polarity that the same pain that tears us apart ends up being inflicted on other people, who also lose innocent loved ones, thus creating a spiraling cycle of violence from which we can rarely extract ourselves.

Memorial celebrations, museums and monuments are a necessary part of collective therapy. War is not. Retelling stories of life, and remembering heroic acts inspire admiration. War does not. Embracing and supporting one another strengthens the spirit and initiates healing. War cannot. War is simply the most powerful, organized and hypnotic example of a violence unleashed in response to a violence perpetrated.

Let me be clear. People who execute the kind of violence we witness in acts of terrorism must be held accountable and brought to answer for their actions. But our responses are often out of proportion and far beyond reason. It is no accident that the decision to go to war in Afghanistan was made with haste in the midst of the confusion that followed 9/11. And given that the entire country was in the grip of fear, it is no wonder that few sane and thoughtful voices were to be found opposing the war. Even religious leaders from a variety of traditions capitulated to the seduction of violence. It is also a little ironic that our political leaders would ignore a guiding principle of counseling, namely, not to make any major decisions while in the throws of emotion. Such is the power and effect of this kind of violence. It is called terrorism for a reason: It strikes fear and terror deep into the psyche of even the most thoughtful and peaceful people.

So if war is not the best response, what is? I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine in which we were discussing forgiveness. During our exchange he told me that he could never forgive the terrorists who organized and carried out the 9/11 attacks. I believe that to be a common, perhaps near universal feeling. It also is quite understandable. It is far easier to give into the desire for retaliation, as happened nine years ago. Learning to forgive takes repeated effort in a myriad of situations. In any given circumstance it also takes time.

Immediately following 9/11 I did not feel like forgiving any more than others did. But consider what resulted from an unwillingness even to try to forgive. The United States has spent nearly a decade waging war in Afghanistan. In the process, the goals advanced to justify the war have not been met. We have failed to capture Osama Bin Laden, and countless innocents have lost their lives in this conflict. We have even managed to use video games (drones) far from the battle field to kill innocent Afghanis while protecting American soldiers.

Add to this the corrupting influence of vengeance and its unquenchable thirst for violence. This corruption distorted our thinking to the point that we launched a second, illegal and immoral war--one not even connected to the terrorist attacks. That war cost many more billions of dollars, more than 4,000 American lives, hundreds of allied casualties and another countless number of innocent Iraqi deaths. On balance alone, these two wars cost more than the 9/11 attacks both in terms of money and lives. The second war also squandered the goodwill of a world community that was willing to seek the common good. Instead it reduced the United States to the same level as the terrorists themselves.

This was the fear that gripped me immediately after 9/11. The attacks took place on a Tuesday morning. In my preaching the following Sunday, I took direct aim at the words and actions of our political leaders. In my homily I challenged the United States as a nation, and my congregation as believers, to step back from the violence and seek a truer, more peaceable path.

As a Christian I look to Jesus for inspiration and strength of purpose. But I also hope this blog will reach people who are not Christian. So, while Jesus places before us the awesome challenge to love our enemies and pray for those who do us harm, I would like to suggest that for the non-Christian or the non-believer, forgiveness is not just some spiritual exercise. To rise above the destructive forces that tend to overwhelm us; to seek a good in people that they themselves have cloaked in darkness; to forgive the most grievous offenses committed against us; these enable us to tap into what poets call our better nature. That is where we discover the truth of who we are. That is where we learn to call out the best in ourselves and in others. That is where we develop the skills to work together to build a world of justice, of equality, of peace.

Today we remember, we weep and we celebrate those many loved ones who died on 9/11. Perhaps the greatest way to recall the joy they brought into our lives is to forgive those who took those lives away. War and violence will neither give us an internal calm nor bring the world a lasting peace. But if the love that causes us to remember also enables us to forgive, it can overcome violence and establish that elusive, lasting peace that we all claim to desire.

The First Amendment--America's Gift and America's Retreat

For much of its history, the United States has officially stood for advancing democracy around the globe. In practice, of course, U.S. Administrations often covertly helped to establish despotic regimes in other countries or to prop them up in the name of national security interests. But the official position has been to help peoples around the world make their own democratic choices for their own futures. Although democracy can take many different forms, the United States has usually seen itself as the great model for others to follow. There is some truth in that concept, but perhaps it needs a little nuancing.

The greatest gift that American democracy has to give to other peoples is not the stirring inspiration of the Declaration of Independence. It is not the structural efficiency of the Constitution. It is not even the intrinsic elegance of the Bill of Rights. Yet it is within the Bill of Rights that we find this single greatest gift, namely, the First Amendment. Of the several rights enumerated in this amendment, it is the Freedom of Religion, as expressed and combined in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, more than anything else, that sets a precedent for the United States, and an example for the rest of the world.

Some history might be helpful to put this in perspective. Broadly put, Christendom can be defined as that era of European history in which a symbiotic relationship existed between church and state. The positive social elements of Christendom enabled the Church to link together the countries of Europe and preserve a certain social unity. It also enabled the Christian faith to grow and expand throughout the Western world. At the same time, it must be viewed overall as a failure.

For one thing, Christianity is not a political religion. The Gospel, itself sets us on a correct understanding when we hear Jesus tell the disciples that they are not of the world, and when he informs Pilot that his kingdom does not belong to this world. Another failure of Christendom can be seen in its disregard for the primacy of the individual conscience and the subsequent lack of religious freedom. That limitation on the freedom of religion is a defining characteristic of any theocracy.

Even before the Reformation, Christendom began to collapse and a tense relationship developed between the church and civil authority. The idea of religious freedom or separation of church and state that found expression in Europe was often one of hostility. But with the American revolution, a new concept of religious freedom emerged. The establishment clause of the First Amendment clearly prevents the government from creating or even appearing to create a state religion. The Free Exercise clause, immediately following, prevents the government from denying people the right to participate in the religion of their choice, which includes the freedom to be a non-believer.

On Sunday, September 12th, we find ourselves at the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's historic speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which he defined his understanding of the separation of church and state. American Rhetoric presents a visual excerpt of the speech as well as the text of the entire address. A critical paragraph from the speech reads as follows:

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him."

Seeking to become the first Catholic President, JFK felt the need to explain freedom of religion in order to dispel fears that he would take orders from the Pope. Unfortunately, Kennedy had a much keener understanding of this freedom than do most politicians today. His grasp of this most basic freedom was more accurate than many judges and justices. And his appreciation for this freedom was more grounded than many citizens today.

In the last 20 plus years we have watched as America has taken a steady backward slide on the issue of religious freedom. Catholic bishops and politicians have sought to have public monies used to support the Catholic school system under the guise of "vouchers". Protestant ministers and presidents have sought to have the federal government fund their religious programs under the guise of "Faith-based Initiatives". Politicians and other public figures have called for America to return to God. And most egregious of all, ministers of varying faiths have done exactly what Kennedy said they should not--from the pulpit they have told parishioners who to vote for.

Although it might seem strange, believers, most notably Christians, are profoundly ignorant about values and morality. While the values we hold dear and the morality that springs from them may be a part of many different religious traditions, no individual religion can claim those values as being rooted in faith. Nor can religions collectively make that claim. God pre-exists any and all religion. For believers, God created the universe, but God existed long before human beings appeared on the earth and long before the first religious traditions were formed.

Values and morality are rooted in human nature, what it means to be human. Since I believe in God, I believe that those values are instilled by a loving creator. However, because they are rooted in human nature itself, agnostics can be as committed to the common good as believers. In fact, given that so many "religious" people no longer even speak of the common good, I would suggest that many agnostics are ahead of the curve. As a Catholic priest I can certainly see a value in individuals making or renewing a personal commitment to God and to the community programs that are part of their faith tradition. However, it is essentially contrary to our founding documents to call the nation, as a nation, back to any kind of commitment to faith.

Eventually all theocracies will fail. In Israel, the grip of Orthodox Judaism is losing its hold as more people stand up to the oppressive demands one religious group. In like manner, Islamic states that impose Sharia, suppress human rights and deny religious freedoms will undergo the same failure of Christendom. But what will replace these repressive legal systems?

The United States experimented with a new kind of freedom of religion, and a new understanding of the separation of church and state. For the most part we have succeeded and been an exemplary model for the world. But what can the U.S. possibly say to other nations if they witness us shred the very foundation of our own nation? We must rediscover the dual elements of religious freedom enshrined in our First Amendment. This is our greatest democratic gift to the world. JFK knew that. If there is to be a renewal in our country, let it be to the First Amendment. This September 12th let us once again be the country envisioned by JFK.

United Nations Millennium Development Goals

When I was an associate pastor at St. Eugene Parish in Los Angeles, there was a parishioner who plastered his car with bumper stickers expressing extreme political positions. One such sticker became his mantra: "Get US out of the UN." Regardless of his right to hold such political positions, that particular slogan did a drastic disservice to history and to America's commitment to world peace. Both the United Nations and the League of Nations that preceded it, were constructs of the United States and attempts to rid the world of the need for the specter of death that encompassed the globe in the First and Second World Wars. The League of Nations suffered from serious defects that made it impractical even as it defined idealism. The United Nations, also, is not without problems. But then again, the same can be said of every national government, including the United States.

While the UN may not have succeeded in averting all wars and violence over its 65 year history, it has accomplished more toward universal peace and equality than any other organization or government. Beginning with the seminal Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the work of the World Health Organization, to its developmental work, to special peace keeping forces, to the World Court, the United Nations has consistently, if haltingly, moved the world toward peace, equality and justice. Is there any doubt where we would be as a world community without the United Nations?

In 1998 philanthropist Ted Turner made an historic gift of $1 billion dollars to support UN causes and activities. That led to the establishment of the UN Foundation. As with the success of any governmental democracy, this is not solely the work of the world leaders who will be gathering in New York City on September 20, 2010. There are ways that all of us can participate in making the founding dream of the United Nations a reality in our world today. Following are eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that offer an opportunity for everyone to be involved. Follow the links below to learn more about how you can make a commitment

Goal #1 End Hunger and Extreme Poverty
Goal #2 Universal Education
Goal #3 Gender Equality
Goal #4 Child Health
Goal #5 Maternal Health
Goal #6 Combat HIV/AIDS and Other Diseases
Goal #7 Environmental Sustainability
Goal #8 Global Partnership

Ted Turner has suggested some "To Do" items that are simple ways for all of us to participate in the eight MDGs that will be discussed in New York. They are as follows:

1) Share this page with your friends on Facebook and Twitter
2) Thank a UN Peacekeeper
3) Recycle
4) "Stand Up" against global poverty
5) Submit a photo to the TEDxChange Flickr photo campaign
6) Send a malaria-preventing net to the Central African Republic
7) Learn about issues affecting girls in developing countries
8) Sign up for email updates from the UN Foundation
9) Donate $1 to immunize a child against measles or polio
10) Make your own action!

This to do list is not meant to be exhaustive. It is easy to check off the items we participate in, but they will hopefully spark the imaginations of everyone who wants to make the world a better place.

Is the U.S. a religious country?

On August 31st of this year, the Gallup organization issued the results of a poll conducted in 2009 examining the place of religion in people's lives. The survey included 100 countries and attempted to determine how religious commitment correlates with a country's wealth. While religious commitment is strong among the poorer nations, one of the conclusions reached in this study is that the United States stands apart from other wealthy countries, particularly Japan and certain countries in Europe, with a whopping 65% of the population saying that religion plays an important role in their daily lives. In spite of attempts by Gallup and other polls to determine the place of religion in American life, it may be a fruitless endeavor, at least insofar as identifying any correlation between wealth and religious conviction.

A more basic question is whether or not the place of religion in the United States represents authentic religious values, indeed whether or not this commitment is even truly religious. Almost as soon as the question is posed, it is obvious that we have set upon a treacherous path. After all, given that religious commitment is deeply private and personal, and given that one of the founding principles of the United States is freedom of religion, then on what authority can one possibly judge the validity of another's faith? I am not here concerned with the legal and constitutional issues of religious freedom. Nor am I concerned about the Judeo-Christian values out of which this nation is formed. I recognize that the United States, being the quintessential melting pot, is a reflection of the wide range of religious beliefs and teachings that abound in the world at large. But I remain convinced that there is something foundational to religious authenticity that is not being addressed. For this we need to look more broadly at the world of religion.

The concept of world religions embraces Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but I include the offshoots of these religions, and I also look to the numerous natural or animist religions that have existed among indigenous peoples around the world, such as what are found in Africa and among the native Americans. The social fabric that was intertwined in both religious belief and tribal structures is near universal in character. There is a theme that runs consistently through many of these religious traditions. That theme is a concern for the poor, the sick, and those whom we might define in a number of ways as disenfranchised, essentially those unable to care for themselves. In the case of tribal religion, such concern was essential for survival. In the case of the Abrahamic faiths, it is presented as an edict from God and so becomes part of revealed truth.

It is easy to look back through the history of Europe and identify the extravagances and excesses of the oligarchy that kept vast numbers of people in abject poverty. This self-indulgence of the rich directly contributed to the revolutions that sought a re-distribution of wealth and political self-determination in attempts to create some measure of equality. The violence that defined several of these uprisings is indicative of the desperation that such intolerable and inhuman situations created for so many people and for such long periods of time. Not all the revolutions succeeded equally, and some failed miserably, but their intent was the same. In the case of today's developing nations, a similar concern often serves as a driving dynamic in the political process. And, as in the case of European history, success is mixed.

Somewhat ironically, throughout all the injustices of the past, the rich and powerful often used religion as a tool for keeping the poor under control. So on the one hand we had religious traditions speaking about a concern for the poor, a concern sometimes directed by God. On the other hand, we had an oligarchy that used the same religious traditions to manipulate the poor and keep them in subservience. In the case of colonial powers, there was even an attempt to suggest that the religions of the West created superior beings who, by supernatural design should rule over the inhabitants of foreign lands. No wonder Marx judged religion to be the opiate of the people.

This brings us back to the United States and the recent Gallup study. Clearly, there is a great deal of religious commitment on the part of many Americans. More Americans attend religious services and, according to the recent study, for most Americans religion is an important part of their daily lives. Without doubt, much of that is truly authentic. But a closer examination indicates that a corruption, I would even say a perversion, has crept into the American religious culture that raises substantial questions about its overall authenticity. This appears to be occurring primarily on the so-called religious right, primarily Christian, which is flexing its muscles in an attempt to further corrupt the rest of American society.

I would call this a modern version of the abuse of religion that has defined so much of human history. The first indication of corruption surfaces in the observation that the Christian right has almost fully abandoned that most basic of religious principles, namely, concern for the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. The next indication of corruption is perhaps even more obscene and is identified by a blatant misuse of God and God's name. It is bewildering how such groups claim to know what God intends in every situation. And it is at least arrogant that they use God in an attempt to dismantle every public policy that seeks to care for others and call out the best in each of us.

I suppose that the depth of the perversion is the self-centered orientation that motivates them to action. The Tea Party is a good example. It is loosely affiliated and not specifically religious. Yet, like many of the Christian right who make up the Tea Party, they possess no concept of the common good. They are driven by one concern only--getting and keeping their piece of the pie, no matter how many lives are lost or destroyed in that pursuit. When it comes right down to it, the Christian right is about money, not morality or values. Glenn Beck, whom I have previously criticized, is a perfect example. By calling on people to leave any church that preaches social justice, he has effectively called on people to turn their backs on God. Then he has the audacity to use God's name in a doomed attempt to bolster and defend his ideas.

As the great world religions prove, there is more than one way to respond to God's presence in our lives and to build a better world for all. In spite of their differences, what they proclaim collectively is grossly deficient in the American Christian right. So, is the U.S. a religious country? Yes, but we have a long way to go to be authentic.

Multi-Universes and God

Stephen Hawking is one of the pre-eminent physicists in modern science. Perhaps due to his prominence he is also no stranger to controversy. In fact, not only does he not shy away from it, he seems to enjoy fomenting a little. This is not a negative assessment. The greatest thinkers in history have always created intellectual turmoil in the advance of new ideas. Over time, that has led to the development and acceptance of new and sometimes vastly different views of what we thought we knew of the world, of ourselves and even our understandings of God.

In the case of science and religion, such controversy has generated a concept that science and religion are at odds with each other and cannot coexist. It is an idea shared equally by some scientists and some religionists. Precisely because theology is not an empirical science, it is easy for some to accept a dichotomy that exists more in the imagination than it does in reality.

Putting aside the visions and apparitions claimed by people who are already pre-disposed to believe in God, the fact remains that we cannot see God, nor can we prove that God exists. The frequently used example of the artist remains apropos today. While one can recognize Rembrandt in one of his paintings, it is not the same as seeing Rembrandt himself. For people of faith, it is easy to see God's hand at work in creation, but that is not the same as seeing God. Another analogy that has been popular among preachers, and is perhaps more accessible, is wind. We can see and feel the effects of wind, but cannot see the wind itself. Yet we know that it is there. Of course, all analogies limp. Knowing the wind is there from observation is clearly not the same as believing that God exists by observation. There simply is no proof that God exists. This need not bother a believer, for it is in the definition of faith, itself. If God's existence could be proved, there could be no faith.

There is a similar principle at work in the world of science. For example, scientists have theorized for years about the existence of dark matter. Alternatives to dark matter notwithstanding, (specifically Milgrom's Modification of Newton's Dynamics {MOND}), the vast majority of scientists have continued to believe in the existence of dark matter, even though it cannot be seen. The presumed existence of dark matter helps to explain some of the observations in the rotation of galaxies and galaxy clusters.

The same principle is at work in the existence of our universe and the existence of parallel or multi-universes. Stephen Hawking's new book, "The Grand Design" argues "Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist." Using the existence of gravity, he argues "the universe can and will create itself from nothing." Hawking suggests there is no need for God and he seeks to support this from a couple of observable facts. First, there are innumerable planets in our universe, thereby raising the probability that intelligent life exists elsewhere. Where that life exists, it will always find itself living in a suitable place with no need for a God to explain its existence.

The second observable fact has long been the staple of science fiction, but today clearly resides in the mainstream of modern science. This is the concept of parallel or multi-universes. Without going into the details, cosmological observations give rise to four levels of multi-universes, successively more complex. We see the first two of these at work in popular science fiction: Level I multiverse is what is presented in a number of episodes of the various "Star Trek" series. The film "Men In Black II" ends with a nod to the Level II multiverse. Beyond these are two additional levels of multiverse. According to Hawking, among the parallel universes, a universe like ours will also have the same laws of physics. For him, that universe begins exactly as our did and must arise from nothing.

Scientifically, there is nothing problematic in Hawking's argument. However, it does not negate the existence of God, and his contention that it negates the need for God is grossly over-stated. Substantially different religious traditions have different concepts of God. Perhaps Hawking's argument negates the need for some of the them. Yet he seems not to understand the God of the Bible, for nothing in his presentation negates the existence of this God.

Hawking appears to make the same mistake that many fundamentalists do, namely, failing to distinguish the difference between fact/fiction and truth/falsehood. The result is the mistaken notion that the Bible is either science or history--it is neither--and this leads to the false conflict between science and religion. Truth and fiction are not opposites of each other. The opposite of truth is falsehood, the opposite of fact is fiction. Great works of fiction can speak profound truths about life, but they are not factual. The same can be said of the Bible.

In both of the creation narratives in the Book of Genesis, God is presented as the creator of the world (universe). But these creation stories seek to tell truth through the poetry of myth (fiction). The works of Stephen Hawking and other scientists seek to explain the facts of the universe. Both of these endeavors can and do speak to truth.

As one of my professors, a Scripture scholar, was fond of saying: "The Bible tells us that God created the world. Science tells us how God created the world." The spontaneous creation that Hawking refers to is for the believer, an act of God. This may not convince scientists that God actually exists or that he created the universe. That remains an article of faith. But it should free them from the obligation to attempt to prove that either God does not exist or did not create the universe. In today's world we need to find ways for science and religion to work together. To arrive at the deepest truths we need them both.