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Faith | jonmower.com

Faith

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Religion and Politics

From a Newsweek article by Jon Meacham:

By the time of the American founding, men like Jefferson and Madison saw the virtue in guaranteeing liberty of conscience, and one of the young republic's signal achievements was to create a context in which religion and politics mixed but church and state did not. The Founders' insight was that one might as well try to build a wall between economics and politics as between religion and politics, since both are about what people feel and how they see the world. Let the religious take their stand in the arena of politics and ideas on their own, and fight for their views on equal footing with all other interests. American public life is neither wholly secular nor wholly religious but an ever-fluid mix of the two. History suggests that trouble tends to come when one of these forces grows too powerful in proportion to the other.

P.S. Lately I find myself frequently annoyed by article headlines that exaggerate the content of the article.  This one by Meacham is titled "The End of Christian America" but quickly admits:

According to the American Religious Identification Survey...the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent.

Let's be clear: while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian.

The Pope, AIDS, and Condoms

From The Wall Street Journal:

Pope Benedict XVI said on his way to Africa Tuesday that condoms weren't the answer in the continent's fight against HIV, his first explicit statement on an issue that has divided even clergy working with AIDS patients.

Pope Benedict had never directly addressed condom use. He has said that the Roman Catholic Church is in the forefront of the battle against AIDS. The Vatican encourages sexual abstinence to fight the spread of the disease.

"You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane headed to Yaounde, Cameroon, where he will begin a seven-day pilgrimage on the continent. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."

Not surprisingly, Benedict's statements elicited much criticism.  It was easy to imagine that the Catholic church's teachings about contraception were dictating his viewpoint rather than a rational assessment of the situation on the ground.  Criticism of his statements acknowledged that condoms aren't foolproof and sometimes fail either due to operator error or loss of integrity (link).

Then the official transcript tweaked his words to make it a little less extreme, indicating that condoms risked increasing the problem (link).

Then Edward Green came to the pope's defense.  I assume Green's views on this subject are controversial, but he does have some credibility (link):

Edward C. Green is one of the world's leading field researchers on the spread of HIV and public health interventions. He's the director of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project, and is a leading advocate for evidence-based interventions.

I understand Green's point, and I think it's a good one.  If condoms are the answer for AIDS in Africa, we should be able to see it in the data.  As he said (link):

We have found no consistent associations between condom use and lower HIV-infection rates, which, 25 years into the pandemic, we should be seeing if this intervention was working.

How could condoms contribute to the problem?

...the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments. He stresses that “condoms have been proven to not be effective at the ‘level of population.’”

“There is,” Green adds, “a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the U.S.-funded ‘Demographic Health Surveys,’ between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by ‘compensating’ or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.”

In an interview with Christianity Today (link), Green commented further on what he thinks is and isn't working:

We are seeing HIV decline in eight or nine African countries. In every case, there's been a decrease in the proportion of men and women reporting multiple sexual partners. Ironically, in the first country where we saw this, Uganda, HIV prevalence decline stopped in about 2004, and infection rates appear to be rising again. This appears to be in part because emphasis on interventions that promote monogamy and fidelity has weakened significantly, and earlier behavior changes have eroded. There has been a steady increase in the very behavior that once accounted for rates declining — namely, having multiple and concurrent sex partners. There is a widespread belief that somehow Uganda had fewer condoms. In fact, foreign donors have persuaded Uganda to put even more emphasis on condoms.

I can buy that it's possible that on the level of populations the focus on condom distribution might counter-intuitively fail to reduce the prevalence of AIDS and that this complexity may be underappreciated.  Complicated issues are often over-simplified into inaccurate or incomplete sound bites. 

On the other hand, I think that the pope's and Green's comments are also an over-simplification because they seem not to acknowledge this fact (as others have pointed out): an African woman for whom monogamous sex with an uninfected spouse is not an option is much safer if her spouse uses a condom.  That's the difference between considering the efficacy of condom availability on the individual versus population level.  We should be concerned about both.

Part of the issue is also probably that passing out condoms makes someone some cash and is much easier than the hard work of significantly changing a culture's views regarding sexual fidelity.  It probably makes sense to start with the easier job...but not just stop there either.

Complaining about Warren's Invocation

Not that I'm a huge fan of Rick Warren (though I admire his reverse tithing and work against poverty and A.I.D.S.), but it seems kind of lame that so many are complaining (link link link link link link) about Obama inviting Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration.  It reminds me of pro-life groups whining about Warren and Obama partnering to fight A.I.D.S.

Waldman explains why he respects Warren here: link

Update (17 Dec 08):

This firedoglake post (link) is exactly what I'm talking about.  To me, calling Warren a "warmongering torture apologist" is from the same playbook as saying that Obama supports infanticide.

Another update (17 Dec 08):

Raushenbush also doesn't have his knickers in a twist (link)

Update (18 Dec 08):

See what I mean: link

If respect, then respect. If honor, then honor.

Like I said the other day, I'm feeling pretty good about Obama's chances Tuesday but will be pleasantly surprised if he's elected.  That said, it looks like there may be a fantastic opportunity upcoming for many Christians to demonstrate their submission to Christ and the teaching of his apostle Paul to pray for Obama and give him respect and honor.

1 Timothy 2:1-2

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyon - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

Romans 13:1-7

1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

I doubt the average Christian had warm, fuzzy feelings for the emperor when Paul wrote those words to the Romans.

Bonus reading material:

Why are So Many Christians Supporting Obama?

That's a question I've seen people asking lately.  For example, here's a conversation I had on Facebook:

Christians-Obama

Below are some links that might help for anyone else asking that same question, but first here are a few of my reasons:

  • I desire a foreign policy that is less bellicose and more reliant on international cooperation and diplomacy
  • I support generous treatment of immigrants
  • I believe that the policies of the Democrats are more likely to reduce the abortion rate
  • I believe that we need to protect the environment and can't depend on "the market" to do it for us
  • Though I realize this is a gross oversimplification, I feel more kinship with a party whose focus is on the poor and powerless rather than on the rich and powerful
  • I am confident that Obama has a first-class intellect and temperament, qualities that are highly desirable for the job of president

How a Christian Can Vote for Obama (link)
Henry Neufeld

Frank! As A Former Pro-Life Leader How Dare You Support Pro-Choice Obama? (link)
Frank Schaeffer

I'm Catholic, staunchly anti-abortion, and support Obama (link)
Nicholas Cafardi

Pro Life - Pro Obama (link)

Interview with Donald Miller (link)

On the Campaign Trail in MI, IN, NC, VA and OH This Week (link)
Donald Miller

From Reagan to Obama, a brief Political History (link)
Donald Miller

Endorsing Obama (link)
Doug Kmiec

My Support for Obama (link)
Mark Love

Why I'm Voting for Obama, and Why I Hope You Will Too (link)
Brian McLaren

Why I'm Voting for Obama (link)
Ryan Bolger

If you're a Christian planning to vote for Obama, tell us why...

The 8th Deadly Sin

Don't get me wrong, I'm a proponent of capitalism (in concert with a robust regulatory framework to limit its potential excesses).  However, I find it quite curious that the concepts of socialism and communism are so taboo.  Furthermore, it seems especially strange that Christians, of all people, seem to consider communism/socialism as the 8th deadly sin.  It's as if they think that all that is necessary is to cry "SOCIALISM!" to reveal any tax proposal or social program funded by a progressive tax system as blatantly un-American.

In a recent blog post titled "Is Capitalism Christian?", Pastor Bob Cornwall quotes Jose Miranda:

The notion of communism is in the New Testament, right down to the letter -- and so well put that in the twenty centuries since it was written no one has come up with a better definition of communism than Luke in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35. In fact the definition Marx borrowed from Louis Blanc, "From each one according to his capacities, to each one according to his needs," is inspired by, if not directly copied from Luke's formulation eighteen centuries earlier. There is no clearer demonstration of the brainwashing to which the establishment keeps us subjected than the officially promulgated conception of Christianity as anticommunist (Jose Miranda, Communism in the Bible, Orbis Books, 1982, p. 7).

To refresh your memory about the passages Miranda cites:

Acts 2:44-45

44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

Acts 4:32-35

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

Of course, I understand that the voluntary charitable acts of community described in Acts 2 and 4 are not equivalent to a political system, especially the totalitarian ones of the historical and present-day communist regimes, where such actions are coerced.  On the other hand, these principles of community and caring for one another and the least of us are clearly fundamental to the Christian worldview, yet most Christians, myself included, don't routinely put these principles to practice in a way that is consistent with the example of Acts 2.  Ironically, it seems like some of the people who are most eager for the US of A to be an explicitly Christian nation are some of the same that are so strongly antagonistic to these particular Christian principles being implemented in our government.

The other thing that is funny is the way McCain and his supporters are so quick to brand Obama's proposals as socialist and as radically different from the system we've had in place ever since the income tax was instituted - as if McCain himself wasn't making many of the same arguments just a few years ago.  Here's the video:

Brief Letter to God

In small groups we’ve been studying spiritual formation.  Here’s my response to one of the exercises…

Recall the first time you sensed God’s presence and some of the ways God has revealed himself to you since then.  Close the letter by giving thanks for all that you know of God now and for what you would like to know in the future.

Dear God,

I don’t remember the first time I sensed your presence, but as a kid the times I felt closest to you were in worship settings, like at Bible camp or youth rallies.  I have felt your presence many times, for example, in school and at work when things have worked out well for me in ways that seemed to have little if any connection with what I had done or choices that I had made.  I could ascribe it to luck or chance, but I don’t believe that is what it is.  I know that all good things come from you, but I also understand that your servants also suffer.  Sometimes I wonder if my life has seen so little adversity because I wouldn’t be able to handle it if it came.  As a parent and in my relationship with my kids, I have learned to better understand your relationship with me and your other children. I wonder how much of what I think I know about you is based on what you have revealed in the Bible and on what I have experienced versus how much is based on my cultural setting or what makes me comfortable.  I trust that you’ll help me see through those deceptions as you continue to reveal your true self to me.  I am especially thankful for the faith that you have planted in me because I can also how easy it would be for me to not believe under other circumstances.  Thank you.

If You Love Jesus, Vote For...

I'm sure many people who read today's HuffPo piece by Christine Wicker titled "If You Love Jesus, Vote for Obama" (link) won't appreciate it, won't get it.  I do.  Though I wouldn't tell anyone that a love of Jesus requires voting for any particular candidate (which, by the way, is what many on the religious right actually do), I'm in agreement with much of what Wicker writes in the article.  For example:

After more than 20 years during which the Religious Right has been the dominant ethical and moral voice in the public square, the reputation of American Christians is at an all time low, especially among young people. As the political ambitions of the most right wing Christians have soared, the influence of Christian teachings on popular culture has plummeted.

I recommend following the link above and reading the whole piece.  Personally, I like Wicker's article because it expresses in a clever and provocative way ("If you love Jesus, vote for" is certainly provocative language) something that I believe to be true: the strong association of the religious right with the political far right is a liability in accomplishing the mission of the church among about half of the population.

I think there is a real danger for the stink of politics to mask the beautiful aroma of the gospel.  Look at the way the current campaign has inevitably ended up in the gutter despite the initial promise of a different kind of campaign from these two candidates.  And the way people like Dobson wield political power is so distasteful to me. And the culture war? That's the way to engage outsiders? There's a reason why they like Jesus but not the church.

I don't think the answer is for the religious left to become the new religious right in the political realm, but I think it would be very healthy for it to be more obvious that Christianity and Republicanism are not synonymous.

Friday Night Videos

Here are some videos I watched tonight.  The first two are of Palin as governor speaking in the church where she grew up.  I guess these are supposed to be to Palin what the Jeremiah Wright videos were to Obama?  I've seen the Jeremiah Wright videos.  These are no Jeremiah Wright videos.  There is some interesting stuff here though - references to the U.S. military being sent according to Bush's plan that (hopefully) is God's will too, God also willing some companies to get coordinated to build an oil pipeline, Alaska as a place were hundreds of thousands of us are going to take refuge in the last days, etc:

In that last video Palin makes a reference to not being freaked out by spirited worship assemblies after growing up at the Wasilla Assembly of God. Here is a brief clip of Wasilla that some folks find peculiar (link).  Even though the churches I grew up in are nothing like this, this hardly freaks me out - though I can understand how all of this must seem a bit strange to non-religious folk.

 

If you have to look for the change with a microscope...

Steve Waldman, countering Jim Wallis's view that the Democratic Party has moved to a more pro-life position:

If you have to look for the change with a microscope, it's not going to have much effect on the public discourse.

(h/t Crunchy Con)

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