And Then There’s the Blowback….

So a few days ago, I posted about a new Evangelical organization supportive of same-sex marriage. Lest readers get too excited, there’s plenty of evidence that the more conservative churches won’t go down that road without a very substantial fight. According to Baptist Press, 

 FRESNO, Calif. (BP) — The California Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Board voted Thursday (Sept. 11) to withdraw fellowship from a church whose pastor says he believes homosexual acts are not always sinful.

In a unanimous vote of the 35 members present (six were absent), the board voted to withdraw fellowship from New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, Calif., for holding beliefs contrary to the Baptist Faith & Message. Article XVIII of the BF&M defines marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.” Article XV states, “Christians should oppose … all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.”

If the Southern Baptists want to dictate proper sexual behavior to their members, they are of course entitled to do so.

I just wish they–and similar churches–would spend half as much time and energy preaching against predatory behaviors, exploitation of the poor and powerless, and moral smugness (what their bibles call, if I recall, “stiff-neckness”). Or–let me go out on a real limb here–how about “forms of immorality” like wife-beating and child abuse?

Maybe the Southern Baptist Convention has issued an official statement on the recent NFL scandals, but my quick google didn’t find one. The Convention did find Michael Sams’ on-camera kiss worthy of an official condemnation, however:

Be it resolved that we believe that it is inappropriate for children to be subjected to having to watch same-sex couples engage in public displays of affection while watching a sports-related event on allegedly family-friendly channels. We discourage any further televising of such events. While there is a missing airplane somewhere in the Far East, over 200 kidnapped girls from Nigeria, and high unemployment in America, we respectfully request the President of the United States to refrain from congratulating and extending well wishes to any future homosexual professional sports players, unless simultaneously he is going to make celebratory and well wishes calls to the likes of Tim Tebow, Prince Amukamara—the “Black Tim Tebow,” and AC Green, professional athletes committed to sexual purity.

Interesting moral priorities….


It Isn’t Whether–It’s How

Extremists on the Right constantly complain that religion has been banished from public school classrooms. This, of course, is inaccurate: what the Establishment Clause prohibits is proselytizing–imposing religious beliefs or observances on the “captive audience” that is the public school classroom.

The courts have been careful to distinguish between official endorsement or sponsorship of religion, which is unconstitutional, and instruction about religion, which is not only constitutional, but entirely appropriate. (Try teaching history, or art history, without reference to the immense influence of religious beliefs.)

One of the problems caused by low levels of civic and constitutional knowledge is that some schools have become skittish, avoiding even the appropriate study of religion for fear of lawsuits, while at the other end of the spectrum, schools have simply ignored the line between proper and improper instruction.

But some schools have gotten it right. Modesto, California is one of them.

The course’s inclusive curriculum ensures that it meets constitutional standards. It’s obvious from the design of the course and from emerging evidence that it succeeds in providing a thorough and objective education in world religions. For that reason, it’s a useful example of how religion ought to be taught in schools, if it’s going to be taught at all. And it’s sharply distinct from the Religious Right’s various attempts to insert sectarianism in public classrooms.

Modesto’s course and curricular proposals stand in sharp contrast to the Bible class designed by Hobby Lobby’s owners that has been proposed for use in Mustang, Okla., public schools. Steve Green, the corporation’s current president, called the class “the fourth leg of my personal ministry” and stated that it’s intended to complement his planned Bible museum in Washington, D.C. Legal objections from groups like Americans United have put the class on hold for now, but it could still be implemented in Mustang’s high schools.

If the goal is to have kids know about religion, there are perfectly legal ways to do that. The problems arise when your goal is really to impose your particular beliefs on others.



For the past several years, I have asked the following question on my Law and Policy midterm examination:

Town officials in Whitebread, Indiana, became concerned by the number of “undesirables” who were “hanging out” in Whitebread. They passed an ordinance against loitering, defined as “Three or more persons congregating in a manner annoying to passersby.” Is this ordinance enforceable? Why or why not?

The correct answer is that the ordinance is unenforceable, because its language is unconstitutionally vague. What is “annoying” is very subjective–what annoys me may not bother you at all. The rule of law requires far more specificity–any statute, to be enforceable, must be sufficiently clear and specific to allow citizens to know what sorts of behaviors cross the line.

Most of my students answer this correctly.  I discovered that Indiana’s lawmakers know less than my students when I read this about a challenge to our public intoxication law in the Indianapolis Star.

 It takes more than just being drunk to get convicted of public intoxication in Indiana. The law says you also have to be annoying.

As the lawyer challenging the standard correctly pointed out, this language doesn’t tell the public what conduct may annoy another person.

“There needs to be some standard,” she told the justices, “so a person can read the law and know what (conduct) is prohibited.”

A three-judge panel from the court of appeals agreed when it found the “annoying” standard unconstitutionally vague.

The requirement that laws be sufficiently specific to allow citizens to understand what they can and cannot do is fundamental to the rule of law. Any of my former students could have told the General Assembly that “annoying” wasn’t a constitutionally-compliant standard.

I find it very annoying that Hoosier lawmakers evidently don’t know the most basic requirements of the constitution and rule of law.


What Do We Teach the Children?

Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life is probably the gold standard when it comes to survey research, and I watch my inbox for their periodic in-depth research updates as well as their daily email list of news from the intersection of religion and society. Yesterday, they released findings on a recent survey of child-rearing practices and attitudes, broken down by religious affiliation.

This particular finding struck an uncomfortable chord:

Those with religious affiliations — and particularly white evangelical Protestants — are more likely than the religiously unaffiliated to prioritize obedience and being well-mannered, and somewhat less likely to say creativity, curiosity or tolerance is important.

The reason this brought me up short was that it reminded me of a study I read several years ago by a couple of psychologists who compared the Germans who hid Jews and otherwise resisted the Nazi regime with those who were swept up in the mythology of   Ayran superiority and either assisted or stood by as their Jewish neighbors were rounded up. The researchers attributed a substantial amount of the differences in behavior to the ways in which the children were raised.

According to the book (which I purchased at the Holocaust Museum and can no longer find in my messy library), children raised in the traditional German fashion, which emphasized the importance of obedience and respect for authority over most other traits and frequently employed corporal punishment, grew (not surprisingly) into adults who were willing to obey authority–and not very willing to question it.

Children whose parents explained their reasons for disapproving of the behavior in question–parents who rarely spanked and who engaged the children in conversation about the reasons for rules and why those rules were important–were far more likely to grow into adults who questioned authority and made their own moral judgments.

We have five children and four grandchildren, and I’d be the last person on earth to suggest that kids shouldn’t be taught to obey the rules. But–as with so many other aspects of life–the question isn’t whether–it’s how. It’s certainly easier to enforce obedience with a smack across the buttocks than to take the time to explain why nice people don’t act that way. It’s lots easier to say “because I say so” (and boy, I’ve done that!), than to explain why I say so.

The problem is, when we make reflexive obedience the measure of our parenting, when we prioritize respect for authority over compassion and critical thinking, we risk raising some pretty flawed people.

Unlike that football player who’s currently all over the news, I’m not a big fan of “spare the rod, spoil the child” theology.

Evangelicals and Same-Sex Marriage: An Evolution

File this under Things I Never, Ever Thought I’d See.

According to Religion News Service, there’s a new organization called—I am not making this up–Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. It was launched on Tuesday, September 9th, and immediately began collecting signatures from evangelicals who support same-sex marriage. Its advisory board lists several evangelical luminaries.

It is immensely heartening to see prominent evangelicals recognize that, if opposite-sex marriage is good for society, same-sex unions should be equally good for the social fabric. This new organization is yet another expression of a growing recognition that fidelity and stability in relationships require social acceptance—that when you demonize people, when you deny them respect and equal civil rights, you are encouraging the destructive behaviors you claim to deplore.

So—you may be late to the party, Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, but we certainly welcome you.

That said, there may also be an element of self-preservation in this sudden turn-around.

Over the past few years, membership in conservative churches has been declining. Young Christians, especially, have increasingly rejected a theology that seemed to place homophobia at the very center of its belief structure.

Polling has confirmed that the demographic split that characterizes the broader American society is equally pronounced among conservative and evangelical Christians. Young evangelicals may not be leading the charge to embrace equal rights for their LGBT peers, but they are demonstrably less homophobic than their elders and changing (for the better) with dizzying speed.

In 2012, Pew found that 29 percent of young white evangelicals (age 18-29) expressed support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, higher than older evangelicals at 17 percent. That’s far below the level of support for same-sex marriage expressed by young adults as a whole (65 percent).

 A 2014 Public Religion Research Institute survey suggested that white evangelical Protestant millennials are more than twice as likely to favor same-sex marriage as the oldest generation of white evangelical Protestants (43 percent compared to 19 percent).

Other polling has confirmed that continued culture-war messages–and especially anti-gay rhetoric—coming from the pulpits of these churches is a significant element in the disaffection of young evangelicals. A change of message and a softening of that rhetoric can only help rebuild dwindling congregations.

At the end of the day, whether the change of at least some evangelical hearts is prompted by a sincere rethinking of old shibboleths or by a savvy eye on the future, really doesn’t matter.

What matters is that at least some of the most adamant opponents of equality have decided to reconsider a theological tenet requiring belief in an omnipotent god who would create people he disapproved of.

What’s next? Acceptance of evolution? After this, nothing would surprise me….