Thursday, May 31, 2007

Did religious differences lead to ghastly murders?


Throughout history, the answer to that question has often been yes. But it's not yet clear whether a bad breakup based on religious differences led to the gruesome murders of an OC Hindu family. It's just what police are suggesting. From the LA Times:

She was a college freshman whose Hindu family didn't believe in dating before marriage. He was a Muslim, which troubled her parents, and they convinced her that he wasn't the one.

Their breakup, investigators said, might have played a role in a string of vicious crimes that unfolded in Orange County last week: Her Anaheim Hills home was set ablaze, her mother savagely beaten and her father and sister killed. The victims had been strangled, bludgeoned, burned and stabbed, according to court records.

The young man, Iftekhar Murtaza, 22, of Van Nuys, was arrested last weekend at the Phoenix airport in connection with the slayings. He had left Southern California after investigators questioned him and was carrying a one-way ticket to Bangladesh.

Murtaza today waived his right to an extradition hearing in Arizona and will be returned to OC and charged with murder.

Hindus and Muslims have a recent history of hatred. Before the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, fighting between the two religious groups claimed about half a million lives.

Long Beach MSA leader: 'Blowing yourself up not something everyone has the courage to do' *

Ahmed Billoo is the product of an upper-middle-class Alhambra home. He grew up going to the local mosque on Fridays and holidays, playing sports with friends and enjoying the blessings of a comfortable American childhood. Twelve months from completing a business degree at Cal State Long Beach, Billoo, 22, is fully Muslim and American, the two locked hand in hand.

And yet he believes the righteousness of suicide bombers needs to be evaluated on a “case-by-case basis.”

“Muslim or not Muslim, we all fear death. Blowing yourself up is not something everyone can do or something that everyone has the courage to do,” said Billoo, the outgoing president of Long Beach’s Muslim Student Association. “But don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we should all go around America doing that; Palestine is a different situation. There is a huge difference between saying we should do it and saying I’m going to be a suicide bomber. I just think it is something that Islam justifies.”
Far from alone, according to a report last week by the Pew Research Center, its first nationwide survey of Muslim Americans, about 26 percent of American Muslims ages 18 to 29 share Billoo’s sentiment to varying degrees. “I would have to say it’s actually like 60 or 65 percent of the youth,” Billoo added. “It’s very rare that I meet someone who says suicide bombings in Palestine are not justified.”

That is the opening for I story I have in today's Jewish Journal. Read the rest of the story.

The focus of the Pew findings were positive: most U.S. Muslims are "mainstream and middle-class." But responses to a question about whether suicide bombings against civilians are ever justified in defending Islam has sounded some alarms, adding to the Muslim American PR problem. Fears of Islamophobia are higher now than in the months after 9/11, and in predominantly Muslim countries, the "war on terror" is perceived as a "war on Islam."

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

L.A.'s famous philo-Semite

That's Mark Paredes, a leader in the Mormon Church and the national director of Latino outreach for the American Jewish Congress. Paredes once worked for the Israeli consulate, and I met him there my second day at The Journal when he emceed an interfaith event celebrating the reopening of BYU's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Paredes was unaware he had been profiled in this week's Forward. Here is what Jennifer Siegel had to say:

At the seat of one of America’s largest communities of both Jews and Mormons, Paredes, 39, is working to build bridges between two communities that have longstanding ties but also a history of distrust. For years, Jewish leaders have called upon Mormon leaders to halt controversial posthumous baptisms of Jews by church members. Despite years of progress, the issue flared up again last December, when leaders of the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center discovered that the name of Wiesenthal, Holocaust survivor and famed Nazi hunter, appeared on the church’s baptism roll a year after his death in 2005.

The son of a white mother and black father, Paredes is working to counter negative feelings in the Jewish community through outreach that stresses Mormons’ historic support for Israel, and by sharing the information gleaned by their extensive genealogical research.

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Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the Los Angeles-based interfaith director of the American Jewish Committee, calls Paredes a “wonderful breath of fresh air” who is building on a history of Jewish-Mormon interfaith work in the West.

When Paredes went to work for the consulate five years ago, The Jewish Journal's Tom Tugend wrote about him for JTA.

LOS ANGELES -- Without much fear of contradiction, Mark Paredes observes, "I think I'm the only biracial Mormon representing the state of Israel abroad."

Paredes, a personable bachelor in his early 30s appointed earlier this year as press attaché at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, has other claims to distinction.

He speaks seven languages fluently -- English, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Portuguese -- and served as a U.S. foreign service officer in Mexico and Tel Aviv. He studied at Brigham Young University, University of Texas -- and the Moscow University of Steel and Alloys.

Paredes was born in Bay City, Mich., the son of a white mother and a black father, though he was raised by a Chilean stepfather. He joined the Mormon Church at age 11 and served as a missionary in southern Italy. In line with his religious upbringing, he has never drunk alcohol or smoked a cigarette, and he doesn't swear.



Christians fleeing Lebanon


In the June issue of Christianity Today, David Aikman, a former senior correspondent for Time and regular columnist for CT, writes about the coming exodus of Lebanese Christians. The article is not online, but here is some of what Aikman had to say:
A little noticed but sad news item appeared in London's Daily Telegraph this past March. The report, based on secret Lebanese government information, said nearly half of the country's Maronite Christian community (22 percent of Lebanon's 3.8 million people) want to leave the country. Of these, 100,000 have already requested immigrant visas.

Since Israel's war last July with Hezbollah (a Shi'a Islamic militant organization), the trickle of Lebanese Christians fleeing the country has become a steady stream. Lebanon, once considered the Switzerland of the Middle East and the only Arabic-speaking country that ever had a Christian majority, is slowly bleeding to death.
Lebanon, which was ripped by civil war for 15 years ending in 1990, was a great experiment in Muslim-Christian co-governance, though the country has had no better relations with Israel than the Jewish state's other neighbors.

Changing the tune of this post, I have a short piece in the same CT about Evel Knievel taking possibly his final great leap -- this one of faith.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Transgender Methodist minister opens up


"A transgender United Methodist pastor has shared his story with other members of the denomination's Baltimore-Washington Conference in the hopes of promoting a broader discussion about gender identity."

That is from a United Methodist News Service article, via DMN's religion blog.

The Rev. Drew Phoenix - formerly the Rev. Ann Gordon - spoke at both a closed clergy session and a general plenary session on May 24 during the annual conference meeting at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. He is pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church in Baltimore.

"I was very grateful for the opportunity to be able to share my story and who I am," Phoenix told United Methodist News Service in a phone interview following those sessions. "I was very pleased at the number of people who were very honest in their reflections and questions."

He said he has been undergoing medical procedures for the transition from female to male during the past year, with "a great team of medical people who helped me think it out."

In his statement to the plenary session, the 48-year-old pastor explained that "last fall, after a lifelong spiritual journey, and years of prayer and discernment, I decided to change my name from Ann Gordon to Drew Phoenix in order to reflect my true gender identity and to honor my spiritual transformation and relationship with God."

By sharing the story of his spiritual journey and relationship with God, Phoenix said he hoped the conference participants "will commit ourselves to becoming educated about the complexity of gender and gender identity and open ourselves to those in our congregations who identify as transgender."

Phoenix, who was ordained in 1989 and previously served in the Bethesda area, said he joined the ministry because of "a calling to be in service to folk who are oppressed, who are poor, who are excluded, who are marginalized."

Although he was named Ann and declared a girl, Phoenix said he always felt he was male and had trouble understanding "the disconnect I was experiencing between my physical, external self and my internal, spiritual self."

"Fortunately, today, God's gift of medical science is enabling me to bring my physical body into alignment with my true gender," he told the plenary session.


More here from CBS2 in L.A. Not sure if such a scenario has occurred before, but the church's Book of Discipline -- the Methodist doctrinal bible, if you will -- has "no specific policies regarding gender reassignment."

Has Britney found religion?


Not sure. She was into Kabbalah for a little while, but that didn't work out. Today, she posted this apology on her homepage for all her recent headline-grabbing behavior. Here's what she had to say:

Dear Fans,

I just wanted to reach out to all of you and explain some of the things that I have been faced with recently.

It's so funny how many stories are put out there about people. It's like we all want our side of the story out there as well, but at the end of the day only a few people care to hear what is really going on since the bad is always so much more interesting than the truth. I don't know why, but this is so weird to me. I used to be angry at the tabloids for printing horrible things about me, but now I try to just be numb to what I see. I saw Tyra Banks once get really upset and cry on her show because they made her look fat. We all want a certain image of ourselves out there, and at some point we all do really care what other people think or we wouldn't be here.

Recently, I was sent to a very humbling place called rehab. I truly hit rock bottom. Till this day I don't think that it was alcohol or depression. I was like a bad kid running around with ADD. I had a manager from a long time ago come in and try to direct me and my life after I got my divorce. I was so overwhelmed I think that I was in a little shock too. I didn't know who to go to. I realized how much energy and love I had put into my past relationship when it was gone because I genuinely did not know what to do with myself, and it made me so sad. I confess, I was so lost.

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I just hope this letter made some of you think a little bit more of me and where I am coming from. I just want the same things in life that you want...and that is to be happy. It is just so weird because everyone has their own perception of me and how they think I really am. It is so weird how stories are told. There is your side, my side, and the truth. Somebody has to figure it out. I guess we will never really understand or figure out life completely. That's God's job. I can't wait to meet him...or her.

Love, Britney

BetUS.com has posted odds on what's next for Britney, among them:

She will become a Hare Krishna: +5000

She will join a Christian cult: +2000

Wolfowitz for mayor ... of Iraq


That's what one Republican lawmaker has recommended be done to keep the architect of the Iraq war off public subsidies, according to The Blotter.

"I would like to suggest...that maybe we give Paul Wolfowitz a new job and send him over [to Iraq] as mayor," said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., "since the neocons got us in over there."

As deputy secretary of defense from 2000 to 2005, Wolfowitz helped develop the strategy and public rationale for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He publicly stated that coalition troops would be greeted as liberators, and the nation of Iraq would be largely capable of financing its own rebuilding through oil revenues.

Wolfowitz, who like Richard Perle and so many other neoconservativees, often Jewish, saw war with Iraq as an inevitability, resigned two weeks ago as president of the World Bank.

Texas wants religion in school

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been sent a bill that would allow students to express religious beliefs in homework, artwork and other assignments without being penalized or rewarded because of their faith. Instead, their work would be graded on "traditional academic standards," according to AP.

"We are allowing our young people to express their faith, whatever that faith is," said Rep. Larry Phillips, a Sherman Republican.

Two months ago, Time magazine had a great article titled "The Case for Teaching the Bible," that opened in Texas. This new discussion of the Bible as literature -- something I studied at UCLA -- follows the failed attempt in Pennsylvania to teach "intelligent design" as a counterpoint to Darwinian evolution. (A little background here.)

All of this, of course, is part of the ongoing debate about how much God is appropriate in public schools, a constant battle since the Supreme Court outlawed school prayer and developed the Lemon test in 1971. As religion? As history? As artistic inspiration?

Monday, May 28, 2007

The God Blog gets a shout-out

The Bible Belt Blogger, who I often borrow from here and here, mentioned The God Blog last week as one of his main sources of religion news. Cool.

A creation story

This story of a creation defiant of its creator isn't that subtle. A friend of The God Blog sent this recently. It won't embed, so you'll have to click here.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Grief continues in Sderot

Another Israeli was killed today by a Qassam rocket launched from Gaza. Hamas took credit, as it did for a rocket attack that killed Shirel Friedman last week, further escalating tensions in the border town of Sderot and egging on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to launch additional strikes on Hamas officials.
Israel is warning that Hamas leaders involved in ordering rocket attacks may be targeted, even if they are political figures. “We are not bound by any timetable in this matter,” Mr. Olmert said. "We will decide where, how and to what extent we act."

He also told Israelis “to prepare for a long confrontation that does not depend on agreements” among the various Palestinian factions. "I will not commit to coordinating our behavior with Hamas actions,” he said, whether it “opens fire or halts its fire.”

JTA reported last week that Hamas' rocket attacks across the border present Israel with a major military dilemma.

Should it target radical Hamas leaders and operatives from the air or move large ground forces into Gaza to push the missile launchers out of range? Involve the international community or go it alone? Declare Gaza an enemy state or keep open options for early accommodation? Try to smash the Hamas-led Palestinian government or negotiate with it?

Olmert, heavily criticized for taking precipitate action against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, so far has committed only limited air power. But other voices inside and outside his government are calling for more radical action, and the prime minister is under growing pressure to make a major move.


Friday, May 25, 2007

A Christian toast to Israel

They poured into the Beverly Hilton like young politicos at a national convention, in awe at the feet of religious icons and ready to go forth from the Jerusalem Prayer Banquet to promote the gospel of God's love for Israel.

Talking last Thursday about God's chosen people, comparing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler and lamenting the indifference others express about Israel, these 300-plus Christians each spent at least $125 to pray for peace in the Holy Land and commiserate with Jews about the seemingly never-ending threats to Israel's existence.

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"God has ordained Israel as a favored nation, and it is important for us to support it," said Fred Broling, a 72-year-old evangelical Christian who flew with his wife from Chicago for the dinner and donated $5,000 to Eagles' Wings Ministries, the organization that hosted the event, placing the couple in the Guardian circle, alongside televangelist Pat Robertson. "God has told us we will be blessed by the fact that we support his people."

Where do the Christian Scriptures say that?

"I don't know," Broling replied. "Somewhere, I'm sure."

That's from a story I wrote this week about the evangelical Christian love affair with Jews -- or at least Israel. Read more about it here and here.

Bumbling God Blogger

Jewish Television Network stopped by my office (cubicle) last week and interviewed me for a video blogs project that launched today. Yes, this vlog is rather self-indulgent; no, I'm not very articulate. I can't figure out how to embed it, but if you were interested, here it is.

Gay rights opponent picked for surgeon general


President Bush sure knows how to pick a fight. I can only imagine he has another on his hands with the selection of Dr. James W. Holsinger to be the country's 18th surgeon general. CBS News is reporting Holsinger wants to fight child obesity.

But my buddy the Bible Belt Blogger -- who caught Jimmy Carter's tongue in a trap last week -- points out that Holsinger, a member of the Asbury Seminary board of trustees, has taken a strong stance against homosexuality.

Time's Richard N. Ostling wrote in 1991: Holsinger thinks Methodism could lose millions of members if an upheaval in church policy is ever approved. But Julian Rush of Denver, a pioneer gay Methodist minister, says, "I don't expect any change in my lifetime. The church won't lead the way on gays. It has to come from society into the church."

Holsinger is also a member of the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church. Last year, he ruled in favor of a Methodist minister who had refused to allow a gay man to join his church, according to the Religion News Service.

As a judicial council member, he has also ruled that "a self-avowed practicing homosexual," cannot be appointed as a pastor by a bishop, according to the United Methodist News Service.

The United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline states that "Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Moderate Muslim leader dead *

Tashbih Sayyed, the moderate Muslim who founded and edited the paper Pakistan Today, died yesterday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

I can't find the news online, but here is what Roz Rothstein, national director of StandWithUs, had to say in a e-mail to friends:
We are deeply saddened over the passing of our treasured friend and true hero Tashbih Sayyed. Tashbih’s insights, firm moral principles and courage to speak out, unaffected by hostility and threats, inspired all of us fortunate enough to know him. His humility, warmth, playful humor, and unwavering commitment touched our lives in countless ways. He will be deeply missed.

Tashbih was a brilliant scholar, journalist, political analyst and author, but most importantly he was a beloved husband, father of three children, brother and cherished friend to many.
Born in 1941, Sayyed was a Shiite Muslim who fell out of favor with other Muslims -- and into it with some Jews -- because of his plainspoken politics. His fall from grace began in 1994, according to this article by Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, after he criticized "'anti-Zionist governments' for having a hand in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina that killed 87 people."
Sayyed also went on CBS’s "48 Hours" and told correspondent Bob Simon that Arab threats against terrorism expert Steven Emerson were real and credible. The mainstream Arab community reviles Emerson, author of "American Jihad" (Free Press, 2002). The backlash was immediate. "Brother," Sayyed said one Arab leader told him, "now you are HIV positive."

Within a month, Pakistan Today’s advertising revenue fell from $4,000 per week to $350 (the sole remaining advertisers are two Hindu store owners). Muslim-owned stores stopped carrying his paper. Sayyed said he received "veiled physical threats." His contributors threatened to stop payments unless he ran a full-page apology — on the front page. When he refused, the money dried up.

Faced with $3,200 in weekly bills he could no longer pay, Sayyed had to decide whether to close the paper, or sell his (Laguna Hills) house. "My wife understood," he said. He dabbed at tears in his eyes. "I apologize. It broke me."

The Sayyeds now produce Pakistan Today out of a small, rented house in Fontana. He still struggles to pay the printer and wire service bills, and his circulation has dropped to 4,000. (U.S. Census Bureau figures put California’s Pakistani population at 20,093, though Pakistanis I spoke to believe there are tens of thousands more). Pakistan Link, the largest national Pakistan weekly, publishes 25,000 copies per week.

Sayyed acknowledges that in pushing unpopular opinions he has created — surprise — an unpopular paper. Others in the Muslim community say he is simply too far outside the pale to make a difference. "Our goal is to build bridges of understanding," Akhtar Faruqui, editor of the Irvine-based Pakistan Link told me. Faruqui’s editorials have spoken approvingly of Seeds of Peace, a program that promotes Palestinian and Israeli coexistence. Faruqui, whose paper does reflect many moderate and liberal ideas, said he received no negative response for supporting Seeds of Peace, but he said he wouldn’t publish some of the opinions found in Pakistan Today, such as Op-Ed pieces critical of the Saudi royal family. "We try to promote understanding," Faruqui said. "We don’t go to extremes. That would be too extreme."

Publishing such pieces has pushed Sayyed to the fringes of the local Muslim community, said Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Every religion has its extremist fringe," Marayati said. "We believe mainstream moderates represent the mainstream of the faith. The extremist fringe has been given way too much public attention by people whose political purpose it serves."

Marayati said that several years ago, Aslam al-Abdullah, editor of the local Muslim magazine, The Minaret, shaved his beard to protest the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. For that he received threats and negative letters. "Everybody goes through this," Marayati said, "for some it’s more of a story." Sayyed accused Marayati of being a Muslim extremist in Western clothes.
On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center reported most Muslim Americans were more like Sayyed -- middle-class, mainstream and moderate. But the study found that younger American Muslims, those between 18 and 29, were more sympathetic of Islamic extremism, with 26 percent saying suicide-bombing attacks on civilians could be justified when defending Islam.

Here is Sayyed's final column, about Arab Israelis.

* Updated: Sayyed will be buried Sunday, May 27th, at 1:00 p.m. at Harbor Lawn Mount Olive Memorial Park and Mortuary in Costa Mesa, 1625 Gisler Ave. There will be traditional Muslim prayers from 1:00 to 1:20, followed by a brief grave-side service.

Which ones would you keep?

It's called "selective reduction" -- the choice IVF patients make to abort one or more fetuses when several embryos take. GetReligion has a good wrap-up of a few stories published recently about fertility treatment and this medical procedure, and on Tuesday, I heard Washington Poster Liza Mundy talking about it on NPR.

Mundy had a powerful piece in Sunday's WP magazine and is the author of a new book about the complications of fertility treatment, particularly the health complications that drug- or treatment-induced multiple pregnancies can cause both the mother and the unborn children.

Selective reduction is one of the most unpleasant facts of fertility medicine, which has helped hundreds of thousands of couples have children but has also produced a sharp rise in high-risk multiple pregnancies. There is no way to know how many pregnancies achieved by fertility treatment start out as triplets or quadruplets and are quietly reduced to something more manageable. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which publishes an annual report on fertility clinic outcomes, does not include selective-reduction figures because of the reluctance to report them.

Two weeks ago in the LA Times, Dan Neil shared this personal story of reduction:

MY WIFE AND I just had an abortion. Two, actually. We walked into a doctor's office in downtown Los Angeles with four thriving fetuses — two girls and two boys — and walked out an hour later with just the girls, whom we will name, if we're lucky enough to keep them, Rosalind and Vivian. Rosalind is my mother's name.

We didn't want to. We didn't mean to. We didn't do anything wrong, which is to say, we did everything right. Four years ago, when Tina and I set out on this journey to have children, such a circumstance was unimaginable. And yet there I was, holding her hand, watching the ultrasound as a needle with potassium chloride found its mark, stopping the heart of one male fetus, then the other, hidden in my wife's suffering belly.

We don't feel guilty. We don't feel ashamed. We're not even really sad, because terminating these fetuses — at 15 weeks' gestation — was a medical imperative. This has been a white-knuckle pregnancy from Day 1, and had it gone on as it was going, Tina's health would have been in jeopardy, according to her doctor. The fact is, multiple pregnancies are high risk, and they can go bad very suddenly. I wasn't going to allow that, though the fires of hell might beckon.
But does "selective reduction" constitute abortion in the generally understood sense? Life is being ended, but life is also being created. Because doctors won't implant multiple embryos without a patient's acceptance that reduction may be necessary, the willingness to abort has become a prerequisite to older mothers bringing into this world a new life.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Cheney's lesbian daughter gives birth


Mary Cheney, VP Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter, gave birth today to a healthy little boy.

"I love babies, even Republican ones, and I'm glad he was born healthy," my old colleague Greg Hernandez writes on his blog, Out in Hollywood. "I just wish he had a grandfather who loved him enough and loved his gay daughter enough to not endorse such anti-gay policies."

Granted Dick and Lynne look awfully happy in this picture, but we all know where the Bush administration's political base lies -- and it's not in bed with a party of the same sex.

Gay bishop not invited to Anglican gathering

When the archbishop of Canterbury sent out more than 800 invitations to the once-a-decade worldwide Lambeth Conference, two names were conspicuously missing: Martyn Minns, the Virginia bishop of a conservative break-away group, and V. Gene Robinson, the gay bishop of New Hampshire whose appointment has embodied the Anglican Church's fracture.

From the NY Times:

Bishop Robinson said he was extremely disappointed at his exclusion and asked in a statement, “At a time when the Anglican Communion is calling for a ‘listening process’ on the issue of homosexuality, how does it make sense to exclude gay and lesbian people from the discussion?”

The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, who has expressed liberal views on homosexuality in the past, has been determined to keep the communion intact. In his invitation letter, Archbishop Williams wrote, “I have to reserve the right to withhold or withdraw invitations from bishops whose appointment, actions or manner of life have caused exceptionally serious division or scandal within the communion.”

'All types of nonsense'

There is no doubt the following statement from a Catholic News Service article is accurate.
LONDON -- The media spread "all types of nonsense" about religion, sometimes out of malice, but usually out of ignorance, said U.S. Archbishop John P. Foley.
The Revealer and GetReligion do a good job showing that. But the Dallas Morning News' religion blog thought the same shoe could be put on the other foot:
LONDON -- The clergy spread "all types of nonsense" about the media, sometimes out of malice, but usually out of ignorance, said Fill-in-the-Blank-Expert.

Jewish 'security-hawk' and Iraq veteran turns against the war

Jon Soltz, a Jewish Army veteran, was an Iraq idealist. Now, he's the man behind a half-million-dollar anti-war advertising effort that launched last week. From the Forward:

Soltz, 29, is one of the leading protesters of the Iraq War, but don’t call him a pacifist. A self-described “security hawk,” he fell in love with the idea of military service while touring Israel as a teenager. He describes himself as a “pro-Israel, pro-military guy.”

And in May 2003, he arrived for duty in Iraq as a supporter of the war.

“When I went to Iraq, I didn’t change my dog tags — I kept ‘Jewish’ on my dog tags because I believed in the war, because I believed, when I watched the president, that I was fighting for the national security of America,” Soltz recalled. The decision to keep his faith close to his heart, he noted, could have landed him “in big trouble” if he were to be captured by Iraqi insurgents, but he said he felt it was “the morally, religiously, right thing to do.”

By the time that Soltz returned home in September 2003, having served as an operations manager for logistics convoys, he was worried that the troops, stretched too thin with too few resources, were on an impossible mission.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Simpsons gospel and edible goodies

I have a 26-year-old friend who still eats a Flintstones vitamin every day. But now, if he wishes, he can suck down a Simpsons Squirts, thanks to St. Hill Pharmaceutical Corp. (Hat-tip: Bible Belt Blogger)

Speaking of The Simpsons, Orlando Sentinel religion reporter Mark I. Pinsky, who is Jewish, is about to release an expanded version of his 2001 book, "The Gospel According to the Simpsons." I just got a copy in the mail yesterday. Hopefully, I'll enjoy it more than this guy.

Jewish parents decide to not circumcise

This story has been going around for a while. Today it creeps up in the Chicago Tribune, under the headline "Some Jewish parents break ranks over circumcision."

When Leo Grossinger was 8 days old, his parents invited their relatives and friends to a ceremony welcoming him into their midst, as Jewish families have done for thousands of years.

They recited Hebrew blessings, lit candles, shared wine and challah, a braided bread. A rabbi conferred Leo's Hebrew name, Asiel, which means "created by God." When the ceremony was over, the guests ate bagels and lox.

All in all, the event looked a lot like any other bris, or ritual circumcision. The only difference was that Leo never had to shed his diaper.

"I wanted to feel that connection with tradition," said Leo's mother, Erica Wandner. And it was important to her that the baby be given a Hebrew name in memory of Wandner's mother. But neither Wandner nor her husband, Robin Grossinger, wanted to inflict pain and trauma on their new baby for a surgical procedure doctors say is not medically necessary.

The couple, of Berkeley, Calif., are among a small but growing number of American Jews who are questioning what is arguably the most sacred rite in Judaism.

First off, I think some people believe that eating bagels and lox is the most sacred rite in Judaism.

Second, despite the fact that the "
rate of U.S. babies being circumcised before leaving the hospital has gone from an estimated 85 percent in 1965 to 57 percent in 2004," it's not universally accepted that circumcision is without health benefits. In December, the National Institutes of Health reported that circumcision dramatically reduces the transmission of AIDS in Africa.

As for why Jews have traditionally circumcised their boys -- and, thank God, not their women, as some Muslim cultures promote -- stems from this conversation God had with a 99-year-old, soon-to-be-circumcised Abraham.

Aside from the certain pain of Joshua circumcising the adult Israelites before taking Jericho, the bris has at times caused deeper trauma, including, in 2004, an ultra-Orthodox New York mohel's infecting three babies with herpes, one of whom died.

(Here's what is being said in The Jewish Journal's reader forums.)

Muslim attitudes *

After speaking with more than 1,000 American Muslims, the venerable Pew Research Center reported today that Muslims are generally happy in the United States and aren't hung up with the issues that have caused the global "clash of civilizations."

This, though, was a startling discovery:
Muslim Americans reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries. However, there is somewhat more acceptance of Islamic extremism in some segments of the U.S. Muslim public than others. Fewer native-born African American Muslims than others completely condemn al Qaeda. In addition, younger Muslims in the U.S. are much more likely than older Muslim Americans to say that suicide bombing in the defense of Islam can be at least sometimes justified. Nonetheless, absolute levels of support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans are quite low, especially when compared with Muslims around the world.
In fact, a poll last month by WorldPublicOpinion.org found "most respondents have mixed feelings about Al Qaeda."

The survey only found about 2.35 million Muslims living in the United States, far fewer than the seven million that CAIR claims live here. Other key findings:

- American Muslims have a positive view of society.

- The majority believe hard work pays off.

- Though many are relatively recent immigrants, they are fairly assimilated.

(* Update -- here's the AP story.)

Monday, May 21, 2007

The stoning in Iraq

For more than a year, Iraq has been besieged by sectarian assassinations -- Sunnis and Shiites killing each other simply because each Muslim group considers members of the other heretics. We've grown callous to this news. But the story of the 17-year-old Iraqi girl stoned to death in an "honor killing" makes me burn with anger, almost to the point of tears. From the LA Times:

BAGHDAD — The video is shaky, but the brutality is clear.

A slender, black-haired girl is dragged in a headlock through a braying mob of men. Within seconds, she is on the ground in a fetal position, covering her head with her arms in a futile attempt to fend off a shower of stones.

Someone slams a concrete block onto the back of her head. A river of blood oozes from beneath her long, tangled hair. The girl stops moving, but the kicks and the rocks keep coming, as do the victorious shouts of the men delivering them.

In the eyes of many in her community in northern Iraq, 17-year-old Duaa Khalil Aswad's crime was to love a boy from another religion. She was a Yazidi, a member of an insular religious sect. He was a Sunni Muslim. To Duaa's uncle and cousins, that was reason enough to put her to death last month in the village of Bashiqa.

Women's groups say the video shows Iraq's backward slide as religious and ethnic intolerance takes hold.

"There is a new Taliban controlling the lives of women in Iraq," said Hanaa Edwar, a women's rights activist. "I think this story will be absolutely repeated again. I believe if security is not controlled, such stories will be very common."

The U.N. recently reported that these "honor killings" were on the rise in Iraq; in the first two months of the year, 40 women were killed for alleged "immoral conduct" -- from having an affair to simply sitting in a car with a non-relative male.

I decided not to embed the video, but you can click here to watch it.

Anti-Darwinist is national school board shoo-in

There is one person running for president-elect of the National Association of State Boards of Education, the NY Times reports -- a member of the Kansas school board who supported efforts to not teach evolution.

The candidate is Kenneth R. Willard, a Kansas Republican who voted with the conservative majority in 2005 when the school board changed the state’s science standards to allow inclusion of intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism. Voters later replaced that majority, but Mr. Willard, an insurance executive from Hutchinson, retained his seat. If he becomes president-elect of the national group, he will take office in January 2009.

The group, based in Washington, is a nonprofit organization of state school boards whose Web site (www.nasbe.org) says it “works to strengthen state leadership in educational policymaking.”

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“We don’t set curriculum standards or anything like that,” Mr. Willard said of the national organization, adding that it handled issues like advising state boards on how to deal with governance concerns or influxes of immigrant students or ways to raise academic achievement among members of disadvantaged groups.

He said, though, that he personally thought students should be taught about challenges to the theory of evolution, like intelligent design. And while he said he had not heard of a possible challenge to his candidacy, Mr. Willard added that he was not surprised by it.

“Some people are mindless about their attacks on anyone questioning anything Darwin might have said,” Mr. Willard said.

As I've written before, plenty of scientists -- though not the majority -- see no conflict between evolution and the creation of life by God above.

Larry Flynt: Godspeed, Falwell


"The porn king and the preacher," a sketch drawing of Larry Flynt sitting in bed, staring at a nudie mag with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, thumbing through the Bible, by his side -- that was the cover of yesterday's Opinion section in the LA Times. The cover opinion piece was a first person appreciation of Falwell, who died Tuesday, and it was far more interesting than the other Falwell stories I've mentioned here.

Falwell and Flynt were for years pitted in an incredibly ugly freedom-of-speech battle. Flynt had been a whipping boy for Falwell's preaching, and Hustler's hero decided to fight back. His magazine ran a spoof in which Jerry Falwell was purportedly describing his "first time" -- in an outhouse with his mom, "drunk off our God-fearing asses."

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Flynt won. It remains a critical free-speech case taught in universities and law schools.

THE FIRST TIME the Rev. Jerry Falwell put his hands on me, I was stunned. Not only had we been archenemies for 15 years, his beliefs and mine traveling in different solar systems, and not only had he sued me for $50 million (a case I lost repeatedly yet eventually won in the Supreme Court), but now he was hugging me in front of millions on the Larry King show.

It was 1997.

(skip)

In the years that followed and up until his death, he'd come to see me every time he was in California. We'd have interesting philosophical conversations. We'd exchange personal Christmas cards. He'd show me pictures of his grandchildren. I was with him in Florida once when he complained about his health and his weight, so I suggested that he go on a diet that had worked for me. I faxed a copy to his wife when I got back home.

The truth is, the reverend and I had a lot in common. He was from Virginia, and I was from Kentucky. His father had been a bootlegger, and I had been one too in my 20s before I went into the Navy. We steered our conversations away from politics, but religion was within bounds. He wanted to save me and was determined to get me out of "the business."

My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like. The more I got to know Falwell, the more I began to see that his public portrayals were caricatures of himself. There was a dichotomy between the real Falwell and the one he showed the public.

He was definitely selling brimstone religion and would do anything to add another member to his mailing list. But in the end, I knew what he was selling, and he knew what I was selling, and we found a way to communicate.

I always kicked his ass about his crazy ideas and the things he said. Every time I'd call him, I'd get put right through, and he'd let me berate him about his views. When he was getting blasted for his ridiculous homophobic comments after he wrote his "Tinky Winky" article cautioning parents that the purple Teletubby character was in fact gay, I called him in Florida and yelled at him to "leave the Tinky Winkies alone."

When he referred to Ellen Degeneres in print as Ellen "Degenerate," I called him and said, "What are you doing? You don't need to poison the whole lake with your venom." I could hear him mumbling out of the side of his mouth, "These lesbians just drive me crazy." I'm sure I never changed his mind about anything, just as he never changed mine.

I'll never admire him for his views or his opinions. To this day, I'm not sure if his television embrace was meant to mend fences, to show himself to the public as a generous and forgiving preacher or merely to make me uneasy, but the ultimate result was one I never expected and was just as shocking a turn to me as was winning that famous Supreme Court case: We became friends.

Jimmy Carter gets cold feet

Former President Jimmy Carter was just on NBC's "Today" for an exclusive interview responding to his comments Friday that the Bush administration is "the worst in history."

Not surprisingly, and entirely unconvincingly, the former peanut farmer backed away from his damning comments about the former oil man. Speaking with Meredith Viera, Carter said his comments were "careless" and claimed that when he said "worst in history," he was only comparing Bush to Nixon and only on the issues of foreign policy.

Plenty of notable scholars -- and The Donald -- have shown far more chutzpah when talking about George W. Bush.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Gingrich to Liberty grads: beware 'radical secularism'


Delivering the commencement at the conservative university founded by fundamentalist Christian Jerry Falwell only four days after the reverend's death, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich encouraged the young graduates to confront "the growing culture of radical secularism" with Christian values. From AP:
‘‘A growing culture of radical secularism declares that the nation cannot profess the truths on which it was founded,'' Gingrich said.

‘‘We are told that our public schools can no longer invoke the creator, nor proclaim the natural law nor profess the God-given quality of human rights.

‘‘In hostility to American history, the radical secularists insist that religious belief is inherently divisive and that public debate can only proceed on secular terms."

Read the entire speech at Liberty University here. The Virginian-Pilot offered a bit more color about the mood on campus following the death of Falwell, a man who though more conservative and confrontational than most evangelical Christians helped galvanize the community's political power.

(The photo is from conspiracyworld.com)

Muslim run-down at UC Irvine

Just when it seems religious tension at UC Irvine can't get any higher ...

Last week, the Muslim Student Union held a series of rallies centered around the theme "Israel: Apartheid Resurrected," and on Monday night, Yasser Ahmed claims he was followed by an unmarked sedan as he drove a moving truck from a parking lot to UCI's Free Speech Zone. From the LA Times:

Ahmed, 21, said he got out of the truck, walked to the car and asked the driver why he was following him. The driver did not respond, Ahmed said, and he tried to snap a photo of the license plate with his cellphone camera. At that point, Ahmed said, the car nudged him with its front bumper and he got out of the way. He was not injured.

The man behind the wheel drove off but was stopped almost immediately by a campus police officer, who had responded to cries for help from Ahmed and other students. The driver identified himself as an FBI agent "who was doing surveillance," Henisey said.

On Friday, Ahmed, an economics major and lifelong Orange County resident, said he was still reeling.

"He didn't open his window and didn't let me know who he was. He never said anything," Ahmed said. "All he had to say was that he was FBI or law enforcement and this wouldn't have happened. I was frightened. He pushed me with the car, which had tinted windows and then tried to drive away. What's one supposed to think?"
The incident, which is under investigation, comes a year after an FBI agent was quoted telling a Newport Beach business group that the bureau was "monitoring" Muslims at UCI and USC.

In other anti-Israel campus news: This morning at UCLA, "a diverse group of Southern California activists, both secular and from all religions, and including Arabs and Israelis" will host an event called Israel, Zionism and Apartheid.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Carter: Bush 'worst in history'


Former President Carter had those and other choice words to say of President Bush in an interview Friday with Bible Belt Blogger Frank Lockwood. The story and some audio excerpts are online.

“I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history. The overt reversal of America’s basic values as expressed by previous administrations, including [those of] George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and others, has been the most disturbing to me,” Carter said.

The 39th president said that during Bush’s two terms in office, he has radically departed from every other U.S. president.

“We have a new policy now on war,” Carter said. “We now have endorsed the concept of pre-emptive war where we go to war with another nation militarily, even though our own security is not directly threatened, if we want to change the regime there or if we fear that some time in the future our security might be endangered. But that’s been a radical departure from all previous administration policies.”

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“Individual churches and religious seminaries and other strictly religious organizations have their own lobbyists now in Washington to make sure they get their share of taxpayers’ funds. And, as you know, the policy from the White House has been to allocate funds to religious institutions, even those that channel those funds exclusively to their own particular group of believers in a particular religion. Those things in my opinion are quite disturbing,” Carter said.

“As a traditional Baptist, I’ve always believed in separation of church and state and honored that premise when I was president, and so have all other presidents, I might say, except this one.”

Carter is, of course, no hero to the Jewish community.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tony Blair going Catholic


And not in the universal sense. Indeed, when the prime minister of the nation that created Anglicism leaves Downing Street next month, The Times of London is reporting he will cleave to the Roman Catholic Church and, by expectation, the pope.

Interesting, because Tony Blair was President Bush's best buddy in the Western World during the past six years, and Britain was the only nation of any previous military stature in the Coalition of the Willing. The war in Iraq obliterated Bush's popularity, yes, but also Blair's and his Labour Party. But now Blair reportedly plans to join the Catholic Church. The late Pope John Paul II vehemently opposed the war, which he said "threatens humanity."

The 'Original Jew' dead


God is dead.

Well, not The God, but the black supremacist leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh, which in my limited Hebrew translates, "God, son of God."

The 71-year-old self-proclaimed "Original Jew" had tried a number of fringe religious groups before starting his own, the Nation of Yahweh. Among those who call themselves Black Hebrews, Yahweh, born Hulon Mitchell Jr., believed today's Jews to be impostor Israelites.

From The Washington Post, via the LA Times:
From the beginning, however, Yahweh's group was associated with an intimidating style that often crossed into violence and murder. He railed against "white devils" and proclaimed himself the messiah: "All who receive me shall be saved from immorality and death."

Still, he managed to cultivate an image as a well-meaning, if eccentric, community builder. Yahweh helped clean up blighted neighborhoods and, at least among his followers, restored a sense of order to a crumbling social structure. Children studied Hebrew and recited the names of chemical elements.

He spoke to crowds of thousands around the country and received the blessings of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. In 1987, the Miami Urban League gave Yahweh its highest humanitarian award, and its president pronounced him "an inspiration to the entire community."
In 1992, two years after the Miami mayor declared Oct. 7 Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day, the religious leader began a nine-year prison stint for conspiracy to commit murder.

Jesuits to pay $16 million for dirty hands

The Jesuit order has agreed to a payout of $16 million to the families of nine children allegedly molested by Father Mark Falvey, who died 31 years ago. Via the LA Times:
"One of his victims, an 8-year-old girl, tried to commit suicide," said the lawyer for the victims, Raymond P. Boucher.

"This guy brought a lifetime of misery to a group of young children. They'll never get over it," Boucher said.
Though the Archdiocese of L.A. was not involved in this settlement, the news two days after L.A.'s Cardinal Roger Mahony announced clergy-abuse lawsuits may force the largest Catholic archdiocese in the country to sell its headquarters and other buildings.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Final Falwell: On Islam

The Council on American-Islamic Relations blasts a daily news letter, and at the top of each letter is the "Hadith of the Day." Well, Bruce Tomaso of the Dallas Morning News noticed Tuesday's message seemed a little too poignant for coincidence. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who after 9/11 called Islam's Prophet Muhammad a terrorist, had just died, and Tuesday's letter didn't mention Falwell. But the hadith seemed to:
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Do not speak ill of the dead, (for) they have seen the result of (their past deeds)."

-- Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Volume 4, Number 76

Falwell for Israel

That's what Zev Chafets had to say about the late Rev. Jerry in an op-ed that read like an appreciation in yesterday's LA Times:
He believed that God had a plan for the United States and that its enemies were evil. He referred to Muslim radicals as "barbarians" and advocated taking out Iran's nuclear capacity by force. "Bush is probably too weak politically to do it," he told me over barbecue one afternoon. "It will be up to Israel. And we'll be at the White House, cheering."

Falwell's Zionism was by no means inevitable. Before him, evangelicals reluctantly acknowledged that the Jews were God's chosen people, but many didn't quite agree with the choice. Falwell embraced the Jews of Israel (who appreciated his friendship) just as he embraced American Jews (who, by and large, spurned it). He could be acerbic about Jewish leaders — he called Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League a "damn fool" and pointedly told me that the comment was on the record — but he never let Jewish hostility shake his philo-Semitism. American Jews who now take evangelical friendship for granted need to know that it is, to a large extent, a grant from Jerry Falwell.
During Israel's war with Hezbollah last summer, Chafets, who is Jewish, wrote a piece titled "I Want Falwell in My Foxhole," in which he discussed evangelical support for Israel and stated, "I'd rather be in a bomb shelter -- or a foxhole -- with Jerry Falwell than with Jerry Seinfeld."

(Round-up of Falwell's choicest quotes on Jewlicious.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Another anti-Semitic incident in Sherman Oaks

A reportedly anti-Semitic letter documenting the origin of the word Jew was received today by the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Sherman Oaks -- as if that JCC didn't have a big enough problem. It's being investigated as a "hate incident" because no threat was made, authorities said.

Two weeks ago, employees of Councilman Jack Weiss arrived at his Sherman Oaks district office to find three swastikas and an incoherent rant -- containing such pleasantry as "We'll have a homoerotic cop feeling up your Jewish ass in no time!!!" -- epoxied to their office doors. Adonis Irwin was arrested and has been charged with three felony counts.

Evangelical vote up for grabs

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR's resident religion reporter, had a wonderful piece on the air this afternoon that began with the Rev. Jerry Falwell's death, transitioned into his ruminations that the green movement was "Satan's attempt to redirect the church's primary focus," and then moved into territory not talked about often enough: That many of today's evangelical Christian are not members of the party of Falwell or Robertson or Dobson. They are, as I like to call them, Reluctant Republicans.

They think abortion is bad and they're uncomfortable with the thought of gay sex -- but, you know, they have this gay friend -- and they don't know what to make of stem cell research because they're not sure what it is. Also important to them are the environment and issues relating to social justice -- hunger, poverty, genocide -- of which they see Jesus as the greatest proponent.

I came across this issue at an RNA conference two years ago, shortly after President Bush had been re-elected on the overblown moral values issue. (Polls show that the vaguely bound "moral values" button played as significant a role in voters decisions for those who re-elected Bill Clinton, too.) But the movement away from the hard-line old times is getting stronger.

That's why Hagerty traveled to Florida, to the Northland Church, a megacenter pastored by Joel Hunter, who was inline to head the Christian Coalition, if he only could have watched the environment rot. What she found was a bunch of Bush-voting Republicans more likely to follow Bono than Pat Boone (no offense to Mr. Boone, who attends The Church on the Way in Van Nuys).

That creates a dilemma for Northland member Ruth Sapp, who was coming out of service on a recent Sunday morning.

"I still believe that same-sex marriage is not Biblical," she said. "So I wouldn't vote for someone who contradicted."

Ditto about abortion, she said. So what happens if all the candidates fall short on these moral issues?

"I wouldn't vote for anybody if that were the case," she said. "I guess I'd have to skip my vote for that go-around."

Voters like Sapp terrify the Republican Party — or at least they should, says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

"Depending on the candidates, it could well be the case that evangelicals say, 'We're just really frustrated with politics. We don't like the choices. We don't think Sen. Clinton is a good choice or Sen. Obama — but on our side, we're not really pleased with Mayor Guiliani. And you know what? We're not going to vote,'" he said. "And I'm sure there will be pollsters saying, 'Karl Rove thought 4 million staying home in 2000 was a lot. Well guess what? 12 million stayed home.'"

Cromartie doubts there will be such a large shift. But even if a small percentage of these new evangelicals stay home or vote Democratic, that could translate into a couple of million votes. Far less is needed to become president. In Florida, the home state of Northland church, George W. Bush won by 537 votes in the year 2000 — a small fraction of the worshippers streaming into the church on any given Sunday.


Sex abuse will spur archdiocese to sell headquarters


The LA Archdiocese will have to sell its headquarters and possibly other properties because of the growing costs of fighting and settling lawsuits for clergy abuse, Cardinal Roger Mahony said yesterday. Plaintiffs' attorneys said the doomsday announcement was a PR ploy intended at generating sympathy. Via the LA Times:
"The cardinal has instructed his attorneys to pull out every weapon to try to deny victims a single nickel," said plaintiffs attorney John Manly. He said the church has enough insurance coverage and other assets to settle the cases without unloading real estate. "The notion that the cardinal would have to sell buildings to pay settlements is just laughable," Manly said.

A Mahony spokesman declined to answer any questions about the prospective sales, and an attorney for the archdiocese did not respond to an interview request.

The church has land holdings in Southern California worth an estimated $4 billion, a Times analysis has found.
The 12-story Mid-Wilshire headquarters, donated by Thrifty Payless donated in 1995, is worth more than $40 million. (Some history of the archdiocese's payouts from my blog morgue.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Talk about interfaith marriage

The St. Petersburg Times has this story last week. Just read the lede, which paints a more powerful portrait than my words could:
ST. PETERSBURG -- On Sundays after church, Tom and Libit Jones head to the beach. Together, they scout for seashell treasures: cat's paws and worms.

Hand in hand, visors slung low, arms wrapped around each other, they stop to smooch as the sun starts its slow slip down.

Their public affection camouflages a deep divide.

Tom, 63, is an evangelical Christian, raised in a Kentucky Southern Baptist church. Libit, 52, is Mormon, raised in a Texas congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Both consider themselves faithful Christians who believe in Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life. Both want the other to convert. But Tom runs Christian Research & Counsel, a ministry designed to educate the public about what he calls "counterfeits of Christianity."

His work focuses on Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Hat-tip to GetReligion, which resurrected this story on the blogosphere yesterday.

Unless he is demon possessed ...

... this video has no religious hook. But a friend of mine found it on DevilDucky, and it's pretty funny. If you can last through the first 90 seconds, you'll see why someone might think there's a spirit moving through Josh Silberman.



Here is an additional link to the reel for "the craziest kid in Hollywood."

Jerry Falwell felled


I've been out all morning, and during that time the news of Jerry Falwell being found unconscious in his office turned into his obituary. Falwell, the 73-year-old founder of the once powerful Moral Majority, a fundamentalist firebrand, died of a heart-rhythm irregularity.

From CBS.com:

He had an unlikely beginning for the Christian ministry: his grandfather was a self-avowed atheist; his father, an agnostic who hated preachers and ran a moonshine operation during Prohibition. But Falwell decided early on, in his teen years, to devote his life to Christian service, calling himself a spiritual streetfighter.

"If we lose our moral bearings, we shall surely collapse," he once said.

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"Abortion, family values, the moral underpinnings on which the nation was built we call the Judeo-Christian ethic, is important to us," Falwell said.

He was a man of strong opinions. That often got him in trouble.

In 1999, he charged that a popular children's television character, one of the Teletubbies, could be gay because he was purple and carried a handbag. One Falwell critic responded by saying he'd "rather watch the 'Teletubbies' than televangelists."

After Sept. 11, Falwell declared God's anger with gays, lesbians, abortionists and feminists had contributed to the terrorist attacks. He later apologized, saying only the terrorists were to blame. But in 2002, this comment led to deadly riots in the Muslim world:

"I think Muhammad was a terrorist. I've read enough of the history of his life, written by both Muslims and non-Muslims, that he was a violent man, a man of war."

Again Falwell was stung by criticism. But he still had the ability to deliver big bucks and votes to political candidates — and that gave him power to keep pushing his moral agenda.

Though his televangelism would experience problems — he once lost his tax exemption when the IRS determined his "Old Time Gospel Hour" was being used for political purposes — he nevertheless kept broadcasting.

It's what Jesus would have done, he said.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Rebuilding spiritually in Greensburg


When 95 percent of Greensburg, Kan., was leveled May 4 by an F5 tornado, the town's 1,400 residents were left homeless. But yesterday, more than twice the tiny town's population returned to Greensburg for spiritual replenishing.

News reports referred to the mass worship service as a non-denominational gathering. In Los Angeles, that would mean it included Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and non-believers, too. In Kansas, it means Methodists and Catholics and Lutherans.

It remains unclear what will come of Greensburg. USA Today asked, "Can the town be saved? And if so, will enough folks return to make it the community it was 10 days ago, before the tornado?"

For the religious minded, this is, of course, one of the most difficult occurrences to reconcile with a benevolent God.

At the worship service, Tim Henning, pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Greensburg, compared town residents to Job, whom God tested by allowing Satan to take strip from him his family, his prosperity and his health.

“We are like him, we lost everything,” he said.

Henning reminded residents that God was still with them.

“Trust in the Lord with all your strength — God bless Greensburg,” he said.

Jews too powerful, talk too much about Holocaust

That's according to 2,700 European adults surveyed by the ADL.

The survey found that a majority of those in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland believe Jews are more loyal to Israel than the country they live in; that Jews have too much power in business (39 percent of those polled) and financial markets (44 percent); talk too much about the Holocaust (47 percent); and are responsible for killing Jesus (20 percent).

In other news: Europeans have discovered a Jewish conspiracy for world domination, informally dubbed The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

More than abortion and gays


Evangelical phenom Rick Warren made a refreshing statement yesterday at a three-day summit in the heart of Religious Right activism, Colorado Springs, Colo. Via the LA Times:
"We've got some people who only focus on moral purity and couldn't care less about the poor, the sick, the uneducated. And they haven't done zip for those people," said Warren, a mega-church pastor in California and author of the best-selling "The Purpose-Driven Life."

Warren hastened to say that he also opposed abortion and gay marriage. But too often, he said, Christians these days are defined by their "big mouth" — what they argue against, not what they embrace. He pointed to a verse from the Book of James that calls caring for orphans an essential element of a "pure and undefiled" faith.

"It's time for the church to stop debating the Bible and start doing it," Warren said.
To be sure, several speakers stated that providing a viable adoption meant finding a safe home with "both a mommy and a daddy."

(Extra reading: Check out Rob Eshman's column about Warren's Shabbat visit to Sinai Temple last year.)

'Is Christianity Good for the World?'

Christian theologian Douglas Wilson and atheist Christopher Hitchens are debating that question at ChristianityToday.com. Here's a snippet:

Hitchens: if (sic) Christianity is to claim credit for the work of outstanding Christians or for the labors of famous charities, then it must in all honesty accept responsibility for the opposite. I shall not condescend to your readers in specifying what these "opposites" are, but I suggest once more that you pay attention to the Golden Rule. If hymns and psalms were sung to sanctify slavery—just to take a recent example—and then sung by abolitionists, then surely the non-fanatical explanation is that morality requires no supernatural sanction? Every Christian church has had to make some apology for its role in the Crusades, slavery, anti-Semitism, and much else. I do not think that such humility discredits faith as such, because I tend to think that faith is a problem to begin with, but I do think that humility will lead to the necessary conclusion that religion is man-made.

Wilson
: In short, if we point to our saints, you are going to demand that we point also to our charlatans, persecutors, shysters, slave-traders, inquisitors, hucksters, televangelists, and so on. Now allow me the privilege of pointing out the structure of your argument here. If a professor takes credit for the student who mastered the material, aced his finals, and went on to a career that was a benefit to himself and the university he graduated from, the professor must (fairness dictates) be upbraided for the dope-smoking slacker that he kicked out of class in the second week. They were both formally enrolled, is that not correct? They were both students, were they not?

What you are doing is saying that Christianity must be judged not only on the basis of those who believe the gospel in truth and live accordingly but also on the basis of those baptized Christians who cannot listen to the Sermon on the Mount without a horse laugh and a life to match. You are saying that those who excel in the course and those who flunk out of it are all the same. This seems to me to be a curious way of proceeding.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Out of the cocoon

New look and logo for The God Blog, with a little branding for my new home, The Jewish Journal. I wouldn't say I've matured too much, however, with this mug shot, a favorite of my wife, gracing the page.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The media's Mormon problem


This is getting really old. Mitt Romney is a legitimate candidate for the Republican presidential ticket. A conservative governor of one of the most liberal states in the union, maybe he could rebuild some of those political bridges burnt and blown up during the past six years. But Romney won't be president. He won't even edge the hapless -- and surprisingly popular, though increasingly less so -- pro-choice Rudy Giuliani.

Why is it unlikely he'll get the primary nod? Because he is Mormon -- in fact, his great-great-grandfather was a polygamist martyr -- and that is all the media seems to be able to talk about. The Washington Monthly, Reuters, The New York Times, and even conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt.

In November, Time asked "A Mormon for President?" shortly after two-thirds of Americans said they wouldn't vote one of Joseph Smith's followers into the Oval Office (though there are 15 in Congress). In March, however, Gallup released a new poll saying 72 percent of Americans would vote for a qualified Mormon for president. Back came Time yesterday with this story:

John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 was supposed to have laid the "religious question" to rest, yet it arises again with a fury. What does the Constitution mean when it says there should be no religion test for office? It plainly means that a candidate can't be barred from running because he or she happens to be a Quaker or a Buddhist or a Pentecostal. But Mitt Romney's candidacy raises a broader issue: Is the substance of private beliefs off-limits? You can ask if a candidate believes in school vouchers and vote for someone else if you disagree with the answer. But can you ask if he believes that the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Mo., as the Mormon founder taught, and vote against him on the grounds of that answer? Or, for that matter, because of the kind of underwear he wears?

Slate editor Jacob Weisberg threw down the challenge after reviewing some of Joseph Smith's more extravagant assertions. "He was an obvious con man," Weisberg wrote. "Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don't want him running the country." That argument, counters author and radio host Hugh Hewitt, amounts to unashamed bigotry and opens the door to any person of any faith who runs for office being called to account for the mysteries of personal belief. He has published A Mormon in the White House?, a chronicle of Romney's rise as business genius, Olympic savior, political star. But Hewitt has a religious mission as well when he cites a survey in which a majority of Evangelicals said voting for a Mormon was out of the question. If that general objection means they would not consider Romney in 2008, Hewitt warns, then prejudice is legitimized, and "it will prove a disastrous turning point for all people of faith in public life."

The Mormon question has settled in right next to the issue of whether a twice-divorced man has credibility discussing family values or whether changing one's mind on an issue like abortion is a sign of moral growth or cynical retreat. Unlike in 1960, today the argument is less about the role of religion in public life than in private. It is about what our faith says about our judgment and how our traditions shape our instincts--and about what we have the right to ask those who run for the highest office in the land.