Rick Santorum, the environment and the lessons of Noah’s flood

"Noah's Ark," by Edward Hicks, 1846

I hope all Christians paid close attention to Sunday’s Scripture readings in church, but especially GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The Old Testament lectionary reading came from Genesis, describing the scene after the big flood (Genesis 9:8-17). You know: Noah, the ark, the animals, etc. According to the story, God unilaterally promised never again to destroy the entire world with a flood, and he was careful to include not just human beings but “every animal of the earth.”

I don’t usually mention Sunday school classes here, but ours had a lively conversation and one person’s remark referred to an earlier passage, one that explained why God sent the flood in the first place:

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Genesis 6:5-7, New Revised Standard Version).

So why did God target all the creatures—dogs and cats and cows and spiders—as well as people? It doesn’t make sense for God to entirely scrub down creation. Only the humans sinned, right?

But then there’s an even earlier and more familiar verse:

 “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (1:26).

Rick Santorum

That’s what made me think of Rick Santorum. He likes to quote this verse, especially when talking about “radical environmentalists.” Santorum, a Roman Catholic,  believes they get in the way of creating jobs and progress and a good economy, and he said they engage in “some phony theology” (lumping the president in with them last week). As he explained to CBS newsman Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation last week, he was talking about

“the idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do—that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.”

That, by itself, sounds fine to me. As a Christian, I’m all for stewardship and not at all for earth worship.

But a quick reading of his energy policies makes it clear what Santorum means. He proposes, for example, to “remove bans on drilling—both onshore and offshore” and “repeal bureaucratic regulations such as EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations, Utility MACT, Boiler MACT, Cement MACT, the reclassification of coal ash, and any regulation of farm dust,” among other policies.

I couldn’t help noticing the lack of any qualifiers. Does he mean to remove all bans and all regulations?

His energy policies, on the other hand, don’t include one word about environmental impact—not to consider it, not to study it, not even to give it a polite nod in passing. It just doesn’t exist in the Santorum universe.

But since he appeals to theology, then to theology we must go—and that means we can’t ignore the rest of the message in Genesis.

The story of Noah is clear: we dominant humans are responsible for the fate of all creation. Think of Spider-man, only at a cosmic level: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks, about 1845

“Dominion” isn’t a license to recklessly “kill, baby, kill” or “drill, baby, drill.” Yes, according to the Bible, humans are empowered to draw on the world’s resources. But every good “steward” (to use Santorum’s word) knows the wisdom of thoughtful restraint and moderation. Every good farmer and hunter knows the difference between reaping the land and raping it, of working with nature rather than exploiting it. Or as one commentator put it more eloquently,

“Creation, including humanity, is one. What affects part affects all. The deep purpose of nature is diversity in unity under God’s ownership. Yet humanity consistently fails to accept its given limits and attempts to take possession of life into its own hands, contaminating the cosmos with violence and fear.” (William Loyd Allen, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.)

And then, of course, is the teaching of Santorum’s own church. As far back as 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote:

Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. The public in general as well as political leaders are concerned about this problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying its causes. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives. (Emphasis added.)

Rick Santorum has the right to get theological if he wants, even as he runs for president. But I’m not sure he really wants to do that.

Overreach begets overreach in birth-control debate

There must be some kind of Newtonian law for politics, along the lines of, “For every overreach there is an equal and opposite overreach.” Case in point.

President Obama had been warned: Don’t force religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover contraceptives, and it’s no secret that more than a few religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, teach that using artificial birth control is morally wrong.

But on Jan. 20, that’s exactly what Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced would happen. The Administration’s idea of an olive branch at that point was to give religious-based organizations and institutions, such as Catholic hospitals, universities and charities, a year to figure out how to comply.

The reaction was literally predictable. The American Catholic bishops were ready with their message: This is nothing less than a trespass on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

For the first three weeks, that message reverberated enough to stir up a broad coalition. Not only the usual suspects who oppose the very ground the president walks on, but even left-leaning Catholic leaders, who support the right to birth control, saw this as a classic church-state battle, a war on religion.

Then on Feb. 10, the president announced an “accommodation”: religious institutions would not be required to offer contraception coverage, pay for it, or even inform their employees about it. Instead, women would deal directly with health insurers. The president painted this new arrangement as an effort to balance the concerns of conscience with the rights of Americans to receive the health-care options they wanted.

The Administration avoided words like “compromise” and “climb down,” but that’s what it was. It had overreached and got its hand smacked.

A good number of Catholics and other religious leaders applauded the move at first, but not all and not for long. The bishops and other critics pressed the president, saying the accommodation wasn’t accommodating enough, that it was only window dressing. The war-on-religion rhetoric got louder and shriller.

And that’s when that political law of physics kicked in, because last week—maybe during the House hearings on religious liberty—the fulcrum of the debate shifted from being about freedom of religion to being about church leaders who want to force their morality on the nation. The big media story changed.

Suddenly, the church wasn’t the victim of government imposition but the ones doing the imposing, threatening the reproductive rights of American women. The church leaders had been winning the public debate, but because they did not strategically settle for the win, they handed critics had the opening they needed.

Along the way, critics took shots at the bishops’ for their apparent inconsistencies in what social issues they choose to address or not address, and, inevitably, about the sex-abuse scandals. Could the word “hypocrite” be far behind?

Suddenly, they were the ones who looked overreaching.

The president was amazingly tone-deaf when he issued the initial contraceptive rule. He tried to fix it, but he’ll continue to pay for his mistake whenever an opponent wants to raise the specter of a secularized chief executive, a president who doesn’t share the world view of most Americans, who doesn’t follow “a real theology.” (Hello, Rick Santorum.)

But the president’s critics, particularly the Catholic bishops, overreached when they kept pushing after he compromised because they made themselves easy targets for opponents to raise the specter of power-hungry theocrats who don’t care about women’s health.

Of course, the bishops aren’t trying to get re-elected in November.

Reporting on priestly celibacy in Germany … sort of

All Things Considered,” NPR’s evening news program, ran an interesting segment on Wednesday about how some Roman Catholics in Germany “pray” that the church will rethink its teaching about celibacy for priests. Here’s the start of the text story on NPR.org., which follows the audio closely:

In Germany, calls are going out for the Catholic Church to rethink some of its basic principles, including the rule of celibacy for priests.

Many say the German church is experiencing a period of crisis. It’s been rocked by sex and abuse scandals and no longer even has enough priests to serve its parishes. These days, even more traditional-minded Catholics in Germany have begun calling for far-reaching reform.

That’s fine for a general summary lead. The problem is that the rest of Kyle James’ story doesn’t dig much deeper than that. Aside from hearing the voices of four individuals, we get very little information about what is really going on over there.

There’s no indication of who are the “many” making these calls or who say the church is in crisis, or if there’s been some recent development in this controversy. The story mentions surveys and projections, but doesn’t offer specifics about the surveys, not even percentages.

As it turns out, more than 140 Catholic theologians in Germany, Austria and Switzerland issued a petition in early February, calling for changes in the church, including celibacy. But we didn’t learn that on NPR.

The  individuals who are quoted apparently represent various segments within the church: a former priest, now married with children and still in the church; a theologian; a Religion News Service correspondent who covers the Vatican; and a “well-known conservative Catholic politician.”

The four are unanimous about how clerical celibacy — among other “rules” — is an albatross around the church’s neck, sure to drag it down.

They may be right about that, but the story would be stronger if there were more evidence that these voices run the gamut of German Catholic opinion, which seems unlikely. No one in Germany, not even a bishop, was available to offer a different view? How about more detail on where these “calls” for change are coming from? How about a little background or explanation?

“Celibacy rules were originally introduced on practical grounds, and so I think that they can be changed for practical reasons as well,” claims the politician in the story, Hermann Kues.

Really? What’s that about? Is he correct? I thought there was actually some doctrine involved, but we’d never know from this story. A little historical background would have helped — not to mention hearing from a church leader or  theologian who could explain Roman Catholic teaching and the Vatican’s position. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not arguing for or against priestly celibacy right now. I’m just talking about how this story was covered.)

This was an anomaly. NPR usually airs stronger religion stories, especially when Barbara Bradley Hagerty is on the case. (She was busy on Wednesday, reporting on the Supreme Court free-speech decision, providing listeners with a closer-than-usual look at the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which was at the enter of the court’s ruling.) But this story from Germany, sorry to say, was an example of how news media — even the Normally Pretty Reliable news media — can get the reporting not … quite … right.

By the way, this gives me a chance for a shout out* to Get Religion, a blog by journalists that looks at how mainstream news media** cover religion and how they can get it right … or not. You might want to check it out.

* Do people still say “shout out”?

** Are there really any “mainstream media” anymore, or is that just an old concept?

Sex and the church (Hooray for Hollywood)

Hollywood Boulevard, from the Kodak Theater

It’s a safe guess that only a few pastors can utter the following sentence: “They do casting for porn films in our building.”

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood is the only one who can. Just to be clear: the church hasn’t sold its soul to supplement its offerings. It leases space in a building two blocks from the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine, and the skin-flick casting company happens to be in the same building.

The church is also next door to Ultra Vixen Vampwear, a lingerie shop that counts strippers among its customers. (“We have a wonderful relationship” with the store, Barkley said. “They put up signs for our Christmas Eve service. We give them cards.” He doesn’t personally walk in; he leaves that to women church members.)

Ecclesia (from the Greek word for “church”) Hollywood was planted five years ago; Barkley and his wife were among the first leaders, and he became the lead pastor a year ago. It’s a theologically conservative nondenominational church that was running about 500 last December. Now it’s closer to 800.

Why the growth? You might call it sexual attraction.

At the start of January, the church started “Skin,” a series of Sunday sermons and weekly study groups that deal frankly with sex. It started with the first three chapters of Genesis and moved into the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 5, 6 and 15, if you’re keeping score). Last week Barkley talked about homosexuality.

This Sunday – known in some remote regions as Super Bowl Sunday – he will talk about pornography, one of about 300 churches participating in “Porn Sunday.” The timing was providential, Barkley said. Ecclesia planned the “Skin” series months ago, but when a friend of his, who leads the xxxchurch.com, put together the Porn Sunday program, it fit nicely in to Ecclesia’s schedule. (NPR ran a segment about Porn Sunday on Thursday’s “All Things Considered.”)

So let’s think about this: a conservative church in the middle of Hollywood, talking about sex. A lot.

Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood

“I think it’s shocking to most of the city that there’s a church here,” Barkley told me on Thursday. “There’s an assumption that the rest of the city might make. They have this paradigm that what we have to say about sex is anemic, inadequate, judgmental.”

Try again.

“They’re surprised to find out Christians have fun talking about sex. Look, the whole account of creation in Genesis ends up with two people standing in a garden, buck naked,” he said. “We take that as a signal that God wants us to talk about it with freedom.”

Barkley’s elevator speech to explain “Skin” goes like this:

“In a culture where we no longer think the choices we make have any significance, we wanted to teach the revolutionary thought that your bodies actually matter, that they have eternal significance. Your body has a purpose … it’s not an accident. You were handcrafted. The fulfillment of that purpose is the privilege we have. So we’re trying to offer a recalibration of how we value our own bodies and what we’ve chosen to do with them.”

So “Skin” really isn’t about sex. It’s bigger than that, Barkley said, either standing Sigmund Freud on his head or spinning him in his grave.

“The biggest issue, the most nagging disease we deal with, is isolation,” he explained. “We minister to orphans and dreamers. Most people moved here from somewhere else both to chase a dream and to get away from something. They have no roots, no tradition, no sense of family. After a while they realize what that vacuum is doing to their soul. Sexual brokenness is directly linked to that sense of fear, of isolation.”

So the teaching about sex, he said, is in some ways “ancillary, a device that God is using to get to the root of the problems.”

Something’s clicking, if numbers mean anything. Maybe sex really does sell, even for church. But Barkley spoke more about all the conversations he’s been having since the series began, including a constantly ringing phone and 70-plus daily e-mails he’s been getting, a load that’s “off the charts.”

He’s especially glad that people who disagree with him say they’re going to stick around and keep listening.

“Generally, people are appreciative for us being honest,” he said. “A huge value of ours is vulnerability. People are almost surprised at the transparency with how we’re talking about sex. … We try to be honest, with as much plain language as possible. I’ve given the PG-13 disclaimer for parents from the pulpit.”

Barkley is convinced everyone in the room has some kind of sexual dysfunction. Easily half of the congregation on any given Sunday is struggling with addiction to porn in some way, he said. Honesty is the only option, considering where the church is situated and that about 90 percent of its members work in the movie industry (including some whom we’d probably recognize, if he were to name them).

“We’re trying to build a strong church, not a safe church,” he said. “I don’t want to spoon-feed people; I want us to think like grownups, to have the equipment to make theological decisions about life. How is my sexuality a demonstration of the image of God? We’re not helping anybody if we’re not having honest conversations about this.”

Singing that other anthem

I attended a local prayer breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr. last Saturday (Jan. 15). It was a fine, enjoyable and inspiring event, attended by a few hundred people from a variety of church and ethnic backgrounds, including a healthy representation of civic and church leaders. A couple of  choirs sang and a couple of local young African-American leaders spoke.

One of the first things the gathering did was sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” described as the “African-American National Anthem.” But I have to confess that as I stood there singing, I felt bothered by the idea of an “alternative” national anthem. 

The notion of “hyphenated Americans” has always bothered me. E pluribus unum: I’m a fan. (I’ve got Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson on my side, for whatever that’s worth.) But there I was, singing an alternative anthem. I appreciated the spirit and intent of the breakfast, and so I wasn’t thinking “Bah, humbug.” But I wasn’t thinking, “Hip-hip-hooray!” either. Wasn’t the kind of separation this song implied exactly opposite of what the good Dr. King preached?

But when I stopped mentally stroking my chin and wagging my finger long enough to focus on the words, a few lights turned on.

For instance: If someone wanted to compare this “anthem” and the official American national anthem, it would be a religious slam dunk for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is wall-to-wall biblical allusions and expressions of faith in a God who promised to redeem captives. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” by contrast, describes a battle scene. That difference alone should give folks a moment’s pause. If we want to think of  the U.S. as a Christian, peace-loving nation, we couldn’t guess that from our national anthem. Taken at face value, the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice” are much more biblical and universal.

But there’s more to songs than lyrics, of course. These anthems carry almost two centuries of emotional and symbolic baggage. “Lift Every Voice,” written at the start of the 20th century, spoke specifically about the black experience in the U.S., less than a generation after slavery had been abolished. So when I sing or hear that song, I hear it differently than someone who can trace his or her family back to a slave or to a lynching victim or to a Selma marcher. That history doesn’t make the song a good candidate for an actual national anthem. Even so, it’s healthy for me to hear it and sing it. It’s a song that is deeply rooted in is piece of American history that is both shameful and noble.

I still wish it weren’t nicknamed a “national anthem” — we have only one of those. On the other hand, African-Americans and other minorities were treated as a separate nation within our borders for so long, I shouldn’t be too harsh and not at all surprised. History is hard to escape.

Here’s the first stanza; you can click here to read all the lyrics.

“Lift every voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.”

The video is not of our prayer breakfast. (We sang well, but nothing like that.) It’s the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2009.

F2F Finale: That’s all, folks

This is my final “Face to Faith” column. It’s been a good run, since June 2003. If you’re keeping score, that’s 346 columns.

First, the thank-you notes. Thanks to the editors of the Johnson City Press for the opportunity to explore a lot of interesting territory. Thanks also to friends and colleagues who have generously offered their ideas, suggestions and encouragement.

Thanks to the countless people who let me share their expertise, insights, experiences and voices in this space. One of my favorite parts of being a journalist is the privilege of meeting people I would never otherwise get to know.

Finally, thanks to you for reading and for sending your comments, criticisms (honest!) and compliments. Even more, I appreciate your joining me in looking at all sorts of subjects through the lens of religion. One of my favorite parts of covering religion has been the variety, with the chance to write about everything from Trinitarian doctrine to tax law.

The breadth of religion, as well as its depth, is not a small point. More than ever, we need all the tools we can manage to help us understand our world, and it’s no secret that dozens of important news stories every week – whether in our front yard or on the other side of the globe – are ripe with religious meanings, causes and effects.

So before I go, let me suggest seven topics to keep tabs on, listed in no particular order. These aren’t predictions. Let’s just call this a kind of heads-up memo.

The unbuckling of the Bible Belt. I’ve regularly called our region “the area formerly known as the Bible Belt.” No doubt this place still has a different religious climate than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Even so, church attendance is lower than the national average and actual behavior and attitudes about several key social issues mirror the rest of America. With the increasing secularization of society and growing cultural diversity, we’re not as distinct as we used to be (or maybe like to think we are).

The continuing rise of syncretism. “Syncretism” is a fancy word for mixing beliefs and practices into a kind of spiritual stew, an inclination some people have tagged with labels like “me-ism” or “cafeteria religion.” This is a long-time trend, but I was reminded of its power and attraction when I saw “Avatar” last week. (See below, “impact of media, The.”) Regardless of what someone thinks of this development, it’s one that has real implications for how we view the world.

The politics of sex. I can’t think of one sex-related controversy being debated in the public square – birth control, homosexuality, the meaning of marriage (including same-sex marriage and civil unions) – that isn’t shaped by religious belief.

The impact of media. This issue goes beyond debates over the content of TV shows and movies. The media we invent – and how we use them – affect us. For example: In a digital world, how do you define a “community”? Is a church a church if it’s only on the Internet, or is a vague acquaintance on Facebook a “friend”?

The definition of “human.” Far from being a philosophical abstraction for eggheads, the question of what it means to be human is on our doorstep in a dozen ways. The abortion and end-of-life debates are prime examples. For future reference, we’ll also need to consider if there’s a point at which someone treated with cloning, genetic engineering or robotics might not be considered a fully human being anymore.

The spiritual dimensions of money. It’s not just the matter of garden-variety greed or even Bernie Madoff’s unfathomable fraud. Dozens of economic answers can raise scores of religious and spiritual questions. In other words: Are any religious, spiritual or moral issues connected to health care, jobs, welfare, education, foreign aid (think of Haiti this week), war, credit and debt (both personal and national), advertising and marketing, crime, the justice system or the care of elderly people?

The persistence of church-state controversies. Thanks to the massive gray area written into the U.S. Constitution and lived out in American history, the familiar tensions over faith and public life will continue. After 223 years, why stop now? This is part of our national DNA.

That’s all. In the words of an ancient Christian greeting: Grace and peace to you. Amen.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 Jan 2010.

With Hispanic ministry, ‘potenciamos unos a otros’*

If we were just counting numbers, then it would not make much sense for congregations in Northeast Tennessee to invest much effort and money in Spanish-language ministry.

Compared to the rest of the country, the region has a small Hispanic population: only 2.2 percent of Washington County’s residents, compared to 15.4 percent nationwide, according to a 2008 Census Bureau estimate.

Yet at least three area churches are making that investment. It’s not about numbers.

“Where two or three are gathered, God is there,” says Danilo Olivares, Spanish minister at First Christian Church. “We serve a niche inside the Spanish-speaking population, and we decided to give to this population. But our rolls are not fat.”

Olivares, 39, has been shepherding this flock-within-a-flock since 2006. More than 70 people are regulars in the Spanish ministry; about 55 typically attend worship on Sundays. Besides Spanish-language worship services, the ministry also offers Sunday school classes, a women’s ministry (led by his wife, Priscila), children and teen programs, midweek Bible studies and a leadership-training course.

The ministry reaches even more people in the community, such as by offering English classes and translation for hospitals and courtrooms, and sponsoring occasional registration days for immigrants.

The ministry, which started nine years ago, is integrated with First Christian Church, with Olivares a full-time minister. While other Spanish-language ministries in the area draw mostly Mexicans, more than 80 percent of the people in First Christian’s ministry come from other countries – at least 13 different nationalities. That diversity has proven to be one of the ministry’s biggest challenges.

Danilo Olivares

“I’m preaching and teaching to all these cultures at once,” explained Olivares, who is originally from Santiago, Chile. “Some words can mean different things, and South American style is different from Mexican style.”

For English speakers, it would be like working with a congregation that includes people from New York, Alabama, Wyoming, England, Jamaica and South Africa. Everyone may speak the same basic language, but so much else – from accents to cultural assumptions – is vastly different.

American culture is layered on top of all that besides, since most Hispanic members at First Christian are second- or third-generation Americans.

“They live here; they’re not in transit,” Olivares said. “A high percentage are in professions, like banking or medicine, and 95 percent are bilingual.”

That blend makes it easy to combine with the rest of the congregation, but it also raises the question of why offer a Spanish ministry at all.

Olivares explained by telling about one member, a local bank officer, who said he feels “contact with God” during a Spanish service in a way he never felt at other churches.

“Our relationship with God starts with the spirit,” Olivares said. “I feel closer to God when I sing or pray in Spanish rather than English. There’s something intimate in speaking, praying and worshiping in our own native language.”

In its early years the ministry probably attracted a large number of undocumented workers, although no one knew for sure because no one was asking. But that proportion has completely reversed, according to Olivares, with more than 90 percent being legal residents today. (In 2006, Oscar Olivares, the congregation’s first Spanish minister and Danilo’s uncle, thought most members were undocumented, a piece of old information I mistakenly repeated last October.)

Part of the reason for the turnaround is Danilo’s commitment to encouraging and helping immigrants to become legal residents.

“As Christians we need to respect the laws of this country,” he said. “We are here to help everyone, and I don’t care if they are legal or not. But if someone doesn’t have papers, part of my ministry is to help them do the right thing.”

Olivares himself never planned to move to Johnson City, a place he hadn’t even heard of until six years ago. But he comes from a family of church leaders, and he moved to Miami in 2004 to help a Spanish-speaking church there, intending to stay a few years before returning to Chile. Then the call came – literally, a phone call from his uncle – to East Tennessee.

He’s thankful for the unforeseen move, glad to experience firsthand how much good can come when North American and South American Christians work together.

“It’s not, ‘Give us this, give us that,” he said. “It’s what we can do for each other. It’s like there’s a good car engine in this room and a fine car body in that room. We put them together. We empower one another.”

* ‘We empower each other.’

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 9 Jan 2010.