Category Archives: Religion News Service

Court says non-Jewish man can sue for anti-Semitic remarks

By STACY JONES and BEN HOROWITZ
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS)A New Jersey appeals court has ruled that a man who alleges he

endured anti-Semitic slurs can sue his former supervisors — even though he is not Jewish.

Myron Cowher, a former truck driver for Carson & Roberts Site Construction & Engineering Inc., in Lafayette, N.J., sued the company and three supervisors after he allegedly was the target of anti-Semitic remarks for more than a year.

Cowher, of Dingmans Ferry, Pa., produced DVDs that appear to show supervisors Jay Unangst and Nick Gingerelli making such comments in his presence as “Only a Jew would argue over his hours” and “If you were a German, we would burn you in the oven,” according to a state appeals court ruling handed down April 18.

The appeals court did not consider the merits of Cowher’s case, only whether he has standing to pursue it. The suit, alleging discrimination that created a hostile work environment, had been dismissed by a Superior Court judge who ruled that because Cowher was not a Jew, he could not sue.

However, the appeals court reversed the judge in its 3-0 decision, saying that if Cowher can prove the discrimination “would not have occurred but for the perception that he was Jewish,” his claim is covered by New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.

The “proper question” in this case, the court said, is what effect the supervisors’ allegedly derogatory comments would have on “a reasonable Jew,” rather than on a person of Cowher’s actual background, which is German-Irish and Lutheran.

Employment attorneys say the ruling is significant in that it expands the scope of who can bring discrimination suits under the state law by allowing a person who is not actually a member of a protected class to pursue a claim.

The law has typically been used to protect people based on their actual age, race, religion or sexuality. Judges, like the one who initially ruled on the validity of Cowher’s suit, have sometimes dismissed cases when there’s a discrepancy between the alleged remarks and a person’s actual characteristics.

The alleged slurs occurred from January 2007 until May 2008, when Cowher left the company due to an unrelated disability, according to his attorney, Robert Scirocco.

Gingerelli, who still works for the company, and Unangst, who does not, could not be reached for comment. Both men denied that they perceived Cowher to be Jewish, the court said.

Unangst also said that “perhaps” he had commented to Cowher about “Jew money,” that he had called him a “bagel meister” and that he had used the Hebrew folk song “Hava Nagila” as the ring tone for calls on his cell phone from Cowher, the appeals court said.

Cowher testified he had told both men to stop the comments, but they had not, the court said. Cowher’s attorney said Cowher is pleased with the ruling and intends to go forward with the case.

Cowher stayed on the job for more than a year after the alleged comments began because “he needed the work,” Scirocco said. He added that Cowher is now working as a truck driver for another company.

(Stacy Jones and Ben Horowitz write for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.

Nixon felon and evangelical icon Charles Colson dies at 80

Chuck Colson in prison. Photo via Religion News Service archives.

By DAVID MARK and ADELLE M. BANKS
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) Charles W. Colson, the Watergate felon who became an evangelical icon and born-again advocate for prisoners, died Saturday (April 21) after a brief illness. He was 80.

Despite an early reputation as a cutthroat “hatchet man” for President Richard M. Nixon, Colson later built a legacy of repentance, based on his work with

Prison Fellowship, a ministry he designed to bring Bible study and a Christian message to prison inmates and their families.

Colson founded the group in 1976 upon release from federal prison on Watergate-related charges. Prison reform and advocating for inmates became his life’s work, and his lasting legacy.

Colson had undergone surgery on March 31 to remove a pool of clotted blood on his brain. On Wednesday (April 18), Prison Fellowship Ministries CEO Jim Liske told staff and supporters that Colson’s health had taken a “decided turn” and he would soon be “home with the Lord.”

Due to his illness, for the first time in 34 years, he did not spend Easter Sunday preaching to prisoners, his ministry said.

”For more than 35 years, Chuck Colson, a former prisoner himself, has had a tremendous ministry reaching into prisons and jails with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said evangelist Billy Graham in a statement. “When I get to Heaven and see Chuck again, I believe I will also see many, many people there whose lives have been transformed because of the message he shared with them.

He will be greatly missed by many, including me. I count it a privilege to have called him friend.”

In many ways, Colson’s life personified the evangelical ethos of a sinner

in search of redemption after a dramatic personal encounter with Jesus. He also embodied the evangelical movement’s embrace of conservative social issues, although often as a happy warrior.

Today, Prison Fellowship has more than 14,000 volunteers working in

President George W. Bush listens to Robert Sut...

President George W. Bush listens to Robert Sutton, left, a graduate of the Prison Fellowship Ministries InnerChange Freedom Initiative, during a roundtable discussion in the Roosevelt Room Wednesday, June 18, 2003. The initiative is is part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice System and the new prisoner reentry and treatment program proposed by the Department of Justice. White House photo by Tina Hager (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

more than 1,300 prisons across the country. More than 150,000 prisoners participate in its Bible studies and seminars every year.

The organization founded by Colson also provides post-release pastoring for thousands of ex-convicts, and supplies Christmas gifts to more than 300,000 kids with a locked-up parent through its Angel Tree program.

Colson also founded Justice Fellowship, to develop what he called Bible-based criminal justice, and advocate for prison reform. In 1993, Colson won the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and donated the money to his ministry.

As recently as February, Colson was still contributing to political debates, writing an open letter with fellow evangelical leader Timothy George that criticized the Obama administration’s health care contraception mandate.

”We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime,” he wrote with George, comparing the mandate to policies of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

In 2009, Colson was a chief architect of the “Manhattan Declaration,” which advocated grass-roots resistance to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. He called the manifesto “one of the most important documents produced by the American church, at least in my lifetime.”

”The Christian’s primary concern is bringing people to Christ,” Colson told Christianity Today magazine in 2001. “But then they’ve got to take their cultural mandate seriously. We are to redeem the fallen structures of society.”

Colson also was a key figure in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a network of religious leaders who found common ground supporting a “culture of life” and reaffirmed their stance in 2006 when they called abortion “murder.”

Religion was far from Colson’s mind during his early adult life, when his main passion was politics. A Boston native, Colson showed early signs of political acumen as a star debater in high school.

After graduating from Brown University, Colson enlisted in the Marines and rose to the rank of captain. Following law school and a stint in the Pentagon, Colson worked on Capitol Hill as a top aide to Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, R-Mass.

After serving on Nixon’s 1968 election team, Colson was appointed by the newly elected president as special counsel to the president. During Nixon’s first term, he was known as Nixon’s feared but respected “hatchet man.”

Colson once bragged of a willingness to “walk over my grandmother if necessary to assure the President’s reelection,” and was roundly known within the Nixon administration as the “evil genius.”

”I was known as the toughest of the Nixon tough guys,” he said in 1995.

Nixon himself described Colson as one of his most loyal aides. “When I complained to Colson I felt confident that something would be done, and I was rarely disappointed,” the former president wrote in his memoirs.

Among other activities, Colson helped set up the “Plumbers” to plug news leaks. The Plumbers engaged in illegal wiretapping of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex, triggering the scandal that took down the Nixon White House.

Colson was also involved in the creation of the Special Investigations Unit, whose members broke into the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, who had given copies of the Pentagon Papers, a secret account of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, to newspapers.

Nixon aides justified the break-in on the grounds of national security, but

Colson later admitted that the agents were trying to dig up damaging information about Ellsberg before his espionage trial.

As the Watergate scandal mushroomed, Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 1974, and the felony led him to serve seven months of a one- to three-year sentence at Alabama’s Maxwell Prison as Prisoner 23226.

Colson later said he became a Christian before going to jail, and his time behind bars cemented his faith.

”There was more than a little skepticism in Washington, D.C., when I announced that I had become a Christian,” he said in 1995. “But I wasn’t bitter. I knew my task wasn’t to convince my former political cronies of my sincerity.”

In addition to his work with Prison Fellowship, Colson authored more than 30 books that sold more than 5 million copies, including his seminal 1976 autobiography, “Born Again.”

Colson became an evangelist for better prison conditions and championed what he called “restorative justice,” in which nonviolent criminals should stay out of jail, remain in the community where they committed their crime, and work to support their families and pay restitution to the victim.

Colson also forcefully advocated President Clinton’s impeachment and removal from office in 1998 over what he called perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Study says no evidence that death penalty deters crime

Some Catholics wonder if the death penalty is a priority for the U.S. hierarchy after their Respect Life Month statement made no mention of church opposition to capital punishment. Photo of San Quentin death chamber courtesy California Department of Corrections.

By KEVIN JOHNSON
c. 2012 USA Today
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) In the more than three decades since the national moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, there is no reliable research to determine whether capital punishment has served as a deterrent, according to a review by the National Research Council.

The review, partially funded by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, found that one of the major shortcomings in all previous studies has included “incomplete or implausible” measures of how potential murderers perceive the risk of execution as a possible consequence of their actions.

Another flaw, according to the review, is that previous research never considered the impact of lesser punishments, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Fundamental flaws in the research we reviewed make it of no use in answering the question of whether the death penalty affects homicide rates,” said Carnegie Mellon University professor Daniel Nagin, who chaired the council’s study committee.

Nagin said Wednesday (April 18) that the panel reviewed the work of “dozens” of researchers since a 1976 Supreme Court decision ended a four-year national moratorium on executions.

“We recognize that this conclusion may be controversial to some,” Nagin said, “but no one is well served by unsupportable claims about the effect of the death penalty, regardless of whether the claim is that the death penalty deters homicides, has no effect on homicide rates or actually increases homicides.”

The council’s review comes exactly a week after the Connecticut Legislature voted to abolish capital punishment for future crimes following a lengthy debate that cited a lack of evidence about deterrence among the reasons for its repeal in favor of life in prison without parole.

“For decades, we have not had a workable death penalty,” Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy said following the vote. “Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience. Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”

Malloy has pledged to sign the legislation, which will leave 33 states with the death penalty.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which closely tracks capital punishment in the U.S., said deterrence has always been “hard to measure,” partly because of the time it often takes for states to carry out executions.

In Connecticut, for example, there are 11 people on death row, but only one person has been executed in the past 52 years.

As a result, Dieter said, the issue of deterrence has faded from the public discussion about capital punishment. It has been overtaken, he said, by such considerations as whether the death penalty remains an appropriate punishment for particularly heinous acts.

“If the death penalty is going to be justified, it has to rest on other grounds,” Dieter said.

Isaac Ehrlich, the University of Buffalo’s Department of Economics chairman, stands by his research that supports capital punishment as a deterrent to homicide.

“This is not the first time people have raised questions (about the research),” Ehrlich said, rejecting the council’s claim that prior research did not account for murderers’ considerations of the possible risks.

“A lot of murder is calculated, and people do take into account what might happen to them as a result,” he said.

(Kevin Johnson writes for USA Today.)

Historians race clock to collect Holocaust survivor stories

Yad Vashem Hall of Names

By MEREDITH MANDELL
c. USA Today 2012
Reprinted with permission

JERUSALEM (RNS) Zvi Shefel recalled the day the German army arrived at his Polish town of Slonim in the summer of 1942. The soldiers immediately began mass exterminations and eventually killed more than 25,000 Jews, including his mother, father and sister.

There is nothing in that town that Shefel, 86, can find about his family,

Memorial to the Deportees, Yad Vashem, Jerusal...

Memorial to the Deportees, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel Denkmal der Deportationen, Jad Vaschem, Jerusalem (Israel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

he said while attending the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial Thursday (April 19) for the “Day of Remembrance” commemoration of the 6 million Jews killed in the Nazi genocide of World War II.

“I’ve visited all the archives in Belarus to find the names of people, but they weren’t there because the archives of Slonim were burned by the Germans when they retreated — but we have to keep the memory of what happened in order to never forget,” he said.

The annual remembrance was observed in Poland and other nations as well, and it took on special meaning this year to historians who are trying urgently to collect the remaining testimonies of eyewitnesses as their numbers dwindle.

One survivor dies in Israel every hour, according to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, a nonprofit group based in Tel Aviv that helps care for needy survivors. Today, there are 198,000 survivors in Israel; 88% are 75 or older.

Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial contains the largest archive in the world of historic material related to the Holocaust — or Shoah, as it is known in Hebrew — and it has been intensifying its campaign to record the accounts of survivors. Teams of historians have been dispatched to interview elderly survivors in their homes and collect artifacts.

Holocaust memorial

Holocaust memorial (Photo credit: NH53 via Wikipedia)

“We are really racing against the clock to find every survivor and get their stories told before they die,” said Cynthia Wroclawski, manager of the Shoah Names Recovery Project.

Since its establishment in 1953, Yad Vashem, an Israeli governmental authority, has collected 400,000 photographs, recorded roughly 110,000 victims’ video testimonies and amassed 138 million pages of documents on the Nazis’ genocide of Jews in Europe. It was after the Holocaust that the United Nations approved in 1947 what many Jews had sought for decades: a permanent homeland in what is now modern Israel.

At Yad Vashem on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech that the lesson of the Holocaust is not only to remember the past, “but to learn the lessons and more importantly to implement those lessons to ensure the future of our people.”

On Thursday, thousands of young people from Israel, the USA and other nations marched between the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau to honor the millions of Jewish dead.

Despite the immense scholarship on the Holocaust, many unknowns remain, including the identities of roughly one-third of the Jewish victims.

In 1955, Israel began creating a page of testimony for each victim, and by 2004, Yad Vashem had 3 million names when it first uploaded the names database to the Internet. Survivors have since added pictures and scanned letters to the victims’ individual pages in what have become “virtual tombstones.” At the end of last year, 4.1 million names had been recovered, Wroclawski said.

“We are trying to find them by name, which is an expression of an individual’s identity. The Nazis tried to exterminate not only the people but every memory of the individual and strip away their humanity and any memory of them,” Wroclawski said.

Shefel created the Slonim Jews’ Association in Israel for the few survivors from Slonim, which is now a part of Belarus. He and members of his group have been putting together a list of names from memory and came up with 3,000 for the Yad Vashem remembrance project.

“It’s very hard to connect the names,” said Shefel, who read off the names of his family members who perished, as did many others at the memorial. But “without history, there is no future.”

(Meredith Mandell writes for USA Today.)

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a (Hindu) match

A Hindu wedding ceremony. RNS photo courtesy Flickr

By MEGAN SWEAS
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

LOS ANGELES (RNS) Kamna Mittal and her husband moved to the Bay Area soon after they were married in India in 2000. In addition to being in a new country, the couple were new to each other. Their marriage had been arranged.

“When you go for an arranged marriage,” she said, “it’s a total gamble.”

Now a mother of two, Mittal counts herself lucky that it worked out, but 12 years later, she wants to help Indian-American singles in the Bay Area meet directly.

Turns out even love can use a little help every now and then, and the age-old practice of arranged Hindu marriages is getting a 21st-century makeover.

Sapna Thakur, 34, recently moved to the Bay Area and attended Mittal’s first mixer in February, a Valentine’s Day-themed singles party. “Why not? Give it a shot,” she thought before going.

“It was a bit awkward in the beginning but then it was fine because there were a lot of games and people were mingling. I had a nice time.”

The marriage process is in flux in Indian-American culture, opening the door to new avenues for matchmaking. Even as singles’ attitudes on dating change, Hindu tradition still holds sway through mixers, matrimony websites and matchmakers.

Within Indian culture (which is predominantly Hindu), marriage is as much about families coming together as it is about couples coming together. Hinduism orders families into four major castes and thousands of sub-castes, each with their own particular ritual role or profession. Ideally, a couple must be in the same sub-caste, region and religion. Priests also compare their horoscopes to ensure compatibility.

Especially in Indian villages, matchmaking tends to be informal, using “extensive kinship networks,” said Lindsey Harlan, chair of religious studies at Connecticut College. When an Indian gets to a marriageable age, “aunties,” who are not necessarily related, start looking out for potential life partners.

A family also might hire a marriage broker to help the process along. These days, matrimony websites can serve the same broker role as the “aunties.”

Parents, both in India and in the U.S., create profiles listing their children’s personal and familial information — including caste and religion — on sites like Bharatmatrimony.com, which has more than 20 million profiles worldwide.

The website’s CEO, Murugavel Janakiraman, said 10 percent of clients are immigrants to the U.S. or American-born Indians.

“There have been a lot of more modern inventions trying to achieve the same goal as matchmaking by ‘aunties,'” Harlan said. Such inventions, she said, are “a reaction to the fear that kids will make inappropriate choices and suffer the same divorce rates that the (U.S.) does in general.”

Parties like Mittal’s can serve to either continue or break tradition: Singles might click with somebody outside their caste, or they could meet more of “the kind of people that your parents would like you to marry” than they might in everyday life, Harlan said.

Thakur’s parents encouraged her to go the singles party, even though they had wanted to arrange a marriage for her when she was younger. Now that she’s older, her father is more open-minded about who his daughter marries — “but it has to be an Indian,” she added, and preferably from one of the higher castes.

Thakur herself is also more open to arranged marriage than she was when she was young.

“When you’re working, it’s really difficult to meet people,” Thakur said. “You go there, you meet someone. You can meet them a few times. It’s basically semi-arranged.”

Thakur’s desire to marry reflects Indians’ traditional values at a time when only 51 percent of American adults are wed, according to 2010 Census data.

“It’s not like a flirty or just everyday kind of party,” Mittal said. “From the girls’ side or boys’ side, they are both serious about finding a life partner.”

Indian immigrants tend to look for the same religion, caste and region, Mittal said. American-born Indians might want somebody who is Indian, preferably raised in America, too. Ninety percent of Hindus in America marry within the faith, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

“I’ve seen so much that blows those stereotypes out of the water,” said Jasbina Ahluwalia, a Bay Area matchmaker who serves the South Asian community. Still, culture can add a burden to dating.

“Separating one’s own priorities and values from expectations of others — family, parents — I think can be very challenging,” she said.

Even if parents approach her, as they sometimes do, the first consultation must be with the single person, in private. “If someone says,’I want to find another Indian,’ I ask why,” she said.

Ahluwalia doesn’t necessarily advocate a wholesale break with tradition, but clients need to have thought through their answers. If a woman says she wants to marry a Hindu, for instance, Ahluwalia asks what that means: Going to temple each week? Simply being spiritual?

Thakur is willing to look within the parameters set by her parents, but she has her own priorities: physical attraction, education, good employment and stability. She didn’t meet anybody she liked at Mittal’s party.

“I guess you become more fussy when you get older,” she said.

Bride and groom hold hands during a Hindu wedding ceremony. RNS photo courtesy Flickr

Southern Baptists to probe Richard Land’s Trayvon Martin remarks

Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, preaches Nov. 11 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned a master's degree and met his future wife in the 1970's. Land often acts as a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, articulating the denomination's positions on issues such as abortion, same-sex unions, bioethics and race relations. Photo by Bryan S. Berteau.

By ADELLE M. BANKS
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) Southern Baptist leaders will investigate whether their top ethicist and public policy director plagiarized racially charged remarks about the Trayvon Martin case that many say set back the denomination’s efforts on racial reconciliation.

Richard Land, who leads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, was accused of lifting remarks for his radio show that accused Democrats and civil rights leaders of exploiting the case of the unarmed Florida teenager who was shot and killed by a volunteer neighborhood watchman.

Even though Land has apologized for both the remarks and not attributing their source, the commission’s executive committee said it was obligated “to ensure no stone is left unturned.” An investigatory committee will “recommend appropriate action” to church leaders.

“They need the Travyon Martins to continue perpetuating their central myth: America is a racist and an evil nation. For them it’s always Selma Alabama circa 1965,” Land said on his radio program, speaking of civil rights activists.

Those comments, included in a partial transcript published by Baptist blogger and Baylor University Ph.D. student Aaron Weaver, were previously written by Washington Times columnist Jeffrey Kuhner.

While conceding that talk radio has different attribution policies than traditional journalism or academic scholarship, “we nevertheless agree with Dr. Land that he could, and should, do a better job in this area,” the Executive Committee stated.

In a statement, Land said he serves “at the will of the trustees,” and “I look forward to continuing to work with and under the oversight of my trustees.” A commission spokeswoman said Land was not commenting beyond his statement.

The commission trustees, along with other Southern Baptist leaders, noted Land’s role in the passage of the 1995 resolution in which Southern Baptists apologized for their past defense of slavery. They also credited him for “engaging the culture and our political leaders on matters of religious conviction.”

Yet others have criticized Land, including the Rev. Fred Luter, the New Orleans pastor who’s expected to become the SBC’s first African-American president, who called the remarks “unhelpful.”

Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist researcher who blogged about Land’s comments without mentioning him by name, said the firestorm threatens to undo progress made by the overwhelmingly white denomination.

“The Southern Baptist Convention still must earn a better reputation for racial inclusion and justice,” Stetzer wrote. “As such, perhaps SBC denominational leaders are not the best persons to speak into racially charged situations, critiquing the actions of African Americans or African American leaders.”

Vatican orders crackdown on American nuns

By DAVID GIBSON
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Vatican has launched a crackdown on the umbrella group that represents most of America’s 55,000 Catholic nuns, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination.

Rome also chided the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)

for sponsoring conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The Vatican’s disciplinary action against the LCWR was announced on

Pope Benedict XVI during general audition

Pope Benedict XVI during general audition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wednesday (April 18), one day before Pope Benedict XVI marked seven years as pontiff.

In many ways, the Vatican’s actions against the LCWR encapsulated the kind of hard line that many expected Benedict — the Vatican’s former doctrinal czar — to take when he was elected in 2005.

“The current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern, also given the influence the LCWR exercises on religious congregations in other parts of the world,” said the eight-page statement issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict led for a quarter century before his election.

The directive, which follows a two-year investigation by Rome, also comes as the Vatican appeared ready to welcome a controversial right-wing splinter group of Catholic traditionalists back into the fold, possibly by giving the group a special status so that they can continue to espouse their old-line rites and beliefs.

The CDF, now led by American Cardinal William Levada, appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain to lead the process of overhauling LCWR’s governance and reviewing its plans and programs and its relationship with certain groups that the Vatican finds suspect.

One of the groups singled out in the criticism is Network, a social justice lobby created by Catholic sisters 40 years ago that continues to play a leading role in pushing progressive causes on Capitol Hill.

The Vatican announcement said that “while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death.”

It added that “crucial” issues like “the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.”

Many bishops were angered when LCWR and Network, along with the Catholic Health Association, endorsed President Obama’s health care reform over the bishops’ objections. LCWR and Network recently endorsed Obama’s compromise with the bishop over a mandate to provide insurance coverage for birth control for employees at religious institutions, even as the bishops continue to fight it.

The Vatican said the LCWR defended itself in part by arguing that the group “does not knowingly invite speakers who take a stand against a teaching of the church church ‘when it has been declared as authoritative teaching.'” The LCWR also said that assertions made by speakers at LCWR conferences are not necessarily their own. The Vatican called that response “inadequate” and unsupported by the facts.

While LCWR did not respond to repeated requests for comment, Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said she was “stunned” that the Vatican document would single out her group, probably over its support for health care reform.

“It concerns me that political differences in a democratic country would result in such a a censure and investigation,” Campbell said.

Campbell also strongly defended LCWR. “I know LCWR has faithfully-served women religious in the United States and worked hard to support the life of women religious and our service to the people of God.”

Throughout church history, and in particular in the United States, women in religious communities who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience have directed their work toward charitable and educational ministries — running schools, hospitals, orphanages and a range of social services that have become as much a hallmark of Catholicism as the moral doctrine that the bishops oversee.

Increasingly, however, the hierarchy in Rome and the U.S. is focusing on promoting doctrinal orthodoxy and curbing dissent.

Many women religious (as both sisters in active ministry and cloistered nuns are known) have viewed their ministry as primarily one of service, but some have openly disagreed with church leaders on a number of hot-button issues.

In 2009 the Vatican launched a wide-ranging investigation of all women religious in the U.S., prompted by concern over their commitment to doctrine and tradition as well as the sharp decline in vocations. The number of nuns in America has dropped from 179,954 in 1965 to just 55,000 today.

Some newer, more traditional communities are growing, though they still represent a small minority of the total number of sisters. They are represented by a parallel organization that is considered more Vatican-friendly than the LCWR.

That broader investigation, called a visitation, was seen by critics as a heavy-handed maneuver and prompted widespread resistance among U.S. nuns, which led the Vatican to recalibrate its approach. The final report on that investigation was delivered to the pope in January, and the results are expected to be announced in the coming months.

The LCWR investigation was a separate probe that was begun in 2008 and concluded in 2010. Benedict gave the CDF the go-ahead to take action against the LCWR in January 2011, more than a year ago. There was no explanation for the delay in publicly revealing the crackdown.

‘The Voice’: New Bible translation focuses on dialogue

Bruce Boling, holds a Bible open while participating in a Bible study group in Gallatin, Tenn., Sunday, April 1, 2012. RNS photo by Jeff Adkins/USA Today

By BOB SMIETANA
c. 2012 USA Today
Reprinted with permission

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) The name Jesus Christ doesn’t appear in “The Voice,” a new translation of the Bible.

Nor do words such as angel or apostle. Instead, angel is rendered as “messenger” and apostle as “emissary.” Jesus Christ is “Jesus the Anointed One” or the “liberating king.”

That’s a more accurate translation for modern American readers, said David Capes, lead scholar for “The Voice,” a complete edition released this month by publishing company Thomas Nelson. Capes says that many people, even those who’ve gone to church for years, don’t realize that the word “Christ” is a title.

“They think that Jesus is his first name and Christ is his last name,” says Capes, who teaches the New Testament at Houston Baptist University in Texas.

Seven years in the making, “The Voice” is the latest entry into the crowded field of English Bible translations.

Unlike the updated New International Version or the Common English Bible — both released last year — much of “The Voice” is formatted like a screenplay or novel. Translators cut out the “he said” and “they said” and focused on dialogue.

So in Matthew 15, when Jesus walks on the water, scaring his followers, their reaction is immediate:

Disciple: “It’s a ghost!”

Another Disciple: “A ghost? What will we do?”

Jesus: “Be still. It is I; you have nothing to fear.”

“I hope we get people to see the Bible — not as an ancient text that’s worn out — but as a story that they participate in and find their lives in,” Capes said.

The title for “The Voice” came from the New Testament Gospel of John and from the Greek word logos. It’s usually translated as “word” in verses such as John 1:1, which reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” in the New International Version, one of the most popular English translations.

In “The Voice,” that passage reads: “Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God.” Frank Couch, the executive editor and publisher of “The Voice,” said that translation better captures what logos means.

Mike Norris of Franklin Road Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., disagrees. His congregation follows the belief that the King James Bible is the most accurate translation in English. Other translations, he says, don’t stick to a word-for-word translation.

“They say the other translations are easier to read and more accurate,” he said. “We disagree.”

(Smietana also reports for The Tennessean in Nashville. Heidi Hall of The Tennessean also contributed to this story.)

 

Why Ross Douthat thinks we’re ‘a nation of heretics’

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat doesn't mince words in his new book ``Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.'' RNS photo by Josh Haner/New York Times

By DANIEL BURKE
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) New York Times columnist Ross Douthat doesn’t mince words in his new book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.”

Since the 1960s, Douthat argues, institutional Christianity has suffered a slow-motion collapse, leaving the country without the moral core that carried it through foreign wars, economic depressions and roiling internal debates.

In its place heresies have cropped up — from the “God-within” theology of Oprah to the Mammon-obsessed missionaries of the prosperity gospel, says Douthat, a Roman Catholic.

In an interview with Religion News Service, Douthat explains his definition of heresy, why he thinks Mitt Romney and President Obama are both heretics, and why more Americans should argue about religion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: The idea for the book came to me late in the Bush presidency, when the debate over religion in America was generally dominated by the clash between the New Atheists — Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett — and conservative Christians. In many ways, the debate over the existence of God is the most important debate there is, but I thought it would be useful to step back and consider what kind of shape American religion is taking.

Q: And what did you see?

A: In some ways, depending on what kinds of measurements you use — such as belief in God or spiritual experiences — the country might be more religious than ever. But that doesn’t mean that there are more traditional, orthodox Christians. Instead you have heresy: religions that draw on Christianity and yet are still miles away from the historic core of the Christian faith.

Q: How do you define heresy?

A: Looking at Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians, there is an intellectual core in the Christian faith. Sometimes that core gets blurry in various places, but you have the Nicene Creed, the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the four Gospels are the best sources of information about Jesus of Nazareth. There are a lot of religious movements and ideas that diverge from that core enough to be heretical but not to be a different religion entirely.

All of this is totally debatable, and people can look at the same landscape and disagree about who a heretic is. But the term is still quite useful in describing the reality of a country that is neither traditionally Christian nor post-Christian in any meaningful way. We are in a zone between those two things.

Q: You’re not going to start another Inquisition are you?

A: (Laughs) Well, controversy is good for book sales. Obviously the hunt for heretics has a long and horrible history. An orthodoxy that doesn’t leave any room for heresy is dangerous and destructive; and a world that is all heresy and leaves no room for orthodoxy is dangerous as well. But I don’t see any particular danger in using the term to describe America today.

Q: I’ve read that you think both Mitt Romney and President Obama are heretics.

A: A lot of evangelicals and conservative Catholics will say straight out that they don’t think Mormons are Christians. If you flip that around, you find that Mormons themselves think that all evangelicals and Catholics are in a state of apostasy, that Mormons have the true Christianity. It can be an endless and pointless argument. They both claim ownership of the same religious tradition.

Q: What makes Obama a heretic in your view?

A: Obama’s personal religious beliefs are a little more opaque than Romney’s. He’s not part of a church or specific denomination. But the church (Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago) where he basically converted, or reconverted, back from agnosticism, is a church whose theology diverges and stands in judgment over the traditional Christian churches. The theology of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons is radical — and that’s the whole point. Black liberation theology is much more explicitly political and revolutionary than traditional Christianity.

Q: But is it heretical?

A: I think using the word just clarifies the distance — the very real theological distinctions — between Jeremiah Wright’s vision of Christianity and what a lot of traditional churches consider Christianity.

Q: Even if heretics are no longer burned at the stake, it seems that many Americans have an aversion to labeling others heretical, no?

A: And I would disagree with that very strongly. The promise of a liberal society is that we agree to a kind of truce where nobody will impose their religion on anyone else and the government will not set up an established church, or the Spanish Inquisition. But part of religious freedom is the freedom to have arguments about religious beliefs. People who take religion seriously should have serious public arguments.

Q: You quote Philip Rieff’s idea of a modern prophet who denounces the rise of a therapeutic, ego-driven faith. Do you see yourself in that role?

A: (Laughs) I don’t think I’m comfortable calling myself a prophet. I’m more comfortable calling myself a critic. Even though I use pretty strong language to criticize trends in contemporary theology, I also want to get at what it is about “Eat Pray Love,” for example, that so many people respond to. It’s very easy to be mocking and dismissive from a more highbrow perspective. But there is a coherent theological core at the heart of the prosperity gospel and the “God-within” schools, and I take them seriously.

Q: Why do you say this book was written in a spirit of pessimism?

A: As a practicing Catholic, I have an obvious bias in favor of institutional religion. But if you look at Christian history, the belief that everyone can follow Jesus on their own is not a particularly realistic approach to religious faith. It is a faith best practiced in community with doctrine passed down through generations. What makes me pessimistic is that all the trends in contemporary American life are toward deinstitutionalization, not just in religion but across the board.

Ohio congressman on a mission to bring meditation to the masses

Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) is on a mission to bring mindfulness to the masses. RNS photo courtesy HayHouse

By DANIEL BURKE
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) By age 35, Congressman Tim Ryan had been one of Ohio’s youngest state senators, served two terms in the U.S. Congress and hobnobbed with presidents and prime ministers.

But a different story, full of unmet ambitions and caustic self-criticism, coursed through Ryan’s mind, carrying him away from even the most important moments.

“I was so caught up in my story that I missed my life,” the Ohio Democrat writes in his new book, “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.”

Practicing mindfulness meditation, Ryan says, has quieted the nattering

internal narrative, making him more relaxed, focused and compassionate. Now 39, the five-term congressman is enlisting teachers, doctors, business leaders, scientists and military personnel in a “quiet revolution” to bring mindfulness to the masses.

Ryan, a Roman Catholic, spoke recently with Religion News Service about how meditation helped him avoid burnout, how it resembles praying the rosary, and why you don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: The book came out of my going around the county to meet scientists studying mindfulness; teachers using it in schools; health care practitioners implementing it in our health care system; our military using it to treat veterans and build mental resilience. And I thought the world needed to see what they are doing. They are pioneers in what will be the next great movement in the United States: the movement of mindfulness.

Q: When did your interest in mindfulness start?

A: It started a long time ago. My grandparents and my mom prayed the rosary a lot, and later in life I had a priest friend of mine teach me centering prayer, based on Father Thomas Keating’s work. That led to practicing different kinds of meditation off and on as I got older.

Q: And when did you begin to consistently practice meditation?

A: I had been running extremely hard with my job and traveling across Ohio and the country to help Democrats take back the House in 2006, and then there was the presidential election. I was 35 and I thought, “I’m going to be burned out by the time I’m 40. I really need to jump-start my meditation practice.” Two days after the presidential election, I spent five days at a retreat in increasing levels of silence. It reminded me of how I felt when I played sports: being in “the zone” with mind and body grounded in the present moment.

Q: And you continue to meditate every day?

A: Yes, 40 to 45 minutes every morning before I leave the house and go out into the world.

Q: Has meditation changed how you do your job in Congress?

A: I feel like I choose better what issues are really important to my constituents and to me, as opposed to thinking that you can somehow address every issue across the political spectrum. You just have to figure out where you are going to put your attention. That’s something that everyone is trying to figure out, whether you’re a congressman or a single mom.

Q: So, do you think you’d want to introduce mindfulness to Speaker John Boehner or Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi?

A: (Laughs) If anybody wanted to try it, I’d be happy to point them in the right direction.

Q: What would you tell Boehner, for example?

A: He plays golf, and I might say that if you look at high-performing golfers, they are not over a 15-foot putt thinking about the meeting they are going to have tomorrow. They are thinking about sinking the putt. It’s all about coordinating the body and mind to be in the present moment, and how powerful that can be.

Q: Because of mindfulness’ Buddhist roots, a lot of people think it’s a religious practice. How does your meditation relate to your Catholic faith?

A: If you love your neighbor and are compassionate, are you automatically a Christian? Practicing present-moment awareness does not entail joining any religion or accepting any belief system. As a Catholic, I find mindfulness helps me participate in my religion more wholeheartedly. If you are praying the rosary, participating in the rituals at Mass or listening to the priest preach, you will actually be paying attention! Whatever your religion is, it can enhance the experience of participating in that religion. What’s more beautiful than that?

Q: There do seem to be some Buddhist concepts in your book, such as the interconnectedness of all beings. Has meditation made you more interested in Buddhist philosophy?

A: I love studying different religions. For me, learning and drawing from the different religious traditions is essential to being a good public servant. And the connections between our various religious traditions become our public ethic; they tie us together.