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History > 2012 > USA > Faith (II)




Woman Accused of Hate-Crime

Murder in Subway Push


December 29, 2012
The New York Times


A 31-year-old woman was arrested on Saturday and charged with second-degree murder as a hate crime in connection with the death of a man who was pushed onto the tracks of an elevated subway station in Queens and crushed by an oncoming train.

The woman, Erika Menendez, selected her victim because she believed him to be a Muslim or a Hindu, Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney, said.

“The defendant is accused of committing what is every subway commuter’s nightmare: Being suddenly and senselessly pushed into the path of an oncoming train,” Mr. Brown said in an interview.

In a statement, Mr. Brown quoted Ms. Menendez, “in sum and substance,” as having told the police: “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up.” Ms. Menendez conflated the Muslim and Hindu faiths in her comments to the police and in her target for attack, officials said.

The victim, Sunando Sen, was born in India and, according to a roommate, was raised Hindu.

Mr. Sen “was allegedly shoved from behind and had no chance to defend himself,” Mr. Brown said. “Beyond that, the hateful remarks allegedly made by the defendant and which precipitated the defendant’s actions should never be tolerated by a civilized society.”

Mr. Brown said he had no information on the defendant’s criminal or mental history.

“It will be up to the court to determine if she is fit to stand trial,” he said.

Ms. Menendez is expected to be arraigned by Sunday morning. If convicted, she faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. By charging her with murder as a hate crime, the possible minimum sentence she faced would be extended to 20 years from 15 years, according to prosecutors.

On Saturday night, Ms. Menendez, wearing a dark blue hooded sweatshirt, was escorted from the 112th Precinct to a waiting car by three detectives. Greeted by camera flashes and dozens of reporters, she let out a loud, unintelligible moan. She did not respond to reporters’ questions.

The attack occurred around 8 p.m. on Thursday at the 40th Street-Lowery Street station in Sunnyside.

Mr. Sen, 46, was looking out over the tracks when a woman approached him from behind and shoved him onto the tracks, according to the police. Mr. Sen never saw her, the police said.

The woman fled the station, running down two flights of stairs and down the street.

By the next morning, a brief and grainy black-and-white video of the woman who the police said was behind the attack was being broadcast on news programs.

Patrol officers picked up Ms. Menendez early Saturday after someone who had seen the video on television spotted her on a Brooklyn street and called 911, said Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the Police Department. She was taken to Queens and later placed in lineups, according to detectives. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Friday that, according to witnesses’ accounts, there had been no contact on the subway platform between the attacker and the victim before the shove.

The case was the second this month involving someone being pushed to death in a train station. In the first case, Ki-Suck Han, 58, of Elmhurst, Queens, died under the Q train at the 49th Street and Seventh Avenue station on Dec. 3. Naeem Davis, 30, was charged with second-degree murder in that case.

Mr. Sen, after years of saving money, had opened a small copying business on the Upper West Side this year.

Ar Suman, a Muslim, and one of three roommates who shared a small first-floor apartment with Mr. Sen in Elmhurst, said he and Mr. Sen often discussed religion.

Though they were of different faiths, Mr. Suman said, he admired the respect that Mr. Sen showed for those who saw the world differently than he did. Mr. Suman said he once asked Mr. Sen why he was not more active in his faith and it resulted in a long philosophical discussion.

“He was so gentle,” Mr. Suman said. “He said in this world a lot of people are dying, killing over religious things.”


Reporting was contributed by William K. Rashbaum, Wendy Ruderman,

Jeffrey E. Singer and Julie Turkewitz. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

    Woman Accused of Hate-Crime Murder in Subway Push, NYT, 29.12.2012,






Why, God?


December 25, 2012
The New York Times



When my friend Robin was dying, she asked me if I knew a priest she could talk to who would not be, as she put it, “too judgmental.” I knew the perfect man, a friend of our family, a priest conjured up out of an old black-and-white movie, the type who seemed not to exist anymore in a Catholic Church roiled by scandal. Like Father Chuck O’Malley, the New York inner-city priest played by Bing Crosby, Father Kevin O’Neil sings like an angel and plays the piano; he’s handsome, kind and funny. Most important, he has a gift. He can lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them. When he held my unconscious brother’s hand in the hospital, the doctors were amazed that Michael’s blood pressure would noticeably drop. The only problem was Father Kevin’s reluctance to minister to the dying. It tears at him too much. He did it, though, and he and Robin became quite close. Years later, he still keeps a picture of her in his office. As we’ve seen during this tear-soaked Christmas, death takes no holiday. I asked Father Kevin, who feels the subject so deeply, if he could offer a meditation. This is what he wrote:

How does one celebrate Christmas with the fresh memory of 20 children and 7 adults ruthlessly murdered in Newtown; with the searing image from Webster of firemen rushing to save lives ensnared in a burning house by a maniac who wrote that his favorite activity was “killing people”? How can we celebrate the love of a God become flesh when God doesn’t seem to do the loving thing? If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives?

The killings on the cusp of Christmas in quiet, little East Coast towns stirred a 30-year-old memory from my first months as a priest in parish ministry in Boston. I was awakened during the night and called to Brigham and Women’s Hospital because a girl of 3 had died. The family was from Peru. My Spanish was passable at best. When I arrived, the little girl’s mother was holding her lifeless body and family members encircled her.

They looked to me as I entered. Truth be told, it was the last place I wanted to be. To parents who had just lost their child, I didn’t have any words, in English or Spanish, that wouldn’t seem cheap, empty. But I stayed. I prayed. I sat with them until after sunrise, sometimes in silence, sometimes speaking, to let them know that they were not alone in their suffering and grief. The question in their hearts then, as it is in so many hearts these days, is “Why?”

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger. I remember visiting a dear friend hours before her death and reminding her that death is not the end, that we believe in the Resurrection. I asked her, “Are you there yet?” She replied, “I go back and forth.” There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say, “See? You can be absolutely confident now.” But there is no absolute bag of proof. I just stayed with her. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them.

Implicit here is the question of how we look to God to act and to enter our lives. For whatever reason, certainly foreign to most of us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. We have stories of miraculous interventions, lightning-bolt moments, but far more often the God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago.

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence. When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.

A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me.

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

    Why, God?, NYT, 25.12.2012,






A Prayer at Christmas


December 24, 2012
The New York Times


Providence, R.I.

BACK when I was 8 or 9 and wanted to be a nun, I would often stop at church on my way home from school. The school sat across the street from two churches: St. Joseph’s, which we called the French church, and Sacred Heart, which is where my family went. Sacred Heart was built by and for Italian immigrants, an odd pale stucco building in the midst of rundown mill houses. I would enter and let my eyes adjust from the bright afternoon light to the dim interior. The smell of incense and candles burning permeated everything, and I liked to stand still for a moment and breathe it in before I dipped my hand into the holy water in the marble aspersorium. My wet fingers made the sign of the cross as I made my slow, reverential way down the worn maroon carpet to the altar.

I prayed a lot in those days. For straight A’s, which I got without God’s help. For a friend, since I was a lonely, peculiar child who had trouble making friends. For my father to come home from Cuba, where he was based with the Seabees. For a real Christmas tree, instead of the fake silver one with pompom tips my mother put up in my father’s absence.

These prayers were fervent, desperate. But when I went to church alone on those long-ago afternoons, I prayed just for the sake of comfort, for the peace it brought me. Sometimes a nun might appear in her habit and allow me to scrape the melted candle wax from the marble. I imagined, briefly, a life of devotion like that. A swishing black dress and a giant wooden crucifix swinging from my rosary beads.

That fantasy disappeared eventually, along with the ritual of churchgoing. I didn’t get the same sense of peace at Sunday Mass. For reasons I can’t remember, my family eventually stopped attending church, and I started questioning the Catholic Church’s beliefs. I dabbled a little, but nothing stuck.

So I was surprised when I was struck with a desire to go to church earlier this month. Not a Mass, but inside a church, where I might pray quietly and alone. In my adult life, I had spent a lot of time angry at God, mostly over the sudden deaths in my family — my brother at 30, my daughter at 5. This year we’d suffered another sudden loss, a favorite aunt killed in a car accident. Why on this December afternoon I felt the need to check in with God, I cannot say. Maybe a conversation with a friend who spoke about going to church when her daughter was ill, or maybe the appearance of Christmas lights and decorations around town.

Whatever the reason, I walked to a Catholic church a few blocks from my home in Providence. The afternoon was chilly. Boughs of evergreen draped across the wrought-iron gate. I climbed the steps to the front door and pulled. Locked. I walked around to the side. Then the other side. Then the back. All locked. There were other churches, I thought. Plenty of them.

I went home and got in my car and drove from church to church to church. All of them were locked. With each locked door, my need to get inside and pray grew. I felt it was imperative, that if a person needed to go to church and pray, she should be able to do that. All the things I wanted to pray about washed over me. I wanted to explain to God why I’d been so angry. I wanted to apologize for things I’d done wrong. I wanted to put in a good word for my son, and for my daughter, and for my mother’s health, and for a dozen other things. But six, then seven churches were locked.

When I told my husband, he looked confused. I was not a religious person, after all. “It’s expensive to keep them open,” he, the churchgoer in our family, explained. “But what about truly desperate people?” I insisted. “It’s probably not safe to keep them open like that,” he said. Then he added, “Maybe in bigger cities?”

The next day, I was in New York City. The weather had turned as warm as spring, and after a lunch in Midtown I decided to take a walk. The mild temperature made me forget that it was Christmastime, and I was surprised to see a line of people in front of Saks Fifth Avenue waiting to see its window displays. I joined them. Then I crossed the street to stare up at the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and smile at the white angels blowing their trumpets in front of it.

As I turned to walk to the subway, a sign caught my eye: ST. PATRICK’S IS OPEN. I read it again. ST. PATRICK’S IS OPEN. Although I quickly realized the sign was there because of all the scaffolding around the church, I still couldn’t help but feel that it was also there just for me.

A church that was open! I crossed the street and went inside. The grandeur of St. Patrick’s is nothing like the little stucco church of my childhood in West Warwick, R.I. And even on a Tuesday afternoon, it was crowded with tourists. But the candles flickered, and the smell of wax and incense filled me. I dipped my fingers in the holy water, and walked slowly up the long center aisle to the altar. Around me, people snapped pictures of the manger with their phones. A woman holding a baby in a Santa suit rushed past me. When I got to the front pew, I lowered the kneeler, and I knelt. I bowed my head and I prayed.

In the years since I’d done this simple act in church, I have prayed at home and in hospital waiting rooms. I have prayed for my daughter to live, for the bad news to not be true, for strength in the face of adversity. I have prayed with more desperation than a person should feel. I have prayed in vain.

This prayer, though, was different. It was a prayer from my girlhood, a prayer for peace and comfort and guidance. It was a prayer of gratitude. It was a prayer that needed to be done in church, in a place where candles flicker and statues of saints look down from on high; where sometimes, out of nowhere, the spiritually confused can still come inside and kneel and feel their words might rise up and be heard.


Ann Hood is the author, most recently, of “The Red Thread”

and the forthcoming novel “The Obituary Writer.”

    A Prayer at Christmas, NYT, 24.12.2012,






Illinois Clergy Members Support Same-Sex Marriage

in Letter Signed by 260


December 23, 2012
The New York Times


More than 250 religious leaders in Illinois have signed an open letter in support of same-sex marriage, which the legislature is likely to take up in January.

“We dedicate our lives to fostering faith and compassion, and we work daily to promote justice and fairness for all,” the leaders wrote in the letter, which was released Sunday. “Standing on these beliefs, we think that it is morally just to grant equal opportunities and responsibilities to loving, committed same-sex couples.

“There can be no justification,” they continued, “for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

This is not the first time members of the clergy have endorsed same-sex marriage, but the public nature of the letter and the number of signatures made it an especially strong statement.

The timing is also significant: State Senator Heather A. Steans and State Representative Greg Harris, both Democrats, plan to introduce a bill next month to legalize same-sex marriage. Ms. Steans said they would not put the legislation, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, up for a vote unless they were confident it would pass. She added that the Senate, at least, was “definitely within striking distance” of the 30 votes needed for passage and that she hoped the letter would help persuade undecided legislators to support the bill.

Many of the 260 Christian and Jewish leaders who signed the letter said they had long supported same-sex marriage and were excited to make their views more public.

“It’s not a religious right — it’s a civil right,” said the Rev. Kevin E. Tindell, a United Church of Christ minister at New Dimensions Chicago. “It’s a matter of justice, and so as a Christian, as a citizen, I feel that it’s my duty.” Mr. Tindell, who is gay, is raising three children with his partner of 17 years.

The Rev. Kim L. Beckmann of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who lives in the Chicago area, said she was drawn into the movement “as my gay and lesbian parishioners were welcomed into our congregation.”

“I have participated in blessings of these unions for longer than we’ve even been talking about marriage,” she said. “I’m thrilled to take this step.”

Laurie Higgins, cultural analyst for the Illinois Family Institute, which opposes same-sex marriage, criticized the branding of the issue as a matter of “equality” and “inclusion.”

“All adults, regardless of their sexual proclivities, are entitled to participate in the sexually complementary institution of marriage,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Those who identify as homosexual choose not to participate in it.”

The letter, Ms. Higgins said, “is signed quite obviously by faith leaders who have adopted radical, ahistorical, heretical theological views.”

“Their views are informed not by careful exegesis, but by personal desire and political convictions,” she said.

Signatories of the letter said one of their motivations was to challenge the assumption that religion went hand in hand with opposition to same-sex marriage.

The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chicago said it was a way for religious leaders to say, “I’m a faithful Christian or a Jew or Muslim, and I think that marriage equality is important.”

“It doesn’t have to be a faith issue,” she said. “We understand our Scripture in a different way.”

The Episcopal Church endorsed same-sex marriage in July. Other denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Roman Catholic Church, have reaffirmed their opposition.

Ms. Steans said she and Mr. Harris had been careful to ensure that the Illinois legislation would protect religious freedom. Under the proposed law, she said, “no faith has to solemnize a marriage they don’t want to.”

She added, though, that she had long believed that many religious leaders would like to conduct same-sex marriages, and that with the release of the letter, it was “very heartening to see that that will be the case.”

Ms. Beckmann, the Lutheran minister, also cited the leeway for denominations and congregations to choose whether to ordain same-sex marriages.

“We’ll sort it out as pastors and congregations and faith communities,” she said. “But as a pastor, I am looking for the freedom to have the opportunity to bring the joy and societal recognition, as well as the protections for all families, that marriage provides.”

Some signatories, though they emphasized the importance of religious leaders’ endorsing same-sex marriage, sought to distance the issue from religion.

“This has nothing to do with doctrine,” Mr. Tindell said. “This has to do with how families live and how families exist and how families come together today. All are God’s children, and we are all worthy of the rights afforded in this country.”

Ms. Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute, one of at least nine organizations in the Coalition to Protect Children and Marriage, which was formed to oppose the planned same-sex marriage legislation, also emphasized nonreligious arguments. She said the debate should be about how heterosexual marriage benefited society.

If marriage is “a public institution,” she said, “why is the government involved? The government has no interest in whether two people love each other. The government interest is in what best serves the future of any country — and what’s best for the future of the country is what’s best for children, and what best serves children is to be raised by their biological parents.”

Nine states and Washington, D.C., allow same-sex marriage, and 12 others, including Illinois, allow civil unions or domestic partnerships.

When Ms. Wagner Sherer’s congregation began blessing same-sex unions, some members were “on the fence,” she said. “But something about witnessing it was really important to them.”

Afterward, she said, many concluded: “We’re blessing two people who love each other. We’ve done this many times, and we understand it.”

    Illinois Clergy Members Support Same-Sex Marriage in Letter Signed by 260, NYT, 23.12.2012,






Guiding Gay Evangelicals Out of the Campus Closet


December 21, 2012
The New York Times


In the DC Comics universe, Kate Kane is a lesbian who dons a mask to fight crime as Batwoman. In the real universe, Kate Kane is the pseudonym of a lesbian in her 20s who this year helped found QueerPHC, a blog for gay, lesbian and otherwise unstraight students and alumni of a conservative Christian college.

Michael P. Farris, the chancellor of that campus, Patrick Henry College, which he founded in 2000 to educate home-schooled evangelicals, threatened this month to sue the founders of QueerPHC for copyright infringement. He quickly withdrew that threat. But his public pique directed attention to a growing movement: alumni from evangelical Christian colleges who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or who otherwise identify as queer, and their straight allies, speaking up on behalf of gay students still on campus.

These alumni are reversing an old truism of campus life: that student radicals have to drag stodgy alumni into the modern age. But at these colleges, it is still difficult to be an openly gay student. And after graduating, gay and lesbian alumni and allies find each other, meet, push their colleges to be more liberal and reach out to undergraduates — offering affirmation that students do not get on campus.

Such groups for alumni of Patrick Henry; Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.; George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.; Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C.; and Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., have been established, most of them in the past two years. Some of the groups are tiny, their members anonymous. Some are big: about 700 Wheaton alumni have signed a letter supporting gay undergraduates.

“It was very isolating” to be a lesbian at Patrick Henry, said Ms. Kane, a recent graduate who insisted on staying masked behind her pseudonym. “And it was also very confusing, because growing up in a very conservative, fundamentalist environment, and going to a school with a similar environment, my sexuality was very repressed. I didn’t even know I was queer until a few years into my college experience.”

Speaking of shame, secrecy, the closet — Kate Kane plans to reveal her real name. “I have set a deadline for myself,” she said, “that I will come out by May 31, 2013. I’m hoping to come out in February or March.”

She would reveal her name on the phone to a reporter, but she wants to tell her parents about her sexuality in person. “I just don’t want them to find out on the Internet.”

The Christian alumni organizers all say they have heard from current undergraduates at their colleges who are grateful for the support. But faculty members, who at evangelical colleges usually must sign a statement of Christian faith, and who can more easily avoid influences from contemporary culture, may be holdouts who support traditional Christian teaching.

“The real issue on this is whether or not someone is created by God as gay or whether or not gay is a behavior pattern,” said Mr. Farris, the chancellor at Patrick Henry, which is Purcellville, Va. “We take the position it’s a behavior pattern. No one is created by God in this fashion.”

Mr. Farris is not sure that any students on his campus even face this problem.

“I am taking a reporter’s word for it that one alumna has self-identified as a lesbian,” Mr. Farris said. “Does that surprise me? No. Disappoint me? Yes. She violated the honor code for four years. She does not believe what we believe, and she said she did.”

Mr. Farris is not really right about that — when the blogger who uses the name Kate Kane began at Patrick Henry, she felt the way her chancellor did about same-sex attraction. “I told a couple of my classmates,” she said, “but it was sort of like I presented it to them as, ‘Oh, here’s this weird problem I have.’ And once I did start coming to terms with it, I was like, ‘Oh no, this is really bad, people will hate me if they find this out about me.’ ”

Patrick Henry is conservative even by the standards of its peers; Wheaton, Billy Graham’s alma mater, has a more ideologically diverse teaching staff — proof that faculty culture varies sharply among colleges that identify as evangelical.

“Thirty-one years ago, students could not come out as gay,” said Paul W. Wiens, who retired from Wheaton last year after 31 years of teaching music. “That would have been completely bad.”

Now, Dr. Wiens said, “if you took a vote, the faculty would say marriage is for men and women, but civil unions are fine, with all the rights of married couples.” And he added that the college chaplain “has been meeting with gay students who wish to do so, to just talk about whatever is on their mind. He is not trying to convert them, or change their sexual orientation.”

How can Dr. Wiens be so sure? “I know these things to be true, because my gay students told me they were.”

The Wheaton chaplain, Stephen B. Kellough, says he tries to support students with same-sex attraction, even as he challenges all unmarried students to be chaste. “When students come to me and talk about issues they are facing or wondering or struggling about in the area of sexuality, I am open to and supportive of those questions,” Dr. Kellough said.

But, he was asked, isn’t there a special message for students fighting same-sex urges about the need to overcome them?

“I think there is a call to chastity and faithfulness in singleness for homosexual students and heterosexual students,” the chaplain said, “and those challenges are similar.”

Christian colleges are in a bind. When they try to reinforce their traditional teachings, they can incite gay activism. The gay group OneWheaton was founded after a 2011 chapel talk by a Wheaton alumnus, Wesley Hill, who said he had same-sex attractions but had chosen to be celibate for life. “It was the only voice ever given at Wheaton: either gay people need to be celibate their entire life, or they need to change,” said OneWheaton’s founder, Adam Bidma.

So he helped write the founding letter, which he and friends distributed after a campus chapel service. “If you are a student and this is part of your story, your sexual identity is not a tragic sign of the sinful nature of the world,” the letter reads. “Your desire for companionship, intimacy and love is not shameful.”

    Guiding Gay Evangelicals Out of the Campus Closet, NYT, 21.12.2012,






Religious Leaders Push Congregants on Gun Control,

Sensing a Watershed Moment


December 19, 2012
The New York Times


Religious leaders across the country this week vowed to mobilize their congregants to push for gun control legislation and provide the ground support for politicians willing to take on the gun lobby, saying the time has come for action beyond praying and comforting the families of those killed.

A group of clergy members, representing mainline and evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims, plans to lead off the campaign in front of the Washington National Cathedral at an event on Friday timed to mark the moment a week before when a young gunman opened fire in a school in Newtown, Conn.

The cathedral will toll its funeral bell 28 times, once for each victim, including 20 children, 6 teachers and school administrators and the mother of the killer, as well as the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who shot and killed himself.

“Everyone in this city seems to be in terror of the gun lobby. But I believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby,” said the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Washington National Cathedral, in an impassioned sermon on Sunday that has become a rallying cry for gun control. People in the cathedral’s pews rose and applauded.

Dean Hall said in an interview that he and Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington were calling on their parishioners to support four specific steps: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, tightening rules for sales at gun shows and re-examining care for the mentally ill.

Clergy members have been involved in gun control efforts for at least three decades because, they say, they are the ones called to give the eulogies at funerals and comfort victims’ families. But they acknowledge that they have been unable to mount a sustained grass-roots movement against gun violence — partly because they have not made it a priority, and partly because their efforts have been overshadowed by the organizational and fund-raising power of the gun lobby.

Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, a two-year-old coalition that now counts 40 religious groups as members, has only one part-time employee, Vincent DeMarco, who is simultaneously organizing coalitions on obesity, health care and smoking. Asked his budget, he laughed and said, “de minimis.”

However, Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s public policy arm, the General Board of Church and Society, said he was seeing some signs that the shooting in Newtown could be a watershed. His office immediately sent out an “action alert” on gun control to bishops and other church leaders, and he said he was surprised how many wrote back thanking him effusively.

“I could tell there was this real need, real hunger, at least in my denomination, for there to be some response that is not only prayers and expressions of sadness, but also a call to action,” Mr. Winkler said. “And it came from some who wouldn’t normally care that much about public policy action, but who would be more interested in spiritual responses.”

The primary organizer of the news conference on Friday, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in Washington, said, “This is not likely an issue that we’ll have a sustained campaign on in the absence of political leadership. But if political leaders act, the religious community will be strongly engaged.”

On Wednesday, President Obama said in a news conference that he would make preventing gun violence a legislative priority, but that it would take “a wave of Americans” to move it forward.

Religious groups that sent out calls for action on guns to their members in the last five days include the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the PICO National Network, an advocacy group, and many Jewish organizations.

But advocating limits on guns is controversial within many religious groups, and many evangelicals are opposed. A CBS News poll conducted Dec. 14-16, after the massacre in Newtown, showed that while 69 percent of Catholics said they wanted stricter laws on gun control, only 37 percent of white evangelical Christians agreed.

The evangelical leaders expected at the cathedral event on Friday are relatively moderate: the Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, and Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

Mark DeMoss, a prominent evangelical who recently served as an adviser to the campaign of the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, stepped forward after the tragedy in Newtown, telling Politico.com that measures to address gun control, mental health treatment and violence in the media should all be on the table.

But he said in an interview that evangelicals were unlikely to support gun control efforts because they do not want to break ranks with the Republican Party, and because they tend to see gun violence as a concern to be addressed spiritually, rather than through policy change.

He said he also considered violence a spiritual problem, but said he saw a “double standard” at work. Evangelical clergy, he said, have boycotted the manufacturers of violent video games and pornography, but on guns they say, “No, this is just as spiritual matter of the heart.”

The Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said in an interview that his group had never taken a position on gun control but might now “take a harder look.” He pointed out that a rarely read part of the Christmas story is King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

“Mary and Joseph fled. It’s a part of the story, and they took decisive action. This is now a part of our story,” he said, referring to shooting rampages, “and we need to take decisive action.”

    Religious Leaders Push Congregants on Gun Control, Sensing a Watershed Moment, NYT, 19.12.2012,






The Decline of Evangelical America


December 15, 2012
The New York Times


Prescott, Ariz.

IT hasn’t been a good year for evangelicals. I should know. I’m one of them.

In 2012 we witnessed a collapse in American evangelicalism. The old religious right largely failed to affect the Republican primaries, much less the presidential election. Last month, Americans voted in favor of same-sex marriage in four states, while Florida voters rejected an amendment to restrict abortion.

Much has been said about conservative Christians and their need to retool politically. But that is a smaller story, riding on the back of a larger reality: Evangelicalism as we knew it in the 20th century is disintegrating.

In 2011 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life polled church leaders from around the world. Evangelical ministers from the United States reported a greater loss of influence than church leaders from any other country — with some 82 percent indicating that their movement was losing ground.

I grew up hearing tales of my grandfather, a pastor, praying with President Ronald Reagan at the White House. My father, also a pastor, prayed with George W. Bush in 2000. I now minister to my own congregation, which has grown to about 500, a tenfold increase, in the last four years (by God’s favor and grace, I believe). But, like most young evangelical ministers, I am less concerned with politics than with the exodus of my generation from the church.

Studies from established evangelical polling organizations — LifeWay Research, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Barna Group — have found that a majority of young people raised as evangelicals are quitting church, and often the faith, entirely.

As a contemporary of this generation (I’m 30), I embarked three years ago on a project to document the health of evangelical Christianity in the United States. I did this research not only as an insider, but also as a former investigative journalist for an alt weekly.

I found that the structural supports of evangelicalism are quivering as a result of ground-shaking changes in American culture. Strategies that served evangelicals well just 15 years ago are now self- destructive. The more that evangelicals attempt to correct course, the more they splinter their movement. In coming years we will see the old evangelicalism whimper and wane.

First, evangelicals, while still perceived as a majority, have become a shrinking minority in the United States. In the 1980s heyday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, some estimates accounted evangelicals as a third or even close to half of the population, but research by the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently found that Christians who call themselves evangelicals account for just 7 percent of Americans. (Other research has reported that some 25 percent of Americans belong to evangelical denominations, though they may not, in fact, consider themselves evangelicals.) Dr. Smith’s findings are derived from a three-year national study of evangelical identity and influence, financed by the Pew Research Center. They suggest that American evangelicals now number around 20 million, about the population of New York State. The global outlook is more optimistic, as evangelical congregations flourish in places like China, Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa.

But while America’s population grows by roughly two million a year, attendance across evangelical churches — from the Southern Baptists to Assembles of God and nondenominational churches — has gradually declined, according to surveys of more than 200,000 congregations by the American Church Research Project.

The movement also faces a donation crisis as older evangelicals, who give a disproportionately large share, age. Unless younger evangelicals radically increase their giving, the movement will be further strained.

Evangelicals have not adapted well to rapid shifts in the culture — including, notably, the move toward support for same-sex marriage. The result is that evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots. In 2007, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, in a survey of 1,300 college professors, found that 3 percent held “unfavorable feelings” toward Jews, 22 percent toward Muslims and 53 percent toward evangelical Christians.

To be sure, college professors are not representative of the population, and, despite national trends of decline, evangelicals have many exceptional ministries. Most metropolitan areas in the United States have at least one thriving megachurch. In New York City, Redeemer Presbyterian and the Brooklyn Tabernacle pack multiple services every weekend. A handful of other churches, like North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., and Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., see more than 20,000 worshipers each weekend. Savvy ministers like the Rev. Craig Groeschel, founder of LifeChurch.tv, are using new technologies to deliver the “good news.”

The pulse of evangelicalism is also shifting, in many ways for the good, from American politics to aid for the global poor, as evidenced in books by the Rev. David Platt, the Rev. Max Lucado and the Rev. Timothy Keller. Evangelicals are still a sophisticated lot, with billions in assets, millions of adherents and a constellation of congregations, radio stations, universities and international aid groups. But all this machinery distracts from the historical vital signs of evangelicalism: to make converts and point to Jesus Christ. By those measures this former juggernaut is coasting, at best, if not stalled or in reverse.

How can evangelicalism right itself? I don’t believe it can — at least, not back to the politically muscular force it was as recently as 2004, when white evangelicals gave President George W. Bush his narrow re-election. Evangelicals can, however, use the economic, social and spiritual crises facing America to refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement.

We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility. The core evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. This is the “good news” from which the evangelical name originates (“euangelion” is a Greek word meaning “glad tidings” or “good news”). Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the “good news” we are called to proclaim.

I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture. The Scripture calls us “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), but American evangelicals have not acted with the humility and homesickness of aliens. The proper response to our sexualized and hedonistic culture is not to chastise, but to “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).

This does not mean we whitewash unpopular doctrines like the belief that we are all sinners but that we re-emphasize the free forgiveness available to all who believe in Jesus Christ.

Some evangelical leaders are embarrassed by our movement’s present paralysis. I am not. Weakness is a potent purifier. As Paul wrote, “I am content with weaknesses ... for the sake of Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:10). For me, the deterioration and disarray of the movement is a source of hope: hope that churches will stop angling for human power and start proclaiming the power of Christ.

Simple faith in Christ’s sacrifice will march on, unchallenged by empires and eras. As the English writer G. K. Chesterton put it, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”


John S. Dickerson is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Church

and author of the forthcoming book “The Great Evangelical Recession:

Six Factors That Will Crash the American Church ... and How to Prepare.”

    The Decline of Evangelical America, NYT, 15.12.2012,






Chemical Thrown at Rabbi Who Aided Victims of Abuse


December 11, 2012
The New York Times


An outspoken advocate for child sexual abuse victims in the Satmar Hasidic community was injured by a chemical he believed to be bleach that was thrown in his face as he walked down the street in his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood on Tuesday.

The advocate, Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, who runs a Web site and telephone call-in line that publicizes claims of sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community, said in an interview at the hospital where he was treated that he was walking on Roebling Street about noon when a man came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

“He has a cup of bleach,” Rabbi Rosenberg said, adding that he recognized the man. “And then he says ‘whoops’ and throws it in my face and walks off.”

A Police Department spokeswoman said on Tuesday evening that there had been an “ongoing dispute” between Rabbi Rosenberg and the man who threw the unidentified substance, but that no arrest had yet been made. Rabbi Rosenberg was taken to Woodhull Medical Center with burns to his face. According to a relative who was at the hospital, he had a corneal abrasion to his left eye and chemical burns around his eye. He was released after treatment and is expected to fully recover, his relative said.

Tensions are high in the tightly knit Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg after the conviction on Monday of Nechemya Weberman, a prominent community member who was found guilty of repeatedly sexually abusing a girl who came to him for counseling. Since his arrest on those charges last year, Mr. Weberman has had the backing of the community’s rabbinical leaders, and many in the neighborhood continue to believe he is innocent.

Rabbi Rosenberg said he believed the attack against him was related to Mr. Weberman’s conviction, as well as to a claim that he made on his telephone call-in line last week claiming that another ultra-Orthodox man was also a molester. “Everyone is so crazy right now,” Rabbi Rosenberg said.

A Police Department spokesman said there appeared to be no connection to the verdict.

A law enforcement official said that the police were still determining what substance had been thrown at Rabbi Rosenberg, but confirmed that he had been burned. Detectives interviewed Rabbi Rosenberg at the hospital and said they would take his clothing for chemical analysis.

Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, has vowed in recent months to crack down against intimidation of sexual abuse victims and their supporters in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where he has said people trying to cover up cases use tactics similar to those employed by organized crime. On Monday, the district attorney warned that people acting like “thugs” in the community would be punished.

Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for Mr. Hynes, said on Tuesday that his office was investigating the attack on Rabbi Rosenberg.

Primo Santiago, the manager of Roebling Liquors, at 311 Roebling Street, said that he saw the attack take place. He said he was unlocking his store when he saw a man rushing across the street with a cup of liquid.

“I saw the one guy throw something at the other guy’s face,” he said. Rabbi Rosenberg, 62, has been confronted before. In 2008, after he began talking publicly about ultra-Orthodox Jews who he believed were molesters, he was formally ostracized by a group of rabbis and religious judges, and barred from local synagogues.

“The public must beware, and stay away from him, and push him out of our camp,” that ban, printed in local newspapers, said in Hebrew. Rabbi Rosenberg also said he was grazed in the forehead by a bullet from a pellet gun shortly afterward.

Through it all, Rabbi Rosenberg has refused to tone down his advocacy. He has accused some top rabbis within the Satmar community of covering up abuse or being molesters themselves.

On Monday, he attended the Weberman trial and gave interviews to the news media praising the guilty verdict.

“Eventually, we are going to be a normal community, that everyone who is molested can come forward,” he said.


Joseph Goldstein contributed reporting.

    Chemical Thrown at Rabbi Who Aided Victims of Abuse, NYT, 11.12.2012,






The True Meaning of Hanukkah


December 7, 2012
The New York Times



WHEN my brother was in kindergarten, where he was the only Jewish student, a parent organizing enrichment activities asked my mother to tell the class the story of Hanukkah. My mother obligingly brought in a picture book and began to read about foreign conquerors who were not letting Jews in ancient Israel worship freely, even defiling their temple, until a scrappy group led by the Maccabee family overthrew one of the most powerful armies in the world and won their liberty.

The woman was horrified.

The Hanukkah story, she interrupted, was not about war. It was about the miracle of an oil lamp that burned for eight days without replenishing. She urged my mother to close the book. My mother refused.

The woman wasn’t alone. Many Americans, Jews as well as Christians, think that the legend of the long-lasting oil is the root of Hanukkah’s commemoration. And perhaps that mistake is no surprise, given that for many the holiday has morphed into “Christmas for Jews,” echoing the message of peace on earth accompanied by gift giving. In doing so, the holiday’s own message of Jewish survival and faith has been diluted.

Hanukkah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays in America. But unlike Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Passover (or even the lesser-known Sukkot and Shavuot), all of which are explicitly mentioned in the Torah, Hanukkah gets only a brief, sketchy reference in the Talmud, the voluminous collection of Jewish oral law and tradition written down hundreds of years after the Maccabees’ revolt.

There for the first time the miracle of the oil is recorded: the ancient temple in Jerusalem held an eternal flame, but after the desecration by the foreign invaders — including the sacrificing of pigs, a non-kosher animal, on the altar — only one day’s worth of purified oil remained. Yet the faithful went ahead and lighted it.

The oil burned in the rededicated temple for eight days, long enough for a new supply to arrive. Hence the practice of lighting candles for eight nights to observe Hanukkah, which means dedication in Hebrew. (Perhaps just as significantly, the reference to oil also gave rise to a holiday tradition of eating foods like potato pancakes and doughnuts that had been cooked in it.)

Though Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday, 19th-century activists in America promoted it to encourage their coreligionists to take pride in their heritage. During the 20th century it was embraced more broadly by Jews who wanted to fit in with other Americans celebrating the holiday season — and to make their kids feel better about not getting anything from Santa.

It helped, of course, that Hanukkah falls near Christmas on the calendar and traditionally involved candles and small monetary gifts. Over time, children began receiving grander presents, and Hanukkah-themed season’s greeting cards proliferated. Some families even started to purchase “Hanukkah bushes,” small trees often decked out with Stars of David and miniature Maccabees.

By the 1980s, when I was a child, menorahs had been placed next to mangers in the public square and Hanukkah songs had been incorporated into winter holiday concerts. Despite this recognition, I still felt excluded enough to brag to classmates that my holiday was better than Christmas, since it had eight days of gift giving, instead of one.

While elevating Hanukkah does a lot of good for children’s morale, ignoring or sanitizing its historical basis does a great disservice to the Jewish past and present.

The original miracle of Hanukkah was that a committed band of people led a successful uprising against a much larger force, paving the way for Jewish independence and perhaps keeping Judaism itself from disappearing. It’s an amazing story, resonant with America’s own founding, that offers powerful lessons about standing up for one’s convictions and challenging those in power.

Many believe the rabbis in the Talmud recounted the miracle of the light alongside the military victory because they did not want to glorify war. That in itself is an important teaching, as are the holiday’s related messages of renewal, hope and turning away from darkness.

But it’s a story with dark chapters as well, including the Maccabean leaders’ religious zealotry, forced conversions and deadly attacks on their neighbors. These transgressions need to be grappled with. And that is precisely what the most important Jewish holidays do: Jews on Passover spill out wine from their glasses to acknowledge Egyptian suffering caused by the 10 plagues, and congregations at Rosh Hashana read and struggle with God’s order to Abraham to bind his son Isaac as a sacrifice.

If we’re going to magnify Hanukkah, we should do so because it offers the deeper meaning and opportunity for introspection that the major Jewish holidays provide.


Hilary Leila Krieger is the Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post.

    The True Meaning of Hanukkah, NYT, 7.12.2012,






In Hero of the Catholic Left,

a Conservative Cardinal Sees a Saint


November 26, 2012
The New York Times


Dorothy Day is a hero of the Catholic left, a fiery 20th-century social activist who protested war, supported labor strikes and lived voluntarily in poverty as she cared for the needy.

But Day has found a seemingly unlikely champion in New York’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who has breathed new life into an effort to declare the Brooklyn native a saint.

Cardinal Dolan has embraced her cause with striking zeal: speaking on the anniversaries of her birth and death, distributing Dorothy Day prayer cards to parishes and even buying roughly 100 copies of her biography to give out last year as Christmas gifts to civic officials including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

This month, at Cardinal Dolan’s recommendation, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted unanimously to move forward with her canonization cause, even though, as some of the bishops noted, she had an abortion as a young woman and at one point flirted with joining the Communist Party.

“I am convinced she is a saint for our time,” Cardinal Dolan said at the bishops’ meeting. She exemplifies, he said, “what’s best in Catholic life, that ability we have to be ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or.’ ”

Cardinal Dolan is often depicted as one of the most visible symbols of the rightward shift of America’s Catholic bishops. He has been critical of President Obama’s policies — he accused the Obama administration of “an unwarranted, unprecedented radical intrusion” into church life after the administration said it would require some Catholic institutions to provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraception — and he has been an outspoken opponent of the administration’s support for same-sex marriage.

In recent years, he and other conservative Catholics have come to embrace Day, finding inspiration in her decision to support the church’s opposition to abortion, as well as her distrust of government and her overall religious orthodoxy. As someone who was both committed to social justice and loyal to church teachings, Day bridges wings of the contemporary church in a way that few American Catholic figures can.

“For quite a while, the church at the grass roots in the United States has been fairly badly splintered to a kind of peace-and-justice crowd on the left and pro-life crowd on the right,” said John L. Allen Jr., senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter. “And Day is one of those few figures who has traction in both those groups.”

Day, born in 1897 to a nonobservant Protestant family, dropped out of the University of Illinois and moved to New York to work as a journalist for leftist publications in the bohemian literary world of downtown Manhattan. She converted to Catholicism in 1927, citing a spiritual awakening that was accelerated by the joy that she felt upon the birth of a daughter, Tamar. She said she chose Catholicism for many reasons — partly because it was the religion of so many of the workers and poor people whose cause she fought for as a socialist writer, and partly because she had lived in Chicago with Catholic roommates whose faith had deeply impressed her.

She spent decades as a passionate lay Catholic, devoting her life to the principles of social justice, including pacifism and service to the poor, that she felt were at the root of her religion’s teachings.

Though she was traditional in her religious practices and strong in her love for the church, her relationship with the church hierarchy in her lifetime was not always smooth. Not a single Catholic bishop came to her funeral in 1980, according to Robert Ellsberg, the editor of her letters and diaries.

But bishops now say Day’s life resonates with the struggles that they are most engaged in today: the fight against abortion and their concern about government intrusion in their affairs. In her radical rejection of government — Day believed all states were inherently totalitarian — the bishops see echoes of their fight with the Obama administration over health care.

“As we struggle at this opportune moment to try to show how we are losing our freedoms in the name of individual rights, Dorothy Day is a very good woman to have on our side,” Cardinal Francis E. George, archbishop of Chicago, said during a discussion of Day’s sainthood cause at a meeting of bishops.

Cardinal Dolan is, in one sense, the natural advocate for Day, because she lived most of her life in his archdiocese and her canonization was proposed by one of his predecessors. But promoting Day’s sainthood cause is also politically useful for him, and other bishops, at a time when the hierarchy is often described by liberal Catholics as caring more about reproductive issues than poverty, some Catholics said.

“It is an opportunity for him to demonstrate that conservative Catholics are not uncaring, without accepting liberal principles in how you service the poor,” said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a conservative antidefamation organization. “She was not, like many liberal Catholics today, a welfare state enthusiast.”

But some of Day’s closest supporters are critical of how conservatives interpret her message on the role of government.

“I think she would be appalled to have her commitment to voluntary poverty and works of mercy and charity in their deepest sense be used as cover for an agenda that I think she would see as part of a war against the poor,” said Mr. Ellsberg, a former editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper that Ms. Day founded with Peter Maurin in 1933.

To be canonized as a saint, Day will face several major hurdles, according to the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center. First, the Vatican must determine that two miracles have occurred as a result of prayers to her since her death. Second, she needs organizational support to keep up a lobbying effort for her, and the Catholic Worker movement she helped found is often ambivalent about the canonization process, fearful that her message will become oversimplified. Day herself once said, according to the church, “Don’t trivialize me by trying to make me a saint.”

Then there is simply the matter of time — the heavily bureaucratic canonization process can take decades. “Dolan is behind this, but it might take more than his lifetime to get this whole thing through,” Father Reese said. “And there’s no way of knowing if the next guy will place it as high on his agenda.”

When Cardinal Dolan talks about why he supports Day, he tends not to mention her arrests at protests of nuclear weapons or at a farm labor protest with Cesar Chavez. Instead, he describes her as a sinner whose life was transformed when she converted.

Describing for reporters at the bishops’ meeting Day’s life as a young woman, Cardinal Dolan offered a litany of concerns: “Sexual immorality, religious searching, pregnancy out of wedlock and an abortion.” But, he said, after her conversion, she not only flourished, but she also became an icon “for everything right about the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life.”

But her granddaughter, Martha Hennessy, 57, who volunteers in the East Village at Mary House, a Catholic Worker refuge for the poor that Day founded, said in an interview that she found the bishops’ increasing focus on her grandmother’s abortion uncomfortable.

“I wish we would focus on the birth of her child more than on her abortion because that’s what really played a role in her conversion,” said Ms. Hennessy, whose mother, Tamar, was Day’s only child. “It’s hard for me to hear these men talking about my mother and grandmother that way.”

Her daily work continues. The Catholic Worker, a newspaper she helped start has grown into a broad movement, and more than 200 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality continue to serve the poor around the country. Followers of the movement — who do not have to be Catholic — run soup kitchens, rooming houses and clothing distributions, and continue to hold protests, which these days are focused on torture, drone attacks and other aspects of the war on terror.

At St. Joseph House on First Street in the East Village on a recent Thursday, a kitchen full of volunteers rinsed down giant stockpots and bowl-size ladles after finishing the morning’s soup line for the neighborhood poor. Around 25 residents and volunteers live in the graffiti-tagged building, relying on donations for their work. More Catholic workers live two blocks away in Mary House, the refuge where Day lived the final years of her life.

As the volunteers gathered for lunch at St. Joseph House — in a simple dining hall hung with hand-drawn pictures of Day, a portrait of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a crucifix — Carmen Trotta, who has lived in the house for a quarter-century, said that while he believed Day’s message of pacifism and works of mercy should be the focus of discussions about her possible canonization, he was confident that anyone who read her writings would understand her priorities.

“None of us really have any doubt that she was a saint,” he said.

    In Hero of the Catholic Left, a Conservative Cardinal Sees a Saint, NYT, 26.11.2012,






Robert W. Castle Jr.,

Outspoken Harlem Priest and Accidental Actor,

Dies at 83


November 6, 2012
The New York Times


The Rev. Robert W. Castle Jr., an outspoken Episcopal priest in Harlem who was the subject of Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed 1992 documentary, “Cousin Bobby” — and who went on to a film acting career as a result — died on Oct. 27 at his home in Holland, Vt. He was 83.

The death, of natural causes, was confirmed by his family.

Father Castle, who really was Mr. Demme’s cousin, was the rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a largely black and Hispanic congregation on West 126th Street, near Broadway, from 1987 until his retirement in 2000.

There, he ran an energetic ministry in which spirituality and social action were indissolubly linked, relishing his role as “an obdurate whirligig fulminating against the establishment,” as N. R. Kleinfield wrote in The New York Times in 1996.

Mr. Demme, the Oscar-winning director of “The Silence of the Lambs” and other feature films, had been out of touch with his cousin for decades. In the late 1980s, he read a newspaper article describing Father Castle’s practice of plastering irate notices on the windshields of cars that were parked illegally on the church sidewalk, blocking congregants’ access.

That the vehicles in question were police cars from the local precinct did not deter Father Castle in the least.

Could this genteelly combustible, professorially rumpled priest, Mr. Demme wondered, be his long-lost cousin Bobby Castle, a former star athlete 15 years his senior?

“I thought: ‘Good Lord. I wonder — no, that couldn’t possibly be cousin Bobby,’ ” Mr. Demme said on NPR in 1992. “The good Bobby Castle would never be trashing police cars, for heaven’s sake.”

But he was — and then some. Over his years in the pulpit, first at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jersey City, where he was the rector from 1960 to 1968, and later at St. Mary’s, Father Castle fought city hall in all its incarnations.

In the 1960s, he marched in Mississippi with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He opened his church, and his home, to meetings of Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. He picketed banks and restaurants for failing to hire minorities. Later, at St. Mary’s, he brought in a priest to say Mass in Spanish.

He marched against the Vietnam War, preached against the death penalty and fought gentrification of the urban neighborhoods he served. In Jersey City, lobbying for cleaner, safer streets, he once dumped vanloads of garbage outside City Hall. In Harlem, to call attention to an unfilled pothole or a much-needed traffic light, he sometimes preached in the middle of the street.

Father Castle picketed other churches, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, his neighbor in New York, to protest a service there honoring Gen. Colin L. Powell and other participants in Operation Desert Storm. In New Jersey, he picketed his own bishop for belonging to segregated clubs.

He once picketed himself, joining ranks with workers seeking a better contract from St. Mary’s Episcopal Center, an AIDS hospice he founded in Harlem.

Father Castle was arrested so often that, as Mr. Demme’s film relates, his children were entirely accustomed to asking, “How much is the bail, Mom?”

“He was an angry white man, I’ll tell you,” Mr. Demme said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “He really found fault with so many ways that people of color are treated in America; it infuriated him. That said, he was a lot of fun.”

Father Castle’s crackling on-screen presence in “Cousin Bobby” led to roles in more than a dozen fiction films. Among them was “Philadelphia” (1993), directed by Mr. Demme, in which he played Bud Beckett, the father of the young lawyer Andrew Beckett, played by Tom Hanks, who is dying of AIDS.

Unfazed by civil disobedience and its consequences, Father Castle quailed at the prospect of kissing Joanne Woodward, who played his wife, Mr. Demme later said.

His other films for Mr. Demme include “Beloved” (1998) and “Rachel Getting Married” (2008). His films for other directors include “The Addiction” (1995), directed by Abel Ferrara, in which Father Castle exercised his priestly prerogative by performing an exorcism on Lili Taylor.

Robert Wilkinson Castle Jr. was born in Jersey City on Aug. 29, 1929. He earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., where he was an all-American quarterback, followed by a degree from the Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven.

As a divinity student, he was assigned to work in a black parish on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The experience, he later said, helped forge his commitment to civil rights.

In the late 1960s, after leaving his pulpit in Jersey City — he had proved enough of a thorn in the diocesan side that no other parish was open to him — he moved with his family to Vermont, where he ran a general store and did social service work.

Father Castle’s first marriage, to Nancy Thomas, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Kate Betsch; three children from his first marriage, Jane, Paul and John Castle; two stepchildren, William and Emily Betsch; 10 grandchildren and step-grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

A son from his first marriage, Robert W. III, died in a swimming accident at 19. It was this that Father Castle was thinking of when he ad-libbed during a pivotal scene in “Philadelphia.” In the scene, his character and Ms. Woodward’s visit their son for what they know will be the last time.

“The line originally was ‘Good night, Son. Try to get some rest,’ ” Father Castle told The Times in 1994. “What I added was ‘I love you, Andy.’ This was very important to me. If I had been able to see my son before he died, I would have wanted to say that to him.”

Mr. Demme kept the ad-lib in the finished film.

    Robert W. Castle Jr., Outspoken Harlem Priest and Accidental Actor, Dies at 83, NYT, 6.11.2012,






The Jews of Cuyahoga County


October 29, 2012
The New York Times


CLEVELAND, OHIO — Things are getting ugly among the Jews of Cuyahoga County, with family splits and dinner invitations declined. “I have never seen the divisions this acute,” said James Ratner, an executive of the Forest City real estate group.

The pressure of a very tight presidential race whose outcome Ohio could well decide has been compounded by the Senate candidacy of a conservative Jewish Republican, Josh Mandel, who has divided loyalties among the 80,000 Jews of Greater Cleveland.

An advertisement in the Cleveland Jewish News this week, paid for by a group called Jews for Israel 2012, asked this question: “Are you willing to bet the life of the Jewish people on this president?” It questioned Barack Obama’s willingness to defend an Israel “threatened by nuclear annihilation.”

Automated calls pour into Jewish households from John Bolton, the hawkish former U.N. ambassador, in which he warns that a vote for Romney is needed to save Israel from an Iranian bomb and Islamist extremists.

Mandel, a 35-year-old ex-Marine who has raised more than $20 million through conservative backers, has appalled Ohio’s socially progressive Jews — who are still the clear majority — with an anti-abortion stance that has included calling the Indiana Senate nominee Richard Mourdock a “class act” after Mourdock said pregnancy resulting from rape was “something that God intended to happen” and life was always “a gift from God.”

Oy vey. Does all this matter? Yes it does. It is that close in the Buckeye State. Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes, is about tied, according to most polls. No Republican has won the White House without carrying Ohio. This is the swing state most likely to swing things. Conservative-backed billboards screaming “Voter fraud is a felony” have prompted the countermessage that, “Voting is a right, not a crime.” Republican intimidation meets Democratic determination.

Obama needs to win big in Cuyahoga County, which includes the strongly Democratic inner city of Cleveland, to carry the state. That is what he did in 2008, gaining 68.5 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of nearly 250,000 votes — enough to secure victory by just over 200,000 votes in Ohio. The Romney campaign reckons that if it can cut Obama’s margin in Cuyahoga to about 175,000 it will take the state.

About 80 percent of Cleveland’s Jews are believed to have voted for Obama last time. Robert Goldberg, former chairman of the United Jewish Communities (now The Jewish Federations of North America) and a Romney supporter, said he believed that number would drop to 60 percent this time. “Jews just don’t trust Obama on Israel,” he told me. “The president has no sympathy for Israel. His sympathy is for the Muslim world he knew as a child.”

If Goldberg is right about a shift, that would be significant. He argues that Obama is anti-business and anti-Israel and believes a faltering economy above all is pushing Jewish voters to change position. (Polls in Israel show Israelis strongly favoring a Romney victory.)

The case I heard in Ohio against Obama on Israel was the usual Republican hodgepodge of insinuations: The president went to Cairo but not Jerusalem, he snubbed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he reached out to Muslims but showed no love for Jews. They ignore all the defense and intelligence cooperation that led the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, to say Obama had done “more than anything that I can remember in the past” for Israeli security.

Mandel has also been playing the Israel card in pursuit of the Jewish vote, despite the fact his opponent, the Democrat incumbent Sherrod Brown, co-sponsored the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012, legislation that deepens defense cooperation.

Among those troubled by Mandel’s campaign is Austin Ratner, a novelist and the son of James Ratner. Mandel is related by marriage to the Ratner family. Austin Ratner wrote a piece this month in the Jewish Daily Forward arguing that family and tribal Jewish loyalty were misplaced in the political sphere, where reason must prevail.

He quoted his aunt, Deborah Ratner, a major Democratic fund-raiser, telling Mandel at a family gathering: “I don’t want this to be awkward, but you represent everything I’ve spent my life working against.” He also said some Democrat relatives “have supported Mandel’s campaign out of family loyalty” — a form of loyalty, he suggested, that “leads deeper into the darkness.”

The Jews of Cleveland are arguing at high volume. They are good at disputation. In this case the argument could change the course of things far beyond Cleveland.

James Ratner sent me an e-mail saying, “This may well be a case where the noise is obscuring the music.” Beneath all the shouting, he suggested, Jewish sentiment remains solidly Democratic. “In a meeting this week of 60 members of a woman’s group at Park Synagogue there was absolute unanimity behind Obama. No one was voting for Romney.”

Those Jewish women know exactly what Romney and Mandel represent: an obscurantist and invasive threat to their rights in the name of a God whose wishes these men presume to know.


You can follow Roger Cohen on Twitter or join him on Facebook.

    The Jews of Cuyahoga County, NYT, 29.10.2012,






In Texas, a Legal Battle Over Biblical Banners


October 21, 2012
The New York Times


KOUNTZE, Tex. — In a barrage of recent e-mails, telephone calls and letters to his office, Kevin Weldon has been called some of the worst things a Christian man in this predominantly Christian town can be called: un-Christian, and even anti-Christian.

“I’ve been in this business a long, long time,” said Mr. Weldon, the superintendent of the 1,300-student school district in Kountze, northeast of Houston. “People that know me know how I am. Even though I got those things, I’m going to be honest with you, this may sound very flippant, but it just went in one ear and out the other.”

Mr. Weldon, 53, is in a position that few superintendents in small-town Texas have found themselves: taking a stand on religious expression that has put him at odds with the majority of his students and his neighbors, not to mention the governor, the attorney general and, some in Kountze believe, his God.

After consulting with lawyers, Mr. Weldon banned the district’s cheerleaders from putting Bible verses on the banners they hoist at the beginning of football games, out of concern that the signs were unlawful and amounted to school-sanctioned religious expression. A group of cheerleaders and their parents sued Mr. Weldon and the district, prompting a legal battle that has outraged and inspired Christians across the country. Last week, a judge issued a temporary injunction, barring the district from prohibiting the banners for the rest of the football season while the case proceeds to trial.

Mr. Weldon, a Protestant and former football coach, has said he supports the cheerleaders and their message, but feels he must uphold the law. Though he has taken a stand that pleases the Anti-Defamation League and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, he is not their ally. Though his action upset the Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group representing the cheerleaders, he is not their opponent. He is caught somewhere in between.

“He made the decision against the popular prevailing sentiment, and he’s been reviled for it,” Mr. Weldon’s lawyer, Thomas P. Brandt, told the judge last week. “He has stood, though, solidly in favor of not what he personally wants, but what he perceives the law requires.”

Mr. Weldon has had to defend his decision even as Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and scores of students, parents and others have criticized the district’s ban on the signs and registered their dismay and disgust in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The marquee outside the First Baptist Church quoted Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than men.” Steve Stockman, a born-again Christian and former congressman running for re-election in the area, suggested that Mr. Weldon’s job was on the line.

“Banning religion is a direct assault on our founding principles,” Mr. Stockman said in a statement. “This is East Texas, not San Francisco. The superintendent can either overturn his ban on religion, or pack his bags.”

Not everyone has been so harsh. Rebekah Richardson, 17, a Kountze High School cheerleader, said: “We understand that he’s in a hard situation.”

Mr. Weldon said that over all, people in Kountze have treated him respectfully. He has attended the football games without incident, watching the Kountze Lions burst through the very banners (“But thanks be to God, which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” one read) at issue in the lawsuit. “It’s a great small town, and they’re just standing up for what they truly believe in,” he said. “You can’t fault people for that.”

In a heavily wooded part of the state called the Big Thicket, Kountze is an old-fashioned town of 2,100 with a history of religious tolerance. In the early 1990s, residents elected their first black mayor, Charles Bilal, a Muslim. The majority white, Christian voters made Mr. Bilal the first Muslim mayor in the United States. His granddaughter, Nahissaa Bilal, 17, a Christian, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Mr. Weldon is a relative newcomer here, arriving last year to lead the district, which has only four schools. With his white-haired crew-cut and burly frame, he resembled not a former coach but a former linebacker, and though his critics claim he has cowered to blue-state liberals, his office décor seemed decidedly red, with the head of the biggest deer he ever shot while hunting mounted in a corner.

The cheerleaders’ case centers on whether the banners amount to private speech protected by state and federal law, or government-sponsored speech that can be regulated and censored. Lawyers for the students argued that because the cheerleaders created the messages after school without guidance or financial assistance from administrators, their banners were private speech. District lawyers said the banners were in no way akin to someone waving a John 3:16 sign in the stands and could be regulated, because the cheerleaders were school representatives.

The case began last month, when the district received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics. The letter, written on behalf of an anonymous resident who had attended a game, called the cheerleaders’ banners unconstitutional. Mr. Weldon said he contacted lawyers for the district and for the Texas Association of School Boards. Both advised him to prohibit the signs. The advice stemmed from a Supreme Court ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, which established that prayers led by students at high school football games were unconstitutional.

“Myself and the board have said all along that we do not have a problem with the kids doing what they’re doing,” Mr. Weldon said. “We’re not hostile against any type of religion, but we also want to make sure as a school district that we’re following the law.”

In a state where courtroom battles over public expressions of Christianity are routine, the cheerleaders’ case has been unusual. In other disputes, local officials have been on the same side as state leaders, or they have taken neutral stands. In 2001, after Mr. Perry prompted criticism by bowing his head and saying “Amen” as a pastor led a prayer at an East Texas public school, the superintendent there tried to stay out of the issue. “I’m not going to question the governor,” the superintendent in Palestine, Jerry Mayo, told The Associated Press at the time.

But in Kountze, Mr. Weldon has ended up aligned, albeit reluctantly, with the out-of-state atheist group that first complained about the banners. Many in town thought the two sides would settle the lawsuit. The negotiations stalled, and the case proceeded at the Hardin County Courthouse.

Mr. Weldon had to testify, answering questions about whether he harbored a hostility toward Christianity or the Bible. He said in court, under questioning by a lawyer for the cheerleaders, David Starnes, that his directive violated a school policy that allowed students to express their religious viewpoints at nongraduation events. And Mr. Weldon had to watch while his lawyer cross-examined two nervous students, one of whom was a 16-year-old cheerleader who cried on the stand.

Afterward, Mr. Weldon sought out the two students. The defendant had a message for the plaintiffs. He told them he was proud of them.

    In Texas, a Legal Battle Over Biblical Banners, NYT, 21.10.2012,






Frank Moore Cross, Biblical Scholar, Dies at 91


October 19, 2012
The New York Times


Frank Moore Cross, an influential Harvard biblical scholar who specialized in the ancient cultures and languages that helped shape the Hebrew Bible and who played a central role in interpreting the Dead Sea Scrolls, died on Tuesday in Rochester. He was 91.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, family members said.

“When you walked into his classes, you felt you were on the frontier of knowledge in the field,” said Peter Machinist, who studied under Dr. Cross as an undergraduate at Harvard and now holds the endowed professorship there that Dr. Cross had held until his retirement in 1992. “Whatever happened in the field would come to him first, before it got published, because people wanted to know what he thought.”

Dr. Cross grew up in Birmingham, Ala., the son of a Protestant minister. After earning a divinity degree, he went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and became one of the most prominent students of William F. Albright, whose work is part of the foundation of biblical archaeological studies.

The field was shaken in 1947 after a Bedouin goatherd stumbled across ancient scrolls in a cave west of the Dead Sea. More scrolls were eventually found in other caves near the site of an ancient settlement called Qumran, and many people believed that they would reveal new insights into the Bible.

Mr. Albright and some of his students were among a small group of scholars given exclusive access to the scrolls. Dr. Cross was given responsibility for Cave No. 4, and he published his findings in “The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies” in 1958.

Mr. Albright, writing that year in The New York Times, praised his student’s work as an “authoritative survey on the bearing of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the Bible.”

“It is now demonstrated,” he wrote, “that there were many different Hebrew versions of such books as Exodus, Deuteronomy, Samuel, Kings, etc., and that the uniformity of medieval Hebrew manuscripts is chiefly the result of careful editing by Jewish rabbis in the first two centuries A.D.”

But the scrolls were a continuing source of debate. Some scholars disagreed with Dr. Cross’s interpretations — or revised them through newer archaeological work — while others were critical of him and his colleagues for not sharing their access to the scrolls and publishing them more quickly in their entirety. Some suggested that the scholars were withholding material that could be sensitive to one religious group or another. (This concern proved largely unnecessary after the documents were eventually published in their entirety.)

Criticism over the delays, led by Hershel Shanks, the founder and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, crested in the 1990s. But on the publication’s Web site, Bible History Daily, Mr. Shanks wrote on Thursday: “All this concerning the scrolls was a blip that fades into insignificance with the passage of time. Frank’s scholarly achievements have had a radiating and lasting influence.”

In 1994, Mr. Shanks published a book-length series of interviews with Dr. Cross.

“The more light we can shed on crucial moments in the history of our religious community — or on the birth of Western culture, to speak more broadly — the better,” Dr. Cross said of the scrolls in the interview. “The longer and more precise our memory is, the more civilized we are.”

Dr. Cross studied culture, religion and politics of the period in which the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was written and revised, and he traced the ways different nations and cultures had translated its early texts. He also traced the evolution of ancient script and developed expertise in dating documents by the slightest shifts in writing style.

“That we know that a particular scroll comes from 100 B.C. and not 50 A.D. is almost entirely due to the study of the scripts and their development that he worked out,” Mr. Machinist said. “That may seem like a trivial point, but if you don’t have a sense of when these texts are dated, you have no sense of their historical importance.”

Once, several colleagues said, after carbon dating confirmed dates that he had established through script analysis, Dr. Cross joked that he was happy to hear that his script studies had validated the practice of carbon dating.

Frank Moore Cross Jr. was born on July 13, 1921, in Ross, Calif. (He dropped the Jr. after his father died.) His family moved to Alabama when he was a young boy. He graduated from Maryville College in Tennessee and received a divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins.

At his death he was emeritus Hancock professor of Hebrew and other Oriental languages at Harvard, where he had supervised the doctoral work of more than 100 students.

“There are very few areas in which you do not meet with Frank Cross,” said Jack M. Sasson, a biblical scholar at Vanderbilt University, who did not study under Dr. Cross. “If you do not meet with Frank Cross, you meet with one of his students who had ideas he had launched.”

Dr. Cross is survived by his daughters, Susan Summer, Ellen Gindele and Rachel Cross, and six grandchildren. His wife of more than 60 years, the former Elizabeth Anne Showalter, died in 2009.

Dr. Cross often sequestered himself in his study at home until late into the night.

“He was very intense, and we would just kind of tiptoe by the study,” Ms. Gindele recalled. “My mother liked to say you could feel the wheels turning and not to bother him.”

    Frank Moore Cross, Biblical Scholar, Dies at 91, NYT, 19.10.2012?






Man Tied to Anti-Islam Video Held on Probation Charge


September 27, 2012
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES — The man thought to have been behind the crude anti-Islam video that set off deadly protests across the Muslim world in recent weeks was arrested Thursday for violating terms of his probation in a 2010 bank fraud case.

The man, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, was ordered held without bond during an appearance in United States District Court here Thursday evening. Suzanne H. Segal, a federal magistrate judge, called Mr. Nakoula “a flight risk and a danger to the community.” He will remain in jail until a probation-revocation hearing is scheduled.

Mr. Nakoula is widely considered to be the filmmaker responsible for “Innocence of Muslims,” an inflammatory, amateurish video that is supposedly a trailer for a full-length film.

The video depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a buffoon, a womanizer and a child molester. It was first uploaded to YouTube in June, and translated into Arabic and uploaded several more times leading up to the 11th anniversary of the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Nakoula was charged with eight probation violations, including lying to law-enforcement officers when they initially detained him for questioning, and using various aliases, which an assistant United States attorney, Robert Dugdale, said was “part of a lengthy pattern of deception.”

Federal officials have been investigating whether Mr. Nakoula was the person who posted the video on YouTube using the pseudonym Sam Bacile, a name he used during the making of the movie, according to actors and crew members. If he did post the video, he would have violated the terms of his sentencing in a conviction in a 2010 check-kiting case, which restricted his use of the Internet.

Mr. Nakoula served about a year of a 21-month prison term for orchestrating a check-kiting scheme against Wells Fargo Bank, court records show.

As part of his sentence, Mr. Nakoula was ordered to pay restitution of $794,700.

The bank fraud scheme included a twist that is probably pertinent to the current investigation: he committed the crime using a variety of aliases.

On Sept. 15, federal probation officers took Mr. Nakoula to a Los Angeles County sheriff’s station in the suburb of Cerritos, where he lives, for questioning. He wore a hat and had a white shawl around his face. He was not arrested at that time.

Mr. Nakoula has not spoken publicly since the trailer, parts of which were broadcast on Egyptian television, first set off a wave of rioting and attacks that led to the death of four Americans in Libya, including the ambassador.

On Saturday, a Pakistani cabinet minister offered a $100,000 reward for the death of the person behind the video, with the incendiary statement coming a day after violent protests paralyzed Pakistan’s largest cities, leaving at least 23 people dead.

Mr. Nakoula’s lawyer, Steve Seiden, had argued unsuccessfully that it was a dangerous for his client to be in jail where there are, presumably, Muslim inmates. “My client’s safety has been an issue for weeks,” he said.


Ian Lovett contributed reporting.

    Man Tied to Anti-Islam Video Held on Probation Charge, NYT, 27.9.2012,






Fighting Over God’s Image


September 26, 2012
The New York Times


THE murders of four Americans over an amateurish online video about Muhammad, like the attempted murder of a Danish cartoonist who in 2005 had depicted the prophet with a bomb in his turban, have left many Americans confused, angry and fearful about the rage that some Muslims feel about visual representations of their sacred figures.

The confusion stems, in part, from the ubiquity of sacred images in American culture. God, Jesus, Moses, Buddha and other holy figures are displayed in movies, cartoons and churches and on living room walls. We place them on T-shirts and bumper stickers — and even tattoo them on our skin.

But Americans have had their own history of conflict, some of it deadly, over displays of the sacred. The path toward civil debate over such representation is neither short nor easy.

The United States was settled, in part, by radical Protestant iconoclasts from Britain who considered the creation and use of sacred imagery to be a violation of the Second Commandment against graven images. The anti-Catholic colonists at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay refused to put images of Jesus in their churches and meetinghouses. They scratched out crosses in books. In the early 1740s, English officials even marched on an Indian community in western Connecticut, where they cross-examined Moravian missionaries who reportedly had a book with “the picture of our Saviour in it.”

The colonists feared Catholic infiltration from British-controlled Canada. Shortly after the Boston Tea Party, a Connecticut pastor warned that if the British succeeded, the colonists would have their Bibles taken from them and be compelled to “pray to the Virgin Mary, worship images, believe the doctrine of Purgatory, and the Pope’s infallibility.”

It was not only Protestants who opposed sacred imagery. In the Southwest, Pueblo Indians who waged war against Spanish colonizers not only burned and dismembered some crucifixes, but even defecated on them.

In the early Republic, many Americans avoided depicting Jesus or God in any form. The painter Washington Alliston spoke for many artists of the 1810s when he said, “I think his character too holy and sacred to be attempted by the pencil.” A visiting Russian diplomat, Pavel Svinin, was amazed at the prevalence of a different image: George Washington’s. “Every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home,” he wrote, “just as we have images of God’s saints.”

Only in the late 19th century did images of God and Jesus become commonplace in churches, Sunday school books, Bibles and homes. There were many forces at work: steam printing presses; new canals and railroads; and, not least, the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Catholics who brought with them an array of crucifixes, Madonnas and busts of saints. Protestants began producing their own images — often, to appeal to children — and gradually became more comfortable with holy images. In the 20th century, the United States began exporting such images, most notably Warner Sallman’s 1941 “Head of Christ,” which is one of the most reproduced images in world history.

But there was also resistance. When Hollywood first started portraying Jesus in films, one fundamentalist Christian fumed, “The picturing of the life and sufferings of our Savior by these institutions falls nothing short of blasphemy.” Vernon E. Jordan Jr., an African-American who was later president of the National Urban League and an adviser to President Bill Clinton, recalled that white audience members gasped when he played Jesus as an undergraduate at DePauw University in Indiana in the 1950s.

In fact, race has been a constant source of conflict over American depictions of Jesus. In Philadelphia in the 1930s, the black street preacher F. S. Cherry stormed into African-American churches and pointed at paintings or prints of white Christs, shouting, as one observer recounted, “Who in the hell is this? Nobody knows! They say it is Jesus. That’s a damned lie!”

During the civil rights era, black-power advocates and liberation theologians excoriated white images of the sacred. A 1967 “Declaration of Black Churchmen” demanded “the removal of all images which suggest that God is white.” As racial violence enveloped Detroit that year, African-American residents painted the white faces of Catholic icons black.

More recently, there have been uproars over the Nigerian-British painter Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” and the New York artist and photographer Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” Mr. Serrano’s image of Jesus on the crucifix, submerged in the artist’s own urine, roused a crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 1980s. Mr. Ofili’s painting of a dark-skinned Madonna with photographs of vaginas surrounding her enraged Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The mayor, who mistakenly claimed that elephant dung was smeared on the image when it in fact was used at the base to hold the painting up, tried to ban it from being displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in 1999. (One upset Christian smeared white paint over it.)

Images of the sacred haven’t caused mass violence in the United States, but they have generated intense conflict. Our ability to sustain a culture supersaturated with visual displays of the divine, largely without violence, came only after massive technological change, centuries of immigration and social movements that forced Americans to reckon with differences of race, ethnicity and religion.


Edward J. Blum, an associate professor of history at San Diego State University,

and Paul Harvey, a professor of history at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs,

are the authors of “The Color of Christ:

The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.”

    Fighting Over God’s Image, NYT, 27.9.2012,






Exploiting the Prophet


September 22, 2012
The New York Times


“PISS CHRIST,” a famous photograph partly financed by taxpayers, depicted a crucifix immersed in what the artist said was his own urine. But conservative Christians did not riot on the Washington Mall.

“The Book of Mormon,” a huge hit on Broadway, mocks the church’s beliefs as hocus-pocus. But Mormons haven’t burned down any theaters.

So why do parts of the Islamic world erupt in violence over insults to the Prophet Muhammad?

Let me try to address that indelicate question, and a related one: Should we curb the freedom to insult religions that are twitchy?

First, a few caveats. For starters, television images can magnify (and empower) crazies. In Libya, the few jihadis who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens were vastly outnumbered by the throngs of Libyan mourners who apologized afterward.

Remember also that it’s not just Muslims who periodically go berserk, but everybody — particularly in societies with large numbers of poorly educated young men. Upheavals are often more about demography than about religion: the best predictor of civil conflict is the share of a population that is aged 15 to 24. In the 19th century, when the United States brimmed with poorly educated young men, Protestants rioted against Catholics.

For much of the postwar period, it was the secular nationalists in the Middle East who were seen as the extremists, while Islam was seen as a calming influence. That’s why Israel helped nurture Hamas in Gaza.

That said, for a self-described “religion of peace,” Islam does claim a lot of lives.

In conservative Muslim countries, sensitivities sometimes seem ludicrous. I once covered a Pakistani college teacher who was imprisoned and threatened with execution for speculating that the Prophet Muhammad’s parents weren’t Muslims. (They couldn’t have been, since Islam began with him.)

I think a few things are going on. The first is that many Muslim countries lack a tradition of free speech, and see ridicule of the prophet as part of a larger narrative of the West’s invading or humiliating the Islamic world. People in these countries sometimes also have an addled view of how the United States handles blasphemy.

A Pakistani imam, Abdul Wahid Qasmi, once told me that President Bill Clinton burned to death scores of Americans for criticizing Jesus. If America can execute blasphemers, he said, why can’t Pakistan?

I challenged him, and he plucked an Urdu-language book off his shelf, thumbed through it, and began reading triumphantly about the 1993 raid on David Koresh’s cult in Waco, Tex.

More broadly, this is less about offensive videos than about a political war unfolding in the Muslim world. Extremist Muslims like Salafis see themselves as unfairly marginalized, and they hope to exploit this issue to embarrass their governments and win public support. This is a political struggle, not just a religious battle — and we’re pawns.

But it would be a mistake to back off and censor our kooks. The freedom to be an imbecile is one of our core values.

In any case, there will always be other insults. As some leading Muslims have noted, Islam has to learn to shrug them off.

“Why should we feel danger from anything?” Nasr Hamid Abu Zyad, one of the Islamic world’s greatest theologians, said before his death in 2010. “Thousands of books are written against Muhammad. Thousands of books are written against Jesus. O.K., all these thousands of books did not destroy the faith.”

A group called Muslims for Progressive Values noted a story in Islamic tradition in which Muhammad was tormented by a woman who put thorns in his path and went so far as to hurl manure at his head as he prayed. Yet Muhammad responded patiently and tolerantly. When she fell sick, he visited her home to wish her well.

For his time, Muhammad was socially progressive, and that’s a thread that reformers want to recapture. Mahmoud Salem, the Egyptian blogger better known as Sandmonkey, wrote that violent protests were “more damaging to Islam’s reputation than a thousand so-called ‘Islam-attacking films.’ ”

He suggested that Egyptians forthrightly condemn Islamic fundamentalists as “a bunch of shrill, patriarchal, misogynistic, violent extremists who are using Islam as a cover for their behavior.”

Are extremists hijacking the Arab Spring? They’re trying to, but this is just the opening chapter in a long drama. Some Eastern European countries, like Romania and Hungary, are still wobbly more than two decades after their democratic revolutions. Maybe the closest parallel to the Arab Spring is the 1998 revolution in Indonesia, where it took years for Islamic extremism to subside.

My bet is that we’ll see more turbulence in the Arab world, but that countries like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya won’t fall over a cliff. A revolution isn’t an event, but a process.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

    Exploiting the Prophet, NYT, 22.9.2012,






A 21st-Century Islam


September 21, 2012
The New York Times


LONDON — The Muslim world cannot have it both ways. It cannot place Islam at the center of political life — and in extreme cases political violence — while at the same time declaring that the religion is off-limits to contestation and ridicule.

Islam is one of the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Of them it is the youngest by several centuries and, perhaps for that reason, the most fervid and turbulent. It is also, in diverse forms, a political movement, reference and inspiration.

Politics is a rough-and-tumble game. If the emergent Islamic parties of nations in transition — like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia — are to honor the terms of democratic governance they will have to concede that they have no monopoly on truth, that the prescriptions of Islam are malleable and debatable, and that significant currents in their societies have different convictions and even faiths.

The past couple of weeks have been discouraging. Nobody expects a U.S. standard of freedom of speech to be adopted — or even fully understood — in these societies; they will set their own political and cultural frameworks inspired by a still fervent desire to escape from despotism, whether secular or theocratic, and by the central place of faith.

But the failure in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to control violent mobs of Salafis enraged by mockery in America and Europe of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad suggests an unacceptable ambivalence: The rule of law here on earth must override divine indignation.

The world has tried Islamic republics. It found them oxymoronic. As Iran illustrates, they don’t work: Republican institutions, shaped by the wishes of men and women, fall victim to the Islamic superstructure, supposedly shaped by God.

The great challenge of the Arab Spring is to prove that, as in Turkey, parties of Islamic inspiration can embrace a modern pluralism and so usher their societies from a culture of grievance and victimhood to one of creativity and agency.

Just how deep the grievances remain in the Arab world — over loss of power, economic stagnation, colonial intrusion, Western wars and Israel — has been clear in the latest eruption. Change will be slow.

But it is coming: These societies will not return to tyranny. The West has an overwhelming strategic interest in supporting transitions that offer the youth of the Arab world opportunity: Egypt now dwarfs Afghanistan in its importance to fighting Islamic extremism.

But the West will not do so by compromising its own values. The porn-grade American movie that started the unrest was pitiful. The murderous violence that followed from Cairo to Benghazi was criminal. Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, then had a strong editorial case for mocking the religious fundamentalism that produced the killing; it chose to do so through caricatures of Muhammad.

Gérard Biard, the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo, put the case well: “We’re a newspaper that respects French law. Now, if there’s a law that is different in Kabul or Riyadh, we’re not going to bother ourselves with respecting it.” Alluding to all the violence, Biard asked: “Are we supposed to not do that news?”

He is right. There are too many hypocrisies in Islam — deploring attacks on it while often casting scorn on Judaism and Christianity, claiming the mantle of peace while inspiring violence — for it to expect to be spared the cartoonist’s arrows.

The video insulting Muhammad reflected the visceral Islamophobia of its authors. Charlie Hebdo was driven by a different agenda: the refusal to be cowed by a spate of atavistic Islamist religious violence.

Still, I defend the right of the video’s authors even if I loathe what they produced. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio decision, overturned the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader who had menaced political officials with violence, saying that “the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force.” As Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Guardian, “Obviously, if the state cannot suppress speech even where it explicitly advocates violence, then it cannot suppress a video on the ground that it implicitly incites violence.”

The rich maelstrom of ideas in the United States is inextricably tied to this fundamental freedom. It cannot be compromised.

As for the new leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and the great mass of moderate Muslims, they might recall the words of the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri protesting the stolen Iranian election of 2009 — an example of God’s supposed will imposed over the will of the people:

“A characteristic of a strong and legitimate government — Islamic or not — is that it is capable of respecting all opinions, whether they support it or oppose it. This is necessary for any political system, in order to embrace all social classes and encourage them to participate in the affairs of their nation, and not dismiss and repulse them.”

Montazeri fell out with Ayatollah Khomeini because his Iranian theocracy was incapable of “respecting all opinions.” Decades on, in this Arab awakening, that challenge remains for political Islam.


You can follow Roger Cohen on Twitter or join him on Facebook.

    A 21st-Century Islam, NYT, 21.9.2012,






Mary Rose McGeady,

Nun Who Led Youth Homes,

Dies at 84


The New York Times


Sister Mary Rose McGeady, the Roman Catholic nun who resuscitated Covenant House, the nation’s largest network of shelters for homeless youngsters, in the wake of a sex abuse scandal involving its founder, died Thursday at her order’s convent in Albany. She was 84.

The cause was respiratory failure, said Kevin M. Ryan, the current president of Covenant House.

“If there’s a more important job in America today than taking care of our troubled young people, I’m certainly not aware of it,” Sister Mary Rose said when she was chosen to lead Covenant House in 1990, after the resignation of the Rev. Bruce Ritter.

Father Ritter, who had founded the organization in two cold-water flats on the Lower East Side of Manhattan 22 years earlier, stepped down after several young men, some of them former residents of Covenant House, accused him of sexual abuse. He adamantly denied the accusations. An independent investigation commissioned by the organization found that although none of the sexual allegations could be proved, enough evidence existed, including evidence of financial irregularities, to warrant Father Ritter’s dismissal. No criminal charges were brought against him.

By then, with donations nearing $80 million a year, Covenant House was providing services to 28,000 homeless young people in 11 cities across the country and in Latin America. But within a year of Father Ritter’s resignation, donations had fallen to $42 million, forcing the reduction of services throughout the network. In New York City alone, an outreach center was closed and more than 100 beds in shelters were eliminated (including a floor for youths infected with the virus that causes AIDS), as were two of the three vans that took youngsters off the streets on frigid nights.

By the time Sister Mary Rose retired in 2003, donations had climbed to nearly $130 million and new shelters had been opened in 11 cities, among them Oakland, Calif.; Anchorage; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Managua, Nicaragua. Under her direction, the organization’s hot line (1-800-999-9999) became a 24-hour service. Covenant House now provides service in 26 cities and says it reaches over 50,000 youngsters a year.

Mr. Ryan, who called Sister Mary Rose “the Mother Teresa of street kids,” said: “Come hell or high water, she was determined to clean up Covenant House. From ashes, really, she pulled Covenant House forward.”

Even as a teenager, Mary Rose McGeady was serving children. Born in Hazleton, Pa., on June 28, 1928, she was one of three children of Joseph and Catherine McGeady. The family later moved to Washington, where Mary Rose attended Immaculate Conception Academy, operated by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. As a high school student she spent every Saturday at St. Ann’s Infant Asylum.

She joined the order in 1946. “I wanted to remain part of the community,” she said. “When I told my parents, my mother cried. My father told me to give it a try, and if I did not like it I could come home.”

Sister Mary Rose graduated from Emmanuel College in Boston with a degree in sociology in 1955 and six years later received a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Fordham University. By then she had already worked with homeless and disturbed children at a child-care center in Boston and served as director of the Astor Home for Children in Rhinebeck, N.Y. She was an associate director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brooklyn when she was chosen to lead Covenant House.

She is survived by a sister, Catherine Pendleton.

When she retired in 2003, Sister Mary Rose said, “I wish I could wave a wand and mend a child’s broken heart.”

Magically or not, her efforts helped Tracy Jones-Walker, who was a teenager wandering the streets of Brooklyn, in 1990. Her family, immigrants from Guyana — including 16 brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews — lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush. After a fight with one of her sisters, said Ms. Jones-Walker, she “left the house and didn’t go back.” She ended up at the Covenant House crisis center on West 41st Street in Manhattan.

“Now I’m a senior analyst at a Wall Street firm,” she said in an interview. “Had it not been for Covenant House, I would have been lost.”

    Mary Rose McGeady, Nun Who Led Youth Homes, Dies at 84, NYT, 16.9.2012,






Defining Religious Liberty Down


July 28, 2012
The New York Times


THE words “freedom of belief” do not appear in the First Amendment. Nor do the words “freedom of worship.” Instead, the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans something that its authors called “the free exercise” of religion.

It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair. Most religious communities conceive of themselves as peoples or families, and the requirements of most faiths extend well beyond attendance at a sabbath service — encompassing charity and activism, education and missionary efforts, and other “exercises” that any guarantee of religious freedom must protect.

I cannot improve upon the way the first lady of the United States explained this issue, speaking recently to a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday,” Michelle Obama said. “It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well ... Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day.”

But Mrs. Obama’s words notwithstanding, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about this point in the Western leadership class today.

You can see this confusion at work in the Obama White House’s own Department of Health and Human Services, which created a religious exemption to its mandate requiring employers to pay for contraception, sterilization and the days-after pill that covers only churches, and treats religious hospitals, schools and charities as purely secular operations. The defenders of the H.H.S. mandate note that it protects freedom of worship, which indeed it does. But a genuine free exercise of religion, not so much.

A similar spirit was at work across the Atlantic last month, when a judge in Cologne, Germany, banned circumcision as a violation of a newborn’s human rights. Here again, defenders of the decision insisted that it didn’t trample on any Jew’s or Muslim’s freedom of belief. But of course to be an adult Jew in good standing, as The Washington Post’s Charles Lane pointed out, one must circumcise one’s son at 8 days old. So while the ruling would not technically outlaw Jewish theology or Jewish worship, it would effectively outlaw Judaism itself.

Now we have the great Chick-fil-A imbroglio, in which mayors and an alderman in several American cities threatened to prevent the delicious chicken chain from opening new outlets because its Christian president told an interviewer that he supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Their conceit seemed to be that the religious liberties afforded to congregations (no official, to my knowledge, has threatened to close down any Chicago churches) do not extend to religious businessmen. Or alternatively, it was that while a businessman may have the right to his private beliefs, the local zoning committee has veto power over how those beliefs are exercised and expressed.

I have described all these incidents as resulting from confusion about what freedom of religion actually entails. But of course every freedom has its limits. We do not allow people to exercise beliefs that require, say, forced marriage or honor killing. You can believe in the gods of 15th-century Mesoamerica, but neither Chicago values nor American ones permit the use of Aztec sacrificial altars on the South Side.

To the extent that the H.H.S. mandate, the Cologne ruling and the Chick-fil-A controversy reflect a common logic rather than a shared confusion, then, it’s a logic that regards Western monotheism’s ideas about human sexuality — all that chastity, monogamy, male-female business — as similarly incompatible with basic modern freedoms.

Like a belief that the gods want human sacrifice, these ideas are permissible if held in private. But they cannot be exercised in ways that might deny, say, employer-provided sterilizations to people who really don’t want kids. Nor can they be exercised to deny one’s offspring the kind of sexual gratification that anti-circumcision advocates claim the procedure makes impossible. They certainly cannot be exercised in ways that might make anyone uncomfortable with his or her own sexual choices or identity.

It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.

It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.

There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.

    Defining Religious Liberty Down, NYT, 28.7.2012,






Southern Baptists Set for a Notable First


June 17, 2012
The New York Times


NEW ORLEANS — The Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination born in 1845 in defense of slavery and a spiritual home to white supremacists for much of the 20th century, is poised to elect its first African-American president.

The Rev. Fred Luter Jr., 55, a New Orleans pastor who got his start preaching on the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, is expected to be the only candidate for office on Tuesday when Southern Baptists gather here for their annual meeting.

“That I can be president of the largest Protestant denomination in the country is unbelievable,” Mr. Luter said in an interview last week after one of his trademark cadenced sermons that drew “amens” from the predominantly black congregation.

His anticipated victory is being hailed as a milestone by white and black pastors alike in the convention, a grouping of 51,000 congregations with 16 million members, about a million of them black. Acutely aware of the nation’s changing demographics, the fiercely evangelical Southern Baptists have been working to draw in more black, Hispanic and Asian members, often by starting new churches in ethnically diverse urban areas in the country.

If, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said of the nation’s churches, Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America, the Southern Baptists have carried a special burden, giving added resonance to this week’s election.

“Given the history of the convention, this is absolutely stunning,” said Michael O. Emerson, an expert on race and religion at Rice University.

Mr. Luter shares the Baptists’ firm rejection of abortion and same-sex marriage, but he preaches more about personal salvation than politics. Though he never completed seminary training, he is renowned for his rapid-fire sermons filled with wordplay and hypnotic repetition.

He has also impressed convention leaders by building what had been a dying congregation, that of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, into one of the state’s largest churches — and then rebuilding it after 2005, when Hurricane Katrina flooded the church in the low-income St. Roch neighborhood and sent most of its 8,000 members fleeing to other states.

By example and through his ability to help shape the convention’s powerful missionary, policy and governing boards, Mr. Luter hopes he can give the minority recruitment goals a boost during his two-year term.

“I want to carry that torch,” he said. “When I go to evangelical conferences, I’ll be Exhibit A.”

But he is well aware that many black evangelicals remain skeptical of the Southern Baptists, preferring to remain in separate associations like the largely black National Baptist Convention U.S.A., which has 7.5 million members.

Southern Baptist leaders acknowledge having a lot to answer for. “We were a segregated, virtually all-white denomination as late as the 1960s,” said Richard Land, president of the convention’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Mr. Land is the convention’s most prominent public face, often speaking out pungently on conservative causes like opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and big government.

Mr. Land has been known for seeking racial reconciliation and was one of the authors of a resolution, adopted by the convention in 1995, that apologized for “historic acts of evil such as slavery” and for condoning “racism in our lifetime” and asked forgiveness “from our African-American brothers and sisters.”

But an episode this spring showed the lurking potential for racial misunderstandings. Many blacks were outraged when Mr. Land accused President Obama of trying to capitalize politically on the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, called the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton “race hustlers,” and suggested that racial profiling was justified.

A few pastors in the convention called for Mr. Land’s punishment or removal, and in the end he apologized and was sharply reprimanded by the church. Mr. Luter, who worked with Mr. Land on the convention’s 1995 apology, called the comments an unfortunate aberration but said he hoped Mr. Land would stay on.

Dwight McKissic Sr., pastor at the predominantly black Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Tex., is one of those who reacted sharply to Mr. Land’s remarks, although he is a harsh critic of Mr. Obama himself on social issues. Mr. McKissic is both elated by the prospect of Mr. Luter’s ascension and guarded about its ultimate meaning. “The fact that his color is not a hindrance to his election is a wonderful thing,” he said. But he added that the presidency was largely ceremonial and that he longed “for the day when a person of color is named to head” one of the powerful boards or a major seminary.

Mr. Luter became a Southern Baptist almost by accident.

He grew up poor in a largely African-American world in the Lower Ninth, raised by his mother, a seamstress.

In 1977, at the age of 21, he almost died in a motorcycle crash and was born again, promising his life to God. He spent years preaching with a megaphone in the streets, where, he said, he developed his fast-talking style as he tried to catch the attention of annoyed passers-by.

In 1986, the Franklin Avenue church had dwindled to 50 members, mostly women and children. Noah Lewis, 62, who was on the selection committee for a new pastor, said its members were not satisfied with the seminary graduates they met. Then they saw Mr. Luter preaching at a revival.

“We wanted someone with the human touch, and Fred seemed to be the one,” Mr. Lewis said. “He didn’t talk above people’s heads or tell them what to do.” Hiring him was a risk because he had no seminary training, and Southern Baptist officials took some persuading, but Mr. Luter quickly built a following and was unusually successful at attracting men to church.

The rebuilt Franklin Avenue church now has 5,000 members, and virtually all of its $6 million budget comes from member tithes and offerings, said Mr. Lewis, who is chairman of the church board.

Mr. Luter, who sees himself as a bridge builder, often delivers guest sermons at Baptist churches around the country, including those with predominantly white congregations.

His first priorities as president, Mr. Luter said, will be the traditional Baptist goals of evangelizing, serving believers and providing disaster relief. But he also pledged to use his power of appointments to get more minorities on the governing boards.

Fearing a decline if they do not broaden their appeal, the Southern Baptists have worked to attract new members from all regions and from the minority groups that make up a growing share of the population. One in five of the convention’s congregations is mainly black, Hispanic or Asian, but these include many newer, smaller churches.

The selection of Mr. Luter is a marker in a historic transition for the convention, said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “It’s a shift from institutionalized racism and resistance to the civil rights movement among the vast majority of its members,” he said, “to the eager embrace of America as it is becoming.”

    Southern Baptists Set for a Notable First, NYT, 17.6.2012,






Church Battles Efforts to Ease Sex Abuse Suits


June 14, 2012
The New York Times


While the first criminal trial of a Roman Catholic church official accused of covering up child sexual abuse has drawn national attention to Philadelphia, the church has been quietly engaged in equally consequential battles over abuse, not in courtrooms but in state legislatures around the country.

The fights concern proposals to loosen statutes of limitations, which impose deadlines on when victims can bring civil suits or prosecutors can press charges. These time limits, set state by state, have held down the number of criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits against all kinds of people accused of child abuse — not just clergy members, but also teachers, youth counselors and family members accused of incest.

Victims and their advocates in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York are pushing legislators to lengthen the limits or abolish them altogether, and to open temporary “windows” during which victims can file lawsuits no matter how long after the alleged abuse occurred.

The Catholic Church has successfully beaten back such proposals in many states, arguing that it is difficult to get reliable evidence when decades have passed and that the changes seem more aimed at bankrupting the church than easing the pain of victims.

Already reeling from about $2.5 billion spent on legal fees, settlements and prevention programs relating to child sexual abuse, the church has fought especially hard against the window laws, which it sees as an open-ended and unfair exposure for accusations from the distant past. In at least two states, Colorado and New York, the church even hired high-priced lobbying and public relations firms to supplement its own efforts. Colorado parishes handed out postcards for churchgoers to send to their representatives, while in Ohio, bishops themselves pressed legislators to water down a bill.

The outcome of these legislative battles could have far greater consequences for the prosecution of child molesters, compensation of victims and financial health of some Catholic dioceses, legal experts say, than the trial of a church official in Philadelphia, where the jury is currently deliberating.

Changing the statute of limitations “has turned out to be the primary front for child sex abuse victims,” said Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University who represents plaintiffs in sexual abuse suits.

“Even when you have an institution admitting they knew about the abuse, the perpetrator admitting that he did it, and corroborating evidence, if the statute of limitations has expired, there won’t be any justice,” she said.

The church’s arguments were forcefully made by Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, in testimony before the State Legislature in January opposing a proposal to abolish the limits in civil cases.

“How can an institution conceivably defend itself against a claim that is 40, 50 or 60 years old?” Mr. Brannigan said. “Statutes of limitation exist because witnesses die and memories fade.”

“This bill would not protect a single child,” he said, while “it would generate an enormous transfer of money in lawsuits to lawyers.”

Timing is a major factor in abuse cases because many victims are unable to talk about abuse or face their accusers until they reach their 30s, 40s or later, putting the crime beyond the reach of the law. In states where the statutes are most restrictive, like New York, the cutoff for bringing a criminal case is age 23 for most serious sexual crimes other than rape that occurred when the victim was a minor.

In more than 30 states, limits have already been lifted or significantly eased on the criminal prosecutions of some types of abuses, according to Professor Hamilton. The Supreme Court ruled that changes in criminal limits cannot be retroactive, so they will affect only recent and future crimes.

In New York, the Catholic bishops said they would support a modest increase in the age of victims in criminal or civil cases, to 28. But their lobbying, along with that of ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders, has so far halted proposals that would allow a one-year window for civil suits for abuses from the past. The bishops say the provision unfairly targets the church because public schools, the site of much abuse, and municipalities have fought successfully to be exempted.

The New Jersey proposal to abolish time limits for civil suits could pass this summer, said its sponsor in the Senate, Joseph Vitale, a Democrat of Woodbridge. The main opposition has come from the Catholic Church, he said. Mr. Brannigan of the Catholic Conference has testified at hearings, and bishops have “reached out to scores of legislators,” Mr. Vitale said, warning that an onslaught of lawsuits could bankrupt their dioceses.

California was the first state to pass a one-year “window” law to bring civil suits, in 2003, and those involved say that the legislation moved so quickly that the church barely responded. But the experience proved a cautionary tale for the church: more than 550 lawsuits flooded in.

Since then, only two states have passed similar laws: Delaware, in 2007, and Hawaii, in April. Window legislation has been defeated in Colorado, Ohio, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and New York.

Joan Fitz-Gerald, former president of the Colorado Senate, who proposed the window legislation, was an active Catholic who said she was stunned to find in church one Sunday in 2006 that the archdiocese had asked priests to raise the issue during a Mass and distribute lobbying postcards.

“It was the most brutal thing I’ve ever been through,” she said of the church campaign. “The politics, the deception, the lack of concern for not only the children in the past, but for children today.” She has since left the church.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference has spoken out strongly against a bill that would eliminate both criminal and civil statutes of limitations, but advocates still hope to win a two-year window for filing civil claims.

If that happens, “we’ll see a lot more victims come forward, and we’ll find out more about who the abusers are,” said Jetta Bernier, director of the advocacy group Massachusetts Citizens for Children.

The landmark trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn in Philadelphia, who is accused of allowing predators to remain in ministry, almost did not happen because of the statute of limitations.

A scathing grand jury report in 2005 described dozens of victims and offending priests and said that officials, including Philadelphia’s cardinal, had “excused and enabled the abuse.” But the law in place at the time of the crimes required victims to come forth by age 23. “As a result,” the report said, “these priests and officials will necessarily escape criminal prosecution.”

But victims emerged whose abuse fell within the deadline and in 2011, a new grand jury brought charges against Monsignor Lynn, who had supervised priest assignments.

Pennsylvania expanded the limits, and for crimes from 2007 on, charges will be possible up to the time that victims reach age 50. Advocates are now pushing to abolish the statute of limitations for child sex abuse and open a window for civil suits over long-past abuses. But the legislation appears stalled in the face of church opposition.

The new archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput, who led the successful campaign to defeat such a bill in Colorado, says that current restrictions exist for “sound legal reasons.”

Church Battles Efforts to Ease Sex Abuse Suits, NYT, 14.6.2012,




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