Religion Today

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Unfettered Capitalism and the United States’ Marketplace of Religion

Our pilgrim forebears came to America in 1620 for freedom of religion. They sought the ability to worship and believe according to their conscience. They were Separatists who fled the England of King James I, who had restricted religious freedom for those who did not follow his religious ideals, whether Separatists, Puritans or Catholics. 

At first, the Pilgrims and others of similar Calvinist leanings emphasized their own ability to worship as they saw fit and did not accord others the same right. But Roger Williams’ focus on each individual’s right to their own “Soul Liberty” took a different view. His perspective was that the problem was not that the government (e.g., King James) favored the wrong theological view, but that government favored any theological view at all.

In the end, Williams’ idea became the foundation of the United States’ approach to the relationship between government and religious organizations. The main point is that there should not be a relationship; according to the First Amendment, government should pass no laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The former phrase means that laws cannot give some religious group more rights than other groups, while the latter phrase indicates that laws cannot give some religious groups or individuals fewer rights than other religious groups. To the extent possible, government should pass no laws concerning religions.

While this principle has not been followed 100 percent, the United States probably has fewer laws about religion and less government involvement in regulating religious organizations than any other country.

This hands-off government approach has placed America’s religions in a free-for-all marketplace. Varieties of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Paganism and many other religions jostle each other to find a niche or establish their place in the religious scene.

This religious marketplace is quite capitalist in character. Some religious organizations compete at the top of the marketplace. Like a company seeking higher sales, they work to attract more members. Like advertisers, they loudly broadcast their views for all to see. Whether they are a large organization, like the Catholic Church, or a small group, like the followers of the anti-gay Fred Phelps, they compete for media attention to get their word out.

Other religious organizations participate in the market by finding a quiet niche. They do not want a big public presence, but simply wish to practice their faith and be left alone. And, of course, there are many approaches in between.

Competition in this religious marketplace occurs in many forms, from blatant advertising on the sides of buses to announcing meeting times on the Saturday newspaper “church page.” There are parades, social outreach through missions and soup kitchens, sponsorship of Boy Scouts and, especially, the erection of prominent buildings. Churches and their steeples have dominated the skylines and central squares of towns and villages for centuries.

The capitalistic nature of this competition does not prevent different religious groups from using non-capitalistic means to gain an edge. Recently, the quest has been to allow religious groups or individuals to deprive others of their rights. In particular, the present social debate over freedom of religion is the claim that one person’s right to believe as they wish includes the right to deprive others of their rights.

This is the claim of the Hobby Lobby case presently before the Supreme Court and the goal of laws recently passed in Arizona (where it was vetoed) and in Mississippi that allow businesses to discriminate on the basis of belief.

The capitalist character of America’s religious marketplace, then, is so free and open that nothing prevents religious groups from using non-capitalist means to try to make it less free and less equal for some. Success in this quest will eventually make religious belief and practice less free for everyone.

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St. Patrick’s Parade: Who can Celebrate?

The annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York went ahead last Monday (March 17th) just as it has for decades. Touted as America’s oldest and longest parade, nearly 200,000 people participated and perhaps a million spectators watched and cheered, most of them wearing green. The parade has no floats, just groups of people walking, from civic associations like the firemen and policemen to Irish dancers and pipe bands. They wear their uniforms or traditional costumes and proceed behind a banner identifying their organization.

This year, the parade took place without New York’s major, Bill De Blasio, and without the sponsorship of the Irish beer-maker Guinness. This is significant, for New York politicians always march in the Irish parade and Guinness has come to symbolize Ireland more than any other drink. Indeed, Guinness may be the only commercial brand immediately recognized as Irish the world over.

The reason for this decision is clear. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, the private Irish-American fraternity who put on the parade, decided to exclude openly gay participants more than two decades ago. They have retained that exclusion this year despite the increasing legal and social acceptance of gay marriage.

Both the mayor and the brewery decided that inclusion of all New Yorkers (the parade is in no way limited to Irish participants only) was paramount and that the exclusion of gay participants was blatant discrimination.

The explicit reason given for the continuing exclusion of gay marching groups is that homosexuality is against the Hibernians’ Irish Catholicism.

That is an interesting position, because the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin has been inclusive for decades, letting gays and any other group to participate. A few years ago, a gay-themed float won the float competition.

So in the end, it boils down to Catholicism. The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, like many other Christian churches and denominations, forbid homosexual practices of any sort. This is an official doctrine that goes back centuries, if not millennia.

Yet in a democracy, we also ask about the people, the individuals that make up the Catholic Church. Last year, the newly inaugurated Pope Francis authorized the first-ever official church survey of Catholic opinion on matters relating to belief, doctrine and practice.

One discovery by the Pope’s poll was that American Catholics were among the foremost supporters of gay marriage, with 54% being in favor. Other surveys observe the same phenomenon. In 2010, a Gallup poll showed that 62% of Catholics thought that homosexual relationships were “morally acceptable,” while in 2011, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found 63% of white Catholics thought same-sex marriage should be legal. Catholics favor gay rights and gay marriage more than any other religious group in this country.

So which Catholic position should the Ancient Order of Hibernians represent, that of Church doctrine or that of Church members?  It seems that the Hibernians have decided to enforce Catholic doctrine on their parade, rather than listen to the people of the Church to which they belong.

This places the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the odd position of allowing non-Catholics and non-Irish to march as themselves, but excluding Irish Catholic gays.

Yet when CBS asked Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who presides over the Catholic diocese in New York, for his view on the matter, he responded by saying, “I know that there are thousands and thousands of gay people marching in this parade….And I’m glad they are.” Perhaps next year they will be able to publically say so.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Freedom of Religion and Gay Marriage

Poll results released Tuesday indicate that 50 percent of American citizens think that the United States’ Constitution guarantees gay couples the right to marry. The poll, conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News, shows that Americans are increasingly accepting the logic laid out by the Supreme Court in the June 26, 2013, decision ruling unconstitutional the ban on gay marriage found in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Lower courts around the country, from Utah to Oklahoma to Virginia, also have adopted the Supreme Court’s logic. These courts have held that state bans on gay marriage and its recognition, like the federal ban, are unconstitutional.
These rulings have been based on the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. That amendment prevents states from passing laws treating some classes of citizens differently from others. The 14th Amendment holds that a state may not “deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.” Its intent was to prevent Southern states from passing laws that deprived black citizens of rights, such as the right to own property or to enter into contracts.
There has been a lot of reaction to the Supreme Court’s striking down of DOMA, but it is interesting to note that nearly all of the negative reaction has been of a religious nature. Whether in public comments or in legal briefs, the arguments against allowing homosexual marriage have nearly all been based on appeals to religious scripture or religious theology. Protestant perspectives have largely been Bible-based, while remarks by Catholic Church officials have been based more on theology. (Note that many religious groups perform, permit or are in favor of gay marriage.)
The acute interest by different branches of Christianity in restricting marriage to one man and one woman raises the question of whether the government enforcement of heterosexual marriage violates the constitution. Do these state laws on marriage violate the First Amendment restriction against the establishment of religion?
The First Amendment says that laws cannot be made “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The argument could be made that laws prohibiting gay marriage violate a couple’s “free exercise” of religion.
To determine whether a law violates the freedom of religion clause, courts devised the Lemon Test. A law must pass all three components of it to be valid. First, does the law have a secular purpose? Second, is the primary effect either to advance religion or to inhibit religion? Third, does the law foster an excessive governmental entanglement with religion? If the study of a law results is a “no” to the first question or “yes” to the second or third, then that law is unconstitutional.
In the months since the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA, it has become more and more clear that the main arguments in favor of restricting marriage to heterosexual couples are religious ones. In that light, the present laws not only “entangle” the government in enforcing a religious belief; they also set up the government as the primary enforcer of a religious belief as the sole practice allowed.
This is clearly “excessive entanglement” and violates the third Lemon Test. We as a society may not have realized this before now, but the debate on the question of homosexual marriage since June 2013 has made it clear.
At this point in time, any Supreme Court ruling against gay marriage would violate the second standard of the Lemon Test. It would promote the religious standard for marriage over that of any other standard. This would violate the second of the Lemon Tests. It would constitute government advancement of religious interests.
So, even though marriage law originally was designed with a secular intent -- to have one standard for all marriages in the United States, whether religious or not -- it is now apparent that the standard that was set violates the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
Despite -- no, because of -- the strong support of churches and other religious institutions for permitting only heterosexual marriage, it is now clear in American society that the restrictions against gay marriage violate our guarantee of religious freedom.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Plain Cathedrals

I often visit religious buildings and sacred sites when I travel. On a recent trip to England, I toured the cathedrals at Canterbury and Durham. Canterbury Cathedral has been the premiere cathedral of the English church since the 12th century and the center of the Anglican Church since its founding in the 16th century. Durham may be the most picturesque cathedral in Britain; situated atop a hill in a bend on the river Wear, it dominates the surrounding countryside.
The exterior of each cathedral impresses the viewer with its majesty and the imperial character of its architecture. But upon entering, one is struck with a sense of emptiness. The interiors are quite plain, emphasizing the soaring architecture, but seemingly without further decoration. This is because the present decoration of these buildings results from the transformation of English Christianity from Catholic to Protestant.
The cathedrals of Canterbury and Durham were built about the same time. The present Canterbury cathedral was erected between 1067 and 1077. Durham’s cathedral was begun in 1093 and completed over the next 40 years. Both cathedrals formed the center of a monastery and both contain the tomb of a saint. They, thus, became important pilgrimage destinations. St. Thomas Beckett lies at Canterbury and St. Cuthbert at Durham.
As monastery, pilgrimage center, bishop’s seat and place of worship for the community, each cathedral received a great deal of decoration in the decades and centuries after their construction. Their current plainness is not reflective of their early history.
While we know little about these cathedrals’ furnishings, a comparison with cathedrals that still retain their medieval character is suggestive. The basilicas of Italy, for example, remain ornate. The walls and ceilings of the older basilicas in Rome, for example, are decorated with statuary, carvings and paintings; the Bergamo basilica is covered with paintings and woven tapestries, while the interior of Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica is covered with gold mosaics from floor to ceiling. All of these cathedrals have extensive collections of silver and gold candlesticks, offering plates and other liturgical items --often encrusted with valuable jewels.
While it is unlikely there was much gold artwork at Canterbury and Durham, it is likely that they had many paintings, statuary and tapestries, along with many valuable liturgical utensils. In Durham, there are a few shadowy remains of artistic scenes on the wall, indicating it was once covered with large, colorful murals. So, rather than being plain and empty in their early centuries, the Cathedrals of Canterbury and Durham were crowded with artistic and religious items serving the needs of the cathedrals’ varied constituencies.
So, how did these cathedrals become so plain?
In the 1520s, King Henry VIII could not get an heir, and so he asked the Pope to annul his marriage so that he could (hopefully) marry a more fertile woman. The Pope refused. In response, Henry withdrew his country from the Catholic Church in 1534 and created the Church of England, with himself as head. By 1536, Henry realized the enormous wealth the church controlled and began to appropriate it for the crown. In 1538, he ordered St. Thomas’ shrine in Canterbury destroyed and its vast hoard of treasure and gifts confiscated. In 1539, both Canterbury and Durham monasteries, and their cathedrals, were closed. The cathedrals were reestablished in 1541.
Henry’s actions began the despoliation of the two cathedrals and, by the end of the 16th century, most of their medieval furnishings were gone. Anything that remained at Durham into the 17th century was destroyed in 1650 when the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell used the cathedral as a prison for 3,000 Scottish soldiers. Other cathedrals and monasteries across England and Wales were treated similarly.
Although the treatment of these monasteries and cathedrals in Henry’s time, and afterward, was essentially looting, the resulting plain look of the cathedrals fit well with the growing influence of Puritan theology in the now-Protestant Church of England. Puritans desired to “purify” the English church of what they considered to be the mistakes inherited from the Catholic Church. One of these mistakes was the widespread use of art in places of worship, which made them seem “idolatrous,” the Puritans believed. So, once the cathedrals and churches became plain, they were left that way until modern times.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Time: What We Really Believe In

We believe some things that go so deep into our soul and shape our lives so totally that we are not even aware of them. These beliefs are so accepted and so widespread that questioning them would be as unthinkable as questioning the difference between down and up.
Belief is often associated with religion, but these remarks do not refer to religious dogmas, whether Christianity’s focus on Jesus’ offer of salvation, or conservative views that marriage is between a man and a woman, a belief held across many religions.
No, I refer to something even more fundamental, namely, our belief in time and the way it is organized. Every day is divided into 24 hours, each hour consists of 60 minutes and each minute comprises 60 seconds. Every country in the world organizes time this way, not just those in the Americas and Europe.
All of us use timepieces, such as alarm clocks and watches. Our cell phones display the time on their main screens. Time is the same everywhere, tied into a system of time-keeping that provides the correct time for any location around the world. True, there are local differences, but those differences are defined in terms of the one international system of time.
Furthermore, we organize the activities of our lives on this system of time. We wake up, go to school or work, have meals, watch TV and travel according to this pervasive organization of time. So, from shared international time down to the everyday lives of each of us, we all assume and participate in the same belief in time.
It was not always this way.
Early medieval Europe practiced a notion of time passed down for centuries. Monasteries took the lead in tracking the passage of time and marking it. The “hour” indicated a time for offering prayer, for monks to gather and worship God.
But, the “hour” did not consist of 60 minutes; it was not even a fixed length of time. Nor was a “day.”
The term “day” referred to daylight, and was divided into quarters by three “hours:” the third, sixth and ninth hours.
As the length of the day lengthened and shortened, so did the length of the hours. Around the Mediterranean Sea, which is fairly close to the equator, this did not cause much change. But in Europe, the further north one went, the more the hour’s length changed as the seasons passed. The daily passage of time was thus measured by nature, but the purpose of measurement was for prayer.
In the early Middle Ages, clocks as we know them had not yet been invented. Elaborate mechanisms using water or sand rang bells at the key hours to gather the faithful to prayer. There were no clock faces. Time measurement was heard, not seen.
The mechanical clock measuring equal amounts of time was apparently invented in the 13th century. The profession of clock maker is known by the end of the 1200s, and public clocks with faces and hands were installed on the towers of European city halls in the 14th century.
Such cities became a cacophony of bells, with the monasteries and churches ringing the old nature-based time and the city halls ringing the new time of equal measurement. Today, we say “o’clock,” as in three o’clock, which is a shortening of the phrase “of the clock.” It was said to indicate which measurement of time one was using, that is, the new “clock time” rather than the Church’s time.
Why did equal hours and equal measurement of time become so pervasive? Because of employment and loans. Employers needed a consistent length of hour to know how much their employees worked and so how much to pay them. Banks and money-lenders needed dependable and equal measurements of time to determine the length of a loan and, thus, work out how much interest should be charged.
In the end, the needs of industry and finance for equal measurement of time overcame the church’s nature-based time-keeping for prayer. Eventually, the church adopted the business world’s concept of time and, so, it became the fundamental and unquestioned way we organize our lives.
Note: This column draws on the research in Jo Ellen Barnett’s book, “Time’s Pendulum” (1998).

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ariel Sharon: Israel’s Security-Maker


Ariel Sharon, at the time prime minister of Israel, suffered a stroke and went into a coma eight years ago this month. He died two weeks ago without ever regaining consciousness. I wrote the following column in 2006 shortly after he entered a coma. The observation is worth repeating. Only the last paragraph is significantly changed.
Throughout his long military and political career, Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon had a one-track mind. He has wanted the people of Israel to live normal, placid lives, lives without the fear (and reality) of suicide bombers, random murders, kidnappings, rocket shellings, military invasion and other violent acts. As a soldier, when he rose through the ranks to become a general, he fought to protect his fellow countrymen from outside invaders. As a politician, whether on the back-benches of the Likud Party or in the office of prime minister, he supported actions he believed would strengthen Israel militarily and weaken its enemies. At all times, he focused like a lightning bolt on Israel’s security. His single-mindedness about this one concern explains nearly all key decisions of his military and political career.
Despite the accolades since his collapse from a massive stroke in January 2006, and now his death, Ariel Sharon was not a peacemaker. He never developed policies for making peace with the Palestinians. Although he paid lip service to the Bush administration’s “Roadmap for Peace,” he met none of its deadlines, undertook none of its confidence-building measures, and participated in none of its intended negotiations. His courageous withdrawal of the Israeli army and civilian settlements from the Gaza Strip during the summer of 2005 was done for security reasons, not to bring about peace.
Sharon acted on a insight that no previous Israeli prime minister had credited: namely, that peace negotiations -- even successful ones -- brought few benefits for Israel. They certainly did not bring security. The peace with Egypt was a “Cold Peace”; it brought only slight cooperation and no friendship. The same was true for the peace with Jordan. The Oslo Peace Accords from the early 1990s turned out to be empty promises with no lasting solutions. During the same period, relationships between Israel and the Palestinians deteriorated, terrorist acts against Israelis increased, and law and order in the occupied territories broke down (due in part to Israeli military operations, to be sure). Security actually worsened.
So rather than try to provide security through peace agreements, Prime Minister Sharon decided to act to achieve security as his primary goal. If peace came, that would be good as well.  The key to security in his mind was the separation of the two parties to the conflict. Sharon did not negotiate a separation; he simply imposed one unilaterally, forcing it on both the Palestinians and his own political party. In the Gaza Strip, Sharon simply withdrew all Israelis, both civilian and military. This left the Palestinians to fend for themselves, by themselves, in their own territory. For the West Bank, Sharon decided to build a security wall all along its borders. As the wall went up, it became clear that it constituted a de facto border, imposed without any consultation or negotiation.
Ariel Sharon’s main strength as prime minister was that he had a workable plan. It could stop the suicide bombers and, most importantly, it could be implemented because Sharon would simply impose it. It was not subject to the incessant infighting that characterizes Israeli politics, and it was not dependent on the Palestinians who, after the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, had shown themselves to be unable to agree with the Israelis on anything of significance. It gave hope to a hopeless situation because it broke the logjam that had been in place since the assassination of Prime Minister Israel Rabin.
Since Sharon’s incapacitation, no significant movement toward peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has taken place. While there are a number of reasons for this, a key one is that the security that Sharon imposed has reduced the immediate threat to Israel so that peace negotiations can essentially be ignored. The wall separating Israel from the West Bank has essentially reduced terrorist attacks in Israel to zero. When terrorists in the Gaza Strip shell nearby Israeli territory, a short and sharp invasion, followed by withdrawal, ends it.
While Sharon might have made peace as prime minister, his coma prevented him. And no other prime minister since then has had the need, let alone the courage and the surety, to negotiate peace.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Prophesying 2014

The start of January has brought the usual rash of predictions for the new year. Guests on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News tell us that “2014 will be the year of (fill in the blank).” Newspapers, magazines and Internet blogs predict everything from the success of sports teams to this year’s growing season to the state of unemployment. Fashion trends feature heavily, and don’t forget the predictions of psychics in the grocery store scandal papers.
Will any of these predictions come true? Well, perhaps. Some conjectures may be fulfilled, but more by chance than by actual knowledge of the future. Just as any dart that hits a dart board scores at least a point -- if a subject receives lots of different predictions -- one of them may be correct.
Let’s face it, most predictions are just wishful thinking. They are pronouncements that this year my, or my group’s biggest desire will happen. Republicans predict they will take over the Senate, for example, while Democrats project they will regain the House of Representatives.
A few predictions derive from the study of information. Their proponents look at information about trends, often found in government statistics or polling results. They then analyze them in terms of known patterns, and predict whether a trend will continue or change. Thoughtful forecasts of increasing (or decreasing) employment exemplify this approach.
Such prognostications have a higher probability of accuracy, but they still suffer from looking into the future, which no one has ever seen. Unexpected events can easily ruin such forecasts. An expected continuation of economic success can be stymied by an oil embargo, a drop in electricity availability or a shortage of supplies brought on by extreme weather. Just think of the cold, snow and wind of recent days, which not only made driving difficult but grounded thousands of flights.
Predicting the future is not limited to the modern world. Forecasts and prophecies are known throughout human history. The most familiar to us may be those found in the Old Testament. Even the New Testament claims Jesus was predicted by Isaiah, Micah and other Old Testament prophets.
Perhaps a look at Old Testament prophets might give some insight on telling the future in our own time.
The Bible frequently distinguishes between true and false prophets. It approves those who tell the future accurately and disapproves of those whose predictions fail. And there are many more of the latter than the former.
In 1 Kings 22, more than 400 prophets told the kings of Israel and Judah that if they attacked the nation of Aram, they would be successful. Just one prophet, Micaiah, foretold their defeat. Micaiah was right. So, most prophets in ancient Israel were false prophets.
What was the difference between the two types? The Old Testament presents prophets as having a direct link to God and clearly receiving their predictions from Him. So, they deliver God’s message.
Can anyone else tell the difference between God’s chosen prophets and false prophets at the time of the prediction? No. Even in Scripture, the mark of a true prophet is whether their prophecy comes true. So, true prophets could be identified only in hindsight.
And, given the total number of prophets, true prophets were scarce: only a couple dozen were known over hundreds of years.
It is important to note that prophets did not merely predict. They urged others to act in particular ways. Old Testament prophets spoke to the powerful, usually to kings, but also to generals or high priests. They usually addressed political or religious concerns of the day. They encouraged action: attack or don’t attack, don’t make an alliance with that nation, don’t worship other gods. Sometimes kings followed the advice; sometimes they did not to their detriment.
Do we have prophets today? Yes. We call them pundits. Pundits regularly prophesy, usually about the actions and decisions of powerful people. They attempt to predict the future and sometimes urge action to improve it.
Like the prophets of antiquity, there are lots of them. And they all look the same: there is no way of separating accurate predictions from the false ones ahead of time. Only with hindsight can we determine who spoke true.
So, the predictions about 2014? Don’t worry. Who knows the future?

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Why there is no Christ in Christmas

(The Christmas column)
When you think about it, it really is odd how rarely Jesus Christ is part of popular Christmas celebrations. Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, gift-giving, feasting, lights, decorations, snow, Christmas trees and even Scrooge feature heavily. But none of this portrays the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus, the child who Christians believe will later become humanity’s savior.
To be sure, if you attend church, you will participate in religious celebrations of Christ’s coming; Mary’s experience with pregnancy and birth; Joseph’s patient understanding; as well as the visits of the shepherds and the wise men. And don’t forget the Nativity pageant performed by the Sunday school children.
But, if it was not for the manger displays nestled between the flashing-lights of Santa’s sleigh and the twice-life-size blow-up snowman in the seasonal panorama on the courthouse lawn, Christian themes would be totally absent from American popular culture’s celebration of Christmas.
Consider our video entertainment. Few (any?) made-for-TV shows or movies feature Jesus’ birth. Feature movies are just as bad. Take a look at the lists of top five Christmas films -- or top 10 or top 15. No movies featuring Christianity’s story appear.
Even “Nativity Story” (2006), a well-done major-release film about Mary’s pregnancy, Bethlehem journey and ensuing birth, has dropped from view. If the supposed market for Christian-themed films exists for Christmas movies, it is off the radar.
Why is Christ absent from Christmas? The film “Love, Actually” points to the answer. This 2003 British film has recently taken on new life as a favorite Christmas film, appearing regularly in lists of top 10 Christmas films. It features vignettes of eight quite-different “couples” and their relationships in the run-up to Christmas.
The film has no Santa or snow themes, surprisingly, and the only gift-giving has negative outcomes. But neither does Christianity feature. The Nativity pageant at the film’s climax includes lobsters and an octopus, as well as a bluesy Christmas song with full instrumental backup. Neither religious nor non-religious motifs get more than a passing glance.
Instead, “Love, Actually” focuses on family, family relationships and family-like friendships. The older couple has difficulties (forgiven in the end) but the love of their children comes through. The storyline featuring the 10-year-old boy chasing the girl spends most of its time on the support of his divorced father.
Other couples’ plots feature romance, both serious and silly, some heading straight to marriage proposals, while others go less far. The aging, single rocker realizes his closest relationship is with his single, longtime manager.
In the end, what is important in “Love, Actually” are the human relationships, whether portrayed as family, romance or friendship. The links among human beings, whether long-established or just beginning, provide the film’s climax and its focus of celebration.
Many Christmas films share this emphasis, from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas” from “White Christmas” to “The Santa Clause,” the many variations on “The Christmas Carol” and, of course, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
If our popular-culture Christmas entertainment themes emphasize family, what does that reveal about the meaning of Christmas? It shows our Christmas celebrations are about us, we human beings and the central element of our lives. While we may need food, shelter and clothing for physical survival, we need relationships with other people to truly live. It is not the body’s needs that make us human, but our emotional ties to other people.
So, while Christianity’s Christmas may be about God and the gift of his Son, American culture’s Christmas is about ourselves and the gift we humans give to each other, namely, our love. That love may be imperfect and subject to all our human foibles, but it ties us together and provides for the foundations of our lives. This is celebrated by non-Christians, Christians and everyone in between.
Is it selfish to celebrate human love and relationships at Christmas? No, for relationships are about what we do for other people. To celebrate that, one day a year, recognizes what we do for each other every day of the year. “Christ” is absent from our cultural Christmas because it emphasizes humanity rather than divinity.
Flesher is director of the University of Wyoming’s Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the web at To comment on this column, visit

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Are Corporations Believers?

When Mitt Romney uttered the now famous phrase, “Corporations are people, too” back in 2011, he merely stated a fact. The American legal system classifies corporations as “persons” for the purposes of many laws, such as owning property, bringing a legal suit or being sued. This status does not extend to all laws and rights, however -- a corporation cannot vote in an election or get married, for instance.
The Supreme Court of the United States has just decided it will hear a case to determine whether corporations should be considered legal persons for the purposes of the free “exercise of religion,” according to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The case concerns the company Hobby Lobby, owned by David Green and his family, whose religious convictions have impelled them to request an exemption from the portion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), often called Obamacare, that requires the company to provide a health care insurance policy for its employees that includes certain kinds of birth control to which they are religiously opposed.
This case from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals pits two claimed rights against each other. Does Hobby Lobby have the right not to pay for health procedures that violate its religious beliefs? Or, do the company’s employees have a right to the same health-care benefits enjoyed by other U.S. citizens?
Look at the first question in the previous paragraph. It does not make sense. Can a corporation have “religious beliefs?” Can it “exercise” religion? Not really. A corporation cannot attain salvation. It cannot be given eternal life, whether in heaven or in hell. It cannot pray, take communion or even join a church. If a corporation were Buddhist, could it achieve enlightenment? The mere idea is absurd.
To be sure, a company’s owners, board members and even employees can do those things. They can “associate” or even “incorporate,” to use the legal terminology, and do them together or help other people do them. But the corporate entity itself does not “exercise” religion in these ways.
The 10th Circuit argued that the corporation exercised religious belief by proselytizing: “purchasing hundreds of newspaper ads to ‘know Jesus as Lord and Savior.’” This logic is hard to follow. A company cannot be saved and it cannot achieve eternal life, but it exercises religion because it advertises? Sounds more like sales than proselytization.
A more accurate way to characterize the interaction of corporations and religion is that they are a tool. Companies are property that can be used for their owners’ purposes. Hobby Lobby, the company, was used as a tool to design and pay for advertisements. Should a tool be given the ability to deny American citizens their right to equal health care?
Well, perhaps. American law has long understood that property rights give an owner power over other persons. People are free to associate with whomever they wish, as long as they do not do it on someone else’s land. Rights of free speech and freedom to assemble that citizens exercise at the courthouse or in a downtown public park, for example, can be restricted in a shopping mall if the owners object.
In a similar vein, then, if the owners of Hobby Lobby object to certain kinds of health care procedures, on deep and sincere religious grounds, they should be able to use their property rights in the corporation to deny their employees access to those procedures. Right?
This is the wrong legal analogy.
A better one comes from tax law. Citizens may disagree with actions of the government. When the United States declares war, for instance, those opposed to the war might wish to disassociate themselves from it by refusing to pay taxes, or at least the percentage of their taxes that would pay for the war. This approach, however morally justified, has been declared illegal. So, if people cannot pick and choose which taxes they pay, then corporations should not be able to pick and choose which health care procedures they will insure.
In pilgrim Massachusetts, the Puritan fathers thought their religious beliefs permitted them to define the rights of the people in the colony. When the Bill of Rights was adopted, the United States rejected that position. If the Puritans should not have restricted people’s rights, why should a corporation?

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thanksgiving at Plymouth: The Christmas Substitute (or, You Can’t Stop a Good Party)

The celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in late November was not enacted until the 1870s. The official reason was to commemorate the landing at Plymouth of the nation’s Puritan forefathers and foremothers. The holiday’s national designation stemmed from two forces. The first was the unceasing will of author Sarah Josepha Hale, who spent 40 years of her adult life campaigning for the declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
The second was the Civil War and its aftermath. Thanksgiving celebrates the American nation and the country’s citizens’ unity within it and subordination to it. So, it is not surprising that Abraham Lincoln issued the first national proclamation for its observance and that his successors, encouraged by Hale, instituted the national date of a Thursday in late November.
Before Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday, states held their own observances on a variety of dates under different names. As the location of the Pilgrims’ landing, Massachusetts commemorated the first arrival of the Puritans on the Mayflower at the site of Plymouth Rock, which they identified as Dec. 22.
In the town of Plymouth itself, public celebrations began to take place in 1798, and accounts of celebrations over the next 25 years appear in the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 17. 
Plymouth’s observances contained three main parts: a religious ceremony that included a procession around the town and a sermon or “oration”; a large dinner followed by the drinking of numerous toasts to leaders past and present; and a festive ball filled with dancing and merriment. This last item is usually accompanied by thanks to the town’s women for organizing such an enjoyable evening.
Toasts feature prominently in the local news reports, which often list them. The 1798 dinner features 29 separate toasts. Unsurprisingly, later reports reveal worries about public drunkenness.
Plymouth’s annual observance of the “Pilgrim Anniversary” took place just three days before the traditional date of Christmas, Dec. 25. True to their Puritan heritage, most people in Massachusetts during the 18th and early 19th centuries did not celebrate Christmas.
On Dec. 25, shops were open their normal hours, children attended school and daily life continued as normal. Merrymakers often were prosecuted for disturbing the peace. Massachusetts continued this treatment of Christmas until well after the Civil War.
Puritans disliked Christmas intensely. It was not a biblically ordained celebration. Nowhere in scripture appears any encouragement for a celebration of Jesus’ birth. When the Reformation took place, many Protestants saw Christmas (and Easter) as part of Catholicism’s “pagan corruption” of Christianity and removed them. American Puritans held to this view long after most other Protestants abandoned it.
Perhaps more importantly, Puritans disapproved of the rowdiness, drunkenness and inappropriate actions that accompanied Christmas celebrations of the time. They believed the celebration of the Savior’s birth, who was God’s Son, should not be a time for encouraging irreligious behavior.
From the 1880s onward, despite changing attitudes in Massachusetts, American Christmas stories and poems decry and ridicule this dour Puritan denial of Christmas and its celebratory joy and festivities.
The stories usually imply and even state outright that the rejection of joyous activity on Christmas day is typical of daily life in New England: no one ever smiles; children are quiet and subdued; there is no pleasure in living; happiness is never expressed.
Such tales overlook the festivities of the Pilgrim festivals just three days before. Celebrating the foundation of America as a nation, these revelries are secular (despite occasional religious overtones). So drunkenness, and loud and exciting activities like dancing, do not offend religious sensibilities, because they do not take place on a religious holiday.
The people of Plymouth do not shun merriment; they don’t even shun it in late December. They simply avoid associating it with a day which their puritan heritage links to “pagan worship.” In many ways, they exemplify what is happening in Boston and other Massachusetts towns and cities. And, it should be noted, they engaged in the much despised activities that caused their Puritan forefathers to reject Christmas.
Plymouth’s early celebrations of what later became Thanksgiving, then, gave them a day of celebration that they could enjoy at the same time the rest of the country was celebrating Christmas. Their secular observance of the nation’s founding provided a substitute for Christmas religious festivities.

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