Religion Today

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

America among Muslims and Christians: After 1776

When America was a colony, it was heavily involved in shipping and foreign trade. Britain garnered the lion’s share of American goods but, today, every school child learns about the slave-sugar-rum triangle with the Caribbean and African nations. It is less well-known that a significant number of American merchants plied the waters of the Mediterranean, trading with many nations and cities on that sea.
The Declaration of Independence in 1776 brought home an overlooked truth. When it was a British colony, American shipping trade had been protected by the might of the British Navy, which dominated the seas at that time. Now that it was independent, America had no such protection. Indeed, it had no navy at all. This fact was not lost on the Barbary Pirates of the North African coast. They preyed on American shipping with impunity, taking captives, demanding ransom and stealing American goods.  They even sailed into the Atlantic Ocean and interfered with American trade with Western Europe.
The problem arose from the religiopolitical situation of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. The empire was based in Istanbul, in modern-day Turkey, which nominally controlled the countries along the northeastern, eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, from Greece clockwise around to Algiers. Unfortunately, the Ottoman Empire was decaying and some North African leaders had carved out independent states under the Ottoman umbrella. Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli were ruled by pashas who had created their kingdoms by force, and they continued to use force -- piracy to be specific -- as a tool of state to earn their countries revenue.
Although the Barbary kingdoms targeted Americans, the Ottomans themselves held America in great esteem. At a time when the British, Russians and Austrians were pressuring the Empire, and Napoleon even had the temerity to invade Egypt and Syria, Sultan Selim III was impressed when the ship George Washington sailed into Istanbul harbor in 1800, representing the one nation in the world that had thrown off European over-lordship.
If divisions in the Muslim Mediterranean caused America’s pirate problem, then divisions in Christian Europe hindered the solution. France had just sided with America against Britain in the War of Independence, as had the Netherlands and Spain. But, their alliance with the nascent America did not lead to alliances at home. Rather than confront the Barbary Pirates, each nation paid them an annual tribute to leave their ships alone.
The problem was that this did not work for America. When it offered tribute or tried to ransom a captured ship, Algiers or Tripoli would simply seize another ship and demand another higher ransom. Since America had no navy, it could not enforce ransom or tribute agreements. The European nations all had navies. Even though some were small, they were large enough to keep tribute and ransom demands in check and could, in theory, at least launch an attack on Tunis or Tripoli if ship attacks got out of hand. Since America had no navy, it was at the mercy of the Barbary kingdoms.
At first, America tried diplomacy. In the 1780s, they suggested an alliance with the French, the Dutch and other nations with smaller navies to create a force to rid the Mediterranean of the pirates. Although some thought this was a good idea, no nation volunteered the use of its ships.
In the end, it took the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which formally created the United States of America, to lay the conditions for the creation of the U.S. Navy. And, it was not until the end of the second war against the British, the War of 1812, that American naval power was sufficient to put down the state-sponsored activities of the Barbary Pirates. On June 1815, 10 American warships entered the Algerian harbor. The Pasha appealed to the British, who gave him no help. So, he accepted the terms of Admiral Stephen Decatur, which included payment of compensation to the USA. Tunis and Tripoli followed suit.
America solved its pirate problem. American merchants were once again free to trade on the open seas. And the nation had created a navy. Although Americans today think that involvement with Islamic countries is new, it is as old as the nation itself.
This essay is indebted to Michael B. Oren’s book, titled “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present” (New York: Norton, 2007).

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Wednesday, August 08, 2018

King Herod: The Economic Power of Government Spending

King Herod the Great has a bad reputation.
He went insane during the last decade of his life and, when the madness took him, he killed people. His victims included his favorite wife, several sons and the babies of Bethlehem, as Matthew’s Gospel relates.
If we can set aside these moral failings, difficult as it may be, we discover that, before his illness, Herod was a brilliant economist whose strategic investments in his country raised Judea’s living standards and enriched the kingdom so much that he twice reduced taxes.
Economic activity requires investment of either labor or capital. Most people do not have capital, so they invest their labor -- they “work.” In antiquity, few people had capital. The “one percent” (i.e., royalty and nobles) owned an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of the wealth. The main use of wealth was to buy land and slaves to farm it -- the ancient equivalent of an off-shore bank account. This gave a slow but steady income on which to build lavish lifestyles.
As head of state, Herod not only owned lots of land, but the kingdom’s tax revenue came to him as well. He was not merely a head of state; he was the state. However, instead of buying more land, he invested it in projects that employed people.
When the Romans appointed Herod king in 40 B.C., the country had suffered 25 years of civil war and a Roman invasion. His first task as king was to rid the country of a Parthian army that had invaded from the east in support of the last contender for the throne. This took two years of fighting to accomplish.
Once in control of his country, Herod first rebuilt the line of forts protecting against eastern invasion. These spread from Alexandrium in the north to Masada in the south.
He learned a key economic principle from this project. If you pay construction crews, they spend their money buying food and goods to live on. That sends money to the farmers, craftsmen and other people who produce the necessities of life. They, in turn, spend it on their livelihood and so on. Investment in employment causes money to circulate, and employed people spend their time working instead of rioting.
So, Herod continued investing. He began with Jerusalem. Since he was an authoritarian despot, he first built himself a large palace. But then he set about rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, constructing an aqueduct to bring in water and, most importantly, he expanded and rebuilt the Temple of God in such a lavish style that it became a major pilgrimage destination.
Herod built and rebuilt other cities. Samaria, Baneas and Jericho were all reconstructed and expanded. He built additional palaces at Herodium, Masada and Caesarea. He settled retired soldiers in new towns that needed building and whose hinterland needed clearing. By paying the builders and suppliers, Herod generated significant economic activity that, in turn, circulated wealth that, in turn, increased his tax income.
King Herod also knew international trade generated wealth, in part, through boosted economic activity and, in part, through duties and other taxes. His problem was that the Romans had granted independence to Judea’s coastal trading ports; Herod had to pay them import duties!
So, Herod built his own port, Caesarea. He had his engineers construct the largest harbor in the eastern Mediterranean, larger than Alexandria in Egypt and larger than any harbor in Greece. This not only enabled him to control (i.e., tax) trade in and out of Judea, but he also built trading outposts around the Mediterranean. These became bases for trade to Judea and Herod’s new port.
Trade also went across Judea. Goods came into Caesarea and moved east into the large Greek cities of the Decapolis (modern Jordan). Caesarea also became a gateway into the Mediterranean for the highly lucrative spice trade from India. In addition, Israel became one of only two suppliers of raw glass for the entire Roman world; this was exported through Caesarea.
Like all ancient kings, Herod was essentially the government. His personal investment was government investment. But he understood that parking money in land only held wealth; it did not generate new wealth. By investing in extensive building projects and trade, he became an economic powerhouse, lifting the living standards of all Judeans and himself, in particular.
Before he went mad, Herod was not just massively wealthy. His investments made him the largest builder in the eastern Mediterranean, second only to Caesar Augustus in the western Mediterranean.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

How Evil is Today’s World? A Consideration of the World War I Battle of Verdun

Many evangelical Christians believe the world is about to end as Jesus returns to establish his heavenly kingdom on Earth. The reason for this, they think, is that the people of the world have become so evil and are doing so many horrible things that more wickedness is not possible.
If the trigger for Jesus’ second coming is the total evil in the world -- the largest amount of horrible deeds people do to each other -- then I respectfully suggest he missed the moment. One hundred years ago this coming November, World War I ended. That brought to a close five years of unrelenting war in which 9 million soldiers were killed, and millions more were injured. Another 10 million civilians died.
If evil occurs when people sin against each other -- and, certainly, the organized mass murder of war, a clear violation of one of the Ten Commandments, belongs to the classification of sin -- then World War I was surely an eviler time than today. To be sure, the present war in Iraq and Afghanistan comprises the longest war the USA has ever fought. But if we measure the amount of evil by the extent of casualties -- unquestionably a crass measurement -- there is less evil today than during World War I.
According to the 10-year assessment of U.S. military casualties done in 2011, 6,169 soldiers were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the decade after the 9/11 attack in 2001. Just over 45,000 U.S. troops were injured. The militaries of other countries have similar statistics, while estimates of civilian casualties during the same period range upward of 200,000.
These are by no means insignificant numbers, and every life lost or person handicapped is a tragedy for individuals and for their families, as well as their nations.
The numbers pale in comparison to the casualties of World War I, however. Let’s look at a single battle from that war, the Battle of Verdun, in which an attacking German army fought for 10 months in 1916 against the French army and its colonial allies (mostly Muslim). At any one time, more than 700,000 German troops were fighting against an allied French army of 500,000 troops.
In just 10 months, more than 300,000 soldiers on the two sides were killed. Another 400,000 were wounded. If killing another human being is evil, then much more malevolence took place around Verdun in those 10 months than happened in Iraq and Afghanistan in 10 years.
And it was not just that people were killed; it was the way they were killed. The Germans opened the battle Feb. 21, 1916, with days of nonstop shelling by long-range cannon. The forested hills quickly became denuded. Most trees were reduced to kindling; little remained over 6 feet tall.
Even before the shelling, it had begun to rain. And it continued to rain throughout the next 10 months. There was so much rain that, even during the heat of summer, the ground never dried out. Mud was everywhere. There was so much mud that men often got stuck and drowned in it. The only place for cover were trenches cut into the muddy hillsides. Both sides considered it “hell.”
This was one of the first mechanized battles in history, where men did not charge at each other to engage in hand-to-hand combat or shoot at each other across an open field or hillside, but fired cannons from several miles away.
The ground quickly lost its normal shape, becoming filled with holes and blasted mounds of earth, rearranged with each explosion. Even today, a century later, there is no level ground in the battlefield larger than a square yard or so. It goes up and down, 6 feet here, 12 feet there. There are no straight lines; it looks as if an ocean of earth was tossed about in a violent storm and suddenly solidified.
Today, no development in the area is allowed, not even farming. A recent analysis estimated that 10 million unexploded shells remain. Many of them are filled with inert poison gas, deadly even after a century. Annually, more than 40 tons of unexploded armaments are removed.
For Verdun, the world ended in 1916. The villages and farms in the surrounding hills were destroyed, never to be resettled. Although the lush forest has regrown, human life has ended except for the pilgrims, who come to learn of the war and to mourn the dead. If the world’s evil did not cause Jesus to return in 1916, what are the chances that he will return now in our much less violently vicious times?

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Supreme Court and the Refusal to Bake a Cake (June 13, 2018)

It seems that nearly everyone who has written about the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case agrees: The Supreme Court wimped out.
Its June 4 decision gave no legal guidance as to whether a person running a public business can refuse a sale to someone on the basis of deeply held religious beliefs -- in this case, a baker who refused to decorate a custom cake for a gay wedding.
The lack of guidance is disappointing because more cases arguing a person’s “religious freedom” to refuse service on the basis of religious beliefs are heading to the court, and SCOTUS will not be able to avoid a decision forever.
I will go out on a limb in this column and lay out a way to resolve this religious freedom issue, taking into account more than two centuries of USA law, legislation and legal precedent.
The First Amendment says that laws cannot be made “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The claimed right to refuse service on the basis of one’s beliefs is based on the amendment’s second phrase -- its religious freedom.
There are two barriers that prevent acceding to that claim by acknowledging a wholesale right that religious people can deny service on the basis of their beliefs. The first is 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. This amendment holds that a state may not “deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.”
The second barrier lies in the First Amendment’s first phrase, the so-called “establishment clause.” More than half a century ago, the Supreme Court established the “Lemon Test” to determine if a law violated the prohibition on government establishment of religion and has consistently used it since then in church and state cases like this one.
A law must pass all three components of the Lemon Test to be valid. First, does the law have a secular purpose? Second, is the primary effect either to advance or inhibit religion? Third, does the law foster an excessive governmental entanglement with religion? If the study of a law results in a “no” to the first question OR “yes” to the second OR third, then that law is unconstitutional.
The goal to establish a religious freedom right to deny service on the basis of belief fails not just one but all three tests: No, the claim’s purpose is religious, not secular; yes, the primary purpose is to advance religion; and yes, it fosters an excessive governmental entanglement with religion.
The test of governmental entanglement in religion is the most telling. Going against it in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case would have the greatest impact because it would require the courts to rule on matters of religious belief. Given that few judges and lawyers have any training in religion, this would be a disaster.
It is solidly established in American law that the government cannot deny service on the basis of membership in an identifiable religious group. In the past two years, that principle has been on display with the decisions concerning a religious test for admitting Muslims entry into the country.
But the baker’s claim of the religious right to deny service to a gay couple for their wedding cake is not a matter of their belonging to a particular religion. Rather, it is a question of doctrine within a single religion, that of Christianity. And that doctrine is disputed. Not all Christians or all Christian denominations believe that gay marriage is against Christian belief.
Is the government going to make a decision that allows individual believers (any believer?!) to deny service to members of the same religion on the basis of whatever belief they hold deeply and sincerely? Is it going to get involved in theological and doctrinal disputes? No, it isn’t. That would violate the 14th Amendment as well as the First.
And just to be explicit, the Supreme Court could not rule that only Christians have the right to deny service on the basis of their beliefs. If it decided, against all precedent, that there was a right to religious denial of service, then it would apply to members of all religions -- Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.
If SCOTUS ruled in this direction, it would likely remove the “religious” moniker from the ruling and give the right to anyone with a deeply held belief, religious or not. So, denial of service, in this scenario, would be permissible on moral, political, racial and social justice grounds, as well as religious. That would at least allow the Supreme Court to avoid the entanglement issue.
I will stick my neck out and predict none of this will happen. Instead, I predict two possible decisions. The first would be a complete ruling against a religious-based denial of service as a violation of the 14th Amendment.
The second would be a compromise that classifies the baker as an artist and the baking and decorating of a wedding cake as the commission of an artwork. Just as an artist does not have to take every commission offered to him or her, so the baker would not have to create every cake design that someone asked of him or her.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Romans, Jews and Christians at Legio, Israel: Early Evidence for Christianity in Ancient Palestine


According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” And, that is the story the New Testament tells. The apostle Paul’s letters are addressed to churches he founded across the northern Mediterranean lands and, although the Acts of the Apostles begins in Jerusalem, it quickly moves to stories of evangelizing gentiles in the countries beyond Galilee and Judea.
The land of Israel became important to early Christianity only under Emperor Constantine, who, in the early fourth century, made Christianity an accepted religion across the Roman Empire. He sent his mother, Queen Helena, to Israel to identify locations important to Jesus and the Bible, building churches at those sites. Within a century, the land that early Christians had left to evangelize the world became the Holy Land, and pilgrims began arriving to visit the sacred sites with their new churches.
But, what of the Christians who stayed in Israel in the first century; did they flourish? That is a good question. The historian Eusebius mentions bishops in Jerusalem, Caesarea and Maximianopolis, but we know little about the Christians they led. Did Christianity flourish and increase in Israel after Jesus’ resurrection, maintain only a small presence or die out? We know surprisingly little. While archaeologists have made extensive finds and excavated churches from the time of Constantine and his successors, there have been few finds from previous centuries.
So, when archaeologists announced the excavation of a Christian prayer hall near the ancient site of Megiddo in Israel 12 years ago, initial expectations hoped that here, finally, were archaeological remains of the early Christians of Israel. In the end, however, it turned out to be something totally different. The prayer hall showed that Christians not only served in the Roman army, but they were accepted and their worship acknowledged as legitimate.
Megiddo, what the New Testament calls Armageddon, was located at the crossroads of important ancient roads for more than two millennia. After the city mound was abandoned, the area continued to be inhabited and, by the first century, a village of Jews and Samaritans known as Kefar Othnay had grown up at the crossroads.
When the Roman Empire decided to station a legion in Palestine, it settled on these crossroads as the place from which most of Palestine could be quickly reached. Ultimately, six Roman “highways” linked this location to the rest of the province, including Jerusalem, Galilee, Ptolemais and Caesarea.
The 6th Roman Legion spent 170 years in this base, known as Legio. Situated next to Kefar Othnay, it became the site’s name from the early second century to the end of the third century.
While the wall around Legio’s army base separated the village from the camp, the soldiers and the villagers led intertwined lives. This is clear from the Christian prayer hall, for it was located in the village but in a building controlled by the legion.
The building in which the prayer hall was located was large, about 65 feet by 100 feet. It served primarily as living quarters for Roman officers (centurions). One part of it was set aside for a commercial bakery. The discovery of bread stamps -- bearing the names of the bakers next to the ovens -- indicates that it supplied the soldiers of the army base.
The prayer hall itself comprised a small, 15-by-30-foot room within the larger building. Paved with a mosaic, mostly laid out in geometric patterns but with a depiction of two fish (early symbols of Christianity), it contained a table-shaped podium in the center. According to an inscription, the table was offered as a memorial to the “God Jesus Christ.”
A larger inscription makes clear that the room was constructed by army officials, for it credits one Gaianus, a “centurion” and a “brother,” with paying for its construction. Since the prayer hall is in a Roman building housing officers and paid for by a Roman centurion, it is clear that the hall was constructed for Christian officers and soldiers.
Whether the army men became Christians after being stationed in Palestine or they had been Christians when they arrived is unclear. But, this level of recognition indicates that at Legio, Christians were acceptable in the Roman army and could freely practice their beliefs.

If you are in Laramie April 18, come hear Matt Adams, director of the Albright Archaeological Institute in Jerusalem, speak about the army base and Christian prayer hall at Roman Legio. His talk, “Armageddon and the Roman VIth Ferrata Legion: New Excavations at Legio, Israel, and Early Jewish-Christian-Roman Relations,” will begin at 4:10 p.m. in Room 214 of the University of Wyoming’s Classroom Building.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Today’s Evangelical Message on College Campuses

There have always been religious organizations on college campuses. Some were quiet and private, while others were loud and boisterous, always ready to tell others about themselves.
In the 1980s, perhaps the most visible student religious groups were evangelical. Not only were evangelical churches represented, but there was Campus Crusade for Christ, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the Navigators and others.
The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word “euangelion” -- meaning “good news” -- and was rendered into English as “gospel.” And, that is just what these evangelical groups do through their visibility. They have been sharing the good news -- telling others about the message of salvation that Jesus’ actions have given to all human beings. To be saved, all one had to do was to accept that Jesus had saved them.
Trying to save other people also served as a form of recruitment for evangelical campus groups. When a person was saved, they usually joined one of these religious organizations or a church. Those who did not join rarely remained in their new state of salvation, but returned to their former friends and behavior.
From the late 1960s onward, these evangelical youth groups grew and formed a vibrant part of campus life in many colleges and universities. At the same time, seeds were being sown that, today, a half-century later, are damaging the message of salvation on these campuses.
Under the leadership of Richard Nixon, who was president from 1969 to 1974, the Republican Party brought evangelicals into a new coalition, the “silent majority,” along with many Catholics, through the politicization of abortion. Evangelical and Catholic Christians, who had largely stayed out of politics prior to that time, seized on the issue of abortion’s legalization. As the Republican Party vowed to stamp it out, it gained widespread support of these religious groups.
On the flip side, abortion became a religious issue, with both evangelical and Catholic leaders and churches railing against, making it a topic of sermons and transforming it into the epitome of evil.
From that small beginning, two things happened. Evangelicals became increasingly Republican, and the message of the gospel, the good news of salvation, had to gradually give larger amounts of time to the anti-abortion message.
National polling from the late 1970s onward has measured a growing drop-off in the number of Christians and an increasing body of people unwilling to identify with Christianity. The change was slow at first but, by 2012, the percentage of Americans in this category -- what pollsters call “none of the above” or just “nones” -- had risen to just under 20 percent. Evangelicals themselves, by contrast, had fallen to 19 percent, while Protestants, for the first time in American history, dipped below 50 percent (Pew Research Center, “The Decline of Institutional Religion,” 2013).
If this analysis is correct, the change should have begun about the time that evangelicals became a key part of the Republican Party. That was the moment in which accepting salvation also meant that one had to join, not just an evangelical church but also the Republican Party. Many who were willing to accept Christ were unwilling to accept Republicanism. So, they turned their back on both.
And, the polling shows that people have been making the decision in this manner. The younger one is, the more likely one is to be a none. More than 32 percent (in 2012) of the under-30s were nones, while in the 30-50-year-old range, 21 percent were nones. It is only among the over-50s that 15 percent or fewer are nones.
And, what is the message of campus evangelical organizations today? That the current president is worthy of Christian support. That, despite his moral failings, he is the “evangelicals’ man.” They put him in the White House and continue to support him vociferously, despite his daily tweets providing new reminders of his moral ineptitude.

Even more than in the 1970s and the 1980s, the message of salvation that Jesus enjoined his followers to spread among all the world before he ascended into heaven is being drowned out by political messages. It will be interesting to discover, in the coming decades, what impact this has had on people accepting the salvation that Christianity has taught that Jesus brought.

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