Religion Today

Thursday, May 28, 2015

What the Gay Marriage Vote Reveals about Catholic Attitudes in Ireland

Last week, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to legalize gay marriage. The vote was 62 percent to 38 percent, with all but one district voting in favor. Rural as well as urban districts, senior citizens as well as young people voted for legalization.
Most United States’ news reports celebrated the vote’s positive side, the gay community’s happiness, and the way the vote unified nearly all sectors of Irish society.
But there is a darker side. Since Ireland is 84 percent Catholic, the vote is seen as an overwhelming rejection of the Catholic Church. This is not surprising. In the last 30 years, weekly Mass attendance in Ireland has dropped from nearly 90 percent to less than 20 percent.
Why this sudden change? It is largely due to the revelation of three horrific practices of the church. As each one came to light, Irish Catholics at first disbelieved but gradually accepted that the church had failed them.
First is the priestly sex-abuse scandal in which a few priests raped and molested hundreds, even thousands, of children over decades. While the acts of these priests were bad enough, church officials in Ireland, as in the United States, failed to halt these crimes. Instead, they covered up the deeds and moved the perpetrators to new places. Rather than removing these criminals, the church enabled them.
Second are the revelations of the church-run state orphanages and reformatories, where rather than being loved and cherished, children routinely were beaten, abused and raped. The Irish government’s 2009 Ryan Report found that thousands of children in these institutions, run by nuns and monks, were often terrorized. According to the report, “ritualized beatings were routine” in girls’ facilities, and rape and molestation were “endemic” in boys’ facilities.
The Irish church and religious orders have refused to assist in investigations, have denied the revelations and shown no remorse or contrition.
Third are the facilities for unmarried mothers. Since the late 1700s, unmarried mothers were sent to so-called “Magdalene” laundries, where they worked as unpaid laborers cleaning clothes. Sometimes they spent their entire lives in the institutions. The last laundry was not closed until 1996.
There also were mother-baby institutional homes around Ireland. Both types of institutions were rife with abuse, beatings and a lack of human decency. Hunger and filth were rampant, and the nuns regularly treated their charges in a degrading fashion.
Furthermore, since 1993, authorities have uncovered more than 4,000 bodies in unmarked graves, including 800 in a sewer near the home in Tuam, that were disposed of by these homes and laundries. The lack of human decency indicated by such treatment and the continuing refusal of religious institutions to provide any information about them has angered the Irish people immensely.
These practices by the Catholic Church in Ireland that have come to light have robbed the church of its moral authority in the eyes of its parishioners. So it is not surprising its teachings about homosexuality were ignored in the vote on gay marriage.
But there is a silver lining. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin observed after the vote, “We (the church) have to stop and have a reality check … I ask myself, most of these young people who voted yes are products of our Catholic school system for 12 years. I’m saying there’s a big challenge there to see how we get across the message of the church.”
Actually the Catholic Church got its message across just fine. In Ireland, the church runs more than 85 percent of the schools, and in those schools it teaches about Christ’s love, that all people are equal before God, and that all sins can be forgiven. For decades it has taught its students the principles of how to be good, how to love “your neighbor” and how to follow a moral and upright life.
The Irish took the principles of love and equality before God and applied them to the question of gay marriage. The Catholic attitudes they learned in school helped them decide that gays should be allowed to marry, just like everyone else.
This attitude of equal treatment for all people, including gays, is not unique to Irish Catholics. Catholics in many parts of the world are in favor of gay marriage. In America, polls since 2010 have shown that a majority of Catholics accept gay marriage, more than any other Christian group. And, as Frank Bruni pointed out in his New York Times essay of May 27, 2015, many Catholic countries already have adopted gay marriage, including Spain, Portugal, France, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Religion in Wyoming and the West: The Religious Landscape Survey

The Pew Research Center for Religion and the Public Life has just released a new survey about the religious identity of Americans. The researchers interviewed more than 35,000 people so that they were able to provide results not just for the United States as a whole, but also for each state. This is the first time that a scientific study of Wyoming’s religious character has taken place.
The big story for Wyoming is that the state has a large percentage of people without religious affiliation. More than a quarter of the population, 26 percent, checked the box labeled “none of the above” when asked what religion they belonged to.
Before looking more closely at Wyoming, it is worth a moment to take a look at the United States overall and the Western region generally. The national headlines from this study will be that the number of “nones” has grown 7 percent since this study was first done in 2007. Across the nation, the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated has increased from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. The West has the highest percent of unaffiliated of any of the four regions of the country at 28 percent.
Although America is growing more secular, this should not arouse panic among the religious. If 23 percent are unaffiliated, that means about 77 percent or more have a religious affiliation. Even the data from Vermont, which has the highest number of nones at 37 percent, show that 61 percent of the population is religious and 54 percent follow a form of Christianity.
In this light, the data show that 66 percent of Wyoming’s people adhere to Christianity and about 4 percent follow other religions, with Buddhism being the most numerous (7 percent did not answer this question). So, even though a quarter of Wyoming’s population claims no religious affiliation, 70 percent do. That’s well over two-thirds.
Wyoming’s religious character stands out when we look at it in the context of the other Western states. Wyoming’s percentage of nones is lower than the average for the West, 26 percent vs. 28 percent. Indeed, it is third lowest in the West, with only New Mexico (21 percent) and Utah (22 percent) being lower. But that is still a high number, for no state in the Midwestern or Southern regions has a higher percentage of religiously unaffiliated people.
More significantly, Wyoming has the highest Protestant population in the West. It has the highest number of mainline Protestants (16 percent, tied with Idaho) and the third highest number of Evangelical Protestants (26 percent). At a total of 43 percent, this puts it far ahead of all but Montana, Colorado and Oregon, which are only a couple of points behind.
If you picture the United States map, you will realize that Montana, Wyoming and Colorado make a north-south line and, just to the east of them, are North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. These Midwestern states, like the rest of the Midwest region, have a high percentage of Protestants, ranging from 49 percent to 57 percent. So, the Protestant character of Wyoming and these other two Western states derives from Midwestern influence.
By contrast, Wyoming’s Catholic population is certainly not following the lead of Western states like California or the Southwestern states. In those states, the Catholic population ranges from 21 percent to 34 percent, while Wyoming comes in at just 14 percent. That is well below the national average percentage of Catholics per state. Indeed, it is lower than any state in the Midwest or Northeast regions.
Interestingly, Wyoming is more influenced by Mormonism. At 9 percent, Wyoming has the third highest Mormon population in the West (after Utah and Idaho) and, indeed, in the entire USA.
So, Wyoming’s religious character is overwhelmingly Christian (66 percent) and solidly Protestant (43 percent). Its Evangelical Protestants make up the largest religiously defined group (27 percent).
This is closely followed, however, by those who identify with no religious tradition or organization (26 percent). Only 6 percent of these registered as atheist or agnostic; the other 20 percent selected “nothing in particular.” And, although the number of Mormons in Wyoming ranked third highest in the nation (9 percent), that was still outnumbered by the Catholics (14 percent), even though the state ranked among the lowest in the nation in that category.

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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Christian Morality, Gay Marriage and Divorce

While the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether it should legalize gay marriage, the debate continues over whether Christian business people, and others holding religious disagreements over gay marriage, have a right to deny gays wedding services like cake baking, celebratory flowers and photography. This debate centers on laws called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) recently passed by states such as Indiana and Arkansas with the intended purpose of providing that ability.  
It is impossible to predict the high court’s decision or even the future of RFRA laws, but there is another way to address the issue of whether Christians need such an exemption. Of course, not all Christians object to gay marriage; those who do tend to belong to denominations and independent churches that claim to base their beliefs on the Bible.
This type of American Christianity, often called evangelical or born-again Christianity, believes that Jesus -- God in human form -- provides salvation to humanity, and his teachings are paramount. Evangelicals who object to gay marriage claim to be following moral beliefs laid down by Jesus. But, are they really?
Not obviously. Jesus never expresses an opinion about homosexuality, let alone gay marriage. None of the gospels give so much as a hint.
But, born-again Christians, as a group, believe that Jesus would have disagreed with gay marriage if he had said anything about it. Given this belief, how should modern Christians act with regard to gay marriage?
Jesus had clear views on one aspect of marriage, namely, divorce. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us his view; and Matthew does it twice. Jesus is against divorce. A look at how modern Christians handle Jesus’ views on divorce should reveal a model for Christian behavior with regard to gay marriage.
Jesus holds that God does not approve of divorce. Moreover, divorced people who remarry, according to Jesus, are guilty of adultery. In Mark 10:11, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This view is reiterated in Luke 16 and Matthew 19.
Given Jesus’ clear and strong statements about the sins of divorce and remarriage, born-again cake bakers, flower arrangers and wedding photographers should be refusing to participate in the weddings of divorcees.
No such refusals have come to light.
Why not? Because evangelicals, born-again Christians and other biblically based Christians divorce frequently. Indeed, their divorce rates seem higher than those of other Americans.
According to a 1998 study by the evangelically oriented Barna Research Group, 29 percent of Baptists, by which the study means Southern Baptists and independent Baptists, have been divorced. Only members of non-denominational Protestant churches, mostly Pentecostal or evangelical, divorced at a higher rate: 34 percent.
By contrast, only 21 percent of atheists, Catholics and Lutherans had been divorced. They were below the national average of 24 percent.
Christian organizations heavily criticized Barna for this study for not taking into account mitigating factors. Most born-again Christians marry much younger than other demographic groups, have less education at the time of marriage and are often poor. All these known factors make divorce more likely.
When Barna studied divorce rates again in 2008, they changed their survey methodology. This resulted in an average overall divorce rate of 33 percent, and most Christian groups registered within a point or two of that number. Only Catholics were significantly lower, at 28 percent. (Atheists were at 30 percent).
Both Barna studies of American Christians and divorce indicate that Christians get divorced as frequently as, or perhaps more frequently than, non-Christians. Jesus’ express views on the matter make no difference to divorce among today’s Christians. A third of them willingly violate his explicit statements.
So, if modern Christians engage regularly in practices that Jesus forbade, then those Christians should not have the right, based on their religious beliefs, to deny services to people who engage in practices that Jesus neither forbade nor even expressed an opinion. As Jesus said, “Take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

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