Richard Ostling

Scott Walker’s church is as interesting an American story as Walker himself

Scott Walker’s church is as interesting an American story as Walker himself

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, 47, is facing new scrutiny as the flavor of the month in Republican presidential politics.  Among various disputes in play, he’s an evangelical Protestant and thus needs to be prepared for skeptical questioning about religion and pesky  “social issues.”           

While in London, Walker was asked if he’s “comfortable with” or believes in evolution. He said “that’s a question politicians shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.” Skewered for ducking, he quickly followed up with a vague faith-and-science tweet.  He also ducked when asked whether President Obama “loves America” after Rudolph Giuliani raised doubts about that, and then again when asked if the President is a fellow Christian.

Walker would be a Preacher’s Kid in the White House, the first since Wilson, so reporters will be Googling a Jan. 31 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel piece on this, datelined Plainfield, Iowa  (population 436).

When Scott was young his father Llewellyn was the pastor of Plainfield’s First Baptist Church on -- yes -- Main Street and a town council member.  Llewellyn was also a pastor in Colorado Springs, Scott’s birthplace, and Delevan, Wisconsin, where Scott completed high school.

The father, now retired, served in the American Baptist Convention (now renamed American Baptist Churches USA), which has a liberal flank but is largely moderate to moderately evangelical.  The Journal-Sentinel missed that the current Plainfield pastor endorsed the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which vows bold Christian opposition to abortion, assisted suicide, human cloning research, and same-sex marriage.

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What does it mean to ask: Is Islam a 'religion of peace'?

What does it mean to ask: Is Islam a 'religion of peace'?

DAVID ASKS:

Where is the Muslim peace movement? Put another way, if Islam is a peace-loving religion where are the Muslim voices for peace?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

“Islam is a religion that preaches peace,” U.S. President Barack Obama told CBS last September, and likewise President George W. Bush’s mosque speech after 9-11 said “Islam is peace.” Yet there’s continual violence committed in the name of Islam. Analysts are abuzz over a major article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood, who contends the bloodthirsty Islamic State Caliphate is thoroughly grounded in one understanding of end-times theology and “governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers.” Wood cites especially the research of Princeton University’s Bernard Haykel.

In this tangled discussion one point is obvious: This great world religion is embroiled in an increasingly dangerous internal conflict as an expanding faction of militant “Islamists” or “jihadis” works to abolish Muslim thinkers’ consensus across centuries about justifications for violence, the proper conduct of warfare, and who has the authority to decide such matters. John Esposito, a Georgetown University expert, calls it a “struggle for the soul of Islam.”

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So they are back in the news (yet again): Adam and Eve and all that

So they are back in the news (yet again): Adam and Eve and all that

On the religion beat, the news often consists of new books about old texts with old stories, and the oldest old story of them all is the Genesis portrayal of Adam and Eve. Their status as the first humans and parents of the entire human race is a big biblical deal, especially for evangelical Protestants. 

Since no evangelical school outranks Wheaton College (Illinois) in prestige and influence, journalists should get ready for an incendiary device about to explode in March. 

A book by Wheaton Old Testament Professor John H. Walton will upend many traditional -- or certainly "evangelical" -- ideas about Adam and Eve.  Moreover, “The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate” comes from the certifiably evangelical InterVarsity Press. Click here for the online press kit (.pdf).

Walton (Ph.D., Hebrew Union College) formerly taught at the Moody Bible Institute, which professes that “the first human beings were a special and unique creation by God as contrasted to being derived from any pre-existing life forms. Further, God created everything ‘after its kind,’ which excludes any position that allows for any evolutionary process between kinds.” As a Wheaton professor since 2001, he’s required to reaffirm each year the “biblical doctrine” that “God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race,” who were “distinct from all other living creatures.” 

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How did the Mitt Romney era affect the status of the Mormon church?

How did the Mitt Romney era affect the status of the Mormon church?

KEN ASKS:

What has been the impact on Mormons of the burst of intense attention they received during the Romney presidential bids?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This was posted before Mitt Romney took himself out of the Republicans’ crowded 2016 steeplechase. But this is a good moment to analyze the era when his presidential ambitions brought new attention to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed “Mormon” or “LDS”).

Not that he’s disappearing. Romney remains a player and conceivable vice president, Treasury secretary, or other official if the G.O.P. wins next year -- unless his church appoints him one of its ruling “General Authorities” in Salt Lake City.

Romney is no run-of-the-mill churchgoer but has held responsible posts in this clergy-less denomination that’s led locally by laymen serving part-time. He has been the “bishop” (equivalent of a pastor) in his own “ward” (congregation) and president of the Boston-area “stake” (akin to a Catholic or Episcopal bishop). He is an ordained “high priest,” the LDS ecclesiastical rank below patriarch, seventy and apostle.

The former governor’s prominence should have burnished the faith’s P.R. image. He personifies attractive virtues Mormons most like to display: clean living, hard work, probity, public spirit (e.g. taking charge to save the 2002 Winter Olympics), generosity in donations and private help, patriotism and faithful commitment to church and family.

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Crucifixion, beheading, stoning and now burning alive? What does this mean?

Crucifixion, beheading, stoning and now burning alive? What does this mean?

Despite the ancient examples of capital punishment in the Bible, in modern times there’s been broad moral concern in Christianity and Judaism on whether it should ever occur.  

If legal, then what methods are proper?  Under secular law in the United States, hanging, firing squads and electrocution have given way to lethal injection, supposedly more humane though recent foul-ups raise questions about that.

Islam is unambiguous in endorsing executions for “just cause” (Quran surah 17:33). But what about the methods?

The Islamic State claimed religious sanction when it burned alive, proudly and on camera for all to see, Jordanian prisoner of war Muath al-Kasaesbeh, supposedly because this fellow Muslim was  an “infidel.”

In a good Reuters follow-up, doubly datelined from Dubai and Amman, Muslim religious figures denounced this form of execution. Sheik Hussein bin Shu’ayb, head of religious affairs in southern Yemen, declared that the Prophet Muhammad “advised against burning people with fire.” And Saudi Arabian cleric Salman al-Odah said “burning is an abominable crime rejected by Islamic law, regardless of its causes.” He added, “Only God tortures by fire.”

The most striking quote came from the grand sheik of Cairo’s venerable Al-Azhar University, Ahmed al-Tayeb, who said the pilot’s executioners deserve to be “killed, crucified or to have their limbs amputated.”

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That big U.S. Supreme Court case isn’t only 2015 gay dispute for religion-beat reporters to watch

That big U.S. Supreme Court case isn’t only 2015 gay dispute for religion-beat reporters to watch

Alongside that big U.S. Supreme Court case on gay marriage, another 2015 showdown merits journalistic attention.

It involves Gordon College, an evangelical campus located in the onetime heartland of the Massachusetts Puritans. Meeting Feb. 5-6, and again in May, Gordon’s trustees will ponder whether to scrap a rule  that “sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice will not be tolerated” among students and staff, whether on or off campus.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has directed the college to explain its policy for a meeting in September. The association has the power to remove  accreditation if Gordon violated the requirement of “non-discriminatory policies and practices in recruitment, admissions, employment, evaluation, disciplinary action, and advancement.”

Background: Gordon’s president, D. Michael Lindsay, is no backwoods rube but a Princeton Ph.D. who was an award-winning sociology professor at Rice University. Gordon’s sexual stance drew attention because Lindsay gave a helping hand to groups like Catholic Charities, the National Association of Evangelicals’ World Relief and Bethany Christian Services, the largest U.S. adoption agency.

Last July he joined Catholic and Protestant leaders in writing a letter to President Barack Obama seeking exemption for such religious employers in a pending executive order to forbid federal contractors from discrimination against  lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered.  The religious petitioners lost that fight.

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Circumcision: When, how, who, what, why? And what about secular laws?

Circumcision: When, how, who, what, why? And what about secular laws?

JOHN ASKS:

When did circumcision start and how was God involved? How did its use evolve to today’s practice?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

In the Jewish faith, ritual circumcision of males (bris) to remove the foreskin of the penis has been a requirement ever since God designated it as a “sign of the covenant” with Abraham (Genesis 17:10-14). So God has been “involved” for some 4,000 years now.

Anthropologists tell us that circumcision was practiced long before Abraham, across the globe from pharaonic Egypt to aboriginal Australia. It was often a tribal “rite of passage” at puberty, and not the Bible’s sign of commitment to God performed on eight-day-old newborns. The “why” of circumcision prior to biblical times is uncertain. Macmillan’s “Encyclopedia of Religion” says contemporary experts dismiss the theories that it originated to mark captives, attract women, enhance sexual pleasure, aid hygiene, test bravery, or symbolize submission to elders or the cutting of bonds with mothers.

Jewish surgery and ceremonial are commonly the work of a specialist known as a mohel. The operation is traditionally required for adult converts as well as infants born in the faith. Though liberal Reform Judaism dropped that mandate in 1893, some of its rabbis continue the tradition. Note that any male born of a Jewish mother is deemed a Jew, even if he is not circumcised.

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'Special pleaders,' church-state issues and the new Republican shape of the U.S. Congress

'Special pleaders,' church-state issues and the new Republican shape of the U.S. Congress

Good stories lurk in ideology-driven magazines and web sites on the religion beat, perhaps more so than with other fields.

For example, there’s often useful fare blended with the partisanship of Church & State, monthly house organ of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. This lobby and litigator closely monitors those it assails as “far-right religious conservatives,” provides some useful information and is always happy to brief reporters on its side of an issue.

Consider, for example, the cover story in Church & State’s current issue, “New Congress, New Challenges,” by assistant communications director Simon Brown. Republicans rode to victory on “fundamentalist support,” he says, so “2015 could be a cataclysmic year for church-state separation.” 

Stripped of the tendentious rhetoric and alarmism, Brown assembles some good tips.  As he observes, during the next two years the Republican-run Congress may revive hot-button religion bills that previously died in committee or passed  the G.O.P House but not the Democratic Senate. They would:

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Why doesn’t the Bible mention dinosaurs? (Plus, the Religion Guy visits 'Crossroads')

Why doesn’t the Bible mention dinosaurs? (Plus, the Religion Guy visits 'Crossroads')

EDITOR'S NOTE: Check out Richard Ostling's first "Crossroads" podcast, focusing on coverage of Islam and violence. Listen in right here, or subscribe to the podcasts at iTunes.

TOM SAYS:

I am confused when the Bible talks about God creating the world in seven days but there is no evidence of humans living with dinosaurs.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This problem arises if “creationism” controls Bible interpretation. That term has come to identify those Protestants whose strictly literal reading of the Bible’s Book of Genesis requires a “young earth.” That is, if God created the cosmos and all species 10,000 years ago at most, then humanity and dinosaurs must have lived at the same time.

“Creationism” is a common but simplistic, misleading label because multitudes who worship God as the creator of all nature also accept standard geology’s vastly longer time frame, based on radiometric and other dating techniques of the past two centuries. By this reckoning, dinosaurs first inhabited Earth some 230 million years ago and became extinct 65.5 million years ago, eons before humanity appeared. The most recent report last November said a dinosaur find in southwestern Alberta, Canada, may be 80 million years old.

“Old earth creationists” believe scientists’ long chronology readily fits with faithfulness to the Bible’s account of origins, but criticize Darwin’s theory of evolution. A third camp of self-identified Bible believers embraces both an old earth and “theistic evolution,” seeing Darwin’s scenario as God’s method of forming species while opposing contentions that evolution was random and without purpose or a Creator.

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