Someone is Gonna Piss Off the Rain God, or How to Simultaneously Win and Lose

This is my piece for RNS/WaPo about the Bethany, Okla., Methodist minister who is suing the state of Oklahoma over the Native American sculpture featured on the license plate. I'm writing another piece for the Gazette locally, so I'll have more to say after that piece runs.

 


Mustafa Akyol on Islam and Democracy: An Interview

Mustafa Akyol is a political commentator and author based in Istanbul, Turkey. Akyol, who is Turkish, writes extensively about Islam, the Middle East, democracy, and the West. His work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, and The Wall Street Journal. He will be in Oklahoma City this weekend, giving lectures at OU, OCU, and UCO, and promoting his book Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. The University of Oklahoma event will be different, inasmuch as it's sponsored jointly by The Institute of Interfaith Dialog and OU's Center for Middle East Studies. Akyol will focus on the war in Syria at the OU event. I interviewed him for an advance for the Oklahoma City University event for the Oklahoma Gazette. The transcript of the interview, which was conducted via email, is below.

Imgres

Who was the intended audience for your book?

First, it is open minded Muslims who would like to rethink some of the authoritarian tendencies in their tradition. Secondly, it is open minded non-Muslims, especially Westerners, who would like to see the nuances in the theology and history of Islam.

What is the overarching thesis?

In a nutshell, I am arguing for an interpretation of Islam that values freedom. This includes freedom of religion for other faiths, of freedom from authoritarian governments. I show that such a liberal approach always existed in the Islamic tradition, although the image of Islam has lately been shaped by the oppressive and even violent strains. I also show how oppressive measures in shariah, or Islamic law, can be reformed by Muslims without them abandoning their loyalty to the fundamentals of the faith.

What will the Oklahoma events focus on?

I am certainly not going to argue that all Muslims in the world are tolerant, peaceful, liberal people. Some of them clearly are not. But I will try to show that their illiberalism or militancy comes often not from religion, but political problems and cultural attitudes. I will also try to share some lessons from the Turkish experience of Islam, which is not noticed enough.

Will you be discussing themes from your book as well as othermaterial? If so, what material?

I will certainly share some themes in my book, but will also explain how they relate to some very recent events, such as the horrible terrorist attack in Libya against the late US Ambassador, or the complexities of the Arab Revolutions.

This seems to be very timely given the American film and the subsequent violence. Can you talk just a bit about the disconnect between the West and our understanding of blasphemy and blasphemy laws?

The main issue there is how to reconcile the Muslims' deep respect for their religion and the West's deep commitment to the freedom of speech. I argue that we Muslims can express loyalty to our faith peacefully in a free society where some people may unfortunately mock our faith. The Qur'an does not say "go and attack people if they make fun of Islam." It only says "do not join those people in their mockery." The latter only suggests a civilized expression of disapproval.

How are blasphemy laws consistent with freedom of speech or expression or religion? Is there a common ground?

In fact, there are blasphemy laws in some Western states, such as the UK, as well, but they are not implemented. This reminds us that blasphemy has been an issue in the Christian tradition as well. But modern day Christians have agreed that using violence to punish blasphemy or heresy (as the Inquisition did pretty rigorously for centuries!) is a wrong idea. I think a similar reconsideration is necessary for us Muslims as well, and I show how that can be possible.

Do you find terms like Islamist, Christianist, etc., helpful? Why or why not?

The term "Islamist" is helpful, for it helps distinguish the people who have turned Islam into a political ideology from traditional Muslims who see Islam mainly as faith, worship and morality. As I show in my book, Islamism is in fact a 20th century phenomenon, and is actually a synthesis of Islam with modern totalitarian ideologies like communism. I, however, believe that we Muslims should better synthesize Islam with democracy and freedom. And this is really not as impossible as many think these days.

 


Brian McLaren on Christian Identity and Homosexuality

This is the transcript of an interview I did with Brian McLaren to advance his Oklahoma City appearance on October 12 at Mayflower UCC for the Oklahoma Gazette. We started off talking about his new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Eventually, we got to the issue of people's response to his involvement in his son's same-sex blessing ceremony. As always, questions are in italics, and his answers are in regular type. If I make a comment or editorialize, I'll note it.

How did you come to write this book?

I've been thinking about writing is for a long time, probably since A New Kind of Christian. As I was writing it, I was aware that a new kind of Christian entails a new Christian identity, especially related to people of other faiths. In NKOC, I was trying to deal with Christian identity inside Christianity, but with the new book I look at the different problems that result as Christianity relates to other faiths.

We  (ed: by which he seems to mean American Christianity, but I suspect we could extend it to Anglican Communion, etc.) do two things well. We either have a strong Christian identity and a corresponding hostility to other faiths, or we have a weak Christian identity that is tolerant of other faiths. What we need to consider is a strong Christian identity that is benevolent toward other faiths.

How is this different than the old ecumenical movement or the Lausanne Covenant?

I think the ecumenical movement has been very good in treating other faiths charitably. The Lausanne Covenant itself is charitable and not hostile toward other faiths. The ecumenical movement didn't always show a strong Christian identity, so I want to frame the discussion with the ideas of strong Christian identity and that charity toward other faiths.

For many people, the telos of evangelism is that the whole world must agree with us--and that's true of people who aren't Christian. There are pluralists who want everyone to be a pluralist. This isn't just about evangelism, though. This new Christian identity has to take into account this question: what does love for my neighbor look like if my neighbor doesn't want to convert?

How do you answer it?

We have actually had Christians mobilizing to prevent the building of mosques in the United States, like the group in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Do you think Muslims in those cities feel like they have loving Christian neighbors? A strong Christian identity means that we speak up with them and in their defense. 

We are facing monumental global crises — the environment, the divide between rich and poor, proliferation of nuclear weapons, the threat of catastrophic war. Governments and religions cannot tackle these problems alone. I like what Rick Warren says about this. He said he's interested in interfaith dialogs as much as he's interested in interfaith projects.  If we can do that, it can open up a new chapter in Christian mission.

The book's release is timely given the recent film about the Prophet Muhammad. What do you say to those sorts of knuckleheads who believe provocation is the best way to address another faith?

People are going to be knuckleheads. In those instances, we have to speak up from an alternative religious position. The alternative to bad religion isn't no religion; it's good religion. When Christians say and do harmful, prejudicial and violent things, we must speak up. When they moblize against mosques, we must speak up with and in defense of our Muslim neighbors. In the dispute between Israel and Palestine, if either side engages in inhumane or unjust behavior, we must speak up. We must speak up to our own tradition, someteimes siding with other traditions against our own.

Do you think words like Islamist and Christianist are useful in these moments?

Andrew Sullivan uses the word Christianist to make a helpful distinction between a political ideology and Christian practice. It's a useful name, and there is a value in naming things. However, there are also unintended consequences.

I grew up in a fundamentalist setting. Fundamentalists of every kind almost never seee themselves as oppressors, only as victims. They see no harm in their words and names directed at homosexuals or Muslims. In fact, they believe they are speaking the truth. However, any perceived insult directed at them, a term like Christianist, for example, only serves to stir up more victimization on the part of fundamentalists. Recently, I was speaking at an event and I took the opportunity to describe certain people as Islamophobic. Only afterwards did I realize that the people who most needed to hear what I was saying took offense to the term.

You recently took some criticism for presiding over your son's same-sex blessing ceremony. How did you react to that?

As a parent, you always feel protective of your kids. You don't want them to be hurt. I felt that way about my son as the ceremony gained attention. These things make it apparent that issues related to hostility and identity also apply within the faith. I know Christianity Today had it on their blog, but I didn't read it or the comments. My wife did, though, and she was very upset. We did receive all sorts of texts and voicemails from people who supported our decision and who disagreed respectfully.

I keep hearing the war is won on the LGBT issue, and we're just fighting mop-up battles. Thoughts?

I think this issue will follow a similar path as racism and equality for women. That's good news and bad. There still are pockets of resistance on those two issues. We still have segregated worship in American churches. Women are prevented from being in ministry or being ordained, and they are in some places viewed as less equal. We will have the same pockets of resistance on the LGBT issue, too. The good news is that younger people view it as more normative. They see people for who they are. And I think in the U.S., even for those who are opposed, it's still a better environment than elsewhere.

I've spent a great deal of time in Africa and Asia over the past several years. Gay people's lives are still in danger in some of those countries. Globally ,we have a long way to go. The most conservative American Christian I can imagine wouldn't call for the death of a gay person for being gay.

It's been 11 years since NKOC. Anything you would change in that book looking back?

No. I don't think so. I was really lucky. I started writing that book when I was 40. I'd been through the issues in the book by then. At that age, writing left me with less regrets, so there was nothing really to change. I did open up areas that I didn't fully work through, but I've done that in subsequent books.

What's next?

I'm not certain on the next project. It will be some sort of catechesis. What would an introduction to the faith look like with this new Christian identity? What would it look like to re-introduce someone to the faith? That's what I'm thinking about. I'm not ready to write it yet.


Joel Osteen: Hope, an Interview

Joel Osteen's Night of Hope was in Oklahoma City last night. I did the advance for the Oklahoma Gazette. As is always the case, I have way more material than could go in the story. This is the full text of the phone interview with Osteen.

What is the purpose of the Night of Hope tour? Can I call it a tour?

We wanted to see some people who watch the television show, to connect with them. Many people who watch the television program don’t attend church. This night gives them an opportunity to take a stand for their faith.

I guess tour is right. We've been doing this for six or seven years, one city each month. We've did New York City, Anaheim, and Atlanta to start. I never dreamed people would come out, but we sold out every venue. The Oklahoma City Night of Hope will be our 120th show.

Are you combining this with a book tour? I saw that Every Day a Friday is now in paperback.

Actually, I will be doing a book signing, but by the time I get there, I'll have a new book out. I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life.

What will the event consist of? Is it like a worship service? And why hope?

It is a night of praise and worship, yes. I'll share my story in the sermon. Victoria will speak about relationships, and my mom will talk about overcoming cancer. The evening is meant to lift people’s spirits.

I think hope is important. We can't live without it. It allows us to move forward from wherever we are.

Your father was sort of a traditional Pentecostal. Is there any of that theology in what you do? What part of his theology did he pass on to you?

My father was really more of a mix of Baptist and Pentecostal, what would later be called Charismatic. Being raised with him for 36 years and traveling and working together every day for many years, I'm sure his theology comes through in what I do. My father was for people; he believed in lifting them up. That's really what I took from him.

You were an unlikely successor. How was that first time at the pulpit?

I was very nervous the first time I preached. I had to hold onto the podium because I didn’t want anyone to see how badly my hands were shaking. I saw a picture of it a while back. I was very young; it was 13 years ago.

Ever watch the video of it?

(laughs) No. I don't think I want to see that. Still, I felt like I was supposed to do it. I did get comfortable over time.

Your critics accuse you of preaching a 'prosperity gospel.' How do you respond to that?

I never liked the term ‘prosperity gospel.' There is only one gospel. Prosperity to me is part of that one gospel, and it means good relation ships, peace of mind, and many other things. When some people say it, they are talking only about money. It comes from this group who believes Christians should suffer and be poor. I don't read the Bible that way, though. The way I read the Bible, I believe we’re to be leaders, be examples, and be a blessing to other people.

You have two children. How old and what are their plans?

Well, Alexandra is only 13, so she's in school. Jonathan is 17 now. He's finishing up high school and plans to go to the University of Texas for film studies.

You've had remarkable success with Lakewood. What do you think your father would be most proud of you for?

I'm sure he'd be proud of me for carrying on the legacy he started. He began with only 90 people, and now we have more than 40,000. Overall, I think he'd just be proud in general, though. I believe he'd say he couldn't be more proud than to see a son take over an do well.

What do you want people to take away from the Oklahoma City event?

You know, we're still amazed at how many people come out. We want to lift them up, give them hope. Whatever they're facing, we want them to have hope. Really, though, I leave more inspired than the people who come. They give me hope and inspire me. I just want them to know that God’s dream for them is bigger than their dreams for themselves.


Equality Ride and Southern Nazarene University: A Few Questions for Dr. Gresham

On March 26, Soulforce's Equality Ride visited my alma mater, Southern Nazarene University. I did an advance for the Oklahoma Gazette about it, and I covered the riders last time they were in the state in 2006. I don't have much of an opinion about the tactics, except that I think they might make it possible for a few kids on campuses to feel normal in the midst of cultures that insist there is something wrong with their same-sex orientation. I'm pretty certain that schools that are adamantly evangelical and fundamentalist aren't going to be swayed by gay Christians who want changes to handbooks and a safe area like a GSA or GLA set up on campus. Jason Conner, a co-director of Equality Ride, told me that Dan Boone, president of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, told him that the school had never kicked anyone out for being LGBTQ, and while that's admirable if true, it hardly rises to the level of open tolerance of LBGTQ people, nor does it come close to identifying them as confessing Christians. That being said, these are courageous, committed young people, and I salute their willingness to engage the "opposition" in open dialog when possible and with nonviolent resistance when not.

Dr. Loren Gresham, president of Southern Nazarene and a notoriously bad tipper (sir, they know who you are, so why not move that percentage up to 20?), sent a letter to interested parties following Equality Ride's visit. Here's the full text:

Dear Friends and Family of SNU: It has been a week now since the visit of the Soulforce Equality Ride group to our campus. I wanted to thank you for your interest in, and prayers for, the visit and for those who worked very hard to make it a time of dialogue and learning. I am sincerely grateful.

There has been no time in my memory that we have felt the prayerful support of our regional church and alumni as we did prior to and during the visit. Parents of our students added their support through emails, phone calls, and letters of support. All of this helped to make it a time of serious conversation, without the media spotlight that has accompanied many such visits where denial of access to campuses has resulted in negative attention to universities and to the cause of Christ.

In almost every way the visit was a non-event. Our hosting of the time was well planned and the dialogue generally respectful. With such fundamental disagreements about core theological beliefs regarding human sexuality between ourselves and the visitors, it was clear that their desire to change our student handbook to their liking and to convince the university to create a club for homosexuals on campus would yield no results about which they would feel good. The representatives of SNU were crystal clear on our denominational and university stand on the issues discussed. So in some ways it was a failed effort from the outset.

A positive outcome for some of our students was a fresh understanding of the clear stand we have on homosexuality. From the two chapels by our VP for Spiritual Development that focused on biblical and university positions prior to the visit, plus a chapel speaker from Moody Bible Institute who had himself emerged out of the homosexual lifestyle to wholeness in Christ, there was opportunity for the campus leadership to state without ambiguity who we are and what we believe related to the subject. One student in an email addressed to Dr. Brad Strawn after the session open to the students later stated: "I went to the meeting...with an on-the-fence perspective on homosexuality, the church, and my own belief system. And I left with a strengthened faith and confidence in Nazarene theology concerning the issue I had not felt before. I am extremely proud of the university I attend." This same sense was communicated to me by several students, a result that we could have hoped for in all the students who chose to attend.

While we are glad the visit is over, we need not assume that the pressures on our students from the GLBTQ agenda will subside. The confusion being generated by this segment of our society far exceeds all studies of their actual numbers of adherents. May God enable us to be careful and clear in articulating our understandings of Scripture on the subject of homosexuality, while simultaneously extending respect for all those created in the image of God.

A final word of thanks to the planners of the visit from our end: Drs. Scott and Brad Strawn, VPs of Student Development and Spiritual Development, led the team. They were joined by Dr. Hal Cauthron, Chair of the School of Theology and Ministry, and Dr. Terry Toler, VP for University Advancement and Church Relations. Dr. Tim Crutcher, Professor of Theology, was part of the SNU panel for the Forum and did a superb job representing our position on the issues discussed. To all of these I say thank you and God bless you.

In the middle of this Holy Week we look forward to the hope of the Resurrection with sincere gratitude and praise!

Loren P. Gresham, PhD,
President

Can we unpack a few things? How was the visit a non-event? What does that mean? Do you mean that the media didn't make a huge issue of it and embarrass the school? Well, that's because you locked the media out of the event. Do you mean there were no arrests on campus? That's a good thing, and it's largely because you agreed to meet with them. However, I do wonder what it could have hurt to allow the public, including the media, to watch sincere Christians dialog constructively. What were you afraid of, sir?

I'm not sure human sexuality is a core theological belief, but more on that another time. However, I do think Soulforce's request for a safe space on campus could only help SNU and other schools deal with the real issues that LGBTQ kids face. Hell, you might even help a student or parent or professor. You think you have no gay kids or professors on campus? Have you visited the music department? 

A failed effort from the outset? Scratching head...

This is my favorite for a couple reasons: "...a chapel speaker from Moody Bible Institute who had himself emerged out of the homosexual lifestyle to wholeness in Christ..." First, what the hell is a speaker from Moody doing at a Nazarene school? Moody? Their doctrinal requirements make clear that it is a fundamentalist school. Why in the world would you have a fundamentalist, Baptist representative speaking in chapel at a Wesleyan school? Do you even understand your heritage? Do you suppose your faculty could qualify to teach at Moody based on those requirements? Also, how is a gay student not whole in Christ? That seems an assumption you've made. Additionally, trotting out a fake ex-gay speaker to talk about wholeness in Christ is absurd. There are so many things wrong with that. Do you think human sexuality is a simple binary? Do you think that saying I'm ex-gay makes me ex-gay? I've met the ex-gay ministers, and they seem pretty damn gay still. Why is SNU participating in the abusive practice of ex-gay ministry?

GLBTQ agenda? It seems you're listening to the wrong news sources, sir. What is the GLBTQ agenda? Who drew it up? Where can I find the documents? Would you please stop using empty signifiers to score political points with your conservative donors? Please.

Sounds like you could have benefited from a sincere, open, and thorough discussion, sir. It's a shame it was a non-event and a failure from the outset. I wonder how that happened...I wonder how your gay students feel about that characterization. 


Editing the Godhead, or A Lesson for Young Writers

I started my writing career in the most bizarre of ways. I first sold a biker story to a now defunct biker magazine. I've never been on a Harley, but I do like boobs, and the story's ironic twist (kind of a pornified O. Henry conceit) centered on boobs and a snake tattoo. Yeah, glad that's off my chest... That was 1990. A year later, I sold a story about a homeless guy who organized a street church service to David C. Cook publishing because they thought it was non-fiction. Yes, it's often better to be lucky than good. I then struggled for years trying to get something else published. It was incredibly frustrating. This was due in large part to my penchant for preaching; I've always struggled with fiction because I tend to be more concrete than abstract, a fact that will surprise some of you, I'm sure.

I was also a Christian at the time, but had grown up on Mad and Cracked, so satire was one of my primary languages. I finally discovered The Door in the late 90s. Thanks in large part to Harry Potter and Left Behind, I was able to convince the editors that a piece called Harry Potter gets Left Behind was a brilliant idea. I wrote a dozen or so pieces for them before they folded.That was right about the time I started writing regularly for the Oklahoma Gazette. Journalism is a joyless form, necessarily so. I've been at it for nearly 10 years now, and I've often felt my brain lurch when I try to shift writing styles. This blog has helped keep me from becoming completely entrenched, but I do find the journalism world frustrating and rewarding in almost equal parts. 

This week is about frustration and resignation. I've written a few pieces over the years for the Gazette's satirical column Chicken Fried News. These are actual news stories with snark and satire added as commentary. I've had fun with churches giving away Harleys for Easter, SBC issues, and a host of other insanities. This last week was one of the best I've written. I just read the edited version that went to print. I never do this! Never. I shouldn't have, but I had to this time to be sure I wanted to link it on fb. They are non-byline pieces, and on many, the whole writing and editing staff contribute so that what is left is often better than when it started. Occasionally, it's worse.

Religion is hard to write about, especially satirically if you don't want to alienate everyone. Anyone can write satire that mocks believers, but the task, and it's one which The Door got right, is to satirize for the sake of redemption. In religious satire, as in blowjobs, the appropriate amount of teeth is crucial. I'm posting the piece as it appeared in the Gazette, followed by the original. You tell me what you think. I'm used to being edited. Any writer who thinks he is above editing is a beginner or an asshole. However, I don't like being defanged, and I think this is exactly what happened. Note: The reference to Mary Fallin is about a recent Lost Ogle story about our governor spending thousands in tax dollars to get her hot tub and pool temperatures correct.

Gazette:

In a move that’s sure to confuse almost everyone, the Oklahoma House last week approved a measure creating an official state motto. Authored by Rep. Danny Morgan, House Concurrent Resolution 1024 would make “Oklahoma — In God We Trust!” the official state motto. Morgan told The Christian Post that research and review of the Oklahoma Constitution revealed that the state has no motto. As to the “Labor Omnia Vincit” (Labor Conquers All) on the state seal, Morgan explained that was only in the Constitution as a description of the seal.

Although the U.S. and Florida both use the phrase, The Christian Post reported that the exclamation point and the state name makes the new motto totally legal. Morgan, a Democrat who is former mayor of Prague — home of the National Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague — said no church or religious group had supported or endorsed the proposal. Presumably, the measure has the endorsement of God. At least we trust that’s the case.

Original:

In a move that is sure to confuse almost everyone, the Oklahoma House of Representatives approved HCR 1024 in March. The resolution, authored by Rep. Danny Morgan (D-Prague), would make “Oklahoma -- In God We Trust!” the official state motto. 

Morgan gave The Christian Post an interview after the fact, wherein he informed the online publication that research and review of the Oklahoma Constitution revealed that Oklahoma has no motto. As to the “Labor Omnia Vincit” (Labor Conquers All) on the state seal, Morgan explained that was only in the constitution as a description of the seal. Clearly, then, it would seem the seal’s designers were only looking for a cool Latin phrase as opposed to an actual motto.

Although the United States and Florida both use the phrase, the Christian Post reported that our use of an exclamation point and the state name makes the new motto totally legal. That’s sure to be a relief to some, but what of all the gods that will be lining up to be the object of our trust?

Morgan, the former mayor of Prague, home of the National Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague, said no church or religious group had supported or endorsed the proposal. No word on whether that list includes the infant Jesus of Prague himself.

The truly good news is that now that God is getting a shout out from Oklahomans, it’s possible our governor can get her pool fixed gratis. We hear that Jesus guy is awesome around water.



Black Robe Regiment, or Do Only Wizards and Patriots Wear Robes?

The Black Robe Regiment is growing in Oklahoma! When I first did a story on the group in summer 2009, there were only a few in the metro. Now, according to a story in the Oklahoman, the group has seven members. Seven. Truthfully, there are probably more, but I'm too lazy to look them up on the national database. If you've never heard of this group, it's probably because you don't attend a fundamentalist Baptist church, frequent Christian nation message boards, give a shit about Glen Beck and David Barton, or identify yourself as one of the other fringees who think every conservative is attempting to create a theocracy. 

The group believes they are resurrecting a practice of speaking about politics from the pulpit as pastors did in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. The group is silly. Not Dr. Seuss silly—that shit is redemptive—but "this ought to be satire but it's real" silly. More on the Oklahoman article and the utterly awful reporting in a moment. For now, here's what Paul Blair, current candidate for state senate from Edmond, Okla., and senior pastor of Fairview Baptist Church, said in my article:

"...a great revival that began in the pulpits was responsible for the birth of this nation, (and) I believe that another revival is necessary for America to continue as a free country, governed by 'We the people,' where we have personal liberty and personal responsibility."

Huh? The revival led to the American Revolution and the founding of this country? See, I thought it was the thinking and writing of Locke, Paine, Jefferson, the Philosophes, and others who weren't, um, speaking from pulpits. It's the kind of revisionist history that sees God's activity behind every event, so that the actual causes of the Revolution become only proximate causes subsequent to God's will as ultimate cause. This is, of course, a Biblical position that goes all the way back to "go into the land and kill everything," but it's not terribly heartening in the context of a national political debate. It's not difficult to see how patriot pastors can read providential tea leaves to confer the imprimatur of God's will on the causes they most support. How then would we tell them God says otherwise? Who would be right? How could we know?

Speaking of patriot pastors, Carla Hinton, the "journalist" who wrote the Oklahoman piece, has always been a really bad reporter. Really bad. We go way back. We once had a discussion via email about how a lack of any cynical impulse makes her inadequate as a reporter. You can't report on anything, most especially religion and politics, if you believe everyone is telling you the truth. That seems axiomatic to the reporting job. Hinton sees herself as some sort of PR person for good religion, but in doing the job that way, she consistently misses the real story. For example, note the use of "biblical patriotism" in the lede. What the hell is biblical patriotism? Where does the concept patriotism occur in the Bible? Is the message of the gospel the promise of a moral nation on this earth, or the promise of a kingdom and city which cannot be shaken—surely metaphors for a nation of justice in "the world to come," not a Proverbial promise of shit running properly now as long as we "choose blessing and not cursing."

Alas, this isn't the worst of it. The group is responsible for the silliest ideas. First, how many preachers wore black robes in the 18th century? Wanna guess? Yeah, most. Ever see the pictures of Spurgeon in his black robe? Was he too a patriot pastor from his pulpit at Metropolitan Tabernacle in London? What of John Wesley in his black robe? Was he too a patriot pastor in the fields and mines of England, or when he worked with the Moravians? How little they knew of the real significance of their clerical garb! Clearly these pastors are so ensconced in a low church tradition that they see black robes as somehow more historically important than the minister's who actually wore them as part of an ecclesiastical tradition, irrespective of their being Tory or Whig.

Here's the silliest idea, though. They believe that they are somehow qualified to speak to these issues, and that their congregants want them to speak to these issues. They believe the first even as they listen to Glen Beck and David Barton twist history and distort the truth. They believe the second even though they've experienced the reality of losing congregants over pastoral hubris. They see this not as hubris, of course, but as the consequences of faithfulness. It's clearly hubris.

Scot McKnight asked John Fea, a real historian, to write on his blog back in September '10. I'll let you read it, but this quote, with which I'll close, stood out:

Historians concerned with the integrity of the past and the integrity of their work must also note that John Adams rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.  They should mention that George Washington deliberately avoided taking communion.  They must also tell the whole truth about the so-called “Black Regiment.” Most of these clergymen were blatantly anti-Catholic.  Others blurred Biblical teachings on freedom (from sin) with political teachings on freedom (from George III). These Christian America pundits tell just one side of the story because the so-called “rest of the story” does not suit their political needs in the present.

The Mormon Moment, or Presidential Underwear

I'm waiting for the moment Bill Clinton's MTV moment is repeated during the Romney campaign. Remember the townhall type Q&A Clinton had with a young MTV audience. One young pothead finally asked: boxers or briefs? It was a watershed moment in U.S. politics, primarily because Clinton took the opportunity not to be a self-important twat, and in enjoying the moment, he endeared himself to millions of young people around the country.

I suspect Romney's moment will be a bit different, and you just know the subject of magical underwear has to come up; it just has to. Writing for Martin Marty's Sightings column, Terryl Givens, a lit and religion professor at Richmond, observed:

In the century since the Chicago fair, Mormons have been lauded for their choirs and their football. They are largely respected as good, decent, family-centered people, who are welcome to sing for presidents and dance with the stars—and everyone agrees to avoid theological questions.

The theological questions will come up, though, right? I recently did a story for the Oklahoma Gazette wherein I asked some Oklahomans about the issue. Congressman James Lankford did a soft shoe around the question, as is wise for a U.S. Congressman of the same party as the candidates. Lankford is also Southern Baptist. I asked the Reverend to respond to the same questions I put to Lankford. He was more forthcoming when I asked if Romney's faith would have an impact.

Normally, I would knee-jerk and offer a hearty, “Yes!” But, Former Representative Istook, a Mormon, seemed to avoid the potential polarizations that Romney seems to be generating among religiously Christian voters around the Country. This leads me to wonder if Romney’s politics will take center stage in Oklahoma or will it be his chosen religious identification? I may lean to the former in light of our past with Istook. Conservatism really seems to be the central issue for Oklahoma voters.

Excursus: I'm forced to agree. Santorum will win in Oklahoma on Tuesday. Mark it down. Independents can't vote in an Oklahoma primary, so someone like me who would normally choose Romney over Santorum's relentless pandering to the far right is precluded from having an impact. That means Santorum wins in this the most conservative state.

As to the question of a nationwide response to Mormonism's more esoteric elements, the Reverend replied:

Some will be distracted. There is little doubt some of the elements more familiar to initiates will draw a range of responses from laughter to scorn. I think this has already happened on a small scale. Others may not find the peculiarities any more problematic than any other religious expressions. It is hard to say. Likely one’s personal experience and interactions with Mormons will play a large role in national public discourse.

Again, I suspect he is correct. I would have no problem voting for a moderate Mormon, irrespective of the beliefs in sacred underwear and an unknown planet called Kolob. Every faith believes weird shit. Talking snake, anyone? Sun standing still? Angels? Demons? And on and on. Givens is right that the LDS leadership has brought some of this confusion upon themselves by refusing to have a public discussion. He writes:

But this is only true because in acquiescing to the compromise, Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion. In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule.

It's an odd time for a Mormon moment. At the end of January, Reuters reported that Mormons are leaving the church at a brisk rate, especially in the U.S. (As with Christianity, LDS growth is solid in the Southern Hemisphere, which is to say in barely industrialized nations.) Elder Marlin Jensen told Reuters that the rate of defection has increased in the last 5 to 10 years, but declined to provide actual numbers. This is partly due to the ability of young (and old) Mormons to get online and read for themselves what critics and scholars say about some of the church's more dubious claims.

Excursus: This is the same movement that Santorum criticizes without understanding the historical context. In a bizarre move, he accuses Obama of attempting to have more students enrolled in college so that the numbers of the "indoctrinated" will increase. He even cited a figure (without attribution) of 62 percent of students with faith commitments losing those commitments in college. That doesn't make college an "indoctrination mill." College is often the first time students are challenged to think beyond the stock answers provided by overprotective parents and youth pastors. High school teachers are not free to deconstruct faith claims—college professors are, inasmuch as the deconstruction serves the purpose of critical thinking. Access to the Internet and college courses will always provide an opportunity for members of a faith community to defect. Faith communities that practice honesty about the difficult questions instead of protectionism or strawman arguments will likely see less defections. Those that can't contextualize their theology will always find a revolving back door spinning with redline efficiency. And Santorum seemed unaware of recent studies that show religious belief is stable across decades in this country. Those kids that leave the faith in college return when they have kids of their own, almost every time.

Charles Kimball is the director of the religious studies program at the University of Oklahoma. In discussing how conservative Christians will respond to Romney in particular and Mormons in general, he too cited the differentiating factor of actually knowing a Mormon. People who know them, tend to respect them, especially when their ethics are the focus. He does see trouble ahead with the theological claims, though.

Generally speaking, it's much easier to process different or odd beliefs when the tradition is very distant from one's own. If the traditions both incorporate the teachings of Jesus, then different becomes harder to accept.

Since Mormons and Christians draw on the same lexicon to describe messiah, salvation, savior, etc., differences are parsed as heresies, not exotic beliefs in "fake" gods. Kimball said he expects Romney to continue to do what he's been doing, which is respond with some variation of "I'm not running for the bishop of an LDS ward; I'm running for POTUS." Realistically, I think Christians with some notable exceptions are able to put aside theological squabbling for the sake of their poorly defined "conservative values." Romney could have benefited from that compromise, but he's taken a more moderate approach on some issues (immigration not being one of them). That will hurt him among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, but likely not among Republicans overall and Independents who lean conservative. If he loses the nomination, it won't be because he's a Mormon, just as Santorum won't lose because he's a Catholic. As Mormon moments go, this is a good one for the LDS church, but I suspect no one is going to question Romney about his faith, not in any formal setting, and if there are Romney/Obama debates, President Obama is unlikely to say, "Kolob? Really?"


Men in Miniskirts, or Why Pastors Ought at Least to be Smart

Oklahoma City received national attention via huffpost recently because of the City Council's vote to include sexual orientation as a category in the city's nondiscrimination policy. Clifton Adcock penned a local version for the Gazette, which, happily, contains photos of this post's cast of characters. This fight has been going on for quite some time, with Ed Shadid, one of the new councilmen, finally authoring a proposal that passed 7-2. The chambers filled up that night, mainly with area churchpeople, members of the LGBT community, and the usual suspects: ACLU, Cimarron Alliance, etc. 

Representing the Lord Jesus Christ (much to His embarrassment) were two of the city's most outspoken pastors: Paul Blair and Tom Vineyard. First Blair (photos by Mark Hancock for the Oklahoma Gazette):

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Blair is on the far left of the photo. Please note the well-coiffed young men arrayed to his left. That they are standing and applauding means Pastor Vineyard or Councilman Kelly (one of the nay votes) had just said something spiritual or inspiring or ridiculous. I'll let you judge very soon. Blair played football at Oklahoma State and then for the Chicago Bears. As near as I can tell, it's his single qualification for being in ministry, except the ability to read (if not interpret accurately) the Bible. Too harsh? Listen to Blair's rationale for being opposed to granting LGBT persons employment protections:

"What are you going to do when you pass these kind of policies, and all of a sudden, you’ve got Jim in accounting that decides he wishes to wear a miniskirt to work one day? Well, are you going to discriminate against him and send him home?” he said. “What are you going to do when Officer Jones decides he wishes to take a shower in the women’s locker room because he’s feeling like a woman that day?"

Poor Clifton. The problem with being a journalist is you're not allowed to use "What the fuck are you talking about?" as a follow-up question. Would that it were allowed; the world would be a better place and politicians and pastors might actually think about the bullshit that comes from their mouths. Blair pastors Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, a suburb to the north of Oklahoma City, and he is the national director for Reclaiming America for Christ, the grassroots theocrats inspired by the late, fake Presbyterian D. James Kennedy. 

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The man above is not Karl Rove's nephew, but he could totally rock the costume for Halloween. Except Windsor Hills Baptist Church does not observe Halloween. Nope, like a Jack Chick tract come to life, Windsor Hills Baptist Church eschews the devil's holiday, spins conspiracy theories, supports Israel without qualification, and gives away guns at their summer youth camp. It is one of two large Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches in the Oklahoma City metro area. (The other is Southwest Baptist, and you can find them in Bricktown on a regular basis, black pinafores, white shirts, black slacks, posters about abortion and judgment, shitty music and sidewalk prayer abounding.) Tom Vineyard, Rove's nephew, is the son of founder Jim Vineyard, who is now listed as pastor emeritus. The son took over from his father in 2007, and very little (nothing) has changed.

Not to be outdone in histrionics or ridiculous assertions, Vineyard exceeded Blair in amazing absurdities:

from huffpost: As NewsOK is reporting, Pastor Tom Vineyard of Windsor Hills Baptist Church cited "a New York judge" in saying more than half of murders in large cities are committed by gay people. He went on to note, "Many homosexuals openly admit that they are pedophiles because they cannot actually reproduce. They resort to recruiting children. ... Folks, you're making a decision that will bring down God's judgment on your city if you vote in favor of this." Vineyard is also reported to have received the longest standing ovation of the day after his remarks.

Clifton also reported: "He read a list of statistics about rates of sexually transmitted diseases, intestinal parasites, murder and pedophilia among homosexuals." Intestinal parasites? Oh dear. All gay people are less attractive Dexters with the shits and an unhealthy attraction to children? Shouldn't a fundamental commitment to truth-telling be a qualification for ministry? Silly question, I know, but this is amazing stuff. To lie, obfuscate, bully, and grandstand to get your dubious agenda passed is shameful. Pretty sure demagoguery is too tame a word to describe men who sell out the truth as they pretend to labor for the truth.

The more likely possibility is that these two actually believe much of what they're saying because, well, not to be uncharitable, but because they're not smart enough to know bullshit when they hear it. It's possible that they are so invested in a particular set of "facts" being the case, they are closed to the possibility that the things can't be true. They practice a willful ignorance that allows Jesus to be Lord of a tiny kingdom of douchebags and bigots. Probably not what the revolutionary rabbi had in mind when he went to the cross. One nail for white folks, one nail for the KJV, and one nail for the status quo. Maranatha, Lord Jesus. What's that? You're busy. Fuck. I understand.


Gay in the Roberts Compound: Randy Potts Interview

Randy Potts is the grandson of Oral Roberts, the famous 600-foot Jesus televangelist. Oral Roberts was part of my growing-up life, especially the years my dad was overseas. We would stay with my maternal grandmother, and our Sunday morning routine included Oral Roberts and Rex Humbard. I can still remember the strains of Oral's theme music Something Good (is Going to Happen to You) piping through my grandmother's eastward-listing, tarpaper-shingle house as we got ready for church.

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Potts recently told the story of being the evangelist's grandson for This Land Press, a Tulsa-based multimedia magazine that so far has totally kicked ass. (Note: I want to write for them.) He was chosen as the Grand Marshall for this year's Oklahoma City AIDS Walk, and for that reason, I was asked to interview him. The Gazette story is here. As is always the case, I had way more material than I can use for a story, so I'm publishing the entirety of the email interview below. I asked Potts a few questions he did not answer, but presumably they weren't germane to the story I was writing, and they were quite personal, so I understand.

How much has changed now that your story is out in the media?

The main difference is that I now get letters from many gay men and women seeking help especially in regards to homosexuality and religion, and of course my family is also deeply upset that I am "linking the Roberts name with homosexuality which is disgusting." (this was from a voicemail I received after my video became public)

Have you had opportunities to talk to young people in faith communities who are LGBT, and what was that like?

Yes, many opportunities, both in letters and also in person in churches.  It's been an amazing experience to get to reassure young gay kids that yes, they can keep the faith they were raised in and still be gay—that is the most common question gay teens have for me.

Your "it gets better" video is powerful. What was that experience like? Did you have a genuine sense that you're making a difference?

It was pretty stressful to put a video like that on YouTube.  The letter to my uncle was from a private journal that I had never intended to share, but as I heard more and more news reports of gay kids committing suicide and began to watch the early "it gets better" videos I felt like I needed to make a contribution.  At the time, I didn't know if anybody outside my group of friends would watch it, maybe a couple hundred from Facebook, but it quickly went viral.

Do you still consider yourself a person of faith, and if so, how did you make peace with who you are and what you'd been told the Bible teaches?

I consider myself exactly that, a person of faith,and don't publicly wear my religion on my sleeve. However, I am convinced that there is no conflict between Christianity and homosexuality. I read a lot of books, both pro and con, on the Bible's message regarding homosexuality and concluded that there was no clear, consistent condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible. There are passages that call it, along with eating shellfish and wearing blended cloth, an abomination. There are passages that say homosexuality, along with men with long hair and women in teaching positions, is unnatural. Modern Christians do not read either of these passages literally except in regards to homosexuality, for reasons they are unable to competently articulate. As long as there are Christian men with long hair eating at Red Lobster, there is no good reason why those same men can't also be gay and accepted by the church.

How did you get involved with the AIDS Walk? What do you hope comes of it?

I was asked by the organizing committee to be Grand Marshall as a way to help with fund raising, and I was very happy to accept.  The primary thing I am hoping to happen as a result of all the media attention is exactly what my family finds so offensive -- I would like to publicly link the Oral Roberts family name with an acceptance and loving affirmation of ALL its members, gay and straight.  The Oral Roberts legacy has done a lot to cause pain, and even suicide, in the gay community, and it's time for that to stop.

He agreed to answer a few more follow-up questions in a subsequent email. They are below.

Since you're working with gay teens on a regular basis now, do you plan on writing anything soon directed at them?

Yes, I am working on several projects right now, and hope to be able to say more about them soon.

Any plans on using more new media or social networking tools to get the message out?

Yes, I am working on something right now that I would like to take on tour in 2012, an exhibition of sorts.  Here in Dallas I will be doing a test-run of it in October, and I'm talking to people in other cities, including Oklahoma City, about how to make it happen there.  I also will continue blogging, writing articles, and speaking.

Scott Jones, whom we both know, pastors a UCC church, and he has regularly lamented the difficulty of reaching the LGBT community because they are so jaded about the Gospel and church. Any advice for ministers? Any words to those who are skeptical of the Gospel and church?

I see the same skepticism, and it is very justified, as I hear almost daily from men and women who are hurt and bullied by the church. The easiest way for gay-affirming churches to reach out is through service—to focus their efforts on manning HIV test sites, coordinating programs for homeless gay teens, offering free counseling to gay men and women. This, to me, is the message of the Gospels, that faith in action is paramount.

To those who are skeptical, I would encourage people not to throw the baby out with the bathwater—reflect on what parts of the religion you were raised in you miss, whether it was the fellowship, spirituality, or community service, and consider how you can reconnect with those things. The number of gay-affirming places of worship is increasing every year and many of them are not even "gay" but instead have a mixture of gay and straight couples.