Tag Archives: Southern Baptist

Let Boys Be Boy Scouts

Some wag has said he didn’t see what the big deal is about the Boy Scouts allowing admittedly gay boys in their troops, since most pre-pubescent boys are gay already. That’s more a comment about preferences in companionship than sexual orientation.

I suspect the controversy about the role of gays in the Scouts is yet another case of adults making a fuss over something that kids don’t even give a second thought.  On the liberal side, in the ongoing crusade of nondiscrimination, the Scouts represented one more fortress to be stormed. On the conservative side, the Scouts represented an ideal of wholesomeness that would somehow be indelibly stained by allowing self-identified gays as Scouts or Scout leaders. In reality, the Boy Scouts are neither obstructionists nor saints. Like the military or the police or any civic organization, they include a wide range of people.

ThBoy Scoutse recent decision by the Boy Scout National Council, to allow gay boys to be Scouts but not gay adults to be Scout leaders, struck me as overly cautious, but it’s perhaps understandable for an organization that has had cases of sexual abuse in its ranks. Still, some corporations, such as FedEx and Caterpillar, have withdrawn their support from the Scouts because of the decision to exclude gay adults.

The story has been different among the religious organizations that sponsor Scout troops. They have stood by the Scouts. Although the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution yesterday at their annual meeting that disapproves of the new policy, it was softer than had been expected, and churches were not encouraged to drop the troops they sponsor. According to this story from Reuters, the largest sponsor of Scout troops is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons — and contrary to what you might expect, they have accepted the new policy. The same is true of the second-largest sponsoring group, the United Methodist Church, but that is not surprising since the Methodists are a pretty all-embracing bunch.

equalityThe story goes on to say the third-largest religious sponsor of Scout troops is the Catholic Church, and that will be a case to watch. The new policy goes into effect in January, and the Catholic leadership has made no decision yet about what to tell its parishes that sponsor troops. Of all religious denominations, the Catholics have exercised the most consistent (some would say intransigent) principles. Several years ago, Catholic Charities in Massachusetts gave up its adoption efforts because the state mandated that gay couples be considered on an equal basis as heterosexual couples. The church said it could not go along and terminated an otherwise positive social service. Say what you will about the Catholics, they can’t be accused of being wishy-washy. If that is any precedent, I would not be surprised if the church leadership declares that parishes may not sponsor troops rather than allow the possibility they might include openly gay Scouts.

As I say, I’m sure that all this is a non-issue for most of the boys in the Scouts. My own memories of my days in Scouting are rather fuzzy, but I mostly recall boys being boys. It was about learning skills and teamwork along with having fun. For the record, I was a pretty bad Scout. Made it Second Class and earned, I think, one merit badge.

The Boy Scouts do uphold certain ideals, ideals that are admirable but open to broad interpretation, which is natural for an organization as diverse as it is. Gay Scouts should be able to fit within those ideals with no trouble, if adults will let them do so.

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The Provocateurs of Westboro Baptist So-called Church

Some of the folks from Westboro Baptist So-called Church in Topeka, Kan., were in Lakeland last weekend, picketing high school graduation ceremonies at The Lakeland Center and about seven local churches, according to reports here and here from The Ledger. For those outside the loop, this is the tiny so-called church whose website URL is godhatesfags.com and who has gained way more notoriety than they deserve by picketing everything from religious conventions to the funerals of military men on the grounds that America has tolerated homosexuality and therefore God has condemned the nation. Westboro has appointed itself as the purveyor of this message and has done so in, shall we say, attention-getting ways.

I first encountered these people at a Southern Baptist Convention about 10 years ago. Now you would think that if there’s a religious group that would be sympathetic to the notion that homosexuality is a sin, it would be the Southern Baptists, but the Westboro Baptist So-called Church says they’re not outspoken enough about it and ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting Americans go to hell. Or something like that. Sure enough, they are scheduled to picket the Southern Baptist Convention again next week in Houston.

Basically, these folks are terrorists. If all they were really interested in was speaking out against homosexuality, there are plenty of ways they could do it in less spectacular fashion. What I saw at that convention 10 years ago was shock and awe tactics, conceived for no other purpose than to provoke and incite fear and revulsion. Some of the signs they held were near-pornographic. Westboro has perfected the art of provocation, and unfortunately, they usually succeed in arousing in others the hatred that they themselves promote. Make no mistake, this so-called church is interested really in one thing only, and that is making a name for themselves. That they may actually believe what they say is almost beside the point. As Marshall McLuhan once said, the medium is the message.

These folks do get around. Sometime I’d like to see an investigative report about where they get their money. The so-called church has all of about 40 members, or something like that, and they must spend a fortune on travel. I suppose they get contributions from people who don’t mind supporting a bunch of self-aggrandizers.

I say that Westboro is a so-called church because from a Christian point of view they are heretics in several ways. Their particular brand of apocalyptic theology was pronounced faulty by at least one American denomination years ago, and their overall message simply doesn’t square with the Bible on numerous crucial points. They have been called a cult, and that’s as good a way of describing them as any.

If there’s a silver lining in their appearance in Lakeland, maybe it’s that it will likely be a long while before they get around to visiting us again.

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Obamacare Ruling: Political Parties at Prayer

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s a measure of how confused our society is these days that the Affordable Care Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on unlikely grounds by an unlikely majority. Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, not Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist, sided with the liberal justices. And the law was valid not by virtue of the Constitution’s commerce clause, Roberts said in his opinion, but because penalties for not having insurance are really a tax, which falls within Congress’ powers.

I leave to others the ruling’s implications for the presidential campaign, the stock market and the price of hummus in Riyadh. But if the ruling itself was unpredictable, the reaction from the religious sector was entirely predictable.

Those within the conservative Protestant orbit were appalled. The liberal Protestant camp and Jewish groups were elated. And the Catholics, well, it’s complicated.

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was astonished that the court “did not see the bill for what it really is: a blatant violation of the personal freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and perhaps a mortal blow to the concept of federalism.” By Land’s account, Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature should just give up and go home, the Tenth Amendment having suffered a mortal blow.

On the liberal side, Kathryn M. Lohre of the National Council of Churches appealed to a higher power: “We as churches follow the bold example of Jesus, who healed the sick, sometimes breaking the religious law that governed society.” Jesus always trumps the Constitution.

As for the Catholics, it depends on who you ask and about what part of the law. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, was delighted at the decision because it will bring health care to more people. The bishops? Not so much.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised the law for taking a step in the direction of universal health care, but they continue to assert that as an employer they should not have to provide coverage for contraception, even if employees pay for that coverage themselves. The bishops say it’s an infringement on their religious liberty, a view that is difficult for many non-Catholic observers to accept.

After the ruling, the bishops said they do not favor repeal. “The decision of the Supreme Court neither diminishes the moral imperative to ensure decent health care for all, nor eliminates the need to correct the fundamental flaws” in the law, they said.

The Affordable Care Act is a good illustration of the partisanship that has infected the nation’s religious scene. Conservative Protestants claim, correctly, that they have joined the political fray late, following the mainline Protestant church that for decades had played a genteel political game and the Catholic Church that has been intertwined in politics since the days of Emperor Constantine.

But it’s more than a little disheartening to see entrenched political ideologies reflexively given a theological rationale. Even the more nuanced position of the Catholic bishops has overtones of a conservative political agenda.

Religious groups should be able to make judgments about laws and the political process based on their values, but when those groups become rigidly partisan, they lose their credibility as organizations beholden to no earthly power. Some of these groups — on both liberal and conservative sides — have long since lost their identity as anything other than a political party at prayer.

Reaction to the health care ruling simply offers one more example of that.

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The Sad Failure of Faith-Based Charity

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

A story in The Ledger of Lakeland earlier this week disclosed that the Florida Baptist Children’s Home will soon close two of its programs at the Lakeland campus. One is a group home and the other is a vocational training program, both for developmentally disabled adults.

I know something about the group home. My wife is working on a project, and as part of her research, she interviewed the five women who live there. We paid a visit to them during a recent open house. They live as a family, sharing the home with house parents employed by the FBCH. Most have simple jobs or volunteer work, and they have a measure of independence.

The reason the home is closing, of course, is money, but behind the decision is a telling comment about the way “faith-based initiatives” work.

The adult group home opened in 1992 and “was supposed to be self-sustaining,” Charlie Cox, vice president for programs for the children’s homes, told the Ledger. But for each of the past four or five years, his agency has shelled out $40,000 to make up for cutbacks in state reimbursements.

By “self-sustaining,” Cox meant that all expenses were supposed to be paid for by government disability programs. Now that the FBCH has had to bear an increasing share of the cost, its response is to close the home.

The FBCH is an agency of the Florida Baptist Convention, one of the largest of the state conventions in the Southern Baptist Convention. For years religious and political conservatives have argued that private charities can do a better job than government in providing social services. Let the charities do it and get the government out of giving handouts, we were told.

Except the religious charities themselves were the ones with their hands out. The charities put up just a fraction of the money for the services. The government pays most of the cost.

Take Catholic Charities USA, one of the largest religious charities in the United States. In 2009, about 67 percent – two-thirds – of its income came from the federal government, most from the Department of Health and Human Services. How much of its income came from the dioceses of the Catholic Church? Three percent. Compared to government funds, you’d have to use a microscope to find the church’s own contributions to its charitable arm.

By the way, this is the same organization that is screaming bloody murder that its religious liberty is being violated by new HHS healthcare rules requiring contraceptive coverage for employees.

Now that government funds have begun to dry up, how have the charities responded? By taking responsibility and making up the difference? No, by cutting back or eliminating services.

The reality is that private charities have nothing close to the resources of government. In 2010, the executive arms of the country’s two largest denominations, the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, combined took in about $337 million, or about what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spends every three hours. Most denominations typically spend only about 10 to 20 percent of their budgets on “outreach” ministries.

There is nothing wrong with government subsidizing the work of private charities. It’s a partnership that makes sense, as long as everyone agrees on the ground rules. The FBCH group home has been an excellent, if small, program, like many faith-based social services.

What irks me is that religious and political conservatives pontificate about the superiority of private charities, which take government money, but then refuse to put up their own money when government support shrinks. It’s the worst kind of hypocrisy, and the result is that five developmentally disabled women are being turned out, likely to live with family members.

They are only five of many whom faith-based charities have failed.

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Consider The Man, Not His Religion

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Now that Mitt Romney is officially the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination – and Florida’s primary on Jan. 31 could assure him the prize – he faces winds of religious prejudice. And that’s a pity.

Romney is a Mormon and some evangelical Christian leaders publicly oppose him based on his beliefs.

On Monday, St. Petersburg Internet preacher Bill Keller, the evangelical version of Ann Coulter, said, “Romney and Mormons lie when they claim to be a Christian, since the teachings of Mormonism are inconsistent with biblical Christianity.”

Keller’s remarks parallel those of the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, who said in October: “Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”

At an ad hoc meeting last weekend at the Texas ranch of Judge Paul Pressler, a stalwart in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders looked for an alternative candidate. Romney’s faith was not mentioned, according to one report, but after prodigious prayer and three ballots, they settled on former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

At a time when the American economy is at a critical point and we should be having a serious debate about Afghanistan, appropriate levels of government spending and a host of other issues, obsession with Romney’s religion is a distraction.

Just what problem do evangelicals have with Mormons? The short answer is the doctrine of the Trinity – the Christian doctrine that says God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all “of one substance.” The Mormons, part of a 19th century movement that questioned the use of ancient creeds, claim to be Christian, but believe God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate physical beings.

Traditional Christians also reject the claim that The Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith, regarded as a prophet by Mormons, as holy scripture. And until 1890, there was that little matter of polygamy.

The U.S. Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, but you can’t forbid deeply held religious prejudices that have dominated politics for decades.

However, prejudices are subject to change. Before John F. Kennedy ran for president, many Protestants said they would never vote for a Catholic. In more recent times, opposition to abortion and gay marriage have bridged the divide between evangelicals and Catholics, hence the evangelical leaders’ support for Santorum, a staunch Catholic.

America has elected many presidents who, like Romney, did not believe in the Trinity. Among them were Deists like Thomas Jefferson, Unitarians John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln, and Quakers Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Their theology was not an obstacle to their governance.

Religious creeds have a place as markers of belief, but they should not matter in evaluating presidential candidates. And indications are strong that Romney’s beliefs do not matter to most GOP voters, no matter how much some evangelicals wail and gnash their teeth.

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