Kevin Eckstrom

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Amid Nepal’s Shattered Shrines and Temples, a Religious Fatalism Sets In

by Vishal Arora, by Kevin Eckstrom 04-30-2015
Photo via Vishal Arora / RNS

A volunteer stands in front of a collapsed temple at the Swayambhunath temple complex in Nepal. Photo via Vishal Arora / RNS

About 80 percent of Nepalese are Hindu, making Nepal the second-largest Hindu nation outside of India, with about 2 percent of the global total. Most Hindus believe in a kind of fatalism, and many here seemed unrattled by the quake as a test of faith, even as their temples and shrines were flattened.

“God had predestined it. He knew about it,” said Suresh Shrestha, a Hindu and a hotel owner. His house was partially damaged and he is living in a tent on the Tundikhel ground in Kathmandu.

Akriti Mahajan, a young girl who was standing outside her family’s tent nearby, suspects that man-made climate change had something to do with it.

“Humans are behind it,” she said. “If God had a role, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Colliding Visions of Marriage at the Supreme Court

by Kevin Eckstrom 04-28-2015
RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Ikeita Cantu, left, and Carmen Guzman, of McLean, Va., hold signs in front of the Supreme Court. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

WASHINGTON — As the nine Supreme Court justices took up the vexing question of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage on Tuesday, the case came down to two competing visions of marriage: what it’s been, what it should be, and who gets to decide.

Outside the court, hundreds of demonstrators echoed both sides: Amateur evangelists and anti-gay zealots with signs proclaiming, “Man & Woman: United for Life, Open to Life,” and throngs of gay rights supporters chanting “Love Must Win!” to drown out the sidewalk preachers with their megaphones.

Yet ultimately, beyond both the arcane and real-life arguments over the state’s sanction of private relationships, the court must decide the very nature and purpose of marriage — or at least which nature will be reflected in civil law.

#blacklivesmatter in Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s ‘A.D.’

Photo via Joe Alblas / LightWorkers Media / NBC / RNS

John, Mother Mary, and Mary Magdalene in “A.D. The Bible Continues.” Photo via Joe Alblas / LightWorkers Media / NBC / RNS

When The Bible miniseries premiered two years ago, controversy swirled around its depiction of a dark-skinned Satan who some said resembled President Obama, as well as its portrayal of white main characters in the Moroccan landscape.

Fast-forward to the premiere of the sequel, A.D. The Bible Continues, on Easter Sunday (April 5), and you’ll see a decidedly more multicultural cast, the result of “honest” conversations between black church leaders and the filmmakers, Hollywood power couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

“For too long religious programming has neither reflected the look of biblical times or the diversity of the church today,” tweeted the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, a Maryland-based black activist, writer and scholar.

“We made this point to Mark and Roma after #BibleSeries, and quite frankly they listened. I’m glad for that.”

Now, in a partnership with the 12-part NBC miniseries, an African-American Christian publishing house will host online resources to help viewers connect the holy book to Africa.

Bob Jones III Apologizes for Old Stone-the-Gays Remarks

by Kevin Eckstrom 03-23-2015
Bob Jones University President Bob Jones III on CNN’s Larry King Live in 2000. I

Bob Jones University President Bob Jones III on CNN’s Larry King Live in 2000. Image via RNS/Reuters.

The former president of Bob Jones University, one of the nation’s bastions of Christian fundamentalism, has apologized for comments he made in 1980 that gays and lesbians should be stoned to death.

Jones, who stepped down as BJU president in 2005, made the original remarks while visiting Jimmy Carter’s White House, delivering a petition with 70,000 signatures opposing greater legal protections for gays and lesbians.

“I’m sure this will be greatly misquoted,” Jones said at the time.

“But it would not be a bad idea to bring the swift justice today that was brought in Israel’s day against murder and rape and homosexuality. I guarantee it would solve the problem post-haste if homosexuals were stoned, if murderers were immediately killed as the Bible commands.”

In a statement issued by the university on March 21, Jones called his earlier comments “inflammatory” and “reckless.”

“Upon now reading these long-forgotten words, they seem to me as words belonging to a total stranger — were my name not attached,” he wrote.

“I cannot erase them, but wish I could, because they do not represent the belief of my heart or the content of my preaching. Neither before, nor since, that event in 1980 have I ever advocated the stoning of sinners.”

Breakaway Episcopalians Win Texas Church Property Fight

by Kevin Eckstrom 03-04-2015
Photo via Paul Moseley / Star-Telegram / RNS

"The Call Of St. Andrew,” is at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, TX. Photo via Paul Moseley / Star-Telegram / RNS

For the second time in as many months, a state court has sided with a group of breakaway Episcopalians, ruling that they can keep their property after leaving the national church in 2008 over sharp differences on homosexuality and the authority of Scripture.

Judge John P. Chupp of the 141st District Court in Tarrant County, Texas, ruled March 2 that more than 60 parishes in greater Fort Worth can retain their property and remain independent of the Episcopal Church.

“We are grateful for the ruling in our favor,”said Bishop Jack Iker, the former Episcopal bishop of Fort Worth who’s now affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America, which formed in 2009 as a rival to the Episcopal Church. “It’s clear that both church laws and Texas laws have been rightly applied to this dispute.”

While still a part of the Episcopal Church, Iker was a leader of the church’s small conservative wing that opposed the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop and blessings for same-sex unions. He’s also criticized the theology of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as unorthodox, and he refers women seeking ordination to a neighboring diocese.

Statue of Controversial Missionary Junipero Serra Could Get Booted from U.S. Capitol

by Kevin Eckstrom 02-11-2015
Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol / RNS

The statue of Father Junipero Serra. Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol / RNS

Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan missionary who’s set to be declared a saint later this year despite protests from Native American groups, could lose his place of honor in the U.S. Capitol if a California lawmaker has his way.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, an openly gay Los Angeles Democrat, wants to replace a bronze statue of Serra with a monument honoring the late Sally Ride, the nation’s first female astronaut. Lara said Ride would become “the first member of the LGBT community” to be honored in Statuary Hall.

Each state is allowed two statues to represent local heroes; California’s other statue is of former President Ronald Reagan, who joined the collection in 2009, replacing a monument to itinerant preacher Thomas Starr King. The King and Serra statues were added in 1931.

“Dr. Sally Ride is a California native, American hero and stratospheric trailblazer who devoted her life to pushing the limits of space and inspiring young girls to succeed in math and science careers,” Lara said in a statement

“She is the embodiment of the American dream.”

2014 in Review: An Unsettling Year, with Religion in a Starring Role

by Kevin Eckstrom 12-17-2014
Photo via WikiMedia Commons / RNS.

ISIS' flag incorporates the shahada and the seal of Muhammad in its design. Photo via WikiMedia Commons / RNS.

For most of recorded history, Isis was an Egyptian goddess, a benevolent type who cared for widows and orphans, cured the sick and even brought the dead back to life.

This year, the world met the other ISIS.

The rise of the so-called Islamic State, variously known as ISIS or ISIL, dominated headlines in 2014 as a self-proclaimed caliphate sowed death and destruction across Iraq and Syria.  For some, the group confirmed their worst fears about Muslim extremists, bent on killing religious minorities and subjugating women in a quest for domination that included leveling villages and beheading hostages.

The terror wrought by the Islamic State reflected a sense of turbulence that upended international news in 2014. But it was not the only source of unrest. The Ebola virus in west Africa put the world on edge, and a bloody war between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria and the slaughter of more than 100 children at a military school in Pakistan added to the mix.

At home, America wrestled with police brutality as grand juries declined to prosecute officers in the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. From botched prison executions to a stream of desperate migrant children flooding America’s southern border, things felt troubled, disorienting, always on the verge of breaking apart.

Religion played a large role in those stories, and in other major headlines from 2014:

Gallup: Gay Sex, Divorce, Extramarital Sex Reach New Highs of 'Moral Acceptability'

by Kevin Eckstrom 05-30-2014

Moral Acceptability graphic. Photo courtesy Gallup.

Americans are showing more tolerance for a range of behaviors, with sex between unmarried adults, medical research on stem cells from human embryos, and doctor-assisted suicide all showing record highs and increases in “moral acceptability” from last year .

The Gallup poll’s annual “moral acceptability” scale has been conducted since 2001 and charts shifting cultural attitudes on a number of hot-button social issues. In the 2014 list released Friday, Gallup researchers said 12 of the 19 categories reflected “levels of moral acceptance that are as high or higher than in the past.”

“Americans largely agree about the morality of several issues,” Gallup researchers said. “Most say birth control is acceptable but that extramarital affairs are wrong. However, other issues show clear, substantial divides. These differences are largely explained by party identification, but previous research has shown that age also plays a factor.”

Three issues — sex between an unmarried man and woman, medical research on embryonic stem cells, and doctor-assisted suicide — showed a slight increase in acceptability from 2013. Most of the other issues were mostly unchanged.

5 Reasons Gay Marriage Is Winning

by Kevin Eckstrom 05-22-2014

Supporters of gay marriage rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on March 27, 2013. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

What a difference 10 years makes.

In May 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage. Six months later, with dire warnings about schoolchildren being forced to read “Heather Has Two Mommies” and threats of legalized polygamy, so-called “values voters” passed bans on same-sex marriage in 11 states and ushered George W. Bush to another four years in the White House.

Fast-forward to 2014, and the cultural and legal landscape could hardly be more different. Today, 19 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage, and federal courts have struck down bans in 11 more states. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages after ditching a central portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act last year, and 44 percent of Americans now live in states that allow same-sex marriage.

After four same-sex couples filed suit Wednesday challenging Montana’s ban on same-sex marriage, neighboring North Dakota is the only state that isn’t facing a challenge to its gay marriage ban — at least not yet.

So what changed?

Franklin Graham: Putin Is Better on Gay Issues than Obama

by Kevin Eckstrom 03-14-2014

Evangelist Billy Graham, right, with son Franklin Graham, at a crusade in New York in 2005. Photo by Michael Falco.

Evangelist Franklin Graham is praising Russian President Vladimir Putin for his aggressive crackdown on homosexuality, saying his record on protecting children from gay “propaganda” is better than President Obama’s “shameful” embrace of gay rights.

Graham, who now heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association started by his famous father, praises Putin in the March issue of the group’s Decision magazinefor signing a bill that imposes fines for adults who promote “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.”

The Russian law came under heavy criticism from gay rights activists, and from Obama, ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In response, Obama included openly gay athletes as part of the official U.S. delegation to Sochi.

“In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues,” Graham writes. “Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”

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