Faith and Politics

A pro-Palestine rally takes place in the Barbes neighborhood of northern Paris. RNS photo by Elizabeth Bryant.

Amid mounting protests in Europe against the Gaza conflict, political and religious leaders in the region have sharply denounced anti-Semitism within their borders.

“Anti-Semitic rhetoric and hostility against Jews, attacks on people of Jewish belief and synagogues have no place in our societies,” the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Italy said in a statement Tuesday from Brussels.

Fears of escalating unrest are perhaps sharpest in France, home to Europe’s largest populations of Jews and Muslims. Many have roots in North Africa, and violence in the Middle East resonates strongly here. Thousands defied a government ban against Paris-area protests over the weekend, staging pro-Palestinian rallies that degenerated into violence.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. RNS photo courtesy Freedom from Religion Foundation

The Internal Revenue Service said it will monitor churches and other houses of worship for electioneering in a settlement reached with an atheist group.

The settlement was reached Friday in federal court in Madison, Wis., where the initial lawsuit was filed in 2012 by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based atheist advocacy group that claims 20,000 members nationwide.

The suit alleged the IRS routinely ignored complaints by the FFRF and others about churches promoting political candidates, issues or proposed legislation. As part of their tax-exempt status, churches and other religious groups are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity.

Mary Herndon 07-22-2014

Colloquially known as the “Monkey Trial,” the Tennessee v. John Scopes trial ended on July 21, 1925, but 89 years later, the American public is still debating on where it stands with religion and science education.

John Scopes, a public school teacher, was charged by the state for teaching evolution because one of its laws prohibited any public school curricula that contradicted creationism. The trial began on July 10, 1925, and Scopes pled not guilty. Along with other members of the community, Scopes had planned the curriculum as a publicity stunt.

Eighty-nine years ago today, Scopes was found guilty and sentenced to pay a $100 fine — an estimated $1,300, when adjusted for inflation.


President Obama signing an executive order on July 21 against hiring discrimination by federal contractors. Public domain image

One of the toughest political calculations in Washington is balancing competing claims of gay rights with the traditional prerogatives of religious freedom. After a number of setbacks on that front, President Obama may have finally found a small patch of middle ground with Monday’s move to bar federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Obama’s executive order shields gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees from discrimination by companies that do work for the federal government by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to long-standing protections from bias based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Yet Monday’s action also leaves in place a 2002 order signed by President George W. Bush that gives religious groups with federal contracts some leeway by allowing them to use religious beliefs as a criterion in making hiring and firing decisions; as a candidate in 2008 Obama pledged to overturn that exemption.

At the same time, Obama did not expand the exemption to explicitly allow religious groups that receive federal funds to use sexual orientation as grounds for hiring and firing, as some demanded.

Pope Francis will make a second trip into Mafia territory on July 26. Creative Commons image:Catholic Church England and Wales.

It began with the murder of an innocent 3-year-old boy who burned to death in his grandfather’s car in a Mafia ambush in January. Pope Francis was so shaken by the death of Nicola “Coco” Campolongo that he spoke out against the ferocity of the crime and those behind it.

But he didn’t stop there. In June, the outspoken pontiff traveled to the southern Italian town where the murder took place and accused Mafia members of pursuing the “adoration of evil.” Then he went one step further.

“They are not with God,” Francis said during his visit to the nearby town of Sibari in the region of Calabria where the global crime syndicate ‘Ndrangheta is based. “They are excommunicated!”

I think we all know that the issues we’re facing cannot be solved by Gamaliel alone. They cannot be solved by Catholic Charities alone. If they could have been solved by one institution—Sojourners, the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP—they would’ve been solved.
Sara Johnson 07-16-2014
Brandon Hook/Sojourners

The Summit participants gather for the opening session. Brandon Hook/Sojourners

Editor’s Note: We at Sojourners thought it would be nice to share first-hand reflections on our inaugural annual conference, The Summit: World Change Through Faith & Justice, from participants. Our first post comes from Sara Johnson, who hails from Ennis, Mont. and is the founder of the Million Girl Army, a brand new non-profit launching this year focused on engaging middle school girls in the U.S. on gender justice advocacy. Sara is an emerging leader who was able to attend The Summit because of a sponsorship from one of our Change Maker donors. The donor covered all of Sara’s costs, from registration to travel and had a tremendous impact on Sara’s work, as she shares below. 

Although nervous to be a founder of a non-profit that hasn’t officially launched yet attending a conference with heavy hitters in the non-profit world, within seconds of walking into the initial Summit gathering I was glad I came.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston and seven other bishops celebrate mass. Creative Commons: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston

Pope Francis on Tuesday waded into the controversy of the wave of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, calling for an end to racism against migrants and pushing the U.S. to offer greater protection for young children entering the country illegally.

“Many people forced to emigrate suffer, and often, die tragically,” the pope said in a message sent to a global conference in Mexico.

“Many of their rights are violated, they are obliged to separate from their families and, unfortunately, continue to be the subject of racist and xenophobic attitudes.”

The Argentine pontiff said a different approach is needed to tackling what he called a “humanitarian emergency” as growing numbers of unaccompanied children are migrating to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico.

Troy Jackson 07-14-2014
Man on a wheel, Hermin /

Man on a wheel, Hermin /

In July 2010 I joined with around 100 freedom fighters in Chicago, many of whom had traded the previous year of their lives to fight for comprehensive immigration reform. And we knew it was not going to happen in 2010, at least as we had imagined. Many in the room were exhausted, and defeated, and spent. The response from the campaign was to talk about the next hill to climb rather than deal with the pain and exhaustion in the room.

Doing justice is hard and exhausting work. We are compelled to action by the urgency of the suffering and pain and evil that mark life for so many in God’s world. And the work is never done. Win or lose, there is always another hill, another peak, another challenge that lies ahead. So the temptation is to keep on keeping on, and to rise to the next challenge.

For the past 20 years, I have either been a pastor or a community organizer, and for many of those years I have been both. For pastors and organizers, there is always one more email to write, one more call to make, and one more strategy to be explored. To be blunt, burnout and exhaustion are the order of the day.

50 years later, poverty is still an issue in America.

I cannot say I am the greatest dancer. I enjoy all types of music. The rhythms of my eclectic taste often entice me to move. Naturally, I easily find myself swaying this way or that way. My feet are not far behind. Only sheer foolishness would compel me to compare my dancing with grace and gifts of Beyonce, Tina Turner, or any champion from Dancing With the Stars. I know my limits. That’s one of the first steps to being successful: know what you can and cannot do.

I can do the basic two-step. A step to the right. A step to the left. A step up. A step back. I do not have to think about it. Just a simple one-two, one-two, and the sounds tickling my ears manifest in my feet. There is no harm if all I do song-in and song-out is slide to right, shimmy to left, take it to top and prance it back. A simple motion of one foot forward and one foot backward, and I am at peace relishing in the music of the moment.

Obama ranks lowest among Mormons, according to a new Gallup poll. Image courtesy of Gallup.

Most Christians don’t approve of President Obama right now, but he gets high ratings from Muslims and other minority religious groups.

It’s not because of their religion, though.

Obama’s level of popular approval matches Americans’ political party ties, not their religious identity, age or almost any other demographic characteristic, said Jeffrey Jones, managing editor of the Gallup poll.

The newest Gallup tracking poll shows the president’s approval rating in June averaged 43 percent for Americans overall. However, his ratings sank with Catholics to 44 percent, down from 54 percent in June 2013.

Lisa Sharon Harper 07-10-2014
Eugene Parciasepe, Christopher Halloran  /

Cory Booker, Eugene Parciasepe /; Rand Paul, Christopher Halloran /

There comes a time in every society when it must face its shadow side — and deal with it.

Societies have myths, legends, and superheroes that lay the foundations for national identity, reinforce beliefs about the self and the other, and shape nations’ collective memory. They exist to make us feel good about ourselves, but as a result, they lie to us and distort collective memory.

As prophets did in the days of abolition, the anti-lynching movement, and the Civil Rights movement, modern-day leaders, like Michelle Alexander, have traversed the country shining light on the myth of equal justice in our justice system.

And on Tuesday, the unlikely duo of Sens. Cory Booker (D – N.J.) and Rand Paul (R – Ky.) joined together to address this myth by introducing the REDEEM Act.

"I will work with anyone, from any party, to make a difference for the people of New Jersey, and this bipartisan legislation does just that," Booker said in a news release. "The REDEEM Act will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways. It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders reoffend."

The Vatican on July 9, 2014 announced reforms to its bank. Creative Commons image by @Doug88888.

Pope Francis’ promised reforms of the Vatican bureaucracy are starting to take shape, with new leaders appointed to oversee the troubled Vatican bank and plans to overhaul the Catholic Church’s approach to global communications.

French businessman Jean-Baptiste de Franssu on Wednesday was named new president of the bank, formally known as the Institute for Works of Religion, replacing Ernst Von Freyberg, a German who has run the bank since February 2013.

Six new lay members, including Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and Harvard law professor, will join the bank’s board.

A church procession detoured to pass the house of a convicted mobster. Creative Commons image by Il Fatto Quotidiano

Only two weeks after Pope Francis announced he was excommunicating the Mafia, a religious procession in southern Italy has provoked uproar after paying homage to a convicted mobster.

Catholic bishops condemned the detour of the traditional procession, which carried a statue of the Madonna past the house of 82-year-old Peppe Mazzagatti, a Mafia boss serving a life sentence under house arrest.

The town of Oppido Mamertina is home to some powerful criminal clans associated with the Calabrian Mafia known as ‘Ndrangheta. For health reasons, Mazzagatti is serving his sentence at home.

the Web Editors 07-05-2014

1. Five Takeaways From the Hobby Lobby Case
Five things to know about one of the biggest Supreme Court decisions of the year.

2. Who’s Afraid of Soccer in America?
The beautiful game captured the imagination of the United States as its national team advanced to the knockout rounds to fall valiantly at the hands — or feet, rather — of Belgium. And the numbers don't lie: soccer is taking off in America.

3. Tim Howard: 'Nuff Said
Speaking of the World Cup, goal keeper Tim Howard did the best he could to keep the U.S. in it. The shot-stopper has taken the Internet by storm, with #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave trending on Twitter, hilarious Tim Howard memes abounding, a petition to change the name of Washington National Airport (DCA) to "Tim Howard National Airport" going viral. The man even received a call from Obama himself.

4. Here's How Vancouver Responded to London's 'Anti-Homeless Spikes'
A Vancouver charity, RainCity Housing, is converting city benches into pop-up shelters for homeless people. And by giving homeless people in this rainy city some dry coverage and a place to rest, RainCity is putting London's anti-homeless spikes to shame. 

5. 10,000 Christians Have Fled Northern Iraq Since the ISIS Takeover
As many as 10,000 people have fled from predominantly Christian areas in northern Iraq, the U.N. warned late last week.

6. In open primary Southern states, black voters flex new muscle
An unexpected group of voters charged in to save veteran Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, a Republican, from losing a primary squeaker against a tea party challenger: African American Democrats.

7. Plastic garbage on ocean's surface is vanishing. Where is it going?
Large amounts of the plastic debris littering the ocean's surface seem to be disappearing. But scientists are at a loss to explain where it's going.

8. Bathrobes And Baby Carriers: The Stuff Of Manliness?
NPR's All Things Considered asks, "What Object Makes You Feel Manly?" One man gives an answer that steers away from masculine stereotypes.

9. 3 Lessons from Wild Goose: Holy Rest, Holy Mischief, and Holy Reconciliation
"This past week I was surrounded by an eclectic mix of barefoot wanderers, edgy thinkers, and hippie-hipsters at the Wild Goose festival. While none of these descriptors necessarily apply to me, I found myself quite at home at the Goose." 

10. Astronaut Reid Wiseman Has an Out of This World Twitter Feed
Reid Wiseman is up in space taking insane photos — definitely worth following on Twitter.

Suzanne Ross 07-03-2014
A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/shu

A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/

It is an identical claim to moral superiority which matters and which is in fact the cause of the apparent conflict. The underlying issues, whatever you think they may be, whether religious freedom, women’s reproductive rights, creeping restrictions on abortion or loosening of civil rights protections—all these issues are things we can talk about and solve together through discussion and compromise. ...Unless we begin from a position that says, "We refuse to talk with you or compromise." 

Zionism Unsettled cover page. Photo courtesy of

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has removed from its website a booklet that many Jewish groups have criticized as hostile to Israel and denigrating to Judaism.

“Zionism Unsettled,” published in January by the church-chartered Israel/Palestine Mission Network, is a history and commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that paints Israel as the aggressor and describes Zionism as inherently racist and theologically flawed.

The booklet played a role last month in the denomination’s debate on divesting from three American companies that, divestment proponents say, profit from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, permanent observer to the UN office in Geneva. Creative Commons image by Jean-Marc Ferré, UN.

The defrocking of a former Vatican ambassador is a “sign of the seriousness” with which Pope Francis and the Vatican are approaching the clergy sexual abuse scandal, according to the Holy See’s representative to United Nations agencies in Geneva.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi was tasked with defending the Catholic Church’s record when he presented reports to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child and the U.N. Committee Against Torture in Geneva earlier this year.

During questioning, Tomasi was asked whether the Vatican would agree to extradite Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, a Polish archbishop and papal envoy, to his native Poland after he was recalled from the Dominican Republic last September on claims of sexual abuse.

Workers march for employment equality at San Francisco’s Market and Castro streets in 2010. Creative Commons image by Matt Baume

What’s the next religious liberties faceoff? Some suggest it could be between LGBT workers and religious owners of private businesses.

On Monday, while news media dissected the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, President Obama pledged to sign an order protecting federal employees from  discrimination based on gender identity .

But he has yet to sign an executive order version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban discrimination based on gender identity for all federal contractors and subcontractors, an order that affects for-profit businesses.

Now, in the wake of the Hobby Lobby ruling, such an order could rile the waters again, several legal experts say. They see a line between a ruling about contraception and hiring, firing, and benefit concerns for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees.

The Little Sisters of the Poor organization was founded in the 1840s by Jeanne Jugan. Public domain image.

When the Supreme Court on Monday issued a split decision narrowly backing the right of for-profit corporations to deny contraception coverage to their employees for religious reasons, many assumed that faith-based nonprofits would have it easy when their own cases eventually reach the high court.

“The death knell is sounding for the HHS mandate,” said Lori Windham, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns, as well as other religious groups that object to the Health and Human Services Department policy requiring birth control coverage.

Windham noted that in two rulings by lower courts on Monday, several of Becket’s faith-based clients received last-minute relief to shield them from complying with the mandate, which takes effect today.