Religious liberty, the Sexual Revolution and the importance of the 'Utah compromise'

PROVO, Utah -- From the start, the "Utah compromise" on religious liberty and key gay-rights issues had that special sex appeal that made news.

Journalists knew it was impossible to produce this 2015 Utah bill without the cooperation of leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons in the Republican-dominated state legislature. Powerful LGBT leaders were in these negotiations, as well, and endorsed the final product.

The key -- for politicians using Utah as a template -- was that both sides made important compromises, while defending their core beliefs and goals, said the church's top lawyer, at a recent Brigham Young University conference on "Religious Freedom in an Era of Social Change."

"Some may be shocked to hear this, but not all religious freedoms are equally important," said Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the LDS church. "Defenders of religious freedom have to decide what is closer to the essential core of religious freedom and what is more peripheral. To do otherwise risks weakening our defense of what is essential.

"If everything that could even loosely be considered 'religious' is treated as equally important, then effectively nothing religious is important."

Thus, the "Utah compromise" banned LGBT discrimination in housing and employment, while including explicit protections for religious organizations and their institutions, along with "carve-out" clauses protecting the beliefs of many individuals. County clerks, for example, are not required to approve gay marriages, but officials had to make other options easily available.

Rural Methodist roots: Pat Summitt never hid her quiet, but deep, faith

Rural Methodist roots: Pat Summitt never hid her quiet, but deep, faith

Once a year, Seymour United Methodist Church held a "Laity Day" in which folks from the pews would handle all the clergy stuff one Sunday -- including the sermon.

The year was 1984, early in the Rev. Charles Maynard's decade at this fledgling congregation near Knoxville, Tenn. He already knew that one active member had a knack for motivational speaking, since she coached the University of Tennessee's Lady Vols basketball team.

"This was before she turned into 'PAT SUMMITT,' you know? For me she was just a lady at church named 'Pat,' " said Maynard, now the district superintendent of the region's Maryville District. "I asked her to speak and she said she didn't feel comfortable doing that sort of thing. …

"But the next year she said, 'Yes.' She talked about teamwork and linked everything to people having their own roles in the Body of Christ. It was all very biblical and she did a great job. I mean, she's Pat Summitt."

Things started changing after she coached the U.S. team to gold at the 1984 Olympics and the "Lady Vols started winning everything in sight," he said.

One thing didn't change. While Summitt's work demanded lots of time and travel, her family stayed as "active at church as the coach of a national powerhouse could possibly be," said Maynard. "It was pretty obvious that she had been raised in a Methodist church in rural Tennessee. It showed. Her faith went down deep."

Summitt's death at age 64, after a five-year fight with Alzheimer's disease, unleashed a national outpouring of tributes.

Volume is rising in closed-door LGBTQ debates among Baptists on the left

If the liberal wing of Baptist life down South started naming saints, one of the first nominees would be former President Jimmy Carter.

But it's crucial to note that the man who put "born again" into the American political dictionary is Baptist, but no longer Southern Baptist. His theological views have evolved, leading to his 2000 exit from the Southern Baptist Convention. Take marriage and sex, for example.

"I think Jesus would encourage any love affair if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else, and I don't see that gay marriage damages anyone else," Carter told The Huffington Post last year.

Plenty of Baptists agree, but have not felt free to be that candid, according to Don Durham, a former leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. For 25 years the "CBF" has served as a network for Baptists on the losing side of the great Southern Baptist wars of the 1980s. Now, Durham said, the "volume has been turned up" in behind-closed-doors CBF debates about sexuality.

"It's time to have substantive and open conversations about the genuinely difficult disagreements we have over how to organize the institutional expressions of how we will relate to sisters and brothers who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or who
understand themselves as queer," wrote Durham, in an essay circulated by Baptist News Global, an independent website at the heart of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship life.

"I'm not naive. I know we will never have uniform responses to the many questions such conversations will hold -- and we don't have to. However, let's not be institutionally naive either. … There are now too many for whom our institutional expressions around LGBTQ topics are no longer tenable for us to pretend any longer that we can distract one another from that topic by focusing on all of the other things on which we agree."

It's tricky: Donald Trump tries, once again, to nail down a personal Christian testimony

It was a tricky question when Jesus asked his disciples: "Whom say ye that I am?"

This was still a tricky question when conservative columnist Cal Thomas posed a version of it to Donald Trump, while interviewing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

"You have confessed that you are a Christian," said Thomas.

Trump responded: "And I have also won much evangelical support."

"Yes, I know that," said Thomas. "You have said you never felt the need to ask for God's forgiveness, and yet repentance for one's sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?"

Trump responded: "I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won't have to be asking for much forgiveness. As you know, I am Presbyterian and Protestant. … We have tremendous support from the clergy. I think I will be doing very well during the election with evangelicals and with Christians. … I'm going to treat my religion, which is Christian, with great respect and care."

Thomas repeated the question: "Who do you say Jesus is?"

Trump tried again: "Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind."

Bible Belt Catholic: From Central Texas to Tulsa, his homemade bishop's staff in hand

Bible Belt Catholic: From Central Texas to Tulsa, his homemade bishop's staff in hand

When the newly elected bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa visited his future residence, one of the first things he checked out was the garage.

Father David Konderla didn't need extra room for a boat or an off-road vehicle or some other tie to the Heart of Texas ranch country that has long been his home. He needed room for his woodworking power tools.

The priest has crafted four crosiers -- the gracefully hooked shepherd's staff that symbolizes a bishop's pastoral work with his flock -- for bishops in Texas and New Mexico. He recently finished one for himself, preparing for the June 29 rites in Oklahoma in which he will be raised to the episcopate.

"I'm sure I don't know everything there is to know about Oklahoma, but it's a place that has a lot in common with Texas when it comes to how people see life," said Konderla, the second of 12 children, and the oldest son, in a Polish-Irish-German family in Bryan, Texas. The future bishop worked as a machinist for seven years after finishing high school, before entering seminary.

While people outside the Sunbelt think about Catholics in Texas, they think about the state's vibrant and growing Latino culture. That's appropriate, he said, but it's also important to remember the legacy of European immigrants in Central Texas from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Now those two historic streams of Catholic life are blending with Catholics from Africa, Asia, South America and around the world, as well as converts to the faith.

Bible Belt states like Texas and Oklahoma are changing, but much remains familiar, said Konderla.

Baylor's clash of two religions -- Christian faith and big-time football

Baylor's clash of two religions -- Christian faith and big-time football

For half a century or more, journalists seeking insights on religion news in America have given a consistent answer to the question, "Who you gonna call?"

The proper response, of course, is "Martin E. Marty."

So it's no surprise that the 88-year-old historian -- author of 60-plus books -- has weighed in on the media storm surrounding Baylor University's Christian identity, big-time college football and the painful challenges facing educators wrestling with sexual abuse, alcohol and the law.

The key, according to Marty, is that Baylor is involved in a clash between two religions -- Christianity and football.

"But isn't football just football, a branch of athletics, classifiable as entertainment and capitalist enterprise?", he asked, in a "Sightings" essay for the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Marty's answer: "No." Anyone with a good world-religions textbook or encyclopedia will recognize the characteristics that define "religious" activities, he added.

Is this activity an "ultimate concern" for those involved? Put a checkmark there.

Does football provide "ceremonial reinforcement," adding a kind of "metaphysical depth" to life? Check and check. Are deep emotions involved in these rites, providing a crucial sense of "communalism" among the faithful? Once again, add two checkmarks.

Now what about football, especially in Texas?

A powerful Catholic voice from Africa judges America on sex and marriage

When United Methodists argue about sex and marriage, these doctrinal struggles usually evolve into clashes between progressives in America and conservatives in the growing churches of the Global South, especially Africa.

When Anglicans knock heads over the same issues, the loudest voices on the doctrinal left are from America and Europe, while most of the conservatives are from Africa and Asia.

It's safe to call this an ecclesiastical trend, especially in light of recent debates about marriage, family and sexuality in the largest Christian flock of all -- the Roman Catholic Church. Consider, for example, the salvos delivered by Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea at the recent National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Catholics are now witnessing, he argued, the consummation of "efforts to build a utopian paradise on earth without God. … Good becomes evil, beauty is ugly, love becomes the satisfaction of sexual primal instincts and truths are all relative. So all manner of immorality is not only accepted and tolerated today in advanced societies, but even promoted as a social good. The result is hostility to Christians, and, increasingly, religious persecution.

"Nowhere is this clearer than in the threat that societies are visiting on the family through a demonic 'gender ideology,' a deadly impulse that is being experienced in a world increasingly cut off from God through ideological colonialism."

Cardinal Sarah is not the first prelate from the Global South to use "demonic" language in a public-square battle over marriage.

Seeking a logical key to unlock mysteries of atheist Christopher Hitchens

Seeking a logical key to unlock mysteries of atheist Christopher Hitchens

The Shenandoah Valley was a spectacular place to spend Labor Day, even when rushing by car from Washington, D.C., to a public debate in Birmingham, Ala.

It helped that Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation had a lively conversationalist in the passenger seat during that 2010 road trip -- atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens. And as the mountains rolled past, they worked their way deep into St. John's Gospel.

Taunton called this exchange a "Bible study." Hitchens called it "mutual textual criticism."

So here was the author of "god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," reading glasses perched on his nose, reading some of Christianity's most cerebral words in his rich British baritone, a voice abused by countless cigarettes and smoothed by rivers of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch. He kept a glass -- damn the highway open-container laws -- locked between his knees throughout the drive.

Thus Hitchens read: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." At one point, Taunton suggested that Hitchens record this text to sell as an audiobook.

"With that voice, Christopher would have done an amazing job. … You can only imagine the shock this would have caused among atheists and Christians, alike," said Taunton, reached by telephone. Hitchens, however, "knew that he didn't have much time left and he had so much that he wanted to do."

The Shenandoah road trip is a pivotal scene in Taunton's new book, "The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World's Most Notorious Atheist," which is causing fierce debates on both sides of the Atlantic.

Voting-box nightmare -- many religious conservatives face 'lesser of two evils'

Voting-box nightmare -- many religious conservatives face 'lesser of two evils'

The nightmare vision focuses on a stark, painful moral choice.

It's Election Day. A Catholic voter who embraces her church's Catechism, or an evangelical committed to ancient doctrines on a spectrum of right-to-life issues, steps into a voting booth. This voter is concerned about the social impact of gambling, attempts at immigration reform, a culture fractured by divorce, battles over religious liberty and the future of the Supreme Court.

In this booth the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Period.

"That's the scenario people I know are talking about and arguing about," said Stephen P. White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., author of the book "Red, White, Blue and Catholic."

Many religious conservatives believe they "face a choice between two morally repugnant candidates," he added. "The reality of that choice is starting to drive some people into despair. … I understand that, but I think it would be wrong for people to think that they need to abandon politics simply because they are disgusted with this election."

This nightmare for religious conservatives is especially important since, in recent decades, successful Republican presidential candidates have depended on heavy turnouts among white evangelical Protestant voters and on winning, at the very least, a majority of "swing votes" among Catholics who frequently attend Mass.

While this year's election is in some ways unique, traditional Catholics and other moral conservatives need to realize that they are engaged in a debate that has been going on for centuries, said White. The big question: "Can Christians be good citizens?"