Politics

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social-media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal-contacts file -- politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others -- was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people.

"That Jeffrey Epstein was allowed to take the coward's way out & deny justice to his victims is a DISGRACE," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "Pedophiles deserve the Ninth Circle of Hell, but not before a full accounting."

The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation -- a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

In 1990, a Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans believed in hell and only 4% of respondents thought there was a chance they would go to hell. In 2014, The Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study said 58% of American adults believed in hell, defined as a place where "people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished."

The bottom line: For many Americans, hell is for people who have already been damned in the court of public opinion -- since everyone agrees they are extraordinarily bad. This view of eternal life doesn't point to a reality that has anything to do with how normal people make choices and go about their lives. Hell is a vague, majority-vote concept that applies only to mass murderers and sickos involved in sex-abuse scandals.

Many modern people want eternal justice on their own terms. This desire may have little or nothing to do with God.

Wars down under: Sacking of rugby star ignites debates on religion, free speech, sex and race

Wars down under: Sacking of rugby star ignites debates on religion, free speech, sex and race

Rugby fans in Australia were getting used to superstar Israel Folau talking about his evangelical faith.

Then he posted a warning from St. Paul, from his Epistle to the Galatians: "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God."

For Rugby Australia officials, the problem was that Folau jammed that into Instagram lingo: "WARNING. Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters. HELL AWAITS YOU! Repent!" Folau added: "Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him."

A Code of Conduct Tribunal in May determined that Folau had violated this Rugby Union Players Association rule: "Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby."

Folau was sacked, ending his new 4-year contract worth $4 million (Australian) dollars. This was not what fans wanted to hear with the Rugby World Cup looming in September.

The result was an Aussie firestorm about rugby, religious freedom, race, sexuality and free speech -- in roughly that order.

Former Wallabies coach Alan Jones took this shot, in the press, at Rugby Australia leaders: "They've destroyed his employment and internationally destroyed his name for quoting a passage from the bible for God's sake."

Rugby Australia Chief Executive Officer Raelene Castle released this statement: "I've communicated directly with the players to make it clear that Rugby Australia fully supports their right to their own beliefs and nothing that has happened changes that. But when we are talking about inclusiveness in our game, we're talking about respecting differences as well. When we say rugby is a game for all, we mean it."

But there's the rub, according to many Australians. By firing Folau for alleged hate speech, rugby's principalities and powers may have attacked his "religious background," as well as his Polynesian heritage.

Dramatic protest prayer offers info on a good old Baylor line in the doctrinal sand

Dramatic protest prayer offers info on a good old Baylor line in the doctrinal sand

Like all historic private universities, Baylor University -- chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas -- has its share of beloved traditions.

One of them is that public prayers during graduation ceremonies are given by Baylor staff members, faculty and, when possible, ministers who are the parents of graduating seniors. That's why the Rev. Dan Freemyer of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth stepped to the microphone on May 18 to deliver the benediction at one of Baylor's spring graduation rites.

God is doing new things in today's world, he said, while offering blunt prayer requests on behalf of the graduates.

"God, give them the moral imagination to reject the old keys that we're trying to give them to a planet that we're poisoning by running it on fossil fuels and misplaced priorities -- a planet with too many straight, white men like me behind the steering wheel while others have been expected to sit quietly at the back of the bus," said Freemyer.

It's crucial to know that Freemyer serves as the "missional engagement" pastor at Broadway Baptist, a progressive congregation that in 2010 voted to leave the Baptist General Convention of Texas in a dispute over the moral status of homosexual behavior. Baylor retains BGCT ties, but -- for many decades -- has had many connections to Broadway Baptist.

Ending his prayer, Freemyer stated: "God, you are doing a new thing. Praise be! … It springs forth and we can feel it."

This prayer drew scattered applause, in part because it came days after Baylor regents declined to meet with leaders of the campus LGBTQ group Gamma Alpha Upsilon, which has been seeking formal recognition from school administrators. This policy change would give the group, once known as the Sexual Identity Forum, access to student-fee funds and, more importantly, this would indicate that Baylor leaders believe its work is in accord with the school's "unapologetically Christian" mission.

The Freemyer prayer yanked years of conflicts back into the open, igniting debates during graduation events and then on the Internet.

Why it matters that many journalists struggle to grasp religion's role in 'Alienated America'

Why it matters that many journalists struggle to grasp religion's role in 'Alienated America'

In the spring of 2016, Wall Street Journal reporters went hunting for the heart of Make America Great Again territory and ended up in Buchanan County, Va., near the borders of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Based on a variety of political and economic factors, the Journal called this corner of coal country, "The Place That Wants Donald Trump Most."

But there was a crucial fact about this Appalachian county that didn't fit into this political parable, noted Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, in his book "Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse."

 "Out of 3,143 counties in America, Buchanan County ranks 3,028th in religious adherence," he wrote. "Economic woe, social dysfunction, family collapse and community erosion all characterized the places where Trump was strongest. … So did empty pews."

But what about the statistic that became a mantra for journalists explaining the New York billionaire's rise -- that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump?

"There has been a strong drive in the mainstream press to establish that white evangelicals don't actually have any greatly held morality," noted Carney, in a recent telephone interview. "The idea is that these evangelicals use religion as a cudgel to beat on other people. Their support for Trump is supposed to show that their beliefs are political -- not religious."

The most revealing faith-based numbers in this White House race came during the primaries, not in the "general election (when religious voters had only two choices, and the specter of Hillary Clinton hung over their heads)," wrote Carney. The question reporters need to keep asking is this: "Who gravitated immediately to Trump, and who turned to him only when the alternative was Hillary?"

Research into primary voting, he noted, revealed that the "more frequently a Republican reported going to church, the less likely he was to vote for Trump." In fact, Trump was weakest among believers who went to church the most and did twice as well among those who never went to church. "Each step DOWN in church attendance brought a step UP in Trump support," noted Carney.

Reporters could have seen this principle at work early on in Sioux County, Iowa, where half of the citizens claim Dutch ancestry.

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

If "Unplanned" was an ordinary movie, its creators would be busy right now studying second-week box office numbers while starting negotiations with the digital giants that stream products to the masses.

But this has never been an ordinary movie, which is why it's an important test case for religious believers trying to bend Hollywood's unwritten rules about religion and hot-button moral issues.

Backed by a company called Pure Flix, "Unplanned" was filmed in secret in Oklahoma, using the code name "Redeemed" in an attempt to postpone controversy. The filmmakers behind "God's Not Dead" and similar Christian-market projects had a $6 million budget for their take on the story of Abby Johnson, a young Planned Parenthood executive who in 2009 quit to join the protestors outside her own clinic in Bryan, Texas.

Mainstream entertainment's powers that be have made it clear that the images and themes in "Unplanned" are not acceptable, said Cary Solomon, who wrote and directed the film with Chuck Konzelman.

"We offered them money for TV advertising and they turned us down. Now Netflix doesn't want us," said Solomon, earlier this week. "We've made a good movie and people want to see it. … We'll be getting close to $20 million at the box office in another week or so. Why won't some of these companies let people see our movie?"

Most of the "Unplanned" press coverage has focused on the marketplace controversies swirling around the film, as opposed to the film itself. One of the best summaries of the fine details in the drama about this drama ran as a column in The Washington Post.

"They gave the movie an "R" rating -- which meant the trailer could only run before R-rated movies and no one younger than 17 under could see it without a parent's permission," noted Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. "A half-dozen major music labels refused producers' requests to license music for the film. Many major television networks except Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network refused to run ads promoting it. Then, curiously, the movie's Twitter account was suspended through no fault of its own during opening weekend. … Tens of thousands of users (myself included) mysteriously found themselves involuntarily removed from the account's followers and/or unable to follow it in the first place.

"Get the feeling someone doesn't want you to see Unplanned?"

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Early in the Iraq war, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana took part in a congressional fact-finding trip to meet with U.S. troops.

Some of the lessons he learned during his first trip to that troubled land had more to do with religion than with warfare. While meeting with local officials, for example, Pence watched the local imam rush to embrace a friend -- the Catholic bishop in southern Iraq. A translator said the imam thanked the bishop for staying in touch after the recent death of his mother.

That was enlightening, said Vice President Pence, during the recent "Help the Persecuted" summit in Washington, D.C. But he also learned a crucial fact that day. 

"I turned to the diplomatic aide who was with me," Pence recalled, "and said, 'So there's a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'Yes, yes there is.' And I said, 'How long has there been a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'About 1,500 years.' "

That's a sobering fact, since Iraq's Christian population has fallen 80 percent since that 2004 meeting, said Pence. The Christian population of Syria has fallen 50 percent in the past six years.

"As you all know, no people of faith face greater hostility or hatred than followers of Christ," said the vice president. "In more than 100 nations, spread to every corner of the world … over 245 million Christians confront intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion, abuse, assault or worse."

Nohere is this onslaught more evident than in the "ancient land where Christianity was born," he added. "In Egypt we see the bombing of churches during Palm Sunday celebrations. In Iraq we see monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul clinging for survival. In Syria, we see ancient communities burned to the ground and believers tortured for confessing the name of Christ. … Christianity now faces an exodus in the Middle East unrivaled since the days of Moses."

Pence has made similar remarks before, but these statements rarely gain traction outside the world of Christian media. The problem is that the words "religious persecution" -- especially when linked to suffering Christians -- remain controversial among some public officials and journalists.

In Britain, for example, immigration officials ruled against the asylum claim of an Iranian national who had converted to Christianity. Here's what made headlines: The Home Office backed this action with claims that Christianity is not a religion of peace, quoting Leviticus 26:7 ("Ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword") and the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:24 ("Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword").

Meanwhile, the Christian Broadcasting Network and other conservative groups have noted, in recent weeks, the deaths of an estimated 120 Christians in central Nigeria.

It's hard to avoid religion when fighting about 'fourth-trimester' abortions

It's hard to avoid religion when fighting about 'fourth-trimester' abortions

Before "Game of Thrones" infighting rocked Virginia Democrats, before the Michael Jackson moonwalk press conference, before a KKK and blackface photo surfaced from his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, Gov. Ralph Northam made some candid remarks about abortion on WTOP's "Ask the Governor" radio show.

The now embattled governor's words raised many religious, scientific and philosophical questions and he all but guaranteed that what his critics are calling "fourth-trimester abortion" will remain a hot-button issue in American public life.

A proposed Virginia bill on late-term abortions, he said, would allow termination in cases where an unborn child is "not viable" outside the womb.

"In this particular example, if a mother's in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen," said Northam, a former pediatric neurologist. "The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother."

Northam is "greatly misinformed about what this bill would do. … It is infanticide," Democrats for Life leader Kristen Day told EWTN News.

Concerning bills of this kind in Virginia (tabled on a 5-3 vote in committee) and New York, she added: "I'm hearing from more people who say that they can't vote for Democrats if they continue to push this. … This abortion extremism is continuing to push Democrats out the party." She predicted large numbers of Democrats at Virginia's March for Life on April 3, sending this message: "We want to be a state that protects women, supports women and provides support for women to carry their pregnancies to term. That's what we stand for as Democrats."

To no one's surprise, President Donald Trump used Twitter to jump into this controversy, attacking Northam for making the "most horrible statement on 'super' late term abortion. Unforgivable!"

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

Just over a century ago, a Methodist leader on the church's Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public morals noticed an empty lot facing the U.S. Capitol and thought it would be a fine place to do some lobbying.

The Methodist Building was finished in 1923 and 100 Maryland Ave., N.E., soon became an even more strategic address when the Supreme Court moved next door. The prohibition cause faded, however, and in recent decades the five-story limestone building has housed liberal Protestant activists of all kinds, as well as Kids 4 Peace, the Islamic Society of America, Creation Justice Ministries and others.

It's an unusual site for a March for Life prayer meeting. But, year after year, the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality meets there to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade.

Defending life means "walking in a way that is out of step with the world," said retired Bishop Timothy Whitaker, former president of the denomination's Board of Discipleship. While there are secular people who oppose abortion, he focused his Jan. 18 sermon on why this issue has become so crucial to modern Christians who strive to affirm ancient Christian doctrines.

"Unless a part of the church is compromised by being conformed to the world," said Whitaker, "becoming a Christian profoundly changes one's perception of reality and one's behavior. … That is why the church is loved by many, as well as hated by many."

When the March for Life makes headlines, it is almost always for political reasons, such as this year's remarks by Vice President Mike Pence and a video-chat from President Donald Trump.

The massive march also serves as a hub for dozens of smaller events, with groups ranging from Episcopalians for Life to Feminists for Life, from Pro-Life Humanists to the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. Almost all mainstream religious groups -- including progressive flocks -- include a pro-life caucus of some kind.

For decades, United Methodists were powerful supporters of the interfaith Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, ties that were cut by delegates at the denomination's 2016 General Conference. That same conference defeated a motion to retain an old affirmation of Roe v. Wade.

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

It was in 1983 that parents told leaders of the Diocese of Lafayette, west of New Orleans, that Father Gilbert Gauthe had molested their son.

Dominos started falling. The bishop offered secret settlements to nine families -- but one refused to remain silent.

The rest is a long, long story. Scandals about priests abusing children -- the vast majority of cases involve teen-aged males -- have been making news ever since, including the firestorm unleashed by The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" series that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

This old, tragic story flared up again in 2018, and Religion News Association members selected the release of a sweeping Pennsylvania grand-jury report -- with 301 Catholic priests, in six dioceses, accused of abusing at least 1,000 minors over seven decades -- as the year's top religion story.

"The allegations contained in this report are horrific and there are important lessons to take away from it," said Michael Plachy, a partner at Lewis, Roca, Rothgerber, Christie, a national law firm that emphasizes religious liberty cases. However, "to be candid, much of what's in this report has been known for years. … It's important, but it's mostly old news."

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia -- a diocese not included in the grand-jury report -- requested an analysis of the 884-page document focusing on the impact of the church's 2002Charter for the Protection Children and Young People. Among the law firm's findings: Of 680 victims whose claims mentioned specific years, 23 cited abuse after the charter -- 3 percent of claims in the grand-jury report. The average year of each alleged incident was 1979.

Much of the year's crucial news about clergy sexual abuse focused on efforts to hold bishops accountable when they were accused of abuse or of hiding abuse cases -- including sexual abuse of adult victims.

Thus, this was a year in which my views clashed with the RNA poll. For me, the No. 1 story was the fall of retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, for decades one of America's most influential Catholics. In public remarks, he even claimed to have assisted in efforts to elect Pope Francis. McCarrick was removed from ministry and exited the College of Cardinals because of evidence that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old altar boy in 1971 and, for decades, sexually harassed and abused seminarians.

My No. 2 story -- the pope's decision to cooperate with China officials when selecting bishops -- didn't make the RNA Top 10.

The RNA Religion Newsmaker of the Year was Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, after his stem-winding sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. McCarrick was not included on the ballot.