Social issues

Searching for 'subtweets' in prayers offered during the Trump inauguration rites

While the Beltway establishment gathered on the U.S. Capitol's West side with legions of Middle Americans in "Make America Great Again" hats, the House of Representatives approved the final pre-inauguration details.

The quick session opened with a prayer by the chaplain, Father Patrick J. Conroy.

"God of the universe, we give you thanks for giving us another day. You are the father of us all, and your divine providence has led this nation in the past," he said, before offering prayers for "your servant, Donald Trump." The Jesuit prayed for the new president to "see things as you see things" and strive to hold "all of us to higher standards of equal justice, true goodness and peaceful union."

Conroy closed with a poignant prayer for the blunt and ever-controversial New York City billionaire: "We pray that he become his best self."

Add that to the file of January 20 prayers to analyze.

As always with inauguration ceremonies -- the high-church rites of American civil religion -- references to God were almost as common as those to the nation's new leader. This ceremony included six clergy offering their own chosen prayers and scriptures and was framed by private and public worship services.

Journalists and activists then read between the lines seeking messages aimed at Trump and his fans, as well as at God. The bottom line: In cyberspace, combatants now "subtweet" their adversaries, offering subtle criticisms behind their social-media backs. This inauguration offered plenty of opportunities for participants to engage in some theological subtweeting. The eyebrow-raising messages included:

The real man behind that sympathetic priest on M*A*S*H

The real man behind that sympathetic priest on M*A*S*H

In the "Dear sis" episode of M*A*S*H, the frustrated Catholic chaplain at the military hospital camp near the Korean front lines writes a candid letter to his sister, a nun.

"I'm almost desperate to be useful, sis," writes Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy. "No one comes to confession. I have no one to grant absolution to, no one to give comfort to, no one who even wants to bend my ear for 10 minutes."

Later, a patient attacks a nurse and slugs the priest. By reflex, Mulcahy -- a former Catholic-school boxing coach -- punches back. The gentle chaplain is despondent afterwards and doubts that he is making a difference.

"I'm Christ's representative," he tells a surgeon. "Suffer the little children to come unto me. Do unto others. ... I'm not supposed to just say that stuff, I'm supposed to do it."

The actor behind this unique character was William Christopher, who from 1972-83 portrayed one of the most sympathetic priests in pop-culture history.

Here's the bottom line, according to Greg Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who now serves as a permanent Catholic deacon in Brooklyn: "For a time, he played the most visible Catholic priest on American television -- arguably the most recognizable man of the cloth since Archbishop Fulton Sheen."

Christopher, 84, died of cancer on December 31 and is survived by his wife of 60 years and their two sons. His M*A*S*H co-stars hailed him as a professional who -- to an unusual degree -- disappeared into this singular role in a show that, in reruns, remains popular with millions.

Trump dominated 2016 news, but was not named Religion Newsmaker of the Year?

Trump dominated 2016 news, but was not named Religion Newsmaker of the Year?

While Donald Trump's crusade to win the White House was the top story of 2016, journalists in the Religion News Association saluted the brash billionaire's opponents by giving their top honor to the Muslim parents who made headlines by denouncing him.

Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq, shared the Religion Newsmaker of the Year honor. The Khans made a dramatic Democratic National Convention appearance to proclaim that Trump's proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the country would be unconstitutional.

The RNA description of the annual poll's No. 1 story stressed that Trump received "strong support from white Christians, especially evangelicals. … Many were alarmed by his vilifying Muslims and illegal immigrants and his backing from white supremacists. GOP keeps majorities in Congress."

The No. 2 story continued: "Post-election assaults and vandalism target Muslims and other minorities. Some assailants cite Donald Trump's victory as validation. Critics denounce the appointment of Stephen Bannon as White House strategist over his ties to white supremacists." News related to Trump appeared in three other RNA Top 10 stories.

While white evangelical votes were crucial, I would have stressed two other religion trends linked to Trump's stunning win.

Canadian researchers find that doctrine really does matter, in terms of church growth

Canadian researchers find that doctrine really does matter, in terms of church growth

When they set out to find growing mainline churches, sociologist David Haskell and historian Kevin Flatt did the logical thing -- they asked leaders of four key Canadian denominations to list their successful congregations.

It didn't take long, however, to spot a major problem as the researchers contacted these Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran parishes.

"Few, if any, of the congregations these denomination's leaders named were actually growing," said Haskell, who teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University in Branford, Ontario. "A few had experienced a little bit of growth in one or two years in the past, but for the most part they were holding steady, at best, or actually in steady declines."

To find thriving congregations in these historic denominations, Haskell and Flatt, who teaches at Redeemer University College in Hamilton, had to hunt on their own. By word of mouth, they followed tips from pastors and lay leaders to other growing mainline churches.

The bottom line: The faith proclaimed in growing churches was more orthodox -- especially on matters of salvation, biblical authority and the supernatural -- than in typical mainline congregations. These churches were thriving on the doctrinal fringes of shrinking institutions.

"The people running these old, established denominations didn't actually know much about their own growing churches," said Haskell, reached by telephone. "Either that or they didn't want to admit which churches were growing."

The researchers stated their conclusions in the title -- "Theology Matters" -- of a peer-reviewed article in the current Review of Religious Research. In all, they plan five academic papers build on their studies of clergy and laypeople in nine growing and 13 declining congregations in southern Ontario, a region Haskell called church friendly, in the context of modern Canada.

Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

When it comes to fine cuisine, few gourmands would fight to be served peanut butter, sardines, beans and some other canned goods -- often cold.

While these foods are not very appealing, they are kosher. Thus, they are common items on the menu the Florida Department of Corrections has offered prisoners requesting kosher meals.

First Amendment activists have repeatedly clashed in federal courts with Florida officials who insist a kosher-food option would be too expensive.

"These aren't prisoners who have made up some kind of religion that requires them to eat lobster every day, claiming they're members of the Church of the Lobster," noted attorney Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket team filed an amicus brief backing the prisoners' rights, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

"No one goes to a lot of trouble to eat bread and beans," he added. "The prisoners are making these requests because this is what they believe God wants them to do. … The 'religious' diet these prisoners are being served is, frankly, unpalatable."

Federal and Florida officials have been haggling over these dietary details since 2011, leading to six federal-court decisions backing the prisoners. The state says a kosher-foods program costs about $12.3 million a year, compared to a U.S. government estimate of roughly $384,000.

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

No doubt about it, most mainstream pollsters thought the vote totals that rolled in during Election Night 2016 were intriguing, then stunning and, as dawn approached, almost unimaginable.

How did the chattering-class insiders miss what was clearly widespread heartland support for New York billionaire Donald Trump?

But there was one surprise left in the details of the early exit polls. In a race packed with soap-opera conflict and fiery rhetoric about personal ethics, morality and even faith, the experts looked at the role that religion played in 2016 and discovered -- to their shock -- that it was a rather normal modern election year.

"Actually, that's astonishing news," said Gregory A. Smith, who helps coordinate religion polling at the Pew Research Center. "If you consider all of the tumultuous events during this election year and how much tension there has been and all of the other stuff that's been up in the air, it's amazing that things were so steady" in terms of religion and voting, with "only a few numbers up or down a bit.

"Religious groups that have consistently supported the Republicans gave every indication they would back Donald Trump and that's how things turned out. The religious groups that traditionally back Democrats did so, but the turnout was down a bit. The religious groups that are usually divided were divided."

The so-called "God gap" (also known as the "pew gap") held steady, with religious believers who claimed weekly worship attendance backing Trump over Hillary Clinton, 56 percent to 40 percent. Voters who said they never attend religious services backed Clinton by a 31-point margin, 62 percent to 31 percent.

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

It's been nearly a quarter of a century since foreign correspondent David Aikman wrote a novel about a second American Civil War, with a government led by urban socialists going to war with heartland conservatives.

Alas, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

About a year ago, the bitter events unfolding on cable-TV political news made it rather clear that it was time for a new edition of that post-Cold War thriller, "When the Almond Tree Blossoms."

"No matter who wins … there are people out there who think we are headed toward some kind of civil war," said Aikman, in an interview just before Election Day.

"It's disappointing that our nation really hasn't come to terms with all of its internal problems. Right now, it feels like it would take a miracle -- some kind of divine intervention -- to heal the divisions we see in American life today."

Aikman was born in Surrey, England, and came to America in the 1960s to do a doctorate in Russian and Chinese history, after his studies at Oxford's Worcester College. After contemplating a career in diplomacy -- he speaks German, French, Chinese and Russian -- he moved into journalism and became senior foreign correspondent at Time magazine. Among his many adventures, Aikman witnessed the 1989 massacre in China's Tiananmen Square and introduced readers to a Russian politico named Boris Yeltsin.

Ironically, Aikman wrote "When the Almond Tree Blossoms" -- the title is rebel code drawn from Ecclesiastes -- while preparing to become a naturalized United States citizen in 1993. In the novel, the liberal "People's Movement" -- backed by Russia -- rules the East and West coast power centers, as well as the industrial Midwest. The "Constitutionalists" control most of the Bible Belt and have dug into the Rocky Mountain West. But who will the pragmatic Chinese support?

Donald Trump and his angry, working-class Catholic men in the Rust Belt

The Diocese of Rockville Centre had to know the calls were coming, after Bishop William Murphy's letter was read in Sunday Masses.

"Support of abortion by a candidate for public office, some of whom are Catholics, even if they use the fallacious and deeply offensive 'personally opposed but …' line, is reason sufficient unto itself to disqualify any and every such candidate from receiving our vote," the bishop advised Catholics in Long Island and other communities east of New York City.

Murphy added, "Let me repeat that," and did so -- word for word.

The bishop also said he believes America is "heading in the wrong direction" -- especially on religious freedom -- and asked each believer to "examine your conscience" before voting.

A diocesan spokesman stressed that Murphy was "absolutely not" signaling support for Donald Trump for president.

This unusual Rockville Centre salvo was news, in part, because U.S. Catholic leaders have been surprisingly quiet in 2106 -- even with Sen. Tim Kaine, a Catholic progressive, in the vice-president slot for the Democrats. Some Catholic leaders have even received flak, from left and right, for noting that both major-party nominees have disturbing track records on matters of character and honesty.

Meanwhile, many Catholic voters will remember an earlier war of words between Trump and Pope Francis on immigration, with the pope noting that "a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel."

All of this matters, of course, because it's almost impossible for Republicans to take the White House without winning the "Catholic vote" in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other swing states.

Life after 2016 and the 'lesser of two evils' wars among religious conservatives

Life after 2016 and the 'lesser of two evils' wars among religious conservatives

As the 2016 White House race unfolded, the Facebook home of one of Princeton University's best-known scholars was packed with cries for help.

The battle lines were clear. Religious conservatives wanted to know if they had to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Was picking the "lesser of two evils" still evil? Was it morally wrong to refuse to choose?

Robert P. George made his own convictions clear.

"If you truth bomb Trump but go silent on Clinton, shame on you," wrote George, an outspoken Catholic and distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Princeton. "If you truth bomb Clinton but go silent on Trump, shame on you. Whole truth!" In another salvo he added: "A ghastly choice for Catholics & others: One will taint and bring disgrace on our moral values. The other will wage unrelenting war on them."

With Election Day drawing near, George finally republished a note from June, pleading for charity in these arguments.

"Friends, we are in a terrible fix here. And it is putting some of us at each other's throats. It must not be permitted to do that. Donald Trump is dreadful. Hillary Clinton is horrible. One called for the killing of the innocent family members of terrorists. The other promises to protect the killing of unborn babies up to the point of birth," he wrote.

"For some of us, it just isn't obvious which of these two scoundrels would do greater harm in the long run," he argued. Whatever happens, those "who believe in limited government, constitutional fidelity and the Rule of law, flourishing institutions of civil society, traditional principles of morality, and the like are going to have profoundly important work to do. And we will need to do it together."

Yes, Republicans face what many are predicting will be a "civil war" between Trump insurgents and the party establishment, said George, in a telephone interview.