Politics

A thousand years of Orthodoxy history loom over today's Moscow-Istanbul clash

A thousand years of Orthodoxy history loom over today's Moscow-Istanbul clash

The great prince Vladimir had a problem in the year 986, while striving to build unity in the Kievan Rus, his network of Eastern Slavic and Finnic tribes.

The old pagan gods and goddesses were not enough. So the prince dispatched ambassadors to investigate Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and the Orthodox faith of the Christian East.

When they returned to Kiev, their report included this passage about Byzantium: "We went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth. … All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. … We cannot remain any more in paganism."

So Vladimir surrendered his concubines and was baptized in 988, while commanding his people to convert. Orthodoxy came to the lands of the Rus.

This early chronicle was, according to church tradition, written by St. Nestor of the great Kiev-Pechersk Monastery, founded in 1051. Pilgrims continue to flock to the Monastery of the Kiev Caves to see its beautiful churches, soaring bell tower, the labyrinthine underground tunnels and the incorrupt bodies of many saints.

Note the importance of the word "Kiev" in that spiritual and national narrative.

"Just as the original Church in Jerusalem is the mother of all Orthodox Churches around the world, including the Patriarchate of Constantinople some 300 years later, so the venerable see of Kiev in Kievan Rus in the tenth century is the mother of the Churches in all the East Slavic Orthodox lands -- including the current nation-states of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and Byelorussia," explained the Very Rev. Alexander Webster, dean of Holy Trinity Seminary in upstate New York. This seminary is part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

"Kiev is the Russian Orthodox Church," he said, "and the Russian Orthodox Church is Kiev."

Nevertheless, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has taken the first step to establish an independent, or "autocephalous," Orthodox church in Ukraine. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church responded by breaking "Eucharistic communion" with Istanbul.

Speaking as an Orthodox convert (I joined the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church and now attend a Bible Belt parish with Russian roots), I think it's important for anyone following this byzantine drama to know that:

* The historic ties between Kiev and Russian Orthodoxy are more than talking points in arguments involving the United States, the European Union, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

For millions of American evangelicals, a recent Oval Office photo-op was a perfect example of the political realities they face.

A day after his release from a Turkish prison, the Rev. Andrew Brunson knelt and prayed for the president who helped focus a global spotlight on efforts to free him. Brunson had been accused of backing critics of the Turkish regime.

The pastor asked God to give Donald Trump "perseverance, and endurance and courage to stand for truth. I ask that you to protect him from slander from enemies, from those who would undermine. … Fill him with your wisdom and strength and perseverance. And we bless him."

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to smile.

Trump, in jest, asked Brunson and his wife: "Who did you vote for?"

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to groan.

In the current news theory of everything, few numbers in American political life have received more attention than this one -- 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Politicos have paid less attention to signs that many evangelicals cast those votes with reluctance, and some with a sense of dread.

"This was really a faith-based vote -- faith that Trump would operate as a conservative on the issues that mattered the most to evangelicals," said World Magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky, a Christian conservative who, citing character flaws, openly opposed Trump getting the GOP nomination.

"I still don't like him at all, but I have to say that he's coming through. … It's a kind of politics by gesture, but he's pulling it off."

Praying with Brunson was "a perfect gesture," he added. But if Trump had "blown it on the Supreme Court, his support among evangelicals would have plummeted."

Before the election, World consulted 100 evangelical "leaders and insiders" and half of them said they wouldn't vote for Trump, "no matter what." The other half said they would watch for signals that Trump sent about the U.S. Supreme Court.

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

One of the most famous tales of World War I began when a fantasy fiction writer wrote a story in 1914 about British soldiers crying for help while facing overwhelming German forces near Mons, in France.

Their prayers summoned heavenly hosts of archers attacking the "heathen horde."

Soon, veterans started claiming that they saw these "angels" with their own eyes. Images of the Angel of Mons began appearing -- as fact -- in posters, paintings and popular songs.

It's hard to imagine a world in which nations led by rational, scientific elites could embrace these claims, said historian Philip Jenkins, in recent lectures at King University in Bristol, Tenn. That world is impossible to imagine because it was swept away a century ago by waves of change that few saw coming.

"What happened in the victory? 'Oh, angels appeared. The dead arose to fight for us.' When the Germans launched their great offensive in 1918, of course, what else could it be called? It's Operation Michael, after the leading archangel -- who by this point has become something like a German war god," said Jenkins, a distinguished professor at Baylor University and author of 27 books.

"If you look at the propaganda of the time, the assumption is that Christ is absolutely with US -- whoever WE are, the Germans, the Americans, whatever."

Before World War I, most global leaders followed a radically different set of assumptions, with ironclad ties between their governments and major religious institutions, he said. Many soldiers believed that St. Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary, even Joan of Arc, would fight by their side. As the war began, Germany experienced fervor many called a "New Pentecost," with Martin Luther as a messianic figure.

While it's common to believe that religion evolves slowly over time, in a linear manner, the evidence suggests that history lurches through periods of "extreme, rapid, revolutionary change, when everything is shaken and thrown up into the air," said Jenkins. Ever 50 years or so, new patterns and cultural norms seem to appear that never could have been predicted.

New ways of seeing dignity: Did pope signal a shift that helps LGBTQ Catholics?

New ways of seeing dignity: Did pope signal a shift that helps LGBTQ Catholics?

Starting in the 1970s, New Ways Ministry leaders crisscrossed America, urging Catholics to believe that somehow, someday, the Vatican would repent of what they saw as the church's dangerous doctrines on homosexuality.

During a 1989 Denver workshop, the late Father Robert Nugent stressed that there was more to the church's teachings than homophobia and heterosexism. Hopeful tensions already existed in official church statements and the Catechism.

For example, a 1986 Vatican letter said: "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."

However, Nugent explained, the church also defends the dignity of all persons, including gays and lesbians. Someday, a reformer pope may argue that church teachings could evolve, because of this larger truth about human dignity.

"We hear a lot of anger about the church and what it teaches,"he said, several years before Rome ordered him to cease his New Ways Ministry work. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- who later became Pope Benedict XVI -- led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at that time. 

"We try to say (to gays and lesbians), 'Hey folks, what the church is saying isn't all bad news,' " said Nugent.

Three decades later, New Ways Ministry is still making that argument, especially in light of new language used by Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's current leader, in their condemnation of the death penalty.

The updated Catholic Catechism now proclaims that there is "an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. … Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that 'the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,' and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide."

Lessons about faith and modern parenting, from heroes of the Czech resistance

Lessons about faith and modern parenting, from heroes of the Czech resistance

PRAGUE -- No matter what was happening outside their apartment walls, Kamila Bendova pulled her six children together every day and read to them for two hours or more.

It didn't matter if the Communists had imprisoned her husband -- the late Vaclav Benda, a leading Czech dissident and Catholic intellectual. It didn't matter that state officials had bugged their flat near the medieval heart of the city. It didn't matter if a friend showed up after being tortured at the secret police facility a block away.

The Benda family faithfully observed the rites that defined their lives inside its second-floor apartment, a site the Czech Republic has marked with a memorial plaque at sidewalk level. Every day, they prayed together, studied together and found ways to enjoy themselves -- while doing everything they could to show others there was more to life than the rules of a paranoid police state.

"I was never good at playing with the children, so I read to them. … That worked for me," quipped Bendova, who, like her husband, earned a doctorate in mathematics. Father Stepan Smolen, a Catholic priest close to the family, served as a translator during a recent meeting with Bendova and two of her adult children.

The family had plenty of books to read. The walls of the Benda apartment, where Kamila Bendova still lives, are lined -- from the floorboards to the high ceilings -- with bookshelves containing 10,000 books and snapshots of her 21 grandchildren. 

The Benda children were especially fond of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," for reasons the family considers obvious. They were the hobbits and, living in a totalitarian state, they knew that "Mordor was real," said Bendova.

What comes next for religious liberty, after the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision?

What comes next for religious liberty, after the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision?

The Pulitzer Prize winning "Angels in America" has long been a touchstone for gay spirituality, so it wasn't surprising that actor Andrew Garfield celebrated winning a Tony Award in the play's revival with remarks mixing faith and politics.

It's crucial, he said, to celebrate the play's "spirit that says 'no' to oppression. It is a spirit that says 'no' to bigotry. … It is a spirit that says we are all made perfectly."

Garfield concluded: "We are all sacred. … So let's just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked!"

The baker behind the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Masterpiece Cakeshop decision has heard pronouncements of this kind many times since that fateful day in 2012 when he declined to create one of his handcrafted, personalized cakes to celebrate the same-sex marriage of Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

"The biggest myth I hear all the time, pretty much, is that I turned away a gay couple. But the truth is, I never turn away any customers. I do, sometimes, have to decline to create cakes that violate my faith, and that was the case here," said Phillips, in a Lutheran Public Radio interview soon after the June 4 decision.

"The two gentlemen that sued me were welcome in my shop that day. I told them, I'll sell you cookies, brownies, birthday cakes, anything else, custom cakes -- it's just that I can't create this one, because this was a cake that goes against the core of my faith."

While this was a 7-2 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion (.pdf) focused on evidence that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had demonstrated open hostility to Phillips and his Christian faith. Thus, he avoided a broader ruling on First Amendment protections of free speech and the "free exercise" of religion.

Naturally, church-state activists have argued about the significance of this much-anticipated decision. At least four camps have emerged so far.

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

It's hard for anyone -- let alone a former president -- to visit Liberty University these days without mentioning President Donald Trump.

Sure enough, former President Jimmy Carter opened his recent Liberty commencement address with a quip linked to Trump's claims that his inauguration crowd was as large, or larger, than that of President Barack Obama.

The set-up: Trump addressed the school's 2017 graduates.

"This is a wonderful crowd," said Carter, after being introduced by Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr. "Jerry told me … that it's even bigger -- I hate to say this -- than it was last year." With a slight grin, he added: "I don't know if President Trump would admit that or not."

The crowd laughed, and some people cheered. Carter avoided any further Trump references -- at least by name.

The key to this day was that Carter and Falwell treated each other with respect, and even affection, setting the tone for an encounter between the evangelical left and right. In 2015, Falwell also made headlines by inviting Sen. Bernie Sanders to speak on campus.

Calling the 93-year-old Carter the "world's most famous Sunday school teacher," Falwell praised his declaration of born-again Christian faith while in public life and his legacy, as an ex-president, of serving others. Liberty's leader stressed that Carter showed political courage, and paid a high price among Democrats, when he signed the Hyde Amendment banning the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions.

"The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person, and to give my political support to a person," said Falwell. "Policies are important. But candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today."

Carter's visit, he added, was an example of Christians "uniting … on issues where they agree, rather than fighting about issues where they disagree."

Seeking God's will: Inside the complex soul of the real Gen. Robert E. Lee

Seeking God's will: Inside the complex soul of the real Gen. Robert E. Lee

Soon after the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union forces, Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote to one of his spiritual advisers while wrestling with the pain of this great defeat, but also with a lesson that he had learned.

"God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply. … How great must be our sins & how unrelenting our obduracy," wrote Lee, to the Rev. William Platt, an Episcopal priest. "We have only to submit to his gracious will & pray for his healing mercy."

The key, Lee argued, is that the South's defeat represented the judgment of God. Now it was time to seek true unity, not "a forced and hollow truce. … To this end all good men should labour."

This was not random talk. Lee leaned on his faith because that's who he was, according to the Rev. R. David Cox, author of "The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee." Cox teaches history at Southern Virginia University, which is near the Episcopal parish in Lexington that he led from 1987-2000 -- then known as R.E. Lee Memorial Church.

This past fall, the church's vestry made news when -- after riots in Charlottesville -- it voted to return to the name "Grace Church," the church's name when Lee was on the vestry. Cox said he is convinced that the Lee revealed in his letters and private journals would have had no problem with that decision.

"I don't think Lee would have wanted the Confederate flag flown. … He would have opposed people putting up statues in an attempt to preserve the memory of a great 'lost cause' -- words that he never used," he said, during an interview in Lexington. "Lee would not have wanted to see a church named after him. He was too humble for that."

The problem, Cox explained, is that when people argue about "Robert E. Lee," they are actually arguing about two historic misconceptions of Lee.

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

Through the decades, the Rev. Billy Graham was known for saying three words over and over -- "The Bible says."

But the world's most famous evangelist quoted another authority during his 1994 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- Shirley MacLaine. A year earlier, Graham noted, the actress, and spiritual adventurer told the editors that religion plays a major role in news worldwide and that it's high time for journalists to accept that.

"What has happened to us?", asked MacLaine. "Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age? Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?''

"Amen," said Graham. Journalists and preachers, he stressed, both communicate news about what's happening in life and culture. Both care about people and truth. Both care about injustice, racism and corruption.

"I believe that this is why the founding fathers included both freedom of religion and freedom of the press in the same First Amendment," he added. "In the long run, the loss of one freedom will bring about the loss of the other."

It isn't every day that a religion writer gets to quote Billy Graham and Shirley MacLaine making essential points about journalism.

Then again, this isn't just another column for me. This week marks my 30th anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column. The first piece ran on April 11, 1988 and focused -- wait for it -- on arguments about evangelicals and White House politics. Turn, turn, turn.

Three decades is a long time, so allow me to pause and make something clear. I still believe that if journalists want to cover real news in the real lives of real people in the real world then they need to get real serious about religion.

Yes, there are problems.