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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.

Christmas in America 2017: The season may be huuuuge, but it's not all that sacred

Christmas in America 2017: The season may be huuuuge, but it's not all that sacred

The way President Donald Trump sees things, his big tax-bill win on Capitol Hill was a giant -- maybe even huuuuge -- Christmas present for America.

"Remember I said we're bringing Christmas back? Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before," he said, speaking in Utah earlier this week. "We're bringing Christmas back and we say it now with pride. Let me just say, to those here today and all across the country: Merry Christmas to everybody."

That's good rhetoric for a political rally, as long as most of the cheering people think of Christmas as a cultural season built on gifts, travel, fun, food, festivities and activities with friends and family. And that turns out to be true for 43.1 percent of those polled in a new survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute. Only 3.9 percent viewed Christmas exclusively in religious terms and another 11.4 percent as "mostly religious."

"It's important to realize that the commercialization of the season doesn't appear to be the driving factor in what's creating the cultural Christmas we see today," said Marc Pugliese, who teaches religion and theology at Saint Leo University in central Florida.

Many Americans, in fact, are "tired or fed up" with the tsunami of advertising and materialism they see every December, he added. "So you can't just say that the shopping mall has won. … But the reality is that almost everything that's going on is defined by the culture's secular calendar -- what's happening at school, at work and in the media."

The bottom line, he said, is clear: "Christmas is about parties and get-togethers with family and friends."

On the other side of the equation, 42.4 percent of those surveyed picked the "commercialization of the season" as the most annoying American Christmas "tradition," with 38.3 percent saying that the "early start for the Christmas season" got the nod in that department.

Gallup Poll team offers an update on faith and our divided states of America

Gallup Poll team offers an update on faith and our divided states of America

The cartoon map of North America began appearing after the bitter "hanging chads" election of 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court put Republican George W. Bush in the White House.

In most Internet variations, part of the map is blue, combining Canada and states along America's left coast and the urban Northeast and Midwest into "The United States of Liberty and Education." The rest is red, with America's Southern and Heartland states united into the "Republic of Jesusland" or tagged with a nasty name beginning with "dumb" and ending with "istan" that cannot be used in a family newspaper.

Variations on the "Jesusland" map have been relevant after nearly every national election in the past two decades. The map's basic shape can also be seen in the latest Gallup survey probing "religiosity" levels in all 50 American states.

Once again, Gallup found that Mississippi was No. 1, with 59 percent of its people claiming "very religious" status, in terms of faith intensity and worship attendance. Vermont was the least religious state, even in the secular New England region, with 21 percent of the population choosing the "very religious" label.

"You can see the 'R&R' connection, which means that -- among white Americans -- the more actively people practice their religion, the more likely they are to vote Republican," said Frank Newport, editor in chief at Gallup.

After Mississippi, the rest of the Top 10 "most religious" states were Alabama, Utah, South Dakota, South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia. After Vermont, the next nine least religious states were Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Nevada, Alaska, Oregon, Connecticut, Hawaii and New Hampshire.

"Religion isn't always a perfect guide to politics at the state level," said Newport, reached by telephone. "After all, New Hampshire is a swing state and Alaska is just its own thing."

Nevertheless, a reporter with decades of religion-beat experience took these Gallup numbers to the next level, overlapping them with state results in the hard-fought 2016 campaign. In terms of the "pew gap" phenomenon, there are few surprises.

Woodstock sinks into sexual ethics in America

Back in 1969, the same year as Woodstock, Gallup Poll researchers asked Americans this moral question: "Do you think it is wrong for a man and a woman to have sexual relations before marriage, or not?" "Yes, wrong," responded 68 percent of those polled, while 21 percent said, "No, not wrong."

By 1973, the traditionalist camp affirming that premarital sex was wrong was down to 47 percent and the minority of those disagreeing rose to 43 percent. In 1991, only 40 percent considered premarital sex immoral, with 54 percent disagreeing.

Anyone paying attention to the moral math could see the trend. By 2001 the number of Americans who took the conservative stance was leveling off at 38 percent, but the percentage of those embracing the liberal, progressive position was up to 60 percent. The numbers were relatively flat in 2011, with 60 percent accepting premarital sex and 36 percent continuing to call it immoral.

"Things have been pretty steady recently among the Americans who are religiously active," noted Ed Stetzer, the president of LifeWay Research, which is linked to the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. "The real action has been on the other side of the spectrum, among the people who are atheists, or agnostics, or who have no affiliation with any particular religious group.

"Then you have the people that I call the 'mushy middle,' who remain connected to some religious faith, sort of, but not active in any real sense of the word. ... That's where we're seeing people changing their minds on sexuality."

The results of a recent LifeWay survey suggest that Americans who have, in recent decades, embraced premarital sex as a moral norm are continuing to edit their beliefs to go with the flow of the Sexual Revolution.

The hot-button issue at the moment, of course, is same-sex marriage. This is a political and cultural puzzle that -- for believers in a various world religions -- is closely connected to a number of ancient doctrines linked to sexual morality.

According to a November 2012 survey by LifeWay, only 37 percent of adults in the United States affirmed traditional teachings that homosexual behavior is sinful. This finding was significant since 44 percent took that stance in another survey -- asking the same question -- only 14 months earlier. The number of respondents saying, "I don't know" also rose 4 percent, to 17 percent.

What happened in between? The researchers were very aware, said Stetzer, that -- halfway between these two surveys -- President Barack Obama announced a long-expected change of heart and openly endorsed same-sex marriage.

While the president's words may have helped move some of the numbers, the change among African-Americans appeared to be minimal, with 36 percent saying homosexual acts were sinful in the first survey and 34 percent in the survey 14 months later. That shift was within the survey's margin of error.

As would be expected, Americans identifying as "born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist" Christians were -- at 73 percent -- most likely to call homosexual behavior a sin. Only 33 percent of Catholics in this survey agreed.

A clear "pew gap" also emerged, as usual, with 87 percent of those who said they attend worship services once a week or more affirming the traditional doctrinal stance. On the other side, only 17 percent of those who said they "never" attend worship services said that homosexual behavior is a sin.

In light of these trends, it's easy to see why the Rev. Louie Giglio, an evangelical leader in campaigns against human trafficking, was accused of anti-gay rhetoric and forced to withdraw from giving the benediction at the second Obama inauguration rite.

In a sermon recorded 15 years earlier, Giglio had said: "If you look at the counsel of the word of God -- Old Testament, New Testament -- you come quickly to the conclusion that homosexuality is not an alternate lifestyle. ... Homosexuality is sin. It is sin in the eyes of God, and it is sin according to the word of God."

Clearly, these words are highly offensive to defenders of the Sexual Revolution. Indeed, times have changed.

Giglio's words, said Stetzer, were "simply mainstream evangelical expressions of what traditional Christians have believed for 2,000 years. ... But what we are learning is that a growing majority of Americans no longer feel comfortable with words like 'sin.'"

God in the Gallup details

Decade after decade, the Gallup Organization reported some of the most familiar numbers in American religion. More than 90 percent of Americans said, "yes" when asked if they believe in God -- a number has changed little since the 1940s. Nearly 80 percent insisted they are "Christians," in some sense of that word. How many claimed to have attended a worship service in the previous week or so? That number hovered between 41 and 46 percent.

These are the kinds of numbers religious leaders love to quote when trying to intimidate politicians, educators, journalists and Hollywood producers.

Nevertheless, these poll numbers consistently failed to impress one significant authority -- George Gallup Jr.

"We revere the Bible, but don't read it," warned the famous pollster, in an address to the Evangelical Press Association. "We believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living, although we can't name them. We believe in God, but this God is a totally affirming one, not a demanding one. He does not command our total allegiance. We have other gods before him."

The bottom line, he said, in an interview after that 1990 address, is that most American believers simply "want the fruits of religion, but not the obligations."

Gallup didn't enjoy punching holes in comforting statistics, in part because he sincerely believed that religious faith played a powerful, and for many decades overlooked, role in American life. This conviction was both professional and personal, since Gallup seriously considered becoming an Episcopal priest and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion at Princeton University before joining the family business.

Thus, while his father forever linked the Gallup name with political polling, George Gallup Jr. added a new goal for the firm's research -- probing the links between religious life and public life. Gallup retired in 2004 and died on Nov. 21 at the age of 81, after a one-year battle with cancer.

The key to Gallup's legacy is that he built on the basic religious questions his father and other researchers included in polls during the 1940s and '50s, said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, who is known for his research into American politics and religious life. Instead of merely asking questions about religious affiliations, Gallup advocated a more systematic approach that focused attention on religious beliefs, attitudes and even behaviors.

"You got the sense that, however valuable those general numbers were in earlier polls, he was showing that you could experiment and try to find the realities inside all those numbers," said Green. The earlier Gallup numbers were "valuable because some of them went back so far into the mid-20th century. Then, George Gallup Jr. showed everyone that you could go beyond that general approach and dedicate entire surveys to religious questions."

By the end of his career, it was common to see a variety of researchers -- at the Pew Forum, LifeWay Research, the Barna Group and elsewhere -- focusing their work on highly specialized surveys targeting religious issues and trends. In 1977, Gallup himself helped found the Princeton Religion Research Center, in part to produce materials that would help clergy be more effective.

The basic problem, Gallup told me in 2004, is that far too many clergy "simply fail to take discipleship seriously. They assume that because people say they believe something, that this means they will live out those beliefs in daily life."

This shows up in the building blocks of faith, he added. Many clergy, for example, assume that people in their flocks understand simple Bible references. Many assume that people in their pews understand the truth claims of other religions. Many clergy are naive enough to believe that postmodern believers will -- without being challenged -- confess their sins and change the behaviors that cause havoc in their lives.

Far too many pastors, he lamented, seem afraid to ask tough questions.

"America is a churched nation, for the most part. Most Americans are either going to church or they used to go to church," said Gallup. "At some point we need to start focusing more attention on what is happening or not happening in those churches. ... Are our people learning the basics? Is their faith making a difference in their lives? Is their faith attractive to other people?

"These are the kinds of questions we must be willing to ask."