Shriver and God's big family

If someone truly wants to understand R. Sargent Shriver, all they need to do is reflect on his last public appearance three months before his death at age 95. Although weakened by his long struggle with Alzheimer's disease, the founder of the Peace Corps and other projects for the needy attended the first Archdiocese of Washington "White Mass" for children and adults with disabilities. One last time, he stood with those touched by the Special Olympics and the work of his wife, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

"Sarge's knowledge of God's love ... was the structure that supported his public life. From this faith, hope and love flowed his thirst for justice and peace and the courage to speak for those who had no voice," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, at Shriver's funeral Mass last week in Potomac, Md. "He spoke not from political expediency or correctness, but from an abiding sense of conviction."

The statesman's life was shaped by many of the 20th century's most powerful forces, from the Great Depression in his childhood to World War II combat at Guadalcanal. His marriage took him deep into the Kennedy family, which launched his work, yet limited his political career.

Shriver took on global poverty for his brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, and helped lead the domestic War on Poverty for President Lyndon Johnson. Many of the projects he helped launch live on -- such as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Legal Services, Foster Grandparents and Upward Bound.

Those who worked with Shriver, noted former President Bill Clinton at the funeral, were left asking this question: "Could anybody be as good as he seemed to be? Come on now. ... Every other man in this church feels about two inches tall right now."

Where did Shriver's drive come from? Son Mark Shriver stressed that his father's motivations were never strictly political, but were rooted in the first item on the daily calendar of his life. Wherever he went, whether with family or on business, the first question he asked upon arrival was the time and location of the nearest morning Mass. The Shriver patriarch was buried with his rosary in his fingers.

"Daddy was joyful 'til the day he died and I think that joy was deeply rooted in his love affair with God," said Mark Shriver. "Daddy loved God and God loved him right back. ... Daddy let go. God was in control and, oh, what a relationship they had."

While his Catholicism helped Shriver as an activist and volunteer, it marginalized him in some politic circles. As the years passed, son Timothy Shriver said he could see that his father's commitments made many people uncomfortable. At times, his faith "made him an outlier. He was too public with all of that spirituality."

In 1972, Shriver stepped in and became his party's emergency choice as Sen. George McGovern's running mate in a long-shot run race for the White House. It helped that Shriver was a political progressive and a traditional Catholic. Still, there hasn't been another pro-life Democrat on the national ticket since Shriver.

During the 1992 Democratic National Convention, both Sargent and Eunice Shriver joined several other prominent Democrats in signing a public document that openly rejected their party's stance on abortion.

"To establish justice and to promote the general welfare, America does not need the abortion license," it stated. "What America needs are policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers AND their children, both before AND after birth. ... We can choose to extend once again the mantle of protection to all members of the human family, including the unborn."

Thus, Shriver's human family included the unborn and the mentally handicapped, AIDS patients in Africa and the urban poor, abandoned children and the elderly who need medical care.

"No one can deny that his liberal Catholicism was a Christian politics: Admirable, comprehensive, and at the test, consistent," noted Catholic writer Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist and blogger for the New York Times.

"That test was abortion, where Shriver was one of the few Great Society liberals to remain a pro-life liberal as well. ... Together with his wife, Eunice, he endured as the embodiment of a liberal road not taken on that issue. For that, as for everything he did in public life, he will be sorely missed."

Voices of unbelievers, in pulpits

On Sunday mornings, you will find him leading hymns in one of the independent Church of Christ congregations somewhere in South Carolina. Call him "Adam." He is a church administrator, a "worship minister" and a self-proclaimed "atheist agnostic." That last detail is a secret. After all, his wife and teen-aged children are devout believers and he needs to stay employed.

"Here's how I'm handling my job. ... I see it as playacting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing," he said, during an interview for the "Preachers who are not Believers (.pdf)" report from the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

"I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don't believe what I'm saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that's what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that's what I'm doing."

The researchers behind this report do not claim they can document whether this phenomenon is rare or common. What they have right now is anecdotal material drawn from confidential interviews with five male Protestant ministers -- three in liberal denominations and two from flocks that, as a rule, are conservative. An ordained Episcopal Church woman was interviewed, but withdrew just before publication.

The authors of the report are philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, an outspoken leader in the movement many call the "New Atheism," and Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker with years of qualitative research experience. She is also an atheist, but, until recently, was a regular churchgoer.

"We started with a pilot study because this is very new ground," said LaScola, who conducted the interviews. "We are planning to do a larger study in the future."

The key is circulating this early material and then finding more ministers who are willing to be interviewed. The initial participants were found through contacts with the Center For Progressive Christianity and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. As this report candidly states: "Our sample is small and self-selected, and it is not surprising that all of our pastors think that they are the tip of an iceberg, but they are also utterly unable to confirm this belief."

What unites these ministers is their isolation from the believers in their pews, their awareness that they cannot honestly discuss their doubts and evolving beliefs. They also struggle with labels such as "atheist" or "agnostic," often insisting that they remain believers of some kind -- although they reject Christian doctrines or even theism.

This tension, the authors stressed, is "no accident" in these postmodern times.

"The ambiguity about who is a believer and who a nonbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can't know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all," noted Dennett and LaScola. "This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don't know what they are being asked."

More than anything else, the report offers a striking mix of voices and motives.

"Darryl" the Presbyterian still calls himself a "Jesus Follower," but adds: "I reject the virgin birth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone."

There's "Wes" the United Methodist: "I think the word God can be used very expressively in some of my more meditative modes. I've thought of God as a kind of poetry that's written by human beings."

A retired United Church of Christ pastor, "Rick," has learned to add this subtle disclaimer when reciting creeds: "Let us remember our forefathers and mothers in the faith who said, 'dot, dot, dot, dot'."

"Jack" the Southern Baptist has concluded that the "grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is a bunch of bunk." Thus, he is quietly planning a new career.

"If somebody said, 'Here's $200,000,' I'd be turning my notice in this week, saying, 'A month from now is my last Sunday.' Because then I can pay off everything."

Our political high holy day, part I

EDITOR'S NOTE: First of two columns on President Barack Obama's inauguration. As Aretha Franklin finished singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," the queen of soul did what she has done for decades -- she improvised.

The result was a soaring bridge between the inauguration of President Barack Obama and a sermon 45 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial.

"Our fathers' God, to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, with freedom's holy light, protect us by thy might," sang Franklin, before adding words that echoed some of the final cadences the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., added to his "I Have A Dream" address.

"Let freedom ring ... From the red clay of Georgia, all the way to the Allegheny Mountains. ... Let freedom ring."

If anyone ever doubted that themes from the Civil Rights Movement have been blended into America's "civil religion," it's time for those doubts to fade.

Presidential inaugurations are the "high feast days" of the vague, but powerful, faith that binds together a nation of many races and creeds. To no one's surprise, religion played a major role in the rites for Obama, said Darrin M. Hanson, a political scientist at Xavier University of Louisiana.

"Obama has a preacher's emotional style of speaking and he uses that to bring people together. It's a skill he will need in the days ahead," said Hanson, who will be analyzing the 2009 address as part of his research into the role that presidents play in America's civil religion.

In this speech, Hanson said, Obama wanted to deliver a few sobering, "prophetic" messages as well as offer "priestly" words to encourage the million-plus people on the National Mall and the millions more watching from coast to coast and worldwide.

Thus, the new president told his listeners: "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

Obama then used religious images -- aimed at left and right -- to describe bitter divisions in the body politic.

"On this day," he said, "we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."

When scholars describe "civil religion," they discuss words and rituals that try to accomplish four major goals, argued Hanson, in an essay entitled "The High Priest of American Civil Religion: Continuity and Change."

First, American "civil religion" attempts to promote unity while accepting religious pluralism. Second, this faith must remain separate from both the state and any specific religion, he said. However, if it ever favors a particular creed, it does so in defense of fundamental human rights. Finally, this "civil religion" provides unity by appealing to shared values and beliefs, acted out in common rites that are acceptable to most believers.

In one passage, the new president managed to combine a number of "civil religion" themes, while also evoking deep emotions at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and his own personal pilgrimage.

"This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny," said Obama. "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

The key, said Hanson, is that Obama managed to hit a few hard topics -- from global terror to an economic recession -- while emphasizing words of hope.

"If you are trying to bring people together, you can't be too specific when you talk about the things that drive people apart," he said. "Inaugural addresses, and I've read them all, are supposed to be vague -- but inspiring. …

"In the end, it's easier to be a priestly and successful president than it is to be a prophetic and successful president. It's hard to tell people, 'We have really messed up and all of us are going to have to change.' "

NEXT: The politics of prayer, in two dramatic acts.

Presbyterian alphabet soup, again

To follow Presbyterian news updates, outsiders need to learn a few key facts.

The Presbyterian Church in America is not the same thing as the American Presbyterian Church. Also, Orthodox Presbyterians are not to be confused with Bible Presbyterians, Cumberland Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, Associate Reformed Presbyterians or Evangelical Presbyterians.

This Presbyterian alphabet soup became less complicated in 1983, when the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. joined with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the so-called Southern branch. This created the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which today has about 2.3 million members.

Is that clear? If so, take a deep breath because Presbyterian affairs are about to get more complicated as new divisions and unions reshape the churches that trace their roots to John Calvin and his Reformed branch of Protestantism.

"While we're seeing churches fly away from the core doctrines that once held them together, we're also seeing new bonds being formed that are truly interesting," said the Rev. Parker Williamson, whose work in the conservative Presbyterian Layman newspaper has made him a mainline Protestant lightning rod.

"We're seeing a realignment across the boundaries between our churches. This unity will be doctrinal -- not legal. There may not be a formal structure that forms out of all of this. We don't need a big new denominational headquarters to replace the old denominational headquarters."

These are, of course, fighting words at the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has been forced to downsize its Louisville staff several times in the past 15 years. Membership statistics and donations have declined in an era of conflict about biblical authority, ordination standards, sexual ethics and a host of ancient doctrines, especially the belief that salvation is found only through faith in Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, these riptides of change have also affected the Layman, a newspaper born in 1965 when the old United Presbyterian Church began work on a modernized confession of faith. That fight reopened wounds from a 1924 battle, when its General Assembly decided that literal views of key doctrines -- such as the virgin birth, deity and resurrection of Jesus -- did not have to be used as a test for ordinations.

After decades of focusing on what has become the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Layman's August issue included several pages of coverage of events in the smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In the future, said Williamson, it will include news about the Presbyterian Church in America and other conservative Reformed bodies.

This will get complicated because "lots of things are happening at once" as church leaders try to plan for the future, he said.

Some congregations have decided to stay in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but their leaders are loosening their national ties. Williamson noted that leaders of the Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta have voted to try to stop their per-capita financial contributions from going to the national offices in Louisville. Instead, they want this money to back a new network called the Presbyterian Global Fellowship.

"So they're staying in the PCUSA, but they're doing what I call 'leaving, in place.' They're staying ... but they've made it clear that this isn't business as usual," he said. "Now that's the largest church in the denomination, so when it does something like that it gives cover for smaller churches and their pastors who have been afraid to take a stand."

Some churches are openly attempting to cut their mainline ties and join the New Wineskins/Evangelical Presbyterian Church Transitional Presbytery. Other congregations are revising legal documents that bind them to their regional Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presbyteries, in case they want to exit in the future.

Leaders on both sides know it may take a U.S. Supreme Court decision to tie up the many loose ends in this legal fight -- affecting millions of dollars worth of pensions, endowments and church properties nationwide. Similar conflicts are shaking the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other oldline Protestant bodies.

There will be unity in the future, said Williamson, but it will not look like the unity of the past.

"There isn't going to be a central, merged denominational office somewhere," he said. "The new church unity will be in new networks of people with common beliefs. It's going to look more like the World Wide Web, not the old industrial model."

Why eulogies have changed

Seconds after American Airlines Flight 11 passed overhead, another Franciscan brother ran to Father Mychal Judge's room in the friary to let him know the World Trade Center was on fire.

The veteran chaplain quickly changed out of his simple brown habit and into his fire-department uniform -- pausing only to comb and spray his hair. Judge was heading into danger, but he was also ready to face the cameras. Soon, a photographer captured unforgettable images of firefighters carrying the priest's body out of the rubble and his name was on the first Ground Zero death certificate.

"While he was ministering to dying firemen, administering the Sacrament of the Sick and Last Rites, Mychal Judge died," said Father Michael Duffy, at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in New York City.

"... Look how that man died. He was right where the action was, where he always wanted to be. He was praying, because in the ritual for anointing we're always saying, 'Jesus come,' 'Jesus forgive,' 'Jesus save.' He was talking to God and he was helping someone. Can you honestly think of a better way to die? I think it was beautiful."

Anyone who wants to know how to deliver a eulogy should study this poignant section of Duffy's remarks at the funeral of his close friend, said Cyrus Copeland, a former advertising executive who edited "Farewell, Godspeed" and the recent "A Wonderful Life," two collections of famous eulogies. The new book includes a chapter focusing on Judge and three other men who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

This one anecdote reveals two sides of the same man, mixing humor -- the final ritual of comb and hairspray -- with a vision of a faithful priest's willingness to risk his own life to provide comfort to his unique flock.

These days, said Copeland, the loved ones who gather at a funeral want to hear a celebratory toast to a life well lived, just as much or more than they want to face spiritual issues involved in their loss.

"People want honesty," he said. "They don't want to hear about the saint that nobody knew. They want to hear about the real Father Mychal, a man who loved the human soul, but also knew a good photo opportunity when he saw one. ? They want to hear about life, more than they want to hear about eternal life. Eulogies today are more human and they are becoming less religious."

Copeland is convinced there are several reasons that the art of the eulogy has changed so radically in recent decades.

For starters, most people alive today have grown up in a video age, surrounded by celebrity news and, more recently, the tightly edited rush of "reality television." They have seen their share of high-profile funerals. Millions wept as Lord Edward John Spencer spoke at the funeral of his sister, Lady Diana. Many watched as superstar Cher laughed and cried her way through a eulogy for her former husband, Sonny Bono.

Clergy rarely command the spotlight during these rites.

"It's important to remember that the celebrity memorial service was the first kind to be secularized," said Copeland. "So you expect to hear about heaven in a eulogy for Father Mychal Judge, with a priest in the pulpit. But eulogies for celebrities like Marilyn Monroe may not mention heaven at all. That's just the age we live in."

There's another practical reason that eulogies have changed so much. Friends and relatives are taking control of the microphone.

In the past, loved ones asked the family's pastor, rabbi or priest to deliver the eulogy. Today, it would be hard for most people to name such a person. Most modern families are scattered across the nation, divided by career choices and, far too often, broken relationships. Family members may not even share a common faith and they certainly have not spent most of their lives in the same neighborhood in the same city.

Clergy used to deliver about 90 percent of all eulogies. Today, "that number is about 50 percent and it's falling," said Copeland.

"So for many people a memorial service simply isn't a religious event anymore. It offers us a chance to say our good-byes to the dearly departed, but many people no longer think of this event as a bridge between this life and the next."

A vote for the resurrection

The Rt. Rev. Nicholas Thomas Wright believes in the resurrection.

The bishop of Durham, England, doesn't think the disciples who said they saw Jesus after his death were describing his spirit dwelling in their hearts. The former canon theologian of Westminster Abbey doesn't believe that Jesus swooned on the cross and woke up three days later. He doesn't believe robbers stole his body, leaving the grieving apostles to explain away an empty tomb.

No, the famous New Testament scholar -- author of 30 books, both lofty and popular -- believes that Jesus rose from the dead and talked with his followers, walked with them, touched them and, in one mysterious episode in the Gospel of John, prepared them grilled fish for breakfast.

"None of the disciples dared ask him, 'Who are you?' because they knew it was the Lord," said Wright, speaking at recent commencement rites at Nashotah House seminary in Wisconsin. This simple statement "speaks volumes about the nature of Jesus' resurrected body. It was the same body, yet renewed, transformed into a physical body, now beyond the reach of suffering and death -- yet still bearing the telltale marks of the nails that spoke of that suffering and that death."

Wright's speech received little or no media attention in the days leading up to the 75th General Convention of the U.S. Episcopal Church, which began this week and ends June. 21.

This is no surprise.

After all, the 200 bishops and 850 delegates gathered in Columbus, Ohio, face many hot-button issues -- such as how to respond to demands by Anglican archbishops around the world that they apologize for the 2003 consecration of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. This and other issues related to sex and the sacrament of marriage could shatter the 70-million-member Anglican Communion.

Truth is, it isn't controversial when an Anglican bishop says that he believes the resurrection of Jesus actually happened.

But, in this day and age, it also isn't controversial when Anglican bishops, priests and seminary professors quietly suggest that the resurrection was a spiritual, but not historical, reality.

Wright knew that when he stepped into the pulpit.

"Questioning the biblical accounts of the resurrection has been the general direction of liberal British scholarship for quite some time now," said the Very Rev. Robert Munday, dean and president of Nashotah House.

"Given where we are in this church on a wide range of issues, I don't know what would happen if someone proposed a resolution that affirmed that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead," said Munday, after arriving in Columbus. "I'm not sure if that resolution would make it out of committee. I'm sure it would be controversial."

After all, a 2002 survey found that a third of the clergy in the actual Church of England doubt or disbelieve in the physical resurrection of Jesus. The Daily Telegraph reported that only half of the 2,000 clergy in the survey said that faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation.

Conservatives may, said Munday, make another attempt to defend doctrines such as these. In 2003 they offered a General Convention resolution stating that "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man" and that the church must not teach what is "contrary to God's Word written." This failed in the House of Bishops. They may try a new resolution this year.

While Anglicans wrestle with these biblical issues, the public is searching for answers in shopping malls. In fact, "The Da Vinci Code" offers a picture of what faith looks like without the resurrection, said Wright.

According to author Dan Brown and many others, "Jesus was just a good man. He taught people a pathway of inner spiritual self-discovery. The early Christians had no thought of an institutional church or of Jesus as divine, or a savior, or risen from the dead. Jesus certainly didn't think of himself like that," said the bishop.

This multi-media myth of Christian origins has the potential to undercut centuries of doctrine and faith.

Rather than waffling, said Wright, church leaders must face this challenge head on. Otherwise, they will find it all but impossible to preach "a Gospel in which Jesus did actually rise from the dead and, therefore, really is Lord of the world."

Watching the religious left pray

Anyone watching the annual March for Life will see all kinds of people saying all kinds of prayers as that river of protest against abortion flows toward the U.S. Supreme Court.

But as a rule, the Baptist marchers do not pray the rosary with Catholics. Orthodox Jews do not chant the same dirges as Orthodox Christians. It would be rare to see Methodists pray with Mormons, or Presbyterians lifting their hands with the Pentecostals. They are united by a cause, but it is hard to blend their worship.

But the scene was different at the "Prayerfully Pro-Choice Interfaith Worship Service" at the U.S. Capitol's reflecting pool, just before last weekend's giant March for Women's Lives. The small service was led by clergy and laity from various traditions -- Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, Unitarian and several mainline Christian groups.

"God stands with all of us, regardless of where we stand," said the Rev.

Mark Pawlowski of Planned Parenthood, reading from the "My Pro-Choice Credo" liturgy.

"When women choose to have abortions they are acting with integrity, aware of compassion and in realization of their own wisdom. To doubt the integrity, compassion or wisdom of women is to insult women and offend God."

This flock finds unity in a "broad," "universal" approach to faith, said Daniel Maguire, an ex-Catholic priest and author of "Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions." It's frustrating that images and sound bites from these rites are rarely featured in reports about the movement to defend abortion rights and sexual liberation, he said.

Journalists have, with their relentless focus on conservative believers at the heart of the abortion conflict, missed an important story, he said. There are religious people who believe that abortion can, in some circumstances, be a "holy choice" for women. Faith plays a different role in the two movements, but is crucial to both, he said.

"In the United States, I think the whole abortion issue is primarily religious," said Maguire, who teaches ethics at Marquette University. "For those on the religious right, of course, the goal is to legislate their religious beliefs into our political life. ... On the religious left, our goal is to hang in there and say that there is a religious case for our side, as well. We try to de-fang the arguments of the right."

Religious believers on the left, he said, should not hesitate to acknowledge that there are strong prohibitions against abortion in the ancient teachings in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and other religions.

But they must do a better job of arguing that these traditions include other voices that -- from his point of view -- provide reasons for women to be able to choose abortion if their reasons are grave enough.

The religious left, he said, can make the same case on other sexual issues -- including premarital sex and homosexuality.

"In other words, there is no one tradition on these matters," said Maguire. "The pope has one way of responding to these questions and I have another."

Needless to say, Father Frank Pavone of the Priests for Life network is familiar with Maguire's arguments on issues of sexual morality and totally disagrees -- across the board.

But Pavone agrees that abortion is not all that separates these two flocks of believers. They are separated by radically different beliefs about the very nature of belief itself.

This can be seen in their prayer services, he said.

"I think we mean something different when we say, 'I believe in the scriptures,' or 'I believe in the Catholic Church,' or 'I believe in the creed,' " said Pavone. "On the pro-life side, we really believe that what we are saying is objectively true and eternally true. So if that's the case, Baptists have good reason not pray the rosary with Catholics. They cannot act as if their prayers are all the same and that they believe the same things."

Pavone paused for a moment, and then concluded: "The people on the left truly believe that choice defines reality and that their choices are the ultimate reality. We don't believe that. We believe that we're supposed to make our choices conform to reality -- eternal reality. ... "These are two completely different approaches to faith and that shapes everything."