It's tragic that religious liberty has suddenly turned into something scary

NEW YORK -- Early in his career in Congress, Democrat Tony Hall of Ohio had his politics worked out, but he wasn't sure how to combine them with the convictions of his Christian faith.

Then he took an official research trip to Ethiopia during the great famines of the early 1980s and these two powerful forces in his life came crashing together.

"I saw 25 children die one morning. As I walked among these people, mothers were handing me their dead children, thinking that I was a doctor and that I could actually fix them, take care of them. I was stunned," said Hall.

"I came home from that experience -- seeing death. I had seen so many people die. I thought, this is a way that I can bring God into my work place and not have to preach."

About that time, Hall formed a friendship -- one rooted in decades of weekly "prayer partner" meetings -- with another member of Congress who was equally committed to defending human rights. Together, Hall and Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia excelled as a bipartisan team focusing on poverty, hunger and religious freedom.

They're still working together, even though Wolf left the House of Representatives in 2014. He currently holds the Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University. Hall left Congress in 2002, when President George W. Bush asked him to serve for several years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on food and agriculture issues. Ambassador Hall has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

Both men agreed that it would be harder for this kind of bipartisan, faith-centered friendship to flourish today, in an era in which the levels of anger and distrust on display in Washington, D.C., have reached toxic levels.

To make matters worse, said Wolf, it has become harder to defend basic human rights when they are linked to faith, because "religious liberty" has turned into a dangerous term in public life, one consistently framed in quotation marks in mainstream news reports -- implying that it has become tainted.

Soulful voice on a Capitol Hill sidewalk

The atmosphere on Capitol Hill's brick sidewalks stays frosty year round as the power-walking professionals rush along in suits of wool-blend armor, their earphones in place, smartphones loaded and eyes focused dead ahead.

But things changed at the corner of Second Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE. That's where streams of pedestrians converge near Union Station, the U.S. Senate office buildings, the Federal Judiciary Center, the Heritage Foundation and other buildings packed with prestige and power.

For the past decade, this was where the late Peter Bis kept his office, sitting on a blue plastic crate under an oak tree, sharing cigarettes, coffee and conspiracy theories with whoever passed by, greeting most of them by name. He was the friendly homeless man with his own website, business cards and a life story that -- even when warped by schizophrenia -- touched thousands.

"Hey professor! Happy Easter," he shouted a few years ago. I nodded and returned the greeting.

A few paces later, Bis hailed me again. "Wait a minute," he said. "Orthodox Easter isn't 'til next week this year, right?"

He was right, of course. Had I shared that personal detail with him or did he glean that tidbit of liturgical minutia from one of the newspapers he read, day after day? Anyone who knew him could describe similar mysterious encounters.

That precisely what people have been doing lately at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, a block from that oak. The parish held a memorial Mass for Bis last week, a month after he died of a heart attack at age 61. Worshippers entering the quiet sanctuary passed a copy of a painting of Bis called "The Contemplation of Justice."

Over the years, many people offered advice about how he could get off the street and put his savant-like memory to good use, said Deacon Gary Bockweg, who delivered the homily. At one point, Bockweg suggested that he work as a Wal-Mart greeter, but Bis said he was over-qualified for that job.

Bis often said he had a doctorate and once taught at a university. Was that true? After all, he also volunteered memories about a romance with Princess Diana, his years working as a spy, clashes with Vatican leaders and his origins as an extraterrestrial. There was lots of evidence that he really had worked in a shipyard in Oregon.

In his own way, Bis truly was a teacher, stressed Bockweg.

"He taught us that everyone we walk past deserves to be recognized as a real person, even if their appearance is deceiving," said the deacon, in his sermon. "If Pete had sat in silence, looking down at the sidewalk, or if he'd called for our attention with less friendly, less charming words, we would probably never have gotten to know the Pete inside there. ...

"We've been walking past his vacant spot under the tree for a few weeks now ... each day growing a little more accustomed to the emptiness there, and that unheard greeting. Over the years we had come to take Pete's presence for granted. And now, we're reminded that we're all just passing through this life."

When Bis first visited St. Joseph's, he was neatly dressed and well groomed. He took Communion in Mass and seemed in control of his life, although he remained quiet.

Things were different when he returned months later, limping and "using an empty wheel chair for a walker," said Bockweg. "Then the wheelchair started to fill up with bags and books. And then suitcases piled on top of that. ... He also grew more talkative, and we got to know him."

His friends remember him fondly, but with a touch of guilt. It's hard to know how to help the homeless, especially those fierce in their resolve to go their own way.

That was Peter Bis.

Yet something also drove him to reach out, to accept some gifts and offer others the gift of his memory and attention, said parishioner Joe Jones, who sang the Irish lament "Danny Boy" at the end of the Mass in honor of his friend.

"Peter Bis was a gentle soul. ... There was certainly much more there than a grunt and a curse word," said Jones. "The last thing people do today when talking to a stranger is call them by name. That's how Pete connected. ... He called us by name and that slowed us down. That made Pete real to us."

A rabbi, a preacher and a journalist

Mitch Albom has seen plenty of extremely large men, which isn't surprising after a quarter century as one of America's top sports writers. But he wasn't ready for the giant who met him outside the Pilgrim Church's dilapidated Gothic sanctuary near downtown Detroit. The Rev. Henry Covington was as tall as a basketball player, but weighed 400 pounds or more.

"His body seemed to unroll in layers, a broad slab of a chest cascading into a huge belly that hung like a pillow over the belt of his pants. His arms spread the sleeves of his oversized white T-shirt. His forehead was sweating, and he breathed heavily, as if he had just climbed stairs," wrote Albom, in "Have a Little Faith," a slim book that represents his return to non-fiction 12 years after his inspirational bestseller "Tuesdays With Morrie."

Albom's first impression was crystal clear: "If this is a man of God ... I'm the man in the moon."

Covington certainly stood in stark contrast to the other clergyman whose image was fixed in the writer's mind at the time -- the late Albert Lewis, the articulate leader of the Jewish congregation in which Albom grew up, in Cherry Hill, N.J.

The elderly rabbi had shocked Albom by asking him to deliver his eulogy, when that became necessary. This led to eight years of talks between "the Reb" and the skeptical journalist, who had walked away from his Jewish faith after college. This process resembled those philosophical Tuesday dialogues between Albom and a favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz, in the years before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease.

But Albom wasn't looking for another book during his weekday visit to Pilgrim's Church. He had -- while working to boost Detroit charities -- dropped by to learn more about the tiny Pentecostal flock's work with the homeless.

Albom expected to meet people there scarred by life on the street or behind bars, but didn't expect to find one in the pulpit.

In "Have a Little Faith," Albom describes a dramatic sermon in which Covington explored the twisted road that led to redemption: "Amazing grace. ... I coulda been dead. ... Shoulda been dead! … Woulda been dead! … His grace … saved a wretch. And I was a wretch. You know what a wretch is? I was a crackhead, an alcoholic, I was a heroin addict, a liar, a thief. I was all those things. But then came Jesus."

At first, "I wasn't sure that I trusted him," said Albom, in a quick telephone interview. "I thought, 'Isn't there supposed to be some minimal 'goodness' quotient in all of this? How can you have done all of that and now call yourself a man of God?' "

As Albom met members of Covington's church and heard their stories, bonds of trust developed, followed by friendship. Then some of the lessons he learned there began to overlap and interact with what he was learning in his pre-eulogy talks with Rabbi Lewis. There was an emphasis on respecting others, doing good works and helping needy and struggling seekers.

The writer rediscovered his own Jewish roots, but he also had to confront the blunt, powerful claims of Covington's preaching. The rabbi's approach was broad, universal and embraced all faiths. The preacher's faith reached out to others, but remained rooted in the claims of Christianity. He didn't force the needy to convert, but he witnessed to them and prayed for their conversion.

This led Albom back to some of the big questions that emerged from the dialogues with his rabbi: "How can different religions coexist? If one faith believes on thing, and another believes something else, how can they both be correct? And does one religion have the right -- or even the obligation -- to try to convert the other?"

At the end of the book, Albom concludes: "God sings, we hum along, and there are many melodies, but it's all one song." At the same time, he chooses to worship in his familiar Jewish congregation, as well as at Pilgrim's Church.

"What can I say? I like Henry's sermons and I like the people and I like the spirit in that church. It is what it is," said Albom.

"I've decided that I'm not wise enough to tell you that one faith is better than another. God will have to sort it all out. That's in God's hands."

Giving and thanksgiving

It was the kind of cryptic theological statement that is often found stuck on automobile bumpers.

This sticker said: "Don't let my car fool you. My treasure is in heaven." This echoed the Bible passage in which Jesus urged believers to, "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. ... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

This sticker's creator probably intended it to be displayed on the battered bumper of a maintenance-challenged car, noted sociologist Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Thus, the sticker suggests that the driver knows his car is a wreck, but that he has "other commitments and priorities" that matter more.

But Smith was puzzled when he saw this sticker on a $42,000 SUV parked at a bank.

"Let's be clear. I have no problem with abundance. I have no problem with capitalism," he said, speaking at Gordon College, his alma mater near Boston. "The person driving this car may give away 40 percent of their income. I have no idea. I'm not trying to nail people who drive SUVs or whatever.

"But it seems to me that the meaning of this bumper sticker has changed from what I thought was the original meaning to, 'Well, Jesus didn't quite get it right, because I have a lot here and I also have it in heaven, too. So I have all the bases covered.' "

After years of digging in the data, Smith has reached some sobering conclusions about believers and their checkbooks.

It's true that Americans give away lots of money, in comparison with people in other modern societies. It's also true that religious Americans are much more generous than non-religious Americans. But here's the bottom line: The top 10 percent of America's givers are very generous, while 80 percent or more rarely, if ever, make charitable donations of any kind.

"This is the glass half-full perspective," said Smith. "We're not doing too bad. We're doing pretty good. However, most American Christians turn out to be stingy financial givers -- most, but not all."

Stingy? Smith believes that the vast majority of affluent American Christians will see they are guilty as charged, if they candidly contrast the amount of money they give away with the doctrines that are proclaimed in the pulpits of all traditional churches.

The result is a laugh-to-keep-from-crying paradox. In fact, Smith considered using another title for his chapel address: "Why does $30 seem like so much to give in church and so little to spend in the restaurant after church?"

The stakes are high in this spiritual struggle. Recent research indicates the combined incomes of active U.S. Christians -- people who frequently go to church -- reached about two trillion dollars in 2005.

The Bible's minimum standard for giving is the "tithe," Smith noted, and it asks believers to give away at least 10 percent of their income. Do the math: 10 percent of two trillion dollars is a lot of money.

"When you study American religion," said Smith, "it quickly becomes clear how important having material resources is if you want to get anything accomplished. ... There are all kinds of things that church leaders say that they are supposed to be doing, yet they struggle to do them because they do not have the resources to act."

Ministers are often afraid to talk about this issue openly, in large part because they "feel like they're in a compromised position," he noted. "They don't want people to think that they are standing up there in the pulpit trying to raise their own salaries."

Truth is, people in the pews would probably prefer to hear a clear, unapologetic message about stewardship from someone who is not ordained. But Smith stressed that anyone who talks about faith and money has to be able to "communicate a spiritual vision that is larger than trying to pay the light bill at the end of the month."

When it comes to tithes and offerings, parents are even more important than pastors.

"People who give generously," said Smith, "almost always say, 'This is just the way my parents raised me. This is part of who I am and what I believe. My parents taught me to be thankful and to help others.' "

That Salvation Army brand

'Tis the season for Salvation Army bells, which means that Major George Hood's telephone has started ringing and it isn't going to stop until Christmas.

People want to know how many dollars are coming in and where they are going and why. Hood is the man with the numbers, since he is the Salvation Army's community relations officer. In the past year, about 3.5 million Army volunteers and about 70,000 employees have helped more than 34 million needy people.

"If you look at those numbers, we're in good shape and it certainly seems like we're going to keep getting stronger," said Hood, hours before being buried in kick-off events for the 2005 red-kettle campaign. "We're thankful for that."

But there is another side of the equation, admitted Hood. As a charity, the Salvation Army is rolling with the punches -- political, cultural and, in recent years, meteorological. But as a church, and as an evangelistic movement, the recent numbers are sobering.

The Army has about 3,500 ordained officers and 113,000 soldiers who have signed the statement of faith called "A Soldier's Covenant," with roughly 35,000 of those being "junior soldiers" under the age of 14.

On a typical Sunday, about 130,000 people attend services in 1316 corps community centers. Three decades ago the Army's four seminaries were full. Today, there are active attempts to find more adults who are willing to serve and the average age of officers -- old and new -- is rising.

"Those numbers have been flat for a number of years and, frankly, that has people talking about our future," said Hood. "Of course, it's still a mystery to a lot of people that we are a church, so we have to keep reminding people of that. People say, 'I had no idea that you're a church, too.' ...

"Are we a church or are we a charity? People have been asking that for ages. The answer, of course, is that we're both."

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army's status as a church has been linked to some nasty headlines in recent years. According to the conservative National Clergy Council, a boycott of the red kettles by gay-rights groups may have contributed to the decision by Target executives to enforce their ban on solicitations outside their stores. Army leaders have insisted that, as a church, they have a right to let their traditional Christian doctrines on sex and marriage shape some employee policies and benefits.

Of course, it's also newsworthy that those bell-ringing volunteers keep greeting shoppers with the controversial words, "Merry Christmas!"

This year, stressed Hood, the Salvation Army has worked out a compromise with Target in which online customers can make some holiday purchases for the needy. However, a few conservative religious groups are targeting Target by reminding their members that the red kettles are alive and well at many other stores.

Hood confirmed that the two-year controversy has not hurt donations. The kettles took in $93 million in 2003, including $9 million at Target stores. After the 2004 Target ban, the kettles took in $103 million, including $17 million at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club locations.

It does appear, said Hood, that the Salvation Army is maintaining its niche in the American imagination. The public has responded well to its pledge to keep "doing the most good to the most people in the most need." The question is whether people understand why the Salvation Army is doing the work that it does. After all, the word "salvation" is still in the brand name.

Army officers are trying new things. Some are working with Harley-Davidson motorcycle clubs to reach out to bikers. Some corps centers are starting "church on wheels" programs with buses that take worship services directly to needy neighborhoods. Others are trying to make Sunday services "more charismatic and more contemporary."

Can the Salvation Army replace brass bands with rock bands?

"People admire what we do, but they would prefer to worship at a Baptist church or a Presbyterian church or that megachurch that's in their neighborhood," said Hood. "They'll donate money to us and volunteer to help, but they don't want to worship with us on Sunday mornings. ...

"We still have people who think that all of our soldiers are off living in a barracks somewhere. People don't understand who we are."