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Thursday, December 21, 2006
By Dr. Steven Taylor

For anyone in the United States to be up in arms about the fact that a Muslim (see here) has been elected to the Congress demonstrates two rather damning things.

1) It show an utter lack of respect and trust in democracy itself. It isn’t as if Ellison won his seat via lottery. He won the nomination of his party and he won in the general election in fair, legal and legitimate elections. As such, to freak out because of his religion is to assume that democracy really doesn’t work because it has, in this case, chosen the “wrong” type of person.

2) If having an elected Muslim is some sort of threat to democracy, then what is high heck are he doing in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why are we even pretending to say that those countries should be (or even can be) democratized? If our democracy can’t handle the prospect of Muslims in Congress, then how is the world can there ever be functional in the Middle East?

There are some people out there who need to think long and hard about these issue instead of freaking out because someone is Muslim or has an Arabic middle name.

It is my tendency to find calling anything a “phobia” in politics to be an overly simplistic cop-out. However, there really does appear to be an irrational fear of Muslims affecting the minds of some within the US.
(On the name thing, note also this-h/t: OTB).

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By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the NYT: Congressman Criticizes Election of Muslim:

In a letter sent to hundreds of voters this month, Representative Virgil H. Goode Jr., Republican of Virginia, warned that the recent election of the first Muslim to Congress posed a serious threat to the nation’s traditional values.

Mr. Goode was referring to Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat and criminal defense lawyer who converted to Islam as a college student and was elected to the House in November. Mr. Ellison’s plan to use the Koran during his private swearing-in ceremony in January had outraged some Virginia voters, prompting Mr. Goode to issue a written response to them, a spokesman for Mr. Goode said.

In his letter, which was dated Dec. 5, Mr. Goode said that Americans needed to “wake up” or else there would “likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”

“I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped,” said Mr. Goode, who vowed to use the Bible when taking his own oath of office.

How can elected officials of the United States government not understand that one of the fundamental tenets of the political philosophy of this land is that of religious tolerance? (Indeed, could it not be called one of America’s “traditional values”?) Certainly the desire for such was a motivating factor in the founding of some of the original colonies and the principles of it are enshrined in the First Amendment and in Article VI of the US Constitution. (And yes, I know that elected officials often don’t understand that which they should-it is just sometimes mystifying).

Further, this simply comes across as Islamophobia in the literal sense of the term.  If Mr. Ellison were a raving jihadist who had sworn allegiance to al Qaeda, then we would have a serious problem (such as how such a person got elected in the first place).  The fact that he is a memember of the Nation of Islam (while not my favorite group) is hardly cause for Goode’s missive.

And finally:  Goode makes himself look like a dimwit by linking Ellison to immigration, because Ellison isn’t an immigrant and he subscribed to a US-born variation of Islam.

Perhaps Mr. Goode should read Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (here’s an excerpt).

(BTW, I dealt with the use of the Koran at Ellison’s private swearing in ceremony here and here).

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Friday, December 8, 2006
By Dr. Steven Taylor

As I suspect most of my reading audience knows, there is some news concerning the Veep’s daughter ( see, for example, the NYT, Cheney Pregnancy Stirs Debate on Gay Rights):

Mary Cheney, a daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, is expecting a baby with her partner of 15 years, Heather Poe, Mr. Cheney’s office said Wednesday.

Vice President Dick Cheney, with his daughter Mary, center, and her partner, Heather Poe, photographed at the White House in 2004.

Lea Anne McBride, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cheney, said the vice president and his wife, Lynne Cheney, were “looking forward with eager anticipation” to the baby’s birth, which is expected this spring and will bring to six the number of grandchildren the Cheneys have.

Mr. Cheney’s office would not provide details about how Mary Cheney became pregnant or by whom, and Ms. Cheney did not respond to messages left at her office and with her book publisher, Simon & Schuster.

This situation raises issues for evangelical social conservatives who are anti-gay rights and yet are typically great admirers of Vice President Cheney. It leads to some intellectual problems, as Andrew Sullivan notes when pointing to NRO’s Kathryn Lopez’s response

Unless Mary Cheney asks to be part of a political debate about this, there is no need to have a public discussion about her life.

This strikes me as an odd position, given that the politics of homosexuality have been central to the public discourse for the last several years, primarily because of the same-sex marriage issue. The Bush administration opposes same-sex marriage, Cheney is a high-ranking member of that administration and his daughter is a lesbian in a long-term relationship who is now having a baby. How can this not be part of the public conversation?

Mary Cheney humanizes and specifies an abstract issue-thus making it an even more difficult one. Social conservatives who want to avoid this issue have to go one of two ways: recognize that the issue of homosexuality and homosexual relationships are more complex than they normally like to admit (and thus leading to a rethinking of their position), or they have to decry Mary Cheney (and some have) and also call Dick Cheney a hypocrite. I don’t see a lot of intellectual space for simply ignoring the situation while continuing to promote the same policy positions regarding homosexuality (yet, some are so doing).

Let’s consider at least some of the basis of the social conservative objection. For example, a Biblical basis for Christian objections to homosexuality is from 1 Corinthians 6:9-10;

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals,

10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

Now, the thing that has often struck me is that there are an awful lot of fornicators running around out there, yet the response from most social conservatives to fornication is nowhere near as intense to their reaction to homosexuality. Somehow it is possible to live alongside the fornicators, but often not homosexuals. (And, of course, the covetous are freakin’ everywhere.)

There is also the whole Beatitudes problem (such at the following from Matthew 5:21-22) which pretty much puts most of us on the hook:

21″You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’

22″But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.

23″Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,

24leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.

25″Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.

26″Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.

27″You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’;

28but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

There are complex theological issues here, but the bottom line is that it points to the flaws in human nature-and it seems to me that many evangelicals/social conservatives often focus far too much on a given flaw (i.e., homosexuality), while ignoring many an other. I have long thought that such a position causes some intellectual and theological problems that are typically ignored.

Even as it is, evangelicals have to admit, they don’t want to apply the Levitical law to homosexuals, which demonstrates that the complexity of the situation (Leviticus 20:13:

13′If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.

Again, there are reasons why this is considered to be an edict for the past, it creates some serious cognitive dissonance if one is hardcore theologically.

Further, there is something to be said that there are distinctions to be made between a religious issue and a civil one. If Christians can accept that fornication is more a religious than a civil issue (it would take an extremely hardcore social conservative to seriously call for making fornication or cohabitation illegal), then perhaps the wise move would be to stop trying to infuse conservative theology on homosexuality into public law.

Certainly the complexity of the issue (which many evangelicals try to make out as radically easy) is being reflected in the mental gymnastics required to deal with the general allegiance to Dick Cheney in very conservative circles while simultaneously saying that Mary Cheney’s life isn’t anyone’s business (such a K-Lo).

There is a lot in this issue for people of various ideological and theological points of view to pick at, or to get mad about. However, I will say this: I think that many evangelical social conservatives have overly simplistic views on the topic of homosexuality. Certainly there is less thought that goes into the issue than there should be (but then again, that is true of a lot things, and not just for evangelicals).

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Saturday, December 2, 2006
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the AP: W.Va. city’s Xmas scene has no Jesus:

Christ is missing from Christmas in this small town. The community’s holiday display has a manger with shepherds, a guiding star, camels and a palm tree, but no baby Jesus, Mary or Joseph.

The parks superintendent said Jesus was left out because of concerns about the separation of church and state. But Mayor Dick Callaway said it was done for purely technical reasons: “It’s not easy to put a light-up representation of a baby in a small manger scene, you know.”

I am not one to buy into the “War on Christmas” hype, but how ridiculous is it to have the star and the shepherds, but no Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus?    Have the scene, or don’t, but this is a remarkably silly compromise.

I honestly have never understood why such displays cause such consternation with some folks in the first place.  If one doesn’t believe in any of it, why not treat it like Santa Claus and his elves as simply being part of one of the many symbols of the season.  Even if one is a full-blown secularist, one likely celebrates Christmas.   If we can have trees and holly and reindeer and elves, why not a manger scene-if it is all a fairy tale, what difference does it make?  Just enjoy the lights and have another eggnog.

And I wonder if by “manger” the article means a stable or if it means a food trough, for while in popular conception we tend to think of a manger scene as being the stable, but the word “manger” means feeding trough.  Surely they didn’t have an empty manger.  Of course, an empty stable is still pretty absurd (maybe they could have, in lights, a sign on the empty stable that says “back in 30 minutes”).  Further, the stable in question in the New Testament was probably a cave, not the wooden structure we usually see in such displays, but I digress…

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Friday, December 1, 2006
By Dr. Steven Taylor

I have been otherwise occupied, so have not addressed this issue before now, but I have been giving it some thought. However, there is a legitimate to be raised as to how Romney’s Mormonism will impact his presidential bid. I do think that it is possible, in a field that does not currently have a clear social conservative in the pack, that Romney could win the nomination in spite of his Mormonism. However, I think that the issue is potentially more problematic that may currently be clear.

There are two key issues here. One is a matter of theological understanding, which is why is there a religious issue to begin with from the perspective of orthodox Christianity (although specifically in this case, Evangelicals), and the other is the fact that there are a great number of stories for the the media to exploit in terms of the “Mormon are odd” thesis.

Indeed, as a poll recently published in Time indicated, there are qualms in the public about Mormonism:

. A poll conducted in June by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg found that 35% of registered voters said they would not consider voting for a Mormon for President. Only Islam would be a more damaging faith for a candidate, the poll found.

Early this week, Slate had a piece on the topic of Romney’s faith, as did the DMN.

The Theology of it All. This is a fairly straight-forward issue, but also one that non-evangelicals (or the marginally religious) won’t be concerned about. However, if the issue at hand is can Romney appeal to the socially conservative, and especially evangelical, voters, then it is important to understand in terms of assessing Romney’s realistic possibilities to win the nomination.

The main issue between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity (Catholicism, mainline protestantism, Evangelicals, etc.) of various stripes is pretty fundamental: it is disagreement over who Jesus of Nazareth was and is. One cannot get more fundamental than this issue. Orthodox Christianity sees Jesus as the literal incarnation of God and the doctrine of the Trinity states that the Father, Son and Spirit are all God, not Gods, not part of God, not simply manifestations of God, but God: God in three persons. And the God in question is the eternal God, the creator of all things, and is ultimately singular in all of existence for all time.

The Jesus of Mormonism is literally the son of a God, although Jesus Himself is also a God. However, instead of being a complex ontological proposition like the Trinity, the idea here is that there are actually many Gods throughout space and time, Jesus being only one. Further, we all, as humans, can become a God as well.

It is this fundamental difference, in different iterations, that separates orthodox Christian theology from Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists. Regardless of any other issue, they have different views on the essence of Christ. This is why, in a nutshell, orthodox Christians will often call these groups, Mormons included, as being cults.

Now, this may ultimately be of no consequence to a large number of voters. However, it will be an issue to some, it is jsut a question of what percentage of evangelicals. As such, Romney’s faith could even being a serious issue for his candidacy, if his views on faith turn off enough evangelical voters.

To put it another way: the non-religious or marginally religious may find all of this to be headache inducing nonsense. However, the difference between the theology of the typical evangelical and the typical Mormon are quite different, despite the cosmetic similarities. And for those voters who are motivated to enter politics because of their religious perspectives are simultaneously the kinds of voters Romney needs to win the nomination as well as the voters most likely to find his faith to be a stumbling block in terms of voting for him.

That is the crux of Romney’s Mormon problem.

For a dissenting view (of sorts) see this post at Evangelicals for Mitt. I say “of sorts” because it doesn’t exactly address the point I am making above, which is about primary voters. Still, the argument that theology doesn’t make for the presidency is a wholly valid one, and likely a position that many evangelicals will take in the ‘08 election. The question is: will enough take the opposite position? Also, if evangelicals decide to set aside certain key beliefs aside, might it be possible for them to set aside other issues and go with Rudy? It will be interesting to watch, at any event.

The Media Factor. There can be little doubt that much attention will be paid to Romney’s faith over the lengthy course of the primary season. Indeed, we have already seen some of this. While most of the stuff listed below are hardly a big deal, they could sum to some voters being uncomfortable with Romney. More specifically, they have the potential to hold Mormonism, and therefore Romney by extension, up for ridicule or treatment as an oddity (for example, South Park’s lampooning of Mormon history). Such a situation is not healthy for a presidential candidate.

  • The Underwear. As has been discussed in the Blogosphere of late (specifically at Andrew Sullivan’s site), there is the practice that Mormons have of wearing specific undergarments.
  • American Indians and Jesus. One of the tenets of the Mormon faith is that after His resurection, Jesus appeared to, and preached to, American Indians. Of course, the lack of any evidence of Christian influence on Native American culture prior to the colonization of the Americas has not been seen as problematic for this scriptural passage-at least not to Mormons.
  • Polygamy. While the mainline Mormon church has long rejected plural marriage, there is no denying that a discussion of Mormonism tends to require at least a passing reference to polygamy.
  • Race. There are also some issues on race that I am only partially acquainted with. They derive from such Mormon scriptural passages like 1 Nephi 23, 2 Nephi 5: 21 and 3 Nephi 2:15. Andrew Sullivan noted some of the race issues in this post. This is no small matter.

And yes, one can likely find any number of odd believes/practices of any given religious group. However, if those groups are mainstream, those items are easily ignored or dismissed. If the religious group is a minority and considered a little odd or mysterious to being with, each revelation leads to greater potential for ridicule. The fact that vast, vast number of Mormons are white makes it easier to ridicule their religious views in a mainstream setting.

Update/Point of Clarification: I am not herein arguing about whether Romney’s religious beliefs should influence voter, but am rather pointing out that there are obstacles that may well exist in his path to the nomination. While certainly not all evangelical voters will care about Romney’s theological views, some will. The question will become will there be enough who are so effected so as to alter his chances at the nomination?

(And as a side note, how acute is my bloggitis/poligeekness, that I consider writing a blog post on presidential politics to be a nice lunchtime break? It’s just sick, really.)

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Sunday, October 22, 2006
By Dr. Steven Taylor

In a book review in today’s WaPo (Has the Right Gone Wrong?) of Andrew Sullivan’s new book, The Conservative Soul, Bryan Burrough distills the argument as follows:

Sullivan is also smart and well read, and in his new book, The Conservative Soul , he calmly and rationally attempts to deduce the malady that in barely 15 years has rendered Reagan-era conservatism all but unrecognizable.

The pathogen he identifies is Christian fundamentalism.

The thing is, that doesn’t make any sense. It is wholly unclear to me how Christian fundamentalism would lead, per se, to the mess that is Iraq, to fiscal irresponsibility, to substantial corruption in the Congress (e.g., DeLay, Ney, Cunningham and others), to incompetence over Katrina or to any number of other issues. Even if the argument would be that Bush’s own fundamentalism (not that Methodists are all that fundamentalist) led him to have messianic/apocalyptic visions in his pursuit of foreign policy (an argument some have made), that doesn’t explain the general problems of the Republican Party these days.

Yes, one can blame, if that is the right word, Christian fundamentalists on a list of issues including abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage. However, regardless of one’s view on those subject, I don’t see an argument that would connect them to the list of ills in the preceding paragraph.

Of course, in Sully’s post on the review I think he may be disagreeing with Burrough’s assessment, but it is unclear.

And, by the way, wasn’t it just two years ago that everyone wanted to talk about “values voters” and how the Democrats have a “God problem”? Now the argument is supposed to be that the GOP is off the tracks because of Evangelicals? That doesn’t make sense, to be honest.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Since that darn Hezbollah is grabbing all the headlines, Ayman al-Zawahri broke out the ol’ video camera: (via the AP) Al-Zawahri calls for Muslims to rise up

Al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader issued a worldwide call Thursday for Muslims to rise up in a holy war against Israel and join the fighting in Lebanon and Gaza until Islam reigns from “Spain to Iraq.”

That could be while.

And we won’t get into the fact that he wants a particular brand of Islam to rule.

Heck, if they just want to proselytize, the Mormon model is a lot less offensive-no one gets blown up or anything.

I can see it now: two guys from al Qaeda riding bikes around the neighborhood in white short-sleeved shirts and ties, turbans and long beards handing out brochures.

That would certainly be better than waging a terror campaign.

Alas, that route isn’t in al Qaeda’s plans:

He also called for the “downtrodden” throughout the world, not just Muslims, to join the battle against “tyrannical Western civilization and its leader, America.”

“Stand with Muslims in confronting this unprecedented oppression and tyranny. Stand with us as we stand with you against this injustice that was forbidden by God in his book (the Quran),” al-Zawahri said.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006
By Dr. Steven Taylor

For a comprehensive after-action report on the Southern Baptist Convention, including the issue of the role of blogging on that event, surf over to DownshoreDrift.

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Monday, June 19, 2006
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via Reuters: New US church leader says homosexuality no sin.

For the record: this isn’t surprising, nor would I have expected her to dodge the question.

Still, letting the whole “woman in charge of the denomination” thing sink it first might’ve been a good idea before jumping into the next controversy…

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Sunday, June 18, 2006
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Regardless of one’s interest level in the Southern Baptist Convention, there are some interesting issues for blogging and the way bloggers are often viewed by non-bloggers within this story.

First, there is the general fact that the situation with the SBC underscores that the blogging/non-blogging division is (as one would expect) one of also of age/generation.

Second, and I think quite fascinating, is that the SBC situation reveals what appears to be an emerging standard argument against blogging. The argument is, in short, that blogging is a waste of time that could be put to better use. We have seen this argument before as applied to academic blogging. Back when we were all discussing Dan Drezner’s denial of tenure at Chicago, Ann Althouse noted that for some the following describes blogging:

If you didn’t blog so much, you would have [used all that time to do whatever I think you ought to have done

For academics it is assumed that if one wasn’t blogging, one would be doing something “useful” (i.e., publishable). I commented on this as well at the time here.

As if channeling that critique as aimed at academic bloggers, the outgoing President of the Southern Baptist Convention (Bobby Welch) made the following statement in his outgoing address (via BP News):

Welch said he’d been wondering about Southern Baptists and that if “we’d spend less time on these websites that we’d be able to spend more time witnessing?

“Do you think if we spent less time blogging we might have more time to do some baptizing?

“Do you think if we spent less time fumbling around with those computers we might have more converts?”

Welch advised the crowd not to gloat that he’s chiding “them bloggin’ boys. Why, you run around with that wireless telephone up in your ear all day long like a pacifier.

“You think if we’d spend less time with those wireless telephones and more time on the street we wouldn’t win more people to Jesus?”

The key assumption is clearly that whatever the main output for the given profession is (whether it be academic writing or winning converts) would be increased if people didn’t waste all their time blogging. Of course, this assumption can be made about blogging because it is a public undertaking (with timestamps and everything), as oppossed to many other actions that people might be engaging in, but that we aren’t made privy to on the internet. One cannot critique what one does not know about, and as such, blogging makes itself an instant object of critique because it is done in public.

The response to such criticisms in both the academic and the religious spheres have similar responses. For me, blogging helps keep me focused on a panoply of political happenings, as well as stimulating a great deal of thought, much of which translates into the classroom or into more academic writing. And given that I am part of a small faculty that is required to teach a wide array of classes, blogging intersects well with my need to be a generalists as well as as specialist.

In like fashion two Baptist bloggers respond to Welch’s words with a similar argument.

First is the SBC Outpost where Marty Duren wrote:

I can’t speak for anyone else, but since my time in the blogosphere, I have become more aware of the lost, not less; have been more effective at building relationships with the lost, not less; more prayerful and intentional in demonstrating the love of Christ, not less.

That sounds wholly plausible to me. Blogging tends to focus your attention on that which one is writing, rather than detracting.

Similarly, blogger Kiki Cherry, writing at Sojourner, responds thusly:

His words were unfair and untrue. We are not spending all of our time blogging, and many of us have a deep passion for evangelism and compassion for the lost. If he had actually taken the time to read any of our blogs, then he would know that.

Much of what we write is iron-sharpening-iron stuff about church planting, discipleship, evangelism, or simply testimonies of celebration about what God has done. Many of the bloggers are missionaries.

We also have built a practical network of support and encouragement as ministers who feel alone and isolated much of the time in our ministries. We have not found solutions to meet those needs within the traditional avenues of the SBC. So we adapted and got together to be that resource for each other.

Of course, Welch’s also bespeak of a profound misunderstanding of the role and power of technology in the discussion and dissemination of ideas (not to mention some likely sour grapes over the fact that his faction within the Convention lost, and lost to all those time-wasting bloggers…).

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