“Ramon Casiano” is the song that opens the Drive By Trucker’s “American Band” album, one of this year’s greatest and most timely albums (second only to Beyonce’s “Lemonade”). In an infinitely catchy and masterfully played southern rock song DBT’s Mike Cooley sings the story of how Harlon Carter shot 15 year-old Ramon Casiano in Laredo Texas in 1931. The full details of who Carter is are not explicitly spelled out as the bulk of the song shifts to a focus on border issues, prejudice and struggle. You know while listening that everything is tied together and given an overarching theme but you’d be well rewarded by digging into the history here as it produces an even deeper level to the song and it sheds light on a few major issues facing us today. It’s a smart song in an album full of them that showcases a critique of people and places from within that is biting and necessary. It also rocks.

So who was Harlon Carter? Carter is a former NRA Executive Vice President and the person responsible for the “Cincinnati Revolution” in 1977 in which new leadership took over the NRA, ousting the old guard to transform the organization from a group that taught youth shooting safety, advocated hunting and sportsmanship, and worked to increased safety and accuracy in sports shooting into one that took a radical hard-line  “individual rights” interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and became a political advocacy group for repealing all existing gun laws and prohibiting any others from passing. Carter and his partners changed the nature of the entire organization, moved it from being a responsible sportsman group to a lobbyist for the gun manufacturing industry. Before Carter was an NRA executive he was a teen himself involved in the malicious shooting of 15 year old Hispanic teen Ramon Casiano:

“After returning home from school that day, Carter was told by his mother that there were three Hispanic youths loitering near their family’s property. Carter left his house, shotgun in tow, to confront the alleged loiterers. After finding Casiano and his two companions, Carter pointed his shotgun at them and ordered them to come with him. Casiano refused and pulled out a knife and asked Carter if he would like to fight. Carter then pointed the shotgun at Casiano’s chest. Casiano pushed the gun aside and asked Carter not to shoot while taking a step back. He was then shot and killed. Carter claimed self-defense, but the presiding judge instructed the jury, “There is no evidence that defendant had any lawful authority to require deceased to go to his house for questioning, and if defendant was trying to make deceased go there for that purpose at the time of the killing, he was acting without authority of law, and the law of self-defense does not apply.”*

*http://nraontherecord.org/harlon-carter/

Carter would end up not serving any time and years later when this story resurfaced tied to his new job he denied and dismissed it.

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Cooley and the trucker’s tie Carter and his perverted NRA to many of the struggles our nation has faced ever since and explain how such figures became “leaders of a certain kind of men who need to feel the world’s against them, like in mind and like in skin.”

We could tie Carter and his bastard version of the NRA to a lot of evil in this world as they bear some responsibility for everything from Columbine to the Pulse Night Club by way of Sandy Hook and so many others too numerous to count. They are responsible because they’ve spread their vitriol and arrogance across the country by shutting down logical debate and warping minds, by refusing to consider any and all regulations labeling all such attempts as nefarious efforts of the Federal Government to control the population–yet all the while shouting that such a thing may be possible and in such yielding greater donations and increasing arms sales for their partners. Carter’s legacy is the laughs that guffaw from Republicans who watched the last presidential debate when Hillary defended her efforts to pass legislation that would curb the number of toddler related shootings (!) in our country each year due to unsecured guns from irresponsible parents.  Carter’s legacy is the stockpile of military grade weapons the Sandy Hook shooter’s mother had amassed out of fear of Obama that was used by her son to murder elementary school children and their teachers. Harlon Carter’s legacy is the sea of bloodshed in poor neighborhoods where shooting deaths rival those in Iraq.

But I don’t just blame Carter and the NRA. I blame those too blinded to recognize the lies they are being sold. Here’s the 2nd Amendment, verbatim:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

As it reads, the 2nd Amendment is tied to “a well regulated militia.” Well regulated clearly leaves room for restrictions and regulations especially as they may relate to public health and safety in a much closer together larger country with advanced technology such as ours today. Furthermore, “militia” refers to citizen-soldiers, persons not in full time service of the army. Such a group today would be our National Guard. So, the 2nd Amendment only grants full access to firearms to a group of citizen soldiers who may need to assemble for security.

Now, I am not an originalist in that I do not read the constitution as a fundamentalist reads a scripture, as unchanging, set in stone and closed for reinterpretation in each era. For me it is the principles behind each amendment as they relate to our core principles as Americans that matters. But the 2nd Amendment clearly lies at odds with a personal rights interpretation for those who do define as originalists– yet originalists themselves sometime now follow Carter’s lead and interpret the 2nd amendment to mean free and unfettered rights of gun ownership to any and all private citizens without any measure of restriction. I am not of the mind that there should be no privately owned guns in our country–just that we can have a rational discussion in light of what has worked in other countries and pass common-sense laws that mitigate the number of guns in the hands of terrorists, criminals and the mentally ill. Also that we can restrict the power and velocity of privately owned guns and reduce the number of guns in circulation that are stolen from honest owners and used for crimes every day.

Ironically, those who have swallowed the extremist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and kept to it no matter how many dead children arise as a result more often than not identify as “pro life”. In this case we would laugh at the absurdity were it not so sad. Life for this group as it becomes clearer each day we advance into Trump’s America only matters if it is wealthy and white or completely potential–fertilized eggs that may become a cute baby. For the “pro life” all that matters is life in the abstract and the concept of motherhood—something they find unfathomable that someone may not want or be able to possess. But life–toddlers shot down in Newtown, innocent bystanders wiped out in gang shootings, drone-struck life on the borders around the world, life snuffed out as it desperately strives to reach safety by way of refugee, that life most assuredly does not matter.

Blood is on the hands of Carter and those who defend his legacy like today’s disgrace Wayne Lapierre.Blood is also on the hands of those who refuse to have a productive conversation on how we can halt the shed of blood and the loss of safety. And the hypocrisy of those who will shut down such a line of thought while clinging to their own prejudices will be the hypocrisy that eventually ends the modern Christian church in America. If this election has shown us anything it’s that rational, reasoned debate falls on the deaf ears of those who refuse to consider facts and who consider education itself as an ill. Perhaps we need more assholes to willfully stand as thorns in the side of Trump and those who enable him and who refuse to bow down or remain silent about that which destroys us.

 

 

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I hope conservative friends will read what I write here with an open mind. I don’t write this to anger anyone but to explain, invite conversation and purge my mind of a few clamoring thoughts. I’ve seen numerous posts this morning from some of you, many of you moderate pastors, who are inviting a calm and even-handed look at the current election from and for both sides due to the anger you see from both sides in your daily feed.

This is easily the most volatile election of my lifetime. Though each election since I was old enough to vote has grown increasingly volatile this one easily takes the cake. With the stakes so high, the media so loud, and the sides so split there is little room for conversation in any fruitful manner.

I remember growing up and debating issues whether religious, political or pop culture. One of the most formative voices in my youth was a Sunday school teacher who was the father of my best friend. He and I argued week in and out in Sunday school because even at 12 I was beginning to have different views than much of what I heard at my  church. Despite this we were always friendly and though it was in his nature to tease me, he was always respectful in our disagreements. He was also my first boss and when we argued there it was also respectful. Through high school, college, grad school and beyond, debating issues was simply something I did. To this day I have great friends and loved ones who disagree with me on some pretty huge issues (is there a God, is Bruce Springsteen the best American rock star of all time) but we remain friends.

I don’t have to agree with you to love you. Heck, I don’t have to agree with you to like you. I like voices that challenge me, so long as they do so in a way that is informed, engaged and caring. Disagreeing and constructively debating began to slip away from public discourse, at least in my life, right around the time Obama closed in on the White House.  Whereas one of my favorite professors (a Republican) tried to console me in my under-grad years as I moped after W.’s re-election, after Obama’s victory I found coworkers and acquaintances who made it clear they would rather I shut up that I even cared for the new President whenever they made a negative comment. Even discussing the issues leading up to that election was fraught—I had always found even-toned, fact-based discourse to be an appropriate manner of discussing politics but that began to fade in 2008.

I have moved around a lot but I always wind up in predominantly conservative areas. The area I live in today is governed by some of the most conservative tea-party House members around yet their opponents are running against them on a platform that insists they are the true conservatives. Everyone tries to out-conservative each other here. As a result, and particularly because I’ve found fact-based debate to be frowned upon, I do not generally mention my political opinions in public places especially if it may in any way be seen as associated with my vocation or company. This however is a favor that is rarely returned. Just as most liberal friends consistently recount that when they attempt to leave politics away from the dinner table there is always a conservative uncle or two who insists on muttering “I hate Obama” out of nowhere, it is also common for conservatives to announce uninvited and out of context their often hateful political exhortations at business meetings, town hall meetings, church meetings (etc). Early in my tenure living and working in my new community I was at a community event where out of nowhere a guest speaker began shouting fairly vile and ultra-partisan political and religious opinions into the microphone inviting those who disagreed to “get the hell out of this country”. He was applauded.

Watching this week’s RNC has been frightening to me but I must be a sucker for punishment that goes beyond my political junky tendencies. I’ve read and studied politics and American history for much of my life and have increased that as of late but I know most of us do not vote based on study or rationale. Most of us vote on pure emotion or personal fear related to our own specific life situation. This can make debating politics, especially in the volatile schism we now find ourselves in, fraught with tension. But I want to tell you, especially if you are a conservative friend or loved one of mine, why I am scared and why I find this election different than any previous election I have witnessed in my life or am aware of in modern history. I invite you to consider these fears and give me your own in the comments. If we can at least acknowledge each other’s points maybe we won’t demonize each other.  Furthermore, if we can at least try to consider each other’s points in a rational manner we may find common ground and understanding.

So why do I find this election different, why does it scare me? Though I disagreed with the policies and politics of George W. Bush and voted against him, I found debate was possible on his presidency and could understand why someone did or did not support him. The same thing goes for McCain and Romney.  So why do I find Trump so different, so scary, and (in my opinion) so dangerous?

  1. Trump has made inflammatory and aggressive statements against many populations including Hispanics, Muslims, and women.

No, you are not a racist simply because you vote for Trump. I can’t even unequivocally label Trump himself a racist as for all I know he is playing George Wallace style politics by utilizing the dangerous fuel of racism to tap into votes while not actually being racist. Furthermore, I don’t deny you can hold contrary opinions on immigration reform, inter-religious relations or the role of religious extremism in terrorism without being racist, xenophobic or bigoted. I understand that once the insult of “bigot” is thrown out many conservatives feel that debate is closed. Yet you can admit that at least SOME of what Trump has said at rallies to thunderous applause does come off as prejudiced, does hurt many groups of people and can very well do lasting damage on the relations between different groups in America and between America and other countries.  There is after all at least some reason that Trump is polling at a 0% approval rating among African American voters in the city where the RNC (Cleveland) is taking place and that his approval rating among American Muslims and Hispanic-Americans is not much better. His history and remarks on women as human beings has resulted in historic lows in his approval rating among women (even Republican women). At perhaps the most critical time for race-relations, religious interaction and population diversification since the 1960s statements and policies that fan the flames of discontent are doubly dangerous.

  1. Trump openly supports torture, praises the actions of dictators, and pledges the type of military policies that will increase violence and animosity particularly in volatile areas of the Middle East.

If we believe in human rights as we should and as we expect other countries to, we must reject all uses of torture.

  1. Trump denies climate science.

Trump would be the only world leader to openly deny global warming. For some, especially conservatives, this seems a minor issue as even if they don’t themselves outright deny the existence of global warming they do not accept that human action has much to do with it or that it is as bad as is said. In many ways, this is the scariest part of Trump’s platform because there is overwhelming scientific consensus that not only is global warming real and exacerbated by human actions, it is nearing the tipping point of no turning back. We are on pace to reach a mean global temperature 4 degrees warmer than preindustrial levels by the end of this century—which will cause flooding of all coastal cities, astronomic levels of malnutrition and food/clean water shortages around the globe particularly in poor countries, violent heat waves, increased cyclones and the disappearance of the coral reef system.  What this means is, that without significant policy changes babies born today who live a normal life expectancy will have to live through the dangerous and violent affects of global climate change and population shifts. We current young adults may be the last living generation fortunate enough to daily function on a relatively normal basis with the ability (all other factors allowing) to go to the beach for vacation, turn on the tap for clean water, eat a balanced meal a day, etc.  Yet we know what causes global warming—the largest human contributor is the burning of fossil fuels particularly coal but also oil and to a lesser degree natural gas. We’re all in this together and all bear responsibility because every nugget of coal we burn and every tank of gas we run through pumps carbon into the atmosphere, adds to the greenhouse effect, melts polar ice caps and heats up the mean temperature. So rather than point fingers we have to admit our culpability for the sake of future generations and begin making the shift, from coal to less aggressive fuel sources to ultimately clean fuel sources. Trump does not admit this; in fact his platform has re-written science to say “coal is clean” in defiance of all scientific data. Of course there are economic concerns tied to the shift that MUST be addressed but the time is running out to make those shifts if we want to preserve this planet as livable for future humans and animals. I come from coal country with family members going back generations who have depended on the coal industry to earn a living, but just as miners fought the coal industry when the company store exploited them economically and when the management killed them through lack of safety regulation producing the most vibrant union in worker history, today’s miners and the connected industry must be just as strong in making adaptations, acquiring training and demanding proper stimulus packages to revitalize their local economies– and the rest of us interested in a livable future must fight this battle with them if we truly believe in economic justice as a platform and that no one is left on their own. Regardless, if changes are not made within the next 4 years it may be too late for any future generations. Trump could be the nail in the coffin of this earth even if he keeps his hands off the nuclear button.

  1. Trump is post-factual

Facts do not matter to Trump. If caught in a lie or an inconsistency he doubles down and never apologizes. He does not offer examples of how he will concretely pursue his goals. He plays on fears, prejudices and irrational thoughts to emotionally stir up his crowd which has included physically assaulting those who protest, encouraging shouts of slurs toward his opponents, and dangerously misrepresenting the actions and positions of those who run against him. If we cannot debate Trump’s policies with facts and if those who support Trump reject all facts as liberal bias, if history, science, and political theory are all thrown out as useless how does Trump build anything of use and how do we as a people have any say in how it is constructed? How do we have constructive debate to find ways to truly better this country if we can’t agree to acknowledge reality?

….and here’s where I lose some of you (if I haven’t already) with what you no doubt will call hyperbole. This is the crux of my argument and the reason I find it difficult to compare this campaign to any previous campaign I’ve lived through. Too many have cried wolf over the years to make the comparison seem anything but overblown no matter who we’re talking about but unfortunately Trump is that candidate that comes around so rarely that this comparison (scarily) may very well be apt—when Hitler began his rise to power it was just “politics” too. He scapegoated the Jews, stoked economic fears that the Jews were stealing the jobs of good Germans and controlled the economy, labeled the “others” as threats to national security and he proudly proclaimed he would make Germany live up to its glorious past again. In hindsight it’s easy to condemn those that allowed Hitler to happen in the face of genocide and removed by time. But it was average, everyday people, those who supported Hitler AND those who simply refused to actively oppose him that allowed him to rise to power. Trump talks of building a wall, of deporting Mexicans who are mostly “rapists and criminals”, of profiling and barring Muslims from entry into the country, of closing our borders to suffering refugees, of using torture to enforce American military goals. Trump is not an acceptable candidate. His policies are past the pale, they cross the line from an area where we can civilly discuss political issues into an area that is scary, violent, false and damaging. How am I to be quiet of this if I am to live up to what I know is right? I may no longer be a religious person but my lifelong study of it and its heroes has instilled in me a desire to see peace and justice reign. If I don’t speak truth as I see it and invite others into conversation to clarify the danger as I see it then how will I decry the misery Trump inflicts if he becomes President? Is vocally opposing him now prophetic in the truest sense of the word or is it hyperbolic?

I work with, live around, do business with, am friend and family to, like and love people who disagree with me on many, many issues. That is fine. That is life and the way it should be. I am sure I am connected to people who I care about that will vote for Trump in the fall and I wager that most (if not all) of them will do so out of deep aversion to the alternative. I could write a lot about why I support Hillary regardless of Trump but I could also offer plenty of my own critique of her politics as well. I feel we can debate her policies but I don’t see how we can debate Trump’s as his all rely on emotion in a post-factual world. I invite you, if you are so inclined, to tell me (if you fear) why you fear Hillary in the way I have told you my fears of Trump. What damage do you see imminent in a presidency of hers? Does it outweigh the potential damage of a Trump presidency? Are my fears listed above invalid in your opinion? If so, what about them reads false? I honestly welcome your discussion so long as you are civil. Thank you.

The More Things Stay the Same

November 17, 2015

The more things change the more they stay the same is one of the more depressing cliches but one that seems to always prove true.

I recently stopped at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, AL while on the road visiting friends in southern Alabama. It’s located across the street from the very church where an infamous bomb killed four children in Sunday School at the height of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. A monument outside of the class marks the spot where the bomb went off at a church still going strong in 2015. Inside the Institute are countless documents and recreations of what life was like in Birmingham when Police Chief Bull Conner and Governor George Wallace waged war on the black citizens of the city. Pictures of police officers with high pressure hoses peeling the skin off of children. City ordinances forbidding white and black people from playing checkers together. Rusty “colored” fountains adjacent to sparkling “white” ones. If you have even a passing knowledge of basic twentieth century US history much of what you see at the Institute is probably not entirely new but no less important or thought-provoking to see in person. I’ve visited similar museums in Memphis and Atlanta but this one was notable for artifacts from not so long ago detailing the extremity of perhaps the most violently segregated city in the country as well as of the struggle of the Freedom Riders. Also notable are the wings showcasing Richard Arrington Jr.’s administration as the first black mayor of Birmingham and the civil rights timeline extending through to the Rodney King assault as well as featuring civil rights struggles from around the world continuing to this day.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many people walk out of such museums thinking “wow, how far we’ve come”  delusional enough to believe the civil rights struggle is fully resolved and a thing of the past. How many do not connect the dots to the events going on right now in America? An entire wing could be added to the exhibit covering the last 2 years alone. Walk outside of the Institute and connect the dots, it’s not that difficult. Take a look at the black folks begging for money, homeless, in a park full of civil rights statues. Ponder the missing affordable housing and impact of gentrification. Think about the people of color who die today at the hands of corrupt police officers. Think about the way minorities–not only blacks but Latinos, immigrants, the poor and the LGBT–are treated today.

How would Fox News have covered the civil rights struggle? It’s not difficult to imagine them denouncing “King the Communist” or shrieking in loud angry voices why more aren’t outraged at the “war on cops” fought by “non compliant’ blacks in the south. “Fox and Friends” would blast freedom riders and marchers for “disrespecting” Wallace and Connor. How would the rest of us fare? I think it’s obvious–just look how we are faring now with those fighting for rights in our midst today. People like to imagine how proactive and engaged they would have been, marching right along MLK Jr. all while denouncing pretty much everything he stood for today. Most people would have just been silent–maybe horrified at the images of women and children being beaten and arrested but afraid to upset their neighbors and church mates by being “too political”.

I’m just exhausted. I’m sure if anyone of the conservative side is reading right now you’ve written me off on this. That’s fine. I have always tried to empathize, respect differing opinions, and be ever open to learning more about the issue at hand. I value knowledge and diversity and have worked, studied and done my best to grow as a person all my life. I have always written off many of the more heinous viewpoints and -isms as a result of ignorance–people just don’t know any better. Of course fear and greed are often reasons people mistreat others or harbor bad ideologies, but with people I love or respect I have assumed more often than not they simply did not know any better. But here’s the thing–information is everywhere if you care to look for it and compassion is a readily available choice if you care to make it. If you are under the age of 75 or so living in America today and have not been through a horrible situation that might have warped your sensibilities and judgements, you have no justifiable reason to be openly and actively racist, sexist, heterosexist or xenophobic. I say openly and actively because I know -isms are embedded in us, that almost everyone harbors some prejudices even if they wish they didn’t. Depending on where you live and how you were raised these can differ drastically but they are almost always there everywhere in the world. When you, as a compassionate and knowledgeable person become aware of your own prejudices you work on them. But when you, as a person with access to all of the knowledge you could want elect to hate, discriminate or assault another human being because of their race, creed color or sexual identity you are unequivocally immoral.

The furor across social media and even in public discourse over Syrian refugees reaffirms the depressing axiom that the more things change the more they stay the same. After all, the US did turn away the first groups of refugees fleeing Europe during the Nazi rise to power. Most Americans coldly tuning their backs then, as today, were Christians. I’ve been writing on  the relationship between morality and religiosity on this site lately and though this post may seem like a detour  it isn’t. The American response to the refugee crisis perfectly showcases a lack of positive correlation between religiosity and morality. It seems for most people religiosity is good until it conflicts with another belief or desire then it is quietly thrown into the back-seat. People are fleeing war, violence, sexual assault, bombs, starvation and oppression. The Christian response seems like a no-brainer—welcome, serve, care for the weak and oppressed. That’s what the World Council of Churches, the League of Catholic Bishops and Episcopal Migration Services are doing and urging their fellow Christians to do but a shocking percentage of Christians are saying no thanks. I’ve read or heard everything from “Jesus was no wimp who would want us to endanger our families” (as if self-preservation was the number one goal of Jesus) to “we have homeless kids of our own to worry about” (as if you are doing anything to help those children or address the systems that cause their homelessness). Just admit that on this issue, you choose not to follow your religion. You choose to ignore it or reinterpret it. That’s fine. There are secularists and atheists who will work with the religious bodies urging your help instead of you–just think before you try to use your religion to dictate their moral choices in the future.

So as I’ve stressed–I believe religion and morality are separate and distinct with little to no positive correlation between them without politics, geography or another such factor to steer them on one path or the other. Islamic extremists just committed appalling atrocities in Paris. Though their acts violate every basic tenet of their text and tradition let’s not pretend that religion itself was in no way a factor in their decision-making process. It was, it’s just that it was filtered through a specific violent interpretation and implementation taught by an armed political terrorist group. Conversely, Muslims scholars, leaders and teachers all around the world are publicly denouncing ISIS, their theology and their actions. Muslims all around the world from every walk of life are denouncing these attacks and all others like them in the #notinmyname campaign. There are 1.5 billion + Muslims in the world and less than half of one percent of them are violent extremists. Right now in America, millions of Christians are defying the pleas of most Christian religious leadership bodies and are turning a cold heart to desperate hurting people. Those aren’t good stats. It’s ironic that many of those who follow a religion founded on the life and teachings of a Middle Eastern Jewish refugee have no love or compassion for similar people today.

I’ll get back to my series of posts next time by considering what morality even is. It may seem odd that I blatantly denounce the mistreatment of refugees as “immoral” without specifying what that word implies but I assume anyone reading who has the slightest inclination or understanding of “morality” can see immorality on display in national responses right now. If not, I’m not sure I have any time for you anymore anyway.

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In my last post I concluded that religion and morality were two separate and distinct things–that a person may be religious and immoral or secular and moral (or vice-versa). I claimed that religion by itself is morally neutral. It may  be an impetus for the greatest good or the worst evil–but that just reinforces the fact that devoid of politics, geography, bias, psychology, environment and community religion will not spark either extreme. Traditionally, at least in the States, many have argued that religion is necessary to inculcate morality. I claim we must divorce the two concepts completely and that in doing so we can enhance the inter-religious/inter-philosophical conversation and cooperation across the religious-secular divide.
So, if there exists no (or a negative) link between religiosity and morality what is the real purpose and function of religion?
If you to asked the saints, devout or extremely pious of past or present the purpose of religion you would likely receive a multitude of answers rooted in the language of the particular religion of each. But all of these purposes can usually be summarized by students outside of the traditions as either “peace of mind”: salvation, moksha, enlightenment, wholeness and assurance of future entry into paradise, heaven or nirvana–or “justice”: transforming society into an egalitarian land of equality, e.g. under the rule of the Kingdom of God or of the rightly guided Caliphs. One of these purposes is internal, the other is external but both are largely “big picture” or eschatological (end of history) goals. The average, even if committed, individual doesn’t give much consistent daily practical attention to these goals. Sure some hyper-sensitive folks may yearn for the good end of history goals more than others and if rooted in fear plenty of children (and adults) have spent nights scared of hell (I remember those days). Many people hope for a day when they will be reunited with their deceased loved ones and we all want peace of mind–but more than any of these lofty goals what religion has historically done and continues to do best is to provide community.
Religion provides community. It gives people a sense of place, an extended family and a group identity. Think of Judaism, how a people persecuted and pushed across the globe through diaspora after diaspora found a way to intertwine text and tradition to form new communities in each new land they found themselves. Today even atheists with Jewish lineage often identify as Jewish. Think of Muslims who picture themselves as part of the worldwide ummah , a global community who feel the persecution of their sisters and brothers around the globe as if it was their own injury and persecution. Think of a Baptist potluck dinner in a church basement extending into the late afternoon where best friends gather each and every week for generations. Religion provides community. Incidentally there have been studies–particularly in light of the shortage of male partners and therefore birth rates in Orthodox Jewish and Mormon US communities–that suggest the lower apostate rate for females in comparison to males in religious communities is due to a higher emphasis on community by females.
Religion functions as family and community for those without and creates larger frameworks for those with. Religion creates historical chains of community, stretching communities back into history predating even one’s known genealogical family tree. Religion creates the opportunity for action–what one alone cannot do one large body can. On the negative side religion can create an “us” and a “them” in contradistinction. Once again, think of Judaism and how the Bible relates the tribe of Judah and the People Israel as unique and set apart from their pagan neighbors. People have always separated into us and them,  this has served an evolutionary purpose–helping protect the group from those outside who may do harm. Monotheism developed out of tribal religions, like early Judaism, in which the tribe was loyal to their god or gods over their neighbors god or gods. A key development in morality is due credit to Judaism in that the Torah was emphatic on caring for those outside of the tribe (the “stranger”) when that was not an evolutionary or historical  good but rather a moral one. Today religion can often spin “us” and “them” in a polarizing manner. Think of the targets of scorn for many American conservative Christians–Muslims, Atheists and LGBTQ persons (particularly T, transgender, easily the most mistreated and abused group in the world for their relatively small size). Care for the stranger often lapses from group dynamics.

So it’s worth noting–Religion, a morally neutral institution serves primarily to promote and sustain community–another morally neutral institution. Yet the power and action that can come from that community can be tremendously good or terrifically bad. Or it can be bland and moderate or unjust and oppressive.

What serves the function of community in the absence of religion? People tend to congregate into community in unique ways when they uproot from traditional mechanisms and the digital age as allowed this to proliferate even more. Millennials tend to eschew civic groups (Shriners, Masons, etc.) more often than their parents much like they do church. What institutions will arise to replace the old way of congregating? Several years ago I researched a possible book exploring how something like Metal music and culture functions as a religion–I’m far from the first to suggest that as there was a half-joking half serious attempt by some metalheads some years past to get “Metal” listed as a religious identification on the census. But the fact that Metal music explores so many religious concepts, often in derision or protest, and the fact that so many metalheads tend to live their music and identify with it their entire lives functions in much the same way as religion. There are other cultures and ideologies– from Punk Rock to rodeo to atheism to libertarianism–that also function as religion in many ways. But what can truly serve the role of religion in such a way with text, tradition, history and accepted institutions?

Back to the broader topic–if religion is separate from morality and the major function that religion seems to serve is that of providing community and group identity, from whence does morality come? What is morality? Is it a good? Is it a fixed concept? I’ll save that for next post.

For generations in much of the world the two were seen as intrinsically intertwined. In much of the western world this relationship has long been doubted as Europe has grown secular but in the States religion and morality as a package deal has been the normative view and a key aspect of the culture war. A recent study (one not bacon related) has been making the rounds titled when reported (as in The Guardian US) as “Religious Children are Meaner than their Secular Counterparts, study finds“. The study was helmed by Professor Jean Decety, a neuroscientist from the University of Chicago. Decety states she did not set out to study religion’s effect on morality but that she had been studying empathy and sharing and how those values differed across cultures. The data she gleaned, however, led her to publish the study with the conclusion that children in religious homes tend to be “meaner” or less empathetic and altruistic and less likely to share than their secular classmates.

I posted the story on social media and one of my best friends (my lifelong  best friend other than my spouse actually) had several concerns with the study and how it was being reported, promoted and shared. His comments made me realize there are a lot of issues worth unpacking about the study, the implications it has and even the rationale for why it is being shared and gaining traction in the first place.

First of all, lets consider the story itself and its use of “science”, a word which unfortunately in recent years has become a social media buzzword and ideological soapbox where many people draw no distinctions between types of science and competing data sources or take the time to understand key scientific processes or concepts–let alone read original studies versus the filtered media presentation of said studies–before making comments or proclamations on said studies. As a lifelong deep student of religion my study of science came later than it should have and I have only been reading in the field in-depth for maybe 5 years (playing catch up), understanding as much as I can as someone traditionally more at home using the other side of my brain with literature, music, art, philosophy and the humanities. Science and mathematics are fields I have grown to love, but I should have devoted more effort to as a young student. Anyway, this study though done by a neuroscientist ( a “hard” science) seems to be more of a social science experiment (a “soft” science)–correct me if I’m wrong science readers. As such it is a lot more anecdotal than say, chemistry. Furthermore, this is one study of 1200 children from many (but not all) countries almost all of whom are Christian, Muslim or “secular” (all other religious affiliations were statistically irrelevant in this study). There have been other studies, including longitudinal ones following children into adulthood (like Benston’s “California’s Longitudinal Study of Generations) offering similar conclusions linked to this coverage in some of the reporting (as in Forbe’s piece) but before any sweeping “religion makes you less moral” statements can be definitively made this study would need to be repeated and verified multiple times with larger groups, more inclusive groups (Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, etc.) and for longer periods of time (into adulthood).

But…based on just this study and the sources reporting it, what conclusions (if any) can we draw? What is the point of this study in the first place, why report it, why discuss it? I know the friend I mentioned as inspiration for this piece in many ways feels stories like this appear only to cast dispersion on religious folks. I’m sure that is some of it, at least as far as how it is titled and why some share it on social media, etc. I’ve certainly seen this study reported in less magnanimous ways than by the Guardian.

To put my own potential biases up front for readers to be aware, I am a life-long student of religion who no longer identifies as religious. I grew up religious, was very active in different Christian denominations and organizations, studied religion in both seminary and secular institutions and have friends and colleagues of every religious stripe and stride who are the best people I’ve ever known. I believe in understanding religion, promoting religious diversity and inter-faith dialogue and action, and respect legitimate religious belief and expression even when I disagree (as long as that belief and expression does no harm or causes no oppression) but do not personally follow the tenets of any religion. I have lived in many different places (at this point all in the South) and it has been my experience, particularly in my current state, that being religious would be easier professionally and personally for me however. Granted a certain kind of religion/religiousness would be best if I wanted to be most comfortable with my neighbors, business contacts and community but any religious expression (so long as Christian) would serve me well in a community where city hall, business meetings, networking luncheons and public college events all commonly incorporate public prayer, praise and religious proclamations. When the first question many people will ask you is “Where do you go to church?”  a certain type of religiosity is normative and deviance from that can be unacceptable. It is my fervent belief that religion/religiosity is morally neutral–equally capable of inspiring awe-inspiring great good and nauseating terrible evil. Most of my heroes are religious (MLK Jr., Gandhi, Malcolm X, Jimmy Carter). My journey throughout every corner of religion was exciting, intellectually inspiring and ultimately painful as there are a lot of things I wish I could believe and ways I wish I could be that would make every level of my life more comfortable and perhaps enjoyable, but I believe truth must lead you wherever it leads you painful or not. I also don’t claim to corner the market on truth as a lot of folks I know seem to know truth very closely and are yet religious.

Sorry for the lengthy detour but that should clue you in on any biases I may harbor. So why report on this story? Because in many corners of these United States  “secular” or “atheist” are pejorative terms and the thought of a parent who identifies as such being capable of raising moral children is inconceivable. But if there is no link between key moral virtues such as empathy or altruism and religiosity–even more so if there is a negative link between the two–then yes such parents are more than capable of producing good moral citizens.

Millennials are far less religious than their parents and grandparents. It seems that, however more gradually, the US is following Europe’s path into secular modernity. This in fact may (I believe will) actually work to religions advantage, producing a stronger “realer” Christianity in America devoid of folks who identify as Christian simply because it is politically or socially advantageous to do so. However, if we are to have healthy dialogue across the aisles of religion and secular life then we have to divorce the concept of “morality” from the institution of “religion” and admit that one may have no direct bearing on the other. That is why this study, if valid, is important.

There are variables worth considering in any follow-ups to the study–will opening the study up to  data sources which include all religions prove “empathy” and “altruism” have no (or a negative) link to all religions or just in relation  to monotheistic religions? If monotheistic then Judaism must be a  data source as well–but if it proves true only in Christianity and Islam, what could that signify? Furthermore, how do such studies deal with nominal religious households versus practicing religious households? Throughout most of the world people identify as belonging to the religion they are born into. Many Muslims are simply cultural Muslims and many American Christians who would never in a million years identify as secular (let alone atheist)  are less than Christmas and Easter church goers living lives in which religion plays little practical role. What about “progressive” versus “fundamentalist” religious people? A Unitarian, Episcopal and atheist might have much more in common politically and morally than any of those people would have in common with a Southern Baptist or a Mormon.

Consider all of this so far as a lengthy preamble and introduction to other issues this study and discussion has raised for me. I will leave you with these questions, which I hope to address in follow up posts in the near future.

What is morality? What function does it serve? Is it always a good? Is there an unchanging definitive basis for any morality?

What is the purpose and/or function of religion?

What relationship does (or should) religion have with morality?

Could these issues relate more to majority versus minority, insider vs outsider? E.g., does the majority religion oppress the minority religious due to scapegoating issues that have nothing to do with religion per se?

bazan

Have I really not written one of these since 2012? If I have, I don’t remember; but you can read the last one I remember doing by clicking here and from there you can link back to see all of them.

I only stumbled on this album recently. I first heard of this record reading Jessica Hopper’s wonderful “First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” in which she includes an essay she published following Bazan and his break from faith when on tour with a Christian rock festival. I had heard some of Bazan’s work with his “Pedro the Lion” band years ago but none of it had ever really clicked with me as even then I wasn’t much for “Christian rock”. I did however notice how outside of the box  Bazan was in that he wasn’t the typical Christian rocker in terms of lyrical content or language.

“Curse Your Branches” was first released in 2009 and it is phenomenal and heartbreaking. It’s really a break-up album but not in the “divorce album” tradition–no, this a portrait of a man breaking up with God, or rather breaking up with his belief in God. Bazan spent his life in religious circles, presumably evangelical ones and faith was deeply ingrained in everything he did and was. It seems he married a devout like-minded Christain, was raising Christian children and performing in a Christian band when he had a crisis of faith and ultimately stopped believing in God. This in turn led to deep and excessive levels of drinking and deep soul-searching. “Curse Your Branches” is his Psalms. It is his struggle when the core of his identity is stripped bare. I don’t think the average person with a casual relationship with religion can understand the level of heartbreak that can manifest when one who lives, studies, practices and intertwines  religion into their very being and all of their everyday experiences suddenly finds that faith and religion stripped from them. Suddenly the very community they were a part of and the identity they thought they had is gone. The hopes they had for this life and the next are gone. What was home is no longer home. To really believe then to question then to not believe is more often painful than liberating.

Bazan purges all of that in the songs here. It’s beautiful and tragic. Whether he’s drunkenly looking over his infant child in the wee hours (“Bless This Mess” hoping she won’t soon “hate the smell of booze” on his breath “like her mother”), wondering how to answer the big questions those children have (“In Stitches” , ” “Bearing Witness”)or laying blame on a creator for mankind’s faults (asking did You push us “When we Fell”) Bazan is boldly seeking answers in his fear and hope. He details the struggle his crisis may have on others, fearing his mother’s tears when she learns of his disbelief (“When We Fell”) and that his doubt will spread like “original sin” to his “kids and devout wife” (“Harmless Sparks”). Bazan traces us through his graduation and distancing from his family (“Hard to Be”) and envisions a future when his children may make the same mistakes (“Please Baby Please”). He rages against the indifference of the world for not letting us call our own shots (“Curse Your Branches”) and closes everything out with his most heartbreaking song, “In Stitches” where he hears the voice of the long dead captain in a ship left out at sea. Its certainly not all sad and even in its sadness it’s defiant and comfortingly human. “Bearing Witness” takes back the language of his childhood to reconfigure it as solid advice for his own children  and there are hints of possibility in even the saddest corners here. Bazan’s voice and acoustic guitar may not be ground-breaking or exceedingly “excellent” but they are more than serviceable and their imperfections really make these words come to life even more.

A great record that deserves a wider audience. I’m sure many of Pedro’s fans grew into their own crisis of faith and if so they could have worse guides struggling through to make sense of what comes after faith than Bazan. You can find “Curse Your Branches” currently on Apple Music (but not Spotify) and I’m sure it was pressed as CD–not sure about vinyl though I’ll keep my eyes open for it if so in the future.

keep-calm-and-obey-your-reptilian-overlords

It’s been a big week or two. Like 1960s level big,  particularly in the context of all other social-political issues going on in America. On the one hand the supreme court finally stepped in and cleared up the matter for the divisive states by making gay marriage legal in all 50 states. They also upheld the President’s Affordable Care Act, struck down portions of the “three strikes law”, and the President authorized progressive overtime pay-rates for workers shifting things in that arena closer to their levels pre-Reagan era erosion. National discussions are leading to the removal of the Confederate flag from government sites. On the other hand, violence against African Americans in their places of worship have accelerated with the Charleston shooting and the arson of historic black churches across the south. As if to show they can’t deal down only on the Progressive side the Supreme Court struck down EPA regulations and ruled against clean air safeguards thus giving the dirty energy lobby and industry a big win. They also upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection. Some progress, some slip-back, and miles to go before we even approach justice and equality.

I understand most responses to these issues even when I do not agree with some of those responses. Here I want to address the most baffling and in some ways most infuriating response as it in its subtlety does damage and undermines progress in any area. The response I’m referring to I dub the “reptilian overlord” response. Obviously that’s a bit tongue in cheek because not everyone that gives this response is deep into conspiracy theories. In short, this response is: “While you and everyone else are worried about (fill in the blank), this (fill in the blank) is going on.” To the one giving this response, every issue reported anywhere with enough reach to inform the general public is simply distracting the masses from the real issues at hand. At the extreme end of this line of thought are those who think there is indeed a real conspiracy by a group of political, financial, and news industry leaders to control, manipulate and utilize the news to keep civilians unaware of the “real” issues. Now, there are of course many kernels of truth in this rationale. Certainly there’s no shortage of bad journalism corporately owned and used to spread particular views with definite agendas. And yes, there is always something else going on that is arguably “bigger” than any other issue at hand. Unfortunately there are always ongoing wars (declared or not) and conflicts around the world that result in death, destruction, and all levels of damage. There are always “bigger” systemic issues and societal ills as well–poverty, class-ism, unchecked corporate greed, ecological destruction, etc.

Yet…some things that make the news are still a big deal. Some news is worth reporting. Hell, some things are worth celebrating, debating, discussing, and being aware of–and regardless of the issue, when really discussing a particular issue it’s usually best to initially limit one’s focus only to that issue in context and peripherally at most the issues that directly intersect with that issue. Global warming and ISIS are still threats but do not factor into the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage in all 50 states. Let’s debate, discuss, and celebrate that decision in isolation of such other discussions for a moment. It’s historic. It matters. If you think it does not matter in any form or fashion good or bad I am thoroughly confused and have to assume you do not know or care about a single LGBT person.

Yes, I know–we should all be worried about the TPP trade deal that the President and a shadowy council of villains have met secretly to devise in order to bring about the Armageddon. Truthfully, there may be a good deal to debate about that trade deal–its precedent, Clinton’s NAFTA bill, certainly didn’t benefit US blue-collar workers in the long run. But most people who point at TPP before (and instead of) the issues of Charleston and legal gay marriage show a certain level of callousness and lack of compassion. For such naysayers, issues of equality and justice for particular groups are unimportant whether progress or pitfall and only large, overarching goals without a particular immediate human face are what matter most.

So sure, the celebritarianism aspects of Caitlyn Jenner’s public coming out might strike some as PR overkill in light of the Kardashian media machine from whence many first came to know her but that doesn’t make Transgender issues, rights, and celebration any less important nor her re-introduction “not news”. Sure the legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states does not spell the end of the struggle for LGBT equality but it is historic, it is a big deal and it is news. No the removal of the confederate flag from government institutions will not spell the end of racism in America but it is right to have this conversation now and more than that to go ahead and move those flags from public spaces to museums. These things are news and are worth talking about. I can’t help but wonder if the same folks angry at these topics being so widespread would have wondered why everyone was talking about Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam in the 1960s.

This article is an addendum to my recent “When Half Steps are Worse than No Steps” article in which I considered the absurdity of a church finally taking a welcoming stance but foregoing the affirming aspect and how such a stance is damaging and in many ways worse to LGBT church-seekers than explicit condemnation.

I only touched on scripture briefly in that post. I summed up my major point by stating that the debate over LGBT inclusivity in a religious context has little to do with sex at all but is instead about hermeneutics, interpretation, and the philosophy of scripture. The same debate has raged over centuries in relation to slavery and the rights of women. Now I have decided to reiterate some of the major arguments against the misuse of the few key verses fundamentalist Christians use to oppress the LGBT community. This is particularly of importance to those “Bible believing” churches, quite often non-denominational churches who shirk the organizational governance of a denominational body to rely solely on the Bible. Such churches often do so to avoid developments such as what occurred recently when an LGBT affirming position was made official by the Presbyterian Church (USA). Such decisions can’t affect a non-denominational church nor can the “academics” of denominationally authorized seminary education creep into pastoral theology when such education is avoided. These type of churches were the fastest growing part of American Christianity for many decades though many signs point to that growth being past its peak and in recession now. But, those churches are holding fast in the suburban and rural south and Midwest and are largely the primary source of resistance to equality movements in such states.  The real problem in how these churches and by default their community use scripture is that no one in the Christian world really gives equal weight to all passages of scripture. Every person who takes scripture seriously develops a hermeneutic lens through which to interpret, coalesce and organize a view. Otherwise it’s random picking and choosing which itself is its own system albeit one confined to one’s personal prejudices and whims.
Once again I remind readers I am not directing you to a particular hermeneutic. I am not recommending you to a particular church or even claiming you should go to a church at all. I am outside of that tent looking in. I am doing so because religion remains important to me–it should remain important to every Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist and Secularist alike because people behave as if God exists and influence the lives of all around them based on their understanding of God. With the Indiana law in full effect (and in effect in so many other states as well) it is important  that all know what such positions are grounded in in the first place. I claim they are based on faulty reasoning, misinterpretation, and existing prejudices masked incorrectly with a “religious” rationale.
So–when a Christian claims to be against gay marriage, LGBT ordination, or an “affirming” church stance what are they drawing on from their religion and text?
Leviticus chapter 18

Nestled in the holiness code of the ancient Israelites, directly following a chapter detailing how animal sacrifices are to be done this text forbids the eating of blood (the inspiration for many kosher food laws) and condemns goat-worship. Leviticus 19 includes a large litany of sexual prohibitions. Beyond incest, sex with a woman on her period  is explicitly forbidden (where are those sermons at? That would be interesting). Sacrificing your children to Molech–obviously a practice in some way desirable to its original audience or such a restriction wouldn’t need to be stated–is outlawed. Immediately after the Molech prohibition “laying with a man as with a woman” is prohibited. In the chapter that follows (still in the same holiness code) tattoos are explicitly forbidden. I’ve seen quite a few cross and Jesus tattoos but have never heard an anti-tattoo sermon or read such a thing on any church billboard, certainly not as emphatic as the anti-gay church billboards read.

There are several points worth noting regarding Lev 18:22. First, this passage arrives after a break in the litany of forbidden sexual activities. The first 20 verses line-by-line forbid incest with particular relatives. All sexual prohibitions here are addressed to Israelite males as sex in this code is typified as something done to someone/thing else–women were not “active participants” so to speak nor were they considered as much more than something which is acted upon. Anyway, 18:22 arrives after that string of notation is broken and follows directly on the Moloch passage. Many scholars have interpreted it based on the literal translation of the Hebrew and  the stylistic shift to be specifically focusing on a pagan temple practice of ritual anal sex. Thus, they interpret it is as forbidding that specific practice. That’s an understandable way to pay heed to the text without ignoring it I suppose. But the bigger issue here is the role the holiness code as a whole plays. The role sexuality plays in the holiness code is like the rest of the holiness code in general–don’t do what the neighboring nations and tribes do, be different and stand apart. This is why a certain dietary code is stressed, why regulations of blood and discharges are regulated, why “mixed fibers” (today’s polyester) are forbidden, and many other things. Most restrictions relate to not paying homage to other gods or  pagan practices. The type of homosexuality that would have been known when this was written would have been primarily temple male-to-male prostitution or of a man-boy domination relationship, never a committed monogamous relationship because sexual orientation was not understood. The sin was essentially, beyond appearing pagan, that a man was “reduced” to a woman–the sin was shame on the “recipient” of the act. So, why are all of these ancient misunderstandings so stressed today in some circles? Why is a specific prohibition–likely referring primarily to one man using another man “as a woman” in a pagan temple outside of a relationship–erroneously expanded to be compared to all modern LGBT relationships? Furthermore, why is this prohibition emphasized but the prohibitions against tattoos, polyester, sex with a woman who is menstruating, mixing meat and dairy (cheeseburgers anyone?) or eating shellfish (Red Lobster?) ignored or downplayed? Only ultra-orthodox Jews attempt to codify and literally live out the entire holiness code in 2015 yet fundamentalist Christians seem to place a large emphasis on just one out of context line of it.

The only other major OT reference to homosexuality is the famous “Sodom and Gomorrah” tale in Genesis 18-19.

This one really shouldn’t be used as a moral lesson for any modern day teacher for any constructive lesson. That’s because it’s a very old tale stressing a very particular lesson–hospitality–in a very extreme manner. Here’s a quick refresher–some male angels visit a town. Men around town want to rape these angels yet these angels are guests of the only righteous man left in town. That righteous man tries to discourage the townsfolk from their horrendous wish by offering up his own virginal daughters for the town to rape in place of his guests! Do I really need to point out that LGBT rights are not an issue to be discussed using this passage? Do I have to point out the problems in trying to positively use this story for any healthy relationship? The lesson should be “don’t rape” but the text is pretty clear that the “righteous” man’s offer to throw his daughters to the town (hey, they were his property) was a good move even if it was rejected.
Let’s move on to the NT.
Most NT passages dealing with homosexuality are penned by St. Paul. Jesus had nothing to say about the issue as reported in the text. Paul had his own conflicting feelings with sexuality that writers have spilled gallons of ink on over for centuries. In short, Paul believed celibacy was the best choice for any follower of Christ. Sex clouds the mind and takes away one’s focus from the spiritual path at hand. Paul’s position has influenced western Christianity and puritanism in countless ways to this day. Particularly via folks like St. Augustine, a sex addict who really struggled with giving up sex as Paul suggested. Anyway, Paul did concede he understood some people just couldn’t give up sex. If not, it was better for them “to marry” than “to burn” with lust or passion. Some commentators have reflected that Paul thought marriage would throw water on lust and passion and that sex would become something perfunctory to quickly purge lust! Anyway, when Paul writes about same-sex relations he does so negatively. He does so in a few quick lines. Of course, it is also worth noting even for those who place a high-level of importance on scripture and even those with an “inerrant” view of scripture that Paul readily conceded he sometimes wrote from his own perspective and understanding and wasn’t always trying to be a mouthpiece for God.

Romans 1:18-32 (specifically v26)

Here Paul paints a picture of time stretching back to its beginning and in it all humans are aware of God in a self-evident way–God is “clearly seen and understood” by all people without excuse. Then something happens–people stop worshiping God and instead construct idols and worship reptile and bird idols. And their punishment? Verse 26–“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.” Men and “even women” “abandon natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” This is an incredibly odd narrative. Many liberal commentators focus on the fact that sexual desires are subverted stressing that this is a case of straight people committing homosexual acts which they consider the sin in point. Most commentators think Paul is talking about neighboring cultures behaving in this way or former Christians slipping and that this is a warning to set themselves apart from that. All of which misses the scope of this narrative. I have at least once heard this narrative described as a pre-historical myth of a second fall. The text clearly reads that “since the beginning of time” God was self evident but then people switched from monotheism to polytheism, crafted idols, and were punished by God inserting homosexual desires into their hearts “unnaturally!” Very odd. If you’re going to use this passage to discriminate against modern day LGBT people I hope you are at least consistent and swallow Paul’s whole idea that monotheism predated polytheism (though even the ancient Israelites seemed to take the existence of other gods as a fact even while worshiping theirs above and instead of those other gods) and that homosexuality was something placed willingly by God into otherwise straight humans.
There are at most 3 other NT passages on this issue. All are believed to be penned by Paul and vary little from this other instance, they are just more concise. The Greek word used in some of them has been reinterpreted many ways to refer to prostitutes, cultic sex participants, pimps, perverts, etc. It’s worth noting that it always refers to someone who participates in an act by choice (even if compelled by desires placed on them by God) not an orientation as that was not understood in Paul’s time. All acts condemned by Paul had to do with things “going against the natural order” which was also a misunderstanding in Paul’s time. “Going against nature” for Paul included having long hair if male, short hair if female, dressing in anything “unisex” and speaking in public if female. None of these opinions of Paul’s should be used as the rubric to judge modern day LGBT individuals.

So there you have it. The Bible is a long complex book written by many people in many places over a long period of time, assembled according to many councils and votes. You can find arguments for and against many things. You can interpret what you read literally, figuratively, metaphorically, mythically, or historically. If you take what you read seriously at least know why and be consistent. Ultimately though, even if you define a rubric of consistent interpretation that requires you as a believer to take on the entire holiness code and live that lifestyle you need to understand that it is a choice you have personally made and you cannot enforce that standard on your neighbors. Nothing in these passages is addressed to those who aren’t listening–it does not state “go forward and persecute the neighboring tribes (or non-Christians) for not following these rules.” It’s addressed to the community who takes on those restrictions. You should understand there are many Christian, Jewish, and other religious communities who do not share your understanding or objective. Furthermore, you should understand that there are many outside of religion’s tent entirely in America and that our very society was built to protect those people as much as yourself.

Go-away-doormat
[Disclaimer–the views here are my own and do not reflect those of any organization I am affiliated with. In the academic world I never felt the need to  stress this but I want to clarify that I write and wrestle with these issues as an individual and am not the mouthpiece for any church, ideology, or group in my writing. I welcome thoughtful discussion in the comment thread.]
My commentary here is not to drive anyone to a “progressive” church. I’ve recently written about unexpected turns in my spiritual development and though I once held to that “progressive Christian” standpoint with conviction–as many of my friends and colleagues still do and do so authentically–I no longer personally  identify with any religious group. However, I remain a proponent of inter-religious dialogue, action, and understanding. Lately I’ve been wrestling with secular humanism in my writing–wondering if it can inspire the good (without the bad) of the strongest religious convictions in the past and my verdict remains reserved at this point. I just know that I am a doubter and I am trying to be comfortable with that.
That being said, my mind boggles at so much of what I hear from religious people. I don’t even mean the positions themselves–e.g. I completely understand why a fundamentalist Christian views homosexuality as a sin. I obviously disagree with them–I disagreed with them long before I parted ways with the church too. I have worked with far too many denominations, pastors, and studied religion and the Bible intensely from within a church context, seminary context, and secular university context. I truly think it is more in-line with the spirit of Christianity to celebrate gay unions than it is to be homophobic. But I completely understand why a Christian with an inerrant view of scripture literally cannot understand how this can be so. That’s because this battle has been fought over many issues before in much the same way–scripture as the basis for both the pro and anti slavery positions and for both the pro and anti ordination of female clergy debate. It is,though,  a bit odd that those who are aware of those debates are perplexed about this “latest” debate (in quotations because this debate is more than 60 years old in most mainline protestant circles). There are more verses in the Bible that can be used to justify slavery and to oppose the ordination of female clergy than there are that even deal with homosexuality, but anti-gay churches that have moved past both of those issues seem unwilling to connect the dots. Connecting the dots reveals that the debate over the ordination of and marrying of LGBT couples from a Christian perspective is not really about sex at all–it’s about hermeneutics, interpretation, and the role of scripture (or the philosophy of scripture).
Now, what is perplexing to me is that there still exist so many pockets of American Christendom where it is actually unknown that a Christian denomination can be welcome and affirming. That is what gets me–I see where one can disagree but how can one be completely unaware of the many Christian bodies moving well beyond this issue and embracing their LGBT family? As the Presbyterian (USA) Church becomes the latest notable group to make their pro LGBT position official, more than half of mainline Christianity is now welcome and/or affirming on some level. So when I run into people–in VA, KY, TN–who bring up this topic often out of the blue who are unaware that their opinion is but one opinion and that there are mainstream counterparts to that opinion I am a bit flabbergasted. Perhaps Mark Twain was right and news just reaches us 20 years later in this part of the country. Because I have noticed that in the rural and suburban south “welcoming” is finally trickling in to even many fundamentalist churches–which is where mainline protestant churches stood 20 years ago. The problem is that at that time there was at least some excuse for the hesitation  to adapt to the issue. In 2015–science, psychology, history, and sociology all unequivocally prove that sexual orientation is not a “lifestyle choice” but a healthy, natural variation occurring across humanity and species–that it is a part of a person’s identity in much the same way as eye color. Of course, as notable geneticists contrarily point out, there is no singular “gay gene” because it is much more complex than such a simplification and of course there are outliers to everything in that of course some people may actively choose to participate in a same-sex relationship but one cannot simply choose to fully change one’s orientation.
Anyway, what I am getting at is this: in 2015 to just now be getting on the “welcoming” bandwagon but to avoid the “affirming” addendum is simply ridiculous. At least the screeching hate speech from those who refuse to tone down their rhetoric against the “gay agenda” or the “homosexual lifestyle” are consistent across a swath of issues. More importantly, at least those churches let people know loud and clear where they stand so that a LGBT person can avoid those churches. But churches who grin and smile and “welcome” the LGBT person but only in part–excluding a core part of the LGBT person’s very identity–are much more insidious and damaging. Because the LGBT person can never be fully actualized and welcome, they can never be loved for who they are in the welcoming but non-affirming church. To welcome someone into your community but to exclude a core part of their identity is in many ways worse than to completely shun them. Furthermore, to call that core part of their identity a “sin”–to label it as a defect, a bad choice, or a consequence of poor moral character is insulting and damaging and runs in contrast to every logical development in science, psychology, and theology made in the past 100 years.
You simply cannot “love the sinner and hate the sin” vis-a-vis this issue as I have heard all of my life in the south. Not when the “sin” is a natural component of a person’s identity. If Christians believe in a “Creator” they must accept that if sexual orientation is a (a) a natural and (b) healthy occurrence that would be harmful and damaging (and impossible) to “repair”, then they must accept that LGBT persons are as they were “created.” To call that a sin is insulting and abusive.
[Ending disclaimer– I do not claim that all who hold the “welcome but non-affirming” position are “bad” people and if you are of that camp I am not personally attacking you. I argue that holding that position is dangerous and hurtful in ways you likely do not realize. I argue that it is theologically, psychologically, and scientifically unsound to hold such a position. Yet I recognize that this such a position is cultivated, taught, and held onto for a variety of reasons that run very deep.]
This time I’m broadening the topic to discuss God as an Effect in a Nation, period. If, as I suggested, we only know something by its effect and are therefore experiencing God in the public sphere on a daily basis whether we “believe” in God or not simply because a majority of our population acts at least on occasion on the premise that God exists and is an influence on their behavior, then we get a sense of God as an expression of the people. Last time I mentioned how much in contrast the modern “public religion” version of God in America differs from the alleged source and inspiration for this God. Therefore, one could very well argue that America’s God  bears some resemblance to Its scriptural and historical inspiration but is  markedly different than the God of the early Christian church. This God is a nation’s God; patriotism is clearly in the mix as modern Americans simultaneously praise “God and Country,” ask fervently that God “Bless America” (and often imply “and no one else”), and pray in public politics. Certainly this is not new; this has been a gradual development with peaks and valleys and at least some such praise is expressed merely as “lip service” to constituents and believers. Yet if something only exists as it has an effect, this is a real “God” that we see acting in American politics. There is a Christian precedent for this God; “Queen and Country” and the Church of England; nation-churches throughout Europe; and of course Constantine’s Christian Empire. All of these examples differ drastically from the early Christian church and the historical Jesus of  course, both of which worked in spite of  nation and often in contrast to nation. The “Kingdom of God” certainly wasn’t an allusion to the then current Roman empire. Yet perhaps this expression was a rupture from the “normal” evolution of nation and God. Another similar rupture would have to be Siddhartha and the early Buddhists as a king renounced the kingdom for a higher path.
If we trace the evolution of Western religious theism, the earliest examples we have to study are the Greeks. The Greeks celebrated a pantheon of gods–gods who were exaggerated humans with emotions, whims, and often nefarious plans. Worship of the gods was intrinsically tied up with celebrating the state which was the sole purpose of individual life. These aspects of worship were amplified in the Classical Roman religious expressions when worship at the temple and prayers to the gods and the emperor were the focus of public morale and societal participation. Greek gods and Roman gods and the worship thereof were tied up with national identity inseparably.

It’s worth noting that the first monotheists, the Hebrews, did not separate national identity from religion either. Hebrews initially worshiped their God solely while acknowledging the existence of other gods. As that belief evolved into a pure monotheism, the importance of their religion as a nation of people remained. After the destruction of the temple and the diaspora, text and tradition replaced nation but of course in our modern day a nation of Israel once again exists. Though it is inhabited by a huge percentage of secularists, the religious Jews around the world (and many Christians by extension) still place a large religious significance on the nation as an expression of their heritage and faith. Also, many secular Jews devote their religious attention solely to Israel as a nation as their religion. National identity has also played a large role in the history of Islam. Though strict monotheism and an emphasis on the universal intent of the faith–i.e. this is a religion for all not just the original Arabian people–it was also a religion that even in the early days was inter-related with the civic activities of the people,  politics were viewed through a religious lens, and the success of the nation was seen as part of the religion.

So judging by the evolution of theism, it may be that early Christianity (and to some extent diaspora Rabbinical Judaism) is an aberration in the history of God. At most points in history one’s support of the state was inextricably linked with one’s worship of a higher power. Perhaps this is a pull that for the average person is unavoidable and why modern America exemplifies this in contrast to both its religious and political roots.