Wednesday’s religion round-up

Charitable giving fell 12 percent in 2008 and there’s little evidence that it has picked up this year, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a close friend of MLK, is praying that his children cease their legal wrangling, and a South Dakota panel voted to allow booze to be sold on Christmas. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of a cross on public land next week. Christian doctors have reached a settlement with a California lesbian whom they refused impregnate, new signs at a Mormon-owned plaza in Salt Lake City warn that the LDS church has the right to kick people out, and a former military official has warned council-members in Lodi, Calif. that if they don’t open sessions with Christian prayers he will buy highway billboards saying they are “against Jesus.” Prosecutors in Utah are asking a judge to permit testimony about religious beliefs to prove that Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper is religious, not crazy, and a Catholic sister says the Vatican investigator of American women religious proves “the male hierarchy is truly impotent.”

10 minutes with … Harvey Cox

(RNS) For more than four decades, Harvey Cox has been one of America’s most influential and provocative theologians. In his new book, “The Future of Faith,” Cox argues that Christianity is moving from an “Age of Belief” dominated by creeds and church hierarchies to an “Age of Spirit,” in which spirituality is replacing formal religion. Cox, who is retiring from Harvard, spoke about why he believes creeds are divisive, religion on campus, and why Pope Benedict XVI didn’t invite him to lunch. Q: What’s the difference between faith and belief? A: I think of belief as having to do with subordination to ideas or doctrines, a kind of mental assent.

On eve of march, faith drives activism for gay rights supporters

WASHINGTON (RNS) As thousands of gays and lesbians prepare to march on the nation’s capital to push for equal rights, leaders from a range of faiths say it’s time to stop using religion as a weapon to oppose same-sex marriage. What’s more, advocates for gay rights say their faith and a sacred belief in justice are what actually form the foundation of their support for gay and lesbian unions. Brent Childers, an evangelical Christian, said he once used religious tenets to support prejudice toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, but “I realized those attitudes were not in keeping with my religious values by causing harm using religious teaching.” He said supporting same-sex marriage is in keeping with his faith because “what’s essential is those core principals of love, compassion and respect for others.” Now, as executive director of Faith in America, Childers leads a group whose mission statement embraces the goal of “emancipat(ing) lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from bigotry as disguised by religious truth.”

Growing quantity of `Christian’ films now focus on quality

(RNS) Director Brian Baugh’s upcoming teen film “To Save a Life” may be many things, but one thing it’s not, he says, is a “Christian” movie. The upcoming film about a star basketball player who copes with a friend’s death is edgier than others — with violence, marijuana and a brief sex scene. Conservative friends who’ve screened the movie worry it doesn’t have enough faith in it, while others think it may have a bit too much. “That’s what makes it fun,” said Baugh, a film photography director whose new movie will be distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films. “Can we walk that line? It’s a great challenge.”

COMMENTARY: Keep moving, people. Nothing to see here.

(RNS) If there had been a way to power-wash my brain, I would have done it. The words, images and emotions that lingered after I watched actress Mackenzie Phillips’ interview with Oprah Winfrey are something I wish I’d never had in my imagination. I regretted watching. I regretted knowing. I longed for a spiritual bubble bath.

WWJD about health care?

In Matthew 10:8, Jesus enjoins his disciples to “heal the sick.” Whether or not this can be considered a mandate for health care reform as it is being pursued in the U.S. today, it is telling that, according to Public Religion Research’s recent survey of religious activists, 67 percent of progressive religious activists believe that such reform is “most important,” while only 10 percent of conservative religious activists do. And 78 percent of the progressives think that the U.S. “should have comprehensive national health insurance event if it resulted in fewer choices for patients,” while only six percent of the conservatives do. For the conservatives, all other issues are overwhelmed by abortion and same-sex marriage, about which Jesus had, well, nothing at all to say.  My point, however, is not who’s got the Big Mandate, but rather to suggest that trying to sign up religious conservative leaders for health care reform is a fool’s errand. They don’t care about the issue, and therefore are more than happy to use abortion, which they care deeply about, as a club with which to beat it down.

Happy Blasphemy Day!

For the serious-minded among you, I recommend curling up with Leonard Levy’s 688-page Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred from Moses to Salman Rushdie. But first, to review the current bidding, take a look at David Gibson’s piece over on Politics Daily. It seems that the occasion has sparked some internecine warfare between the atheist old guard in the person of Paul Kurtz, and the Young Turks of the Center for Inquiry who want to throw godless pies in the faces of the pious.As my colleagues Barry Kosmin et al. recently made clear in their recent report, non-religious Americans (Nones) these days tend to fall into the Deistic, skeptical-but-not-actively-anti-religious category that can trace its lineage to the Founders. But the pie-in-the-face school has also been around for a long time.

Oral Roberts University installs new president, clears debt

(RNS) Oral Roberts University formally installed its new president Friday (Sept. 25), two days after announcing it had cleared its books of long-term debt. Mark Rutland, president of Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., since 1999, succeeded Richard Roberts as president of the charismatic Christian school in Tulsa, Okla. Roberts resigned after being embroiled in a scandal related to lavish spending. Oral Roberts, the university founder and father of Richard Roberts, helped conduct Rutland’s installation.

Update: German court says student must be given time to pray

BERLIN (RNS) German religious freedom laws require a school to let a devout Muslim student set aside some time during the school day for prayers, a Berlin court ruled Tuesday (Sept. 29). The ruling reaffirmed a temporary order from 2008 that requires the school to allow the student time to engage in prayer at least once a day — but not during class time. The case involves a 16-year-old student at a university-track high school in central Berlin who asked for space and time for regular prayers, as prescribed by his faith. The school had originally denied his request until the court’s 2008 intervention.

Hello, Dalai

Memphis Mayor Pro-tem Myron Lowery has been catching a lot of heat for greeting the Dalai Lama last week with a fist bump (aka “terrorist fist jab”). I think the bigger breach, of good humor if not protocol, was his salutation “Hello, Dalai!” echoing Louis Armstrong’s famous tune. Judging by the video, the Dalai Lama didn’t seem to mind, but this is a man who responds to Chinese taunts with an impish grin, so it’s tough to say. (See the video here.) Lowery himself wrote an editorial for CNN last Thursday defending the bump.

Vatican asks U.S. bishops to help fund nuns probe

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Vatican has asked U.S. Catholic bishops to fund a $1.1 million investigation of American nuns ordered by church authorities in Rome. “We have a projected budget of $1,100,000 for the three years which the total work of the apostolic visitations will require,” Cardinal Franc Rode, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, wrote in a July 14 letter to bishops, first reported by the National Catholic Reporter. “I am asking you, my brother bishops, for your help in offsetting the expenses which will be incurred by this work for the future of apostolic religious life in the United States,” Rode added. The Vatican in January announced an “Apostolic Visitation” of U.S. women’s religious orders, the first review of all 400 communities of American women religious, which include a total of 68,000 members. The investigation was prompted by a steep decline in the number of women entering the Catholic sisterhood in the U.S. Between 1945 and 2000, the number of religious sisters in the U.S. dropped by 54 percent, from 122,159 to 79,876, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

U.S. Muslims plead case of hikers with Ahmadinejad

(RNS) The Council on American-Islamic Relations is taking a “wait-and-see” approach after meeting last Thursday (Sept. 24) with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to seek the release of three American hikers imprisoned by Iran on July 31. “We’re still in discussions. We’re cautiously optimistic,” said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper. The three-man CAIR delegation also gave the Iranian strongman, who was in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, letters from the families of the hikers, as well as the family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007.

Celebrating the work of ecumenism, done and undone

(RNS) Catholic, Lutheran and United Methodist leaders will gather in Chicago on Thursday (Oct. 1) to commemorate the 10th anniversary of a milestone agreement on the long, slow and often painful road to Christian unity. The celebration, held at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago, will pay tribute to the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation on Oct. 31, 1999.