`Book of Mormon’: Give my regrets to Broadway

NEW YORK (RNS) In their day, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell” attracted controversy for putting the tenets of Christian faith on the musical stage, but leave it to the creators of “South Park” to raise the bar (or lower it, depending upon your point of view) with a high-spirited look at religion in “The Book of Mormon.” Opening Thursday (March 24) at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, the show is Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s often-obscene appreciation of earnestness in the service of God — and its limits. Given their history of persecution, many Mormons can be, well, a little defensive about their church. Throw in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ distinct theology and practices and you’ve got ready-made material that is ripe for parody. Parker and Stone take the parody and run with it — often to places they shouldn’t.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Eyes wide open on our collective moral vision

(RNS) In its relatively short history, the United States has stood as the world’s beacon of freedom, defender of democracy and pillar of principled power. An exceptional country, one blessed by the very hand of God. Right? Well, sort of. The truth, of course, is much more complicated, and the revolutionary dominoes of the Middle East have exposed the ugly underbelly of American foreign policy, which supposedly balances pragmatism and moral idealism.

Trial opens in Mass. black church arson case

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (RNS) After two accomplices pleaded guilty, the sole man to stand trial for torching a black church the night of President Obama’s election was confronted with secretly taped recordings during opening arguments on Monday (March 21). “Gas, straight-up gas. Hit the corners and the whole thing went straight up,” Michael F. Jacques said on a videotape on why the Macedonia Church of God in Christ burned so fast on Nov. 5, 2008.

Wednesday’s Religion News Roundup

Take that, Peter King: Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, is planning his own hearings on American Muslims, this one on threats to Muslims’ civil rights (that him, at left, speaking in 2004 at a mosque in suburban Chicago). The tit-for-tat between the two chambers is going to be fun to watch. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is suing on behalf of a Muslim teacher in suburban Chicago who was fired when she skipped school to make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Pegged to the opening of a new Holocaust museum in Los Angeles, the NYT asks: How many Holocaust museums do we really need?

Evangelicals resist Obama’s childhood obesity push

WASHINGTON (RNS) Evangelicals are the only major religious group where a majority opposes the federal government’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity, a Pew Research Center survey shows. Asked if the government should play a significant role in reducing childhood obesity, 56 percent of white evangelicals said it should not, compared to 42 percent who said it should. Overall, 57 percent of Americans favored such a government role while 39 percent did not. First lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative has drawn both praise and criticism from conservatives, and divided potential GOP presidential candidates, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee supporting it and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin opposed. Other groups viewed a government role more favorably, including 61 percent of Catholics and religiously unaffiliated Americans, 75 percent of black Protestants and 51 percent of white mainline Protestants.

N.Y. rabbi tapped to lead Reform Jews

(RNS) A New York rabbi with a reputation for innovation has been tapped to lead the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella group for the country’s Reform synagogues, starting in 2012. Rabbi Richard Jacobs has headed Westchester Reform Temple since 1991 and recently completed construction of the nation’s largest “green synagogue” to house its 1,200 families. The pulpit is Jacobs’ second since his ordination in 1982. “We are an organization of congregations, and understanding what makes a congregation successful is critical to leading the URJ,” said Peter Weidhorn, chairman of the URJ’s board of trustees, adding that Jacobs has built a “remarkable” congregation in suburban Scarsdale. If Jacobs’ nomination is approved by URJ leaders in June, he will succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who has held the post for the past 16 years.

Self-proclaimed prophet spawns apocalypse movement

OAKLAND, Calif. (RNS) Save the date: May 21, 2011. If preacher Harold Camping is right, that’s the exact date Jesus will return and the righteous will fly up to heaven, leaving behind only their clothes. That will be followed by five months of fire, brimstone and plagues, with millions of people dying each day and corpses piling in the streets. Finally, on Oct.

COMMENTARY: News we can’t lose

(RNS) Let’s say you run an enterprise. Your usual constituency is dwindling, your revenues are down, your ways of doing business seem outmoded, and all around you paradigms are shifting and less nimble competitors are going under. Yet the need for what you do is stronger than ever. You and a few others are standing in the gap as forces of darkness press an unrelenting assault. What do you do? I am talking about The New York Times, the vaunted “Gray Lady,” which is arguably the most important newspaper in the world, one of a dwindling handful of newspapers that dare to keep exercising the freedom that is the cornerstone of all freedoms. One by one, that courageous handful shrinks.

Tuesday’s Religion News Roundup

God may not be dead, but he’s on life support in Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland according to a group of physicists who met recently in Dallas. The No. 2 official in the Diocese of Superior (Wisc.) has been put on leave after allegations that he funneled $10,000 from a charity fund to feed a personal gambling habit. A Catholic school outside Philly has settled with a professor who was ousted because he was gay and didn’t tell them that he wasn’t a real Roman Catholic priest. The Forward profiles Indiana Rep. Andre Carson, the “other Muslim” in Congress, and WaPo reports that evangelical icon Chuck Colson is trying to spiritually clone himself before he’s called to the great hereafter.

Spring Break

Off the grid, metaphorically anyway, on St. George Island. No blogging, if possible, till next Monday.

As Iowa Goes

So goes the GOP? Yesterday’s story by the AP’s Mike Glover takes us to the Hawkeye State, where, it seems, social conservatives are the force to be reckoned with. As someone whose brief career as a national political reporter took place during the 1988 cycle, I find it hard to imagine the Republican Party in Iowa as anything but dominated by social conservatives. That was the year that Pat Robertson scared the bejesus out of the late Lee Atwater by beating out his guy, George H.W. Bush, in the Iowa GOP caucuses. That Mike Huckabee took them last time around only goes to prove that two decades later it was the same old story.

Fla. pastor presides at burning of Quran

(RNS) The controversial Florida pastor who halted plans to burn a Quran on the 9/11 anniversary last year oversaw the burning of the Islamic holy book on Sunday (March 20) after it was found “guilty” during a “trial” at his church. “We had a court process,” said Pastor Terry Jones, who acted as judge, in a phone interview. “We tried to set it up as fair as possible, which you can imagine, of course, is very difficult.” Jones said about 30 people attended the mock trial at his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville. Jones considered the “International Judge the Quran Day” to be a fairer way of addressing the Islamic holy book, and denied breaking earlier promises not to burn a Quran.

Pope neither condemns, endorses Libya attacks

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI voiced “fear and trepidation” about the “disturbing news coming from Libya” in a carefully worded statement that neither endorsed nor condemned U.S. and European attacks against Libyan dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Benedict made his statement on Sunday (March 20), following his weekly recitation of the Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square, saying he was praying “for those involved in the dramatic situation” in Libya. The pope also made an “urgent appeal to all political and military leaders, that they take to heart, above all, the safety and security of the citizenry and ensure access to humanitarian relief.”

COMMENTARY: Engaging culture, not condemning it

(RNS) The recent around-the-clock media coverage of Charlie Sheen’s public unraveling has been a daily reminder of the impoverished condition of American culture. Sixty years ago, evangelicals set out to create a richer culture, abandoning the hard-edged combativeness of fundamentalism and choosing instead to engage in a more thoughtful participation in America’s cultural life. It’s been a bumpy ride. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the arts, where instead of contributing to the mainstream, evangelicals have largely opted to create art, music and books that lucratively engage their own subculture; they often have little or no influence on culture at large. Some of that may be changing, as evidenced by the recent gathering of the International Arts Movement (IAM) in New York, where the potential and possible pitfalls of this artistic resurgence among evangelicals was on full display.

Monday’s Religion News Roundup

He’s baaaaack: Florida pastor Terry Jones oversaw the burning of a Quran at his Gainesville church after the Islamic holy book was put on trial, found guilty and condemned for execution (that’s him, behind the mustache, at left). Remember the Amish man in Ohio accused of bilking his brethren out of $33 million in a Ponzi scheme? He and his Amish victims asked a federal court to dismiss his bankruptcy filing so that they could hash it all out using Amish (i.e., non-court) principles; the court said no, in part because the feds can’t defer to a religious body. Opening arguments are scheduled today in Springfield, Mass., in the case of one of three men accused of torching a black church the night of Barack Obama’s election. The AP says GOP candidates are going to have to kiss the ring of evangelical Christian activists in Iowa.