Thursday’s Religion News Roundup

First there was the Mother Teresa cinnamon bun, and then the Jesus Cheeto, and now the man from Nazareth has apparently appeared in the form of kudzu growing on a utility pole in North Carolina. Turns out he already pulled this trick last year in Louisiana. Meanwhile, back here in the real world, Catholics can raise a glass in honor of B16’s 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination. Unitarian Universalists marked their own 50th anniversary, but some wonder whether the anything-goes denomination can make it another 50. Following up on Catholics’ loss on gay marriage in New York, same-sex couples in Rhode Island — the nation’s most Catholic state — will soon be able to enter into civil unions (Delaware, Illinois, Hawaii and New Jersey also offer civil unions).

Mormon leaders told to stay out of politics

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) Mormon officials are telling their top, full-time leaders that they and their spouses should not participate in political campaigns, including making donations or endorsing candidates. However, part-time leaders — including local and regional congregational leaders — are still allowed to do that, but are cautioned to make clear they are acting as individuals and do not represent the church. Local leaders are also told not to engage in political fundraising or campaigning focused on members of congregations they oversee. The new, clarified written policy was sent in a June 16 letter from the church's First Presidency over the past week to church leaders. It comes as two Mormon Republicans are running for U.S. president — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — and amid division among some rank-and-file Mormons about church involvement in a Utah immigration bill and California's Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage.

China ordains bishop without Vatican approval

(RNS) Stepping up a protracted confrontation with the Vatican, China’s state-run Catholic church on Wednesday (June 29) ordained a bishop without the approval of Pope Benedict XVI just three days after police arrested the pope’s choice for bishop of another Chinese diocese. The Rev. Paul Lei Shiyin was ordained as bishop of Leshan. According to the Vatican-affiliated Asia News service, the seven bishops who ordained Lei included the president of the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). For more than half a century, China’s 12 million to 15 million Catholics have been divided between the CPCA and an “underground” church of Catholics loyal to the pope. In recent years, the Vatican and Beijing have tacitly agreed on a number of bishops acceptable to both sides.

SIDEBAR: Unitarian Universalist Principles

(RNS) The Unitarian Universalist Association, while eschewing religious tenets, espouses seven shared principles: — The inherent worth and dignity of every person; — Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; — Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; — A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; — The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; — The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; — Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. (Source UUA.org)

Justices rely on `standing’ in church-state disputes

WASHINGTON (RNS) As the U.S. Supreme Court ends its 2010-2011 term this week, legal scholars say a decision issued two months ago is likely to resonate within church-state debates for years to come. On April 4, the justices rejected a challenge to an Arizona school tuition credit program that largely benefits religious schools, saying taxpayers did not have legal grounds to challenge a tax credit as government spending. At the heart of the decision was an arcane yet essential legal term — “standing,” or a plaintiff’s right to sue. Critics say the court increasingly relies on standing to dismiss church-state challenges without addressing the merits of the complaints. Whatever the court’s reasoning, the Arizona ruling already is influencing other cases that touch on the First Amendment’s prohibition on a government “establishment” of religion: — A Wiccan chaplain lost a religious discrimination case in a federal appeals court on June 1, which cited the Arizona decision in its ruling.

Report says Vatican will probe Cleveland closings

CLEVELAND (RNS) The Vatican is investigating Bishop Richard Lennon’s closings of Roman Catholic churches in the Diocese of Cleveland, according to a report in an Italian newspaper. A spokesman for the diocese said he would look into the account, but had no immediate comment. The report on Friday (June 24) in the Italian newspaper La Stampa by veteran Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti said the Vatican has decided to send “an apostolic visit, or rather, an investigation” to look into Lennon’s decisions on the closings. Lennon, citing changes in Catholic demographics, a shortage of priests and dwindling Sunday collections, ordered the shuttering of 50 parishes, beginning in August 2009 and ending in June 2010. More than a dozen Cleveland-area churches appealed their closings to the Holy See and are still waiting for decisions from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.

Liechtenstein churches may lose government support

(RNS/ENInews) Churches in Liechtenstein, one of the world’s smallest countries, could face financial disaster under government plans to withdraw state subsidies under new legislation, according to a Protestant leader. “This will be a drastic change — we depend on financial support, and there’ll be no chance of obtaining it if the new law goes ahead,” said Markus Meidert, president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Liechtenstein. “This is a predominantly Catholic country, and the Catholic Church is unhappy with the plans as well. But the new law will be especially hard and treacherous for smaller churches like ours, who have none of the Catholic church’s resources.” A bill before Liechtenstein’s 25-member parliament proposes to end the Roman Catholic church’s status as official state church and also withdraw state subsidies from recognized religious communities.

C.S. Lewis on SSM

Few books have influenced conservative Christianity in America more over the past half century than Mere Christianity, the little volume by C.S. Lewis that consists of a series of lecgtures he gave on the BBC during World War II. Its enunciation of a generic Christian faith and practice has held special appeal for evangelicals: Five years ago Christianity Today ranked it as the third most important book in shaping evangelicalism since the war.So it is interesting to note (h/t The Wartburg Watch) how much more readily Lewis–an Anglican in a country with a state church–was prepared to differentiate a Christian conception of marriage (as he understood it) from that which the state establishes. The issue, in his day, was divorce.Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish
two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage
is one: the other is the quite different question — how far Christians,
if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their
views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the
divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian
yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one.

Evangelicals, WCC, Vatican reach accord on proselytizing

WASHINGTON (RNS) Christian missionaries should renounce all “deception and coercive means” of winning converts, according to an agreement released Tuesday (June 28) by a broad coalition of evangelicals, the World Council of Churches and the Vatican. The document, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct” represents the latest attempt to assuage sometimes violent tensions over proselytizing in non-Christian societies. The WCC, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) together “represent over 90 percent of the world’s total Christian population,” according to a WEA statement, which hailed the accord as the “first document of its kind in the history of the church.” The document calls on individual Christian churches to develop guidelines for proselytizing “among those of different religions and among those who do not profess any particular religion.” Christian missionaries are to “reject all forms of violence …

Liberals angry after congressman’s God comments

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (RNS) A Republican congressman from Missouri is catching flak from some liberal religious leaders for saying last week that “at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God.” U.S. Rep. Todd Akin made the comments during a radio interview Friday (June 24) with Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council. Perkins asked Akin why he thought NBC cut the words “under God” from a pre-taped clip of the Pledge of Allegiance that aired during NBC’s coverage of the U.S. Open. “Well, I think NBC has a long record of being very liberal and at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God,” Akin said.

Southern Baptists wrestle with gay hoax

(RNS) Officials of the Southern Baptist Convention say they were the victims of a hoax in which a group claiming to be the denomination’s Executive Committee announced it had started to support gay marriage. A website of the “Southern Baptist Convention of America” features a “`welcoming and affirming’ resolution on homosexuals” that it claims was drafted by the committee in an “extraordinary emergency session.” The supposed resolution concludes that “the sanctity of marriage for all unions joined in love under God’s grace is holy and should receive marriage rights by the Southern Baptist ministry regardless of sexual orientation.” Roger Oldham, a spokesman for the official SBC Executive Committee, said Tuesday (June 28) the statement is a hoax. “This is clearly not an action of the Southern Baptist Convention or the Executive Committee,” he said.

Tuesday’s Religion News Roundup

The more things change … Very religious Americans remain significantly more likely to lean toward the GOP than nonreligious Americans, who often identify as Democrats, according to a new Gallup poll. This trend dates back to the Reagan era, Gallup notes, and has held steady in every national election since the Gipper. Rep. Michele Bachmann officially launched her campaign in Iowa, mentioning God several times but emphasizing fiscal issues over social ones. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo.

Journalist probes Catholic Church’s murky finances

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Jason Berry, the muckraking journalist who in two prior books laid bare clerical sexual abuse of children and its cover-up in the Catholic Church, is touring the country in support of a third book investigating the church’s management of its finances, which he describes as chaotic, opaque and occasionally corrupt. Berry argues that the church’s core problem is the lack of accountability for cardinals and bishops, whether for protecting criminal priests or mismanaging church treasuries. “The church does not have, and desperately needs, a coherent system of justice,” Berry said in an interview. “The oversight one would expect to see layered into the world’s largest organization is simply not there.” In the early 1990s, Berry published the first extensive investigation of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that exploded publicly a decade later.

COMMENTARY: My country, ‘tis of thee

INDIANAPOLIS (RNS) While alumni from Shortridge High School stood and beamed, 60 singers attending a choir reunion closed our concert with “God Bless America.” We weren’t using patriotism to make a point of supporting a war, or power to the right wing, or to make this a “Christian nation” or send all strangers home. We were singing from that time before militarists hijacked patriotism to bolster American wars and to condemn anti-war protesters as anti-American. We sang from a time when patriotism belonged to everyone. Back then, everyone sang patriotic songs in school, everyone said the Pledge of Allegiance.