Photographer captures Muslims’ self-portraits

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) Artist Todd Drake has aimed his camera lens at truck drivers, Alzheimer's patients and employees of an exotic nightclub. But he's trying to build interfaith bridges by asking Muslims to turn the lens on themselves. Drake's traveling exhibit, “Muslim Self Portraits,” started after he decided he needed to learn more about his Muslim neighbors. “I just started cold-calling mosques,” Drake said during an exhibition of his work at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. “I had an intuitive feeling that they would be interested in this project.

Religion News Roundup: JFK RIP, ‘zombie’ terrorist, Mitt’s drink

The protests and casualties in Cairo continue into a fourth day, raising concerns – and hopes – about what sort of Egypt will emerge from the tumult. Three American college students studying in Cairo managed to make the story about them; they were arrested and accused of throwing flaming canisters and Molotov cocktails at Egyptian security forces. If the trio need help with bail, they might call on Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Washington archbishop and veteran globetrotter, who helped secure the release of two American hikers held in Iran. McCarrick provided some fascinating details on that mission at a speech Monday night, but also suggested that U.S. diplomats need to do more to develop “religious channels” to other nations. The more we learn about Jose Pimentel, the pot-smoking convert to Islam who was arrested on terrorism charges in New York, the more he makes the Big Lebowski look like an efficiency expert: turns out he couldn’t even drill a hole without help from his FBI informant pal: “He’s like a zombie; he’s in limbo all the time,” said a neighbor of Pimentel’s, deploying an interesting amalgam of religious states. Does God need a lobbyist?

Religious groups spend nearly $400 million on D.C. advocacy

WASHINGTON (RNS) The number of religious advocacy groups in the nation’s capital has more than tripled since the 1970s, with conservative groups seeing the biggest growth, according to a new report. Together, faith-based lobbying and advocacy groups spend $390 million a year to influence lawmakers, mobilize supporters and shape public opinion, according to the report, released Monday (Nov. 21) by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The report reflects shifting fortunes in religion and politics: the rise of the religious right 35 years ago, the decline of mainline Protestant churches and the outsized presence of the Roman Catholic Church. Conservative groups have seen some of the largest budget increases; the National Organization for Marriage, which has racked up a string of victories in its fight against gay marriage, saw its budget grow from $3.2 million to $8.5 million between 2008 and 2009.

Atheists launch campaign to get unbelievers to `come out’

(RNS) The young man in the video pulls in close to his computer camera with the trappings of a typical college dorm room — a loft bed and the clutter of cast-off clothes — piled behind him. Alex Fiorentini isn’t talking about girls, beer or football. Instead, it’s a coming-out moment of sorts. “Is it acceptable to the majority of the population to be an atheist?” he asks the camera.

COMMENTARY: Any leaders out there? Anyone?

NEW YORK (RNS) The collapse of high-level budget talks in Washington is no surprise. Neither are the odious comments by presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, who dismissed Occupy Wall Streeters as ingrates who should “get a job after they take a bath.” (That was an especially odd comment from someone who has spent his adult life living large at the public trough.) Practitioners in the politics of blame see no gain in resolving problems or comprehending the facts and nuances of popular movements. In our toxic politics, apportioning blame is far more useful than actually accomplishing anything. Never mind the impact of these failures in leadership.

Newt, Culture Warrior

Newt Gingrich is so given to rhetorical hyperbole that you’re tempted just to quote it, roll your eyes, and move on. A case in point is this remark from Saturday’s Mormon-deprived Thanksgiving Family Forum in Des Moines:The degree to which the left is prepared to impose intolerance and to drive out of existence traditional religion is a mortal threat to our civilization and deserves to be taken head on and described as what it is which is the use of government to repress the American people against their own values. But it’s worth recognizing that this is not just random red meat tossed into an evangelical barbecue pit. It’s part of a kulturkämpfliche weltanshauung that the card-carrying historian expects will see him all the way to the leadership of the Judeo-Christian World.Asked by moderator Bob Vander Plaats for a single value to instill into the American public, Gingrich launched into a riff on the Declaration of Independence’s declaration that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights”:

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…secular, a term that comes actually from the Latin seculare, meaning century, and it basically says, “Life is very limited, so
you might as well get the most you can now.” A belief in God is the precise
opposite.

Looking for Catholic art? Fundamentalist Bob Jones University has it

GREENVILLE, S.C. (RNS) Walking across the tidy campus of Bob Jones University, there’s no obvious sign this bastion of Christian fundamentalism is also home to one of the nation’s largest collections of Renaissance and Baroque religious art from the heart of Catholic Europe. It’s all the more surprising since the school’s old-time Protestant leaders have for years taught that Catholicism is a “cult” and even the “Mother of Harlots.” “You go into that gallery and its big, amazing paintings are really staggering, and you know you can’t buy altarpieces like that anymore,” said David Steel, curator of European art at the North Carolina Museum of Art and a longtime fan of the BJU collection. “They’re just not on the market.” Edgar Peters Bowron, who oversees European art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, agreed.

Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law retires from prominent post

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Nine years after the clerical sex abuse scandal forced his resignation as archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has stepped down from his controversial post as head of a prominent basilica in Rome. The Vatican announced on Monday (Nov. 21) that Pope Benedict XVI has named Spanish Archbishop Santos Abril y Castello as the new archpriest of the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major. The announcement made no reference to Law, who has served as archpriest since May 2004.

Monday Godbytes

Religion majors rejoice: Nathan Schneider at Religion Dispatches explains why he thinks the world needs religious studies. The Dalai Lama is questioning whether self-immolations should be used as a form of protest, echoing the misgivings of other Tibetan leaders. Relevant Magazine asks: should a candidate’s religion matter? CNN reports that Muslims in Britain are “optimistic and proud” according to a new survey. OMG: Pakistan might ban the use of “Jesus Christ” in text messages, along with more than 1,000 other words.

Bob Jones University questions ‘fundamentalist’ label

GREENVILLE, S.C. (RNS) When Bob Jones III recently questioned whether President Obama is a Christian, it was a reminder not only that the fundamentalist leader is controversial but also how little the political world has heard from the man and the rock-ribbed Christian school that bears his name. The relative silence emanating from Bob Jones University is all the more remarkable given the intensity of the Republican primary in South Carolina, and the power that the religious right here holds. In many ways, the school is still recovering from the 2000 campaign, when George W. Bush spoke without mentioning the school’s ban on interracial dating. Bush got hammered for the lapse (as well as staying mum on the school’s view of Catholicism as a “cult”) and apologized. The university has since dropped the interracial dating ban, but no candidates visited the campus during the 2008 primary — a sea change for a university that has been a must-stop venue for every Republican since Ronald Reagan.

Pope Benedict XVI calls for ‘reconciliation’ in Africa

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI ended his second papal trip to Africa on Sunday (Nov. 20) with a call for “reconciliation, justice and peace” in a troubled continent that he nonetheless called a “land of hope.” The pope’s three-day visit to the West African country of Benin culminated in an open-air Mass in the capital city of Cotonou, attended by an estimated 80,000 faithful, including Catholics from Nigeria and other neighboring countries. Bearing up under temperatures in the mid to high 80s, the 84-year-old pope spoke in French, English, Portuguese and the local indigenous language of Fon, calling attention to the “poor, the weak, the outcast” and offering a special greeting to victims of HIV/AIDS. In his homily, Benedict made what many observers took as an allusion to corruption among African leaders, drawing a contrast between the worldly royal attributes of “success, power, money and ability” and the “glory of Christ,” who “makes himself the servant of the little ones.”

Monday’s Religion News Roundup: Bernard Law, altar girls, Marijuana ministry

Where have you gone, Billy Sunday? Asked to name the nation’s most influential Christian leader, 40 percent of Americans said they couldn’t think of anyone who meets that description, according to a new Barna poll. Twenty percent said Billy Graham, nine percent said Pope Benedict XVI and 8 percent said President Obama. Also in statistical news, more than 90 percent of Mormon men said they would not consult with their LDS bishop before having a vasectomy, even though the church says they should. Benedict wrapped up his three-day trip to Africa on Sunday, where he laid out his spiritual vision for the continent and took a few jabs at the continent’s Curruptocracy.

What’s Donohue up to in KC?

Over the past several of weeks, the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue has pulled out all the stops on behalf of Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn, who was indicted in Jackson County last month for failing to report suspicion of child abuse by one of his priests. Donohue has attacked the prosecutor who brought the case, the newspaper that reported on it, the abuse victims’ organization that has emphasized its importance, and the family that filed a related civil suit. He has journeyed to the City of Fountains to “energize the Catholic community in defense of” its bishop.Why is Donohue so determined to demonstrate that Finn has been unjustly charged in the matter of Fr. Shawn Ratigan, who in August was indicted by a federal grand jury on 13 counts of abusing five young girls? In response to my criticism of his defense of Finn, Donohue referred me to an essay by Missouri lawyer Michael Quinlan that was posted on the EWTN website November 10.

Threats to marriage, real or otherwise

This week the Family Research Council released its second annual report on “belonging and rejection” in U.S. families. That’s a fancy way of basically trying to measure the impact of kids not being raised by their biological parents. The report looks at several categories of sociological data to score each state, including high school graduation rates, school spending, reading scores, child poverty rates and teenage out-of-wedlock births. Taken together, each state is scored on a scale of 1 to 100, and a bad rating in one category can really screw up a good rating in another. There’s lots to chew on and some interesting numbers, but two big things jumped out — one that’s in the report, and one that’s not: — The report has a really harsh view of blended families (at least for research purposes) — Nearly all the states that allow same-sex marriage come out near the top of family function (at least as measured by this report) Minnesota came out on top, with a “index of family belonging” total score of 57.