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John Gehring
John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Catholic Program Director, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.

Defending Religious Liberty…Until the Kitchen Heats Up

January 28, 2011, 9:45 am | By John Gehring

richard land.jpgIt’s disappointing to see Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, pull the plug on the SBC’s support for a new interfaith coalition defending the rights of Muslims to build mosques. Here is his rationale, as explained to the Associated Press:

…the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission…said he heard from many Southern Baptists who felt the work of the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques crossed the line from defending religious freedom to promoting Islam. “I don’t agree with that perception but it’s widespread and I have to respect it…My constituents, many felt, ‘Yes. We certainly believe in religious freedom. People ought to have a place of worship. But it’s a bridge too far not only to advocate for that, but to file suit,’” he said.

Interestingly, the coalition was not the brainchild of Muslim or progressive Christian leaders. It was launched by the Anti-Defamation League – a prominent Jewish group devoted to fighting anti-Semitism and “all forms of bigotry.” The ADL faced widespread criticism for opposing the construction of Park51, an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. The ADL claimed that the project was disrespectful to the family of victims killed in the Word Trade Center attacks. But the organization has since become a leading defender of disputed mosque projects across the country, including those in Murfreesboro, Tenn. and Temecula, Calif.

As Justin Elliott writes over at Salon, even as the ADL rankles many with it’s unwavering support of Israel, friendly attitude toward Glenn Beck and opposition to a group of imams visiting Auschwitz, the organization deserves credit for sticking their necks out for a cause that is surely unpopular with some conservative Jewish supporters of the group.

Contrast this commendable leadership with Land, who in the face of grumblings from Southern Baptists chose to walk away from a fight that is at the heart of his office’s commitment to religious freedom. Southern Baptist critics who argue that the coalition crossed the line from defending religious freedom to “promoting Islam,” as Land says, offer a transparently weak argument.

No one expects the Southern Baptist Convention to become cheerleaders for Islam or launch a massive public relations campaign on behalf of Muslims. This interfaith coalition does neither. It simply, and essentially, protects a fundamental principle of our democracy: freedom to worship in peace.

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Hats Off to National Catholic Reporter

January 27, 2011, 5:01 pm | By John Gehring

A scrappy newspaper with less than ten full time staff, the National Catholic Reporter continues to show its outsized influence as a respected source for breaking news and savvy analysis. The weekly based in Kansas City, Mo., is fiercely independent, covering the global institution of 1 billion souls that make up the Catholic Church with persistence and an expertise valued by an increasing number of national secular news outlets.

Nicholas Kristof leads his New York Times column today by quoting from a Jan. 4th NCR commentary about Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, who recently stripped St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center of its Catholic status after an ethics panel determined a mother’s life could only be saved by performing a surgical procedure that resulted in the termination of her pregnancy. (See my earlier post for more details). Kristof’s piece goes on to quote NCR editor Tom Fox:

Catholic hospitals like St. Joseph’s that are evicted by the church continue to operate largely as before. The main consequence is that Mass can no longer be said in the hospital chapel. Thomas C. Fox, the editor of National Catholic Reporter, noted regretfully that a hospital with deep Catholic roots like St. Joseph’s now cannot celebrate Mass, while airport chapels can. Mr. Fox added: “Olmsted’s moral certitude is lifeless, leaving no place for compassionate Christianity.”

The Times isn’t the only major news outlet paying attention to NCR. NPR aired a lengthy profile of the newspaper last spring that cited its enterprising reporting on the clergy sex abuse scandal, as well as the paper’s edgy editorials challenging a notoriously guarded Vatican bureaucracy. Not everyone is a fan, of course, and NCR’s consistently fair-minded journalism also comes with an unapologetic progressive flavor.

But no matter your political leanings, this understaffed newspaper far from the media centers of gravity deserves the growing national attention it’s receiving for being one of the few Catholic publications offering independent reporting, informed opinion-making and an old-school approach to news that’s not afraid to ruffle some collars.

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Vatican to Conservative Bloggers: Tone it Down, Please!

January 26, 2011, 9:47 am | By John Gehring

If you’re the pope, every year you deliver a dizzying array of speeches that range in tone from densely theological to the surprisingly topical. In his annual message for the church’s World Day of Social Communications earlier this week, Pope Benedict XVI ventured into the digital jungle of new media with a plea for Catholic bloggers and Facebook users to adopt a “Christian style presence” online. This call for greater civility is hardly big news, but in comments to the Associated Press, a Vatican official made things a bit more interesting. Here’s the AP description:

Benedict didn’t name names, but the head of the Vatican’s social communications office, Archbishop Claudio Celli, said it was certainly correct to direct the pope’s exhortation to some conservative Catholic blogs, YouTube channels and sites which, with some vehemence, criticize bishops, public officials and policies they consider not Catholic enough.”The risk is there, there’s no doubt,” Celli said in response to a question.

This is noteworthy because Church officials usually save their finger wagging for progressive Catholics. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, for example, just days before the 2008 presidential election said in a well covered public address that Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United “have done a disservice to the church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue. (Tell us what you really think, archbishop!)

But I sense a growing willingness among some in the Catholic hierarchy to push back against the aggressive tactics from the Catholic right. Consider the Archdiocese of Boston, where according to another AP story Catholic bloggers are digging through campaign finance records to expose staff of Catholic agencies who donate to pro-choice politicians, and the blog “Bryan Hehir Exposed” accuses a top adviser to Cardinal Sean O’Malley of being a Marxist sympathizer who undermines Catholic teaching on abortion and marriage. When Sen. Ted Kennedy died, the American Life League – a group that bills itself as a “Catholic pro-life education organization” – fired off an e-mail to supporters asking them to buy “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy” signs. Cardinal O’Malley was criticized so harshly by the Catholic right for participating in Sen. Kennedy’s funeral that he took to his blog to urge Catholics not to let zeal and harsh judgments “impute the worst motives in one another.”

Other examples of the More-Catholic-Than-Thou Industrial Complex? Deal Hudson, the former Catholic outreach coordinator for President George W. Bush, routinely lashes out on his and other venues at “fake Catholics.”, from a studio in suburban Detroit, is on the look out for “traitorous” Catholic nuns and priests. And on it goes.

Progressive Catholic bloggers and advocates are not exempt from reflecting on the pope’s wise admonition. But it’s nice to see the top brass of the church looking over their right shoulder for a change.

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Remembering King

January 17, 2011, 1:37 pm | By John Gehring


As we pause to honor Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of pushing our nation to live up to its highest ideals, it’s easy to sanitize his radical call for economic justice and ignore his prophetic words about war. We prefer King as a safe icon behind history’s glass case. When his words are quoted these days, we rarely hear the righteous anger of a preacher who denounced the Vietnam War and described America as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” We ignore his warnings about the arrogance of American foreign policy. We avoid an honest grappling with his stinging critique of capitalism as a system that permits “necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

At 35, King had already met with presidents, traveled the globe as a hero of nonviolent resistance and become the youngest person awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But in his final hours King traveled to Memphis for a sanitation workers strike, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with forgotten workers who struggled to earn a living picking up trash.

Our nation has made substantial progress since then, but the racism, poverty and militarism that King shined a moral spotlight on in his time persist. The gap between the rich and poor has reached Depression-era standards. African Americans earn less, die earlier and are far more likely to be imprisoned than whites. A memo from the Center for American Progress, The State of Minorities in the New Economy, shows that African Americans and Latinos are falling even further behind during the economic downturn. King recognized that the next frontier of the civil rights movement required addressing the scourge of poverty plaguing the richest nation in the world. His vision for a “Poor People’s Campaign” bringing together a multiracial coalition united in the belief that the moral measure of any society is found in how we treat the least among us was groundbreaking, but it fizzled after his assassination in 1968.

Religious leaders and faith communities have a particular responsibility to take up his call anew. One of King’s most important contributions was his sweeping vision of what it would take to build a just society. Racism, poverty, and militarism were not isolated social ills, he understood, but interrelated evils that required a deeper social transformation to overcome. King knew that building the beloved community required us to make connections and confront the American infatuation with individualism because our fates are tied together in a “single garment of destiny.”

King’s challenge is often hard to hear. But an honest reckoning with his words and actions can inspire us to build a new common-good movement for racial and economic justice today.

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Archbishop Dolan, Please Call Rep. Peter King

January 6, 2011, 3:59 pm | By John Gehring

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan has not been shy about weighing in on controversial issues, taking to his blog recently and defending Catholicism’s Culture Warrior in Chief Bill Donohue and blasting the New York Times for its coverage of the clergy sex abuse scandal. The new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops now has another opportunity to address a hot-button issue emerging from his own backyard. Rep. Peter King, a Catholic who represents heavily Catholic Long Island, has announced that as the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee he will hold hearings next month on the “radicalization” of the American Muslim community.

This hearing will likely be typical political theater, full of furrowed brows and heavy doses of demagoguery. This could all be easily dismissed if not for the rising tide of Islamophobia that brands Muslims as sinister outsiders hostile to American values. Sound familiar, Catholics? It wasn’t that long ago, historically speaking, when Catholic immigrants were demonized as threats to democracy. Irish Catholics were caricatured with vile stereotypes, Catholic Churches were burned and political cartoons savaged the bishops’ allegiance to Rome. It’s easy to forget that ugly history today when influential Catholics serve in the highest echelons of government and media.

We can find smart solutions to stop terrorism and other threats to national security (whether they come from Muslims, Christians or non-religious extremists) in ways that also preserve our values. Eboo Patel suggests in a recent Washington Post “On Faith” column that along with learning more about why a small percentage of Muslims become terrorists, Rep. King should also help educate the American people about a lesser known fact:

Peter King can shine a light on the role that the mainstream Muslim community has played in these attacks. By and large, it has been to help prevent them. Mainstream American Muslims have been vigilant against extremists in their communities – confronting their views, flushing them out and if need be reporting them to law enforcement. A Muslim Public Affairs Council study found that American Muslim communities had played a central role in helping law enforcement prevent seven of the last ten Al Qaeda related plots. How did the FBI get turned on to Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the young man who planned to attack the Christmas Tree Lighting in Portland? His Muslim father reported him.

Archbishop Dolan, who serves in one of the world’s most diverse and vibrant cities, occupies a powerful pulpit. When he speaks, both privately and publicly, his words are taken seriously. When the archbishop calls politicians and other city leaders, you can bet he is not put on hold. The archbishop is by all accounts an affable guy, a consensus builder who prides himself on his ability to defuse tensions. A meeting with Rep. King should be on his schedule.

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