Category: religion and law

Freedom of Religion

By Charles Kiker

Freedom of Religion is the first of five topics in the very first amendment to the United States Constitution. It is the first freedom among many.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There are two clauses in this promise: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. While I do not believe these two clauses are contradictory, they are, I think intentionally, set side by side in tension.

The establishment clause, as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court time and again, prohibits the state from sponsoring or favoring one religion over another. “Congress shall make no law. . . .” Some have interpreted this to mean that this clause applies only to the federal government, and not to state and local governments. At least one member of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas I think, favors this interpretation. According to that interpretation, the federal government cannot establish an official religion, but the states can if they wish. In Mississippi the state religion could be Baptist, the Southern Baptist version of course. And Utah could be officially Mormon, etc. But the 14th amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, provides that the Bill of Rights applies to all citizens of all the states. (more…)

Gun legislation won’t do it; we need a twelve-step program

By Alan Bean

America has a gun problem, but gun control legislation is too weak a fix; we need a 12-step program.

Since the tragic shootings in Newtown CT, we have been buried in a welter of statistics.  Support for gun control is rising, we are told, but the polls vary as to the extent of the shift.  We are reminded that 60% of men but only 39% of women favor gun rights over gun control, and that Republicans (72%) are more likely than Democrats (32%) to place the priority on gun rights.

Those inclined to dig deeper into the figures recently compiled by the Pew Research Center will discover that support for both gun rights and gay marriage has been advancing in recent years, a sign that libertarian arguments are impacting a wide range of issues.

The Pew study also shows that whites are twice as likely as African Americans or Latinos to value gun rights over gun control.   Moreover, white opinion changed radically in the wake of the election of Barack Obama.  In 2007, 37% of white Americans valued gun rights over gun control; the figure is now 57%.  White opinion on the gun issue flip-flopped in the space of four years.

Americans are far more likely to own guns than anyone else on the planet.  Here in the USA, 88.8 out of 100 people own at least one gun, that’s almost one firearm per person.  In Canada, the rate is 30.8, in Germany its 30.3, and in France its 31.2.  But in most of the world, the rate of gun ownership is exceedingly low: (Mexico 15, Australia 15, Denmark 12, Israel, 7.3, England 6.2, Afghanistan 4.6, the Netherlands 3.9, Romania .7).  In North America, Americans own guns at three times the rate of Canadians and six times the rate of Mexicans.

Americans are also far more likely to use firearms to kill people.  In the United States the homicide by firearm rate is 3.2 per 100,000 per year.  In the rest of the developed world, the rate varies between 0.0 in Japan (where only 11 homicides were recorded last year) and Belgium at 0.7.  In Canada, the rate is 0.5, less than one-sixth the American rate. (more…)

NAACP rallies behind the president on marriage equality

By Alan Bean
Barack Obama’s recent announcement that he favors marriage equality was a game changer.
Nearly 60 percent of African Americans report supporting marriage equality according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, up a remarkable 20 points from about 40 percent in similar polling earlier this year.
You would have seen a similar shift among white conservatives if, say, Ronald Reagan had suddenly come out for an easing of the war on drugs.
Most of us aren’t at all confident in our grasp of moral issues and tend to take our lead from a small cadre of respected opinion leaders.  Obama’s “evolution” on the gay marriage issue won’t impact Tea Party types because, in their eyes, the president doesn’t qualify as an opinion leader.
There is an odd dance, of course, between opinion leaders and the constituencies they influence.  If you get too far ahead of the parade, you may glance over your shoulder and notice that no one is following.  But gay marriage, as an issue, has finally come of age and when that happens, public opinion can shift quickly.
I find it interesting that only two NAACP board members objected to the group’s decision to endorse the principle of marriage equality since the Black church has traditionally taken a conservative stance on the issue.
But, as Pastor Amos C. Brown notes in this article from the Associated Baptist Press, the perception that some on the right hoped to use the gay marriage issue to win support among African-Americans played a large role in the sudden shift in Black opinion.  It is one thing to be disappointed in your president; it is something else altogether to vote for the opposition.  You may be screaming mad at the quarterback; but cheering for the other team is out of the question.
People of color tend to empathize with the GLBT community for the same reason American Jews were disproportionately supportive of the civil rights movement; they’ve seen this movie before.

Pastor Defends NAACP Marriage Stance

The NAACP voted overwhelmingly May 19 to oppose “any national, state, local policy or legislative initiative that seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the Constitutional rights of LGBT citizens.”

By Bob Allen

Associated Baptist Press

A Baptist minister and board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said May 26 it would have been hypocritical for the 103-year-old civil-rights organization not to pass its recent resolution supporting marriage equality.

Amos C. Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and president of the city’s local NAACP branch, is a member of the organization’s national board of directors, which voted May 19 to oppose “any national, state, local policy or legislative initiative that seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the Constitutional rights of LGBT citizens.” (more…)

Trulear: Prison Ministry after Chuck Colson

Dr. Harold Dean Trulear

As a pastor, a scholar, and an ex-prisoner, Harold Dean Trulear has earned the right to talk about prison ministry from the outside in and from the inside out.  I last saw Dr. Trulear in Washington DC when we were both part of a convening of faith leaders interested in ending mass incarceration.  Pat Nolan of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship also attended that gathering.  Like Trulear, Nolan has seen both sides of the prison wall and we had some good, frank conversation about the future of reform.  In this honest appraisal written for the Center for Public Justice, Dr. Trulear evaluates the mixed legacy of Nolan’s old boss, Charles Colson, and points the way to a viable relationship between Prison Fellowship and the Black Church.

Prison Ministry in the Post-Colson Era

By Harold Dean Trulear

The recent passing of Chuck Colson brings opportunity to reflect on the important legacy of his ministry and the ways in which Prison Fellowship participated in a resurgence of interest in prison ministry. Christian faith significantly influenced early forms of incarceration in this country, from the philosophy of repentance institutionalized in the penitentiary movement to the role of chaplains as singular service providers for inmates prior to the era of “corrections” and “rehabilitation.” Unfortunately, in recent decades prisons have been more punitive and controlling than redemptive.

Chuck Colson, for many (but not all) Americans, humanized the inmate. He created an organization that pressed for a recovery of transformation, rehabilitation and real “corrections,” initially through evangelism and later through initiatives that pressed for reform in prison conditions, sentencing issues and criminal justice policy. For many Americans, Colson’s work provided opportunity for a renewed commitment to a population whose treatment Jesus included in matters of judgment in Matthew 25.

In spite of the work of Colson and others, many people are still trapped in what T. Richard Snyder called “the spirit of punishment,” in which revenge—often euphemized as “seeking justice”—trumps grace and forgiveness, which are central to our justification before God through the atonement. Many Christians continue to reflect the broader cultural consensus of revenge, which is a sad by-product of our failure to develop a critique of modern and post-modern culture beyond issues such as sexuality, authority and family.

African American churches constitute another group for whom Colson’s leadership must be qualified. The historic, disproportionate confinement of people of color connected many Black congregations to jails and prisons prior to the emergence of Colson’s Prison Fellowship—both through personal networks and through a sense of serving the marginalized. And while Colson led the charge for federal criminal justice policy reform for white Evangelicals and political conservatives, African American Congressman Danny Davis (D.-Ill.) and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference provided the leadership for African Americans.

Chuck Colson, as a national figure, and Prison Fellowship, as a national organization, have exercised faithful stewardship of their resources in the implementation of their national ministry and its local incarnations. Yet, the relationship between Prison Fellowship and local congregations—particularly Black churches—has been uneasy. In 2008, a partnership developed between Prison Fellowship and the historically Black denomination, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, signaling what Colson himself called “a perfect storm” around criminal justice issues. Yet, tensions emerged surrounding the need for Black congregations to access resources to expand their prison ministry presence in a manner that reflected a true partnership, rather than a paternalistic engagement placing the national organization at the forefront and the local congregation in the background. Prison Fellowship staff were charged with the task of providing training and certification for Black congregations to minister to their own community members. This sense of paternalism—and the resentment it created—was exacerbated by the ability of Prison Fellowship to attract significantly more financial resources than local organizations and congregations.

So whither the future? First, in addition to continued evangelism, prison ministry must continue to expand into matters of discipleship and policy. The presence of the church in the jail cannot simply be a matter of “soul-winning.” Secondly, prison ministry must view its work as a fundamental province of local congregations. With 1.6 million adults in state and federal prisons, and up to 7 million more rotating annually through the county jail system, it is difficult to imagine a congregation in America whose relationships do not stretch directly into some prison or jail. Churches must act on their responsibility to minister to the prisoners within their own community. National organizations like Prison Fellowship must also redouble efforts to partner with local congregations to empower them to be indigenous stations of reconciliation that can supply far more social capital than any parachurch/volunteer network. Third, there must be real reconciliation between white Evangelicals who control parachurch operations and African American congregations whose family and community members are the targets of these parachurch efforts.

All of this amounts to a real balkanization of power from centralized control of ministry (that’s right, just like political federalism) into the type of local investment that flourishes when properly capitalized in both human and financial resources. Colson saw this need personally, and these shifts would honor his legacy in terms as great as the work he accomplished during his lifetime.

—Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing CommunitiesPrison Ministry and Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, DC, and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

Osler: The Christian case for gay marriage

I first encountered this story in front of a recording studio in Austin, Texas.  “My mother sent me this,” attorney Jeff Frazier told me.  “It’s a really refreshing perspective.  He says he’s for gay marriage because he’s a Christian!”  I looked at his cell phone and was delighted to see Mark Osler’s name. 

In this piece written for the CNN blog, Osler doesn’t argue that the Bible endorses homosexuality; he says the life and message of Jesus is a compelling argument against withholding any holy sacrament (marriage, baptism) from anybody.  

Mark couldn’t have made this argument so neatly when he was a Baptist at Baylor; but now that he’s wandered down the Canterbury Trail it makes a lot of sense.  In fact, the baptism-marriage connection is breathtaking in its simplicity.  Why hadn’t I thought of that?  Probably because I’m still a Baptist. 

By Mark Osler, Special to CNN

I am a Christian, and I am in favor of gay marriage. The reason I am for gay marriage is because of my faith.

What I see in the Bible’s accounts of Jesus and his followers is an insistence that we don’t have the moral authority to deny others the blessing of holy institutions like baptism, communion, and marriage. God, through the Holy Spirit, infuses those moments with life, and it is not ours to either give or deny to others.

A clear instruction on this comes from Simon Peter, the “rock” on whom the church is built. Peter is a captivating figure in the Christian story. Jesus plucks him out of a fishing boat to become a disciple, and time and again he represents us all in learning at the feet of Christ.

During their time together, Peter is often naïve and clueless – he is a follower, constantly learning. (more…)

Baptist Leader stands in solidarity with Trayvon Martin

Dr. Aidsand Wright-Riggins III

Thanks to Bob Allen with the Associated Baptist Press for bringing us this interview with Aidsand Wright-Riggins, Executive Director of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.  Dr. Wright-Riggins and I led a workshop on racial justice at the New Baptist Covenant conference in Atlanta in 2008 and he was very supportive of our work during the Jena 6 struggle.  As an ordained pastor with the American Baptist Churches, USA, it is an honor to be affiliated with a leader who is willing to share the painful aspects of his personal story.  If you are white, some of the details related in this interview may shock you.  All the more reason to keep reading.

American Baptist leader shows solidarity with Trayvon Martin

By Bob Allen

April 3, 2012

Wearing a hoodie in support of the 17-year-old Florida youth slain Feb. 26 while walking through a gated community to his father’s home carrying a can of tea and candy he had purchased at a convenience store, Aidsand Wright-Riggins, executive director of home page of American Baptist Home Mission Societies, said in a video on the ministry’s websitethat as a black man he has endured indignities like being stopped by a police officer while walking toward his own home.

Wright-Riggins said not much has changed since the day 30 years ago when as a youth minister he was called a racial epithet and ordered to raise his hands while visiting the home of a white member of his church. He described buying a used car so his son could drive himself to college and having the boy return home hours later saying he didn’t want the car because he was pulled over twice while trying to return to his dorm room.

“It’s dangerous being a young boy driving or walking while being black,” Wright-Riggins said. “So I’m just concerned in our county that we consider giving every person the dignity that is deserving of them.”

In addition to being heartbroken over the tragedy, Wright-Riggins said he is even more troubled by “how guns are so easily accessible and how they can be put into the hands of persons for whom there is absolutely no accountability when they use them.”

“I appeal to all of us, as we look at the millions of persons around us, and particularly those of color, and particularly black boys, that we don’t make an automatic assessment because they might be dressed differently or look differently or somehow feel that they are out of place in our society, that we relegate them to the margins or even worse that we assign them to the morgue,” he said. “So today in memory of Trayvon Martin and the millions of others who face such indignities, we lift our prayers for their families and we lift our prayers for our country. May God bless as we try to find a new and better way.”

Who Would Jesus Prosecute?


Holly Gill is an evangelical Christian who works with FAMM (Families Against Manditory Minimums).  Evangelicals have generally been known as devout backers of the war on drugs, but as Pat Robertson’s surprising take on marijuana legalization suggests, the times they are a-changing.  For evangelical Christians, Gill insists, it all comes down to WWJP, Who would Jesus prosecute.

How Would Jesus Punish Drug Use?

Holly M. Gill

The first and only time I heard evangelical mega-figure Pat Robertson speak in public, he wasn’t calling for the legalization of pot.

I was 21, a junior at Oral Roberts University, playing endless rounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” on my viola with the school orchestra. Robertson was present to give the commencement address to that year’s graduates. I can’t remember what he exhorted them to do, but I’m positive it didn’t involve toking up.

Robertson still isn’t spreading that message, but his recent comments about legalizing pot, the cruelty and irrationality of mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes, and the expensive and failed War on Drugs are refreshing. Our harsh mandatory prison terms for drug offenses are incompatible with Christian principles of justice. This conviction — and the faith I and Robertson share — drove me first to law school and then to Washington, D.C. to work on criminal sentencing reform for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a secular organization. I join Robertson in posing a question all evangelicals should be striving to answer:

How would Jesus want us to punish? (more…)

Will Obama soon be dragging Christians to jail?


Southern Baptists have walked a long and winding road on the subject of race.  In the 1950s, SBC conservatives like WA Criswell, pastor of the 20,000 member First Baptist Church Dallas, denounced the civil rights movement as a communist enterprise.  Criswell denounced the Suprme Court as a “bunch of infidels” following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. 

But by the mid-1960s, Criswell was confessing to a “colossal mistake” and admitting that his take on race relations had been deeply flawed.  This bold admission made it possible for other conservative Southern Baptists to hop on the racial harmony express by denouncing racial prejudice and inviting black pastors to speak in their churches once a year. 

Every year, Southern Baptists passed high-sounding pro civil rights decrees drafted by the denomination’s Christian Life Commission.  At the congregational level, conditions were far more complicated, of course.  Pastors and leading lay leaders didn’t shift from animosity to embrace in a mere decade.  On the other hand, they didn’t oppose the denominational rush to the center on the race issue.  Colorblind orthodoxy was too void of content to warrant strenuous opposition.

One might have expected that the SBC enthusiasm for civil rights would cool significantly after the nation’s largest Protestant denomination sent its moderate minority into wilderness exile in the 1980s and 90s.  Nothing of the sort.  In fact, the denomination’s new opinion leaders have made a point of apologizing for slavery and speaking appreciatively of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King.

Bob Allen’s piece on Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, helps us understand this perspective.  Instead of denouncing civil rights leaders as crypto-communists, Southern Baptist leaders are arguing that they are facing essentially the same oppressive forces men like King confronted half a century ago. 

Land makes much of the fact that King’s famous letter to southern white clergy was composed from a prison cell.  If Barack Obama’s opposition to religious liberty continues unabated, Land suggests, Christian men and women of Christian conscience may soon be dragged off to prison for refusing to bend the knee to Caesar.

This is a very clever argument, especially in the wake of the Obama administration’s tone-deaf decision to force Catholic hospitals to provide contraceptive services.  This is a tough issue.  Catholic hospitals, after all, service non-Catholics.  On the other hand, common sense militates against forcing anyone to go against conscience in order to stay in business.  Men like Richard Land can argue that his Catholic friends are being oppressed for their faith just as King et al faced discrimination because of their race.

I’m not buying.  Barack Obama believes in religious freedom as much as Richard Land.  The difference is that Obama, speaking and acting as the president of all Americans, believes in religious freedom for Muslims and secularists as well as Protestant and Catholic Christians.

If Richard Land wants to claim the likes of Deitrich Bonhoeffer and MLK as his spiritual forebears, there isn’t much either man can do about it.  The dead have no opinions. (more…)

The passion of the prosecutor

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has issued a stay of execution in the Hank Skinner case so relevant DNA evidence can be tested.  The prosecutors in this case remain adamant that Skinner should die with the evidence untested.  Mark Osler (a Friends of Justice board member who teaches law at the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota) says that what looks like baffling intransigence from the outside springs from the best of motives.  But then, so did the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Osler’s insights originally appeared on the CNN site. AGB

Texas prosecutors won’t stop rush to execution

By Mark Osler, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota, is a former federal prosecutor and the author of “Jesus on Death Row,” a book about capital punishment.

 As the nation and the world’s attention turned to the impending execution of Hank Skinner in Texas before a late stay by a Texas court, one question seemed paramount: “Why the rush?” The answer to that question is buried deep inside the psychology of prosecutors and the culture of Texas.

Skinner was scheduled for execution on Wednesday for the 1993 killing of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons, until the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (the top criminal court in that state) issued a stay late on Monday. (more…)

An informed conversation about the religious right, politics and dominionism

By Alan Bean

Sarah Posner and Anthea Butler understand the religious right because they attend actual religious gatherings and talk to people.  When they sit down for a conversation about dominionism, the New Apostolic Reformation and politicians like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann you get the straight goods.

Dominionists aren’t poised to take over America.  The religious right is an exceedingly complex social phenomenon.  Most of the folks in Houston’s Reliant Stadium for Rick Perry’s The Response had never heard of dominionism.  All of this is true, but that doesn’t mean something big isn’t afoot in the world of conservative evangelicalism.  Something big is afoot and it is already impacting the political process and the way social issues are debated in the public arena.

When I was attending university in the mid-1970s, my parents, Gordon and Muriel Bean, were suddenly wrapped up in the charismatic movement.  They continued to attend McLaurin Baptist Church (then a very non-demonstrative congregation), but they were much more excited about groups like the Full Gospel Business Men International and Women Aglow (of which my mother eventually became Alberta president).  Like the dutiful son I am, I attended these meetings but was never tempted to get involved.  I saw the usual “signs and wonders”:  folks speak in tongues as if it was the most natural thing in the world, worshipers healed of chronic ailments (usually having one leg longer than the other), worshippers  “slain in the spirit” (that is, lying in ecstasy on the floor as their bodies twitched with Holy Spirit electricity).

Like I say, it wasn’t my cup of tea.  But I learned that this kind of religion can be extraordinarily powerful for those on the inside.  As Posner and Butler point out below, it is the ordinary people who attend religious conferences and buy books and DVDs that drive the movement.  The names of the preachers change from generation to generation; the spiritual hunger driving the movement abides forever.

The GOP has learned to tap into that hunger; Democrats lose elections, especially in the South, because they haven’t.

This is a long piece, but I offer this little clip as an indication of the fresh insight you will discover throughout a fascinating conversation.  This is Anthea Butler:

For the last 30 years, journalists have had an easy time reporting on the religious right, because all they did was pay attention to to white male leaders of big organizations like Focus on the Family, National Association of Evangelicals, or Family Research Council. The days when a nice soundbite from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, or Ted Haggard would suffice are over. If journalists and others want to understand the last 10 years of the religious right movement, they will need to pay attention to the theological, religious, and ethnic diversity among evangelicals, Pentecostals, and non-denominational churches. They will at least need to recognize the old and new leaders of the religious right, and the complex network of leaders, conferences, and teachings if they want a reductionist argument they can spin out in 800 words. As someone who has studied and written about Pentecostalism for over 15 years, their lack of basic knowledge is staggering, and although I don’t expect people to get it like I do, I do expect reporters and journalists to do their homework! (more…)