There have been a flurry of stories in the last couple of weeks that have my mind in a daze resembling the Rolling Stones "Crossfire Hurricane." And, dear lord, I wish it were about "Jumpin' Jack Flash" but no, it's about religion.
Remember those quaint days when it was considered impolite to talk about a person's politics and religion? You know, like just a few years ago. I have worked in broadcast news for 52 years now and counting, and until they retired, and with the advent of Facebook, I never knew the politics or religious leanings of my former colleagues. Now, I find myself arguing with men and women I truly admire because I am now on the other side of a fence we didn't know existed.
And now, our politics have become hopelessly ensnared in religion. A little background. I was raised a middle-class Episcopalian, otherwise known in the old days as the "Republican party at prayer," or simply Catholics who flunked Latin. My Catholic dad and Presbyterian mom settled on it as a compromise wherein he got the candles, bells and smells and she didn't get a Pope. The Republican part disappeared with the civil, women's and gay rights movements and my Anglican gang became identified with liberal politics. But still, we were perceived as so stolid that when that great Texas political writer Molly Ivins found out that Clarence Thomas considered himself a "Charismatic Episcopalian," she wondered if it meant he wore loud ties.
My dear wife grew up Southern Baptist and that's about as conservative as you get. That denomination came into being in 1845 when it split from Baptists in the North over slavery. In 1995, on its 150th anniversary, the church issued a formal apology for its support of slavery and segregation. In 2017, the convention, which has 15 million members in the United States, condemned white supremacists.
When the Rector of our church, Palmer Episcopal in Houston, was going to be unavailable on the date we wanted to get married, and being frankly hot to trot, we did the deed at her family church, Second Baptist, a mega-church across town. And that leads me to the subject at hand. The Pastor of Second Baptist since 1978, has been Homer Edwin "Ed" Young. Not a noted firebrand, the genial Young has built the church to the point where it has 2 locations in Houston and in 4 surrounding towns totaling roughly 80,000 congregants. It is not so much a church now, as a third-world country with a choir. Years ago when they replaced their traditional original building with a huge, round sanctuary, one young parishioner called it the "Baptidome."
Now, I hate it when candidates campaign in churches, black or white, Democratic or Republican. I think it flouts the tax exemption churches are granted to allow anyone running for office to piously pontificate to the congregation. And, frankly, for the clergy to engage in politics is, in my mind, even worse. Now, before I wax too puritan here, I fully understand the history of the black church in America and how it was the focal point and driving energy behind the civil rights movement. And if you want to call out my hypocrisy on that, you can take it up with The Reverend Martin Luther King. Moral issues like civil rights or abortion seem to me to be legitimate fodder for a fiery sermon, but simply endorsing candidates is still a bridge too far for me. And a couple of Sundays ago, that's what Ed Young did.
The IRS states, “under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
Well, Ed threw caution to the wind when he said...“In all probability, Houston is one of the two of three most dangerous cities in the world to live in,” Young said from the church pulpit in a video posted on the church’s website. “Ladies and gentlemen if Houston and Harris County is to survive, we better throw those bums out of office. They are not doing the job that we have called them to.”
The sermon went on to condemn "left-wing progressives" and how they have made Houston a swirling vortex of crime worse than Chicago. That factually and provably isn't true, but it didn't matter and he got a 3 minute standing O. This isn't his first foray into politics. According to my old employer KPRC..."the pastor received backlash for his description of the Democratic party in 2018 at then-Congressman John Culberson's election night event. "It's no longer a party," Young said in comments captured on camera by KHOU. "It's some kind of religion that is basically godless."
I went to the church website and looked at some past sermons. I hadn't listened to Ed for some time and was a bit surprised at how political he has gotten from the pulpit. And given his prominence and popularity, nothing will be done, so here we are. And no doubt across town, my Anglican brethren and sisteren are, maybe a bit more subtly, urging a vote for Beto, so the floodgates are open. The Walls of Jericho have crumbled between church and state and clergy feel free to unburden themselves of long-hidden political, racial and religious prejudices in front of God and everyone. One Florida pastor in a Ron DeSantis TV ad, Larry Jinks, is a full-throated anti-semite.
And while some are cheering them on, the faith is suffering, particularly the Christian faith. A new report by the Pew Research Center and the General Social Survey reports that while 90% of Americans identified as Christian in the early 90's, that number is now only 64%. Meanwhile, the number of people who said they are "religiously unaffiliated" rose from 16% in 2007 to 29% in 2020.
The Pew folks postulate that in the coming decades we will see continual erosion and in my humble opinion, the mix of religion and politics is driving young people away. Witness the embarrassing obeisance of the evangelical church at the feet of Donald Trump.
For a group so focused on personal sin, like homosexuality, the slavish devotion to a man who cheated on each of his wives, bragged about it on tape, and has essentially tried to overturn a legitimate election, is mind-boggling. I believe in forgiveness and absolution, but you need to admit the transgression. Anyone heard that from Trump? Even Swaggart was able to whip up some tears and beg for forgiveness.
In 1991, I was heading to Israel for my first of 4 reporting trips there, to broadcast from the country Saddam Hussein was shelling with Scud missiles and trying to draw into the First Gulf War in an effort to break up the allied coalition. I arranged a meeting with the Anglican Archbishop of East Jerusalem, Samir Kafity. We met at St. George's Cathedral in East Jerusalem, on the Palestinian side of the so-called "green line."
A gregarious, welcoming man, Kafity patiently explained the religious divides that have kept the region in turmoil. A Palestinian Christian, he toed a line between the Anglican flock he pastored, his Muslim countrymen and the Jewish authorities in Tel Aviv. When I told him that from the outside, this seems an easy problem to fix. Draw a line, Israelis in the original borders, and Palestinians on the West Bank. Each has a country and can seek their respective destinies. He told me I say that because I'm an American. We see a problem, fix it and move on. There, he told me, the Bible is like yesterday's newspaper. The arguments go back generations. Frankly, for a man of the cloth, he held out little hope.
And that is where I think we are now in this country. I don't think his description of Americans who see a problem and simply fix it is accurate anymore. Watching another brilliant Ken Burns documentary this week, The US and the Holocaust, I was struck with the realization that our nativism and deep-seated prejudices are never far below the surface. It's one thing when a media personality like Father Charles Coughlin in the 30's or Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson in the 2000's, preach racial and political hatred. But when political leaders follow suit, then the danger is real. And religion is often the tool.
Former General Michael Flynn, the guy who was to be President Trump's National Security Advisor for about 5 minutes until it was found he was the BFF of some unsavory Russian types, is now on a national tour touting what amounts to Christian Nationalism. In an obvious attempt to salvage his reputation, though his soul may be out of reach, he is using the Bible as a prop for his rehab safari to adoring crowds. Yeah, the effort may be obvious to many of us, but not to the venerating masses.
From an AP investigation...Flynn is “one of the most dangerous individuals in America today,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an historian and expert on authoritarianism and fascism who wrote the book “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.”
“He is spearheading the attack on our democracy, which is coming from many quarters, and he is affiliated with many of these sectors, from the military to Christian nationalism to election denial to extremist groups,” she said. “All of this comes together to present a very live threat. And he’s at the center.”
And a sample of the sermon...
“We need to take this country back one town at a time, one county at a time, one state at a time, if that’s what it takes,” Flynn told a crowd in Salt Lake City.
And the goal of this mix of religion, politics, race and resentment is one thing; anger. When Mitt Romney lost to President Obama back in 2012, Senator Lindsey Graham emerged from Tara to blurt out the playbook. “The demographics race we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
Add to this the social issues that are also splitting denominations. My Episcopal Church, never possessing a deep bench of parishioners, has been split over the subject of homosexuality, leaving it with fewer adherents than the average Gamestop franchise. Likewise, the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and now the Methodists. Only Baptists and Catholics have remained traditional on the subject, but each has its own problems that go far beyond gay folks. Even the branches of Judaism have divided over it. Reform and Conservative congregations generally are accepting, while the Orthodox are not. Throw in abortion and AR-15s, which are mentioned in the little-known 11th commandment, and you have the perfect religio-political mix.
So, for a lot of young people today, you tally up all this nonsense and it equals, goodbye. We all read the same book on Sunday, or Saturday if you're reading the first half, and you would think that would breed some sort of unity. But bless your heart, of course it hasn't. Given the fervent politicization of religion, the societal turmoil, the generally dismissive attitude toward those apostates across town, and can you blame young folks for checking the "none" box when it comes to religion? As a believer, I am sad at this development, but we only have ourselves to blame. From Christians and lions to the Inquisition to slavery, our treatment of Native Americans to the Holocaust, we humans don't have a good track record of respect for other faiths or races.
And it seems little or nothing has changed. Can I get an Amen?
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.