RealClearReligion Articles

5 Things You Need to Know About Trump's Jerusalem Decision

No Labels - December 14, 2017


Last week, President Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would soon relocate the country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City. This news made headlines around the world, both for its reversal of America’s longstanding foreign policy and its ability to reshape the region’s geopolitics.  

As this story continues to unfold in the coming weeks, here are the five things you need to know about President Trump’s announcement and the world’s reaction: 

1. Though Israel’s declared capital is Jerusalem, the international community has long refused to recognize this designation. 

When the modern state of Israel was being formed in 1947, the United Nations wanted to declare Jerusalem an international zone, given its religious importance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims from around the world. Israel officially declared Jerusalem as its capital, but the city remained divided until the 1967 Six-Day War, when it annexed the eastern part of the city. This move was considered illegal under international law. Accordingly, countries from Argentina to Zambia located their embassies in and around Tel Aviv to avoid conflict.

Silencing the Voices of Faith

Cardinal Donald Wuerl - November 20, 2017


Christian Faith Doesn't Just Say Disasters Are God's Retribution

Mathew Schmalz - September 9, 2017


It’s been a time of calamities: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, flooding in South Asia and Africa and a massive earthquake in Mexico have led to widespread devastation around the globe.

Some people seem to think this is divine retribution for the sins of humanity: Kirk Cameron, former child actor, said in a video on Facebook that Hurricane Harvey and Irma were “a spectacular display of God’s immense power” and were sent so human beings could repent. Earlier, after seeing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, conservative Christian pastor John McTernan had noted that “God is systematically destroying America” out of anger over “the homosexual agenda.”

Others disagreed over the reasons for God’s anger, but not necessarily with the assumption that God can be wrathful. Jennifer Lawrence suggested that Irma was “mother nature’s rage and wrath” at America for electing Donald Trump.

It is true that many religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity, have seen natural disasters as divine punishment. But, as a scholar of religion, I would argue that things aren’t that simple.

The Genesis flood

What We Can Learn From Religious Liberty Battles in India

Alex Caro - September 6, 2017


The Constitution of India declares the nation a secular republic. Despite this, the nation’s left-leaning Congress Party has long sought to appease conservative religionists. That is, as long as they are members of a minority religious community. This results in a deeply hypocritical approach to governance, in which the Congress Party fails to stand up for liberalism and universal human rights in the face of theocrats. The party may pay lip service to progressive causes, but, as we all know, actions speak louder than words.

This is evident in Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s “welcoming” of the Indian Supreme Court’s decision a few weeks ago to ban triple talaq, a practice whereby one can instantly divorce one’s spouse simply by stating “talaq, talaq, talaq,” provided that one meets the government’s requirements of being 1) Muslim and 2) male. Both the party and Rahul’s father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, protected the practice in an attempt to appease its regressive base in the 1980s. The major opposition party, BJP, is no better. The party claims to defend “Hindu” values, but more often than not simply defends the most regressive attitudes imported by the Christian British and Islamic Mughal colonizers.

To illustrate this dynamic, consider the issue of the Victorian-era ban on homosexuality in India. The Congress Party’s conservative Christian and Muslim minority constituents have defended the ban, as have BJP’s conservative Hindu constituents, leaving only smaller liberal minorities in both parties to attempt to enact change. As Sadanand Dhume explained, “Opposition to homosexuality in India may appear to remain relatively broad, but it doesn’t run particularly deep … [unlike in Islam,] antigay positions lack deep scriptural sanction in Hinduism.” As a result, the Congress Party’s secular elite say they want the ban overturned but have done little to enact this change, and the BJP has tried to appear neutral and uninterested in the issue.

However, when it comes to issues that are explicitly unrelated to Hinduism, the BJP often takes the lead where Congress flounders. Despite claiming the mantle of progressivism, the Congress Party used its supermajority in Parliament in 1986 not to ensure the elimination of triple talaq once and for all, but to instead dilute the Indian Supreme Court’s 1985 decision against the policy. The Party did so out of fear of electoral losses, essentially proving BJP’s accusations of appeasement correct.

Why Muslims Celebrate Eid Twice a Year: 6 Questions Answered

Ken Chitwood - August 31, 2017


Editor’s note: At sundown on August 31, Muslims all over the world will celebrate one of the principal festivals, Eid al-Adha. Earlier in June, Muslims celebrated Eid al-Fitr. Ken Chitwood, Ph.D. candidate studying global Islam, explains the two Islamic festivals.

What is Eid?

Eid literally means a “festival” or “feast” in Arabic. It is celebrated twice a year as Eid al-Adha, (pronounced eed al-Ahd-huh) and Eid al-Fitr.

Why is it celebrated twice a year?

How a Small Occult Publisher Changed America

Daniel Silliman - August 30, 2017


Ehud Sperling couldn’t find what he was looking for in physics classes. He had a half-articulated question about the ultimate nature of reality — the secret reality beneath or behind ordinary reality — but as he listened to lectures about atoms, energy, and the laws of motion, he felt the answer getting further and further away. He switched to psychology. Pysch classes didn’t help him with his question either. Then he went to Donald Weiser’s bookstore.

“Weiser’s was the place to find out,” Sperling recalled, now more than 50 years later. “At that point in time, we’re talking in the late 60s, there was no other place.”

Weiser’s New York store sold occult books. There, you could find tomes on the traditions and technologies of magick. There were books on astrology and astral projection, tarot, the secrets of Egypt, the traditions of Gnosticism, spirit channeling, and the wisdom of the gurus of the East. The sign out front said “esoterica” and “orientalia.”

Donald Weiser died on April 12 at the age of 89. His death was little noted, except for an item in Publishers Weekly and an intimate memorial with friends and family. The truth is, though, that Weiser and his book business changed the religious landscape in America.

Lost Latin Commentary on the Gospels Rediscovered After 1,500 Years Thanks to Digital Technology

Hugh Houghton - August 28, 2017


The earliest Latin commentary on the Gospels, lost for more than 1,500 years, has been rediscovered and made available in English for the first time. The extraordinary find, a work written by a bishop in northern Italy, Fortunatianus of Aquileia, dates back to the middle of the fourth century.

The biblical text of the manuscript is of particular significance, as it predates the standard Latin version known as the Vulgate and provides new evidence about the earliest form of the Gospels in Latin.

Despite references to this commentary in other ancient works, no copy was known to survive until Dr Lukas Dorfbauer, a researcher from the University of Salzburg, identified Fortunatianus’ text in an anonymous manuscript copied around the year 800 and held in Cologne Cathedral Library. The manuscripts of Cologne Cathedral Library were made available online in 2002.

Scholars had previously been interested in this ninth-century manuscript as the sole witness to a short letter which claimed to be from the Jewish high priest Annas to the Roman philosopher Seneca. They had dismissed the 100-page anonymous Gospel commentary as one of numerous similar works composed in the court of Charlemagne. But when he visited the library in 2012, Dorfbauer, a specialist in such writings, could see that the commentary was much older than the manuscript itself.

In Pain We Trust

Tim Kelleher - August 25, 2017


I did something for the first time recently — I joined a support group. Two, in fact, on Facebook, run by people suffering from something called trigeminal neuralgia.

TN is a little-known condition that delivers hydrogen bomb size pain to those it afflicts; a pain so difficult to describe I often resort to admitting, "I wouldn't wish it on Hitler," and mostly mean it.

The "suicide pain," as it's also known, involves the trigeminal nerve in one or more of three branches that cross the upper, middle, and lower parts of the face, on each side. For better and worse it is impervious to opioids, and virtually every convention of pain solution. The culprit appears to be a blood vessel, putting pressure on the nerve at its root. Why is unclear. As a neurologist explained to me, "It could be the result of damage caused by an early virus, or maybe head trauma, but the truth is, we just don't know." In any event, the point here is not etiology, but this: visceral pain of such magnitude is a great equalizer, underscoring the truth that we’re all created equal. It is, to put it mildly, a lesson learned the hard way.

Since joining these groups, I've participated regularly, if not frequently, in the long daily threads comprised often of members responding to another who is feeling unable to go on. These confessions are also pleas, and the anguish in them is humbling.

Explaining Polygamy and Its History in the Mormon Church

Joanna Brooks - August 18, 2017


The arrest of polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs, evictions of polygamist families and new studies on crippling genetic disorders among small ultra-orthodox or “fundamentalist” Mormon communities in rural Utah have made headlines this summer.

This spotlight on polygamy is likely to make the majority of Mormons who are nonfundamentalist uncomfortable. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) – the mainstream Mormon Church with 15 million members worldwide – publicly rejected polygamy in 1890. But to this day, mainstream Mormons encounter stereotypes of polygamy.

As a scholar of Mormonism and gender and a Mormon myself, I know that the truth about Mormonism and polygamy is complicated and confusing. For more than 175 years, polygamy and tensions surrounding it have defined what it means to be a Mormon – especially a Mormon man.

Beginning of polygamy

Founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, the Mormon movement from its beginnings offered a unique perspective on the religious role of men.

The Forthcoming Mormon Memory Wars

Matthew Crandall - August 15, 2017


Over the past several years, the nation has been torn apart by memory wars. The conflict usually centers on a monument that reflects different historical narratives for different groups. The Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse and the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville are two high profile examples. Memory wars are fought when there are conflicting historical narratives that are essential to the identity of a group. While disagreements about race and the legacy of the civil war will continue to dominate the headlines, other clashes over memory are worth noting. One of such is the forthcoming Mormon memory wars.

Religion is often a key aspect of group identity, which makes it a prime motivating force to generate a memory war. There is currently a revolution taking place concerning how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church) understands the key events of its foundation. For over a century, the problematic details of Mormon history were swept under the rug. As the late apostle Boyd Packer said “some things that are true are not very useful.” In the era of the internet, the LDS Church no longer has a monopoly over its history. Several significant attempts have been made to be more transparent with its history. The Gospel Topics, the Joseph Smith Papers project, and even a new Church history are all part of this new strategy. This opens the door for more competition over traditional Mormon historical narratives.

This is planting the seeds for a Mormon memory war. Mormonism is unique among American religions in the role it plays in a person’s identity. The institution has a significant role in creating and maintaining a community that each member operates in. Since the early days of Mormonism and the accompanying persecution, Mormons have always been a “peculiar people” with distinct barriers between those outside the Mormon community and those within. LDS theology outlines a purpose for adherents, and the institution adds cultural facets that further contribute to one’s identity.

There have been critics of core LDS historical narratives since the foundation of Mormonism. This has never resulted in something that one could call a memory war because the critics were traditionally outside the Mormon community. In addition, there was little to fight over because most of the symbols of the key narratives do not reside in the public space, giving outside groups little authority to engage in any memory war.

Custom Versus Culture: A Modest Distinction

Christopher Landrum - August 14, 2017


If it were proposed to all nations to choose which seemed best of all customs, each, after examination, would place its own first; so well is each convinced that its own are by far the best.” —Herodotus (III, xxxviii)

To be honest, it took about four readings of Rémi Brague’s essay “From What is Left Over” (First Things, August 2017) before I felt confident enough to tell myself I understood it. Some of the perplexity probably stemmed from the word culture being used over 60 times, and not always with the same meaning.

Unlike Isidore of Seville, I don’t think that etymology holds the key to the cosmos, but once I realized my confusion concerned this word culture, I consulted a dictionary to guide me out of the perplexity. Yet I also abided by C.S. Lewis’s instructions: “One understands a word much better if one has met it alive, in its native habitat. So far as is possible our knowledge should be checked and supplemented, not derived, from the dictionary.” And: “everyone starts telling us what the word does not mean; a sure proof that it is beginning to mean just that.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says culture and custom are both of Latin origin. Each came to Modern English via the Normans around the same time. Since the 1300’s custom has always meant modes of habits, behaviors, manners, practices, or as our Congress puts it, “ways and means.” (Even menstruation used to be called “the custom of women.”) The Greek equivalent, nomos, can mean law, nature, or custom, as in the line by Herodotus.

Culture as a synonym for customonly came into contemporary practice in about 1860. Nearly fifty years later Edith Warton, instead of using the word culture, swam against the current by naming her novel The Custom of the Country (1909).

When Do Moviegoers Become Pilgrims?

S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate - August 2, 2017


Among the millions of travelers heading out for the summer holidays, some are choosing an unlikely destination: a rusted bus on the edge of the Alaskan wilderness.

Fairbanks Bus 142 (aka the “magic bus”) is where the 24-year old Chris McCandless died in 1992. Well-educated and economically secure, McCandless rejected the materialism he saw in contemporary U.S. society. He set out to explore with only what he could carry, and ended up living off the Alaskan land for a few months before dying of starvation. His story was first told by writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer in the book “Into the Wild,” and later made into a film directed by Sean Penn.

Since then, dozens of people every year seek to follow in McCandless’ footsteps. Finding inspiration in his mode of self-sufficiency, many head out to Alaska like secular pilgrims seeking to imitate a great saint from long ago, and to live more simply. 

Fairbanks Bus 142.

“Into the Wild” is not the only film to affect people in such a way. I have found many ways in which films around the world have motivated people to get up and travel to locations previously unknown – what I call “film-induced pilgrimage.” In these travels, tourists begin to look a lot like spiritual seekers.

Films and pilgrimage

Who Becomes a Saint in the Catholic Church, and Is That Changing?

Mathew Schmalz - August 1, 2017


Pope Francis has created a new category for beatification, the level immediately below sainthood, in the Catholic Church: those who give their lives for others. This is called “oblatio vitae,” the “offer of life” for the well-being of another person.

Martyrs, a special category of saint, also offer up their lives, but they do so for their “Christian faith.” And so, the pope’s decision raises the question: Is the Catholic understanding of sainthood changing?

Who’s a ‘saint’?

Most people use the word “saint” to refer to someone who is exceptionally good or “holy.” In the Catholic Church, however, a “saint” has a more specific meaning: someone who has led a life of “heroic virtue.”

This definition includes the four “cardinal” virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice; as well as the “theological” virtues: faith, hope and charity. A saint displays these qualities in a consistent and exceptional way.

Giuseppe Gabriele Del Rosario Brochero prior to the start of a canonization Mass.

How the Social Gospel Movement Explains the Roots of Today's Religious Left

Christopher H. Evans - July 23, 2017


Throughout American history, religion has played a significant role in promoting social reform. From the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century to the civil rights movement of the 20th century, religious leaders have championed progressive political causes.

This legacy is evident today in the group called religious progressives, or the religious left.

The social gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as I have explored in my research, has had a particularly significant impact on the development of the religious left.

What is the social gospel movement and why does it matter today?

What was the social gospel?

Why the Catholic Church Bans Gluten-Free Communion Wafers

Joanne M. Pierce - July 22, 2017


A recent letter from the Vatican reminded the world’s Catholic bishops of a rule mandating the use of wheat gluten for the celebration of the Eucharist, a Christian liturgical service called the Mass by Catholics.

Reactions were immediate. Catholics with celiac disease recounted their experiences in trying to find low-gluten options and even approaching priests before Communion to receive consecrated wine from a separate chalice so there was no chance of cross-contamination. Some narrated how they had even refrained from receiving Communion and decided instead on a “spiritual Communion.”

As a specialist in liturgical studies, I was not really surprised. Today in North America there is an intense concern about the nature of bread used for Communion by Catholics – celiac disease, caused by gluten intolerance, affects at least 1 percent of the global population.

But while the Catholic Church does allow low-gluten breads, the use of gluten-free recipes has been strictly prohibited.

Hinduism and Its Complicated History With Cows

Wendy Doniger - July 18, 2017


Just this past June, at a national meeting of various Hindu organizations in India, a popular preacher, Sadhvi Saraswati, suggested that those who consumed beef should be publicly hanged. Later, at the same conclave, an animal rights activist, Chetan Sharma, said,

“Cow is also the reason for global warming. When she is slaughtered, something called EPW is released, which is directly responsible for global warming. It’s what is called emotional pain waves.”

These provocative remarks come at a time when vigilante Hindu groups in India are lynching people for eating beef. Such killings have increased since Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata party came to power in September 2014. In September 2015, a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched by a mob in a village near New Delhi on suspicion that he had consumed beef. Since then, many attacks by cow vigilante groups have followed. Modi’s government has also prohibited the slaughter of buffalo, thus destroying the Muslim-dominated buffalo meat industry and causing widespread economic hardship.

Most people seem to assume that no Hindu has ever consumed beef. But is this true?

How the Catholic Church's Hierarchy Makes It Difficult to Punish Sexual Abusers

Mathew Schmalz - July 17, 2017


Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, returned to his native Australia July 10 to face criminal charges related to sexual assault. While the specific allegations and names of the accusers have not been made public, Cardinal Pell maintains that he has been a victim of “character assassination.” His case will be decided by an Australian court.

This is not the first time the Catholic Church has been rocked by charges of sexual abuse. While reforms in the Catholic Church in the United States have made it mandatory for priests to report instances of sexual abuse, there still remains much work to be done in the Catholic Church worldwide.

From my perspective as a Catholic scholar of religion, one of the challenges in tackling this issue is the hierarchy of the church itself. It is still difficult to hold high-ranking clerics responsible, either for the misdeeds of their subordinates or for the crimes that they may have committed themselves.

Church structure

At the top of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy is the pope. He is said to be the successor of the Apostle Peter, about whom Christ said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” For Catholics, the pope is that “rock” that gives the church a firm foundation. The pope is considered to speak infallibly, “without error,” under specific conditions concerning doctrine and morals. But he is not infallible when it comes to personal judgment such as whom he chooses to get advice from.

How Beyoncé's Virgin Mary Imagery Challenges Racist, Religious, and Sexual Stereotypes

Katie Edwards - July 15, 2017


Early Friday morning, Beyoncé set Instagram on fire when she posted a new image of her twins Sir and Rumi who were born in June. Wearing a veil, the artist chose similar imagery as her pregnancy announcement, which drew comparisons to depictions of the Virgin Mary.

Sir Carter and Rumi 1 month today. 🙏🏽❤️👨🏽👩🏽👧🏽👶🏾👶🏾

A post shared by Beyoncé (@beyonce) on

In February, Beyoncé revealed her second pregnancy in a series of striking and beautiful images re-appropriating classical and religious iconography. The central image, posted on her Instagram account, depicted the artist and activist in the style of the Virgin Mary: wearing a veil, surrounded by a halo of flowers. The announcement and accompanying image quickly became the most liked post on Instagram and numerous press articles appeared, attempting to decode the symbolism in Beyoncé's visual essay.

While several media outlets have picked up on the Virgin Mary imagery and its associations with authority and virtue, The New York Post went the furthest, dedicating its front page to the "Beymaculate Conception."

The Supreme Court, Religion, and the Future of School Choice

John E. Taylor - July 14, 2017


The Supreme Court recently decided that Trinity Lutheran Church should be eligible for a Missouri state grant covering the cost of recycled playground surfaces. Though the state originally rejected the church’s application on grounds of separation of church and state, the Supreme Court ruled that this rejection was, in fact, religious discrimination.

The case’s impact will probably reach well beyond playgrounds.

As a scholar of education law, I’ve been following the Trinity Lutheran case and what it could mean for the hottest issue in education: school choice. Where in the past states have decided for themselves whether religious schools are eligible for school vouchers and scholarship tax credits, the Trinity Lutheran decision likely signals that the Supreme Court will soon require states to include religious private schools in their programs.

This would be a huge win for school choice advocates and would complete a revolution in the Supreme Court’s understanding of the law on government funding of religious institutions.

Activist group Concerned Women for America shows support for Trinity Luthern Church in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Of church playgrounds and discrimination

On Land or Ship, Port Chaplains Offer Comfort to Seafarers of the World

Wendy Cadge - July 12, 2017


Boston celebrated its maritime heritage in June by welcoming tall ships from around the world into Boston Harbor for the celebratory event, Sail Boston. Thousands of people visited the magnificent vessels at anchor to learn about Boston’s rich maritime history.

I saw the tall ships with representatives from the New England Seafarers Mission (NESM). Founded in the 1880s by the Swedish Covenant Church, the NESM today serves seafarers in Providence, Rhode Island and Boston, Massachusetts. In Boston, chaplains are connected to the NESM and the Seafarer’s Friend, a second nonprofit organization that brings support and assistance to thousands of seafarers on the ships that pass through the port every day.

Seafarers, or those who work on container ships, tankers and other large commercial vessels, come from all the world – with the largest numbers from China, India and the Philippines. Most seafarers work nine months a year at sea, returning home for a short period between contracts.

As a scholar, I have been interested in the history of port chaplains and the work they do with seafarers around the globe. I have interviewed and shadowed many of them in recent years while conducting ongoing research about their work across the United States. I am also working on a larger project on port chaplains that started recently in the U.K.