The Age of Humanism and Religious Contradiction

Posted August 16, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

Television coverage of mega-church preachers has brought a renewed twenty-first century message of blessing. They and their followers seem to be blessed, successful, and healthy. We who grew up in religious families place much of our optimism on the Sermon on the Mount, specifically in the first eleven verses which we call the Beatitudes. I am certain that none of my good fortune was derived from contributions to, or having watched televangelists.

Much of my confusion about being blessed is that I don’t know if it is a verb or an adjective, and I don’t know how to pronounce it. Is it blessed or blest; does it have one syllable or two? I don’t know if it is only a religious reference to blessings coming from God, or if it has application in the secular world.

I look for synonyms—fortunate, loved, rewarded, secure, or lucky. It is obvious that I am blessed, be it a verb or adjective. In reading the Beatitudes, I find a paradox. Blessings come to the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the reviled, and those who are subjected to all manner of evil spoken against them falsely. Most of us find merit in mercy and peacemaking, but might question persecution and bad public social media even though they tend to make us stronger.

So often when I try to write the narrative of the events of my life, I debate on writing blessed or fortunate. When I talk to religious people I hear a singular implication of favoritism coming from a personal God, either by reward for good behavior or a divine plan before the Creation. When I talk to non-religious people I hear attribution to hard work and cleverness, with some uncertainty why some people with equal motivation and wisdom seem to fail.

We have watched the violence in Gaza and Israel, and we wonder why God allows genocide and slaughter in the name of religion in a land he gave to his chosen people. We watch the conflict between tyrants and anarchists in the Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, and Libya and we marvel at the restrained civility of an angry and divided American republic. We watch the racial violence in Ferguson, Missouri and we give thanks for our local police, our mayor, our governor, and our president. We are truly blessed to live in the tranquility of where we are among people who love us.

Religious people raise their voices to God as the Creator and a continuing presence in the daily mundane and trivial routine of their lives. Agnostic people seem to share the good and suffer the bad in indiscriminate proportionately. Unbelievers voice no appreciation for blessing nor assign blame to a supernatural influence, though equally blessed or tormented.

What we may have lost in our world of contradiction, is the age of Humanism. This was, “The Renaissance movement that emphasized secular concerns as a result of the rediscovery of classical literature, art, and civilization.” It was, and is, “a system of thought that centers on humans and their values, capacities, and worth.”

Out of this juxtaposition of faith and secular reason, we have contrived a contradiction between what God controls and what has been left to the mischief or genius of his most advanced creature. We should not dismiss the humanist as irreligious. We should not condemn the agnostic for his uncertainty or disbelief. We should not discredit the fundamentalist who assigns to God the human responsibility for mercy, peace, compassion, and the cause or relief of human suffering.

Elitism and the Aspiration Gap

Posted August 10, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

There is in America an intellectual elite, real or imagined, whose forte is academia of some ilk—the university, the media, or the arts and literature. There is also an economic elite—Wall Street, industry, finance, investment, inheritance, commerce, and other forms of capital. The heartbeat of America is a different form of elitism; that inexplicable satisfaction of excellence attained from the labor of the ordinary person. This would include any hourly wage-earner, the small business owner, the electrician, the engineer, the professional, the craftsman, the farmer, the secretary, the manager, and the euphemistic affection for the blue collar worker, whoever that might be. Politicians compete for and are elected or defeated by these groups.  Republicans more likely assume the support the economically elite and Democrats more likely assume the favor of the intellectual elite, with some notable defections in each group. Ultimately, each party accepts the inevitable rejection of being excluded from ideological and cultural commonality.

America is blessed in being a democracy, or some would argue a constitutional republic. The tyrannical abuses and eventual failure of communism and fascism are testimonials for the survival and flourishing of our combination of capitalism, democracy, and moral harmony of religion and secular ethics. Within the more recent displays of civil unrest, we have heard the words fascist and communist (or socialist) bantered as political epithets without evidence of comprehending either. Conservative governments seem to attract the support of the financially successful, the pragmatic, and traditional cultural orthodoxy.  Liberal governments seem to attract intellectuals, idealists, the working class, and the disenfranchised.  Liberal politicians historically have attracted voters with both high and low measurable intelligence; conservative politicians usually attract voters with measurable test scores statistically close to or slightly above average. Again, there are individual exceptions, anomalies, and eccentrics in each group.

Think of these, not as demographic strata, but fields of successful endeavor in a culture of equality. There are other groups that are harder to identify. This would include an older generation that has left the workforce, the world of commerce, and academia, some by choice, some from infirmity of mind or body.  There are also the young—toddlers, teenagers, students, and some would add the unborn. This includes the unemployable with lack of skill, education, or physical ability. There is the underemployed in menial low-paying tasks.  There is the veteran wounded physically and emotionally in wars of three generations, and often homeless. There is the factory worker, the skilled craftsman, technician, or seamstress whose factory has closed and whose job has been taken by the global anonymity of third world labor.

We define people by gender, age, religion, country of origin, legal or undocumented.  We ask the invasive questions—what do you read, what television network do you watch, where do you go to church, marital status, relationships, favorite athletic team, and the economic right-of-passage, “what do you do?”

I had the good fortune of being raised by a mother and grandmother in a rural culture that had no barriers, either artificial or real. Nobody told me I could not be a merchant, elected official, Sunday school teacher, author, preacher, philosopher, or social activist. Nobody told me whom I could or could not love and marry, or that I was denied access to country clubs, restaurants, schools, restrooms, and water fountains. Nobody told me about the aspiration gap. Nobody told me about demographics or class warfare. I never heard the word elitism in derision or suspicion. My granddaddy talked about somebody “not being our kind of people.”  Even he envisioned the traditional aspiration of “amounting to somebody” whatever that meant. My grandmother didn’t have an aversion to elitism or book-learning. She seemed to equate that with some degree of excellence, sometimes real and obvious, sometimes imagined, or as Granddaddy said, “getting above one’s raising.”



The Religious Right and School Board Elections

Posted August 10, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

Across the country, thousands of Religious Right groups are pressuring school officials to ban books, asking city councils to introduce sectarian proclamations, and running for local offices, specifically school boards. Many people are concerned about inroads the Religious Right has made in society in the past two or three decades. Local elections are extremely important and church-state separation activists should keep an eye on all of them, no matter how insignificant the office may seem. Once seated on a school board or city council, these people can create untold mischief.

At its most extreme, the Religious Right encompasses a loose conglomeration of organizations that forthrightly call for scrapping the First Amendment and reordering government along lines of the Bible’s Old Testament. This is premised on the idea that people must totally submit to God in all areas of their lives, including the government they form. The problem is, many religious people believe only they have the correct and proper interpretation of “God’s will.” Usually, their interpretation is quite extreme. In a country where an estimated 2,000 separate religious denominations strive to live together in peace, the problem inherent in the Religious Right approach is obvious.

The most radical of the groups believe “that pluralism or diversity is a myth. God and his law must rule all nations. At no point in the Scriptures do we read that God teaches, supports, or condones pluralism. To support pluralism is to recognize all religions as equals. In the name of toleration, the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal, and adherents of other religions as though no difference existed. “

Some would formulate a reordered society that would strip away all forms of secular government leaving citizens accountable to local church authorities. Taxes would be replaced with mandatory tithing, and social services would be provided by church groups. Security and law enforcement would be provided by local militias.

Most Religious Right groups advocate the death penalty. Some observers of the Religious Right have observed that the scope of punishable offenses is so great that if ever implemented in the United States, few people would be left to live in it. If sins were crimes as prescribed in the Old Testament most of us would be on death row. A partial list of offenses meriting the death penalty include: striking or cursing a parent, adultery, incest, bestiality, homosexuality, fornication, witchcraft, incorrigibility, blasphemy, teaching false doctrines, or sacrificing to false gods. In many cases the method is stoning. Stones are plentiful and available at no cost. No single blow can be traced to one person, thus reducing feelings of guilt. Stoning displays the collective responsibility for crime prevention. Executions should be public events. Stoning is symbolic of God’s crushing the head of Satan. Some cite this prophesy from the book of Genesis.

All of this is extreme. America is not at risk of becoming a theocracy. We are a nation of diverse religions, predominantly Christian. The primary threat of their ideas stems from the steady and increasing influence they have on conservative Christianity and the Republican Party. Some church leaders, while not buying into the entire package, have adopted portions of this ideology, particularly the movement’s opposition to separation of church and state. Some would favor some notion that the state should enforce religious dictates by law. Some conservative church leaders are turning away from the idea that separation is essential for religious liberty. Separation of church and state and religious liberty cannot survive unless it is supported by the religious community.



Bill Peach
Politics, Preaching & Philosophy

Churches, Charities, Taxation, and Politics

Posted August 10, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

Religious groups, like other not-for-profit organizations, enjoy tax-free status. They do not have to pay taxes on the donations they receive and are usually exempt from state taxes on the goods they purchase and local taxes on land they own. Individual clergy, however, must pay federal and state income taxes.

Occasionally, the suggestion is made that churches ought to be taxed. Religious groups have amassed great wealth. Some suggest if we taxed them we could balance the budget.

No state has seriously considered the notion of directly taxing churches. Many states do tax churches if they are involved in for-profit ventures unrelated to their religious mission, but otherwise the general tax exemption afforded churches if fairly safe.

The issue of taxing churches is not without controversy. In order to remain tax free, churches must refrain from getting too heavily involved in politics. For instance, groups considered non-profit by the Internal Revenue Service may not endorse candidates for public office. Also, they may not attack someone running for public office to the extent they effectively endorse his or her opponent. This is a gray area. Some churches are known for their political activism, and many have been accused of going too far in their political activities.

In 1991, the IRS conducted a lengthy investigation of Jimmy Swaggart and found him guilty of violating IRS rules by twice endorsing Pat Robertson for president during the 1988 campaign. He was not fined monetarily but was ordered to sign a statement promising to refrain from intervening in future campaigns. This was during a time when he was involved in a sex scandal, and the IRS may have seized the opportunity of human frailty to warn others about mixing religion with politics.

In contrast, Jerry Falwell was fined $50,000 after the IRS determined that the Old Time Gospel Hour had illegally channeled money into a political action committee ghat gave money to conservative congressional candidates. The IRS revoked his tax-exempt status retroactively for 1986 and 1987.

Many religious groups still think politics is a dirty business in which churches should not be involved. Jehovah’s Witnesses and some other fundamentalist denominations take an extreme position and refrain entirely from getting involved in politics. Some of their members do not vote.

The courts have ruled that there is no legal barrier to taxing churches and other religious groups or other secular non-profit organizations. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that it is not unconstitutional for state to give churches tax exemption. The Court merely said that it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Another marginal question is issue based political involvement. For example, several Catholic parishes openly endorsed in their church bulletins, candidates who held anti-abortion positions for state and federal offices. In the fallout from this, Catholic hierarchy issued memos warning clergy not to endorse candidates; form political action committees; or distribute campaign literature. The image of the IRS as a fierce bureaucracy may be true for some groups and individuals, but it has played the game softly with churches.

The logic of tax-exempt status for churches or other religious groups is that most provide many charitable and humanitarian social services. Government believes these services provide a valuable safety net for society and reduce some of the burden on the state. If the church provides shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry and elderly, care for orphans, those are services government does not have to provide. The government does not want to, nor should it discourage the social mission of churches by imposing burdensome taxes or penalties on them.


Historical Images of an Earlier South

Posted July 11, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

If you grew up in the South you probably have some of the same memories I have about education. When I was a child, almost every adult seemed to regret not having greater educational opportunities. We spoke of education as something that “nobody could take away from you” whatever that meant. It was that thing of value that would liberate you from “back-breaking, sweat-of-the-brow” labor that was a noble calling and a Godly endeavor, but which carried some inexplicable tinge of guilt or disappointment.

Education was that which would enable you to “amount to something” or “be somebody” but there was an underlying fear of education. Education could take you away from the place, the people, the church, the traditional values, the politics, the work ethic, and the old ways that were the embodiment of everything that was right.

In the rural South I found a paradox of the expedient amount of education one should attain. Schooling was mandatory to a point in measurable four-year increments. The minimums were finishing the eighth grade, or high school, or a college degree. The last four years being reserved for the select few. We seemed to have been judged by what we did or did not finish. Education was like hoeing or plowing a row, if you started you had to finish. Consequently, a lot of rows did not get plowed or hoed.

The need for education was defined by how much education you would need to do what you were going to do in life. Necessity was the minimal standard for education in the South. Tradition dictated mastering factual information to the limits of mental retention, but most people exhibited some distrust of educational pursuits beyond that which could be known for certain. Numbers were necessary to enumerate only those things which needed to be counted. We learned the multiplication tables for numbers defining quantity to measure dollars, dozens, pounds, acres, and the number of books in the Old and New Testament. We learned about miles to know how far it was from where we were to where we were going. Mathematics, or ‘rithmatic, had no abstract value.

In language arts, reading and writing, the value of words was inversely proportional to the number of syllables in each. We had little respect or demand for words with more than two syllables. Any extension of syllabication was the function of southern speech inflection rather than the addition of syllables. The South embraced ethics and logic within the safety of two-syllable comprehension, but never gave its blessing to metaphysics, aesthetics, or epistemology. Philosophy was considered to be whatever opinion someone might hold and was validated by its brevity and orthodoxy. Faith, family, folklore, and tradition became the solidified and deterministic frame of reference into which subsequent knowledge had to fit. Logic, or common sense, was the final determinant in southern wisdom, but logic was defined by existing standards of law, certainty, and tradition. Similarly, ethics was the final determinant in southern behavior, but ethics was defined by the Bible, primitive survival instincts, and tradition.

Academia in the South has not been given proper recognition for many reasons. The national news media and television imagery has been slow to accept the articulation of southern wisdom. Television footage of interviews with educated southerners seems to die on the cutting room floor. The emergence of intellect coming from political candidates, the rational theology coming from our pulpits, and scientific and historical integrity in our classrooms are often preempted by the colorful language and shallow perceptions of those who more nearly fit historical images of an earlier South.


The Advantage of the More Conservative

Posted July 3, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

As we enter the 2014 election cycle, our landscape is cluttered with yard signs and our mailboxes are stuffed with printed material. In the quest for advantage, most of the candidates seeking office have included the designation conservative to define their political ideology. In southern states the competition is between the conservative candidate and the more conservative candidate, and often a third candidate who claims to be superlatively the most conservative.

Historically, conservative has been interpreted as favoring and maintaining existing or traditional order and opposition to change. In the current unrest, this definition is probably not accurate. It represents one extreme in the cycles of change between political majorities that we label as liberal and conservative. We have a liberal president, a liberal majority in the Senate, a conservative majority in the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court.

We use the words liberal and conservative to reflect virtue and moral values for ourselves and for disrepute and immoral attributes on others. We may have lost the original semantic definitions of both words.

Several years ago, during a speech at a book signing event, I made references to my grandmother whom I referred to as being liberal. I cited her generosity of big spoonfuls of beans and potatoes on the plates of farm workers at dinnertime. She sacrificed to put money in the Sunday morning collection plate. She treated our black worker with dignity, even though he sat away from the main dinner table. Something in my narrative appeared to be a disclaimer on my part. Someone in the audience asked why I apologized for being a liberal. I explained where I lived, and that I had to maintain some credibility with my friends and neighbors.

He followed by asking if I realized that Jesus was a liberal. To which I replied, that Jesus didn’t have to get along with my friends and neighbors. This was followed by laughter from the audience.

In our southern culture we have used conservative to define our politics and religion, and liberal to include everything and everybody that are antithetical to the ideas we embrace as traditional or Christian values. Conservative also includes the connotation of caution or moderation. We may have lost that as we have moved farther to the right and farther to the left.

Much of the breakdown in conversation comes when those who consider themselves conservative embrace the definition of the word liberal to reflect what is good within their ideology of politics and religion. This would include the catch phrases, open-minded, tolerant, generous, and advocates of civil and political liberty. No one would question those attributes by either label.

I think we are a little dishonest when we try to identify Jesus as a conservative or a liberal, as a Republican or a Democrat. We can easily cite Bible verses to validate either claim. Last week I had a discussion with a man about self defense, war, violence, and the second amendment. He cited Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to sell their possessions and buy swords for survival after his death. This was followed by his rebuking Peter for dismembering an ear, and commanding him to put away his sword and warned of a cycle of violence of living and dying by the sword.

The Old Testament is a document of the existing traditional order at the time of the coming of Jesus. It was strict and is taken literally by most fundamentalist Christians. Yet, the content of the Gospels depicts a very human Jesus, who embodied the attributes that we today either embrace or reject as being liberal.


Emotional Voters and Rational Voters

Posted June 17, 2014 by billpeach
Categories: Uncategorized

It seems that extremists on the left and extremists on the right have convinced everybody that something is wrong with America. In the time I spend on the computer I have the television on in the background. I spend more time listening rather than watching television. As a junkie for politics, religion, and philosophy I do most of my channel surfing from 249 to 260, from Aljazeera to Fox. In passing, I have 6 other options, including MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg, congressional inquisitions, book events, and another Fox.

We have created for ourselves a culture of hyperbolic fear and anger. Much of this is traceable to the cycles of occupancy of the White House, majorities in Congress, and the Supreme Court.

The most divisive event at the moment is the impending collapse of the Iraqi government. We have coined the phrase “leading from behind” to define President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq. This follows eight years of derogatory references to “neo-cons.” Our withdrawal has precipitated the collapse of an unstable government. We blame President Bush for “breaking it” and President Obama for “not fixing it.” Now we insist that our soldiers died in vain either for a war we should not have started or should have continued longer.

This argument parallels the options of our “common defense” and being militarily strong enough to deploy military forces to every trouble spot on the globe, or the diversion of revenue to infrastructure, public assistance, education, “the general welfare” and “domestic tranquility.”

The Supreme Court just ruled that holding a high school graduation in a “mega-church” was not consistent with the First Amendment. Many people among Evangelicals and Catholics sincerely believe there is a war on religion in America. Many Liberal main-stream Christians and the non-religious persons believe that separation of church and state is essential for freedom of religion for everyone. The argument over whether we are a Christian Nation or a secular nation perpetuates the fears of atheism and theocracy.

There are millions of undocumented illegal residents in America. We seem to have found the dichotomy of “amnesty” or “round-up and deportation.” We are caught between advocates for necessary migrant labor or exploitation of cheap labor. We debate “a path to citizenship” that would shift the political advantage. We still don’t know what to do with the children brought across the border by illegal traffickers. This is another conflict of humanitarian ideology and pragmatic economics.

The Supreme Court recently ruled 5 to 4 that it is illegal for a person to, under false pretense, purchase a gun for another person. This was portrayed as a small victory for gun-control advocates and a loss for the National Rifle Association. The Second Amendment is part of our Constitution, written when survival, acquisition of food for the table, a well-regulated militia, lethality of weapons, and the culture of violence were different from today. We live in a conflict of fear of ubiquitous proliferation of guns and fear of a tyrannical government and confiscation of guns.

We are also caught in an emotional confrontation between Roe v. Wade and “personhood” legislation that defines a fertilized egg as a human. We are conflicted between “a woman’s right to choose” and “rights of the unborn.”

As we approach the election season, these are high priority emotional issues that determine for whom we vote. Candidates campaign with fear and trepidation. Moderate or rational candidates move to the left or right to appeal to their voter base in Red or Blue legislative districts. What’s wrong with America? It is us. Angry voters tend to vote in greater numbers than rational voters.


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