TIME Religion

Separation of Church and State Is Important, But So Is Faith in Congress

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.

You can't separate faith, values, and politics and expect our democracy to thrive

At Union Theological Seminary, we strive to be educators wherever we are — in the classroom, in the pulpit, on the streets, and in our homes and communities. This week we hope to be educators on Capitol Hill.

Tuesday, Union will host the first-ever Congressional Orientation on Faith and Governing. Senator Chris Coons and Representatives Jim Clyburn, Emanuel Cleaver, and John Lewis are sponsoring the day. As far as we know, nothing quite like this has ever been done before — on the left or the right — so we are prayerfully breaking new and exciting ground.

The day will put members of Congress in conversation with professors from Union, along with leaders from a variety of D.C.-based organizations working for justice, including Jim Wallis, president and founder of Sojourners, Jennifer Butler, CEO of Faith in Public Life, Bishop Gene Robinson, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and Rev. James Forbes of the Drum Major Institute.

The separation of church and state is a bedrock American value — we all agree on that. But, importantly, so is the connection of faith, values, and public policy. On this, however, there is often unnecessary confusion.

It’s pretty simple. We all have moral convictions that inform the work we do. Those values and principles derived from our deepest convictions underlie and motivate our actions in the public square — whatever our religion or lack thereof. It is impossible not to be formed by our values; moreover, for people of faith, it is impossible not to be formed by our faith.

This is just as true for you and me as it is for members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Just as King Solomon knew that you couldn’t cut a baby in half and expect it to live, we know that you can’t separate faith, values, and politics and expect our democracy to thrive. People who claim that they separate their faith and values from their politics are woefully unaware of themselves.

The founders of our country recognized that these religious, community, and moral values play an invaluable role in building a just society. They knew that the democracy they created would be ruled by people, and that the people who dig into their faith or moral convictions for wisdom govern the best.

Despite what you might see on TV, this holds true just as much for those of us who are progressive as it does for our conservative brothers and sisters.

Today’s orientation will allow members to explore how their spirituality intersects with their service to the country. While Union is a Christian seminary, we will speak from a broad perspective on faith so that those who practice Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or who have no faith at all will learn how best to engage their spirituality and the spirituality of their constituents.

Many people think when politics and religion mix, the consequences are disastrous. It simply doesn’t have to be that way. We can and must draw a distinction between the imposition of specific religious prescriptions, and the drive and motivation that comes from the bedrock values of our great faith traditions which can move our policy agenda to a better, more just, and inclusive place.

Union was founded in 1836 by those “deeply impressed by the claims of the world upon the church.” We follow in the footsteps of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, as current professors like Cornel West and Gary Dorrien speak prophetically on issues of race and economics. We know from our experience that progressive organizing like the March from Selma can be rooted in the healthy soil of sincere religious conviction.

This week, we hope to broaden the conversation on faith and politics. As the years go on, we hope more members of both parties join us so that we have a Congress with a deeper appreciation of the relevance of faith and the broad range of public policy convictions that come from it.

In such a fractured and polarized Washington, maybe a little faith will help raise the level of public discourse. That would count as an answered prayer for the American people.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME world affairs

Why Will No One Let the Muslim World Be Secular?

woman-at-mosque-gate
Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

We all attach a de facto religiosity to people’s actions in the region that make it impossible to develop secular identities in those states

Here we go again. Each time deranged terrorists invoking Islam strike in the West, alongside the mourning of the victims comes the heated debate over how the world’s Muslims should react to the attack.

Belligerent rightists demand that Muslims distance themselves from terrorists or be deemed their accomplices. Righteous leftists warn against bigotry and Islamophobia while affirming that Muslims, being overwhelmingly moderate people, have nothing to do with terrorism. And then you have the Bill Maher approach: urging Muslims to prove their overall moderation beyond simply condemning terrorism.

It is a truly bizarre ritual, this rush to assess whether Muslims en masse are moderate or terror-friendly; and, in either case, to what extent.

The absurdity of the exercise begins with the way mainstream western discourse defines “Muslims”: a monolithic compact of 1.6 billion people intensely adhering to a faith by mere virtue of geography. Labeling all North Africans and Middle Easterners pious Muslims is akin to assuming that everyone who lives in America, or Europe, is devoutly Christian. There is a difference between cultural heritage and religious obedience. Why would the notion of a “Christian world” be dubious and debatable, but that of a “Muslim world” never be questioned?

As a liberal Moroccan journalist, it was bad enough to have my state refuse me my freedom of conscience; it’s all the more galling when it is Western liberals who refuse me that right with their blanket paternalistic sentiments about what “those people” are like.

It’s no wonder the West has been quick to give up on, or forget, the liberal, cosmopolitan youth that fueled the Arab Spring of recent years – a demographic that hardly fits into the Western view that everyone in these countries is primarily characterized by religiosity.

Islam is not encoded in anyone’s DNA. Being religious is a personal choice, one that every individual is free to make—or not—as stated in the Universal declaration of Human Rights. As it happens, human rights (including freedom of belief) are widely denied to the 1.6 billion persons we’re talking about, by most of the governments they live under—as well as by the prejudices of well-meaning Western liberals who bend over backwards in their politically correct efforts to be understanding of “Muslim countries” and their ways. What well-meaning Westerners need to understand is the wide gap between Islam as it should be—a personal choice—and as it most often is—a set of pervasive constraints enforced by undemocratic States.

In all the countries where Islam is the religion of the State, merely criticizing the faith (let alone leaving it) is a criminal offense. In 2007, as the publisher of the Moroccan weekly magazine Nishan, I ran a cover story about popular humor in my country. Because the issue included jokes about Islam (harmless ones at that—the most notable one featured God assigning a deceased Muslim man of virtue to hell, before teasing him: “Smile, it’s the candid camera!”), copies of the magazine were publicly burnt by grimacing extremists, and my colleagues and I received hundreds of death threats. Yet instead of cracking down against the fanatics, the government prosecuted us for “damaging religious morals,” and banned the magazine for 3 months.

It’s not just about mandatory religiosity. In most “Muslim countries,” school curricula include inescapable religious classes at every grade, with disturbing teachings about the role of women (mainly to procreate and stay at home), the duty to “defend Islam” and “fight its enemies,” and so on. Grown-ups are not spared either, with omnipresent state media never losing a chance to hammer into them that Islam is the highest moral norm, and transnational Arab channels like Al-Jazeera engaging in constant “us-versus-them” rhetoric (“us” being Muslims and “them,” Westerns, of course). Even opposition parties (mostly made of Islamist groups) do nothing but double down on religious intransigence, hoping to outdo the—already bigoted—official institutions. In these conditions, the psychological pressure is such that opting out of Islam is unthinkable—or more accurately, unthought-of—for the vast majority of the people.

This is not to say that no one living in the swath of territory from Morocco to Indonesia adheres to Islam out of intimate conviction. Many obviously do. Yet as long as coercion isn’t replaced by freedom of choice, the extent to which these people can be truly identified with the Islamic faith is dubious. Flatly calling 1.6 billion people Muslims—even with the purpose of praising their moderation—only makes you the accomplice of their oppressors.

The same flawed assumptions are taking place in France. As a consequence of the horrendous Charlie Hebdo massacre perpetrated by local-born-and-bred religious fanatics, “French Muslims” are, once again, in the eye of the storm. Depending on the political sympathies of the commentator, they’re either guilty of moral association with terrorists or misunderstood moderates. But no one is letting them off the hook for their Muslimhood.

All sides of the debate presume that the five million citizens of North- and West-African descent, whose parents immigrated from former French colonies one or two generations ago, are Muslim. Many of these families are certainly religious by choice, but those who’d rather not be are afforded very little space to carry on with their secular lives—especially amidst so many well-meaning efforts to “understand” the immigrant communities’ “Muslim essence.” All this despite the fact that the French republic is supposedly blind to the religious affiliations of its citizens.

Secularism—actually, headscarf-banning laïcité, a more aggressive brand of it—is the cornerstone of modern France’s founding values. Alongside fine wines, exotic cheeses and relaxed sexual mores, its church-bashing culture (of which the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were the proud flag-bearers) is one of France’s main staples. Any French intellectual would gasp in horror at the assertion that 60 millions of his fellow citizens are Christians, yet president François Hollande lumps together the other five million to refer to them as “Muslims” (who should not be conflated with terrorists, yes, we know).

French citizens of North- or West-African origin have attended the same schools as their native countrymen; and they studied Voltaire and the enlightenment age just as much as them. Unless we consider that ethnicity impacts mental processes (the definition of racism) there is no reason to believe that France’s citizens of color are less receptive than others to the proud teachings of the école républicaine laïque. Yet the country’s common discourse singles them out as a religious group. Liberté Egalité Fraternité? Not really.

Westerners are rightly concerned about the danger posed by Islamic radicalism, but anxiously assessing the commitment of more than a billion people to religious moderation doesn’t help in any way. All it does is deepen the—already profound—misunderstanding.

When it comes to Islamic terrorism, the worthy social debate is about the way to drain its breeding ground. My two cents: promoting secular democracy in the so-called Muslim countries (and please, no need to bomb them for that—empowering local liberals is enough) would be a good place to start.

Ahmed Benchemsi is the editor in chief of FreeArabs.com. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

Balloons Replace Doves as the Vatican Symbol of Peace

Vatican Pope
Greogrio Borgia—AP Colored balloons released by children fly next to a statue at the end of the noon Angelus prayer recited by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Jan. 25, 2015.

After doves released last year were attacked

Children visiting the Vatican released balloons instead of doves Sunday in a ritual that serves as a gesture of peace.

The change follows an incident last year when doves released together by children and Pope Francis were attacked by two other birds, a crow and a seagull, the Associated Press reports. The episode created unwanted attention for the Pope, who is named for animal lover Francis of Assisi.

“Here’s the balloons that mean, ‘peace,'” Pope Francis said Sunday as children released the balloons. Pope John Paul II began the tradition of releasing doves to acknowledge efforts for peace worldwide.

[AP]

TIME faith

Pope Francis to Families: Get Off Your Screens and Actually Talk to Each Other

VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCE
Andreas Solaro—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis waves to faithful as he arrives for the private Audience to the Accountants and Accounting Experts in Aula Paolo VI at the Vatican, on November 14, 2014.

The Pontiff says technology should be used to enable conversation, not hinder it

Pope Francis wants families to know that technology isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

“By growing daily in our awareness of the vital importance of encountering others, we will employ technology wisely, rather than letting ourselves be dominated by it,” the Pontiff said Friday in his annual message for World Communications Day.

In other words, cut down on your screen time, kids.

Not that mothers and fathers aren’t beyond reproach: “Parents are the primary educators,” he said, “but they cannot be left to their own devices.”

“The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that ‘silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist,'” Pope Francis said.

This isn’t the first time the Pope has implied those family-centric Apple ads might be misleading. “Maybe many young people waste too many hours on futile things,” like “chatting on the Internet or with smartphones,” he said last year.

Even in 1967, long before the dawn of the selfie, Pope Paul VI remarked upon the rapidly expanding world of communications, noting how television and other media leave “their deep mark upon the mentality and the conscience of man who is being pressed and almost overpowered by a multiplicity of contradictory appeals.”

It’s like they say in Proverbs 18:2: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion [on Twitter].”

TIME Religion

Pro-Life Is More Than Being Pro-Birth

Christopher Hale is executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

For the pro-life movement to be successful, it must expand its agenda.

As the 42nd Annual March for Life commences in Washington today, thousands of Americans will descend on Capitol Hill to protest legalized abortion in the United States. Their concern is just, and their protest is appropriate. For decades, our leaders in government have promoted policies that perpetuate a culture of exclusion toward the unborn. It’s unconscionable that in 2015 in the United States of America the death of an unborn child is still considered a measure of progress.

Sadly, the pro-life movement has been largely unsuccessful in changing the minds and hearts of the American public. Four decades after the Roe v. Wade decision, a majority of Americans support abortion rights.

Perhaps it’s because too often this venerable movement has been associated with partisan politics. But if understood correctly, this crucial social justice issue should be at the heart of both of the progressive and conservative agenda. Progressives believe in a big society, where no one is excluded and no one is left behind. And conservatives believe in the the dignity and autonomy of each individual person. Both of these political paradigms should include a home for the unborn.

But for the pro-life movement to be more successful going forward — especially among young people — it must shift directions and expand its agenda.

To be truly pro-life, we cannot simply support a child’s right to be born, but also the right of the mother to expect substantial support from her community and from her government. We can’t be pro-life and anti-woman. It doesn’t work. And we can’t be pro-life and anti-government. It doesn’t work.

And to be truly pro-life, we must realize that the attacks on human life might begin at conception, but they don’t end there. In today’s world, being pro-life must be more than being pro-birth. In this economy that kills, we must acknowledge that anyone who isn’t seen as valuable in the economic advancement to the United States is often left behind, including the unborn, but also the elderly, the poor, the immigrant, and the uninsured. These excluded persons must too be at the heart of the pro-life movement.

It’s simple in the end: When you support the immigrant, you support life. When you support economic justice, you support life. And when you support universal health care rights, you support life.

If today’s anti-abortion movement transforms into tomorrow’s pro-life movement, it can transcend the ideological divisions that plague our nation and proclaim a simple truth that can bind our people — especially the young — together: that everyone deserves a life, a family, and a future. But to do so, this pro-life generation must protect every person’s right to live, not just be born.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

These Are the Most Godless Cities in America

Boston
Getty Images Boston, Mass.

Based on how much residents read the Bible

At the end of the age, according to Matthew, the angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous. Well, they should have an easy time of it: The wicked are, roughly speaking, already somewhere north of St. Louis.

That’s where the least “Bible-minded” cities are in America, at least according to a study released Wednesday by the American Bible Society.

Cities in the Northeast appear to have strayed furthest from the upright path, with wicked dens of iniquity like Providence, R.I., New Bedford, Mass., Albany, N.Y., and Boston, Mass., leading the list for least Bible-minded. Also on the naughty list are San Francisco, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and gambler’s haven Las Vegas.

The American Bible Society measures “Bible-mindedness” by how strictly survey respondents read the book and believe in its accuracy. A spokesperson told TIME last year that the study poses respondents the question, “How many times do you read the bible outside of church or a synagogue?”

The most Bible-minded respondents say they read the Bible in the last week and believe strongly that it is accurate. The top city for biblical stricture was Birmingham, Ala., followed by Chattanooga, Tenn. All the 10 most-Bible-minded cities are, naturally, somewhere in the Bible Belt.

The American Bible Society found that only 27% of Americans are Bible-minded.

The data was based up on telephone and online interviews with 62,896 adults over a 10-year period ending in August 2014.

Read next: How Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds on Gay Marriage

TIME portfolio

Exploring the Mawlids of Egypt

Cairo-based photographer Mosa'ab Elshamy goes inside the spiritual celebrations

It was late 2013 when Mosa’ab Elshamy wandered back into the Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo. As a young boy, the photographer, who recently joined the Associated Press, accompanied his grandmother as she and others worshipped. Some people were holding onto the shrine of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, while others were reciting passages from the Quran or weeping openly. “Inside, it doesn’t really feel like time has passed. The emotions that are there, the sounds that you hear—you can walk in and it’s going to feel exactly the same,” he tells TIME. Outside, the differences are apparent: more cafés, more traffic, more security.

Elshamy was looking for something to photograph that was a bit less restrictive than Cairo’s streets had become after Egypt’s revolution in 2011. And he found it. For more than a year, he documented the celebrations, or Mawlids, of saints and other holy figures of the Sufis around the country, marking his longest personal project to date.

Some 15 million of Egypt’s 90 million people are followers of the mystical Sufi philosophy of Islam. Worshippers at the Mawlids greet the shrines throughout the year to talk about their wrongdoings in the hopes that they can absolve them of their sins, Elshamy says. Many people will also go to ask for things, like women struggling to have children or men who cannot find jobs. Those who reject this religious philosophy say it’s a form of shirk, or idolatry, that has no place in Islam. (Attacks against shrines aren’t uncommon, especially in areas controlled by radical extremists.)

Part of what attracted Elshamy to the observances is the intimacy and spirituality of it all, displayed in ways that aren’t usually seen elsewhere in Egypt. “You don’t [typically] get that image of men, but here you see people almost publicly being proud of this vulnerability,” he says, “and I thought that was great.” Another main reason are the celebrations that surround them. Prayers and emotions displayed inside the mosques are met with rowdy festivities outside, including playgrounds and vendors, musicians and dancers. “It’s a lot bigger than just a religious celebration.”

The last Mawlid he photographed this past October was at the shrine of Abul-Hassan Al-Shazly. He was buried where he died—in Humaithara, of the Red Sea Governorate—and the mosque was built around him, so his worshippers travel there every year to honor him. Part of the celebration, Elshamy says, involves climbing one of the mountains the religious figure apparently stepped on, each day near sunset, then praying and singing while overlooking the mosque before descending to spend the night around the complex.

The weeklong celebration can coincide with the ‘Id al-Adha festival, so they’ll mark that occasion at the same time.

Elshamy says the project is what restored his faith after “a very tough year” in photography. “It was the year [when] many colleagues left Egypt or stopped photographing or switched to a more comfortable genre. I think everybody had to adapt in a way, when it was obvious how much more difficult it is becoming to just be on a street with a camera, or just try to document a protest or a clash.” This was his way of adapting, shooting something that was new and non-political and that he could continue to do freely.

“In a way this has been a bit of a silver lining, to discover things like this scene that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to,” he says. It all goes back to why he takes photos in the first place: “Seeing for yourself and keeping a record of what you see.”

Mosa’ab Elshamy is Cairo-based staff photographer with the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter @mosaaberizing. Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism. Andrew Katz is a homepage editor and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz.

TIME Religion

Pope Francis Confirms He Will Visit DC, NYC and Philly

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile after leading a Mass at Rizal Park in Manila
Erik De Castro—Reuters Pope Francis waves from the popemobile after leading a Mass at Rizal Park in Manila on Jan. 18, 2015.

His itinerary may include a Mass at Madison Square Garden

Pope Francis confirmed Monday that his trip to the United States this fall will include stops in Washington and New York City, in addition to the previously announced visit to Philadelphia.

Details of his itinerary are in the early planning stages, but organizers are already talking about appearances at the White House, the United Nations and Ground Zero, and even a Mass at Madison Square Garden.

One thing that is not in question: American Catholics can’t wait to play host to the hugely popular people’s pontiff…

Read more about this story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Ireland

Irish Minister for Health Announces He’s Gay

Irish Health minister Leo Varadkar, 36, who has publicly come out as gay, pictured here on Dec. 27, 2013.
Brian Lawless—Press Association/AP Irish Health minister Leo Varadkar, 36, who has publicly come out as gay, pictured here on Dec. 27, 2013.

The country is set to hold a referedum on marriage equality in May

Just months before Ireland is due to hold a referendum on marriage equality, the country’s minister for health has come out during a radio interview. Leo Varadkar told RTÉ Radio 1, an Irish radio station, that he was gay and would be campaigning in support of same-sex marriage in the lead up to the referendum in May.

“It’s not a secret — but not something that everyone would necessarily know, but it isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before,” he said during the Jan. 18 interview. “I just kind of want to be honest with people. I don’t want anyone to think that I have a hidden agenda.”

He added: “I’d like the referendum to pass because I’d like to be an equal citizen in my own country, the country in which I happen to be a member of Government, and at the moment I’m not.”

Ireland decriminalized homosexuality 22 years ago and same-sex couples have been able to enter a civil partnership since 2011, but not marry.

[RTÉ]

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