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Sunday, January 28, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Atheist truth

Steve Vallee has never been afraid to jump into something to understand it. During his senior year of high school, he took all but six weeks of classes to be ordained as a Catholic priest. When he moved to Colorado, he joined the Emissaries of Divine Light in Loveland. And when he had a young daughter, he became a deacon in the United Church of Christ in New Hampshire.

"I tried a lot of different systems. Every time there was something ... but not enough," Vallee said.

Today, he is a member of the Northern Colorado Freethinkers, a group of atheists, agnostics and other religiously unaffiliated people who explore their disbelief in a higher power each month.

The freethinkers are a minority in this country, where only 3 percent of people say they don't believe in God, according to a University of Minnesota study.

Atheists are often viewed as untrustworthy people who Americans associate with moral indiscretions from criminal behavior to cultural elitism, the study concluded.

But the freethinkers say that's an unfair stereotype, not a true characterization of the atheists they know or the lives they themselves lead. They say atheists are moral, thoughtful people who contribute to society, not because God wants them to, but because it's the right thing to do.

Vallee, 62, is an administrator for Qwest satellite television. He's not a political junky, but he spends his free time reading philosophy books and surfing the Internet for answers to his innumerable questions. On his end table this week is a copy of "Freedom Evolves" by Daniel Dennett.

He grew up in a strictly religious Roman Catholic family, attending religious schools through college. Vallee always had questions about his faith, but he explored them by delving deeper instead of running away. That is how he ended up in the seminary.

He spent an entire year learning from priests teaching the word of God. But what he heard differed from what he saw. While instructors spoke badly of women, they turned their head from homosexuality going on at the seminary. He also heard that God loved him, but he saw others practicing self-flagellation in the name of faith. "My teenage mind said 'no bloody way.' I didn't accept that," he said.

Although Vallee ran from the priesthood, he continued to explore Christianity. He joined the liberal United Church of Christ so that his daughter would have a religious foundation.

"I would say it was a long metamorphosis," Vallee said of becoming a nontheist. "I had sort of nagging doubts. I got to the point where it doesn't really make sense, and there isn't sufficient evidence. I wouldn't say I would completely reject the idea (of God), just that there's no good evidence to support it."

But simply because in his 62 years Vallee hasn't found an answer, doesn't mean he's giving up. Vallee continues to explore the question of existence. He's driven by the same curiosity as a scientist. "I want an answer ... I can't sit still and say 'gee, I don't know tough. I'll ignore it.' I have to keep looking. I have to keep trying."


Growing up with a Quaker mother and an Episcopalian father, Mark Rogers' family was also religious. In his 20s, he stopped attending church because he felt he had better things to do with his time.

"There wasn't one day that I woke up and said, 'Hey, you know what? I don't think there's a God," he said of becoming an atheist.

But there was a moment when he decided to be proactive in his disbelief. When Rogers moved to northern Colorado, he was inspired by the faith community. "Because of the overwhelming presence of warehouse churches ... it just kind of seemed necessary when I moved here to say 'Hey, wait a second, there are other people here, too.' " Rogers said.

As a computational biologist, Rogers fits the mold of atheist as Darwinist. But he believes his scientific interests enhance his ability to appreciate the world and have spiritual experiences.

When Rogers lived in southeastern Pennsylvania, he visited the same botanical garden every week. He became familiar with every plant and path, and the more he knew about the way the ecosystem worked, the more spiritual the experience became. "The more you learn about the universe, the more fascinating and awe inspiring it becomes. The speed with which our bodies replicate DNA is just amazing," Rogers said.

Rogers admits there are lazy atheists out there who have dismissed the idea of religion without giving it much thought. But there are also active atheists. "They reinvigorate their interest in the idea of religions and study it a bit more and have an understanding of why they believe the way they do," he said.

Rogers reads a lot. And he recently read a study that found there was no correlation between a faithful nation and morality. Social scientist Gregory Paul compared social indicators for several nations and found that those with higher rates of belief also had higher homicide, teen pregnancy and abortion rates. "The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator," Paul said.


Bob Michael, 60, joined the freethinkers two years ago, after moving to Fort Collins from Santa Barbara, Calif. There, he was a member of the humanist society, an even larger, more organized group of atheists and agnostics.

In his membership in both society's, he's found atheists to be well-meaning, thoughtful people. Sure, he's met the arrogant, angry atheist, but he finds the notion ridiculous that atheists are inherently bad people .

"We're not a bunch of people who go off by themselves and hate everybody else, and have contempt for people who might be religious," he said. "We do good works, not because Jesus wants us to -- but because we want to."

The freethinkers, in fact, have a charity arm. They're developing a program to adopt a school, providing supplies and donations to support disadvantaged children. Michael said the freethinkers developed the program to show that churches aren't the only groups that do good for society.

But the stereotype that the unfaithful give less isn't wholly untrue, according to a recent study. Researcher Arthur Brooks found that the faithful give four times more money annually than the secular population. However, most of that money is going to the church and stays there to pay for things such as music and technology, according to the Christian research organization Empty Tomb, Inc.

Either way, Michael said atheists appreciate the contributions religious groups make to society, as well as their right to believe.

"I don't preach to know everything, maybe there is a supreme being. But I'm not going to pound the table and say 'Damn it. There is no God!'" Michael said. "We don't know why the universe exists or why we're here."

In their words

"I think people expect ... an atheist to look like a communist or child molester not just a normal average guy. They expect that normal average people believe in God and worship Jesus."

-- Bob Michael, Freethinkers of Northern Colorado

"Imagine for a moment that there is no God. Just consider what would happen, what would it mean, if there wasn't a God ... What would they do about problems of poverty and hunger? How would they deal with it, if they couldn't pray for changes?"

-- Mark Rogers, Freethinkers of Northern Colorado

"They found something that will get them through a cold dark night, and I do not begrudge them that at all. Whatever will get you through a hard time, if that works for you, then have at it. But it's not a one-size-fits-everybody kind of thing."

-- Steve Vallee, Freethinkers of Northern Colorado

An Atheist's Reading list

Here are some of the books the sources in this article recommended for more insight:

» "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins.

» "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris.

» "Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist" by Dan Barker.

» "The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan.

» "Women Without Superstition: No Gods - No Masters" by Annie L. Gaylot.

» "Freethinkers" by Susan Jacoby.


Saturday, January 27, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Happy 270th Birthday Tom Paine -- Jan. 29, 1737

by Nick Gier

In 1975 America was preparing to celebrate its Bicentennial, and I wanted to write something special for the occasion. There was a program on NPR in which Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as calling Tom Paine "a dirty little atheist."

That comment definitely piqued my interest, and I decided that I would research the religious views of our founding thinkers. The result was an article "Religious Liberalism and the Founding Fathers," which I presented at the Bicentennial Symposium of Philosophy in New York City in October of 1976.

Thomas Paine
did more for the success of the American Revolution than any other thinker. As Lafayette once said, "Free America without Thomas Paine is unthinkable." Practically every literate American read Paine's "Common Sense." The illiterate, among whom were many of Washington's soldiers, were indirectly inspired by it.

A later book by Paine, "Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology," was also widely read, but this time Americans, in an incredible display of religious intolerance, turned against the great patriot.

Paine quickly realized that, contrary to his prediction, the revolution for complete religious liberty and freedom of thought had not followed upon the heels of the political revolution.

Paine's reputation did not improve as Americans, who knew "Age of Reason," looked back in retrospect. As I said above, Theodore Roosevelt condemned Paine as an atheist and also declared: "There are infidels and infidels, but Paine belonged to the variety ... that apparently esteems a bladder of dirty water as the proper weapon with which to assail Christianity."

If one reads "Age of Reason," one must agree that Paine's criticism of Christianity is not a model of diplomatic scholarship. The tone of the book is aptly portrayed in this statement concerning the virgin birth: "Jesus Christ, begotten, they say, by a ghost, whom they call holy, on the body of a woman, engaged in marriage, and after married . . . a theory which, speaking for myself, I hesitate not to disbelieve, and to say, is as fabulous and false as God is true."

Behind this irreverent rhetoric, there are some interesting and, for some who read it, compelling points. Paine makes it clear that he is not an atheist. In fact, he claims that his book is designed to counter the effects of atheism. In his opinion, Christianity is founded on such poor arguments that it, rather than subduing atheism, unwittingly promotes its spread in the world.

The first axiom of Paine's theology is that there is God and his creation and "no more." What he meant by this "no more" is this: no more idolatry of the Bible as the Word of God, no more deification of Jesus the man and moral teacher, no miracles, no angels, no Hell, no original sin, and no Trinity. All of these additions to the first axiom are erroneous or mythical, and are actually detrimental to the cause of religion.

Perhaps the most interesting points that Paine makes in "Age of Reason" are the objections he raises against the concept of Revelation. Orthodox Christians take the entire Bible as pure Revelation, a direct and immediate message from God. Paine observes, however, that most of the Bible is straightforward historical fact or fancy that is not of this character at all.

For Paine true Revelation is nature itself. Human language cannot serve as God's medium; it is too fragile and inadequate. Nature, however, is "an ever-existing original which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God."

The full implication of this theory is Paine's declaration that the true language of religion was the language of science. Paine sums up his religious creed in this statement: "The Almighty Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and imitation. It is as if He said to the inhabitants of this globe, that we call ours, 'I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, and learn from my munificence to all, to be kind to each other.' "

Such was the New Gospel of the great patriot, Thomas Paine. But because of this new gospel, Paine was vilified by a people whom he had helped to become free. Religious liberals such as John Adams rejected him; the sponsor for his return to America, Thomas Jefferson, who agreed with his religious views, shunned him out of political expediency; and his own Quakers refused to bury him. There were only six people at his funeral and two of them were African Americans.

Tom Paine, the voice of the American Revolution, deserved much, much better than this.

Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read his essay "Religious Liberalism and the Founding Fathers" at Read or listen to his other columns at

Calls going out to make accusing a child of witchcraft illegal

(ASSODIGITALE) Campaigners are calling for a change in the law to make it a criminal offence to demonise a child, after police told the BBC that they are unable to charge an African pastor who accused children of witchcraft in this country.

Pastor Dieudonne Tukala
was arrested on suspicion of inciting child cruelty last January following an investigation by the Today programme in conjunction with Newsnight.

Last year, a BBC investigation broadcast connected Pastor Dieudonne Tukala to a case where a father branded his son with an iron because he believed the child was a witch.

The investigation also spoke to other parents who said Tukala told them to send their children back to Africa where he could pray for them to die.

So called "child witches" have been murdered in some African countries.

The Metropolitan Police launched what it describes as a "robust and exhaustive" inquiry. But after ten months of investigation no charges have been brought. It is not against the law to accuse a child of witchcraft – neither is praying for a child to die.

Debbie Ariyo, Director of charity AFRUCA tells the programme "You're telling a child that you've been responsible for killing people, destroying people's lives – that does actually constitute emotional abuse."

Asked if it should constitute a criminal offence she replies " I think it should, because basically what we are doing, is that we are destroying children's futures we're destroying lives. So you know if we allow things like this to continue basically we're sanctioning what's happening..."

Questioned on whether she thinks these religious leaders should face jail Ms Ariyo answers: "I think they should because a church, a mosque, they are all places of worship, they are places of sanctuary.

"If there are pastors who are conducting activities that impact negatively on children, then they are committing an offence and they should be jailed – they should be punished."

Since January 2000, the Metropolitan Police has dealt with 88 allegations of what it calls ritualistic abuse.

The only cases to come to court have tried parents or carers – Victoria Climbie – Child B – and other cases of extreme violence. As yet no pastor has been charged as a result of their involvement.

In the interview with Tukala, reporter Angus Stickler asks him if he ever saw the boy who was branded with a steam iron. He answers, "no". Pressed on whether he himself had ever accused a child of Kendoki (witchcraft) he replies, "no".

Tukala is shown stills and photographs taken from a video of one of his services showing him boasting about how he had a child sent back to Kinshasa and of him recounting the story of a boy he accused of being possessed.

In the video he dangles a tangle of electrical flexes – satanic tools he says the boy was using to kill an unborn child.

Tukala says that Angus has been misled and that on this day he was preaching under the anointment of God and was not talking about Kendoki.


Thursday, January 25, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Dr. Dino sentenced to 10 years for tax evasion

A newly remorseful Pensacola evangelist, who still disputes the government's right to make him pay taxes, was sentenced Friday afternoon to 10 years in prison on federal tax charges.

His wife, Jo, will be sentenced March 1 on charges of evading bank-reporting requirements.

Before his sentencing, a tearful Kent Hovind compared his situation to that of the lion and the mouse in Aesop's Fables.

"I feel like the mouse," Hovind told U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers. "I stand here in great fear of the power of this court. Your decision can destroy my life, my ministry and my grandchildren."

Hovind's courtroom comments were in stark contrast to more-combative statements he made in recent telephone calls from Escambia County Jail.

In a recording of one of the telephone conversations played in court Friday, Hovind said the Internal Revenue Service, presiding judge and prosecutor broke the law by going after him, and there were things he could do "to make their lives miserable."

Comparing himself to a buffalo in a lion fight, Hovind's voice was heard saying "As long as I have some horns, I'm going to swing. As long as I have some hoofs, I'm going to kick. As long as I have some teeth, I'm going to fight. The lion's going to know he's been in a fight."

In November, a jury found Kent Hovind guilty on 58 federal counts, including failure to pay $845,000 in employee-related taxes. Jo Hovind was convicted of 44 of the counts that involved evading bank-reporting requirements.

Jo Hovind's sentencing was postponed by Rodgers to allow defense and prosecution attorneys to argue sentencing guidelines.

Kent Hovind, owner of Creation Science Evangelism and Dinosaur Adventure Land on North Palafox Street in Pensacola, has maintained he owes no taxes because everything he owns belongs to God.

During his trial, Kent Hovind was characterized as a tax protester who paid his employees in cash and labeled them "missionaries" to avoid payroll tax and FICA requirements.

Accused of failing to pay $473,818 in federal income, Social Security and Medicare taxes between March 31, 2001 and Jan. 31, 2004, Kent Hovind maintains he has broken no laws.

"I am not a tax protester and never have been," Kent Hovind told Rodgers. "The laws are just fine. It is just that some are enforcing laws that are not there."

The recordings, compiled by the IRS from phone conversations from jail, showed Kent Hovind was trying to hide assets from the government, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Heldmyer said.

In one phone conversation played in court, Kent Hovind was heard to advise a business partner to put only "what you can afford to lose" in a church account.

The court was packed with the Hovinds' supporters and spilled into the lobby for lack of seating. During a break, several gathered in a circle, held hands and prayed.

A creationist who believes dinosaurs and modern man walked the earth together, Kent Hovind has traveled the world debating evolutionists and giving lectures. His theme is dedicated to creationism.

Several people testified on Kent Hovind's behalf and described him as a man of honesty and integrity whose beliefs are sincere.

"My father is not a man who is in love with money. He's in love with God," son Eric Hovind said. "He is a man who loves this country and loves others."

When handing down the sentence, Rodgers admonished those present the trial "is not and has never been about religion."

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that churches are not exempt from paying employment taxes, she explained, and what happened was a result of Kent Hovind "refusing to accept what the law is."

Furthermore, Rodgers contended Kent Hovind had failed his fellow citizens and the men and women of the military -- who fight to defend his freedoms -- by refusing to pay taxes.

"With these rights and privileges comes a great responsibility and one of those responsibilities is to pay taxes," Rodgers said.

The sentence follows on the heels of Thursday's conviction of Pensacola residents Fred "Sport" Suttles and Mary R. Ham, on charges of tax fraud. Suttles was convicted on 10 counts of tax conspiracy to defraud the IRS, evasion of tax payments, failure to pay employee taxes and obstruction of due administration of tax revenue laws.

Most of the government's case against Suttles centered around the operation of his jewelry store, Diamond Brokers of Northwest Florida Inc., on U.S. 98 near Blue Angel Parkway.

Ham, with whom Suttles has a 17-year-old daughter, was a co-defendant on one charge of conspiracy to defraud the IRS.

IRS spokesman Norman Meadows said Hovind's case was not run of the mill and "tax protesters like this are a threat to the nation."


To see Hovind's official view on how things are going for him, visit

Friday, January 19, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor sentenced to 20 years for child sex-abuse

GREENWOOD, Mo. (ABP) -- In what the detective investigating it described as Missouri's biggest clergy sex-abuse to date, Shawn Davies, a 33-year-old former music and youth minister, was sentenced Jan. 12 to 20 years in prison for molesting children at First Baptist Church of Greenwood, Mo.

Davies was convicted of 25 counts of abuse dating from 2003. Charges included statutory sodomy, furnishing pornographic material to minors, supplying liquor to minors, sexual misconduct with a child under the age of 14, use of a child in sexual performance and endangering the welfare of a child.

Under a plea-bargain deal, Davies will serve the 20 years as concurrent sentences for crimes committed in Missouri and Kentucky.

Davies was earlier convicted of molesting children at three Kentucky Baptist churches. He had been serving jail time in Kentucky when authorities returned him to Jackson County, Mo., last year.

A sheriff's office in Kentucky began investigating Davies in 2001 after a boy told deputies his youth minister had shown him pornographic movies.

Police started the Missouri investigation in July 2005 after another boy came forward with charges of sexual molestation. All told, seven boys connected with the Greenwood church were abused, according to Greenwood detective Robert Leslie. Leslie said at least 13 victims total have come forward with allegations, including children in Missouri, Kentucky and Michigan.

"This man is a predator," Leslie said. "He is going to be a cancer to society unless he is locked up. I'm sure there are still other victims of Shawn's out there."

None of the victims were present at the sentencing, although Leslie said Davies apologized to some of the victims' parents who were in the courtroom.

Davies went to prison in December of 2005, but KCTV-5, the local CBS affiliate, ran an investigative story on the case a few months later. It indicated Davies may have abused at least two more boys at the Greenwood church before senior pastor Mike Roy fired him.

Lee Orth, chairman of the church's litigation committee, said KCTV's claim to have broken the story of new abuse was "total nonsense."

"The church right away took steps…as soon as this broke," he said. "Everybody was open about it. The reason why there wasn't a lot of talk about it was because of the victims," who were present in church services before the abuse was announced.

He said the investigation was “kind of low-key, but it was not hidden. It was talked about in the open. It was not at all swept [under] the rug."

Orth said the church fully cooperated with authorities and made professional counseling available to anyone who wanted it. The abuse was a tragedy for Davies' family and for the church, he said.

Leslie maintains he has reason to believe Roy may have known about some improprieties before he fired Davies, but Roy has declined to talk with authorities.

"It was mishandled," Orth said of Roy's decision not to talk. "Mike felt bad because it happened on his watch. He felt bad about that."

Roy hired Davies to lead music at the 165-year-old Greenwood church in 2003. They had known each other since 1998, when they both attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Roy, who has since left the Greenwood church, could not be reached for comment on this story. Bobby Albers, First Baptist's associate pastor, was unavailable for comment. Orth said a search committee has been formed to find a new pastor.

At the time the TV station publicized the case, David Clippard, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention, said his organization has no standard practice for dealing with clergy sexual abuse. But he noted that the MBC does help churches run background checks on employees.

"We have equipped our churches with the tools and the forms and the questions," Clippard said. "We have gone to great lengths to provide our churches with information on how to do background checks."

Ultimately, however, the individual church is accountable for its hiring policies, he added.

Leslie said officials have not launched a criminal investigation to determine if church leaders are guilty of harboring Davies after they knew about the abuse.

Still, several of the churches where Davies worked before being hired in Greenwood were open about his sexual problems, Leslie said. After obtaining a copy of Davies' resume and calling references listed there, Leslie said church leaders told him they were forthcoming in warning others about Davies' addiction to pornography and the fact that he "didn't work well with children."

But while past employers did not give Davies favorable job references, Davies had no problem continuing to get church jobs, Leslie said.

"It always hits the papers when a female teacher has sex with 14- or 13-year-old boys, but when a pastor sexually abuses … young boys, it's kept quiet," Leslie said. "If the first victim had come forward, it's possible that we wouldn't have these other victims today."


Tuesday, January 16, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Robertson Says "Only Those With Strong Religious Faith" Have Children

Pat Robertson, commenting on news that the population of Germany "fell for a fourth straight year and recorded its biggest drop since 1990," attributes the decline to the fact that it is "only those with strong religious faith who have children":
In order to have babies, you’ve got to have a hope in the future … If you don’t believe in God, if you have an existential view of life, if this life is all there is, then, as Peggy Lee sang "why don’t we break out the booze and have a ball?" Why do we go to all that trouble? It’s only those with strong religious faith who have children. That’s the truth.

Robertson goes on to say that Europe has lost its "central core of religious faith" and embraced the philosophy of existentialism and people have stopped having babies because they see no hope in the future. As such, Europe is becoming "statistically irrelevant" while the US, though its birthrate has declined as well, has made up for it by allowing a "wonderful flood of immigrants."


Monday, January 15, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Indicted priest living double life as married father?

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. -- A priest suspected of stealing more than $600,000 from two churches denies accusations in court documents that he was living a double life as a family man in a neighboring county.

The Rev. Rodney L. Rodis, 50, acknowledged that there is a woman and three girls that live at the home, but denied he was married and declined to comment if the children were his daughters, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Sunday. Rodis also said the woman he lives with knew he was a Catholic priest.

Rodis was indicted Monday on a felony embezzlement charge. A document included in papers committing Rodis to jail listed him as living with a wife and three children in Fredericksburg. It wasn't clear from the documents whether Rodis is the children's father.

The Catholic Diocese of Richmond was surprised to hear about Rodis' living arrangements, diocese lawyer William Etherington said, as were neighbors in the subdivision where the family had lived in a two-story brick home for at least eight years.

Neighbors said Rodis -- who lived with a woman he referred to as his wife and a daughter about 20, one in her early teens and another as young as 5 -- told them he was in the import-export business. They said he often was gone for days or weeks at a time.

The Spotsylvania County real estate assessment Web site lists Joyce Sillador as owner of the house, and neighbors said Rodis' wife's name was Joyce.

No one answered the phone at a number listed for the address.

The Most Rev. Francis X. DiLorenzo, bishop of the Richmond Diocese, already has suspended Rodis' faculties, meaning Rodis is not allowed to represent the diocese or perform priestly duties.

Rodis, a Philippine citizen, was pastor at St. Jude Catholic Church in Mineral and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Bumpass, both in Louisa County, until May, when he retired due to health problems.

An investigation began in November after church officials found that a donation to the parishes had not been recorded. Rodis allegedly set up a separate church bank account, where he funneled some donation money from September 2001 through October 2006, Etherington said.

Rodis appeared in Louisa General District Court on Thursday, when he agreed to surrender his passport as part of an agreement in which his bond was reduced from $100,000 to $10,000.

He is scheduled to appear in court again on Thursday. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

Rodis was ordained a priest in the Philippines in 1986 and has been living in the United States since 1991.

After coming to the Richmond diocese, Rodis served as parochial vicar at St. Mark Catholic Church in Virginia Beach for one year and then chaplain at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Newport News for a year before going to St. Jude and Immaculate Conception, parishes he had led since 1993.


Sunday, January 14, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi

You are a young documentary filmmaker with a reputation for capturing politicians' antics. In a deliberate departure from politics, your latest film is a road trip into the world of evangelical Christians that includes a drive-through church, a Christian wrestling federation, a stand-up Christian comic, an evangelical Elvis and a biblical miniature golf course complete with the empty tomb of Jesus.

It just so happens, though, that your designated tour guide in that world is the Rev. Ted Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals who, after your film is finished, is accused of buying illegal drugs from a male prostitute and paying him for sex. And your mother, it turns out, makes history by becoming the first female speaker of the House just weeks before your film is broadcast.

Those two big events are the back story for Alexandra Pelosi, whose film "Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi,'' is to be shown on HBO on Thursday, Jan. 25. The youngest child of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat sworn in earlier this month as speaker of the House, Alexandra Pelosi said the other day she worried that her film would not be received in an "open-minded way.''

People might love it or hate because of her mother or because of its association with Haggard, she said. But what she really wanted, Pelosi said, was to further the conversation about religion and culture.

"I believe in the culture war,'' she said. "And you know what? If I have to take a side in the culture war I'll take their side,'' meaning the Christian conservatives. "Because if you give me the choice of Paris Hilton or Jesus, I'll take Jesus.''

Pelosi wrote, directed and produced "Friends of God,'' which took her through 16 states and the District of Columbia with a small, hand-held camera. It is offered as a series of snapshots, she said, with a focus on conservative evangelicals, including the ministers Jerry Falwell and Joel Osteen. In the film, Haggard explains the allure of evangelical Christianity and extols the primacy of sex among evangelicals.

"I unfortunately chose the wrong leading man,'' Pelosi said of Haggard, whom she picked for his credibility. She liked him, she said, and they spent a great deal of time together.

"Pastor Ted was my tour guide,'' she said. "When I met him he was so reasonable and open, and he took me camping at Pikes Peak. He taught me how to shoot a gun at the top of Pikes Peak. I thought he was the most reasonable man I had met on the road.''

After his fall, Pelosi scurried back to the editing room, saddened.

"We had to take some stuff out,'' she said. "But you can't do an entire movie without the failed guy.''

Pelosi, 36, is best known for her films "Journeys With George'' (about George W. Bush) and "Diary of a Political Tourist'' (about Democratic presidential candidates).

"I would like to think that evangelicals would love this movie,'' she said, adding that she tried hard to make them look their best. "But a lot of them won't even watch it because they don't want to watch my mom's daughter's movie.''

The Rev. Leith Anderson, who replaced Haggard as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said he expected that evangelical Christians would decide to watch "Friends of God'' for the same reasons as other viewers: buzz and reviews.

"I hope more and more Americans realize there is a broad diversity of evangelicals, a diversity in race, politics and denominations,'' said Anderson, the senior pastor of the Wooddale Church in

Eden Prairie, Minn. "If that comes across in the documentary that's really good.''

"Friends of God'' opens with an on-screen declaration that the documentary (which Pelosi began shooting on her honeymoon in June 2005) was completed before Haggard's scandal.

Pelosi said she thought many viewers might want to sneak a peek at Haggard, the founder and former senior pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"You know, all the surveys say that evangelicals have the best sex life of any other group,'' Haggard says slyly to the camera, to which the effusive Pelosi responds, "No way.'' Haggard then asks a parishioner at his 14,000-member church how often he has sex with his wife. The man says: "Every day. Twice a day.''

Days before the Democrats captured the House and Senate, Haggard was dismissed by his church's board of overseers for "sexually immoral conduct.'' A male prostitute in Denver had said in a radio interview that Haggard had been a monthly customer and buyer of methamphetamines. Haggard responded that not all the accusations were true. But he stated in a letter read in his church that "enough of them are true that I have been appropriately and lovingly removed from ministry.''

Did Pelosi have any inkling that Haggard was not as-advertised?

"I did,'' she said. "People flock to the church for a reason. Some people flock to the church for a reason. It seemed like there was some reason he was so drawn to me. There was something in him. I mean, if he was a true red-state evangelical, we wouldn't have sort of clicked.'' And he never gay-bashed, she said.

But Pelosi said the film's point was that the evangelical Christian movement was big -- bigger than any one pastor.

"Depending on whom you ask, there could be between 50 and 80 million evangelical Christians in America,'' Pelosi says in "Friends.''

On the road, she said, she was repeatedly asked about her own beliefs. "I got saved five times a day,'' she said, describing herself as a believer in God and a lapsed Roman Catholic who dislikes church. But she and her husband, Michiel Vos, a journalist for Dutch media, intend to make certain that their son, Paul Michael Vos (born Nov. 13), goes to church, she said, so he would have "more than himself and capitalism to believe in.''

As a first-time mother, a fairly new wife and the sister of four siblings, Pelosi clearly has her own take on so-called family values. But at least one Pelosi never sees any of her work in advance but is invited to screenings like everyone else, she said.

"The last thing I need is her editing my film,'' Pelosi said cheerfully, talking about her mother. "She'll be subtle, the same way she comes to my house and says I need to drop one of the baby's feedings. You don't get to be speaker of the House by being subtle.''

Saturday, January 13, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor Arrested In Prostitution Sting

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The pastor of an Atlantic Beach church was arrested Wednesday as part of a prostitution sting.

According to police, Jerry Murrell, 28, pastor of Oceanside Church of Christ, was charged with soliciting for prositution after he approached an undercover vice officer posing as a prostitute in the 1600 block of Mayport Road.

The report said Murrell agreed to pay the woman $30 for intercourse.

The arrest report indicates that police have an audio recording of the exchange.

Murrell was booked into the Duval County jail, but posted bond and was released.


Pastor found guilty of sexual molestation

AMHERST VA — A local pastor was found guilty Thursday of molesting a teenage boy he was formerly tutoring.

The Rev. Kenneth Payne, 70, was charged with taking indecent liberties and sodomizing the 17-year-old.

Payne has preached at New Prospect Baptist Church in the Pleasant View area of Amherst County for the past 14 years.

Judge J. Michael Gamble heard Thursday’s nine-hour bench trail and found Payne guilty of taking indecent liberties and not guilty of sodomy.

Payne and the teenager met in May 2006 through the Homebound Learning program offered by the Amherst County school system.

Homebound Learning is for students who get in trouble, or are struggling in a traditional school environment. The teen entered the program last spring after he got caught with marijuana and was suspended from Amherst County High School.

The charges against Payne came after a May 25 meeting at the church where the teen said the pastor unzipped the victim’s pants and fondled him. He said shortly after that, the pastor sat down at waist level, clutched the teen’s buttocks and performed oral sex on him. He also testified that Payne licked him in the ear.

A state forensic scientist said Payne’s DNA was found on swabs taken from the victim’s ear.

Payne said the teen had shown up at the church unannounced that day and that he sensed the boy might be in trouble and needed comforting.

He testified that he put his arm around the teen and kissed him on the ear.

“I was looking at him with compassionate eyes, not passionate ones,” Payne said.

The teen said he sped away from the church in his car shortly afterward. He said Payne saw him leave, got into his car and chased him for a while before the teen got away.

Payne said the only reason he was following the teenager was because they had left the church at the same time and were both headed east to Madison Heights.

The victim’s grandmother said he called her after leaving the church and told her about the incident. The two later met up and went to see his mother who works in Madison Heights.

The boy’s mother testified that she saw her son after the incident.

“He was talking to me in a way that said, ‘Mama, you’ve got to believe me,’” she said.

Payne’s lawyer, John Falcone, said the teen’s version of the incident was not credible and had changed drastically since the time of the incident.

New Prospect church members, former co-workers and students testified on Payne’s behalf, saying he was a trustworthy person. While two former teachers testified that the teen had a reputation for lying.

Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Cary Payne argued that the inconsistencies were the result of a scared kid who was embarrassed and initially reluctant to talk about what had happened.

Cary Payne also called into question why the Rev. Payne called the administrative line at the sheriff’s department on May 25 instead of 911 if he thought the boy might be in danger. The Rev. Payne said that was a mistake, but that he did not do that so he could have time to think up a story about what had happened at the church.

Payne faces one to five years in prison when he’s sentenced March 14. He also will be required to register as a sex offender.


Monday, January 08, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

The holy blitzkrieg

The Christian right is a "deeply anti-democratic movement" that gains force by exploiting Americans' fears, argues Chris Hedges. Salon talks with the former New York Times reporter about his fearless new book, "American Fascists."

By Michelle Goldberg

Longtime war correspondent Chris Hedges, the former New York Times bureau chief in the Middle East and the Balkans, knows a lot about the savagery that people are capable of, especially when they're besotted with dreams of religious or national redemption. In his acclaimed 2002 book, "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," he wrote: "I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, shot at in the marshes of Southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held for a week by Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shiite rebellion following the Gulf War, strafed by Russian Mig-21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers, and shelled for days in Sarajevo with deafening rounds of heavy artillery that threw out thousands of deadly bits of iron fragments." Hedges was part of New York Times team of reporters that won a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting about global terrorism.

Given such intimacy with horror, one might expect him to be aloof from the seemingly less urgent cultural disputes that dominate domestic American politics. Yet in the rise of America's religious right, Hedges senses something akin to the brutal movements he's spent his life chronicling. The title of his new book speaks for itself: "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America." Scores of volumes about the religious right have recently been published (one of them, "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism," by me), but Hedges' book is perhaps the most furious and foreboding, all the more so because he knows what fascism looks like.

Part of his outrage is theological. The son of a Presbyterian minister and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Hedges once planned to join the clergy himself. He speaks of the preachers he encountered while researching "American Fascists" as heretics, and he's appalled at their desecration of a faith he still cherishes, even if he no longer totally embraces it. Writing of Ohio megachurch pastor Rod Parsley and his close associate, GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, he says, "[T]he heart of the Christian religion, all that is good and compassionate within it, has been tossed aside, ruthlessly gouged out and thrown into a heap with all the other inner organs. Only the shell, the form, remains. Christianity is of no use to Parsley, Blackwell and the others. In its name they kill it."

I first met Hedges at last spring's War on Christians conference in Washington, D.C., where Parsley, a wildly charismatic Pentecostal who loves the language of holy war, electrified the crowd. ("I came to incite a riot!" he shouted. "Man your battle stations! Ready your weapons! Lock and load!") It was shortly before the publication of my book, and as Hedges and I spoke, we realized we had similar takes on our subject. Both of us relied on Hannah Arendt's analysis of totalitarian movements in their early stages, and on some of the concepts that historian Robert O. Paxton elucidated in his book "The Anatomy of Fascism." But where I, anxious not to be seen as hysterical, tried to treat these ideas gingerly, Hedges is unabashed and unsparing. His rage and contempt for the movement's leaders, though, is matched by sympathy for its followers, because he understands the despair, the desperate longing for community and even the idealism that often drives them.

Hedges spoke to me on the phone from his home in New Jersey.

Let's start with the title. A lot of liberals who write about the right see echoes of fascism in its rhetoric and organizing, but we tiptoe around it, because we don't want people to think that we're comparing James Dobson to Hitler or America to Weimar Germany. You, though, decided to be very bold in your comparisons to fascism.

You're right, "fascism" or "fascist" is a terribly loaded word, and it evokes a historical period, primarily that of the Nazis, and to a lesser extent Mussolini. But fascism as an ideology has generic qualities. People like Robert O. Paxton in the "Anatomy of Fascism" have tried to quantify them. Umberto Eco did it in "Five Moral Pieces," and I actually begin the book with an excerpt from Eco: "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt." I think there are enough generic qualities that the group within the religious right, known as Christian Reconstructionists or dominionists, warrants the word. Does this mean that this is Nazi Germany? No. Does this mean that this is Mussolini's Italy? No. Does this mean that this is a deeply anti-democratic movement that would like to impose a totalitarian system? Yes.

You know, I come out of the church. I not only grew up in the church but graduated from seminary, and I look at this as a mass movement. I give it very little religious legitimacy, especially the extreme wing of it.

You say they would like to impose a totalitarian system. How much of a conscious goal do you think that is at the upper levels of organizing, with, say, somebody like Rod Parsley?

I think they're completely conscious of it. The level of manipulation is quite sophisticated. These people understand the medium of television, they understand the despair and brokenness of the people they appeal to, and how to manipulate them both for personal and financial gain. I look at these figures, and I would certainly throw James Dobson in there, or Pat Robertson, as really dark figures.

I think the vast majority of followers have no idea. There's an earnestness to many of the believers. I had the same experience you did -- I went in there prepared to really dislike these people and most of them just broke my heart. They're well meaning. Unfortunately, they're being manipulated and herded into a movement that's extremely dangerous. If these extreme elements actually manage to achieve power, they will horrify [their followers] in many ways. But that's true with all revolutionary movements.

The core of this movement is tiny, but you only need a tiny, disciplined, well-funded and well-organized group, and then you count on the sympathy of 80 million to 100 million evangelicals. And that's enough. Especially if you don't have countervailing forces, which we don't.

If there's a historical period that's analogous to the situation we have now, it would come close to being the 1930s in the United States. Obviously we're not in a depression, but the situation for the working class is very bleak, and the middle class is under assault. There has been a kind of Weimarization of the American working class, and there's a terrible instability in the middle class. And if we enter a period of political and social instability, this gives this movement the opportunity it's been waiting for. But it needs a crisis. All of these movements need a crisis to come to power, and we're not in a period of crisis.

How likely do you think a crisis is?

Very likely. The economy is not in healthy shape. I covered al-Qaida for a year for the New York Times. Every intelligence official I ever interviewed never talked about if, they only talked about when. They spoke about another catastrophic attack as an inevitability. The possibility of entering a period of instability is great, and then these movements become very frightening.

The difference between the 1930s and now is that we had powerful progressive forces through the labor unions, through an independent and vigorous press. I forget the figure but something like 80 percent of the media is controlled by seven corporations, something horrible like that. Television is just bankrupt. I worry that we don't have the organized forces within American society to protect our democracy in the way that we did in the 1930s.

Since the midterm election, many have suggested that the Christian right has peaked, and the movement has in fact suffered quite a few severe blows since both of our books came out.

It's suffered severe blows in the past too. It depends on how you view the engine of the movement. For me, the engine of the movement is deep economic and personal despair. A terrible distortion and deformation of American society, where tens of millions of people in this country feel completely disenfranchised, where their physical communities have been obliterated, whether that's in the Rust Belt in Ohio or these monstrous exurbs like Orange County, where there is no community. There are no community rituals, no community centers, often there are no sidewalks. People live in empty soulless houses and drive big empty cars on freeways to Los Angeles and sit in vast offices and then come home again. You can't deform your society to that extent, and you can't shunt people aside and rip away any kind of safety net, any kind of program that gives them hope, and not expect political consequences.

Democracies function because the vast majority live relatively stable lives with a degree of hope, and, if not economic prosperity, at least enough of an income to free them from severe want or instability. Whatever the Democrats say now about the war, they're not addressing the fundamental issues that have given rise to this movement.

But isn't there are a change in the Democratic Party, now that it's talking about class issues and economic issues more so than in the past?

Yes, but how far are they willing to go? The corporations that fund the Republican Party fund them. I don't hear anybody talking about repealing the bankruptcy bill, just like I don't hear them talking about torture. The Democrats recognize the problem, but I don't see anyone offering any kind of solutions that will begin to re-enfranchise people into American society. The fact that they can't get even get healthcare through is pretty depressing.

The argument you're now making sounds in some ways like Tom Frank's, which is basically that support for the religious right represents a kind of misdirected class warfare. But your book struck me differently -- it seemed to be much more about what this movement offers people psychologically.

Yeah, the economic is part of it, but you have large sections of the middle class that are bulwarks within this movement, so obviously the economic part isn't enough. The reason the catastrophic loss of manufacturing jobs is important is not so much the economic deprivation but the social consequences of that deprivation. The breakdown of community is really at the core here. When people lose job stability, when they work for $16 an hour and don't have health insurance, and nobody funds their public schools and nobody fixes their infrastructure, that has direct consequences into how the life of their community is led.

I know firsthand because my family comes from a working-class town in Maine that has suffered exactly this kind of deterioration. You pick up the local paper and the weekly police blotter is just DWIs and domestic violence. We've shattered these lives, and it isn't always economic. That's where I guess I would differ with Frank. It's really the destruction of the possibility of community, and of course economic deprivation goes a long way to doing that. But corporate America has done a pretty good job of destroying community too, which is why the largest growth areas are the exurbs, where people have a higher standard of living, but live fairly bleak and empty lives.

In the beginning of the book, you write briefly about covering wars in Latin America, the Middle East and the Balkans. How did that shape the way you understand these social forces in America? What similarities do you see?

When I covered the war in the Balkans, there was always the canard that this was a war about ancient ethnic hatreds that was taken from Robert Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts." That was not a war about ancient ethnic hatreds. It was a war that was fueled primarily by the economic collapse of Yugoslavia. Milosevic and Tudman, and to a lesser extent Izetbegovic, would not have been possible in a stable Yugoslavia.

When I first covered Hamas in 1988, it was a very marginal organization with very little power or reach. I watched Hamas grow. Although I came later to the Balkans, I had a good understanding of how Milosevic built his Serbian nationalist movement. These radical movements share a lot of ideological traits with the Christian right, including that cult of masculinity, that cult of power, rampant nationalism fused with religious chauvinism. I find a lot of parallels.

People have a very hard time believing the status quo of their existence, or the world around them, can ever change. There's a kind of psychological inability to accept how fragile open societies are. When I was in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, at the start of the war, I would meet with incredibly well-educated, multilingual Kosovar Albanian friends in the cafes. I would tell them that in the countryside there were armed groups of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who I'd met, and they would insist that the Kosovo Liberation Army didn't exist, that it was just a creation of the Serb police to justify repression.

You saw the same thing in the cafe society in Sarajevo on the eve of the war in Bosnia. Radovan Karadzic or even Milosevic were buffoonish figures to most Yugoslavs, and were therefore, especially among the educated elite, never taken seriously. There was a kind of blindness caused by their intellectual snobbery, their inability to understand what was happening. I think we have the same experience here. Those of us in New York, Boston, San Francisco or some of these urban pockets don't understand how radically changed our country is, don't understand the appeal of these buffoonish figures to tens of millions of Americans.

But don't you feel like the tipping point is still quite a way off? Speaking personally, when I've read about totalitarian movements, I've always imagined that I'd know enough to pack up and go. That would seem to be a very premature thing to do here.

Well, most people didn't pack up and go. The people who packed up and left were the exception, and most people thought they were crazy. My friends in Pristina had no idea what was going on in Kosovo until they were literally herded down to the train station and pushed into boxcars and shipped like cattle to Macedonia. And that's not because they weren't intelligent or perceptive. It was because, like all of us, they couldn't comprehend how fragile the world was around them, and how radically and quickly it could change. I think that's a human phenomenon.

Hitler was in power in 1933, but it took him until the late '30s to begin to consolidate his program. He never spoke about the Jews because he realized that raw anti-Semitism didn't play out with the German public. All he did was talk about family values and restoring the moral core of Germany. The Russian revolution took a decade to consolidate. It takes time to acculturate a society to a radical agenda, but that acculturation has clearly begun here, and I don't see people standing up and trying to stop them. The Democratic policy of trying to reach out to a movement that attacks whole segments of the society as worthy only of conversion or eradication is frightening.

Doesn't it make sense for the Democrats to reach out to the huge number of evangelicals who aren't necessarily part of the religious right, but who may be sympathetic to some of its rhetoric? Couldn't those people be up for grabs?

I don't think they are up for grabs because they have been ushered into a non-reality-based belief system. This isn't a matter of, "This is one viewpoint, here's another." This is a world of magic and signs and miracles and wonders, and [on the other side] is the world you hate, the liberal society that has shunted you aside and thrust you into despair. The rage that is directed at those who go after the movement is the rage of those who fear deeply being pushed back into this despair, from which many of the people I interviewed feel they barely escaped. A lot of people talked about suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide -- these people really reached horrific levels of desperation. And now they believe that Jesus has a plan for them and intervenes in their life every day to protect them, and they can't give that up.

So in a way, the movement really has helped them.

Well, in same way unemployed workers in Weimar Germany were helped by becoming brownshirts, yes. It gave them a sense of purpose. Look, you could always tell in a refugee camp in Gaza when one of these kids joined Hamas, because suddenly they were clean, their djelleba was white, they walked with a sense of purpose. It was a very similar kind of conversion experience. If you go back and read [Arthur] Koestler and other writers on the Communist Party, you find the same thing.

This is a question that I get all the time, and you've probably heard it too: Do you think Bush is a believer, or do you think he and his administration are just cynically manipulating their foot soldiers?

I think he's a believer, to the extent that this belief system empowers his own arrogant sense of privilege and intellectual shallowness. When you know right and wrong, when you've been mandated by God to lead, you don't have to ask hard questions, you don't have to listen to anyone else. I think that plays into the Bush character pretty well.

I think there are probably other aspects or tenets of this belief system that he finds distasteful and doesn't like. But in a real sense he fits the profile: a washout, not a very good family life -- apparently his mother was a horror show -- a drunk, a drug addict, coasted because of his daddy, reaches middle age, hasn't done anything with his life, finds Jesus. That fits a lot of people in the movement.

What do you think of the argument, exemplified by David Kuo's book, "Tempting Faith," that this administration has duped the Christian right and hasn't really given them much in exchange for their support?

It's given them a lot of money. It's given them a few hundred million dollars. I wouldn't call that nothing.

Kuo's argument is that Bush promised $8 billion for the faith-based initiative but that there was actually very little new funding. What's missing in what he says, I think, is that while there was little new money, there was a massive effort to shift money that was already appropriated from secular social services to evangelical groups. But if you believe, as Kuo apparently did, that compassionate conservatism really meant helping the poor, then Bush hasn't really done anything to further it.

Well, [Bush] never wanted to help the poor. That was just to sell us on a program -- he didn't have any intention of helping the poor.

Did you start out to research this book with the intellectual framework that comes from Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper in mind?

Yes. I studied a lot of Christian ethics, a lot of Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, that's how I was formed, so when I covered conflicts as a foreign correspondent, the peculiarity of my education made me look at those conflicts a little differently. I was always very wary of utopian movements because I had it pounded into me that utopianism is a dangerous phenomenon, of the left or the right. I was very critical of liberation theology because it essentially endorsed violence to create a Christian society. The way that I articulated that was really through writers like Popper and Arendt. I needed Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt to get a lot of the despotic movements that I was covering, to give myself a vocabulary by which to explain these movements to myself. Even when I teach journalism classes I tend to make them read "The Origins of Totalitarianism" because I think it's such an important book. I've read the book seven or eight times.

When did you see its relevance to the Christian right?

Because of my close coverage, or close connection with movements like Hamas or Milosevic, or even some of the despotic movements in Latin America like Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala, I'd already been conditioned to smell these people out. And then of course coming out the church and coming out of seminary, the combination was such that as soon as I came back from overseas, I had a sense of who these people were. There was a strange kind of confluence from my experience as a reporter and my academic background that came together and gave me a kind of sensitivity to the Christian right that maybe other people didn't have immediately. I don't know how much it's apparent, but it's an angry book.

That's very apparent.

Good. My father remains the most important influence on my life, and he was a Presbyterian minister, a devout Christian. I quote H. Richard Niebuhr saying, "Religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people." I wouldn't describe myself as particularly pious but I certainly would describe myself as religious. And when I see how these people are manipulating the Christian religion for personal empowerment and wealth and for the destruction of the very values that I think are embodied in the teachings of Jesus Christ, I'm angry.


Let's have faith in society and keep God out of it

By Pamela Bone

Far from a minority group, the non-believers of this world are fed up with the assumption that moral virtue is reliant on the constant influence of religion in contemporary culture

I WAS annoyed to find that all the copies of Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation were sold out (the bookshops have ordered more). According to its publicity machine, the book is a "bold challenge" to the influence religion has on public life in the US.

Notwithstanding that 44 per cent of Americans allegedly believe the second coming of Christ will occur within the next 50 years, it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks.

Another surprise bestseller over the Christmas period was Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. A range of anti-religion books are soon to be published: Atheist Manifesto by French philosopher Michel Onfray; Against Religion by Melbourne philosopher Tamas Pataki; Have a Nice Doomsday by American writer Nick Guyatt. The one I am most looking forward to is Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

It may be that the Australians who've bought up all the copies of Harris's book merely want to reinforce their opinions of how stupid Americans are. Then again, it may be that in Australia, as well as in the US, people are looking at the nightly mayhem on the television news, making connections, and wondering how religion can still command the respect it does.

These books are giving courage to the rather large minority of people - even in the US, 12 per cent of the population doesn't believe in God - who have no religion and who have been bluffed and intimidated for too long by the convention that religious beliefs, however harmful or absurd, should not be criticised.

Despite the wishful thinking of commentators such as The Australian's Paul Kelly, religious belief is not growing stronger in Western countries. Yes, worldwide, religion is growing because religious people tend to have many children: children who are then indoctrinated with the beliefs of their parents (some call this child abuse). But in countries where people are encouraged to question faith, the intensity of religious belief has been waning for years. People might express an association with a particular religion, but it doesn't affect the way they live their lives.

That is why in Australia only 40 per cent of couples getting married choose a religious ceremony (of brides born in Britain, only 25 per cent wanted a religious ceremony last year, while of brides born in Lebanon, 82per cent did, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures). Even more telling is that while Christianity regards suicide as a grave sin, opinion polls show that more than 70 per cent of Australians want legislation to allow voluntary euthanasia.

This does not stop religious folk rising in indignation against the "atheist evangelists", as they describe writers such as Dawkins and Harris. Dawkins is as much a fundamentalist as the Islamic extremists, they claim. He is the man who "hates God". This is nonsense, of course. Dawkins is far too sane to hate an imaginary figure (unlike the writer Kingsley Amis, who when asked if he was an atheist is reported to have replied, "Well, yes, but it's more that I hate him"). And none of the above writers has called for believers to be killed. It is also rather unfair, given that Christian evangelism has had such a long and unimpeded run.

I don't claim to speak on behalf of all non-religious people, but I think I can safely say that a lot of us - the one-quarter to one-third of Australians who either believe God does not exist or admit they don't know - are fed up with the assumption that in order to have a good society you have to have religion.

Non-religious people are fed up with all the talk about the emptiness, the barrenness and lack of meaning in "secular society". It may surprise religious people to learn that our lives are not empty. Some people might need to believe in an afterlife in order to find meaning in this one; others don't. Some might need to believe in a creator in order to be awed by the majesty of nature; others don't. Some might believe in something higher than themselves and call it God; others believe in something higher than themselves and call it humanity or nature. It makes no difference to how morally they behave. Everything good in religion can be had without religion.

I don't need to talk about the harm religion does: read the books. But the fact is that the most peaceful, prosperous and healthy countries in the world, as judged by the UN's annual Human Development Reports, are the least religious. These are countries - Australia is one of them - in which religion is not banned or suppressed, but it is also not promoted by the state.

That is why Labor leader Kevin Rudd's comments about the need for religious thinking to be brought into political decision-making should be viewed with dismay. Rudd is, of course, entitled to his beliefs, but it would have been more responsible, when asked about his religion, to insist that it is a private matter. Even John Howard does not wear his religion on his sleeve the way Rudd does. Howard is religious only in the way most conservatives are religious.

Rudd is popular now - a pretty, clever drover's dog would be popular right now - but in the longer term he is at risk of alienating progressives. He has already given us a hint of the direction of his beliefs in his opposition to therapeutic cloning for stem cell research, apparently counting the rights of three-day-old human embryos more important than the rights of children with cancer. The majority of Australians support therapeutic cloning.

Religion is not a reliable guide to morals. It would be better, as the former bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, argues in Godless Morality (which may be the best book on the subject), to leave God out of it and find good, human reasons for the decisions we make.


Youth Pastor Arrested — Sex Assault On Teens

DENVER -- A youth pastor in Craig was arrested Monday in connection with the alleged sexual assault of two teen girls he had worked with at First Christian Church, authorities said.

John Graler, 53, is being held without bond at the Moffat County Jail, facing charges of sexual assault, sexual assault on a child and sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust.

Moffat County Sheriffs Office and the Craig Police Department said their investigation has identified two alleged victims, who were between the ages from 13 to 18 when the alleged assaults occurred.

Several people have come forward and provided information to investigators that relates to the investigation, but anyone who has additional information, or who may feel that they have been victimized, is encouraged to call Craig police or the Moffat County Sheriff's Office.

The case is being forwarded to the 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office for filing of formal charges.


Related story: The Year the Was

Sunday, January 07, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor must pay taxes or go to jail

CHARLOTTE NC — A senior pastor charged with tax evasion must pay the IRS $13,000 by Monday or risk being taken back into custody, ruled a federal judge on Friday.

John Henry Walker, pastor at the Macedonia Baptist Church, was indicted last May for underreporting his income between 1999 and 2003 by more than half a million dollars.

He is also accused of evading federal income taxes of more than $125,000.

He was in court Friday because he still owes $7,300 from his 2004 tax return and $5,700 from 2005.

United States District Judge Frank Whitney ruled Walker must make full payment by 5 p.m. Monday, and also must prove that none of the money came from the church.

In November, Walker pled guilty to nine felony charges. Last month, the church voted for Walker to continue to lead the 500-member church north of Uptown.


Previous article: Pastor charged with loan fraud and tax evasion

Saturday, January 06, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Former pastor and youth minister faces sexual assault charges

Scott Hoppe told the Walworth County girl that God loved her.

But the girl told police that Hoppe, a former youth minister and assistant pastor at Grace Church in Burlington, had sex with her many times when she was between 15 and 17 years old.

Hoppe now faces multiple sexual assault and related charges in Walworth and Racine counties.

According to court documents, Hoppe told the girl, now 19, that he was not happy with his marriage and that was why God brought the girl into his life. He told her he wished "something would happen to his wife" so the two could be together, according to court records.

Hoppe, 32, had a sexual relationship with the girl beginning in April 2003, when she was 15 years old, according to court documents. The girl told police she and her family attended Grace Church since she was 11.

The two had sexual encounters at the church, at a school where youth groups were held, in Hoppe's home and at the girl's home in Walworth County, court documents said. The girl also used to baby-sit for Hoppe's children, according to the Racine County complaint.

Hoppe often would sneak into the girl's house through a bedroom window after her parents had gone to bed and the two would have sex, according to the criminal complaint filed in Walworth County. The two also watched pornographic movies together on the Internet, court records read.

In January 2004, Hoppe gave the girl a sapphire ring and told her if anything happened to his wife that he wanted to marry her, according to the Racine complaint.

The contacts occurred until the girl's 18th birthday in 2005.

Hoppe was "defrocked" by the church in November 2005 after the pastor heard of the allegations, the girl told police.

In Racine County, Hoppe faces 51 years in prison if convicted of 10 misdemeanor counts of sex with a child age 16 or older and felony charges of repeated sexual assault of a child and exposing a child to harmful material.

Hoppe faces more than 32 years in prison if convicted of four charges in Walworth County. The charges include child enticement and causing a child to view sexual activity, both felonies, and misdemeanor counts of sex with a child age 16 or older and indecent exposure. Fines could total $340,000.

Hoppe, who now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., is free after posting a $100,000 bond. He has a pretrial conference on Jan. 12, in Racine County and a preliminary hearing Jan. 17 in Walworth County.

The girl had been in counseling for several months before she talked to police last summer, according to the Racine County complaint.


Friday, January 05, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor sentenced to 7 years for molestation

Tavares FL. - A Pastor who repeatedly molested a parishioner's grandson was sentenced Wednesday to seven years in prison.

Douglas Myers, 57, the former pastor of Triangle Community Church in Eustis, listened impassively, his head bowed, as a prosecutor read a letter from the boy's mom.

"You believe in God?" the letter demanded. "How, then, in God's eyes, could you do this?"

Myers pleaded guilty to lewd and lascivious molestation.

Court records show he had sexual contact with the boy, then 13, during a six-month period in the youth's grandmother's home.

Myers befriended the boy, now in high school, by driving him to school, taking him to Walt Disney World and giving him money.

Myers had been a clergyman for 30 years.


Thursday, January 04, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

How to congratulate a political opponent?

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, a practicing Hindu, was re-elected to the State Senate of Minnesota in November. The following is the text a the concession e-mail message sent from his opponent, Rae Hart Anderson:
Congratulations on winning the District 50 senate race. Your phone is "busy" doubt with good wishes!

I've enjoyed much of this race, especially the people I've met...even you! I see your deficits--not all of them, and your potential--but not all of it. Only your Creator knows the real potential He's put in you. Get to know Him and know'll be more interesting even to you!

The race of your life is more important than this one--and it is my sincere wish that you'll get to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. He died for the sins of the world, yours and mine--and especially for those who accept His forgiveness. His kingdom will come and His will be done--on earth as it is in heaven. There's more....I love belonging to the family of God. Jesus is the way, the truth and offers His life to you and each human being. Pay attention...this is very important, Satveer. Have you noticed Jesus for some moment in time, yet???

God commends His love to us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8

Death came upon all and was defeated by the superiority of Jesus' life and His tomb is empty. God in Christ is reconciling the world back to Himself, with offered forgiveness--this is one choice we get to make nose to nose with the living God--fear Him and you need fear no other. Become His family and know the love of God that passes knowledge. See Isaiah and the Gospel of John...good reading while waiting for fishes to bite.

God sent not His son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
John 3:17

Jesus Christ lives in His earth family by His Spirit. He said He'd be back, and He said it first. You could invite Him to make the race of your life 'eternal'. God waits to be gracious to each person that knows they need to be forgiven. Do you? I think you do. Just ask. Christ won eternal life for you and said so. Take Him at His Word. Take some time to get acquainted with this power-filled Jesus...God with us. You could be a temple of the living God, by invitation---yours, TO GOD. :) There's nothing like belonging to Christ...not winning, not money, not's the best.

Good wishes and better wishes...until you wish for the best!

Rae Hart Anderson

Jesus spotted on a tree in Florida

"Jesus don't just pop up like that. If you know the word of Jesus and you believe in Jesus, then there you go. He does exist."

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Man-made religious decorations are a common sight at this time of year, but the image on a tree in an Arlington man's front yard is natural and some neighbors have begun calling it a holy tree, according to a WJXT-TV report.

Neighbors near Daryl Brown's Arlington home said a tree in his yard bears the image of Jesus. The likeness has created a buzz in the neighborhood and has many residents at a loss for words.

"I see the face, eyes, and you can see the crown," said one neighbor.

"I can't say what I feel, I just feel it," said another neighbor.

The image was discovered a week before Christmas by a woman walking her dog, the report said. Overjoyed by what she saw, the woman shared the news with her neighbor.

"Nancy said, 'Would you like to see something? Just make sure you see it. I don't want to have to show it to you first," Brown said.

Brown recently moved to Arlington from Texas. He said the tree has given him and his family comfort as a symbol that everything is going to be OK in their new home.

"It's a blessing for me just coming to town, getting introduced and meeting new people out here ... When she showed me that, I said, 'OK, there is a Jesus.'" Brown said.

Similar to other cases of similar sightings, there will be skeptics. However, Brown said no skeptic could convince him the image is anything but Jesus Christ.

"Jesus don't just pop up like that. If you know the word of Jesus and you believe in Jesus, then there you go. He does exist," Brown said.

The woman who discovered the image told WJXT-TV that she moved to the neighborhood after she retired to find some peace and quiet, but that she did not realize she would find Jesus. She said every time she walks her dog she is comforted knowing Jesus is watching over her.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

The Blasphemy Challenge

From Newsweek:

'Hi my name is Lindy and I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit and you should too.'

With that five-second submission to YouTube, a 24-year-old who uses the name "menotsimple" has either condemned herself to an eternity of punishment in the afterlife or struck a courageous blow against superstition. She's one of more than 400 mostly young people who have joined a campaign by the Web site to stake their souls against the existence of God. That, of course, is the ultimate no-win wager, as the 17th-century French mathematician Blaise Pascal calculated—it can't be settled until you're dead, and if you lose, you go to hell.

The Blasphemy Challenge is a joint project of filmmaker Brian Flemming, director of the antireligion documentary "The God Who Wasn't There," and Brian Sapient, cofounder of the atheist Web site Their intent was to encourage atheists to come forward and put their souls on the line, showing others that you don't have to be afraid of God. The particular form of the challenge was chosen because, by one interpretation, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a part of the Christian Trinity, is the only sin that can never be forgiven. And once something you've said gets posted on YouTube, as any number of celebrities can attest, you never live it down.

For better or worse, though, hell may not be so easy to get into. Despite the seemingly clear language in Mark 3:28-29 ("all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven"), most theologians are reluctant to pronounce anyone beyond repentance and salvation. Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, says the passage, read in context, refers to a very narrow and specific definition of blasphemy: maliciously attributing God's miracles to a demon. Merely "denying" the Holy Spirit, by this reading, doesn't qualify. "My response," Land says, "would be to pray for these people: 'forgive them, [for] they know not what they do'."

To which another self-described blasphemer, whose real name is Michael Lawson, replies that he knows exactly what he's doing: he's daring God to send him to hell. "We want to show that we really mean it when we say we don't believe a word in this book," he says. He means the Bible.

God could not be reached for comment.


Rick Warren discusses Syrian/American relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

WM note: This is an interesting story that seems to have slid past me unnoticed. I belatedly offer it now for comments.

From the Syrian Arab News Agency website, SANA.Org:

DAMASCUS, (SANA)_ The meeting between President Bashar al-Assad and Pastor Rick Warren, a famous Protestant clergyman in the USA and an accompanying delegation on Sunday focused on the Syrian-American relations.

The American delegation stressed that the American administration is mistaken not to hold dialogue with Syria. The importance of dialogue among religions and achieving the just and comprehensive peace in the region which leads for stability and prosperity were emphasized during the meeting.

Pastor Warren hailed the religious coexistence, tolerance and stability that the Syrian society is enjoying due to the wise leadership of President al-Assad, asserting that he will convey the true image about Syria to the American people.

He offered to President al-Assad a memorial drawing as a gift to the Syrian people for their generosity and hospitality, thanking their efforts exerted for maintaining peace and harmony.

More from SANA.Org

American Protestant Pastor Rick Warren on Monday said there was no peace in the region without Syria, noting that 80 percent of the American people rejected what the US Administration is doing in Iraq and considered the US policy in the Mideast as wrong.

Syria's Grand Mufti Sheikh Badr al-Din Hassoun received the American Pastor in Damascus in which he referred to the importance of spreading culture of amity, peace and coexistence instead of the 'clash of civilizations'.

The Mufti called for conveying the real image of Syria, national unity and its call to spread peace, amity and justice to the American people which the US administration has distorted their image before the world.

Pastor Warren expressed admiration of Syria and the coexistence he saw between Muslims and Christians, stressing that he will convey this image to his church and country.

But according to Warren's damage-control press release following the meeting:
"...Contrary to reports by the official state-controlled Syrian news agency, Dr. Warren was in Syria to meet with and encourage the country’s key Christian leaders; dialogue with top Muslim leaders; and promote religious freedom. Leaders who met with Dr. Warren included the Patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church; the leader of the coalition of Evangelical Churches of Syria; and the pastor of the world’s oldest standing church dating back to 315 AD; and Mufti of the Arab Republic of Syria Sheikh Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun..."

Listen to Rick Warren himself:

Click here to download the mp3

WorldNetDaily and GOPUSA seem pretty upset with Brother Warren. What is your opinion on this? Is it a big deal? Is it strange? Why do suppose loving, turn-the-other-cheek, conservative Christians like Joseph Farah and Christopher Adamo are coming out with such strong rhetoric condemning Warren? Why do you suppose the mainstream media hasn't really gone after this story?

Related articles: |
| SignOnSanDiego.Com |

Pat Robertson prophecies 'mass killing'

In what has become an annual tradition of prognostications, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson said Tuesday God has told him that a terrorist attack on the United States would result in "mass killing" late in 2007.

"I'm not necessarily saying it's going to be nuclear," he said during his news-and-talk television show "The 700 Club" on the Christian Broadcasting Network. "The Lord didn't say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that."

Robertson said God told him during a recent prayer retreat that major cities and possibly millions of people will be affected by the attack, which should take place sometime after September.

Robertson said God also told him that the U.S. only feigns friendship with Israel and that U.S. policies are pushing Israel toward "national suicide."

Robertson suggested in January 2006 that God punished then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a stroke for ceding Israeli-controlled land to the Palestinians.

The broadcaster predicted in January 2004 that President Bush would easily win re-election and that the race would be a "blowout." Bush won 51 percent of the vote that fall, beating Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

In 2005, Robertson predicted that Bush would have victory after victory in his second term. He said Social Security reform proposals would be approved and Bush would nominate conservative judges to federal courts.

Lawmakers confirmed Bush's 2005 nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. But the president's Social Security initiative was stalled.

"I have a relatively good track record," he said. "Sometimes I miss."

In May, Robertson said God told him that storms and possibly a tsunami were to crash into America's coastline in 2006. Even though the U.S. was not hit with a tsunami, Robertson on Tuesday cited last spring's heavy rains and flooding in New England as partly fulfilling the prediction.

On Jan. 1, 1980, Robertson reported that God had told him that the Soviet Union would in that year invade several Middle Eastern nations, seize the world’s oil reserves and throw the United States and Western Europe into economic chaos, sparking worldwide conflict.

In 1981, Robertson predicted a global economic collapse between 1983 and 1985. He once predicted a Russian invasion of Israel and claimed that the USSR would collapse after the outbreak of a World War III.