Attacks on Minority Rights in the Name of “the People” and God

Hi Joel,

Three unrelated apparently unrelated events have been swirling in my mind lately. Help me think through them?

First: The Texas State Supreme Court recently said that same-sex couples might be legally married in the state, but they don’t have a legal entitlement to the same benefits as same-sex couples. The all-Republican court was pressured by the state’s GOP to pick up the case, which centered on whether the city of Houston was right to grant spousal benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees if the couple was married out of state before same-sex marriage was legal there. Obergefell, the 2015 Supreme Court case that recognized the validity of same-sex marriages in all 50 states, should have easily answered this question, but here come folks from Texas Values, a Religious Right group, to weasily argue that

“The Supreme Court held … that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons.

The Equal Protection Clause should take care of this, but Texas conservatives never like to miss an opportunity to whine about federal overreach, so here we are, with the poor conservatives of the Supreme Court going to have to decide if they can handle the pressure of siding with 14th Amendment.


Above, Jason Rapert, one of the worst state politicians in the US, stands in front of a Ten Commandments monument just installed at the capitol in Little Rock. TheIt’s

Second: Arkansas’ second-worst state politician, Jason Rapert (I leave the national award to Senator Tom Cotton.) made news this week when his beloved 10 Commandments, newly installed on the state capitol’s grounds, was smashed by a… well, I guess we’d call him a separation of church and state activist. Anyway, Rapert’s obnoxious desire to waste taxpayer money on the inevitable legal challenge to the display reminded me of a comment he made two years ago at about this time in response to the just-delivered Obergefell decision. On Facebook, he said,

“I urge every God fearing American to pray for our nation on their knees, but to rise to their feet in opposition of those who have gone too far by imposing unjust laws against our will.”

Not a theologian, a law scholar, or a historian by training or talent, he compared his cause to the American Revolution and the Civil Rights movement. When a more informed citizen reminded him that, uh, actually, that’s not how it works with rights, he struck back by saying that “We the majority, grant you rights by choice.”Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 12.25.46 AM

Third: Among anti-Muslim Christians there circulates the argument that Muslims do not have a First Amendment right to practice Islam in the US. One angle in this argument, exhibited by this awful speech that Rebecca Bynum gave to the Memphis chapter of ACT for America, says that Islam is not a religion but a political ideology, and therefore it is not protected by the First Amendment. This is also sometimes used to justify a ban on entrance by Muslim immigrants and refugees to the US. A second angle says that it doesn’t matter if Islam is a religion because Muslims aren’t free to practice it in the US anyway since the right to the free exercise of religion, as articulated in the First Amendment, is derived from “our Creator”–that is, the Judeo-Christian (but NOT Judeo-Christian-Islamic) deity. Explains Jason Rapert’s spiritual mentor former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore:

“Muhammad didn’t create us. It’s the God of the Holy Scriptures.”

(Moore, by the way, was kicked off the bench for being a preening fool. He’s led efforts to install the 10 Commandments in Alabama courthouses, fought hard against recognizing the legality of same-sex marriage, and is generally an embarrassment to the intelligent people of Alabama. Oh, and he’s running for Senate now, and Christian media is reporting that he is in the lead.) The argument here is that–follow me closely through this slop–the right to practice (or not to practice) religion is only for Christians and Jews because they are the only people who recognize the authority of the God who gave them that right. Atheists have no right not be atheists because the right to be an atheist comes from a God atheists don’t believe in. Likewise for anyone who is not a Christian or Jew but who wants to practice religion.



On top, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, standing with a Ten Commandment monument. Below, one of his supporters, part of a traveling anti-LGBT protest group, stands outside the Alabama Supreme Court courthouse last year. Inside, the court was hearing arguments about whether Moore should be booted off the court–a second time–for ethical violations. (Answer: Yes.)

These not-entirely-unrelated instances (all in the South, all efforts led by white Republican men) have been ringing in my head for a few days now, and what I see bringing them together is that the rights of minorities–same-sex couples and religious minorities–are consistently seen as in conflict with democracy rather than central to it. (But I also suspect that they don’t much care about the “will of the people.” Rapert, for example, is fighting Arkansas’ Amendment 6, legalizing medical marijuana, despite popular support for it.)

Am I imagining it?







What if Donald Trump Was a Good Guy?

Hey Rebecca:

I’ve been wondering lately: What would the world be like if Donald Trump was a good guy and not a man of such transparently ill character whose corruption and classlessness infects all around him?

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 6.40.50 PM.png

A pause: I don’t like attributing character flaws to people with whom I disagree. Usually, they’re good — or good enough — people with different opinions! But with Trump, the crappiness of his character is key to the critique of him. It’s unavoidable.

Let’s apply the question to this week’s big scandal — the newly reported meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer he thought might provide Russian government dirt on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

If the people around Donald Trump had been both smart and patriotic, we wouldn’t be waking up this week to news that his son met with a Russian lawyer to dig up “dirt” in Hillary Clinton. We would’ve found out last summer — and it might’ve provided the boost he needed to win the presidency.

News of Trump Jr.’s meeting broke this week, adding to the appearance of a White House under siege and a legal noose tightening around the president’s inner circle. All of this — this part of the scandal, anyway — could’ve been avoided if the Trump campaign had just done two things:

• Called the FBI.

• Held a big press conference announcing why they’d called the FBI.

This approach would’ve had two advantages. It would’ve been the right thing to do. And it would’ve helped Trump look like a real American leader — someone selfless enough to sacrifice a possible advantage if taking that advantage meant doing dirty business with the country’s rivals.

There was precedent for this: Back in 2000, Al Gore’s campaign received a tape showing George W. Bush’s debate preparations — and promptly sent it along to federal investigators.

”I looked at it, and I said, ‘I shouldn’t have this and shouldn’t be looking at this,”’ said former Rep. Tom Downey, the Gore adviser who received the tape. ”I knew that it was serious stuff.”

Gore, of course, ended up narrowly losing the presidency. Trump narrowly won.

But imagine what our politics might look like right now if the Trump campaign called the FBI then held the press conference. Imagine the campaign bounce he might’ve received if he’d made a statement like, say, this:

“The Russians tried to give us damaging info on our opponent but even though that might have given us an advantage, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do for our country. We are all Americans.”

Trump still could’ve railed against “Crooked Hillary.” He still could’ve charged that her email setup as Secretary of State had made America less secure. But he could’ve put questions of collusion with Russia largely to rest, and — for once — maybe even made himself look a little more like a statesman instead of a two-bit schemer. “More in sadness than in anger” would’ve been a good look for a politician attempting to appeal to moderates.

That would’ve taken some imagination, though. That would’ve taken some moral fitness — or the smarts to try to appear fit once in awhile.

Instead, the Trump campaign played to character, choosing to pursue the dumb, obvious, “let’s screw our enemies” power move. And when that didn’t work, he went public asking the Russians to release any info they had on his opponent.

The trouble with Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, from the beginning, has been his inability to get out of his own way. His determination to avenge slights and be in “control” — but only in the most rudimentary fashion — led him to fire James Comey, to attack the “Morning Joe” crew, to slam veterans like John McCain and to pick fights with Rosie O’Donnell, to get his pound of flesh but to almost always get it in a fashion that leaves his presidency as collateral damage.

Given the choice between blunt-force trauma and the smart, silent shiv — or merely doing the right thing and being nice people — Trump and his minions choose blunt force every time. I’m not sure they’re aware that different possibilities exist.

If Trump had tried to be a bigger, better man, he might right now have a bigger, better presidency. All he and his campaign had to do was the right thing. They didn’t. Of course they didn’t.

With disgust, Joel

Adoring the Adorers of the Blood of Christ


I’m kind of in love with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ right now. A group of these sisters in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (my hometown) have built an outdoor chapel in a rural area of West Hempfield township, right in the middle of some of the richest agricultural soil in the world. The chapel is a space where people can contemplate nature and our relationship to it. It aligns with the sisters’ religious commitment to stewarding the earth.*

And it’s right in the path of the proposed Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.

Above, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ dedicate their chapel. 

Last week, a federal judge said that the pipeline company, Williams Natural Gas, has every right to use eminent domain law to seize the land. (Hello? Where are the “Fifth Amendment people”?)

The pipeline is not a public good. It is a private business–one that paid $2.4 million in fines in the last decade for environmental problems that resulted from their poor practices and TWO HUNDRED AND NINETY MILLION DOLLARS in fines for misleading investors about the sorry state of its finances.

Judge Jeffrey Schmehl thinks that Pennsylvanians should be forced to give up privately owned land to a private, for-profit, publicly traded company that can’t even do its job (carrying gas safely) or manage its own finances. Stockholders get the profit, and Pennsylvanians take the important risk: their land and health.

No matter your religion, no matter your feelings about pipelines, you gotta know that something is wrong here. And you should probably also know that Donald Trump is a big supporter of using eminent domain to seize land for use by private companies. 

Claims to sacred space have not protected Native Americans from the seizure of their land, of course, and they may not protect the Adorers. But these women are doing what all people with privilege should do: insert it in the way of injustice.


*I know that agriculture isn’t exactly stewardship. But we’re not choosing between agriculture and wilderness here but between agriculture and gas. And leaks anywhere on the path (see below) endanger nature.

Image result for path of the atlantic sunrise pipeline

Kyle Smith and “Women’s Movies”

Hi Joel,

You are optimistic to engage uninformed, untalented men who have undeserved access to public audiences, as they explain women’s problems to you. Multiply that feeling by slightly more than half the US population and extrapolate over a life span of, on average, 81 years, and you get the sense of why so many women are so deeply frustrated.

You are right, of course, in your critique of National Review Online‘s Smith’s assessment of why the Bechdel test, which is a very basic measure of whether a film gives any consideration to women apart from their use by men characters, is silly. Smith’s argument (I’m being generous with that term) is so bad that you wonder if he was actually trying or if he, like so many other mediocre men, is coasting on snideness alone. As a “critic-at-large”(Rich Lowry, if you are reading this, please, please find someone with an ounce of sensitivity as a viewer or talent as a writer to replace Smith. He’s so remarkably unskilled that it’s not even fun to argue against him.), Smith teaches his readers nothing about film or music (Illustrative quotation: “There isn’t a lot to argue about when it comes to music: Either you like it or you don’t.”); as a politics writer posing as a critic, he’s as uninformed as he is unbearable.

A brief summary of his recent writing about gender and film:

There is plenty of overwrought (sometimes nearly hysterical) writing about Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Kathy Griffin, Katy Perry, Lena Dunham, and Elizabeth Banks, but they all amount to the same thing: Smith knows nothing about women, fictive or real.

But back to the matter at hand: Smith’s dunderheaded attempt to take-down the Bechdel test. I’ll add to your fine argument these four points:

  1. Smith assumes that in order for a movie to include an on-screen moment between women characters who are doing something other than talking about men, that movie must be written by a woman. This also assumes that men cannot write women. While this is too often true and is entirely true of Smith, it’s not required. We might ask more of our screenwriters who are men.
  2. It assumes that stories centered on men are more worthy of telling than stories centered on women. (Films need heroes! seems to be Smith’s line of thinking.) Of course, women are heroes–but, more than that, stories with nuance, driven by character, are also worth telling. They often require more talent to tell, but that just means we need to (See point 1.) demand more of our movie makers.
  3. Smith’s argument is factually incorrect. Not only do audiences love stories about women (from Gone with the Wind to Dirty Dancing to The Little Mermaid to Kill Bill to Bridesmaids to Hidden Figures), these films are, across genres, profitable. They make money, earn Oscars, and inspire Happy Meals toys.
  4. And to Smith’s argument that women should write fantasy novels that will brought to the screen if they want to watch them: has he not heard of JK Rowling, the first writer to become a billionaire based on her books? Not only is Rowling a woman, the real hero of the Harry Potter books is Hermione Granger.


Above, the real hero: Hermione Granger.

Which reminds me: next time we are tempted to read Smith’s commentary, let’s read Teen Vogue instead. 


The ‘Bechdel test’ doesn’t limit movies. It asks them to stop being so limited.

Dear Rebecca:

I’m shocked, shocked that a National Review writer has decided to take issue with the “Bechdel test.” The test, as I’m sure you know, is a very simple way to check if your movies have even a moment in them that isn’t dude oriented.

Here’s Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.

And here’s NRO’s Kyle Smith:

In the past few years, the Bechdel Test has begun popping up casually in reviews like a feminist Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. Take this appreciation last month of the 1992 film A League of Their Own, published by Katie Baker on the site The Ringer: “It is, in my possibly blinded by love but also correct opinion, one of the best sports movies there is. And it is an honest ode to women and sisters and friendships, with a story that breezes through the Bechdel test by the end of the opening scene.”

Hey, and you know what? Tom Selleck’s Matthew Quigley appears almost immediately in Quigley Down Under. Hurrah, this film breezes through the Cowboy Test by the end of the opening scene!

Neither of these two tests gives you any hint as to the worth of a film, and furthermore neither of them tells you anything about a film’s general feminist wokeness. It doesn’t even tell you whether the film is entirely about a woman.

A couple of observations:

•You know why the “Cowboy Test” is ridiculous? Because there have been a million fricking movies about cowboys. We actually have no need of further cowboy movies — though, admittedly, I’d watch one if a good one came along — because just about every permutation of the genre has been exhausted. The Bechdel test was invented, meanwhile, because such female-centric moments were relatively rare.

•Smith is right that the Bechdel test doesn’t tell you about the worth of a film or its feminist bona fides. Nobody makes those claims for it! (Check the video above for confirmation of this.) Instead, the underlying question is this: Does this movie contain a single moment that’s not all about the guys in it? It is the very minimum a movie can do, in other words, to put a female perspective onscreen.

• Which means that the Bechdel test doesn’t do much to constrain movie art: The art itself is pretty constrained — the movie business has increasingly been designed to appeal to and arouse the passions of teenage boys. To the degree female characters are designed to appeal to this demographic, it’s not often with their agency apart from men in mind. The Bechdel test was created because movies are so dude-oriented that getting such a moment was unexpected, to be noted.

Smith says the Bechdel test is irrelevant because women don’t make the kinds of movies that reap big box office. “Have a wander through the sci-fi and fantasy section of your local bookstore: How many of these books’ authors are female? Yet these are where the big movie ideas come from. If a woman wants the next Lord of the Rings–style franchise to pass the Bechdel Test, then a woman should come up with a story with as much earning potential as J. R. R. Tolkien’s.”

Which is … stupid. Tell the makers and viewers of Wonder Woman that they don’t like sci-fi adventure. For the love of god, tell my nerdy-ass wife — but give me a head start out of the room.

Hollywood discovers that there’s an audience for women-centric movies every couple of years, then promptly forgets it. Using that amnesia to justify the ongoing omission of women and women’s perspectives from our films isn’t just dumb — it’s clearly leaving a lot of money on the table. Conservatives, you’d think, might embrace the Bechdel test for this reason if for nothing else: It just might help them make a ton of cash from an underserved audience.

Sincerely, Joel

A Cowboy Walks into a Church…

Dear Joel,

We were visiting the local United Church of Christ congregation for the second time. This congregation, like the other UCCs we’d spend time in, was small, slightly brainy, and very progressive. The pastor is a gay married man, and the congregation is LGBTQ welcoming, as the sign on the marquee says. The first sermon (delivered by a guest speaker, also a gay married reverend) had been exactly the kind of piece you would expect to hear on the Sunday of Pride Week if you have ever visited such churches: a call to remember those queer people, Christians and not, who have been hurt by a violent society and a call to repentance for Christianity and Christians’ role in that hurt–a needed message and one too seldom preached.

The surprising part of the visit was the young man in the pew behind us. Wearing dress jeans, cowboys boots, a button down shirt, and a tie, I recognized him as any of the young men I grew up with who weren’t going to buy dress slacks but wanted to look nice for church. (This is also the appropriate dress for a funeral in the rural community where I grew up.)  At the end of the service, the 50 or so people in attendance form a circle around the sanctuary and sing a song about friendship, and we stood next to each other. When we were done, I asked him if he were visiting.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a twang that told me he wasn’t from around these parts.

“And have you visited a UCC congregation before?”

“What’s that”? he asked.

“United Church of Christ. That’s the denomination this congregation is affiliated with.”

“Oh,” he replied. “At home we just call it ‘Church of Christ.'”

Well, now this made much more sense–but it also presented me with a quandary. There is (I later found) a Church of Christ (not to be confused with the Temple Lot or “Hedrickites,” and LDS denomination from Independence, Missouri) in the city where we live, a tiny congregation of just 15 people. And while I haven’t visited it, I have visited enough Churches of Christ to be able to tell you that they are about as different from United Church of Christ as can be. While there is variation in how they live out their faith, Churches of Christ see themselves not as starting in the 19th century (with the Stone-Campell movement that also led to the development of the Disciples of Christ church) but as coming directly out of first century Christianity. They view any practice that is not specifically outlined in the Christian New Testament as improper for church service–which is why they sing a cappella. Because of this, the most conservative Churches of Christ don’t support missionary or educational organizations and don’t collaborate with other organizations for social justice work.

Which is just about as far from the UCC as you can get. While the Church of Christ says that anything not mandated in the Bible or inferred by a very close reading is forbidden, the UCC’s current slogan is “God is Still Speaking.” In addition to the “LGBTQ friendly” sign on the church was a sign signaling that this congregation supports Family Promise, a nationwide effort to support families facing homelessness by keeping them intact (which most shelters won’t accommodate)–exactly the kind of work that many (though not all) Churches of Christ would object to.


Above, the UCC logo: a black comma against a red background, with the words “God is still speaking,” 

So, should I have told this young man that he wasn’t in the “right” place?

I wrestled with it for a bit. I’m a religion scholar with an interest in congregational life, and I also respect religious conscience, so I wanted him to be where he wanted to be.

But he clearly wanted to be in a LGBTQ friendly service–or, at least, he was willing to be, thinking that this was a Church of Christ.

So, it could be that he was looking for a Church of Christ and found what he thought was one that said it was LGBTQ friendly and his commitment to his denomination overrode his hesitation about coming to a queer friendly place. I appreciate that kind of dedication. And if a commitment to his conservative church brought him to a welcoming and affirming one, even better!

Or it could be that he was looking for a Church of Christ and found what he thought was a queer friendly one and that was exactly what he was looking for. It could be that he’s been waiting his whole life for this.

I hope to see him again.



Opportunities lost in anti-LGBT faith


Thank you for sharing your memories of your first MCUSA convention, back in Nashville, at the very start of the denomination. That experience, you said, both drew you to Mennonites and pushed you from the church. Sixteen years later, I feel the same forces still: a deep attraction to the love of this community and a sadness about the struggle it has had to embrace queer believers. In the end, you say, “I wasn’t going to participate in a faith community where I had to argue for the simple, lovely humanity of people who loved each other.” There is a tremendous cost to rejecting people because of their sexuality.

This week, a post on the blog Righting America prompted me to take up the question in a new way. There, Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., the authors of Righting America at the Creation Museum (John Hopkins Press 2016) and former faculty at Bluffton College, now at the University of Dayton, shared a list of just 20 of the times that Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, wrote anti-LGBT messages in his own blog posts since last year. They write

All this on the necessity of Christians to resist LGBTQ rights, to reject the legitimacy of LGBTQ identities, and to understand the effort of LGBTQ individuals to assert their civil rights as an assault on the rights of Christians. All this, and yet nothing or virtually nothing from Ham and AiG on issues pertaining to poverty, refugees, income/wealth inequality, structural racism, and misogyny.

Which makes me re-visit a question I thought a lot about as I observed the incredible energy and dedication of Westboro Baptists as I researched God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right: What good could these folks do if they pointed their energy toward alleviating suffering?

Even for those people who believe that same-sex sexuality is a sin, what do they lose when they focus their energy here? Jesus tells us that when we visit the imprisoned, comfort the grieving, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, then we are serving him–which means that every moment spent condemning gay people is a moment even otherwise sweet, kind, hardworking Mennonites are taking from more important work.


Above, dinosaurs boarded the ark, according to the Creation Museum’s account of Noah and the flood. As the church camp song says, “The animals, they came on, they came on by twosies, twosies/Elephants and kangaroosies roosies.” Later, if the song leader was feeling naughty, you might sing, “The animals, they came off by threesies threesies/Grizzly bears and chimpanzeesies zeesies.” The song is silly, but anti-LGBT Christians point to the story of Noah’s ark as evidence of God’s plan for people to be only in heterosexual pairs.