What would Jesus cut?: Lisa Miller talks religion

Aug 04, 2011

Join religion columnist Lisa Miller as she chats about how religion impacts the news. Have a question? Join her Thursday August 4 at 2 p.m. ET as she answers your questions and discusses the week's big religious story.

Related: Christians on both sides of budget battle claim to fight for the poor

I was never much of a Headline News viewer (Nancy Grace -- UGH!), but I have been utterly riveted by Dr. Drew Pinsky's discussions of the FLDS trial down in Texas. He seems to be the only one giving it the coverage it deserves. When the women who escape talk about how women in general are treated, it's heartbreaking. But Jeffs is making the defense that his rape of 14 year old girls is "religious freedom" and he cannot be prosecuted for it. Why aren't the parents of the rape victims' being prosecuted as well, because they allowed their daughters to be abused? Maybe you aren't the right person to answer this question, but this case creeps me out to no end, and I don't see anything "religious" in raping a 14 year old girl.

Hi. I've been looking at the Pinksy stuff myself. It is chilling. There's no excuse for rape -- religious or not -- in a free and democratic society. What interests me, more broadly, are religious folks who interpret some of the most odious, stringent rules in the Bible -- especially about women -- literally in the modern world. This is true in fundamentalist Islam (note the teenaged couple facing death last week) and other fundamentalist religious sects as well.

Irrelevant. Jesus was an apocalyptic who thought the world was going to end soon. His opinions don't bear on a continuing economy.

completely disagree. 80 percent of Americans continue to call themselves Christian. Which means -- in the broadest possible sense -- that they follow Christ. So what does the guidance of Jesus tell folks to do about the predicament we're in? Or, to put it another way and take Jesus out of it, What should our moral priorities be? This is a real question in light of the very tough decisions our lawmakers have to make right now.

As an atheist I believe that we should educate our children about the myth of religion. It can now be shown that the Exodus didn't happen, that the Garden of Eden was taken from an earlier Syrian myth, and all gods were man-made. With the incredible death, destruction, repression of science and medicine why should religion be allowed to be taught and practiced in today's modern world?

This is something I've thought a lot about. 90 percent (or so) of Americans say they believe in God. We don't know what that means, exactly. Whether they believe in an omnipotent force who meddles in daily lives and determines history, or some broader, more amorphous sense of transcendence and/or justice. But people take these beliefs seriously. They guide us. They comfort us. Atheists may dismiss them as irrational, but they're important -- not just in our personal lives, but (as my column shows) in our political rhetoric and maneuvering. It's crucial, I think, to understand the role that religion plays in our lives (whether your'e a believer or a nonbeliever) to understand our civic discourse.

Beyond that, religion gave us -- at least until the Enlightenment and beyond -- everything we call culture. Music. Art. Literature. Architecture. Math. Also, war. We need -- we crucially need -- to understand religion's influence to understand the world we live in. I could go on. How can you even comprehend what's happening in the Middle East without understanding Islam -- and the tensions between fundamentalist Islam and more enlightened Islam being played out, say, in Egypt -- even a little bit?

The thing I notice from religious news is the unfair sniping from the religious side towards the non-religious and vice versa. The recent WTC Cross news is a fine example. I see this sniping, and it seems like everyone could do with some education on the other side of the fence.

Agree completely. some of these issues feel almost manufactured to make cable news headlines and/or political fodder. The so-called Ground Zero mosque was puttering along for five or so months in New York before anyone started talking about it on TV. And then certain politicians took it up as their cause and the thing blew up far beyond any reasonable scope.

When the right speaks of "entitlements," what do they mean. Things like health care? Doesn't that seem counterproductive? Make more money by cutting things that keep people healthy, and in the long run, not poor?

Yes, the social safety net. Medicare. Medicaid. Social Security. The things our taxes pay for to make sure everyone's got their most basic needs taken care of. The argument from the conservatives is that these programs eat up too many taxpayer dollars which woudl be more efficently spent elsewhere. That, furthermore (as the story says) these programs don't help folks get out of poverty: they keep people in poverty. This argument has been around for a long time, of course, but as the gap between teh richest and poorest Americans widens, it is increasingly hot/divisive.

Do you suggest that we follow the Bibical Laws? If now why believe any of the Bible?

There are so many ways to read the Bible. You can read Leviticus/Deuteronomy as a series of laws to be taken literally (in which case you must trim your hair a certain way and sacrifice goats and sheep in a particular manner). You can read the entirety of Scripture as a broad and inspired guidebook that teaches to take care of the poor, respect parents, welcome the stranger, don't steal, lie, cheat, murder. You can read it as history and literature, without any divine content. All these -- and an infinite number of variations in between -- are possible. Some people understand the Bible as having layers of meanings and they read it differently, depending on what they're looking for. Guidance. Inspiration. Historical truth.

What do you believe Jesus would cut? Would he cut anything?

I've never met Jesus, and I'm Jewish. So it's hard for me to speak for him. That said, I do think the gospels describe a leader and a teacher in Jesus who emphatically invited the outsider, the stranger, the prostitute, the leper -- all those who were on the outside of mainstream society -- into his band. He explicitly said that in heaven, the first shall be last. He was teaching a kind of radical generosity and a rebellion against many of the societal norms of the time.

Perhaps a better question is who would Jesus indebt? Does Jesus really want your grandchildren and their children paying for your profligate expenditures of today? And isn't there a fair chance Jesus would say He is His brother's keeper? Not government?

I don't think Jesus cared very much about money at all. He turned over the tables in the Temple. He said, in essence, don't pile up wealth cause you can't take it with you.  This is personal, and I'm not a minister (or even a Christian) but it seems to me Jesus cared more about the injustices created by inequality -- haves vs. have-nots -- than he did about whose pile of gold was bigger.

Why is reporting on religion usually so "thin"? For example, when discussing the Catholic Church's position on a given social issue vs. some other group's position, the reporters go no further than restating the positions. An explanation of how a given position is based on certain teachings, assumptions, scripture, traidition, etc. and how those sources add up to a particular teaching would be very useful for a reader. Otherwise it comes across as just he said/she said which isn't very informative. Shouldn't we expect more?

Yes!  And you can expect to get more from the Washington Post religion team. We want to do this stuff in depth, with context and nuance and not just he said/she said.

A lot of religious news articles I see tend to follow things like the recent gay marriage decision in New York, and the following up of which speaks to the "destruction of the family." As a transgender person, this kind of meanness really sticks to me, and often I can't even read the news for fear of breaking down crying. Is this kind of nastiness a last bastion of a dying breed of religious persons or something to worry about for the long haul?

I think on gay marriage especially, there's a noticeable reduction in the mean-ness level among evangelical Christians. Polls show that younger evangels (18-29)  are far more accepting of gay marriage than their parents. I've written many stories about this and I've seen a dramatic softening in the younger generation. "The destruction of the family" rhetoric is a generation old. Even Focus on the Family today recognizes the number of households that are run by single parents, the number of Christian marriages that end up in divorce. I think there's a whole reevaluation of "family values" going on in conservative Christian circles.

Only use Leviticus as justification for discrimination against homosexuals, but somehow think it's okay to eat shrimp and crab. They also seem to wear a lot of cotton/poly blends.

And what do we do about the laws therein about the buying and selling of human beings?

I should have also pointed to these verses from Mathew, "For I was hungry and you gave me to eat..." Kind of the acid test for will get to heaven and the "goats" who won't.

And then there's the story of Lazarus and the rich man.

I'm curious as to why conservative Christians are opposed to birth control being covered by health insurance. From comments posted in response to articles covering the subject on this site, many seem to think that covering birth control gives carte blanche to single women to run out and have indiscriminant sex with as many people as possible. Similarly, that covering birth control forces others to pay for a woman's 'lifestyle' choice that they personally disagree with, and that covering birth control will in fact cost them more money in the long run. Examining these objections realistically, married women as well as single women use birth control and are just as interested in preventing pregnancy. Many commenters suggest abstinence instead of birth control, but this method is not as effective as birth control, and honestly is not that realistic. Second, disagreeing with someone's choice to have sex, whether they are married or single, is not a objection that can be the basis for denying someone preventative health coverage. Lots of people make lifestyle choices that require costly medical intervention, such as smoking, overeating, or dangerous sporting activities that many would find objectionable, but no one has suggested denying medical coverage to someone diagnosed with lung cancer. Lastly, the cost of birth control is markedly lower than covering lifelong health care for a child resulting from unplanned pregnancy. So my question is, given the facts surrounding who uses birth control and why, why do so many Christians disagree with covering it as part of preventive care? Is it just purely a moral objection? And if so, why try and force morals on others instead of making a choice not to use birth control? Thanks

Conservative Christian is a broad term. In fact, while most conservative christians agree on abortion (and agree that the govt should not pay for abortion), they do not agree on birth control. The Roman Catholic church officially opposes condoms, for example, but many conservative Protestant denominations do not. There is a broader objection among "conservative christians" to teaching about birth control as part of sex education in schools.

He needs to visit Western Europe sometime, to see the culture that religion created (the Church also did some dispicable things, but I'll leave that for another chat). I was in Belgium in June, and my friend told me that even though her children had been baptised and confirmed, they don't attend church, and there is some resentment of their tax dollars going to churches. It's amazing the amount of art and history that is in some of these churches, in Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp.

This is getting perilously close to that old question: Has more good or evil been done in the name of religion. My answer is always: Lots of good (see above commenter). Lots of evil, too.

Lisa, did you see the news that the leaders of the Catholic, Methodist, and one diocese of the Episcopal Church in Alabama (there are two in the state) have sued the state to prevent HB 56 from being enforced? What's your opinion about religious leaders involving themselves in lawsuits over state laws that aren't directly aimed at their religious practices?

Well, especially in the case of the RC church, the laws are aimed exactly at its constuents. The immigrants in question here are likely to be Spanish-speaking people from Mexico and other places in Central America. These folks are the lifeblood of the Catholic church in America -- they're the ones whose piety and devotion keep the church alive. (The number of white Catholics, now generations away from their Irish and Italian ancestors is shrinking.) The Roman Catholic church has a GREAT interest in protecting these people. Also, religious groups have always advocated on behalf of or against civic laws. See: slavery; women's suffrage; the civil rights movement; abortion, etc. Not sure why immigration should be any different.

Did you see the TV show last night on dying? Even if not, I am wondering if there are readers out there who experienced their own white light/out of body/seeing deceased people/floating through tunnel, etc. experiences, and how they interpretted what they experienced. It was interesting hearing this from different perspectives, including people of different religions, science, and even an atheist.

I wrote a book about heaven ("Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife") which -- in a short section -- offers a scientific hypothesis for these visions. It also addresses the question of whether these visions are "real" or not, and whether that matters.

Those poor buggers have been experiencing extreme drought now for what.. 11 years (I recall from NPR)? Jesus will get there before the rain does it appears. Any good data/reporting on folks who continue to believe in miracles as their farms and houses literally disappear over the rainbow? If not, why not? Seems like an interesting topic given the inexplicable depth of religious faith in places like that. Me? I'd rather have pure, clean fresh water. Thanks much. HLB (Mt. Lebanon, PA)

There are lots of folks these days participating in Native American rain dances.

Theb shrimp law thing is a very poor argument. There are two kinds of laws in the O.T.--prescriptive laws and moral law. Prescriptive laws (such as for eating meat on Fridays for Catholics) are eminently changeable (although not the authority on which these prescriptive laws are based). The moral law though is immutable and has been thus from age to age.

It's exaggerated, but I'm not sure it's a poor argument. It points to the problem of cherry picking, which I'd argue happens today even in the area of moral law. Gay marriage is a perfect example.

Jesus spoke of healing the sick and caring for the poor. I have a feeling Jesus might not be lobbying to cut health care and services to the poor,.

ok guys, i'm done. thanks for chatting!!! see you next week.

In This Chat
Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife." She was a senior editor at Newsweek, overseeing the magazine's religion coverage, writing the weekly "Belief Watch" column and editing Newsweek's prominent "Spirituality in America" double issue.

Before joining Newsweek, Miller covered religion for The Wall Street Journal. She has also worked with The New Yorker, Self magazine and Harvard Business Review.

An award-winning journalist, she is the recipient of the 2010 Wilbur Award for outstanding magazine column. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, including the Colbert Report, the O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and others.
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