Nel's New Day

May 26, 2013

Tornadoes, Atheism, Bigotry, Tolerance Plus the Supreme Court

Religion during the past week has presented a mixed bag of news. Pat Robertson seems to be mellowing. Three years ago, he told his viewers on the 700 Club that tornadoes are a sign of the End Times, and he traditionally blames LGBT people for any disaster. This week, however, he just asked the victims, “Why did you build houses where tornadoes were apt to happen?” He did move on to theology: “If enough people were praying, He would’ve intervened, you could pray, Jesus stilled the storm, you can still storms.”  So it’s the victims’ fault. 

Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka (KS) did stick to his hate script by blaming gay Jason Collins for the tornadoes. His website inadvertently helped tornado victims, however. Anonymous hacked WBC website,, and automatically directed viewers to a Red Cross donation site. People gave over $8,000 before the website was taken down.

Wolf Blitzer, too, struggled with theology surrounding the recent Oklahoma tornadoes. On live television, Blitzer referred to the survival as “blessed” three times before he asked, “You’ve gotta thank the Lord, right? Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?”

Holding her 18-month-son, Rebecca Vitsmun politely replied, “I’m actually an atheist.”

Blitzer stuttered, “You are. All right. But you made the right call.”

Still gracious, Vitsmun replied, “We are here, and I don’t blame anyone for thanking the Lord.”

Vitsmun’s honesty has  a benefit. Stand-up comic Doug Stanhope started an Indiegogo fundraising campaign titled “Atheists Unite” to help rebuild her home. People have already donated over $85,000 with almost two months remaining in the campaign. FreeOK is also selling t-shirts to benefit Vitsmun.

Glenn Beck attacked Blitzer’s interview with Vitsmun as a setup. According to Beck, a television producer “who is sympathetic to the atheist plight or just doesn’t like Christians” handpicked Vitsmun to be interviewed to “point out that in the middle of heartland in America, where most people are God-fearing, there are atheists there too.” Beck’s conclusion:

“We are not fighting against flesh and bone. We are fighting the forces of spiritual darkness and it doesn’t matter what people’s intent are, but I will tell you that that was there for a reason.”

Another atheist also made great news last week. When it was his turn to lead the opening prayer for the House session, Arizona state Rep. Juan Mendez changed the format:

“Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you not bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people in our state.”

Mendez also quoted legendary astronomer Carl Sagan: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” He concluded his address by saying he hoped “Arizona’s non-believers can feel as welcome and valued here as believers.” After Mendez introduced members of the Secular Coalition for Arizona sitting in the gallery, a member said she was “witnessing history.” Mendez then called himself one of just 1.3 million Arizonans not affiliated with a religious tradition or organization. That’s almost 20 percent, the same percentage for the rest of the United States.

If you want a scholarship to college, you might want to break the law by wandering around with guns.  After Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. learned that David Cole Withrow was arrested for taking guns onto school grounds, the North Carolina high school senior was offered a scholarship to Falwell’s school. Despite his first claim that he didn’t know the guns were in his car, he changed his story later.

Michele Bachmann has a solution for her giant GOP problem of repealing Obamacare. After the House passed its 37th repeal still knowing that their votes would go nowhere, she said:

“I think the President will ultimately be forced to repudiate his own signature piece of legislation because the American people will demand it. And I think before his second term is over, we’re going to see a miracle before our eyes, I believe God is going to answer our prayers and we’ll be freed from the yoke of Obamacare. I believe that’s going to happen and we saw step one last week with the repeal of Obamacare in the House. We have two more steps. We serve a mighty God and I believe it can happen.”

Bachmann gets two points, unlike Sarah Palin, for knowing the word “repudiate.” And she does blame God for the 9/11 and Benghazi attacks.

The new pope gets lots of points for his openness to all people who do good. In last Wednesday’s message on Vatican radio, he described the apostles as “a little intolerant” and disagreed with the idea that non-Catholics cannot do good. He said:

“If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter. We need that so much.”

This isn’t the first time that Pope Francis has used this message. In March,  he declared that the faithful and atheists can be “precious allies to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation.”

This speech makes an amazing change from the former pope who made all non-Catholics into second-class citizens in the same way that fundamental evangelical Christians do. This could be the first step toward peace.

More attention will be paid to the separation of church and state next year when the Supreme Court takes on a case about predominantly Christian prayers in public meetings.

Eight years ago, in an opinion warning of the “violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government,” retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor challenged her fellow conservative justices eager to weaken the wall of separation between church and state:

“Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

With the loss on the bench of O’Connor (originally a conservative), the Supreme Court has five justices who sometimes desert the system devised over 200 years ago. O’Connor supported the position that government cannot endorse a particularly religious belief or take action that might convey such a “message of endorsement to the reasonable observer.”

Since her departure, the Roberts’ court has taken pieces out of the wall between church and state one at a time. In Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, SCOTUS ruled that the president could provide money to faith-based groups with immunity. In Arizona Christian School v. Winn, SCOTUS allowed religious groups to receive taxpayer funding as long as these were structured as tax benefits and not as direct spending.

Next year’s case determines whether the government can “demonstrate . . . allegiance to a particular sect or creed.” In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the issue is whether a municipal legislature violated the Constitution’s ban on separation of church and state by beginning its meetings with overtly Christian prayers roughly two-thirds of the time. This case addresses the question of whether the constitution permits a government “endorsement” of religion of the kind rejected by O’Connor.

As usual, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy will most likely be the swing vote in this case. He has said that “government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.” The question is whether he will forbid anything in the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion.


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