Sunset on Sunday

Curious about Yom Kippur, the Jewish “Day of Atonement,” which begins at sunset on Sunday?

You can learn the basics on the website “”: There are many good Jewish websites with fine explanations of Yom Kippur, but this one is a good starting point.

And “here’s”: an interesting, brief interview with Elie Wiesel, in which he offers a slightly different take on Yom Kippur.

I’ll be back Tuesday.

The Muslim vote

It’s no secret that many religious groups are looking to influence how people vote these days. Muslims are no different.

Yesterday, the Muslim American Society, a group based in Washington, D.C., announced new plans to get Muslims to register to vote — and to educate registered Muslims on issues of “Muslim interest” like immigration, civil liberties, health care and foreign policy. A new “website”: focuses on 30 races in 11 states where there are large Muslim populations.

Republicans and Democrats have shown real interest in the growing Muslim vote in recent years, as both parties promote issues that might appeal to the Muslim community. Muslims are generally quite conservative on what are known as the “moral value” issues, but are extremely critical of American foreign policy, particularly — no surprise here — in the Middle East.

Polls show that most Muslims voted for President Bush in 2000, but that the Muslim community largely abandoned him in 2004 after the Iraq war began.

MAS is calling on all Muslims to register and vote this year. “Islam mandates every Muslim to be unequivocally committed to social justice,” a statement from the group said. “Civic engagement may be the most powerful way to fulfill that mandate in a democracy.”

Moyers is green. What about God?

I just got off a conference call with Bill Moyers, who is promoting a documentary called “Is God Green?” It will be on PBS on Oct. 11 at 9 p.m. You can watch a “preview.”:

Moyers’ question is intriguing, but goofy, making me think of Kermit the frog. But that’s me.

Regardless, his focus is the growing interest in environmentalism, particularly global warming, on the part of evangelical Christians. Moyers thinks this development is a big political story because evangelicals who are concerned about global warming just might vote Democratic.

“They’ve been voting essentially right down the line on conservative issues,” he said. “That’s beginning to change.”

It sure sounded like wishful thinking on Moyers’ part. He is a man of faith, but not of the conservative variety. And he clearly believes that environmentalism should be a priority of evangelicals and everyone else.

Moyers mentioned that Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, has faced some heat from conservative evangelicals for expressing his concern about global warming. Moyers didn’t leave much doubt about where he stands.

“Cizik has shown great courage in refusing to back down,” he said.

Moyers was asked whether evangelicals who care about the environment will vote for Democrats who are pro-choice and gay-friendly. It’s a good question. Evangelicals might be more likely to try to change Republican policy on the environment than to suddenly abandon all their favorite issues.

But Moyers said he can see evangelicals defecting from the Republican Party over global warming.

“It could deny Republicans 5, 10, 15 percent of the vote in a significant election,” he said.

We’ll see.

Praying with Dr.

Dr. Daniel Sulmasy must really like to study. He went to medical school, has a doctorate in philosophy and is a Franciscan friar.

Yesterday, I interviewed Sulmasy, director of the Bioethics Institute at New York Medical College in Valhalla, about a very interesting recent achievement of his. He got the journal of the American Medical Association to publish an article about religion. God’s in it. Miracles. Prayer. All that stuff.

Medical journals normally deal with diseases and treatments, not the spiritual needs of patients. But Sulmasy’s article made the case that doctors should, at times, talk to patients about their religious beliefs.

I’ll write next week about Sulmasy’s work and his journal article. But I wanted to share one tidbit now. In his article, he cited a study that showed that 77 percent of patients want physicians to consider their spiritual needs — and 48 percent of patients want their doctors to pray with them.

Pray with them?

I asked Sulmasy, based on his experience with doctors, how many would feel comfortable praying with their patients. His guess: “In the South, maybe 25 percent. In the New York area, less than 1 percent.”

Leaving behind the oldest profession

Now that the “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon has subsided, what is to come of Mary Magdalene?

Pope Gregory proclaimed her a prostitute in 591 and it stuck. For a long, long time. But scholars now agree that the pope was mistaken and there is no reason to believe that Mary was a prostitute.

Dan Brown’s fictional “Code,” of course, went a step or two further, “revealing” that Jesus and Mary were married with children. The book is a novel and its plot was dismissed off-hand by scholars, but many readers took the story quite seriously (or at least considered whether elements might contain truth).

Even before the book, many women were trying to reclaim Mary Magdalene, not as Jesus’ wife, but as one of his apostles — as a woman whose primary role was written out of Scripture and whose reputation was unfairly stained.

So now, a popular Korean musical about the life of Mary Magdalene has come to the 2006 New York Musical Theater Festival. “Maria Maria” once again presents Magdalene as a prostitute. She is forced by the Pharisees to try to seduce Jesus. She fails, confesses her love for Jesus and defends him after the crucifixion.

Apparently, Magdalene, as portrayed in popular culture, has not yet escaped the world’s oldest profession. The show won 4 Korean Musical Awards, including “Best Musical.” It is playing through Oct. 15 at Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College in New York. Get ticket and other information “here.”:

Do you attend “Middle Church?”

Are you part of the religious center? Not on the right, but not necessarily a lefty.

Then Bob Edgar wants you to speak out and reclaim the “values” debate from Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwall, Focus on Family, and the rest of the Religious Right crowd.

And buy his book.

I talked to Edgar yesterday. He is general secretary of the National Council of Churches, which represents 36 mostly Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations and is generally regarded as the old warhorse of the ecumenical movement. He’s a former congressman, a former seminary president and a well-known liberal.

He’s speaking tomorrow (Wednesday the 27th) at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church, 210 Orchard Ridge Road in Chappaqua.

Edgar’s book is called “Middle Church.” In it, he contends that countless religious and political moderates represent a national Middle Church (and a Middle Synagogue and even a Middle Mosque). But these independent-thinking moderates stay quiet and leave the public square to ultra-conservative evangelical Christians, who then convince the gullible media that America cares only about abortion, homsexuality, stem cells and Terri Schiavo.

“The group in the middle tends to be genetically nice, but exquisitely silent on justice issues,” Edgar told me.

He argues that the exquisitely silent really do care about saving the environment, fighting poverty and curtailing the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. We’ve been brainwashed to believe that these are “liberal” issues, he told me, when they are actually mainstream.

I don’t think anybody doubts that there is a silent political and cultural middle. But a lot of people are silent because they want to be. And moderates are going to have a hard time speaking with anything like a unified voice.

“You don’t need all of the middle to be courageous,” Edgar said, “but you need some of them to step back and say, ‘Regardless of my position on abortion or homosexuality, I care about the poor and stewardship of the planet and I care about peacemaking.’ ”

Edgar is the latest voice in a small, but growing movement of liberal-to-moderate Christians who are trying to stand up to the loud, organized and effective Religious Right (I hesitate to use the term, but you know what it means). Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners, has been the most public. John Danforth, an Episcopal minister and former Republican senator from Missouri, argues in his new book, “Faith and Politics: How the ‘Moral Values’ Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together,” that the Religious Right has taken over his Republican Party.

I wonder if Edgar is too well known for his liberal views to make inroads with moderates who hold some real conservative positions. His talk tomorrow is sponsored by the New Castle Democratic Committee. Edgar describes himself as being on “the right wing of the left.”

Edgar ends his book with seven “new beatitudes.” Here they are:
1. Blessed are the Faithful Risk Takers
2. Blessed is the Courageous Remnant (meaning those in the minority)
3. Blessed Are Those Who Love the Stranger
4. Blessed Are Those Who Read the Whole Bible
5. Blessed Are the Faithful Voters
6. Blessed Are Those Who Challenge Us to Work for Justice
7. Blessed Are Those with a Sense of Humor and a Sense of Hope

Those “Crazy Christians”

Aaron Sorkin must figure that conservative Christians won’t watch his show anyway.

On a tip from a colleague, I watched his new show, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” last night on NBC (going back and forth with Monday Night Football). It’s about the making of a fictional sketch comedy show like “Saturday Night Live.” The dialogue is fast, hip and rings of the dialogue on Sorkin’s last show, “The West Wing.”

A key plot on last night’s episode centered around the planning of a sketch called “Crazy Christians.” A Christian magazine (called “Rapture”) leaks word of the sketch and local network affiliates in a few small markets go running. The network chairman wants the sketch pulled, but Amanda Peet, as the courageous network president, stands up to the Religious Right.

We won’t find out until next week how the sketch goes.

Of course, conservative Christians have made a fuss about a few TV shows over the years. They helped get “The Book of Daniel” off to a bad start early this year, arguing that the drama about a disheveled Episcopal priest offered an insulting portrayal of Jesus (he was in the show) and was pro-homosexuality.

Is Sorkin goading the Religious Right? It sure looks that way. An actress on his fictional show ended her relationship with Matthew Perry’s character because of his secular ways.

One interesting point: The show’s characters are shocked to find out that “Rapture” magazine has a much larger circulation than “Vanity Fair.” It seems to be Sorkin’s way of admitting that the liberal elite, like himself, are out of touch with much of mainstream America.

The ratings will show if anybody cares.

Live on Al-Jazeera: Benedict XVI

You have to love Pope Benedict XVI’s opening statement at his meeting this morning with Muslim diplomats: “The circumstances which have given rise to our gathering are well known.â€?

Very direct. Very Benedict.

I’ve spent the past few hours reading reactions to the pope’s comments and talking to Catholics and Muslims about what this strange episode — centering around the pope’s use of a 14th-century quotation — will mean for Catholic/Muslim relations. Of course, nobody knows.

There are more than 1 billion Catholics in the world and more than 1 billion Muslims. The two groups have a long, sometimes violent, history. Four decades ago, Vatican II called for Catholics and Muslims to work “for peace and freedom for all people.” And yet, they seem to be in the early stages of trying to reach some sort of modern understanding.

It promises to be a very long haul, in part because the Muslim world has no clear leadership. The Vatican is accustomed to developing official “dialogues” with Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews and others. These talks move along slowly (and sometimes not at all), but everyone knows who they’re dealing with.

That’s why the pope’s meeting with 22 displomats from Muslim countries was striking. He greeted them one by one and urged an end to violence. Whether he apologized — or apologized fully — seems to be open to interpretation. At least some diplomats went away satisfied.

Interestingly, Al-Jazeera carried the pope’s speech live. And the Vatican issued a translation in Arabic.

Monsignor Ferdinando Berardi, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in New Rochelle, told me that today’s meeting was a “wonderful” symbol: “We will have misunderstandings, unfortunately. But if we keep an open mind and respect others, we can work out our difficulties.”

Sounds good. But what happens next? Will the pope continue to reach out to the consortium of Muslim leaders? Will Muslim leaders condemn the firebombing of churches in the Palestinian territories after Benedict’s initial speech?

Will today’s meeting go down as the start of something good, a sign of bad things to come or something in between?

Getting started

Welcome to my blog. “On Religion,� I’m calling it.

I approach the whole thing with trepidation.

Why? First off, I’ve grown quite comfortable writing in the detached, pseudo-objective, third-person voice of a newspaper reporter. An article may have my byline on it, but I’m removed from the words. Like a narrator you hear but don’t see, I suppose.

Now I’m blogging. I still have to write what I see and hear and observe. But I can no longer pretend I’m not there. I have to be part of it. Like a host or a guide. Gary Stern in first person. “I. I. I. Me. Me. Me.�

Second, writing about religion, as a journalist, isn’t always easy. I’ve been on the beat for almost 10 years, trying to explain and interpret events in the religious realm. I do so while trying hard not to (unintentionally) offend any group, denomination, movement or sect.

I have a feeling that it will be easier to offend by blog.

If I write in my own voice while trying to make sense of some conflict, I can see partisan-types taking my observations as signs of bias or an agenda.

But maybe not. We’ll see.

Journalism evolved from the keeping of journals, right? Maybe a blog is just a modern journal. That’s how I’m going to look about it.

I’m writing notes and thoughts in my journal. But instead of translating them into newspaper-ese, my notes – succinct, pithy and insightful – become this blog.

The world of religion is an awfully big place. I’ll try to touch on events and trends, people and ideas, that are important or interesting (or even, on a good day, both). Let’s see how it goes.