Religious literacy on ‘The Daily Show’

Stephen Prothero, the Boston University prof whose new book, Religious Liberty, is getting a lot of attention, was on the “Daily Show”: with Jon Stewart a few days ago.

There were some funny exchanges.

Prothero’s book, as the title suggests, makes the case that all Americans should know the basics about their own faith and even other people’s religions.

With Stewart, he mentioned all the curiosity about Mitt Romney being a Mormon:

“I’m less concerned about whether Mitt Romney is a Mormon or a Protestant or a Catholic, but I’d like to know if he knows basic information about Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. So the next time some big event comes up in world affairs, he’ll know how to deal with it.”

Stewart’s comeback:

“Are you suggesting that we are also going to war with Hinduism and Buddhism?”

Just a joke, folks (although, I guess, Stewart is pretty anti-Bush Administration, right? I don’t often watch the show).

To illustrate the need for religious literacy, Prothero had to go no further than U.S. Silvestre Reyes, the Texas Democrat who is now chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. As of December, when he faced an interviewer, Reyes did not know whether al Qaeda is predominantly Sunni or Shiite. This is, of course, an inexcusable, mind-blowing problem for any congressperson, given the significance of the Sunni-Shiite split in not only Iraq, but the entire Muslim world.

“All we need to know,” Stewart quipped, “is who is evil and who isn’t.”

Humanae Vitae scholar to speak tomorrow

I just found out that Janet E. Smith, a leading proponent of the Catholic Church’s ban on artificial contraception, will speak tomorrow morning at 9:30 a.m. at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.

Smith, the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, is a hero of sorts to many orthodox Catholics. A recorded talk she gave called “Contraception: Why not” has supposedly over 1 million copies around the world.

She has worked tirelessly to defend Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s history-changing encyclical of 1968, which reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s prohibition of all forms of artificial birth control. Many Catholics (of different theological perspectives) believe it was a turning point for the church, particularly in America, because many laypeople decided to ignore the teaching and many priests did little to promote it.

During the 1990s, Smith published Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader.

Dunwoodie is located at 2001 Seminary Ave. For information, call (914) 968-6200.

PBS show to profile Iran trip

A delegation of religious leaders visited Iran a few weeks back to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others. The liberal group came back to urge reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran.

The PBS newsmagazine “NOW”: will focus on the trip on this weekend’s show. It will air on channel 13 tomorrow (Friday) at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday (March 25) at 11 p.m.

As I noted a while back, the delegation issued a statement about the trip that somehow skipped over Ahmadinejad’s most outrageous statements (the Holocaust never happened, Israel will be imminently destroyed, etc.).

I wonder if NOW will bring up some of these points.

An excerpt from the group’s “statement:”:

Our final day included a meeting with former President Khatami and current President Ahmadinejad. The meeting with President Ahmadinejad was the first time an American delegation had met in Iran with an Iranian president since the Islamic revolution in 1979. The meeting lasted two-and-a-half hours and covered a range of topics, including the role of religion in transforming conflict, Iraq, nuclear proliferation, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What the delegation found most encouraging from the meeting with President Ahmadinejad was a clear declaration from him that Iran has no intention to acquire or use nuclear weapons, as well as a statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved through political, not military means. He said, “I have no reservation about conducting talks with American officials if we see some goodwill.”

We believe it is possible for further dialogue and that there can be a new day in U.S. – Iranian relations. The Iranian government has already built a bridge toward the American people by inviting our delegation to come to Iran. We ask the U.S. government to welcome a similar delegation of Iranian religious leaders to the United States.”


Now he’s Rev. podcast, too

Howard Stern, of course, likes to refer to himself as “King of All Media.”

But Joel Osteen, the always smiling megachurch pastor from Houston, may be pushing him.

He’s already watched on TV by millions in over 100 countries. His book, Your Best Life Now, has sold 4 million copies and is still hot.

Now Osteen’s podcast is “number 9”: on the iTunes chart. More than 1 million people downloaded him during February alone.


“Based on the number of subscribers per day, Joel Osteen is one of the most popular podcasts in the world,” said Jeana Lawrence, director of communications for Osteen’s Lakewood Church (a 16,000-seat, former basketball arena).

At Osteen’s “website,”: you can also order a DVD of his two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden last year.

What’s next for Joel Osteen?

A blood drive on Good Friday

On Good Friday? Think about it.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Spring Valley is holding a Good Friday Blood Drive on April 6 from 1 to 9 p.m.

The Rev. Angela Boatwright, vicar of the church, said that a blood drive on Good Friday has a powerful symbolic aspect — given the image of Christ bleeding on the cross. She said giving blood would be even more meaningful than fasting, an easy way “to give life to another person.”

The church is located at 26 S. Madison Ave. in Spring Valley. It’s 845-356-1857.

The church’s flyer includes this: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

One-third of Americans ‘unchurched’

Polls may show that 90-plus percent of Americans believe in God, but that doesn’t mean that everyone goes to a house of worship.

One third of American adults — exactly 33 percent — are “unchurched,” meaning they have not attended a religious service during the past six months, according to a “new poll”: from the Barna Group.

The figure is a bit lower than in 1994, when Barna found that 36 percent were unchurched.

Who goes and who doesn’t? Barna found that residents of the West (42%) and Northeast (39%) are mostly likely to be unchurched, while Southerners are least likely (26%). No surprise there.

A whopping 61% of non-Christians have not gone to a house of worship in the last six months. But only 24% of those who call themselves Christians are unchurched.

Among Christians…one-quarter of Catholics (25%) are unchurched and 20% of Protestants. According to Barna, Catholics were more consistent church-goers than Protestants until the mid-1990s.

Among Protestants…26% of mainliners are unchurched, and 16% of non-mainliners.

The political breakdown (quick: guess who is more unchurched, liberals or conservatives…You’re right!): 47% of political liberals are unchurched, compared to 19% of political conservatives.

Finally, the unchurched by race/ethnicity: African Americans, 25%; whites, 32%, Hispanics, 34%, and Asians, 63%.

The evangelical Barna Group says this about its findings:

“When these statistics are projected across the aggregate adult population, the numbers are staggering. An estimated 73 million adults are presently unchurched. When teens and children are added, the total swells to roughly 100 million Americans.

To put that figure in context, if the unchurched population of the United States were a nation of its own, that group would be the eleventh most populated nation on earth (trailing only China, India, the churched portion of the United States, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Japan and Mexico).

Included among the unchurched is an estimated 13 to 15 million born again adults and children.”

Get your Pilgrim Bible

Protestants with a Puritan streak and historians of the Bible can now order their very own copy of the “1599 Geneva Bible”: (a replica, of course), first brought by the Pilgrims to the New World.

An advisory board of Protestant scholars worked on the project.

They describe it like this:

“When the Pilgrims arrived in the New World in 1620, they brought along supplies, a consuming passion to advance the Kingdom of Christ, and the Word of God. Clearly, their most precious cargo was the Bible—specifically, the 1599 Geneva Bible. All but forgotten in our day, this version of the Bible was the most widely read and influential English Bible of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A superb translation, it was the product of the best Protestant scholars of the day and became the Bible of choice for many of the greatest writers and thinkers of that time. Men such as William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, and John Milton used the Geneva Bible in their writings. William Bradford also cited the Geneva Bible in his famous book Of Plymouth Plantation.”


The Geneva Bible was the first to use chapters and numbered verses, and also includes notes from Reformation Hall-of-Famers like John Calvin and John Knox.

The publisher promises word-for-word accuracy with the original — but modern spelling.

A hardback costs $29.99.

The national (Catholic) pastime

It’s almost spring, so Opening Day for baseball can’t be far off. Soon pitchers will be praying for a little extra topspin, hitters for a little less.

A new DVD, the baseball edition of “Champions of Faith,”: has just been released, telling the (Catholic) faith stories of some of the diamond’s top stars.

You can learn that Mike Piazza (that’s him) is a devout Catholic who met Pope John Paul II, that Sean Casey reads the Bible every day, that Jack McKeon has a “special devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux and the Blessed Mother,” and that David Eckstein isn’t Jewish (he, too, is Catholic).


The new film comes from Catholic Exchange, whose president, Tom Allen, was distribution executive for The Passion of the Christ.

The producers say:

“Baseball is shown as a powerful metaphor for life that can teach core values such as loyalty, discipline, perseverance, trust, dedication and fair play. Big league ballplayers have long been role models in our society and this first-ever Catholic Exchange documentary strives to affirm people’s love of the sport while inspiring our youth to become champions in the game of life”

Religion has become a big factor in many professional sports. Football players (mostly Protestants from the Bible Belt) form a circle and pray together after each NFL game. Boxers thank Jesus for helping them score a KO.

Baseball has seen a huge influx of players from Latin America, which is almost certainly making the game more Catholic (with some Pentecostals mixed in).

A decade on the beat

Ten years ago today, I started on the religion beat.

Bill Cary, a city editor at the time (lucky for him, he now writes about gardening) called me over to ask me if I knew anything about Presbyterian Church (USA).

The AP was reporting that the Presbyterians had taken some sort of action to ban the ordination of gays and lesbians.

I don’t know what I told Bill, but I knew nothing about Presbyterians. I had probably never heard of Presbyterian Church (USA).

The truth is…I knew next to nothing about Protestants, having grown up in a section of Brooklyn (between Coney Island and Brighton Beach) where my fellow apartment dwellers were either Jewish or had pictures of the saints on their living room walls. When I walked to school through a largely Italian neighborhood, I passed dozens of plaster statutes of the Virgin Mary.

It had been only days since I was asked to take on the religion beat — to create one, really. I was reasonably excited about it, but very nervous. I had no idea how much I didn’t know.

Anyway, Jim Vande Berg, the since-retired executive presbyter of the Hudson River Presbytery, the regional branch of PCUSA, was kind enough to walk me through the very basics: How do you pronounce pres-by-ter? What was a presbytery? How did PCUSA make decisions? What did the vote mean? What would happen next?

He explained to me that the Hudson River Presbytery had voted overwhelmingly against “Amendment B,” a proposed change to church law that would ban gay clergy. But a majority of all the presbyteries across the country had voted the other way.

My lead in the newspaper read like this: “Disappointment drifted through the ranks of local Presbyterian clergy yesterday after learning that an amendment barring the ordination of homosexuals was passed. Clergy in the region had overwhelmingly rejected it.”

Little did I know that the story would never die. The theological conflict over homosexuality, already raging at the time across denominations and traditions, would remain one of the most enduring issues in religion. And it’s not going away.

All in all, it’s been a fast 10 years. A new publication from my friends at the Religion Newswriters Association is called “Reporting on Religion: A Primer on Journalism’s Best Beat.”

It really is. Religion cuts across all beats and all geographic boundaries. It brings people together — and tears them apart. It’s part of the national fabric, even though no one can agree on the role that religion should play in national life. In New York, we have just about every faith around, sometimes on the same block.

On to year 11.

Roll dice, pay tithes

There’s a new biblical board game out — designed to inspire Christian lifestyles and family values.

But you don’t have to have any prior knowledge of the Bible to play!

The game is called “Inheritance”: and here is a description from its creator, Jawbone Productions:

“Game play is based on the Seven Pillars of Wisdom as revealed by King Solomon (Prov.9:1) Biblical wisdom is acquired in a Christ centered game of interactive family fun celebrating the monopoly of heaven. Players trade, hug, pay tithes and make offerings for the poor as the strategy to success. The inheritance of the promised Kingdom is learned and the winner celebrates Christ as the Lamb of God announcing “Worthy is the lambâ€? (Rev. 5:11) everyone wins, for as it is written; “Happy is the man who finds wisdomâ€? (Prov.3:13) No prior bible knowledge is required.”

The game includes:

Large 22″x22″ Gameboard
7 Pillars tokens,
Lamb chips, Play dollars,
Play Shekels, Playing cards,
Property Deed cards, 24 Rooms,
10 Inns, 3 Dice, 1 Bell