March 2013

Wake Forest Divinity leader named to White House faith–based office

March 14 2013 by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

Church–state expert Melissa Rogers will be the new director of the White House Office of Faith–based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Rogers succeeds Joshua DuBois, who left the office in February after serving throughout President Obama’s first term.
“I’m honored to be able to serve President Obama by forging and promoting a wide range of effective partnerships with faith–based and secular nonprofits that help people in need,” Rogers said in a statement on March 13.
Rogers is already well–acquainted with the office she will direct. She chaired the office’s first advisory council and spearheaded its work to reform the office. In 2010, President Obama signed an executive order reflecting recommendations from the council that called for greater transparency and clearer rules for religious groups that receive federal grants.

Wake Forest University photo
Melissa Rogers

“Melissa has been a stalwart advocate for religious freedom,” said DuBois, who noted her key roles in the creation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, prominent religious freedom statutes.
DuBois, who served as a spiritual as well as political adviser to President Obama, noted Rogers’ Baptist ties and roles as a laywoman in her local congregation volunteering in its food pantry and nursery.
Colleagues from a range of religious organizations welcomed Rogers’ appointment.
“Melissa has a sincere sensitivity to the different beliefs and points of view that people or entire communities may hold on delicate and, frankly, ‘hot button,’ issues,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, who served on the advisory council with Rogers.

Shaun Casey, an ethics professor at Wesley Theological Seminary and former faith adviser to President Obama’s campaign, said he expects Rogers’ expertise could help the White House address the ongoing concerns of critics about faith–based organizations receiving government funding and hiring staffers based on religion.

“It’s logical to assume it will be on her radar screen,” he said.
Rogers comes to the post after serving in several positions at the intersection of religion and public policy. Most recently she has directed Wake Forest School of Divinity’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs and been a nonresident senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

She previously was executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a board member of Public Religion Research Institute and the general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
J. Brent Walker, director of the Baptist Joint Committee, called her a “perfect choice” for the position.
“Melissa is an honest broker, a consensus–builder, and a problem–solver,” added Joel Hunter, a Florida evangelical leader, and Rabbi David Saperstein, a Reform Jewish official, in a joint column in Washington Post’s “On Faith.”
Hunter and Saperstein, who served on the advisory council with Rogers, noted that she has been “a key leader in countless common ground projects,” including a recent document on public religious expression whose drafters had worked from a range of perspectives –– from the conservative American Center for Law and Justice to the liberal American Civil Liberties Union.
C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance and a longtime critic of the faith–based office, expressed confidence in Rogers’ ability to tackle thorny issues, including the debate on hiring.
“I know of no individual better suited to oversee this important endeavor, with sensitivity to the competing views and priorities at play, and with great integrity, than Melissa Rogers,” Gaddy said.
3/14/2013 1:37:58 PM by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

50th lawsuit filed against abortion mandate

March 14 2013 by Michael Foust, Baptist Press

TAMPA, Fla. – A Southern Baptist business owner whose ancestors fled England four centuries ago to escape religious persecution has filed suit against the Obama administration’s abortion/contraceptive mandate, bringing to 50 the number of lawsuits against the controversial policy.

“This is a case about religious freedom,” the 48-page complaint reads. 

The Thomas More Law Center filed the suit Tuesday (March 12) on behalf of Thomas R. Beckwith, the CEO of Beckwith Electric Co. in Largo, Fla. Beckwith is a descendant of the Beckwiths, who in 1626 “endured the hardships of the lengthy and storm-ridden voyage” across the Atlantic Ocean – via a 40-foot ship called the “Sparrow Hawk” – to “escape religious persecution from England,” the complaint says. His ancestors also fought in the Connecticut Militia in the Revolutionary War.

The mandate was issued by the Department of Health and Human Services in August 2011 and went into effect one year later. It forces businesses to pay for employee insurance plans that cover contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs. The latter often are called “emergency contraceptives” and come under brand names such as Plan B and ella. 

Beckwith, a member of First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo, Fla., rejects the notion his business must pay for drugs that are “capable of destroying a human life even after implantation on the uterine wall,” the complaint reads. The complaint quotes extensively the positions of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) on life and religious liberty and also quotes the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and its president, Richard Land.

If Beckwith’s company does not comply with the mandate, it would face fines of more than $6 million per year, according to a press release. 

“Based on the beliefs and teachings of the Southern Baptist Convention, and their deeply held beliefs” Beckwith does “not believe that emergency contraception, abortion, abortifacients” and any drug that destroys human life constitutes medicine or health care, the complaint says.

“Indeed, Plaintiffs believe these procedures and drugs involve gravely immoral practices,” the complaint reads.

Beckwith, the complaint reads, “is guided by his religious beliefs in all aspects of his life.” His company is “managed under the living God’s direction and by God’s principles,” it says. The company employs 168 people, is generous in its employee benefits, and employs a chaplain, the complaint says. The company has donated to schools, missions, hospitals, churches and religious causes. The company provides financial assistance to New Life Solutions, which is the ministry head of several crisis pregnancy centers in Florida. 

The mandate is an “unprecedented despoiling of religious rights,” the complaint says. 

“The Mandate forces employers and individuals to violate their religious beliefs because it requires employers and individuals to pay for and provide insurance” that violates “their deeply held religious beliefs,” the complaint says.

The mandate violates Beckwith’s right to free exercise of religion and free speech under the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, according to the complaint. 

Although the Supreme Court upheld the health care law last June, the justices’ ruling did not deal with the religious liberty issues surrounding the abortion/contraceptive mandate. That means the nation’s highest court could yet strike down what has been for religious groups and some business owners the most controversial part of the law.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.)
3/14/2013 1:20:23 PM by Michael Foust, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Argentina’s Bergoglio becomes Pope Francis

March 14 2013 by Baptist Press, Morning Star News

ROME – Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected as pope Wednesday (March 13), choosing Pope Francis as his name and becoming the first non-European pope in the modern era. Latin America now is home to about 40 percent of the world’s Catholics.

Francis has taken stands with the Argentinian government in support of traditional marriage and the sanctity of life, CNN reported. He succeeds Pope Benedict XVI, who abdicated in February after an eight-year pontificate.

The Argentine-born Francis is the son of an Italian railway worker and is known as a compassionate conservative, according to NBC News. Reports indicate he was the runner-up during the balloting in 2005 that elected Benedict. 

“The 76-year-old Jesuit prizes simplicity and humility and would encourage priests to do shoe-leather evangelization, his biographer says,” NBC News reported.

Pope Francis 

Francis entered the Society of Jesus in 1958 and obtained a licentiate in philosophy, according to the Catholic News Agency. He was ordained a priest in 1969 and became a theology professor. Francis also was a provincial leader for the society and a seminary rector.

The first Jesuit pope, Francis was elected on the first fifth-ballot vote in more than 100 years, on the first full day the College of Cardinals gathered in the conclave at the Sistine Chapel. A two-thirds majority vote was required, meaning 77 of the 115 cardinals were needed to secure a new pope. 

Observers said the relatively quick election signaled the new pope would lead as a traditionalist, even as some Catholics hoped he would take more liberal stances on controversial issues. 

By choosing the name Francis, the new pope may intend to follow the example of humility, simplicity and care for the poor set by St. Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226), commentators said. 

White smoke was seen rising from the chimney on the Sistine Chapel in Rome at 7:06 p.m. local time Wednesday, accompanied by the ringing of bells at St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Speaking to the crowd outside the basilica, Francis asked Catholics to pray for him. 

Christendom had no pope at the time of Christ’s death and resurrection. Nor did the pope’s authority ever extend to the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy in subsequent centuries.

The papacy’s development spanned several centuries, with the first dates attached to the papacy, as recounted in the Westminster Dictionary of Church History, revolving around Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century.

“The Petrine doctrine of papal supremacy was clearly stated by Pope Leo the Great (440-461) and defended in the writings of certain church fathers, in particular Augustine (d. 430) and Gregory the Great (d. 604), who himself became pope in 590 and whose firm leadership set the tradition of papal guidance in both dogma and church organization,” the Westminster volume states.

By the middle of the 11th century, the election of a pope had become “firmly vested in a college of cardinals,” the Westminster volume notes.

However, the papacy often faced turbulent times, such as “the establishment of rival pontiffs in Roman and France” from 1378-1418, according to the Westminster volume, in a rift initially created by a French king and later resolved by a series of church councils.

Today, Catholic doctrine holds that the pope is “the representative (vicar or vicegerent) of Christ on earth, and that his solemn official pronouncements on matters of faith and morals are infallible, safeguarded from error by God,” the Westminster volume states.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote after Pope John Paul II’s death in 2005: “For evangelicals, the crucial question comes with the institution of the papacy itself. After all, the Reformation of the 16th century required a rejection of papal power and authority, and the Reformers soon came to understand the papacy as an unbiblical office that inevitably compromised the authority and sufficiency of Scripture....

“Furthermore, this office is then invested with claims to spiritual and temporal power that are combined with claims of apostolic succession and serve as foundational pillars for the comprehensive claims of the Roman Catholic Church,” Mohler wrote, noting, “The Protestant rejection of the papacy was no small matter, though some liberal Protestants and careless evangelicals seem to have forgotten why.”

Mohler maintained that evangelicals “simply cannot accept the legitimacy of the papacy and must resist and reject claims of papal authority. To do otherwise would be to compromise biblical truth and reverse the Reformation.” 

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach. With reporting by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston.)

3/14/2013 12:54:12 PM by Baptist Press, Morning Star News | with 0 comments

Muslim mobs destroy Christian area in Pakistan

March 14 2013 by Baptist Press, Morning Star News

LAHORE, Pakistan – Muslim mobs upset over an alleged derogatory comment about Muhammad burned down more than 180 Christian-owned houses and shops and at least two church buildings in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 9 after authorities told police to “let them vent their grief and anger,” officials said.

Lahore’s impoverished Joseph Colony looked like a war-ravaged town by Saturday night. There were no reports of casualties, but the site was reminiscent of the destruction in Gojra in 2009, when eight Christians were burned alive, 100 houses looted and 50 homes set ablaze after a blasphemy accusation.

“The police let our homes burn and be vandalized ... a heavy price to pay when you are a Christian in Pakistan,” an area resident identified only as Shaukat told Morning Star News Saturday night as he walked dingy streets littered with burnt furniture and appliances, smoke billowing from small houses while firemen continued to put out blazes. “The entire locality was left to the mobs just because a Christian happened to get involved in a dispute with a Muslim.”

M. Ali photo
Muslim mobs attack a Christian area of Lahore after blasphemy allegation.

Shahid Imran, a Muslim barber in Joseph Colony in the Badami Bagh area, on Friday (March 8) accused his Christian neighbor, 26-year-old Sawan Masih, of blaspheming Muhammad. Imran alleged that Masih, who runs a small billiards business, had “ridiculed” Islam’s prophet by saying that Jesus was the greatest prophet ever.

Soon after, crowds of armed Muslims began gathering in the area of about 200 Christian families, mostly sanitation workers, demanding that Masih be handed over to them. They besieged his house and started pelting it with stones, damaging the windows and door. Masih had fled the area as soon as news reached him about Imran’s accusation.

A senior police officer told Morning Star News that they tried to calm the mob, telling them that the matter would be thoroughly investigated. A local trade union leader, Muhammad Amir, seconded the police appeal. The situation worsened, however, when a rival group of Amir arrived and began accusing him and police of supporting a “blasphemer.”

The senior police official said that in order to calm tensions they took Masih’s father, Chaman Masih, into custody.

“At the police station, Chaman Masih denied that his son had committed any blasphemy,” the official said. “He even challenged Imran to take an oath on the Koran to prove his allegation.”

Back at Joseph Colony, mobs ransacked Masih’s house and demanded registration of a case against him. At the local police station, meantime, members of the Sunni Tehreek, a religio-political Sunni Muslim group, also arrived and presented two witnesses, identified as Shafiq and Iftikhar.

“They claimed that Masih had blasphemed in their presence,” the official said. “By then we had begun to doubt the veracity of the charge as the witnesses were revealed after several hours of the alleged incident, but the situation was such that we had to register a case against Masih under Section 295-C to prevent further violence and religious strife,” he said.

Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code calls for death or life imprisonment for those accused of blaspheming Muhammad.

On Friday (March 8), the police officer had indicated to Morning Star News that there were reports suggesting religiously motivated violence, and he vowed to protect the Christians, though most of them had already left their homes anticipating mayhem.

Around 10 a.m. on Saturday (March 9), Muslim mobs began gathering in Joseph Colony in spite of heavy police deployment. But the provincial government led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had ordered police not to hinder the protestors and “let them vent their grief and anger,” another senior police officer told Morning Star News on condition of anonymity.

Taking their cue from the police’s indifference, the mobs set fire to almost 170 houses and 18 shops, as well as Assemblies of God and Catholic church buildings. A large number of motorcycles and rickshaws were also burned amid the looting mobs. Two police officials who tried to negotiate with the assailants were beaten.

Police reportedly arrested 160 suspected assailants – though such arrests rarely lead to prosecution. Raja Asif, a Christian sanitation worker who has lived in the area for 35 years, said a large police contingent only looked on, fingering their weapons but not taking a step forward to stop the mobs from destroying their homes.

Area resident Haroon Masih wept as he described how the raiders broke the locks of his door and stole the dowries of his four daughters that he had been gathering for several years.

“They made off with everything valuable I had and then simply set the house on fire,” he said. “My new rickshaw was also burnt to ashes.”

Residents also showed Morning Star News gas pipelines that had been sawed off to ensure maximum spread of fires.

Muhammad Mustafa, a Muslim who owns a tea stall, said he and others tried to stop the mobs from burning the houses of innocent people.

“We tried to stop them, but they wouldn’t listen,” he said. “We have been living with these Christians for the last several years, and there has been no religious animosity between us.”

He added that he regretted that the government’s callousness had resulted in huge losses for poor Christians. Most of the Christian residents had left the area on Friday night (March 8), and those who remained barely managed to save their lives as the passion-driven mobs went on a rampage.

The mobs dispersed with the intervention of Badshahi Mosque prayer leader Abdul Khabeer Azad, too late for area residents.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry today held the Punjab Province inspector general of police, the Lahore police chief and the civil administration responsible for the Joseph Colony violence. He also rebuked the Punjab government for its inaction on the Gojra attack, saying such indifference encouraged violence against minorities.

As the area simmered in smoke, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif held a press conference on Saturday night (March 9), announcing that each Christian family affected would receive 200,000 rupees (US $2,045) in compensation.

He also said that displaced Christians would be restored to their homes in four days and that the government would hold a judicial enquiry by the Lahore High Court.

The chief minister avoided commenting on why police did not take action when the mobs were tearing apart Joseph Colony. He announced the suspension of four senior police officers for inaction, though they had only followed orders to stand down before the assailants.

Punjab government spokesman Senator Pervez Rasheed went a step further in defending the government’s complicity in the violence.

“The police acted wisely,” he said on a TV talk show. “The mobs were emotionally charged and needed to vent their grief at the alleged sacrilege. We couldn’t just open fire on them or unleash riot policemen, as it would have caused much more damage.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – This story first appeared at Morning Star News, an independent news service focusing exclusively on the persecution of Christians worldwide.)
3/14/2013 12:39:04 PM by Baptist Press, Morning Star News | with 0 comments

Americans say homosexuality a civil rights issue

March 13 2013 by Russ Rankin, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE – As public policy continues to change on the issue, a LifeWay Research poll shows 58 percent of American adults believe homosexuality is a civil rights issue and 64 percent say it is inevitable same-sex marriage will become legal throughout the United States.

Twenty-nine percent say it is not a civil rights issue and 24 percent say gay marriage legalization is not inevitable.

LifeWay Research conducted a wide-ranging survey of American adults on questions surrounding same-sex marriage, specifically examining whether Americans believe clergy, wedding photographers, rental halls, landlords and employers have the right to refuse access and services to same-sex couples even if same-sex marriage is made legal in their state.

According to the findings:
  • 63 percent agree and 27 percent disagree that pastors should be allowed to refuse to officiate same-sex weddings if they are made legal in their state.
  • 58 percent agree and 33 percent disagree that photographers should be allowed to refuse to work same-sex weddings if they are made legal in their state.
  • 40 percent agree and 52 percent disagree that rental halls should be allowed to refuse to rent out their facilities for same-sex weddings if they are made legal in their state.
  • 27 percent agree and 67 percent disagree that landlords should be allowed to refuse to rent housing to same-sex couples if same-sex marriage is made legal in their state.
  • 14 percent agree and 82 percent disagree that employers should be allowed to refuse employment to someone based on their sexual preference.
“Clearly, Americans believe the prerogative exists for individuals such as clergy or photographers to deny services for same-sex marriage,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. “However, the level of agreement changes with scenarios that could be interpreted as more basic rights such as housing and employment.”

Consistent in all scenarios of the survey, men are more likely than women to agree these individuals should have the right to refuse services, rental agreements or employment – as are Americans calling themselves “born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist Christian.”

While Americans calling themselves “born-again, evangelical, or fundamentalist Christian” are most likely to agree that pastors (74 percent), photographers (72 percent) and rental halls (57 percent) should be able to refuse same-sex involvement, the level of agreement is much lower concerning landlords (39 percent) and employers (19 percent).

Additional demographic breakdown of the LifeWay Research study shows:
  • Americans in the Northwest (31 percent) and West (36 percent) are more likely to disagree than those in the Midwest (22 percent) and South (23 percent) that pastors should be allowed to refuse to officiate same-sex weddings.
  • Americans age 65 and older are more likely to agree (37 percent) that landlords should be allowed to refuse to rent housing to same-sex couples.
  • Americans who attend religious services one or more times a week are most likely to agree (22 percent) that employers should be allowed to refuse employment based on sexual preference and that landlords should be allowed to refuse to rent housing to same-sex couples (41 percent).
While 64 percent of Americans agree same-sex marriage will become legal in the United States, a quarter disagree and 12 percent “don’t know.” The survey reveals Americans in the West (72 percent) are more likely to agree than those in the Midwest (57 percent) that legality is inevitable. Sixty-one percent of Southerners agree. Those calling themselves “born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist Christian” are less likely to agree (50 percent) and more likely to disagree (38 percent) that this will happen.

The survey shows women (61 percent), Americans with a college degree (65 percent), and those age 18-29 (65 percent) are more likely to agree that homosexuality is a civil rights issue like gender, race and age.

“While a majority of Americans categorize homosexuality as a civil rights issue like age, race and gender, and almost two-thirds think legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. is evitable, the research does show lines and divisions on these issues clearly exist in our country,” Stetzer said.

The survey was conducted Nov. 14-16 via an online panel representing the adult population of the United States. Responses were weighted by region, age, ethnicity, gender, and education to reflect the population. The completed sample of 1,191 surveys provides a 95 percent confidence that the sampling error from this panel does not exceed +2.9 percent. Margins of error are higher in subgroups.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Russ Rankin is a writer for the communications office of LifeWay Christian Resources.)
3/13/2013 4:56:20 PM by Russ Rankin, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Retired SBC researcher Cliff Tharp dies

March 13 2013 by Marty King, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE – Cliff Tharp Jr., who coordinated the annual reporting and analysis of the Southern Baptist Convention’s membership statistics, died Monday (March 11) in Richmond, Va. He was 70.

Tharp retired from LifeWay Christian Resources in 2008 as senior coordinator of the Annual Church Profile (ACP) process after serving the denomination 39 years. The ACP is the system the denomination’s 45,000 cooperating churches use to report membership, attendance, stewardship and leadership information.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, announced Tharp’s death at the opening of a meeting of statistical representatives from state Baptist conventions the day following his unexpected death – a meeting Tharp would have organized prior to his retirement.

Cliff Tharp Jr.

“Much of what Cliff Tharp did is foundational to what we do today through LifeWay Research,” Stetzer said. “In our desire to serve our churches and be good stewards, we stand on his shoulders. Cliff taught me that facts are our friends. We would be a better convention if we loved facts like Cliff Tharp did.”

Tharp led conversion of the ACP process from a laborious manual system to web-based reporting focused on a few key statistics. His statistical analysis provided valuable information to SBC churches across the country and trend development and analysis to denominational leaders.

LifeWay presented each state ACP coordinator with a copy of Tharp’s book Standing Out of Sight: A History of Denominational Statistics in the Southern Baptist Convention 1882-2009.

Tharp held a bachelor’s degree from Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., a master’s from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Tharp and his wife Rose were longstanding members of First Baptist Church in Nashville but moved to Richmond, Va., following retirement to be near their daughter Stacey and her family.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Marty King is director of communications for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.)
3/13/2013 4:52:58 PM by Marty King, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

‘The Bible’ series retains strong ratings

March 13 2013 by Baptist Press

NASHVILLE – History Channel’s “The Bible” miniseries retained strong ratings in its second week with 10.8 million viewers Sunday (March 10), placing it second among all cable programming.

“Walking Dead” (11.46 million) finished first among cables shows for the night. Among both broadcast and cable programs, CBS’ “60 Minutes” finished first with 11.58 million viewers.

The Bible miniseries debuted with 13.1 million total viewers March 3 to become the No. 1 entertainment telecast on cable so far this year and was the top show that night on either broadcast or cable TV.

More than 50 million cumulative viewers have seen at least a portion of the series since it began, according to a press release.

Media websites have noticed the miniseries’ popularity. posted a story with the headline, “How the History Channel Turned ‘The Bible’ Into a Blockbuster.” and several other websites posted stories calling the miniseries a “hit.”

“Those are the kinds of numbers that get TV executives’ attention, and ‘attention’ in the TV
business means copying,” Time’s James Poniewozik wrote. “Last year, History pulled meganumbers with Hatfields and McCoys; now NBC is developing a Hatfields and McCoys series. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see more religious epics coming to TV – stories aimed, like The Bible miniseries, at the comfort zone of believers.”

The five-night series will be telecast over the next three Sundays, concluding Easter. Next up is an episode portraying the arrival of Jesus.

Two professing Christians, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, are the executive producers. Downey told the radio program “For Faith & Family” that the “intention of making this series was to glorify God.”

The Bible airs Sunday night at 8 p.m. Eastern on History Channel.
3/13/2013 4:45:56 PM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Evangelical leaders hopeful after immigration talk with Obama

March 13 2013 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

WASHINGTON – Evangelical Christian leaders, including a Southern Baptist, left a White House meeting with President Obama encouraged at the hope for immigration reform this year.

Southern Baptist public policy specialist Barrett Duke and Hispanic evangelicals were among 14 religious leaders who met with Obama and senior staff March 8 to discuss the effort to remedy what is widely acknowledged as an immigration system badly in need of repair. The current system has resulted in the illegal presence of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

He was “very encouraged” by the meeting, said Duke, who added Obama “spoke clearly about his desire to see us achieve passage of legislation this year.”

“While many details remain to be worked out, the big pieces are in place. Secure borders, workplace enforcement, legal status for undocumented immigrants who qualify, and a citizenship process for those who desire to be U.S. citizens are all within reach,” said Duke, vice president for public policy and research of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).


SXG photo by Ben Shafer

The “big pieces” cited by Duke are components in the kind of reform the ERLC and other members of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) have called for and heard echoed by Obama in the meeting. In written statements released through the EIT, Duke and others who are part of the new coalition of evangelical leaders responded positively to what the president said.

The meeting “invigorated me with hope and optimism,” Samuel Rodriguez said.

“The president’s resolve,” along with evangelical support, offers “the prescription for a comprehensive resolution” to the problem, said the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

“The collective commitment to incorporate a pathway to citizenship as an integral part of any legislative solution secures a complete integration process,” Rodriguez said. “Both the president and faith leaders understand that citizenship must be earned, yet denying it will create a two-tier society attempting to live one dream: the American dream.”

Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, described the meeting as “a clarion sign for Latino Evangelicals that immigration reform is possible.”

Latino evangelicals “stand committed to see this through in ways that provide an earned path to citizenship while addressing any security concerns,” he said in a written statement.

Obama told the religious leaders he was committed to working with Congress in a bipartisan fashion for immigration reform, the White House said in a written release. He pointed to the progress being made by a bipartisan group of senators but encouraged the meeting participants to continue their efforts. The president also thanked them for their work on the issue, according to the release.

The religious leaders thanked Obama for his leadership on the issue and prayed with him, the White House reported.

The meeting came as Congress is seeking to address the immigration issue in a serious fashion for the first time since 2007. Four Republicans – led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida – and four Democrats in the Senate have proposed a plan for broad reform.

Supporters of immigration reform have warned there is only a narrow window of opportunity for passage in this two-year, congressional session, which closes at the end of 2014. ERLC President Richard Land has predicted approval must happen by the Fourth of July or Labor Day.

Other participants in the meeting with Obama, according to the White House, were Leith Anderson, president, National Association of Evangelicals; Stephan Bauman, president, World Relief; Minerva Carcano, United Methodist Church bishop, Los Angeles; Luis Cortes, president, Esperanza; Orlando Findlayter, senior pastor, New Hope Christian Fellowship in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Jose Gomez, Roman Catholic archbishop, Los Angeles; Mark Hetfield, president, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; Kathryn Lohre, president, National Council of Churches; Mohamed Magid, president, Islamic Society of North America; Dieter Uchtdorf, second counselor, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Jim Wallis, president, Sojourners.

The proposal by Rubio and the other senators would require undocumented immigrants to register with the government – as well as pass a background check and pay back taxes and a fine – to gain “probationary legal status.” All enforcement provisions must be final before an immigrant on probation can earn a green card and apply for citizenship years later. A commission, which includes governors and attorneys general from Southwestern border states, must make a recommendation about when the security prerequisites are met.

Immigrants on probation will not be able to receive federal benefits and must go to the back of the line for all immigrants, undergo another background check, learn English and civics, and prove they have a history of employment and a current job to seek permanent residency.

Messengers to the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix, Ariz., approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested public officials establish after securing the borders “a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country.” It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)
3/13/2013 4:08:43 PM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Vietnam’s decree is a blow to Christianity

March 13 2013 by Baptist Press, World Watch Monitor

VIETNAM – Vietnam’s latest changes in enforcement of its highest law regarding religion clarify the country’s intent to especially control the spread of Christianity, according to an authority on Vietnamese Protestant Christianity, World Watch Monitor has reported.

The authority, whose name is being withheld for his safety, has served as an advocate for persecuted Christians in Vietnam since it reunited under communism in 1975. World Watch Monitor asked him to take a close look at the new Decree on Religion 92/2012 ND-CP, known as ND-92, meant to clarify rules written in 2005.

Here are his findings.


Eight years ago, the highest levels of the Communist Party and the Vietnam government signaled they were shifting away from direct ideological opposition to, and repression of, religion, especially Christianity. They took up a new, managerial approach to religion, using registration as the chief means of control. This was somehow supposed to translate into more freedom.

The evidence for this change was the adoption of three new religion “laws:” The 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief; the 2005 Decree on Religion 22/2005/ND-CP explaining how to implement the ordinance, and the Prime Minister’s Special Instruction No. 1 Regarding Protestantism. The latter was hastily created to fill a hole during the run-up to Vietnam’s attempt to accede to the World Trade Organization when the country faced harsh international criticism for its repressive religion policies and practices. It was intended to show quick progress in church registration while the larger laws were being worked out.

In the eight years since this legislation, the church-registration regime has been found seriously wanting. While eight Protestant denominations could prove they had been around since before the 1975 communist victory, more than half of Vietnam’s Protestants remain unregistered. Hundreds of applications by congregations to receive supposedly straightforward permission to function have been ignored or rejected by local authorities. For the dozens of house-church denominations that began to emerge in 1988, there is no clear path toward registration, despite what the laws may say. In actual practice, registration has often been used as a tool to manipulate churches, leading many to lose interest in registering.


BP photo
Enduring icons of a romanticized Vietnam, women work rice paddies near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Less than 2 percent of the Southeast Asian country's 91 million people are evangelical Christians, but the gospel is spreading through a growing network of Vietnamese Baptist churches. Recent changes to laws pose problems for religious groups.

The new decree ND-92, which had long been rumored, is intended to replace and clarify its often murky predecessor, ND-22, as the operational guide for the implementation of the 2004 ordinance, Vietnam’s highest “law” on religion. The new decree went into effect Jan. 1.

A transparent registration regime is far short of full religious freedom. In theory however, it could be better than the previous heavy-handed oppression and persecution sponsored from the top. Yet registration has been implemented inconsistently, leaving more than half of Protestants still unregistered and vulnerable to arbitrary harassment and oppression.

There is reason to believe this is intentional: Vietnam’s religion bureaucracy last February credited The Prime Minister’s Special Instruction on Protestantism for slowing the rapid growth of Protestantism.2 This application of the instruction is directly opposite to its originally announced purpose.

Registration decree ND-22 left many things unclear, creating room for officials to apply much subjective discretion. Most often they simply ignored registration requests, or capriciously denied them. In practice, many religious communities functioned without too much difficulty.

The vagueness of ND 22, however, also meant it was difficult to enforce some provisions of the ordinance. After gradually granting legal status during the last eight years to eight Protestant denominations, the registration process for Protestants effectively ground to a halt. Enforcement of other provisions of the religion laws has been arbitrary. From the government’s point of view, more clarity was needed if the ordinance and its operational decree were to become effective tools for managing religion. The result was ND-92.

The omens however, were not good. During the drafting stages of ND-92, there were news reports of government consultation with religious leaders known to be sympathetic to the government. Even these leaders were said to object strongly.

Method of evaluation

The Vietnamese language decree ND-92 reached me Nov. 9, 2012, the day after it was published. I have studied it carefully in the original language. In December I was able to ask well-placed government officials and a significant number of Protestant leaders about the new decree. A number of other religious groups, some Buddhist and Catholic organizations for example, have published their own analyses, which I have compared with my own findings.

What does ND-92 include, and does it advance freedom?

The tone is set early. Chapter I is entitled “Freedom of religion and belief.” Article 2 contains 23 words that “guarantee” freedom of religion and belief. Those are followed by 142 words of conditions and warnings about its abuse. That’s a 6:1 ratio of warnings of abuse to promises of freedom.

Article 2 also promises “no one may infringe on a citizen’s freedom of religion.” The rest of the 24-page, 46-article decree infringes on that guarantee in even more intrusive ways than its 2005 predecessor.

And so it goes: one step forward, two steps back. ND-92 is designed to be more a tool for the control of religion than a step toward religious freedom. The Party’s and the government’s deep suspicions of religion and religious people remain clearly on display. The updated decree appears to unmask the real purpose behind the 2004 ordinance: to manage, control and contain religious groups. The weight of abiding by this decree would be onerous for religious people and organizations, and this appears intentional.

Most relevant to Christian organizations are the six sections and 18 articles comprising Chapter 3, entitled “Religious organizations.”

Fundamental to understanding this chapter and the entire decree is the word “dang ky,” commonly translated “registration” or “register.” In developed legal systems, if one meets well-known, clear and encoded written requirements, the law obligates the state to register it, be it an organization, a car or a copyright.

By contrast, the dang ky registration in Vietnam’s handling of religion, including in ND-92, functions like having to ask permission. The evidence of this is that officials, usually at the commune level, have complete discretion on whether to grant registration. “Registration” therefore, is more accurately understood as “asking permission.” Many observers have not grasped or accepted this reality, thinking that registration in this context means meeting an objective requirement, or simply informing officials.

The reality is registration or permission is often conditional on elusive criteria which are open to highly subjective interpretation. This holds for permission for various levels of religious practice, such as religious meetings, religious activities or organizations seeking full legal recognition. It also holds for the approval of religious leaders in their official positions or location of service, and to students who wish to enter a religious vocation.

These elusive criteria are prominently spelled out in Articles 8 and 15 of the 2004 ordinance. According to Article 15:

Religious activities or belief will be suspended in the following instances:
  •  They infringe upon national security or seriously affect public order or the environment;
  •  They adversely affect the peoples’ unity or the fine national cultural traditions;
  •  They infringe upon the life, health, dignity, honor or property of other persons;
  •  They involve other serious breaches of the law.
What comes through clearly in these criteria is the government’s assumption that religious people are potentially dangerous people existing at the margins of legality and inclined toward antisocial behavior. The criteria readily provide excuses for officials to deny permission.

Consider the leader of a religious group seeking permission to conduct a meeting. Article 5 of ND-92 requires the leader “to have a spirit of national unity and reconciliation.” Anyone who teaches the fundamental Christian tenet of worshipping God alone, and not ancestors or national heroes, is someone who could be accused of being against “national unity” or “the fine national cultural traditions.”

Article 6, stipulating qualifications for registering religious activities, says the group must have “doctrines, articles of faith, rites and ceremonies that support the nation and do not contradict fine traditions and customs.” This leaves much discretion to often hostile officials and state agencies with power to grant permission.

A new category – and why is that?

There are other anomalies and contradictions in the decree. Article 5 adds “religious meetings” (sinh hoat ton giao) as a new, lowest-level practice needing permission or dang ky, “[if] citizens have a need for religious meetings to worship, pray and express their faith….” This appears to replace the 2005 PM’s Special Instruction, issued under international pressure, to purportedly grant permission promptly.

“Religious meetings” seeking registration are required to name their organization and beliefs, identity their “representatives” by name and address, specify the number of members, and guarantee that the objectives and contents of the meetings do not offend the “people’s unity,” “cultural traditions” and other virtues exalted in Articles 8 and 15 of the 2004 ordinance.

At points, ND-92 ties itself in knots. One requirement is having a “legal place for religious meetings.” By definition a “religious meeting” seeking permission to meet does not have such a place.

This new requirement apparently means every local congregation must obtain permission to meet before the congregation’s umbrella denomination can apply for higher-level registrations. This is yet another twist in the old tangle of already legally recognized denominations going back to register their individual ethnic minority churches.

Before ND-92 came along, the government sometimes would order a denomination to do this. Under the new decree, it appears to be a standard requirement. All the while, many Hmong congregations already one or two decades old and affiliated with Evangelical Church Vietnam North, which has had legal registration since 1958, have been waiting years for registration. This provision of the decree only raises the question: what does full legal recognition mean, anyway?

Unreasonable times frames – 20 years
and counting, but from when?

One level up from “religious meetings” is the category of “religious activities” (hoat dong ton giao). Registration at this level requires the demonstration of 20 years or more of “stable” religious meetings, meaning a spotless criminal and administrative record in the eyes of commune-level peoples’ committee. Prior to ND-92 however, the law contained no provision for registration of religious meetings. The prerequisite to registration for religious activities, then, was 20 years of meeting illegally, yet somehow without criminal or legal blemish.

The new decree may have eliminated that particular catch-22, but it also may have introduced a new obstacle. Consider: The earliest commune-level permissions for religious meetings could first be granted in January. The logical conclusion, then, is that no registrations for “religious activity” could be obtained for another 20 years.

With the period between registration for religious activity and full, legal registration now extended to three years, the first of such registrations could not take place until 2036. And if commune authorities accuse a group of legal or administrative infractions, or of having leaders lacking “the spirit of national solidarity,” the process is further prolonged.

A better but still dispiriting possibility is that authorities could decide to start the 20-year, good-behavior period if and when an organization had at least some of its congregations registered under the 2005 PM’s Special Instruction. In this case, the earliest next full legal registrations would be possible in 2028.

There is mounting evidence that the strategy of the government, in sticking with and even extending these unreasonably long time periods, is to pressure unregistered groups to join already registered ones, supposedly to more easily manage the religion file. There is growing government pressure for individual congregations to leave their current organization and join registered groups. And some of these groups, believed to be a bit too friendly with the government, are themselves recruiting otherwise affiliated congregations promising them benefits.

Cumbersome and complicated obligations

Registered congregations and denominations are required each October to disclose all their intended activities for the coming year. Changes in activities are not allowed after permission is granted. This is impossible because religious organizations by nature must deal with members’ unpredictable rites of passage, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals. There are complicated provisions for varying or adding unforeseen activities, but they are cumbersome and require unreasonable advance notice.

Promises of efficiency and clearer lines of authority

Government officials are quick to point out that the new decree is more advantageous for religious groups than the old because it shortens the time in which officials must respond to requests and applications, and even requires them to state in writing the reasons in case of denial. Five final articles of the new decree do more clearly describe government lines of authority than the old decree. These “improvements” as described by some government officials could, if implemented, mean more efficiency in management and control of religion. But it is hard to see how they could concurrently produce any steps toward greater freedom.

It is possible that already fully registered organizations may benefit from clearer guidelines and timelines in asking permission for training schools and other infrastructure. If authorities abide by timelines required, religious organizations will not be left hanging interminably as they often have been under the 2005 decree. It is a big “if.”

Leaders and clergy on a short rope

Articles 14 - 26 of ND-92 include highly detailed and intrusive qualifications and provisions for clergy training, ordination, stripping of credentials, placement, change of placement, travel and so on. All of these matters are universally considered internal ones for religious organizations.

International travel by clergy and believers for religious reasons now requires permission from the central Government Committee of Religious Affairs in Hanoi, and full details of the meetings to be attended must be provided to the government. The government requires 25 working days to decide and reply. A Vietnamese religious person granted permission to travel abroad must report any change in status granted to them by the overseas organization, and must disclose the content of courses studied.

These requirements are new. If enforced they will largely frustrate the regular international travel of the hundreds of Vietnamese Protestants who have in recent years been going abroad for religious meetings, conferences and training. This is probably the intention.

Religious activity confined to the four walls of a church

There is a strong, explicit theme in the decree trying to confine and limit “religious activity” to the four walls of a church building. Most Protestants in Vietnam do not have church buildings.

Article 31 prescribes the times and conditions under which a religious congregation can ask for permission to conduct a religious activity outside a legal church establishment. If the activity involves anyone outside the membership, the authorities require 15 working days to consider a reply. Try to imagine attempting to organize the funeral of a prominent person, which many from afar would like to attend and which required more room than the local church building.

Foreigners and religion

Twenty-five working days are required for the religious affairs committee to consider a detailed request for foreign religious leaders to visit Vietnam for a religious event. The same holds true for foreign students who want to study in Vietnam. Foreigners living in Vietnam may request permission to meet for religious worship only within in a church building, a reversal of the current practice in which some foreign congregations meet in homes, hotels or other buildings.

What others say

The website of the Vietnam Human Rights Committee published an article Dec. 19 by Protestant lawyer and activist Nguyen Van Dai, who is under restricted release following a prison sentence. Dai notes several significant internal contradictions in Decree ND-92. One is the new and severe limitation of religious practice during the 20-year probation period following the first registration of a congregation by its commune level peoples’ committees. He observes that only “religious worship meetings” (sinh hoat ton giao) are allowed, not “religious activities” or “operations” such as organizing religious events, conducting missionary work, internal organizational development, electing leaders, holding classes, repairing or renovating facilities, or conducting charitable activities.

Dai pessimistically concludes that the decree’s goal “is to completely abolish the organizational structure and religious operations of the Protestant denominations that were formed some 20 years ago and have not been registered according to Decree 22/2005 ND-CP.” This is a reference to the large house-church movement in Vietnam that began in 1988.

Party and state media sources reported in January that the head of the government religious affairs committee not only introduced Decree ND-92, but also proposed amendments to the Ordinance on Religion and Belief. It will be interesting to see what these are, given the direction of the new implementation decree.

Prominent in each of the official press accounts on the publication of ND-92 was the identical line: “Participants emphasized the corrupt use of religious and ethnic issues by hostile forces to sabotage the Vietnamese State.” This refers to Vietnam’s ongoing concern about the rapid growth of Protestant Christianity among ethnic minorities in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and Northwest Mountainous Region. Though the government now rarely uses “eliminate” language, it is very open in its intention to “contain” Christianity. As recently as Christmas 2012, officials in some ethnic areas brutally attempted to force recantations.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Adapted from an article by World Watch Monitor.)
3/13/2013 2:54:55 PM by Baptist Press, World Watch Monitor | with 0 comments

Dockery: greater unity, new partnerships needed in SBC

March 12 2013 by Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press

Southern Baptists must rise above the rampant individualism and isolation that characterize today’s world and embrace each other in new partnerships for the sake of the gospel, Union University President David S. Dockery recently told Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary students.
“Ongoing disharmony and differences could well lead to our collective ruin,” Dockery said. “Today I want to urge us to move beyond consensus ... to move beyond cooperation, which many of us have championed, to a new and even higher calling, toward an intentional and purposeful collaboration.”
Speaking in a chapel service at the Wake Forest, N.C., seminary on Feb. 14, Dockery addressed Paul’s words in Philippians 1, specifically verses five and 27, in which the apostle affirmed the Philippi church’s “partnership in the gospel.”

SEBTS photo

David Dockery shares his desire for more unity within the Southern Baptist Convention during chapel service Feb. 14 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Paul was writing in the midst of opposition from without and conflict from within, Dockery said, and challenged his readers to live as worthy citizens of their heavenly homeland. In doing so, Paul appealed to their civic responsibility within the Christian community.
In that appeal, Dockery said, Southern Baptists can learn how to live as dual citizens of earth and heaven, and between the Gospel and the culture.
“It is the standing firm in one spirit that makes it possible for them to participate as partners, striving together for the cause of the faith,” Dockery said. “For Paul, the gospel was the beginning and end of everything.”
Paul encouraged his readers to embrace both resolve and unity at the same time, which allowed them to address disharmony within the church and external opposition, Dockery said. That challenge is applicable to modern Christians, Dockery said, because people in today’s culture have grown increasingly disconnected and isolated from each other.
Even Christians have succumbed to the culture’s trend of privatization, whether they realize it or not.
That disconnection stems largely from the Enlightenment, Dockery said, which elevated science and reason above belief in the supernatural and caused the separation of faith and reason from revelation.
“As a result, most of us live through life in compartmentalized ways, and it all comes as a result of this philosophy that undergirds all aspects of contemporary life,” he said.
In response to this movement, Dockery said Christians often embraced one of four alternatives: pietism, which largely disregarded intellectual challenges and advocated only maintaining warm hearts toward God; liberalism, which discounted some of Christianity’s difficult theological issues; fundamentalism, in which people withdrew from culture entirely; and pragmatism, which accepted ideas and practices only if they worked.
“All of these were usually well-intentioned at the time as an attempt to save the faith from what was going on around them, but it usually led to further disconnection – separating heart and head, piety and education, tradition and inquiry, the gospel and the rest of life.”
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is not immune to this fragmentation, Dockery said, with mission board and entities that sometimes don’t connect. SBC entities and state convention entities at times are unaware of what the other is doing, he said, and universities and seminaries sometimes find themselves competing with each other instead of working together.
Such a “lone ranger” mindset must be changed, Dockery said, and the convention must begin to rebuild partnerships and prioritize unity and cooperation to advance the gospel. He acknowledged the difficulty of that task and said humility is the key to success.
“We need a new kind of humility that says we cannot do this alone,” Dockery said. “A new kind of humility that says we recognize our need for one another. A new kind of humility in which together I will be the first to say, ‘I need to repent of my pride and arrogance.’ ...
“We need partners to work together for the good of the gospel, holding hands to advance this work,” he continued. “Much grace will be needed to build such a collaborative partnership. We’ll need faith-affirming and grace-filled convictions to frame and guide these efforts if indeed we are to contend as one in this lofty calling.”
Dockery added that Southern Baptists will need confessional convictions and biblical boundaries without uniformity of interpretation in matters that aren’t of primary importance.
Dockery called for a new connectedness between and among all elements of the SBC – including churches, entities, mission boards and educational institutions – a connectedness that is faithful to Southern Baptist polity and not one that will lead to “connectionalism.” He said Southern Baptists also need a “new gospel-focused motivation” for proclamation, service, teaching and learning, all of which are informed and shaped by the gospel itself.
In addition, Dockery said the convention needs a new vision that connects the gospel with all of life, an appreciation of the multi-ethnic and multicultural society in which Southern Baptists find themselves and a new recognition that gospel partnerships will lead to a focus on the glory and grandeur of God.
“Let us not miss this moment,” Dockery said. “It is a special opportunity that God has given to us. Let us not fail to see the global opportunities for the gospel are incredible, like nothing the world has seen before.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tim Ellsworth is director of news and media relations for Union University in Jackson, Tenn.)
3/12/2013 3:25:28 PM by Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

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