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Episode no. 1143

BOB ABERNETHY, Coming up — California religious leaders grapple with gay weddings.

And the latest evidence that a big majority of American believers say salvation can come through many faiths.

Plus, Tibetan Buddhists — when can the nonviolent condone violence?

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BOB ABERNETHY: Welcome. I’m Bob Abernethy. It’s good to have you with us.

A new national survey released this week confirms a dramatic change in religious attitudes. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 70 percent of American believers say many faiths, not just their own, can lead to salvation. And breaking that down, that’s the view of 79 percent of Catholics and 57 percent of evangelicals. We have an analysis coming up later in the program.

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BOB ABERNETHY: Religious groups are calling for help for the victims of political violence in Zimbabwe. The World Council of Churches is urging the United Nations and African leaders to focus on humanitarian needs. Zimbabwe has endured great suffering since a disputed election in March. The World Council cited widespread human rights abuses and reports of brutal crackdowns on religious gatherings.

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BOB ABERNETHY: In Jerusalem, hundreds of conservative Anglican clergy gathered to discuss whether they’ll remain aligned with the worldwide Communion. Several of the leaders at the Global Anglican Future Conference condemned the more liberal churches’ stances on homosexuality and scriptural interpretation. The Jerusalem meeting comes a month before the Anglican Communion holds its once-a-decade Lambeth conference in England.

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BOB ABERNETHY: There was passionate debate at the San Jose meeting about whether to allow gay marriage and the ordination of gays and lesbians.

PCUSA members, like those in other mainline traditions, are sharply divided, especially in light of the California Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow same-sex marriage. Kim Lawton reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MINISTER (performing marriage ceremony): Today we celebrate the first legal marriage of two women at All Saints.

KIM LAWTON: Susan Craig and Bear Ride have been partners for 12 years. They’re both ordained Presbyterian ministers, and when California legalized same-sex marriage they knew they wanted a church wedding.

Reverend SUSAN CRAIG: It means everything to be here under the watchful eyes of God and the saints above, the community all around us in this very special community for us.

LAWTON: They got married last week, not in a Presbyterian church, but at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.

Reverend BEAR RIDE: At this point, it would be a chargeable offense for a Presbyterian minister to officiate at our wedding, a legal wedding, because in the church — the Church’s constitution — a marriage is a civil contract. It says, “between a man and a woman” and a covenant between two people who love each other. That’s archaic language now in California.

LAWTON: As California moves full steam ahead with gay marriage, clergy are being pressured to perform same-sex weddings and to perform them inside their houses of worship. This is generating new debates because many religious traditions explicitly define marriage as between a man and a woman. Some clergy, including Roman Catholics and evangelicals, have refused to be part of gay marriages. But others, especially mainline Protestants, are more conflicted.

Mary Holder Naegeli is a Presbyterian minister in San Francisco who agrees with her denomination’s opposition to gay marriage.

Reverend MARY HOLDER NAEGELI: Why would I, a representative of God, help people make permanent with a vow — I take marriage vows very seriously — but with a vow to make permanent then, seal something that God wouldn’t agree with? God wouldn’t bless that. That’s my basic conscience problem with the whole issue.

LAWTON: But she says it is a challenge to balance her beliefs with her state’s new marriage policy.

Rev. HOLDER NAEGELI: Sociologically, there is going to be more and more pressure to not only accept, or tolerate let’s say, something that is not of God’s design, but to promote it and to make it normative in the life of Californians, which you know when you hold a biblical position like I do, makes life really uncomfortable.

LAWTON: At the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly this week, held coincidentally in California, there was vigorous debate about whether the denomination should change its rules about marriage. Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow, the church’s new moderator, acknowledged there are strong divisions.

Reverend BRUCE REYES-CHOW (Moderator, Presbyterian Church USA, speaking at General Assembly meeting): Can we agree to disagree on the issue of homosexuality? I think that is a question that we as a body have to really struggle with because it’s difficult to live out of both sides of that thought.

LAWTON: For many, it comes down to interpreting whether the Bible indeed says that marriage should only be for a man and a woman.

Rev. HOLDER NAEGELI: We have several instances from beginning to end of Scripture that make that point. There isn’t any wiggle room. There’s no softening of that position anywhere.

LAWTON: Reverend Ride disagrees.

Rev. RIDE: If you look through the Bible, there are all sorts of different types of marriage. You know, it’s very common to have multiple wives. Or concubines are fine. I think we’re picking and choosing the biblical concept of marriage.”

LAWTON: While clergy continue to debate whether or not to perform gay weddings, California voters will soon be weighing in as well. A measure to ban gay marriage is set to be on the ballot in November. I’m Kim Lawton in Pasadena.

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BOB ABERNETHY: In other news, the Supreme Court in a five-to-four decision outlawed executions of child rapists. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion said the death penalty should be reserved for espionage, treason, and murder. He wrote that execution was not a proportional punishment or the crime of child rape. The ruling concerned a Louisiana case, but four other states also have laws that extend the possibility of capital punishment to criminals who raped a child.

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BOB ABERNETHY: Several prominent religious leaders have joined political activists calling for a presidential executive order banning torture. Members of the bipartisan and interfaith group criticized the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. They will ask President Bush to bar any interrogation tactics that the U.S. would not want used against Americans.

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BOB ABERNETHY: In Washington Thursday, President Bush spoke to hundreds of Hispanic religious leaders at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast. The same day the President also addressed the annual conference on faith-based initiatives. That program provided $2.2 billion to religious philanthropic efforts last year. Bush reaffirmed his commitment to helping religious groups compete for federal grants.

President GEORGE BUSH: To me, it does not matter if there’s a crescent on your group’s wall, a rabbi on your group’s board, Christ in your group’s name. If your organization puts medicine in people’s hands, food in people’s mouths, or a roof over people’s heads, then you’re succeeding.

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BOB ABERNETHY: Meanwhile, the battle for religious voters in the presidential campaigns continues. This week, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson criticized Senator Barack Obama, charging he misreads the Bible. But the Democratic candidate was credited by another conservative religious leader for his outreach to faith communities. Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said Obama has been successful in talking about faith and public policy. Regarding Senator John McCain, Perkins said the Republican should not take the evangelical vote for granted.

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BOB ABERNETHY: We have an analysis now of the Pew Forum survey on American religious beliefs. As other surveys have also found, including one done by this program in 2002, Pew reported that 70 percent of American religious believers said many religious traditions — not just their own — can lead to eternal life. Scott Appleby is a professor of history and director of the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame. He joins us from San Diego.

Dr. Appleby welcome.

Dr. SCOTT APPLEBY (Professor of History and Director, Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame): Hello Bob.

ABERNETHY: Whatever happened to the conviction that “my way or your way” is the only way to salvation?

Dr. APPLEBY: Well, for one thing, Bob, we’re a more tolerant society in the last generation or so than we’ve been in the past. Part of that comes from familiarity. Foreign religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, even Judaism to some degree — used to be seen as exotic or foreign. Because of media and communications, they’re right next door. They’re part of our culture. They’re more familiar. That breeds tolerance, acceptance. We also have taught our children in the past generation that discrimination is wrong: racial discrimination, discrimination on the basis of gender, on sexual orientation. That’s a deep value in the culture. So for someone to come and say, “This way is the only way,” rubs against the grain of contemporary culture.

ABERNETHY: But for Christians — let me just speak about Christians for a minute — for Christians traditionally, there has been the very clear teaching that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. Now, this poll data seems to say that that doesn’t matter to 70 percent of believers anymore?

Dr. APPLEBY: And that’s very troubling to religious leaders. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, rails against what he calls “relativism” — precisely this attitude that things are relatively true, that there’s not one capital “T” truth at least that we can know with any definitive kind of knowledge. He thinks this a terrible trend for religion. And he’s not alone. Many evangelical Christians who believe Jesus is the only way, “the Truth, the Life,” are very troubled by anyone attempting to water it down or compare Christianity on an equal footing with other faiths.

ABERNETHY: But the trend has been continuing for many years and probably is going up?

Dr. APPLEBY: Yes. There are deep currents in our culture that I think can sometimes be a bit superficial. We’re familiar with these other traditions, but we trivialize them. We’ve got “Babu” on “The Simpsons. He’s the stock Hindu. We have stock Jews and Christians. They’re stereotyped. Also, our tolerance doesn’t necessarily mean that we engage the deep beliefs and convictions and arguments of these traditions. We accept them — live and let live. That leads to civil relations, which is a good thing. But it doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom or truth or deep reflection and that troubles the religions.

ABERNETHY: Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame, many thanks.

Dr. APPLEBY: Thank you.

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BOB ABERNETHY: We have a special report today on the plight and paradox of Tibetan Buddhists. They teach non-violence, but their demonstrations against the Chinese have sometimes become violent. How can they persuade the Chinese that they and the Dalai Lama are not a threat? Lucky Severson reports.

LUCKY SEVERSON: Chinese authorities called these protesters in San Francisco “Tibetan hooligans,” whose only purpose was to use violence to embarrass China in its moment of Olympic glory. Lhadon Tethong was there. She’s a Tibetan activist and leader of “Students for a Free Tibet.”

LHADON TETHONG (Students for a Free Tibet): There has to be tension. There has to be crisis. They have to feel the occupation is a problem for them whether they agree with us or not.

SEVERSON: The protests in San Francisco and around the world were mainly a reaction to demonstrations by Tibetan monks inside Tibet and China. The Chinese government mobilized troops. Many Tibetan monks and nuns were arrested when the initial demonstration began earlier this year in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

The Chinese placed the blame squarely on the leader of some six million Tibetan Buddhists — the Dalai Lama. Columbia Professor of Buddhist Studies, Robert Thurman says the charge is simply not true.

Professor ROBERT THURMAN (Department of Buddhist Studies, Columbia University): The Chinese are desperate now to try to claim that the Dalai Lama caused all this upset, which of course he totally did not. He was totally upset.

SEVERSON: The work of the protesters is raising questions among Tibetans themselves and people around the world. For instance, will the demonstrations actually force the Chinese to loosen control of Tibetan Buddhism? And, how can a religious philosophy built around peace and compassion continue to hold the high ground when the protests are resulting in so much violence?

Professor Thurman says the Tibetan devotion to non-violence goes to the core of their faith –the path to total enlightenment takes place over many, many lifetimes, many reincarnations and to commit violence threatens that path.

Prof. THURMAN: My life is my own evolutionary moment to progress. And I’m not going to do violence. So therefore, to cherish your own life, you don’t want to risk it for some sort of worldly aim. You want to develop your soul because that’s what your life is for.

SEVERSON: But, he says those who think protestors have violated the basic principle of non-violence don’t understand the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy of self-defense.

Prof. THURMAN: Buddhist ethics is intense about nonviolence, but it’s also pragmatic. There is one sutra where it’s stated if you are invaded by an enemy and you can successfully defend yourself and repel the enemy and the enemy while occupying you will cause tremendous violence; then you should defend yourself.

SEVERSON: Chinese History Professor Tu Weiming of Harvard believes at least part of the problem stems from a lack of understanding by the Chinese leadership of Tibetan Buddhism and the role of the Dalai Lama.

Professor TU WEIMING (Harvard University): The Chinese government is not at all informed about the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader. They always perceive him as a political leader interested in mobilizing anti-Chinese forces outside of China. My sense is that it’s a misperception that needs to be corrected.

SEVERSON: If any Westerner ought to understand the role of the Dalai Lama among Tibetans, it is Robert Thurman. Before choosing to be a professor, Thurman became the first Western Tibetan Buddhist monk under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama. He says the Dalai Lama is to Buddhism what Jesus is to Christianity.

Prof. THURMAN: If Jesus was constantly coming back, how would Christians feel about that person? You can get an idea of how the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhists feel about the Dalai Lama.

SEVERSON: But Chinese officials say the looting, the beatings and destruction of property prove that the Tibetan people and their leader are hypocrites. The Chinese government maintains, and most of its citizens believe, that Tibet has always been a part of China. The Tibetans disagree saying their country didn’t become part of China until 1951 after it was forcefully occupied by Chinese troops. The Dalai Lama fled to his new home in exile in India in 1959.

Prof. THURMAN: For 30 years, from the �50s to the end of Mao, they did the most violent thing. You can’t even believe it. They killed a million people. Half of it was famine craziness and a lot of it was this class struggle thing, you know, “kill the landlords” and political things and eradicating the religion. You couldn’t even have a rosary — you’d go to work camp prison for life.

SEVERSON: Chinese authorities dispute these charges and say China has lifted Tibet into the 21st century.

Prof. WEIMING: China believes that in the last few decades the government has contributed significantly to Tibetan growth in terms of economic growth, in terms of building roads and so forth.

SEVERSON: But many Tibetans say the Chinese government is systematically diluting their culture and religion while encouraging millions of Chinese to move here. The Dalai Lama has called it “cultural genocide.” The Chinese dispute the genocide charge and accuse the protesters of purely anti-Chinese activity.

Many of today’s Chinese leaders come from engineering and science backgrounds. Professor Weiming says these leaders are most interested in generating wealth and modernization — that they have a deep skepticism of all religions especially if their leaders threaten authority.

Prof. WEIMING: Tibetans feel they are humiliated, they are ignored, they are marginalized because people don’t understand why they are so devoted to religion, to the Dalai Lama. Their devotion sometimes is wrongly perceived as a kind of superstition and that should be overcome by modernization.

SEVERSON: The Dalai Lama has always preached non-violence and never demanded independence from China.

DALAI LAMA (during U.S. visit): The whole world knows the Dalai Lama not seeking independence. Our approach is not separation, within the People’s Republic of China for full guarantee about our unique culture and heritage including our language.

SEVERSON: Arjia Rinpoche was a highly positioned Lama in Tibet before he defected to the U.S. 10 years ago. He supports the Dalai Lama’s approach to peace.

ARJIA RINPOCHE (Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center): Most of Tibetans like his Holiness idea. You know, the “Middle Way” works.

SEVERSON: The Middle Way, however, meaning more autonomy and more freedom, is not the ultimate goal of young Tibetans. They want full independence, their leader the Dalai Lama notwithstanding.

LHADON TETHONG: He is like a parent, a senior elder, respected member of the family whom you love and whom I can also disagree at times when I hear him saying something politically that I might not necessarily agree with or like. But that doesn’t change the nature of how much I respect or how much I love him.

SEVERSON: They may love him, but young Tibetans are growing impatient with the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way,” and he’ may be feeling the pressure.

DALAI LAMA (during U.S. visit): If things become out of control then my only option is completely resign.

SEVERSON: Professor Thurman says if Chinese leaders were willing to meet with the Dalai Lama in person, the conflict could be resolved.

Prof. THURMAN: If I can get him a room with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, it would have a profound impact actually on the world. They would turn around, I think.

Prof. WEIMING: I was deeply worried when I was in China that not just the government officials, but some intellectuals believe that if the Dalai Lama fades from the scene, the problem will be resolved. If the Dalai Lama fades from the scene, the situation will be uncontrollable. I think the Chinese government should be critically aware of this.

SEVERSON: Even the most ardent followers of the Dalai Lama, like Arjia Rinpoche, appear to be losing hope that the Chinese government will come around.

Mr. RINPOCHE: When I escaped in 1998 then I thought, “Oh, in eight years I might return to home.” Ten years, I’m pretty sure. So today is exactly the 10 years now. So the situation is getting worse.

SEVERSON: For now, there is little indication that the Chinese will relax control of Tibet. Many Tibetans are counting on the next and more informed generation of Chinese leaders to realize they are not a threat.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson reporting.

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BOB ABERNETHY: A new report on America’s charitable giving found that in 2007, contributions rose by about one percent to more than $300 billion. Though the percentage increase was slight, many analysts said any growth in the face of economic hardships is good news. The Giving USA survey found that, as in the past, the largest percentage of the contributions — 33 percent in 2007 — went to religious groups. That’s more than $100 billion.

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BOB ABERNETHY: The dollar figures on charity do not begin to measure the hours and skills volunteers give. We have two glimpses today of both kinds of help, both from the Gulf Coast.

In D’Iberville, Mississippi, near Biloxi, almost three years after Katrina, volunteers from around the country celebrated the rebuilding of nearly a thousand homes. And in New Orleans, church members who had been helped after Katrina by volunteers from the Midwest began returning the help to those hit hard by the floods.

A group at the Church of the Annunciation packed up and headed for Quincy, Illinois, to help flood victims on Wednesday morning. The Episcopal Diocese of Quincy was one of their most generous supporters after Hurricane Katrina.

JEAN SELDERS (Church of the Annunciation): I helped with the Diocese of Quincy to make relief packets for the people of New Orleans. And, now I here making relief packets in New Orleans for the people of Quincy. So, I’ve come full circle.

ABERNETHY: The New Orleans church volunteers packed up care packages for people flooded out of their homes.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER: Toothpaste, Band-Aids, shampoo, toothbrushes, Kleenex.

ABERNETHY: The church also plans to send groups of volunteers to Quincy to help repair flood damage.

Meanwhile, in D’Iberville, Mississippi, the D’Iberville Volunteer Foundation reached its goal of rebuilding almost 1,000 homes. This past weekend they said goodbye for the final time to volunteers from around the country who worked to rebuild their community.

Dr. ED CAKE (D’Iberville Volunteer Foundation, speaking to volunteers): Thank you for the love. Thank you for the prayers especially. Thank you for the support. And, we could not have done it without you all.

ABERNETHY: D’Iberville had 8,000 people before Katrina. After the storm, 2,000 fled but two college professors stayed, and they organized 7,000 volunteers, many of whom returned three times or more to put up rafters and install drywall and electricity.

Dr. IRENE MCINTOSH (D’Iberville Volunteer Foundation): There’s a grace to receiving that I think is more difficult than the grace of giving. And in that grace of receiving — and our citizens know how to do it better than most people — they love to reach out. They hug. They say “thank you” a million times.

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BOB ABERNETHY: That’s our program for now. I’m Bob Abernethy. There’s much more on our Web site, including more on religion and politics on our “One Nation” page. Audio and video podcasts of the program are also available. Join us at

As we leave you, more from the volunteers in D’Iberville, Mississippi.


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