Nervous Believers

Religious folks sure get nervous when public officials talk about "fundamentalist" gunmen invading a school.

Consider what happened recently after a staged emergency at Burlington Township High School in New Jersey. The police script for the drill called for armed men to crash the front doors, shoot several students and barricade themselves in the library with hostages. This document, according to the Burlington County Times, described the intruders as part of "a right-wing fundamentalist group called the 'New Crusaders' who do not believe in the separation of church and state." The two gunmen attacked because a child had been expelled for praying.

For some reason, evangelical pastors became alarmed. Thus, local officials and educators released a statement saying they regretted "any insensitivity that might have been inferred" by this scenario, including any offense taken by those who "inferred" that the mock terrorists were Christians.

 I have no idea why pastors "inferred" that organizers of this tax-funded drill had in any way suggested that "right-wing" fundamentalists in a "New Crusaders" army opposed to the "separation of church and state" and angry about a "school prayer" dispute might be conservative Christians.

No way. Why would anyone "infer" something like that?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Boredom is rarely a problem for journalists on the religion beat. That's why I mark this column's anniversary every year — this is No. 18 — by offering a grab-bag collection of strange stories that I didn't have the chutzpah or the time to cover during the previous 12 months. So hang on.

* During holiday seasons, I get all kinds of email and often it's hard to tell when people are joking. For example, I received an copy of "The Two-Minute Haggadah: A Passover service for the impatient." It condensed the rite's pivotal four questions to this:

(1) "What's up with the matzoh?" (2) "What's the deal with horseradish?" (3) "What's with the dipping of the herbs?" (4) "What's this whole slouching at the table business?" The answers? "(1) "When we left Egypt, we were in a hurry. There was no time for making decent bread." (2) "Life was bitter, like horseradish." (3) "It's called symbolism." (4) "Free people get to slouch."

* No joke. The KFC restaurant chain did ask Pope Benedict XVI to bless its new "Fish Snacker" product, which the company said would be "ideal for American Catholics who want to observe Lenten season traditions while still leading their busy, modern lifestyles." Apparently, the pope declined.

* Try to imagine the media response if President George W. Bush ended a United Nations address with a call for the second coming of his Messiah and pledged to help this apocalypse happen sooner rather than later.

Would this make headlines? Thus, I was surprised when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew little fire when he ended his fall U.N. speech by saying:

I emphatically declare that today's world … above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet. O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return.

* Candid religion quote of the year? Asked by Vanity Fair if she is a Christian, columnist Ann Coulter replied: "Yes, sort of a mean Christian."

* Church PR efforts are getting edgier. An Episcopal parish in New Jersey issued a "Message to Disaffected Roman Catholics" proclaiming that many "whose spiritual lives are grounded in the Mass and in the sacraments are, nevertheless, unable to concur with the Vatican's position on issues such as the role of women in the church, contraception, remarriage of divorced person, homosexual relationships, or abortion. … If you are among them, you may find a comfortable spiritual home at Grace Church in Newark."

* In a list of 100 men and women who are "transforming our world," Time editors included 27 "artists and entertainers," 16 "scientists and thinkers" and many other powerful people. However, the list included only three religious leaders. This is the planet earth we are talking about, right?

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