The Case of the Lesbian Den Mother: Moral Reasoning Exposed

By now, most Americans have probably heard of the lesbian mother forced out as a den mother for the Tiger Scouts, a program for first-graders offered by the Boy Scouts of America. For a few days, the story filtered through the Internet until it broke as an Associated Press article last week.

That article by reporter John Seewer reveals that Jennifer Tyrrell had been serving as a leader in Ohio Pack 109 of the Tiger Scouts. Tyrrell was forced to leave that post when officials of the Boy Scouts learned that she was a lesbian. The Boy Scouts of America have had a clearly stated policy against homosexuals serving as adult leaders, though that policy has usually been applied to men.

As a private organization, the Boy Scouts has the legal right to exclude both gays and lesbians from membership and leadership. That right was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, but that has not ended the controversy. Since that decision, the Boy Scouts have paid dearly for the policy, as some cities and other governments and institutions have severed support and relationships with the BSA and its local programs.

Now, the controversy is focused on Tyrrell, whose reinstatement is now demanded by gay rights organizations and some of the parents of the boys involved in the Bridgeport, Ohio troop. At least some of those parents knew that Tyrrell was a lesbian, while others did not. In any event, she has become the center of a national debate.

The Boy Scouts of America has the right to establish policies consistent with its convictions. Indeed, the group’s policy of excluding homosexuals from leadership would seem to be necessary and prudent. A consideration of recent national scandals should make that point sufficiently clear.

No one is charging Jennifer Tyrrell with any improper action or motivation in this case, but the Scouts applied their policy and the controversy is now incredibly revealing.

One parent said this: “I teach my children to judge people on their actions . . . whether you agree with their lifestyle or not.”

The only way to make sense of this is to see that this parent is trying to separate “actions” from “lifestyle” as if the lifestyle should be free from moral scrutiny. Lifestyles involve actions, but those are now to be considered beyond moral judgment.

Oddly enough, this rather bizarre form of thinking is indicative of a larger cultural pattern. Sexual relationships are off-limits for moral judgment. What is left is a far smaller sector of moral investigation. Once sexual behavior is removed from moral scrutiny, what will be declared off-limits next?

As one observer recently noted, our society is exchanging moral concern about sex for moral concern about diet. We are not sure that moral judgments should be made when it comes to sexual behaviors, but when it comes to free range chickens and excess carbohydrates, the moral categories kick in.

The Boy Scouts of America is a venerable and noble organization, and one that deserves our support. Given the kind of opposition it now faces, that support will be needed.

Christian Ministry in the Shadow of the Mosque [with video]

Evidence of the vast changes that mark the American landscape come with a new report, The American Mosque 2011. The report was produced by a coalition of research centers and organizations under the direction of Ihsan Bagby of the University of Kentucky. The big finding is the explosive growth in the number of mosques in recent years. The report indicates that there were 2,106 mosques in America in 2011, up from 1,209 in the year 2000.

Other major findings:

  • Most mosques are in urban areas, but some are in suburban settings.
  • Over 75% of all American mosques were established since 1980.
  • Islam in America is ethnically diverse, including large numbers of South Asians, Arabs, and Africans, as well as African-Americans.
  • The largest number of mosques are found in California, New York, and Texas, but other states have surprising numbers — such as Alabama (31), Kentucky (27), and Mississippi (16).

Given the higher Muslim birthrate and continuing patterns of immigration, it is likely that the number of Muslims in America will continue to rise, along with the numbers of mosques.

All this represents a great challenge to American Christians, charged to love our neighbors and to share the Gospel with them. The indisputable fact is this: The appearance of so many mosques on the American landscape is a graphic reminder that our Great Commission calling has never been more challenging, or so urgent.

I hosted a panel discussion of this report at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Tuesday, March 20, 2012. The discussion, “Christian Ministry in the Shadow of the Mosque,” featured Dr. Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration; Dr. Zane Pratt, dean of the Billy Graham School of Mission and Evangelism; Dr. David Sills, professor of Christian missions; and Daniel Montgomery, senior pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville. The event was sponsored by Southern Seminary’s Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam.

The full report, The American Mosque 2011, is found here [pdf file].

Torah and Truth: Theology in the Obituary Pages

Theological lessons appear in the most unexpected places. The February 12, 2012 edition of The New York Times included an obituary for Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, who died February 8 in Toronto at age 99.

The obituaries in The New York Times are legendary, rivaled only by those in The Times of London. Both papers feature unexpectedly lengthy obituaries devoted to those who made a difference in their times.

Rabbi Plaut was one of those figures. As Margalit Fox of the Times explained, the rabbi was one of the most influential figures in Reform Judaism, North American Judaism’s most liberal major branch.

As Fox stated, Rabbi Plaut was “a rabbi whose vast, scholarly and ardently contemporary edition of the Torah has helped define Reform Judaism in late-20th-century North America.”

Rabbi Plaut’s commentary on the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) was “the first non-Orthodox full commentary on the Torah published in English for congregational use,” said Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, an official with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Previous to Rabbi Plaut’s work on the Torah, congregations had been dependent on the work of Rabbi Joseph M. Hertz, written from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism, affirming the divine inspiration of the text as given through Moses.

Reform Judaism does not require any belief in a personal God, and many adherents are agnostics or atheists in terms of traditional theism.

Rabbi Plaut wrote his commentary on the Torah for this movement and its congregations, and in the introduction to the work, he stated what he believed about the Bible:

“God is not the author of the text, the people are; but God’s voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds.”

With those words, Rabbi Plaut honestly stated what he believed about the Bible, and specifically about the Torah. God is not the author of the text. The text was not divinely revealed to Moses, nor to anyone else. The Torah was the literary achievement of the Jews. God’s voice “may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds.”

That is an amazing statement, and it may even shock some readers who are unaware of the fact that many people consider the Bible to be nothing more than a human book. In the secular academy and among liberal Bible scholars, the Old Testament is increasingly referred to as an example of “Ancient Near Eastern Literature.”

The rabbi’s statement is not merely indicative of Reform Judaism, but of the belief about the Bible held within liberal Christianity. Rabbi Plaut’s words are hauntingly reminiscent of the arguments offered by Rudolf Bultmann, the most influential liberal New Testament scholar of the twentieth century.

Here we see the great dividing line — the line that divides those who affirm the Bible as the inspired Word of God and those who see the Bible as a human product. Everything flows from where one stands with respect to this line, and no one can avoid taking a stand.

Sometimes, the most urgent issues in theology show up where you least expect. Then again, maybe the obituaries serve us well by reminding us, by their very nature, of what matters.

The Family Torn Apart — Richard Wolff on Economics and Family Life

Though this may surprise some readers, liberal and conservative economists often agree on the nature of the problems posed by various economic practices, even as they vigorously disagree about the solutions to those problems.

Richard Wolff is a man of the Left who has been friendly toward Marxism throughout his long teaching career. He is currently professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a visiting professor at the New School in New York City.

He was interviewed recently in the pages of The Sun, a magazine first associated with the counter culture of the 1970s. In the interview, Wolff championed the Occupy Wall Street movement as a new mass protest that, he hopes, will usher in a mass movement of the Left.

In the course of the interview, Wolff explained his theory of what went wrong with the economy, and his analysis deserves a close look. He pointed to the technological revolution and the rise of computers as the cause of great job losses in the manufacturing sector. He also pointed to the rise of debt, with Americans borrowing vast sums of money, largely driven by their confidence in rising home values. He sees this as mass delusion. “The amazing thing about the last thirty years is the collective self-delusion in the U.S. You cannot keep borrowing money if your ability to pay it back — i.e. your real wage — is not going up. You don’t need a PhD in economics to understand this.”

Then he said something well worth our attention:

So the current crisis really began in the 1970s, when the wages stopped rising. But its effects were postponed for a generation by debt. By 2007, however, the American working class had accumulated a level of debt that was unsustainable. People could not make the payments. They were exhausted financially, exhausted physically by all that work, and exhausted psychologically because the family has been torn apart by everyone working.

Stay-at-home parents hold families together. When you move everyone into the workplace, tensions in the family become unmanageable. You can see evidence of this in popular culture. The sitcoms of the 1960s showed happy middle-class families, but many sitcoms today show struggling families. Americans are 5 percent of the world’s population, but we consume 65 percent of the world’s psychotropic drugs, tranquilizers, and mood enhancers. We are a people under unbelievable stress.”

That quality of insight should be appreciated, even when it comes from an unexpected source.

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