Convention speech: Aline Pham — My worldview is based on evidence, not the bible

Aline Pham (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Aline Pham was the winner of FFRF’s 2019 William J. Schulz Essay Contest for College-Bound High School Students. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech Aline Pham gave at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019. She was introduced by FFRF Executive Board Treasurer Steve Salemson:

We brought the winner of FFRF’s William J. Schulz Essay Contest for College-Bound High School Students to speak today. The students were asked to write an essay based on this prompt: “Why we must rely on ourselves, not God, to solve the world’s problems.” Their insights give us nonbelievers faith in the future.

Our first-place essay winner is 18-year-old Aline Pham, an exceptional young woman from La Mirada, Calif., who is attending the University of California-Irvine. Aline was valedictorian of her high school class, and it says a lot about her that her senior class voted her “most likely to vote for a cause.” She told us that separation of church and state is one of those causes. She would like to become a teacher, then a principal and her ultimate goal is one day to become a superintendent.

Welcome, Aline.

By Aline Pham

This past summer break, while my friends were taking trips to San Diego and making the most of their last summer before adulthood, I sat in my room and applied for scholarships. But my mom is the real champion. She spent her days searching for scholarships and nagging me to apply. That’s how we found out about the Freedom From Religion Foundation and this scholarship. But unlike other essay applications, this prompt didn’t take me hours to answer. It came easily to me. So, I sat there and I thought.

I thought about myself in fifth grade, a 10-year-old girl fed up with the substitute teacher who went on a 30-minute spiel about God after introducing herself. She called attendance and praised every child whose name originated from the bible. But that’s not all. She rambled about how we, as children of God, must be grateful for the blessing of education and thank him every Sunday in church. Impulsively, but not regretfully, I raised my hand and said, “What if I don’t go to church?” I swear I could hear 30 students shifting in their seats awaiting a response. She replied something along the lines of, “Oh dear, well that’s OK, too.” But I could tell by looking in her astonished eyes that she thought this 10-year-old was going to hell.

I thought about 13-year-old me sitting criss-cross applesauce in the public library when a security guard approached me and firmly demanded that I take my feet off the chair. With his bulging eyes, he asked me, “Do you sit like that in church, miss?” At the time, I was too taken aback to call him out on his rude assumption. But now, I realize how wrong he was in imposing his beliefs on me, even though I shouldn’t have had my feet on the furniture.

I thought about ninth grade, when my friend (whom I get along with very well) asked me, “Wait, you’re Christian, right?” “Why would you assume that?” I asked him. I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s because I once helped him correct grammatical errors in his letter for a mission trip to Mexico.” But to my utter disbelief, he replied, “Well, I mean, I just figured because you’re nice and a good person.” I wouldn’t have hesitated to call him out on this obviously flawed logic, but the funny thing is that he seemed to recognize his mistake before I could point it out. This dangerous association of Christianity with good and anything else with bad is what spews ignorance and hatred throughout our nation.

So, I took all these thoughts (and many more) that had been roaming around in my head for years and put them onto paper. The result was this:

“God makes no mistakes.” Personally, I think he set the oven temperature too high when he cooked up Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, when he stirred Jewish bodies in Nazi Germany, when he sprinkled some cockroaches in the Rwandan genocide. A god did not do that. Humans did. Instead of singing “hallelujah” and talking to the sky, we should hold ourselves accountable for such terrible atrocities and prevent history from repeating itself.

Vietnamese Buddhist funerals are very peculiar. For hours on end, monks recite prayers repeatedly, slurring their words so much that no one — not even the most fluent Vietnamese grandparents — can comprehend. My mother tells me the murmuring chants will allow my grandfather’s soul to leave his body and move on. I nod my head just to humor her. He’s dead. His body has been cremated. His body is gone, but his memory lives on. We don’t need monks or altars or burning incense to recognize that. I refused to cope with my grandpa’s death by reciting meaningless prayers in front of Buddha statues, and instead vowed to carry on his memory by working hard in school and being kind to others. Three years after his passing, I have healed and still continue to fulfill my promises — without the help of a god.

After the Parkland shootings, the smell of social activism lingered in the air as my school led its own student sit-out for common-sense gun control. While I protested in honor of the 17 victims, some of my peers refused to participate, convinced that their “thoughts and prayers” would suffice to heal all wounds. As comforting as they may be, prayers cannot heal bullet wounds — or social wounds caused by mental health issues, faulty legislation and deep-rooted prejudice.

These prayers are merely temporary solutions that encourage individuals to unproductively wait around for the “man upstairs” to solve their problems and vanquish their worries. Rather than throwing baseless words at victims, we should address problems such as gun violence by introducing new laws and voting for new politicians. The same students who offered “thoughts and prayers” use the bible as their sole “evidence” for discriminating against my LGBTQ+ classmates. I often wonder if they realize that such baseless claims contradict the “Love thy neighbor” principle. Religion gets in the way of so many things and is a root cause of many social wars we fight today.

I draw conclusions about our world using evidence provided by Bill Nye the Science Guy, not the bible. I have always been fascinated by science, biology in particular. In freshman year of high school, my passion and drive paid off when I was recognized as my teacher’s top biology student at my high school’s award ceremony. Intending to compliment me, my friend exclaimed, “Aline, you’re so lucky and blessed!” To my surprise, my teacher corrected him. He said matter-of-factly, “No, she’s not. She worked hard to earn it. No luck or blessings needed.” Looking back, I realize he was right. In biology, I participated in class discussions, led group projects, and conducted unique experiments. It was my work that earned me awards, not prayers. It was my drive, not dogma.

The truth is, I have never written a piece like this — not one that expresses my raw feelings toward religion and faith, or lack thereof. I will be the first to admit that I was not always this confident about my secular stance. I always thought I was insecure growing up because all my friends were Christian while my family was Buddhist. But now I realize I was insecure because school was Christian, home was Buddhist, and I was neither.

A lot has happened since I wrote this essay. I started my first year at college and often find myself overwhelmed by the new people, environment and expectations. A few days ago, I even thought to myself, “How nice would it be to sit here, hold my hands and pray? All my worries would be washed away.” But is that really the mentality we want to teach our kids? To deflect our problems toward God? To slap a Band-Aid on a gushing wound? No. I have to take responsibility for my mistakes: procrastinating on an assignment, not keeping in touch enough with friends and family, and so forth. I must have drive, not dogma.

So, I would like to sincerely thank FFRF for giving me the opportunity to do so, and for making this convention possible for me to attend. Thank you to my mom, who has always encouraged me to speak up and exercise my First Amendment rights, whether she agrees with me or not. And lastly, thank you all for listening to my story.

Convention speech: Jeff Sharlet — Trump is The Family’s ‘vessel of God’

Jeff Sharlet signs copies of his book for convention attendees. (Photo by Chris Line)
Jeff Sharlet speaks at FFRF’s national convention on Oct. 19, 2019, in Madison Wis.(Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Here is an edited version of the convention speech given by Jeff Sharlet at FFRF’s national convention on Oct. 19, 2019, in Madison, Wis. He was introduced by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover:

Jeff is an award-winning literary journalist author of The New York Times bestseller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. He is also executive producer of the new Netflix documentary series based on those books. Please give a warm welcome to Jeff Sharlet. 

By Jeff Sharlet

Thank you for having me here.

In the so-called “cease-fire deal” that Mike Pence negotiated recently with Turkey, Pence declared that he not only wanted to thank President Trump, he wanted to thank the millions of Americans who were holding that moment in prayer.

The press passed over that nod to the evangelical base. But I believe it was key because, for a fraction of a second, Christian Nationalist support for Trump had wavered. You probably heard Pat Robertson’s warning that Trump was in danger of losing the mandate of heaven. 

But the mandate of heaven is in Mike Pence’s portfolio, and Mike Pence wanted Christian Nationalists to remember that he is their man, their agent, and that he represents the covenant between Trumpism and the faithful that he, on behalf of Trump, heard their prayers. And, lo, he said, their prayers were answered. Peace in our time, said Pence. Don’t fret the details. Consider not the fate of the Kurds, not even their fellow Christians among them.

I don’t make many political predictions, but in 2010, I ended my book C Street, in which I’d written about a number of Christian Nationalist politicians fallen to scandal, with a little speculation about who might represent Christian Nationalism in 2016? Maybe, I wrote, it’ll be Rep. Mike Pence, a little-known Indiana congressman, a former right-wing radio host with White House eyes. I was so close. I could not imagine that Donald Trump would become the chosen one. How did that happen? 

That question is at the heart of my recent documentary series on Netflix, “The Family,” directed by the brilliant Jesse Moss. The Family, also called The Fellowship, is the oldest and most influential Christian political organization in Washington. It’s also the most secretive. The longtime leader, Doug Coe, liked to preach that the more invisible you can make your organization, the more influence it will have. This so-called invisibility served The Family’s purposes because it’s not a mass organization. It’s not interested in your soul. It’s not interested in your salvation. This is one Christian Right group that is not going to try and convert you. It’s worse.

The Family began long before what we think of as the inception of the modern Christian Right. It was the midst of the Great Depression, 1935, when the founder Abraham Vereide was convinced that economic suffering was a punishment from God for socialism, for the New Deal, for Franklin Roosevelt.

God told Vereide — and I mean told him, spoke to him, he could hear the voice of God — that Christianity has been getting it wrong for centuries. It was focusing on the poor, the weak, the down-and-out. God told Vereide that he actually cared most for the strong, the wealthy, for those whom Vereide called the up-and-out men in power, given that power was better to build God’s kingdom.

A deal with God

How this can work, this deal with God? The Family moved to Washington, D.C., where it began organizing congressmen and business and military leaders in 1953. It created the National Prayer Breakfast to sanctify the nation to Jesus, and in its documents it’s explicit about this — to create a space to cut deals between Christ’s followers and government and business. 

By the 1960s, it was firmly established around the world through its embrace of foreign dictators, whom it said had been chosen by God to aid America in the Cold War.

Here’s just one example among many. The Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre called himself a Koranic Marxist. But his Soviet backers had abandoned him. He needed some help and he agreed to pray to Jesus with Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who’s still serving us today.

Sen. Grassley, who is representing The Family in Somalia, was remarkably candid in his correspondence about what Barre wanted in return for his prayers to Jesus: military aid and a White House meeting — quid pro quo. Done and done, wrote The Family.

And, so it was. And, in return for that, The Family said in a now declassified CIA memo, Barre would give the U.S. full land and naval bases and complete access to his territory. So, for the dictator, this was a good deal. To The Family, to Sen. Grassley and his friends, it was faith. Everybody wins, except Somalia, to which Barre laid near biblical waste with the backing of the American Christ.

Such is the art of the deal. Let me give you another example.

American preacher and former Congressman Zach Wamp, a leader of The Family, told us as we made this documentary, that Trump is the vessel of God, albeit an imperfect vessel. 

He says The Family is not blind to the vanity of man, especially to the man to whom it gives its backing. They know who they’re dealing with. One Family leader calls its clients its specialty dictators, murderers and thieves. Their words — “dictators, murderers and thieves.” The miracle, they say, is that such men — and it is almost always men — are chosen by God. The Family calls this quid pro quo a covenant. I’m going to quote Doug Coe, the longtime leader, what he means by that term covenant.

“Jesus says: ‘You have to put me before other people.’ Hitler, that was the demand of the Nazi Party. Quite a leap there. I’ve seen pictures of young men in the Red Guard of China. A table laid out like a butcher table. They would bring in this young man’s mother and father, lay her on the table with a basket on the end. He would take an ax and cut her head off. To have to put the purposes of the Red Guard ahead of the mother, father, brother, sister, their own life. That was a covenant, a pledge. That was what Jesus said. If you’re going to have any kind of movement, you have to have that kind of commitment.”

Which is why it does not matter to The Family, to Christian Nationalism, what Trump believes. Or whether he is, as some Christian Nationalists claim, a baby Christian, a man brought to grace by power. Each of his actions in the White House — the appointment of judges, a rollback of reproductive rights, spiritual war with Islam, the fortification of America as a chosen nation — symbolized by the wall to be built on its border. Each action is like a baby step toward the Lord. It does not matter whether he is a baby Christian or perhaps not truly a believer at all, but rather a tool in the hands of the Lord.

Trump as King Cyrus

This is the notion popularized in the 2016 campaign among evangelicals. The biblical story of King Cyrus the Great recast for the man who would make America great again. Both of them anointed by God. Even though neither necessarily had faith in God. It is King Cyrus, the king of Persia, a pagan, who the story goes, freed the Jews from Babylon and, what’s more, built a wall around Jerusalem. A wall. There’s real subtlety in this movement. And he didn’t actually build a wall either.

Now, some critics see these such beliefs as dangerous superstition, as naivete at its worst. Others say it’s cynicism.

And what I want to propose to you today is that it is both the art of the deal, of which Trump’s ghostwriters boast, and their best approximation of Trump. The real art of the deal is making everyone believe they got a good deal. It’s not the hard compromise of democracy where we’re aware of what we gave up.

The art of this deal is faith. The product of the deal is power, strength, total commitment. This is what The Family has dreamed of since its founder first wrote admiringly of Hitler’s effectiveness. It’s what Doug Coe spoke of whenever he cited Hitler, Lenin and Mao as the models of strength of the covenant, the deal with power that followers of Christ must seek. Trump instinctively understood early on that he was something like that model of strength — the unique figure who could bind reactionary forces together or according to Christian Nationalist mythology.

I want to emphasize this may not be true. It was allegedly Melania who figured it out, according to a 2016 best-selling campaign book called God’s Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and the American Unraveling, by Lance Wallnau, an evangelical Trump adviser. Wallnau writes, “While [Trump is] watching the evening news with his wife Melania, they witnessed the escalating violence and riots happening in Baltimore. In that moment, Melania turned to Trump and said, ‘If you run now, you will be president.’

“‘What,’ said Trump? He was legitimately shocked by this sudden declaration. ‘I thought you said I was too bright and brash to get elected.’ Melania turned back to the plasma screen and said, ‘Something has changed. They are ready for you now.’”

Convention speech: Andrew L. Seidel — Constitution belongs to ‘We the People’

Andrew L. Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response, speaks at the national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Andrew L. Seidel says his goal is to “utterly destroy this un-American ideology” of Christian Nationalism. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Andrew L. Seidel speaks in October about his book, The Founding Myth, with Isaac Kramnick, right, who died in December. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech given by Andrew L. Seidel at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. He was introduced by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker:

Andrew is the director of strategic response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He graduated from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and he graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School in 2009, where he was awarded the Haber J. McCarthy Award for excellence in environmental law. Andrew studied human rights international law at the University of Amsterdam, completing his Master of Laws at Denver University Sturm College of Law in 2011.

He was also one of FFRF’s student essay contest winners that year, which is how we met him. Andrew joined FFRF as a constitutional attorney on Halloween 2011 and ever since then he’s been scaring the hell out of the Religious Right.

He also writes for many other publications including Think Progress, Religion News Service, Rewire News and others. Andrew’s new book is called The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. Please welcome Andrew.

By Andrew L. Seidel

Do we have a government of the people for the people and by the people? Or is ours a government of the Christians for the Christians and by the Christians? That is our battle right now. America is in a desperate fight against Christian Nationalism, a political theology that is an existential threat to our republic.

That is why I wrote The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. Christian Nationalism is not a scholarly debate. It is a sinister exclusionary idea. The goal is to redefine America according to the Christian Nationalist identity and then reshape our law accordingly. Christian Nationalism is the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation that is based on Judeo-Christian principles and, most importantly, that we’ve strayed from that foundation. Now we’ve got to get back to our godly roots. They use that language of return to justify all manner of evil public policy.

Christian Nationalists seized power in 2016. The best predictor of a Trump voter in 2016 was thinking that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. So, Trump tapped into this fearful undercurrent of Christian Nationalism and he rode it into the most powerful office in the land. And since then he and his administration chockablock full of Christian Nationalists have been implementing this exclusionary public policy. You’ve seen it. They love to talk about it.

The Muslim ban is a really great example of this. Not only did it ban immigration from Muslim-majority countries, it also favored immigration for Christians, and the child separation policy at the border. The administration justified it. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, got up there and justified it using the bible. Romans 13 opposition to LGBTQ equality and opposition to reproductive rights is almost exclusively Christian Nationalist and it’s not just at the federal level. We are seeing it all across the states as well. There is a coordinated push.

Religion becoming law

They call it Project Blitz and it is unabashedly Christian Nationalist. Their religion is becoming the law. But there’s good news because the very identity of the Christian Nationalists depends on myths and lies. You’ve heard them before. Trump loves to spout them all. “One nation under God.” “In God we trust.” “The Declaration of Independence references the Christian God four different times.” “Our Founding Fathers were all the equivalent of evangelical Christians.” “They prayed at the Constitutional Convention.” “George Washington got down on his knees at Valley Forge in the snow and said a prayer.”

And my personal least favorite: that our law is based on the Ten Commandments. Without the historical cover that these myths and lies give, their policy justifications begin to crumble. Their identity begins to wither and fade, so their entire identity and political ideology is actually incredibly weak and vulnerable because it is based on these historical distortions and lies. 

But we need more than facts to fight back. We need better arguments. So, that is the purpose of The Founding Myth — to bury Christian Nationalism. It’s a lofty goal, I admit. I want to utterly destroy this un-American ideology. The book is not simply a refutation of the idea that we are founded as a Christian nation. Instead, I wanted to go deeper.

So, I asked, did Judeo-Christian principles positively influence the founding of the United States of America? And the answer to that question is no, they did not. In fact, it’s a good thing they didn’t because Judeo-Christian principles, and especially those principles that are central to Christian Nationalism, are fundamentally opposed to the principles on which this nation was built. There is such disagreement and conflict that it is fair to say, albeit bluntly, Christianity is un-American.

That is the argument I make. There are these two conflicting systems. They have irreconcilable differences so much so that the Founders had to divorce the two.

To make the argument in the book, I broke it up into four basic parts. Part one goes over the Founding Fathers and their personal beliefs. It also talks about the Declaration of Independence. I walk you through every one of those four references to God or the Christian God, supposedly in the Declaration, and I talk about our colonial history. And, again, what I’m trying to do in the book is give you better arguments. 

So, it is really fun to talk about the religion or lack thereof of the Founding Fathers. But if we do that, we are actually ceding a central point, and that is that it doesn’t matter what they personally believed about God or Jesus or any of that. What matters was their views on the separation of state and church. That’s why we need to be focusing on the Declaration of Independence. We can go over all of the references in there we can talk about it, but, at its heart, it is an anti-biblical document. The central points in it are that power comes from the people and the people have a right to overthrow and rebel against their government when it becomes tyrannical. Both of those central principles are refuted in the bible in Romans 13, the same chapter that supposedly justifies the child-separation policy at our border.

Part 2 of the book is called the “United States v. the Bible.” And here I really dig into those Christian principles that you can find in the bible. Things like hell, vicarious redemption through human sacrifice, biblical obedience and any notions of justice, and I compare those to America’s founding principles. Again, you see this fundamental disconnect.

Part 3 is where the book began. This book actually started out as a law review article that just got really, really out of hand. In this section, I compare the Ten Commandments to our founding principles and I walk you through every single one of the Ten Commandments and show that they really are fundamentally opposed to the principles on which our nation was built. All of them — yes, even the ones that you’re thinking of right now.

Part 4 is called “American Verbiage.” This is argument by idiom. These are the things that you all know and loathe: “In God We Trust.” “One nation under God.” “So help me God.” “God bless America.” Almost all of you know that none of those is from the founding generation. They’re all much later additions to the American vernacular. But our better argument is that these phrases were deliberately foisted on America during times of national fear and crisis by Christian Nationalists who were often seeking to wipe out earlier unifying phrases. “E Pluribus Unum” (“From Many One”) replaced by “In God we trust,”  “one nation, indivisible” literally dividing the indivisible with God, historically the most divisive force known to humankind.

So, you have not read a book like The Founding Myth. It is different. Previous books have offered this gentle correction to the Christian Nationalists. Here’s what our Founding Fathers meant. Here’s what they actually said. This is the real history and they’ve kind of left it at that, but correction is not enough.

Facts are not enough

Facts are not enough. Pointing out errors is no longer sufficient. So, this book does that, but then it takes the next step. This book goes on the offensive because patriotism has no religion. This book is an assault on the Christian Nationalist identity. Not only are Christian Nationalists wrong, their beliefs and identity run counter to the ideals on which this nation was founded. They are un-American.

Christian Nationalists are not just un-American, they’re also thieves. Christian Nationalism seeks to steal America’s greatness, its accolades and credit. It insists that a nation with a godless Constitution is dedicated to one particular god. This is a religion that demands fearful unwavering obedience and it’s trying to claim credit for a rebellion against a godly king and a revolution in self-government. It declares that that revolution was the brainchild of a few pious Christians rather than a group of unorthodox thinkers testing Enlightenment principles.

Christian Nationalism also bears false witness. It claims that a nation dedicated to the freedom of and from religion was built for one particular religion. It seeks to bury a fundamental truth on which our republic rests. That there is no freedom of religion without a government that is free from religion.

Christian Nationalism claims that the United States is exceptional because it was chosen, but a religion did not make America great, let alone make America at all. “We the People” make America great. America did not succeed because of Jesus or the bible. America succeeded as an experiment because it was based on reason. And if we abandon reason in favor of faith, or if we ask our elected leaders to commit this sin, we are asking to regress and not to some golden age but to a time when religion ruled the world, which was called the Dark Ages, as Ruth Green had said.

The Christian Nationalists will not go gently into the obsolescence for which they are bound. They have grown accustomed to religious privilege. They are used to imposing their beliefs on unsuspecting schoolchildren. They expect politicians to pay lip service to their duty and they demand acknowledgments of their god on government property.

But that time is ending. The end of Christian privilege is near. But you have to fight. As progress marches on, the lies exposed in this book will be professed more often, more loudly and with more desperation. You must be prepared to refute them factually and vocally. The Founding Myth gives you the facts and it gives you better arguments. You are responsible for the rest. Outspoken resistance is, to quote James Madison, the first duty of citizens.

Christian Nationalists have persuaded too many Americans to abandon our heritage, to spurn our secular foundations in favor of their myth. But America invented the separation of state and church. It is an American original. The idea was born in the Enlightenment, but was first implemented in the American experiment and it is time for us to reclaim that heritage and bury their lies.

This is not a Christian nation.

Our Constitution does not belong to the Christian Nationalists. It belongs to “We the People” — all of the people — and it’s about damn time that we take it back.

Purchase Andrew L. Seidel’s book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, from ffrf.org/shop and Andrew will donate his royalty to FFRF.

 

Q&A with Andrew L. Seidel

Here is a selection of Q&A from convention attendees to Andrew L. Seidel following his presentation.

Can you speak to the intersection of White Nationalism and Christian Nationalism?

Yes. So, if you’re looking at a Venn diagram, it’s a circle.

I know that FFRF frequently sends friend-of-the-court briefs to the Supreme Court. Do the judges read those?

The clerks certainly read those. The judges are supposed to read all that. Sometimes, I think they just get briefed by clerks on what is in them. But they can be effective, especially if you can make them stand out among the pack, which is something that we really work on doing.

I have a question about the intersection of the bible as the myth of the Christian Nationalists, but the Constitution as sort of the myth of the American people. Can you talk about how you dealt with that in your book?

Yeah, absolutely. I do get into that in the book, a lot. There are many of the principles that are in the Declaration and the Constitution that were aspirational at the time they were written and successive generations left it to their children to do the hard work of realizing a lot of those principles. 

I have devoted quite a few chapters in the book to this because it’s taken us a long time to get to the idea that all of us are equal, but I don’t think we’re there yet. There are a few places where I actually had to concede some influence to Christian Nationalists. It’s just not a positive influence.

I mean, seriously, slavery is a really good example. All of the justifications for slavery on the “we need to have slaves” side were religious. And it’s in the bible, it’s in the Ten Commandments twice. Jesus tells you how hard you have to beat your slaves in a parable. I mean, if you have a holy book that you can point to that says, “Yes, slavery is totally fine,” you’re gonna hang a hat on that. And they did.

And there were few other areas where I had to concede that influence. The subjugation of women is another area where Judeo-Christianity had a massive impact. And the fight for LGBTQ rights is another area where we have to concede some influence, but it’s not good influence. It’s a poisonous influence that we are trying to shake off and have been for centuries.

Could you address Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the taking over of the State Department’s website to promote his Christian leadership?

For people who did not see this, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, spoke in Nashville at this conference of Christian counselors. He basically said the bible should be a guidebook for leadership. He told everybody to read it, then used the secretary of state website to promote his talk. The Department of State’s website had this huge image of him with a link to his talk, including the full remarks. So, he’s using the resources of the state to promote his personal religion, which is Christian. That is Christian Nationalism. 

That’s exactly what we are working to fight. FFRF wrote a letter within a couple of hours of that happening. That did come down from the website shortly thereafter, but not just because of our letter. There was a huge outcry. This is what we are fighting.

And it’s not just Pompeo. That same day, Attorney General Bill Barr gave his really hateful speech at Notre Dame, where he weaponized religious liberty. He vilified nonreligious Americans, he bastardized American history and the law, and just spouted pure Christian Nationalism as the U.S. attorney general, which was nothing new.

We warned everybody that he had these views. He gave speeches that were very similar to that back in 1992. We warned Congress not to confirm him in this position for that very reason. So, nothing new there. But this is the kind of stuff that we are regularly fighting.

Crankmail (May 2020)

Coronavirus cartoon by Shell Fisher

Here is this month’s installment of Crankmail, letters from those who seem to be missing a marble or two from their collection. Printed as received (including strong language).

HAPPINESS!: Your organization is a joke! You are athiests in every respect! Your world is coming to an end in about 7 to 9 years! Repent & accept the GOD you can’t see! Believe on his son Jesus or perish in flames! The beast stirs! His reign is coming! All of you need GOD in your lives! If not for his righteousness & his glory & forgiveness, you would suffer greatly! I am only the messenger,— Emmanuel Torouge

Pensacola cross: You are the most hateful motherfuckers on the planet. God is disappointed in my language to you but I will ask his forgiveness, later. For now I find peace believing you will not ask his forgiveness and you will burn in Hell forever. — Anthony Tommins

Fool: You want people to donate to an atheistic foundation, but you want to stop a restaurant from giving a discount to those who go to church (i.e., donating to theistic people).  What a hypocrite!!!  No wonder the Bible says, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God”. According to the Bible, everyone who says there is no God (i.e., atheists) is a fool.  Your complaint sure proves the Bible right — and also shows how there must be a God!!! — Ed Charles

Lies: Ffrf is spreading lies in the name of freedom, when in truth they want to silence anyone who has the strength of mind to speak publicly about their First Amendment protected right to speak and to believe according to their own conscience. Stop trying to bully the free populous, and return to the rock that you crawled out from under. Your billboards are plastered all over my hometown like an atheistic propaganda campaign. I’m submitting this for informational purposes only, no reply necessary. — Brian Lee

Prayer kids get to do: We Don’t tell you what to believe in and you have no right to tell us what we can do here in our country. If you don’t bwant God to be in your life that’s fine He doesn’t make you do that either. You Don’t have any Right to change our rights. If you don’t want to pray during a game or what ever your at that prays that’s find but Don’t push your stuff on us. Satan Believes in God and he trembles. Your choice. Don’t bow your head. — Linda Kroon

FFRF: Fuck your ass motherfucker im not a christian but this website is a fucking pot of steaming shit — Jesse Paul

Alabama schools: You people better leave our schools in Alabama alone. We in Alabama are not going to be forced to give up our religion for 4% of the population in Alabama. I am sick of you people and if you keep pushing too hard, you are going to end up with a war on your hands that was started by you intolerant idiots. There will be enough red blooded true patriotic Americans that will become sick of your bullying and intolerant acts that are going to stand up and say enough is enough. Keep on with your crap, one day you will regret it. Oh, and I’m sure you are going to try to get your legal team on this because you think that I am threatening you, but don’t waste your time. You can’t do anything because guess what, I didn’t tell you that I am going to do anything to you, it will be every Patriot that stands up that will. — Carl Grier

Planets: Why are all the planets we know of, round? So uf you follow the big bang theory, the wouldn’t all planets be oddly shaped hunks or space rock? Who polished all the pieces and made them round? — Marcy Huntington

JESUS CHRIST: QUESTION when its time for u to get sick and things are not looking to good for you WHO DO U PRAY TO ? JUST CURIOUS — Joe Schenk

Barker fail on Carlson: I demand Dan Barker’s immediate termination. He presents himsef as glibly knowledgeable, but spouts slander discredited for centuries, thus exposing his ignorance or corruption. Mark my words: he will end up destroying any remaining credibility FFRF has left. This is the best you can do?! Fire him today! — M.D. Waterloo

I met God in person: I can prove it to anybody. Everybody I talk to be lives me I have all types of proof. Just wanted you to know that. Stop living a lie. God is the most serious person that ever exsist. — Greg Stribling

Prophecies: Forget everything about what the Bible says except all the prophecies. You can’t deny prophecy because by its very definition is “history told before it happens.” The Bible has literally hun dreds of prophecies both in the OT and NT. To date, the accuracy of these prophecies is 100%. This cannot be denied or overlooked. The prophecies alone about Jesus and his birth, Life, death and resurrection total approximately 300 prophecies. Do you know what the odds are of even a few of these coming to pass are? The prophecies alone land to be incredible way in which this amazing book was written over the centuries. If you can dispute these then I will become an atheist! Give it your best shot! — Norma Saib

religion: I was just asking how do you know there ain’t no god? He’s done a lot for me he kept my babies alive when doctors said they were in critical shape . Prayers were answered. — Brian Ward

Where do you ‘Freethought’

On a recent cruise up the Amazon, I read several Freethought Today papers and then shared them with fellow cruisers. (This was prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus.) In addition, our last stop in Key West, Fla., was where I finished reading Andrew Seidel’s The Founding Myth. What a marvelous book! To top off our cruise, I spoke with a fellow cruiser who was reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. It was an FFRF extravaganza cruise!

Steve Pinski shows off his copy of Freethought Today.

Steve Pinski
Colorado

Letterbox (May 2020)

Cartoon by Steve Benson

Stay strong on the front lines, FFRF!

As a longtime FFRF member, I just want to thank you so much for the outstanding work of your entire staff. You guys are my heroes! I used to do radio and TV debates with religious leaders, but I lost so many fans and clients that I was forced to stop. I’m glad you guys are still on the front lines fighting religious insanity. Please keep doing this critically important work.

Steve Siebold
Georgia


Despite ruling, public crosses are coercive

Relying on the Bladensburg cross Supreme Court decision, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed itself and decided that a Christian cross located on a government-owned park in Pensacola, Fla., does not violate the Constitution. 

The court opined that a cross somehow loses its religious significance to make it neutral based on the lapse of time. That is, a miracle of transmutation occurs.

These judicial decisions remind me of a rally for the Combined Federal Campaign that I was mandated to attend when working as a federal civil service employee. The executive who led the fund-raising event told us that while we were not obligated to contribute, “I don’t understand how anyone would not want to support this worthy cause. And think how a supervisor might evaluate a promotion package when considering a candidate who was not a team player.” Any way it might be rationalized, his talk was coercive. I was all for contributing to a worthy cause through a payroll deduction. However, I was not comfortable with the threat because it violated governmental standards of ethical behavior.

Similarly, I am all for religious folks celebrating their faith with public displays of a cross — just not on government property and with public funds utilized for upkeep. I believe government support for religious symbols violates my First Amendment rights to practice religion (or no religion) without government intrusion. Like the donation for promotion pitch, the crosses are coercive.

Plus, I dislike legal sophistry by a court to reach a predetermined conclusion.   

Marv Friedlander
Virginia


A new secular ‘Dentist’s Prayer’ is needed

Here is my letter that was printed in the March issue of the American Dental Association News:

I commend the ADA’s decision to take a neutral policy stance with respect to religion; rescinding “The Dentist’s Prayer” and permitting a moment of silence at the start of meetings to accommodate prayer or personal reflection. Unfortunately, judging from his letter to the editor, Dr. Joseph Kalil, author of “The Dentist’s Prayer,” remains unconvinced that religion should not be endorsed by a secular, science-based organization like the ADA.

In hopes of combatting this and with the hope of convincing my colleagues who hold strong convictions of faith to remain ADA members, I offer my version of “The Dentist’s Prayer.”

Thank you, O ADA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, for the privilege of being a member of a professional organization that remains neutral with the respect to the religious beliefs or lack thereof of its members. May I always be treated with no more and no less reverence than every other dues-paying human life that upholds the ethical principles of the ADA. Help me and each member understand that what unites us as an organization must be stronger than what divides us, or surely we shall perish. I am proud to be a member of a professional health care organization that does not accommodate any member at the expense of another. We can certainly remain respectful of the religious beliefs of each member while barring any religious endorsement or favoritism. As H.L. Mencken put it: “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

Frank A. Cornella, D.D.S.
Missouri 


Catholic Church needs to be safe, ethical

Sunday morning I witnessed my neighbors coming back from an early morning car trip. They were dressed up and when they exited their car they were holding palm leaves. Obviously, they went to a Palm Sunday service. Unfortunately, the governor of Pennsylvania exempted religious gatherings from stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates. Gov. Tom Wolf “suggested” that religious gatherings limit themselves to 10 people. It was a suggestion, not a mandate. Gatherings of even 10 people are unhealthy, risky and unethical, for attendees and for all with whom they come in contact. To make matters worse, the woman went into the house to retrieve her shopping bags for her trip to the store!

I shudder to think of how many COVID-19 infections will result because the Catholic Church was allowed to remain open. Catholic leaders nationwide should have figured out a way to convey their religious doctrine safely and ethically.

Margaret Downey
Pennsylvania


Donation honors wife, who broke free from religion

This $500 donation to FFRF is in honor of my wife, Heather, who grew up in an extremely evangelical Christian home. Her mother was a worship leader and her father was highly involved in church politics. She shed her religious shackles and hasn’t looked back. We are raising our children in a secular household and plan on making a donation to your foundation yearly as a way of teaching our children how important the separation of church and state is. I am so proud of my wife for being strong enough to break the chains of religion and to live her life fighting for those less fortunate and those chastised by the Christian community.

Jacob Smith
Washington


Trump doesn’t care about prayer, vouchers, etc.

Andrew Seidel’s column (March issue) on the State of the Union Address was excellent. I appreciate all that he pointed out. However, the way it was written, one might think that President  Trump actually cares about Christianity and believes in what he says. I do not believe he is a Christian nor a religious person at all. I do not believe he cares at all about school prayer, vouchers, reproductive rights, banning abortion (how many abortions might he have paid for?), public religious displays or even Christian Nationalism. He only cares about himself! Courting evangelicals and Christian Nationals benefits his political success and therefore he does it. My wish is that future articles about Trump and/or his administration will be more clear about his intentions. I don’t mean to be a critic of the good work Seidel and everyone else at FRFF is doing. I am most grateful. I only want us to be clear about this man’s beliefs.

Jay Jaffee
Minnesota


Is it time to create ‘atheist’ schools?

I mentioned in a discussion with a family member that I was really unhappy with the Florida Legislature making public schools put “In God We Trust” in a prominent place. I was shocked when she turned and literally screamed at me that “It’s only words! If you don’t like it, go build atheist schools!” I told her I believed in the separation of church and state.

Now, with all the voucher programs, I’m wondering if there isn’t something in this suggestion and want to pass it along to smarter people than me.

What if we did start building state-of-the-art schools teaching top scientific fields and devoid of religion? Require religious/atheist studies and separation of church and state classes. Get donor and government school funding and figure out some way to make it free.

Maybe they would begin to draw in more youth wanting to be the best and the brightest. Maybe corporations and organizations would begin to rank the schools the best in the country.

We should mull on this some more. Thank you for all you do.

Cherie Ohlsson
Florida


Ancient Greeks had it right on separation

In the third chapter of The Greek Commonwealth by Alfred Zimmern, the author traces the court system from family to tribe to church. This was a system fraught with injustice. The 5th century BCE Greeks decided on a different path. Quoting Zimmern: “It was at this point the city state and its magistrates first intervened decisively in criminal affairs.” The early Greeks saw the wisdom in a law judge and not a priest or tribal leader, and the importance of written law.

So, we have the Greeks of 2,500 years ago setting up a great example to allow the law of the land to be applied rationally by a public servant-layman, pursuant to a code, and not the whims of an ignorant, superstitious and often deranged religious zealot.

And, in America, we have been trying to keep the wall between church and state intact with dubious success (e.g., the changes of our national motto “In God We Trust” in the 1950s). The founders would have been appalled. 

The current Christian politicians will not cease in trying to tear down the wall. Trump’s federal judicial appointments may make the job complete. I am certain from my reading about our founders that the ancient Greeks were an inspiration and a model, and they would not be pleased with the current Christian politicians today who either don’t know the first 10 words of the Bill of Rights, or they just don’t care.

On that note, I have gladly enclosed a check for my FFRF membership renewal.

Jim Martin
Florida 


Christians should heed gospels on prayer

If more Christians (particularly those in places of high power) read the gospels, perhaps they’d stop clamoring for compulsory prayers in public schools, during graduations, high school athletic events and other government-sponsored activities.

In Matthew 6:1–6, this is how Jesus instructed his followers to pray: “When you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: They love to say their prayers standing up for people to see them. But when you pray, go to your own private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”

What could be easier to understand? The gospels encouraged frequent prayer and prayer meetings, but never to coerce any one to join the faithful in their prayers — or to intimidate those who don’t pray.

David Quintero
California


Being member of FFRF is the best antidote

I found out that my parents’ church received a $2.4 million  small business loan as part of the COVID-19 bailout and I wanted to throw up. I decided the best course of action was not to throw up or argue with my parents, but to stop procrastinating and become a member of FFRF. I have been a fan for years and I am in a great place financially, all things considered

I hope my small $250 contribution helps you continue your great work. Thank you, thank you and thank you for representing my rights!

Eli Steiger
Colorado


Religious gatherings repugnant to rest of us

While many of us already recoil at the Trump administration’s unrepentant (pun intended) efforts to devolve this country into a theocracy, even the faithful should be outraged by the blatant “business as usual” attitudes of self-righteous church leaders who hosted large Easter gatherings in spite of the “Pearl Harbor moment” that the COVID-19 crisis now represents.

All people have a right to their beliefs (or lack thereof), but not to the extent of needlessly sickening thousands of people outside their houses of worship. This is especially repugnant to the 25 percent of us who are either atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated, not to mention adherents of other faiths. To coin an old legal adage, “your right to wave your fist stops at my nose.”   

Intrusion of bronze-age folklore into secular governance is nothing new, but deliberate exposure of innocent people to life-threatening illness is quite another matter entirely, and this particular variety of flagrantly ignorant behavior rises well beyond the pale.

These credulous zealots are thankfully still a minority (at least for now), but their behavior threatens to undermine the positive results of stay-at-home orders that have been dutifully abided for weeks by the rest of us. If you want true respect for your religious beliefs, do not sit quietly while a few ignorant people worsen an actual crisis by creating an imaginary one.

As the movie character Forrest Gump so eloquently stated: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Justin Pripusich
Illinois


Science is our best chance against pandemic

Looking to religion as the answer to a pandemic is simply Dark Ages misguided thinking.

In his classic book from over 100 years ago, A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, historian Andrew Dickson White has several chapters contrasting the failures of religion and the successes of science in dealing with plagues and other medical issues over the centuries.

Regarding the Western world’s transition from reliance on Greek science to Dark Ages religion and then to Enlightenment science, White summarizes: “Just in proportion as the world progressed from the sway of Hippocrates to that of the ages of faith, so it progressed in the frequency and severity of great pestilences; and . . . just in proportion as the world has receded from that period when theology was all-pervading and all-controlling, plague after plague has disappeared, and those remaining have become less and less frequent and virulent.”

History shows that humanity is infinitely better off relying on science instead of ancient religious texts that are the product of a pre-scientific, ignorant and superstitious past. As the physicist and philosopher Victor Stenger said in our own time: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

Joe Sommer
Ohio


Joining as Life Member since the need is great

I have been wanting to do this for some time and finally I feel financially able to get a Lifetime Membership. Right now, above all times, we absolutely need the work that you do. Please keep up your good work and thank you for doing it.

Andrew Stover
Pennsylvania


Why is death rejected by the religious?

Most discussions about religion focus on the existence and nature of God, rarely on death.

Sometimes I will ask a believer, “What were you thinking 10 years before you were born?” They always answer, “Nothing.” Then I go in for the kill and say, “That’s what you’ll be thinking 10 years after you’re dead.”

Here is one of my favorite (stolen) lines: “Life is a tiny existence of life between two vast eternities of nothingness.” I like the symmetry.

I will never understand how the reality of human death is rejected by the human majority. When you’re dead, you’re dead.   

Thomas Hug
New Jersey


Faith in prayer doesn’t beat evidence

As an atheist since age 12, I am a bit perplexed about reactions to the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, why did the pope cancel services? Doesn’t he trust God to protect Catholics against infection, or at least protect him?

For that matter, why do religious people everywhere not think that prayer may be enough protection? Why do religious people think that God, whom they believe decides everything, would, on a whim, unleash this deadly virus and at the same time saddle America with a doofus president who is clueless on how to deal with it?

I think a lot of religious people are good, kind, generous, altruistic true believers. I think even more are selfish hypocrites. But I think they are all a bit unrealistic putting all their faith in something so far removed from reality and lacking even an iota of evidence.

Allan Provost
Florida


Too bad we don’t have Loring Miner leading us 

To help you weather the pandemic, I am renewing my membership and becoming a Lifetime Member.

In John Barry’s book, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, is a description of the Kansas country doctor who first detected that flu among his farm patients and tried to warn the world:

“Loring Miner was a big man who didn’t suffer fools, especially when he drank, which was often. A certain rebelliousness was part of his bigness, as well. He hadn’t seen the inside of a church in years. Periodically, he reread the classics in Greek.”

I wish he was in charge of the United States’ COVID-19 task force instead of that wax museum theocrat Mike Pence.

Jehnana Balzer
Arizona

Black Collar crime (May 2020)

Compiled by Bill Dunn

Arrested / Charged

African authorities have arrested several Christian pastors and even some congregants for defying bans on large gatherings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Typically, they were released after being warned. In Uganda, arrests were made at God Is Able Church, Kampala Catholic Archdiocese, Christian Witness Church and Blessed Feelings Church International.

In Ghana, arrests were made at Open Arms Ministry, Kingdom of God Church and at a prayer camp in the village of Pokrom. Nigerian police arrested 3 pastors. The Christian Association of Nigeria reportedly had called on churches to hold Sunday services as planned to help raise awareness of the pandemic. Source: Christian Post, 3-26-20

An unidentified Orthodox rabbi and 3 members of Ajdut Israel synagogue in Buenos Aires were arrested for operating a mikvah (ritual bath) after Argentina ordered all synagogues closed to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Source: JTA, 3-25-20

Metropolitan Seraphim, Kythira, Greece, was arrested for contravening a ban on large gatherings by calling on Greek Orthodox congregants on the island to come to church. Metropolitans are the equivalent of bishops.

Mayor Stratos Charchalakis said such a service “completely violates the government’s mandates regarding church and religious gatherings” to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Source: Orthodox Christianity, 3-23-20

Fabiano N. Dakai, 58, Fiji: Disobedience of lawful order. Dakai, a Catholic priest, was arrested for offering Mass on the island of Ovalau, which resulted in over 20 people gathering despite efforts to contain the coronavirus. Source: Fiji Sun, 3-23-20

Isidor P. Archibeque, 44, Salt Lake City: Rape, forcible sodomy, object rape and 2 counts each of aggravated sexual assault and forcible sexual abuse. It’s alleged Archibeque, pastor at an unidentified church, “systematically raped” a girl in his congregation from late 2014 to July 2017, starting when she was 14.

The girl’s family “confirmed that there were many incidents where Archibeque had access to [her] by picking her up at school and through church activities,” the arrest warrant said. Source: Deseret News, 3-18-20

Tumelo Mukheti, 29, Soweto, South Africa: Fraud. “It is alleged that [Pastor Mukheti] lured his church members in Kliptown to invest a non-refundable R1500 each into his investment scheme, which is known as Yahwe, between the year 2017 and 2018. He has an agreement with them that they would be receiving a 14% profit,” police said in a statement. The total is estimated at 2 million rand, equal to about $117,000. Source: Eyewitness News, 3-18-20

Scott Asalone, 63, Asbury Park, NJ: Carnal knowledge of a minor. At the time of the alleged abuse in 1985, Asalone was pastor at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Purcellville, VA.

He engaged in sexual relations “without the use of force” with a minor aged 13 or 14, the indictment said. He was removed from public ministry in 1993 and was dismissed from the Capuchin Friars in 2007.

After Asalone’s arrest was announced, David Grosso, a councilman in Washington, D.C., announced in a statement, “The minor he assaulted was me. … This occurred during a very difficult time of my life. Since then, I have been working through the negative impact of this abuse on my life. With the loving support of my wife Serra and my family, I am proud of the progress I have made,” Grosso wrote. Source: WTOP, 3-16-20

Jonathan A. Weaver, 56, Pennsylvania: 2 counts of 1st-degree assault and battery. Charges in South Carolina involve an alleged 2001 incident when Weaver was pastor at Hyde Park Baptist Church in New York and took students to Bob Jones University in Greenville. He is a 1986 Bob Jones graduate.

Shielagh Clark filed reports with Hyde Park police and university officials in 2005 that the abuse started when she was 15 and she became pregnant. She alleges she was instead asked to withdraw from Bob Jones for lying about where she was when she used overnight passes.

The arrest warrant states Clark was afraid to report the allegations in 2001 because Weaver was her pastor. Source: Greenville News, 3-14-20

James Burrus, 63, Staten Island, NY: Murder. Burrus, bishop of By Divine Purpose Christian Center, is charged with the 1980 strangling death of Lorraine Snell, a 19-year-old legal secretary. The former husband of Snell’s cousin, Burruss was seen leaving a party with her and was initially a suspect but wasn’t arrested until improved DNA technology recently linked fingernail scrapings from Snell to him.

Burruss told a reporter in 2014 he “got into Christ in the prison and now it’s my life.” He was serving time for robbing a taxi stand the same night Snell was murdered and was released in 1985. Pearl Snell-Holder, the victim’s mother, asked NYPD detectives in 2015 to take a fresh look at the case. Source: NY Daily News, 3-12-20

Ronnie Nelson Jr., 33, Toledo, OH: Aggravated murder. Nelson, executive pastor at Greater New Psalmist Church, is accused in the March death of his 6-month-old niece Ava Pope. It’s alleged he shook the infant, who died of “abusive head trauma,” while he was babysitting her. Source: Toledo Blade, 3-12-20

Scott E. Nedberg, 68, Warren, IN: Felony theft. Nedberg, pastor at Warren United Church of Christ, allegedly swindled a woman, telling her “he could have charges for her son dismissed or receive a reduced sentence for a sum of $8,000.”

Police had the woman drop off $2,000 to Nedberg at his church while she was wearing a recording device and listened as they talked about the remaining $6,000. Nedberg told police he devised the scheme because he was in “so much debt that he is about to lose everything,” an affidavit said. Source: WANE, 3-10-20

Clayton Turner, 40, San Antonio: Aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child. Deputies believe he had access to children at several places of worship through his work as a youth pastor. Turner listed The Message and Guadalupe Seminary as places where he served.

The 12-year-old girl alleged the assaults occurred over the past couple of years. Source: KSAT, 3-8-20

Toddrick D. Johnson, 36, Alvin, TX: Theft and using deception to secure an executive document. Johnson, pastor at Paradise Missionary Baptist Church in Houston, allegedly stole just over $200,000 from his congregation.

Johnson filed for bankruptcy in February. He also allegedly “obtained loans and filed false insurance claims” as part of the scheme. Source: Houston Chronicle, 3-8-20

Brad Isakson, 38, Clearfield, UT: Enticing a minor by internet or text, dealing in materials harmful to a minor, 4 counts of forcible sodomy and 2 counts of forcible sexual abuse.

Assistant Police Chief Devin Rogers said Isakson had a leadership position over the boy, now 14, about 2 years ago in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Rogers said Isakson no longer held that position during the time of the alleged offenses over a 5-week period starting in November 2019.

Isakson’s wife filed for divorce in February. Source: Standard-Examiner, 3-6-20

Jeffrey D. Lang, 46, and Kimberley E. Lang, 48, Glendale, OH: Theft of over $50,000. Lang, who resigned abruptly in 2018 as pastor at West Sunbury Presbyterian in Pennsylvania, allegedly received over $33,000 in unauthorized salary compensation and nearly $20,000 from other misappropriated funds.

The couple are accused of using the church bank account in 2017­–18 “for their family’s own personal benefit and not the benefit of the church,” investigators said. They and their children, Paisley, Pelham and Phoebe, moved to Ohio in 2018. Source: Butler Eagle, 3-5-20

Matthew D. Johnson, 30, Loma Linda, CA: Possession of child pornography. Johnson, a counselor at La Sierra Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Riverside, is charged with secretly recording boys in a school bathroom and with possessing over 600 pornographic images and videos, many depicting prepubescent boys. Source: San Bernardino Sun, 3-5-20

Hayden Hunter, 19, Pleasant Grove, UT: Suspicion of possessing and distributing child pornography. Hunter was arrested in Fremont, CA, where he was working as a Mormon missionary. Police said he used an alias and asked people to come forward if they had interacted with the email address [email protected] Source: Desert News, 3-5-20

Melanie L. Kummerer, 54, Leesport, PA: Theft by deception, theft by failure to make required disposition of funds received and security execution of documents by deception. Kummerer, treasurer at Calvary Lutheran Church from 2009–19, is charged with stealing over $390,000 from the church. Source: Reading Eagle, 3-4-20

Eliezer Berland, 82, Jerusalem: Exploitation and aggravated fraudulent receipt. Berland, a rabbi and convicted sex offender, was indicted for fleecing millions of shekels from people by promising miracle medical cures, freeing the imprisoned and finding missing persons. The indictment cites 16 alleged incidents.

Berland commands a cult-like following among the thousands of members of his group, an offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November 2016 on 3 counts of indecent acts and assault, as part of a plea deal that included 7 months of time served. He was freed 5 months later, in part due to ill health. Source: Times of Israel, 3-1-20

Victor S. Couzens, 43, West Chester, OH: Misdemeanor telecommunication harassment. Couzens, who leads Inspirational Baptist Church, a Cincinnati megachurch, allegedly engaged in “revenge porn” involving his failed relationship with New York model Andrea Garrison, 31.

It’s alleged he threatened her over the phone, tried to extort her and recorded a sex tape without her knowledge and distributed it. Couzens’ church building was foreclosed on in February, owing $4.6 million. Source: Fox Cincinnati, 2-28-20

Jacob M. Malone, 37, a youth pastor imprisoned in 2017 for sexual assault of a teen girl in Reading, PA, is charged with attempted murder, criminal solicitation, attempted aggravated assault and making terroristic threats.

Malone allegedly offered his former cellmate $5,000 to kill Calvary Fellowship Church Pastor Harold Wiggins, who reported him to police, and Judge Jacqueline Carroll Cody, who sentenced him. Source: Reading Eagle, 2-26-20

Thomas Stacy Jr., 46, and Jennifer Stacy, 43, Martin, KY: Thomas Stacy, pastor of Goble Roberts Community Free Will Baptist Church, is charged with criminal and sexual abuse of a child under the age of 12, sodomy and sexual abuse of a child by being a person in a position of authority or special trust. His wife is charged with misdemeanor assault and 4 counts of criminal abuse.

It’s alleged the couple abused or permitted the abuse of 5 children in their care from 2008 until January 2020. The criminal abuse charges allegedly occurred to children adopted by the Stacys. Source: WKYT, 2-26-20

Dionne Van Zyl, Atlanta: Van Zyl, an unregistered investment adviser, is accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of using his position as an ordained elder to swindle congregants at a suburban church out of over $23 million from 2013–19. A native South African, he also heads a nonprofit to equip leaders and pastors for the work of the ministry.

While clients lost most of their investments as a result of his trading activities, Van Zyl collected nearly $3 million in undisclosed fees, commissions and other compensation, it’s alleged. Source: sec.gov, 2-26-20

Randolph Brown, 64, Maple Heights, OH: 2 counts of compelling prostitution of a minor. Brown, pastor at Inner-City Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland, is charged with having sex with 2 minor girls who were being trafficked by another person.

The indictment accuses of him of paying for sex from the girls, who were runaways ages 16 and 13 in 2018. Source: cleveland.com, 2-25-20

Pleaded / Convicted

Curtis R. Brown, 55, Albuquerque, NM: Pleaded guilty to criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13. He resigned as pastor at Grace Baptist Church when allegations came to light that he molested his 5-year-old grandson in August 2019. He had been a pastor there for 18 years. Source: KRQE, 3-12-20

Kirbyjon Caldwell, 66, Houston: Pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with his alleged role in a multimillion-dollar investment scheme. His co-defendant, Gregory A. Smith, pleaded guilty in July 2019.

Caldwell, senior pastor at Windsor Village United Methodist Church, is accused of conspiring to persuade multiple victims to invest $3.5 million in bonds issued by the former Republic of China before losing power to the Communist government in 1949.

Caldwell has already made partial restitution to victims and agreed to pay the remaining balance, $1.95 million, before sentencing. Caldwell served as a faith-based adviser to presidents Obama and George W. Bush. Source: KHOU, 3-11-20

Marcin Garbacz, 41, formerly of Rapid City, SD: Convicted by jury of transporting stolen money, 50 counts of wire fraud, 9 counts of money laundering and 5 counts of filing false tax returns for stealing $260,000 from Catholic parishes and schools where he was a pastor and teacher from 2012–18.

Garbacz, a Polish immigrant, was arrested in May 2019 at a Seattle airport waiting for a one-way flight to Poland. Videos showed him taking money, and after being confronted by church officials in 2018 he moved to Washington state and started working for FedEx. Source: Rapid City Journal, 3-11-20

Troy A. Piccaluga, 48, Redwood, MS: Guilty by jury of statutory rape and sexual battery involving two 14-year-old girls while he was pastor of 2 United Methodist churches between January and March 2018.

While the clerk was reading the guilty verdict, deputies saw Piccaluga “pull a handful of what appeared to be pills out of his pocket and take them,” said Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace. He was treated and released and jailed under suicide watch. Source: Vicksburg Post, 3-6-20

Gregory Lisby, 40, Worcester, MA: Pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography. Libby, an Episcopal priest and former kindergarten teacher, was arrested in 2019 in possession of nearly 200 images and videos, some of which showed boys as young as 8 in sexual scenarios.

The evidence was discovered in a search of Lisby’s home, which he shared with his husband, the pastor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and their 2 daughters. His husband has not been implicated and has filed for divorce. Source: Christian Post, 2-25-20

Sentenced

John A. McLean, 59, Little Rock, AR: 21 months in prison and $203,966 restitution to 10 victims after pleading guilty to wire fraud. He served as a Presbyterian minister in 2016–17 while engaged in a scheme with a sports memorabilia dealer to fraudulently sell ordinary items represented as valuable collectibles.

McLean, who told the judge he was “incredibly ashamed,” falsely told prospective buyers that his father obtained some of the items from his connection with famous football coaches. Source: Democrat-Gazette, 3-18-20

Bernard Preynat, 75, Lyon, France: 5 years in prison. Preynat, a defrocked Catholic priest and scout leader, confessed in January to molesting boys aged 7–14 between 1970–90. He testified he abused up to 2 boys “almost every weekend” and as many as 5 a week when he led 1-week scout camps.

His superior, Philippe Barbarin, 69, a conservative named Lyon archbishop in 2002, was given a 6-month suspended sentence in March 2019 for not reporting Preynat’s crimes. An appeals court overturned the conviction in January and Pope Francis accepted his resignation in March. The appeals court ruled Barbarin should have reported Preynat but could not be held criminally liable. Barbarin claimed he dealt with the case as per instructions from the Vatican. Source: AP, 3-16-20

Everett Mitchell, 41, Steubenville, OH: 30 days in jail and 2 years in prison after pleading guilty to 4 counts of sexual battery, 2 counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and misdemeanor sexual imposition when he was pastor of Tower of Power Church.

The victim, Raelin Scurry, who went public to encourage others to come forward, was 12 when the abuse started in 2006 and continued through 2010 in Mitchell’s home, where she also lived. 

Mitchell allegedly made her stand before a mirror outside his bedroom, take off her clothes and touch herself while he watched with his sleeping wife beside him. Another time he bent her over a desk after a church service “and tried to penetrate her.” Source: Herald-Star, 3-10-20

Kevin W. Myers, 74, Colac, Australia: 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to 12 counts of sexual abuse involving 9 boys in the 1980s to 1990s when he taught science at Trinity College. Trinity is a Catholic co-educational school for 7th to 12th graders.

Myers would invite students to learn water safety on weekend trips to the coast and ply them with alcohol. They often awoke to find him groping or sucking their penises. Source: abc.net.au, 3-10-20

Michael Oluronbi, 60, Walsall, UK: 34 years in prison. Oluronbi, an evangelical pastor and self-styled prophet originally from Nigeria, was found guilty of sex offenses against a man and 6 young women dating back to the 1980s. Five of them attended his church and took part in “spiritual bathing” to be cleansed of evil spirits.

Those he impregnated were taken to abortion clinics. His wife Juliana was sentenced to 11 years for aiding and abetting rape and arranging some of the terminations. Source: Express & Star, 3-6-20

Ray Underwood, 46, Syracuse, NE: Up to 85 years in prison, with parole eligibility after 37½ years, after pleading guilty to sexual assault of a child. Underwood, a correctional officer and former Methodist pastor at churches in Exeter and McCool Junction, was arrested after a 7-year-old girl was examined at a medical clinic.

Underwood admitted he sexually penetrated the child several times, most recently in May 2019. He blamed his behavior on addiction to pornography, for which he was afraid to seek help for fear of losing his pastoral jobs. Source: KOLN, 2-24-20

Paul D. Burdick, 48, Hillsboro, OR: 6 months in jail and 5 years’ probation with sex offender treatment after release. Burdick, a driver’s education instructor at Portland Community College and bishop of the Hillsboro Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pleaded guilty to 6 counts of 3rd-degree sex abuse occurring from 2012–18. Prosecutors dismissed 15 more counts.

Two teen girls told their parents in 2016 that Burdick touched them sexually during driver’s ed classes. Police investigated but determined the evidence was not strong enough to charge him. Eventually, 21 female students came forward, several alleging he made them perform jumping jacks while he recorded them.

After his arrest in September, 3 students filed a lawsuit seeking $2 million each. Source: The Oregonian, 2-24-20

Scott B. Cline, 33, Kaukauna, WI: 11½ to 23 months in the county jail, 100 hours’ community service, $1,050 restitution and 4 years’ probation after pleading guilty to institutional sexual assault involving incidents with a 16-year-old female student between February and August 2018. Cline resigned as a teacher in October 2018 at Coventry Christian School in Pottstown, PA, and moved to Wisconsin.

The investigation uncovered over 2,500 text messages between Cline and the girl, many between midnight and 5 a.m. during the school year. Source: The Mercury, 2-19-20

Civil Lawsuits Filed

The Catholic Diocese of Kamloops, BC, Canada, and its priest Erlindo Molon, 88, are being sued for $2.45 million for alleged sexual assaults by Molon in 1977. Plaintiff Rosemary Anderson, now 70, alleges she was 26 when Molon started molesting her when she taught at a church school and after she had gone to him for solace after her father’s death.

He instead began groping her and initiated a sexual relationship that she prayed to God to end, the suit alleges. Source: Kamloops Matters, 3-11-20

Joseph Grasso “sexually assaulted and committed battery” against a male student in 2002–03 at Siena Catholic Academy and/or St. Thomas More Church in Brighton, NY, according to the unidentified plaintiff’s suit. Grasso, an ordained member of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, was academy principal at the time and the plaintiff was 12 or 13.

Grasso became chaplain in 2008 at Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany and remains a priest in good standing in his order. Source: Catholic Courier, 3-3-20

Jonathan Meyer, 40, Zeeland, MI, Holland Public Schools, Christ Memorial Reformed Church and Young Life are defendants in a suit filed on behalf of 5 plaintiffs, now adult men, who allege Meyer sexually assaulted them as adolescents and he was a church youth group leader and  middle school lunchroom worker.

It’s alleged Meyer continued to abuse boys for years after a student complained and before  his 2012 arrest. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six to 20 years but is now released.

The suit says he plied students with alcohol and cigarettes and taught them it was normal to masturbate together and have sex with each other and him: “Meyer told the plaintiffs that ‘what happens in the cabin, stays in the cabin.’ ”

Much of the abuse is alleged during youth group and church events such as a Young Life overnight camp. Young Life is a Christian youth ministry based in Colorado. One field trip included a stop at a Hooters restaurant in Grand Rapids.

He’s also suspected of abuse while working at Holland Christian Schools, but that’s not part of the suit. Source: Holland Sentinel, 3-1-20

“Jane Doe” is suing Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Oak Lawn, IL, over claims its youth pastor Adam Cook molested her underage daughter in 2018. He has not been charged criminally.

The girl had signed up for a youth service project created by Cook, which he allegedly used to coerce her into an inappropriate relationship, it’s alleged. Source: Oak Lawn Patch, 2-27-20

Joseph E. Larrabee is being sued by 2 men in their 50s who allege he sexually abused them as teens at least 19 times between 1982–84 as pastor at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Avon, NY. Larrabee was identified as an abuser as far back as 2002 and in August 2019 was named in 3 previous suits for having “unpermitted sexual contact” with minors. Co-defendants are 4 parishes and officials of the Diocese of Rochester. Source: Livingston County News, 2-26-20

The Diocese of Brooklyn and St. Michael’s Catholic Academy in Flushing, NY, are being sued by Charles Pellegrino, 66, who alleges he was abused in 2nd grade by his teacher. “He was really savagely beaten by this Sister Mary Jeremy — kicked in his groin and otherwise really injured,” Pellegrino’s attorney Diane Paolicelli alleged to a reporter. “This poor child went through hell.” Source: NY Daily News, 2-20-20

Civil Lawsuits Settled

A bankruptcy judge approved a $34 million settlement between the Minnesota Diocese of New Ulm and 93 claimants alleging sexual abuse by clergy. Abuse survivors will start receiving payments in May.

“This is a massive cleanup of a massive cover-up,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Jeff Anderson. Bishop John LeVoir apologized to survivors during the hearing.

Of the $34 million, $26 million comes from diocesan and parish insurance coverage; $7 million in cash contributions from the diocese and $1 million contributed by all parishes in the diocese. Source: AP, 3-10-20

Ballarat Christian College in southeast Australia will pay an undisclosed amount and give a positive employment reference to former teacher Rachel Colvin, who was fired in 2017 after refusing to support the school’s statement opposing same-sex marriage.

However, the settlement also said Ballarat doesn’t have to change its “statement of faith” or make concessions on its teaching. Source: The Australian, 3-8-20 

Legal Developments

Charles Hanel, 61, Pewaukee, WI, charged with sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, had a mistrial declared by the judge after nearly a week of testimony. Hanel, pastor at Queen of the Apostles Catholic Church, is accused of groping the girl inside the confessional in 2017.

Judge Michael Maxwell ended the trial in light of efforts by the girl’s mother to gain legal immigration status. Hanel’s attorneys argued that the girl likely fabricated the accusation to help her mother gain legal status.

The victim’s mother has a history of illegal entry into the U.S., attorney Jerome Buting said, citing discovery material. As a result, all the usual paths to entry for her were barred.

“Except for one way,” Buting said. “If she was the parent of a child who was the victim of a sexual assault.”

The prosecution argued that disclosure of her undocumented status gave more weight to her testimony because she was risking deportation by revealing that fact. Prosecutor Sue Opper said she was uncertain if the state would seek to retry Hanel. Source: Journal Sentinel, 3-13-20

Gary A. Jacobs, 74, Albuquerque, NM: Jacobs was charged in January with 7 counts of criminal sexual conduct alleged to have been committed in 1981–84, including with a child under age 13, when he was a Catholic priest in Michigan. Two more Michigan alleged victims have since come forward, adding 3 more counts of criminal sexual conduct involving a child between the ages of 13 and 15. Source: mlive.com, 3-11-20

Jason J. Hicks, 46, Ponca City, OK, was bound over for trial after a preliminary hearing. Hicks, a deacon at Agape Church of Christ, was arrested in October 2019 and is charged with lewd or indecent proposals or acts with a child under 16 years old.

Charges date to August 2019 when the alleged victim was visiting Hicks’ daughter for a sleepover and was groped on her breasts and groin. The 15-year-old then called her mother and asked to be picked up.

“If we didn’t believe the story, we certainly wouldn’t pursue it,” Osage County Sheriff Eddie Virden said. Source: KFOR, 3-6-20

A federal appeals court upheld a $21.7 million civil verdict against Connecticut rabbi Daniel Greer, 79, sentenced in December to 12 years in prison for repeatedly molesting a teen boy in the early 2000s when he attended the Yeshiva of New Haven school, which Greer founded.

Greer appealed, claiming the civil trial judge erred in instructing the jury on how to consider his invoking his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination when declining to answer questions during the trial. Source: NBC New York, 3-4-20

Allegations

Peter J. Karalus, Buffalo, NY, a close aide to Diocese of Buffalo Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, was placed on administrative leave while an independent investigator looks into an abuse allegation involving a teen in 2011 when Karalus was pastor at St. John Paul II Parish in Lakeview. He is now vicar general and moderator of the curia for the diocese.

Karalus said in a statement, “I emphatically deny and confidently declare as false the allegation that I offered words of inappropriate content to a penitent during the Sacrament of Reconciliation nine years ago.”

“The complaint that we received refers only to some words that were allegedly stated by Father Karalus during a confession,” Rodney Personius, his attorney, said. “Father Karalus cannot disclose anything that was said during a confession, but says his words must have been either misunderstood or misremembered by the person who made the complaint.”

Karalus said he doesn’t remember the complainant. Source: Buffalo News, 3-21-20

World Vision International, among Australia’s biggest charities, has been implicated in a $1.6 million corruption scandal involving alleged nepotism and kickbacks in return for lucrative printing contracts for mass mailings.

The charity was founded in 1950 and states on its website: “Going to the ends. Where no one else goes. Because Jesus is alive in the hardest places to be a child. That’s because we’re a global Christian humanitarian organization.”

World Vision Australia chief executive officer Claire Rogers announced her resignation for family and personal reasons in March, and officials deny it had anything to do with the scandal.

Chief financial officer Gordon Allison said the charity was “deeply concerned” by the allegations and has asked Victoria Police and the auditing firm KPMG “to undertake a formal, independent investigation of this matter.” Source: Morning Herald, 3-8-20

Lists published by 52 U.S. Catholic dioceses of credibly accused clergy showed 51 clergy accused in the U.S. were able to work as priests or religious brothers in a host of countries, from Ireland to Nigeria to the Philippines. ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle analyzed the lists.

At least 40 had worked in U.S. states along the southern border, including 11 in Texas. No country was a more common destination than Mexico, where at least 21 found refuge.

The 178 lists made public as of January and compiled into a searchable database by ProPublica revealed a web of incomplete and often inconsistent information. No diocese in Mexico, home to about 90 million Catholics, has published a list. Source: ProPublica/Houston Chronicle, 3-6-20

Removed / Resigned

Michael Ryan, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel & St. Peter in March, England, stepped down during an investigation of allegations of sexual abuse of children at his former assignment in Peru. The parish belongs to the Catholic Latin Rite Diocese of East Anglia. Source: Cambs Times, 3-25-20

Robert “Bud” Grant, a Catholic priest on the faculty at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA, was put on leave due to an allegation of sexual misconduct from the early 1990s. He was ordained in 1984.

The allegation dates to when Grant taught and coached boys soccer at St. Albert High School in Council Bluffs. A prosecutor said the complaint involved a person who was a minor at the time and is too old to be criminally investigated. Source: AP. 3-18-20

George Alengadan, 67, was placed on leave by the Diocese of Oakland, CA, for a second time due to allegations of groping and sexual impropriety with female employees. Since last July, Alengadan has been removed as pastor of St. Joseph Basilica in Alameda and Christ the King Catholic Parish in Pleasant Hill.

Five women have alleged sexual harassment and Alameda police have opened a criminal probe.

The parents of the original alleged victim complained to the diocese about 2002 incidents but said they decided against going to police because they trusted the church to handle it internally.

The mother alerted the diocese again in 2016, sending an email to Bishop Michael Barber without results, she said. The diocese finally investigated and closed a probe in 2018, then more women came forward. Source: San Franciso Chronicle, 2-26-20

Other

Cesar Pastrana, 33, an inmate at Hancock State Prison in Sparta, GA, died after a fight with another inmate. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 after pleading guilty to multiple counts of aggravated child molestation and aggravated sodomy involving 9 boys, including 2 relatives.

His arrest in February 2012 came days after a weekend lock-in for middle school and high school students sponsored by NorthStar Church in Kennesaw, where he volunteered. An arrest warrant alleged Pastrana had sexual contact at a similar event in 2011 held at his home.

He had previously been dismissed as a teaching assistant at a public school for inappropriate conduct but passed a background check before starting work at NorthStar. Source: Journal-Constitution, 3-20-20

Darrell L. Gilyard, 58, who admitted molesting 2 girls and was sentenced to 3 years in prison in 2009, was installed as the new pastor of Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. Many in the congregation are concerned that a registered sex offender is their pastor.

“Our phones were ringing off the hook,” said Lynn Jones, an editor for the Jacksonville Free Press. “Members of Mount Ararat — they were totally upset, and a lot of them are our subscribers.”

Gilyard started preaching at Christ Missionary Tabernacle Baptist Church in 2012 after he was released.

Tiffany Thigpen Kilgannon said on Facebook that she was a victim and wrote that “God doesn’t need predators in the pulpit, no matter how great a speaker or the truth of God’s word being spoken.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Gilyard is not on probation and can work wherever he wants. The church is across from Stanton College Preparatory School. Source: WJXT, 3-10-20

Gerald R. Hechenberger, 56, Mascoutah, IL, was pronounced dead March 6 while serving a 9-year sentence at Pinckneyville Correctional Center. The cause of death was not released but Hechenberger was morbidly obese and leaning on a cane when sentenced in January after pleading guilty to possession and dissemination of child pornography and possessing methamphetamine.

He was associate pastor of Holy Childhood Catholic Church and School when arrested in 2018. At sentencing, he told the court his behavior was a result of a “perfect storm” of mental health issues, drug use, hypersexual thoughts and grief after the 2014 death of his father.

Judge Zina Cruse said he “exhibited a desire to see others abuse prepubescent children.” Source: News-Democrat, 3-7-20

The Diocese of Phoenix announced the death of John D. Spaulding, 74, who was indicted in January on 6 counts of sexual misconduct with a minor and 1 count of molestation of a child. The alleged abuse involving 2 boys younger than 14 happened between 2003–07 when Spaulding was pastor at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Phoenix and St. Tim’s Catholic Church in Mesa.

Spaulding was laicized in 2014 but appealed the decision. His appeal was still pending with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when he died, according to the diocese. Source: KPHO, 2-26-20

Email: [email protected]

Cartoon by Steve Benson

Convention 2020 update

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the status of FFRF’s 2020 national convention in San Antonio the weekend of Nov. 13–15 is to be determined. FFRF is still accepting convention registrations online (and will fully refund members if the convention is cancelled). Speakers include Gloria Steinem, Margaret Atwood and John Irving. For more information on this evolving situation, please check future issues of Freethought Today. To register, for hotel information and info on other speakers, go to ffrf.org/convention2020.

The San Antonio Riverway

Dan Barker: Coronavirus proves that God does not exist

This column is excerpted from Dan Barker’s blog at patheos.com/blogs/freethoughtnow on April 23.

Cartoon by Steve Benson

By Dan Barker

It’s simple logic. The Christian god promises to answer prayer. Prayers to this god are not answered. Therefore, the Christian god does not exist. Right now, millions of Christians are asking their god to defeat the coronavirus and to heal the sick. Those prayers are having no effect.

It is not just the coronavirus, of course. We could take the example of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that Voltaire called a “repellant dance of death” and which 19th-century orator Robert Ingersoll claimed had “denied the existence of God.” Or the  1918 “Spanish flu,” which killed my great-grandfather. Or the 2001 terrorist attacks that prompted Richard Dawkins to say: “My respect for the Abrahamic religions went up in the smoke and choking dust of Sept. 11th.”

History is pockmarked with examples, but we only need one. SARS-CoV-2 is virulent enough to single-handedly kill the Christian god.

What does the Christian god promise?

The Christian god makes a crystal-clear pledge: “I will answer your prayers.”

Jesus stated boldly: “All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” (Matthew 21:22) There is no ambiguity here. “All things” means “all things.” He even clarified: “Even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done.”

Jesus, who said “I and the father are one,” confirmed this in many other passages:

“So, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” — Mark 11:24

“If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” — Matthew 18:19

“Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” — Mark 11:22–23

Other New Testament writers agreed:

“And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” — 1 John 3:22

The same promise appears in the Old Testament: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)

The claim is indisputable. The Christian god promises to answer “everyone who asks,” “all things,” “whatever you ask for in prayer.” If a believing Christian prays, then “it will be done for you,” “you shall receive,” “it will be yours,” “I will do it.”

There is no more solid promise in scripture.

The Christian god vows to answer prayer not with “Yes, No, or Wait,” as some apologists claim. He promises an unequivocal “Yes.”

Does God answer prayer?

Multitudes of Christians have been fervently praying. The Jesuits have asked Jesus to “Heal those who are sick with the virus.”

The Christian relief organization World Vision is asking Almighty God to “keep this new coronavirus from continuing to spread.” The Southern Baptists are praying “Lord, you are the Great Physician, so we pray for healing for the victims of COVID-19.” President Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White said, “I believe in the same way if we call on God almighty to divinely intervene just as He does so many times, that the plague can be stopped.”

So why are thousands continuing to succumb indiscriminately to the coronavirus? The tragic deaths include devout believers, as well as ministers, bishops and priests. They are asking their Lord for protection, but the virus, no respecter of person, is recklessly storming around the planet oblivious to their beliefs.

By the middle of March, President Trump finally realized that the pandemic was going to be a problem. The number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States was inching toward 100. So he announced (by tweet) a National Day of Prayer, “looking to God for protection.”

Trump’s proclamation prayed “for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation. . . . For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

Then what happened?

The death rate from COVID-19 shot up dramatically after that. A month later, on April 15, there were more than 20,000 known deaths. A week later, it surpassed 40,000 and will certainly be higher by the time you read this. Christian families are not being spared. Prayer is making no difference. In fact, the reluctance of some pastors to close their sanctuaries — trusting that Jesus meant what he promised — most certainly has increased the risk of infection among churchgoers.

Mountains are not being cast into the sea.

Is governmental prayer effective?

Since the 1950s, the U.S. president has issued an annual “National Day of Prayer” proclamation. Many governors and mayors have echoed it, asking for God’s protection for our nation. President Trump’s 2019 Proclamation said:

“Today, on this National Day of Prayer, we once again come together to give thanks to Almighty God for the bountiful blessings He has bestowed on our great Nation . . . We also acknowledge our dependence on God’s love to guide our families, communities, and our country away from harm and toward abundance and peace.”

Look around. Did that have any effect?

The theme for this year’s National Day of Prayer on May 7 will be “God’s Glory Across The Earth.” That unintentionally tragic-comic phrase was selected many months ago, before the glory of the virus was parading across the earth, before the prickly irony would have been apparent. And yet, people will continue to pray, hoping that maybe this time God will keep his promise.

When Florida Gov. Rick Scott publicly prayed for Hurricane Irma to bypass his state in 2017, the destructive storm paid no attention. That merciless tempest was nicknamed “Irmageddon.”

Is it our fault?

Rev. Ralph Drollinger, the evangelical pastor who conducts bible study at the White House for President Trump’s cabinet, blames the coronavirus on sin: “Whenever an individual or corporate group of individuals violate the inviolate precepts of God’s Word, he, she, they or the institution will suffer the respective consequences,” he wrote. “Most assuredly America is facing this form of God’s judgment.”

Some Christians preach that prayer is conditional. Natural disasters are actually punishments from God, they proclaim. He doesn’t answer prayer at the moment because America has turned its back on him. They cite verses that condition God’s favor on our obedience.

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” — 2 Chronicles 7:14

So, the pestilence is our fault. Actually, it isn’t. Notice that that verse is only the second half of a sentence. The first half says:

“If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people;” — 2 Chronicles 7:13

Put those verses in the right order, and we see what it is that God promises to “heal the land” from: himself!

In my book, GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, I cite more than 50 passages showing that the jealous biblical God uses pestilence, plagues and illnesses to punish his people for worshipping someone other than himself. Here are a few:

“I will heap calamities on them . . . I will send wasting famine against them, consuming pestilence and deadly plague.” — Deuteronomy 32:23

“So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel . . . and there died of the people . . . 70,000 men.” — 2 Samuel 24:15

“Behold, with a great plague will the Lord smite thy people.” — 1 Chronicles 21:14

‘God did not stop the virus’

On April 14, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was expressing guarded optimism that the curve was beginning to flatten in his state. “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus,” he said. “God did not stop the spread of the virus. And what we do, how we act, will dictate how that virus spreads.”

Exactly. What we do. It should be obvious, even to those who believe in prayer (including Cuomo, who is Catholic), that effective remedies do not come from begging God.

Prayer might offer hope and comfort to some, but the heavy lifting of problem solving is done by science through human effort. Brave health-care workers (including believers and nonbelievers) and enforced governmental policies like sheltering at home are what make the difference.

Isn’t it a relief to know that the Christian god does not exist? Instead of being distracted and disappointed by supplicating an ancient god full of empty threats and emptier promises, let’s open our eyes, get off our knees, roll up our sleeves and work with science and medicine to battle this pandemic.

Robert Ingersoll said it best: “The hands that help are better far than lips that pray.”

Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom–From Religion Foundation and co-founder of The Clergy Project.