Saith Peggy Noonan: Pick up the Book and change your world

Saith Peggy Noonan: Pick up the Book and change your world

Any history of Catholic thought, and the rise of Western culture, has to mention the turning point in the conversion story of Aurelius Augustinus.

During a time of inner torment, the young man from North Africa withdrew into a garden. As Pope Benedict XVI told the story in 2008, he "suddenly heard a child's voice chanting a rhyme never heard before: tolle, lege, tolle, lege -- pick up and read, pick up and read. He … returned to the Pauline codex that he had recently read, opened it, and his glance fell on the passage of the Epistle to the Romans where the Apostle exhorts to abandon the works of the flesh and to be clothed with Christ."

The man who became St. Augustine picked up that book and, thus, he "changed himself and changed our world," said journalist Peggy Noonan, in her May 13 commencement address at the Catholic University of America.

That was the punch line in her urgent appeal for the graduates to grasp that there is much more to life than the fleeting contents of the glowing, omnipresent screens that dominate their days and nights.

Instead, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for commentary urged them to "embark on a lifelong relationship with a faithful companion who will always help you and sometimes delight you -- who will never desert you, who will make you smarter, and wiser, who will always be by your side and enlighten you all the days of your life.

"I am talking about -- books. You must not stop reading books. That's all. If you seek a happy and interesting life, one of depth, meaning and accomplishment, you must read books."

Noonan said she certainly couldn't tell her own story without referencing one book after another, from biographies she read as a child to "Saints for Sinners: Nine Desolate Souls Made Strong by God," which as an adult "helped me understand that I was a Catholic and believed it all." Her love of history, which helped shaped her speechwriting for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, came from shelves of books.

The closest Noonan came to talking politics -- she made only two passing references to the current president -- was to note the degree to which the story of 2016 was told by journalists raised in cyberspace.

What Vice President Pence said about global (not U.S.) persecution of Christians

What Vice President Pence said about global (not U.S.) persecution of Christians

Their loved ones died on a Libyan beach, beheaded by Islamic State militants as cameras recorded their agony for a 2015 propaganda video.

Some of the Coptic Christians died repeating these words: "Lord, Jesus Christ." An ISIS leader in a ski mask, in turn, offered this warning: "We will conquer Rome with Allah's permission."

During the recent World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, relatives of these modern martyrs stood to receive the applause of participants, who came from 136 nations -- including the ravaged lands of the Middle East and Africa.

"Today our Christian brothers and sisters across the world are facing persecution and martyrdom on an unprecedented scale," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, who hosted the event for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. "No part of the Christian family is exempt -- Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox -- nor is any part of the world exempt."

There were other poignant moments, including an Iranian woman ringing a memorial bell for the dead, including her father who was hanged for converting to Christianity. Summit speakers represented the global church, including remarks by Archbishop Christophe Louis Yves Georges Pierre, the U.S. ambassador for Pope Francis, and a major address by Metropolitan Hilarion, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church's ecumenical office.

But this meeting was held in Washington, D.C., and led by the always outspoken Franklin Graham -- who called the persecution of Christians "genocide." Also, an address by Vice President Mike Pence guaranteed some mainstream news coverage, as well as a hot spotlight on the U.S. political implications of his remarks.

Thus, a Huffington Post news report claimed: "Pence reiterated a common belief among conservative Christians in the U.S. that they are among the most persecuted people of faith in the world."

While the vice president alluded to trends in the United States, he made it clear that his primary worries and prayers about persecution were global.

Fightin' words and confusion surrounding Trump's shot at the Johnson Amendment

Fightin' words and confusion surrounding Trump's shot at the Johnson Amendment

There was nothing new about the Rev. Jerry Johnson talking about abortion, gay rights and other hot-button moral issues during sermons at the Central Baptist Church of Aurora, outside Denver.

But on this particular Sunday in the mid-1990s, Johnson mentioned President Bill Clinton, noting his liberal take on several issues. Later, several laypeople told him he had risked the church's tax-exempt status -- by mentioning the president's name in the pulpit. Americans United for Separation of Church and State had just begun circulating letters warning religious leaders against endorsing or opposing candidates.

Two decades later, Johnson leads the National Religious Broadcasters and he still thinks preachers should have the right to say whatever they want about faith and politics, even if that includes letting believers know what they think of candidates. Whether pulpit endorsements are wise or necessary is another matter, he said.

"Speech is speech and free speech is free speech," said Johnson. "The question isn't whether it's wise or not for church leaders to endorse candidates, the question is who gets to make that decision. If the answer is the government, then that's the old Soviet answer, that's the answer you get in China. If the church gets to make that decision, then there's your First Amendment answer, right there."

Thus, Johnson was among those celebrating President Donald Trump's executive order telling Internal Revenue Service officials not to "take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization" that endorses candidates. Those actions were banned in the mid-1950s by the rarely enforced Johnson Amendment, engineered by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who wanted to corral his opponents in secular and religious nonprofit groups.

Yes, an executive order is not the same thing as Congress overturning the Johnson Amendment, said Johnson. The NRB leader also knows that Trump didn't really address the rising tide of First Amendment clashes between religious believers -- such as wedding photographers, cake bakers and florists -- and discrimination claims by LGBTQ activists.

Is there still room for pro-life Democrats in their own political party?

Is there still room for pro-life Democrats in their own political party?

On the subject of abortion rights, the 2016 Democratic Party platform language prepared for candidates was as firm as ever.

"Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice," it noted. "We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion -- regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured."

Most of the party's candidates agreed on other implications of that statement, from legal third-trimester abortions, taxpayer funded abortions and gender-selection abortions, which usually means aborting unborn females.

Most Democratic candidates backed that platform -- but not all.

Thus, it stunned some Democrats, especially in heartland and Bible Belt states, when Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez drew another bright line defining who participates in the work of his party.

"Every Democrat, like every American," he said, "should support a woman's right to make her own choices about her body and her health. This is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state." In fact, he added, "every candidate who runs as a Democrat" should affirm abortion rights.

Needless to say, these were fighting words for Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America.

"I am glad this conversation is taking place," she said, in a telephone interview earlier this week. It would help if the party's chairman "sat down and talked with us, because we are obviously feeling left out.

Tricky interfaith details: Muslim preacher in an Episcopal pulpit and at the altar

Tricky interfaith details: Muslim preacher in an Episcopal pulpit and at the altar

Soumaya Khalifah's sermon fell in the usual place in the Holy Week rite in which Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta clergy renewed their vows -- after a Gospel passage and before the consecration of bread and wine as Holy Communion.

In this Mass, the Liturgy of the Word also included a Quran reading, including: "God, there is no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting. Neither slumber overtakes Him nor sleep. Unto Him belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth. Who is there who may intercede with Him save by His leave?"

Khalifah asked leaders from the region's 96 Episcopal parishes an obvious question: Was this an historic moment, with a Muslim woman preaching in a liturgy for an entire Christian diocese?

"I truly believe that interfaith works is the Civil Rights Movement for the 21st century," said Khalifah, head of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta. "Faith is used to divide us and we need to make intentional efforts to bring ourselves together. Normally we worship, associate and have friends from our own faith tradition, our own race. …

"When I look at the beautiful creations of God and how they worship, I see my Christian brothers and sisters. I think of their love for Jesus -- peace be upon him -- and their trying to live by his specific example of loving his enemies."

After her sermon, Atlanta Bishop Robert C. Wright invited Khalifah to join clergy and others at the altar for the Eucharistic prayers consecrating the bread and wine. As the worshippers stepped forward to receive Holy Communion, the bishop said Khalifah took part.

"She held out her hand to receive the Host and it is not my practice to refuse people," said Wright, reached by telephone. He noted that "open Communion" is common across his diocese, especially with visitors. Khalifah returned to her seat without receiving the consecrated wine, the bishop said.

Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

It's a challenge, but every Easter preachers around the world strive to find something different to say about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

This applies to the pope, as well, in his Holy Week and Easter sermons. Journalists always sift through these papal texts searching references to the Middle East, global warming, social justice or other "newsy" topics worthy of headlines.

 But Pope Francis did something different this year, abandoning his prepared sermon to speak from the heart about a recent telephone conversation with a young engineer who is facing a serious illness, as well as life-and-death questions.

Christians insist that Easter is the ultimate answer, said Francis.

"Today the church continues to say: Jesus has risen from the dead. … This is not a fantasy. It's not a celebration with many flowers," he said, surrounded by Easter pageantry.

Flowers are nice, but the resurrection is more, he added. "It is the mystery of the rejected stone that ends up being the cornerstone of our existence. Christ has risen from the dead. In this throwaway culture, where that which is not useful … is discarded, that stone -- Jesus -- is discarded, yet is the source of life."

So the pope has to defend Easter? As it turns out, anyone seeking other motives for the pope's blunt words could point to headlines triggered by a new BBC survey claiming that many self-identified British Christians have rejected, or perhaps watered-down, biblical claims that Jesus rose from the dead.

The BBC.com headline proclaimed: "Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians." Among the survey's claims:

Year 29 for this column -- Yes, lots of journalists still need to get religion

Year 29 for this column --  Yes, lots of journalists still need to get religion

It was a month after Donald Trump won the presidency and, to be honest, many stunned journalists were still trying to figure out how they missed the tremors that led to the political earthquake.

That was the backdrop for an appearance by New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet on the Fresh Air program at National Public Radio. While the focus was politics and journalism, Baquet also offered a refreshingly candid sound bite about mainstream media efforts to cover religion news.

I think those remarks are worth a flashback this week, which marks the end of year 29 for my syndicated "On Religion" column. You see, I am just as convinced as ever that if journalists want to cover real stories in the real lives of real people in the real world, then they need to be real serious when handling religion.

Quoting a pre-election Times column by Jim Rutenberg, Fresh Air host Terry Gross said: "If you're a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation's worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him? Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century."

For Baquet, this topic was linked to stirred-up populist emotions out in the heartland. Journalists must strive, he said, to understand the "forces in America that led to Americans wanting a change so much" that they were willing to back Trump.

"I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. And I think I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans," said Baquet. "I think that the New York-based, and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don't quite get religion. …"

Reality keeps raising the April Fools' bar for all those online Catholic satirists

Day after day, Kevin Knight scans news and commentary pages looking for items that will interest Catholics and others who visit his New Advent website.

With its plain white background, stark graphics and columns of headlines, the site looks something like the powerful, secular Drudge Report. But New Advent focuses on church life and doctrine, not celebrity scandals and political horse races.

Knight does appreciate the occasional zinger. Still, he has learned to be extra careful when April 1 approaches. After all, the Chair of St. Peter is occupied by a pope whose off-the-cuff remarks often puzzle the faithful. Oh, and Donald Trump is president of the United States.

"Yes, it has gotten harder to tell satire and hoaxes from the real thing," noted Knight. "It's getting more necessary to be explicit when linking to some stories -- especially when they deal with Pope Francis. … In the past two years, I've deliberately avoided linking to April Fools' stories for this very reason."

All savvy news consumers need to do to see what Knight is taking about is open an online search program and enter various religious terms and then the phrase "not the Onion," referring to The Onion, a secular satire site.

Take this headline, for example: "Muslim Schoolgirl Sent Home Because Her Skirt Was Too Long." That story is real.

Or how about this? "Pope Francis to make Martin Luther a Saint on October 31." That jest ran on April 1 on the "Liturgy: Service and Gratitude" site.

Consider this headline: "Jesuits to Admit Women to the Society."

Defending older truths: Rod Dreher, Albert Mohler and St. Benedict in conversation

Defending older truths: Rod Dreher, Albert Mohler and St. Benedict in conversation

Journalist Rod Dreher used to find comfort when seeing rows of churches along roads in his home state of Louisiana.

The world might be going crazy in places like New York City and Washington, D.C. -- where Dreher had worked as a journalist -- but it felt good to know the Bible Belt still existed.

But that changed as the popular digital scribe -- his weblog at The American Conservative gets a million-plus hits a month -- kept digging into research about life inside most of those churches. The bottom line: There's a reason so many young Americans say they have zero ties to any faith tradition.

"God is not the center of American culture or of Western civilization anymore. But it's easy to think that this is alarmist when you look around you, especially if you live in the South as I do and see churches everywhere," said Dreher, during a podcast with R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken. Mohler is an influential voice at all levels of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant flock.

"Go inside those churches," stressed Dreher. "Talk to the people about what they know about the historic Christian faith. You'll often find it's very, very thin. … And I think that the loss of faith among the elites in society is huge. Christianity is now a minority position and in many places at the highest levels of our society … orthodox Christianity is considered bigotry. This is not going to get any better."

It's easy for conservatives to bemoan public trends, such as amoral Hollywood sermons, the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision and corporate giants backing the gender-blending of bathrooms and showers. However, some of the most sobering remarks by Mohler and Dreher were about Christian homes, schools and sanctuaries.

At the center of the conversation was Dreher's new book, "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," which debuted at No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list, while sparking fierce debates online.