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Newsline 13 November 2015

This week has seen another case of de facto censorship, after a screening of a film about Mohammed's early life was cancelled by a Glasgow cinema. We are busy every week raising awareness about these cases and campaigning against the prevailing atmosphere of self-censorship and adherence to Islamist blasphemy laws. You can help too, by joining the NSS today, or seeing how else you can get involved in our work and campaigns. More encouragingly, a new report published by academics this week echoed what we've been saying for decades; that laws requiring worship in schools need urgent review.

Operation Christmas Child: Christian fundamentalism, gift-wrapped

Operation Christmas Child: Christian fundamentalism, gift-wrapped

Opinion | Thu, 12 Nov 2015

The Operation Christmas Child 'shoebox' appeal is a front for a project to convert children in predominantly Muslim countries to literalist Christianity. Parents should give it a wide berth, argues Stephen Evans.

My heart sank this week when picking my daughter up from Rainbows I found the group leader cajoling kids into going out and buying cheap plastic trinkets to stuff into shoeboxes as part of the Operation Christmas Child 'shoebox' appeal.

The project is run by Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical international relief and development organisation that combines delivering aid with "sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ".

The scheme involves thousands of churches, schools and youth groups sending shoeboxes stuffed with toys (with gender-segregated labels) to children all over the world (primarily targeting countries with large Muslim populations) for Christmas – all in the name of Jesus.

The gift wrapped shoeboxes are then used for proselytise a particularly unpleasant brand of biblical literalism. Toys are accompanied by promotional, conversion focused literature to invite the children receiving it to follow up Bible studies. But those promoting the scheme, including schools, often aren't at all upfront about this – meaning children and parents up and down the country are unwittingly being used as foot soldiers for a fundamentalist child evangelism project.

Other aid-based development charities have criticised the shoebox scheme as a poor way to give aid. However well-meaning supporters of such schemes are, the scheme's inefficient way of making charitable donations, doesn't meet local needs, help solve local problems, and can in fact disrupt and harm the livelihood of local vendors.

Brendan Paddy of Save the Children, when referring to OCC, said "it is dangerous when charities mix humanitarian work with the promotion of a particular religious or political agenda". He said it was particularly important for aid agencies to preserve neutrality. Christians too have spoken out against the scheme's toxic agenda.

But despite not being either an ethical or efficient way of providing overseas aid, the scheme is popular with those working with children because on the face it looks like such warm and fluffy feel-good thing to do. So much so that it feels churlish to criticise. But parents and educators should be aware of this organisation's dark underbelly.

The President of Samaritan's Purse is Franklin Graham, the controversial American missionary and a hard-line Christian fundamentalist. Graham recently praised Vladimir Putin's support for harsh and discriminatory anti-gay laws and claimed that homosexuals "take people's children". Graham has called on Christians to convert Muslims to Christianity and recently suggested "all Muslims should be barred from immigrating to America and treated like the Japanese and Germans during World War II".

Armed with this this knowledge I hope churches, schools and organisations such as Girlguides and the Scouts will give Samaritan's Purse a suitably wide berth.

Walking home from Rainbows this week I was left having to explain to my 5 year-old daughter why we won't be filling a shoebox. After discussing the issue with the guide leader, she agreed to reconsider their support for the scheme and undertook to explain to the guides that different people give in different ways – and so instead of filling a shoebox with toys we'll be donating a goat to a family in Africa.

Yes, I know I've fallen into the trap of feeling the need to 'out-good' the do-gooders, but my daughter had to be placated and at least a goat is more useful that cheap plastic trinkets and a 12-week Bible-based 'discipleship programme'.

UPDATE: Since writing the blog Girlguiding UK has send me the following statement:

"As an organisation our official stance is that Girlguiding does not support the Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child initiative and is not encouraging groups to support this or any other any specific charitable initiatives during the festive period. Girlguiding groups around the UK often fundraise and support local or national charities that are important to the girls. There is an expectation that all the activities of Girlguiding groups are rooted in our charity values, which are: inclusive, fun, caring, empowering, challenging and inspiring."

Ted Cruz says the President of the United States should be “on his knees” before God “every day”

Ted Cruz says the President of the United States should be “on his knees” before God “every day”

Opinion | Mon, 09 Nov 2015

Young Americans might be turning away from Christianity, but the American religious right is more audacious than ever – and their rhetoric about 'religious freedom' barely conceals their theocratic aspirations, writes Benjamin Jones.

Ted Cruz, advocate for 'religious freedom', (meaning here the freedom for religious Republicans to do as they please at the taxpayers' expense), has said unequivocally that an atheist cannot serve as President of the United States.

When asked by the visibly deranged evangelical preacher Kevin Swanson, after some awkward banter between the two men, "how important is it for the President of the United States to fear God, and what does that mean to you?" Cruz gave an immensely troubling answer. The sentiment he expressed was unsurprising coming from him, but the phraseology he used was particularly chilling.

"Any president who doesn't begin every day on his knees isn't fit to be commander-in-chief of this nation," the Senator said.

On his knees.

Coming just a month after Ben Carson's ignorant assertion that no Muslim could serve as President, I wonder pessimistically if Ted Cruz's parallel comments about atheists will generate the same level of outrage.

American voters are still slightly more likely to consider a Muslim presidential candidate than an atheist one, and the rhetoric of a "Christian nation" seems to have fresh purchase in some parts of America, as it does for the British far-right, not for reasons of history or soft culture but to exclude the existential threat of the 21st century: radical Islam.

While we might feel safe to scoff about the dull-eyed parochialism of Sarah Palin and co from an ocean away, it's important to remember that these "Bible-believing" people really mean what they say, and I suspect they say only some of what they really mean – as Frederic Rich's novel 'Christian Nation' so powerfully demonstrated.

Carson's comments were actually comparatively mild, at least after he had 'clarified' them: …"anybody, [it] doesn't matter what their religious background, if they accept American values and principles and are willing to subjugate their religious beliefs to our constitution, I have no problem with them." What he eventually said then was that an Islamist couldn't be president.

I don't imagine he has any such concerns about a Dominionist Christian though.

But for Cruz, the US Constitution, a document he has sworn to "support and defend", doesn't seem to figure at all. Carson wants Muslims to disavow sharia law and "reject the tenets of Islam", though I don't have any reason to believe he has thought particularly deeply about any of this, whereas Cruz wants an entire group of people disbarred from office (as they still are in many states) either by law, or by public opinion at the very least.

'Religious freedom' in Cruz's case is clearly a very thin smokescreen, barely a light mist, for manifesting his theocratic sympathies at every level of the US government, from the county-level where Kim Davis still fights for the right not to do her job, up to the state and federal governments.

The apparently inexorable secularisation of America, as younger generations fall away from religion, and 'mainline' Protestants gain distance from their evangelical brethren on issues like homosexuality, could induce a fatal complacency. And while Islamism rightly draws most attention with a regular beat of atrocities, the political strength of the American religious-right shouldn't be underestimated.

Islam is to Islamism as Christianity is to Dominionism. There are gradualists and revolutionaries, those who work within the political system and those who would sweep it all away. There are 'peaceful' theocrats and violent ones. Islamism is orders of magnitude more dominant within Islam than Dominionist thinking is within American Christianity, and the violent varieties are vastly, exponentially more abundant within Islamism. But it is clear every day of this election cycle (when will it end) that the religious right is as muscular, assertive and as reactionary as ever: Perhaps it just seems louder because it has more to react against.

Though I don't get a vote on the matter, I would much rather a secular Muslim as US President than a Dominionist Christian, and would very much rather a liberal Christian than an Islamist. No candidate, religious or not, should be disbarred from office by law or popular opinion on account of their faith or lack of it; but any candidate who seeks to impose that faith from above should face a fierce fight.

New York Times: In Religious Arbitration, Scripture Is the Rule of Law

New York Times: In Religious Arbitration, Scripture Is the Rule of Law

For generations, religious tribunals have been used in the United States to settle family disputes and spiritual debates. But through arbitration, religion is being used to sort out secular problems like claims of financial fraud and wrongful death.

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