Category Archives: Sociology

Marriage and Social Justice: Ideas for Churches

Following up on my previous post “Marriage and Social Justice,” what can churches do? While I’m applying for an MS in Marital & Family Therapy, I’m not an expert quite yet. Nevertheless, here are a few preliminary ideas:

Evaluate what you have.
Get the help of those with appropriate training in your church (or bring in experts from outside) to evaluate how your church could improve various structures, programs, etc. to better include people from different kinds of families, as well as to best equip these people to move toward healthy, stable relationships. Be sure to consider lifespan development and what specific age groups, as well as other population groups, may need.

Make marriage a priority in your outreach budget and hiring decisions.
As you reach out into your church’s neighborhood or a low-income neighborhood in your community, consider hiring (alone or with the help of partnering churches) a therapist and/or family life educator to offer services to individuals that otherwise wouldn’t have these resources.

Help families care for their children.
Consider sponsoring a daycare center for low-income families. If subsidized by your church, parents who otherwise would struggle to find affordable childcare will have a quality option—and you have the power to make certain this is a place where children are loved and educated well by intelligent and compassionate caregivers. This helps families (especially single-parent households) economically, but also lets your church be a part of nurturing children whose family life (and world generally) might be pretty unstable.

Be pro-active in caring for teens and young adults.
Consider, especially, the needs of teens and young adults as they try to understand their families of origin and the possibilities for their own relationships. This might include forming a special small group for college students coming from divorced or dysfunctional families or developing new and better ways of talking about sex and relationships with teenagers.

Try to remain flexible and refrain from judgment, even as you advocate against certain behaviors.
Foster an environment of support that challenges people without judging them. This is especially needed for single parents, cohabitating couples, divorced individuals, etc. Do whatever needs to be done to make certain these people are integrated into your church as a whole. For example, consider whether “couples” small groups are really the best way to structure the majority of your adult Bible studies or whether it might be useful to purposely include any cohabitating couples at your church on a marriage retreat (after all, couldn’t their relationship also use some extra investment?). Dealing with the ethics of various situations is always tricky, but whatever you do, be sure you are creating spaces for people to grow in positive directions.

Acknowledge difficult topics.
You may need to offer teaching and resources relating to abuse, rape, infidelity, sexual addiction, and the like. It’s easier to pretend these issues aren’t in our churches, but since they are, to care for people well, we need to help them deal with them spiritually, emotionally, and relationally.

That’s just a start… anyone else have ideas to offer?

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Filed under Marriage, Relationships, Social Justice, Sociology

Marriage and Social Justice

Do you ever read statistics about marriage, divorce, cohabitation, and single parenthood and wonder where these changes are taking place? Sure, we know more and more families in our communities who part ways at some point, but it’s not like a whole third of our kids’ friends were born out of wedlock!

Let me suggest (especially if you’re white or fairly well-off) that you are looking in the wrong neighborhood. There is a ridiculous correlation between race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other such factors and lower rates of stable marriages. Take a break from this blog and catch up with these eighteen quick and easy graphs: http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/pdfs/2008update.pdf. Take special note of the various ways in which race, gender, and the like affect results.

It’s clear that practices relating to marriage are changing. Can you believe the number of cohabitating couples has risen over 68% just from 2000 to 2007? That’s crazy! There are certainly larger cultural issues going on here. However, when we note, in particular, the ways in which white families and black families differ, how can we not see marriage as a social justice issue?

I’m not trying to say single parents can’t be good parents. I’m not saying all marriages are worthy of continuing. And I’m certainly not saying that families or individuals from certain ethnic backgrounds should be shamed. I do think, though, that we need to consider the sociological factors that are leading to these differences and the inequalities represented by those factors. (For example, stress about money can put a strain on any relationship.) We also need to consider the various inequalities—especially for children—that these family outcomes create.

I don’t think we often consider marriage and family issues related to social justice. For one, many would see marital status as better able to be controlled than income or neighborhood—so if you’re a single parent, we think that’s your choice (read: fault) and not our problem. Secondly, I think we who care about social justice often shy away from the topic of marriage, due to Focus on the Family connotations. An obsession with marriage seems likely just to alienate people or to connect us with the reactionary sort of conservatives we wish would stop trying to represent Christianity.

I think we’ve got to stop seeing things this way. There are some very destructive cycles going on in our culture at large, but especially within certain communities. We can’t force anyone to get married, stay married, or certainly to have a good marriage. However, we can start learning about the ways in which social inequalities and marriage and family outcomes are linked in a mutual reinforcing cycle, and we can start using our own skills and resources—individually and as churches—to remedy the situation.

I think we need to better educate and counsel on topics relating to sexuality, marriage, and parenting, especially focusing on the neighborhoods and communities hit hardest by family brokenness. There are many people with no or few models of healthy behaviors and relationships, which I think makes it difficult for them to envision possibilities. I think that with more people to walk alongside them, more information, and professional therapy, teens and young adults from all backgrounds can better heal from their own family pain and move towards happy, committed relationships in adulthood.

We absolutely must have a more pro-active stance.

Specific ideas for churches to come. :o)

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Filed under Marriage, Relationships, Social Justice, Sociology

Marrying Young

About six months ago I read a fabulous book, which helped to confirm for me my love of sociology of religion. The book, by Mark Regnerus, was called Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers and one of its themes included the discrepancies between adults’ teaching/teenagers’ belief/teenagers’ practice when it comes to evangelical sexual ethics. This, among other things, has led Regnerus himself–who is evangelical–to advocate for younger marriage.

The stereotype, of course, is already that conservative Christians tend to marry younger. Still, along with the many non-evangelicals, there are plenty of evangelicals who also would question Regnerus’s recommendation.

I used to be one of them.

It’s not so much that I thought everyone that got married young did so just for sex or that all young marriages were bound to fail. It was much more of a feminist thing for me–it seemed the younger the marriage the more traditional the gender role expectations tended to be. (I’m not certain that there is any social scientific evidence for this, but this was my probably unfair stereotype.) I’ve changed my mind, however, and I feel like sharing some of the reasons with the world. So here is my brief treatise on the benefits of marrying young:

Some Christians criticize others for their lack of a “consistent ethic of human life”–i.e. supporting the death penalty while opposing abortion. I think we Christians need to do some reflection on a consistent ethic of marriage. We have so emphasized not committing adultery and not divorcing that we neglect to discuss many other important things. These items range from how to best support those who have divorced for legitimate or illegitimate reasons to better supporting dual-earner families, from acknowledging female sexuality to recognizing the significance of emotional abuse. I also believe that among these issues is the need to thoughtfully consider and teach the beauty of the very countercultural aspects of marriage.

While marriage is something that has existed throughout history and in many different cultural contexts, it has undoubtedly been done differently depending on the particulars of those contexts. Our context today introduces many interesting elements into the equation, ultimately leading to later marriages. First, the high divorce rate of my generation’s parents has left many anxious about commitment and a few quite jaded. Secondly, casual sex is not always as common as portrayed in movies but is still a part of the cultural landscape (facilitated, of course, by modern methods of birth control). Thirdly, our current economic situation and the direction of our society more generally is encouraging more education, postponing careers. Fourthly, American culture is extremely individualistic. To me, these seem to be some of the most significant factors in delaying marriage today. Together they make marrying young look unnecessary at best, foolish at worst.

Taking even the most positive approach, younger marriage is just likely to cause problems. When you’re in your 20s, you really don’t know what you’re doing with your life. “Emerging Adults” have a lot of growing up to do and are still waist-deep in questions about their future educations and careers. What if you marry someone, only to find out that they work in New York, while you’ve accepted a great job in California? What if you can’t both get accepted into the same or nearby grad schools? What if in your continuing to grow up, one or both of you changes significantly? When you’re not planning on having kids yet anyway, why get married? You can still live together with some degree of commitment, and yet be able to get out if things don’t go as you hope. Additionally, weddings are expensive, and it makes more sense to wait until you have enough money to pay for the accoutrements you’ve always dreamed of, right? Anyway, it seems wiser to wait until you have stable careers with stable incomes.

In this culture with these attitudes, marrying young is weird. And clearly it’s not for everyone–some people haven’t met the right person or aren’t at the right place in their relationship or personal growth to make that kind of a step. And yet, I wonder what it’d look like for Christian communities to encourage a different attitude toward marriage–not so much marrying “young” vs. marrying older as much as Christian marriage as an intentionally countercultural act. You’re deciding you don’t want to leave your options open, you’re not going to try to guarantee the stability of every aspect of your life, you’re going to take some risk as far as your education and careers work out, and you’re willing to commit yourself to one person when you don’t necessarily have to yet and even though you’ve seen a lot of marriages die. To me, that sounds pretty radical in our society.

I’m not trying to say that non-Christians can’t have good and purposeful marriages, of course, just that as Christians we should especially be thinking about how the gospel applies to every aspect of life, including marriage. I know not everyone should actually marry young but going into marriage with a different set of attitudes toward partnership and commitment can be really significant, I think. For example, many Christians emphasize that commitments are important to keep, yet many also still promote some sort of hesitancy (whether in serious conversation or innocent jokes) about commitment. I would argue that an actually more Christian view of commitment maturely measures the risk, yet in the end embraces that uncertainty with excitement and hope.

To truly apply this to our ideas about commitment would go beyond our natural enthusiasm for those who are already planning to marry. I think it would change the way to consider things like, “What if we get stuck accepted to two different schools?” or “Shouldn’t we wait until we’re financially stable?” When you’re already acknowledging the risk inherent in commitment (no matter what the circumstances!) and daring to believe that good can come from it, these questions fade in importance. After all, marriage is about more than cleverly engineering your life circumstances to support a relationship. You can grow it in a greenhouse, if you prefer, but the unexpected is likely to make you feel like you’re in the wild, anyway. Why not just start there? Yes, some times might be harder–you can’t really know–but if the whole point of this is commitment, what does school or money or whatever else have to do with it? If you don’t think you want to be committed if some things don’t go as planned, why do you think you might ever want to get married at all?

Personally, I’m enjoying the fact that things don’t always go the way we thought, as it shows me just how good my decision to get married has been. While Jeremiah and I are both waitlisted for PhD programs, we have an uncommon advantage: each other. I’m surprisingly calm about the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing yet or what will happen if one of us gets in and the other doesn’t. I’m remarkably happy about it all and just excited to see how it turns out. Our life together in and of itself seems much more important than our particular plans. What good would it have been for us to wait to get married, apply to various programs, and end up at opposite ends of the country? If you don’t know you want to get married, that’s ok. But if you want to, don’t wait. It doesn’t accomplish anything. And actually going through with something that seems crazy can end up being a really wonderful thing.

And about gender roles: Despite my hang-ups, marrying young says nothing about gender roles. Though this was hard for me to get over (so few of my female friends are married that I was sure there must be something awful about feminists marrying young and that I must be crazy!), I’m learning that we can wait as long as we want to have kids. We can divide chores however we want. We can get as much education as we feel like. We can split time with kids more evenly than most parents. We can be flexible. People can think whatever they want about women and men who marry young–but for us, it’s an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company longer before we have more intense responsibilities, as well as even more time to figure out how we can best make two careers work. And I don’t know what isn’t feminist about that. ;o)

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Theological Imprecision = Sociological Imprecision

I’m reading a fabulous book by Christian Smith on the religion of emerging adults called Souls in Transition, and I’m really enjoying learning not only how younger emerging adults (18-23) believe today but also how their beliefs have changed since they were teenagers.  (He wrote a book on surveys from the same group a few years ago called Soul Searching.)  As I’m reading, however, I’ve had a few significant questions come up with regards to the way their questions are being asked and interpreted.

First, many of those who identified as nonreligious as teenagers now say they see religion as more important to their life and that they’re attending religious services more.  I’m curious how many of them are thinking of “religion” as actual religion in such questions vs. their non-religious views.  For example, some might have gotten involved in a group for atheists and agnostics at college and might see their identity as someone who isn’t religious as more important than it used to be.  (I know there was such a group at UNC, and I know people who were involved in it.)  Should we then have some way to filter the non-religious doing truly religious things from the non-religious whose non-religion has become more important in their lives?

Secondly, the questions about both Jesus and heaven seem very imprecise in their wording.  I realize most young adults aren’t theologians and that overly theological language could be confusion; however, I’m not sure if the questions, how they are asked, paint an accurate picture of emerging adults’ beliefs.

For example, they are asked if Jesus was “the son of God who was raised from the dead,” “an imporant human teacher but not the son of God,” or nonexistent to begin with.  Those who said Jesus was the son of God are then assumed to believe Jesus was divine.  This is a non sequitur, as many who would called Jesus God’s son would not necessarily say he himself was divine—the Arians of the 4th century, for example.

Similarly, when asked if they believe in heaven and who gets there, it feels assumed that Christians either are more conservative and believe in heaven or are more liberal and they don’t.  There are no questions, however, about the resurrection of the dead or the recreation of all things.  I think it’s probably a small number of emerging adults that would try to distinguish these sorts of beliefs from a belief in heaven, but I do feel the numbers are growing.  I definitely knew many in college who, thanks to InterVarsity staff, began to see a somewhat different picture of life after death.  To assume the options are “all people go to heaven,” “only good people go to heaven,” “only people whose sins are forgiven though faith in Jesus Christ go to heaven” or “there is no heaven,” are the only options is like asking Christians about the end times and only giving the option of a pre-tribulation, mid-trib, or post-trib rapture—when in reality many are postmillenialists, many are amillenialists, etc.  I would probably answer such a question “there is no heaven,” because that’s not the way I explain my beliefs, but if I were interviewed, Christian Smith would have realized that he was probably making some assumptions about me he shouldn’t have.

All this to say, it seems to me that while these questions tell us a lot, if sociological questions are not asked with any theological sensitivity to the actual beliefs out there, we can make some wrong conclusions.  Of course, I’m not a sociologist yet, and I don’t know if it might be important to not offer over-nuanced options as to not confuse respondents or encourage some sort of social desirability effect (if certain theological beliefs are thought be better in some way than others).  So perhaps there is a reason why questions we asked like this.  At the same time, I stand by my original perception that these questions are not precise enough to give us excellent data rather than good-ish data.

Maybe Christian Smith or some other clever person can come set us straight?

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Filed under Scholars & Books, Sociology, Sociology of Religion, Uncategorized

Final Conclusion: Obama is Black Enough

Last Wednesday the 10-minute break splitting my 2-hour class, another student commented on the Obama stick on my laptop.  I don’t remember where precisely the conversation went for the next minute, but soon, he said something that surprised yet didn’t surprise me: Obama is about as white-washed as you can get.  I then launched into a 5-minute sermon in defense of dear Barack, some of which might have been decent, some of which probably was just rambles.  So today I have decided to argue this in a more organized fashion for the benefit of all my readers.  (You can follow with your own rebuttals, if need be.)

Culture:
Barack is openly biracial and obviously did not have an African-American father.  He grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii with few black cultural influences.  BUT he began to own his black identity in a deeper way during college, has read works by significant black leaders such as MLK, Jr. and Malcolm X (ok, the tip of the iceberg, but I know he’s talked about them; I don’t think he’s on Library Thing, so I’m not sure what else he’s read…), and has experienced in the black cultural world through his work as a community organizer, as well as his marriage into Michelle’s family. Does this mean it was his birth culture?  No.  But does he likely identify with this culture to some extent?  Surely!  After all, I’m white and my mere tip-toes to the edge of the black community have influenced me in various ways.

To say that Barack is in no way culturally African American betrays an ignorance of the multi-cultural identity.  In my experience, those that grow up in multiple cultural worlds not only may feel an affinity for those cultures but also be generally more open to culture learning and intercultural attachment.  For example, my Kiwi/Canadian/British/(newly) American friend (who has also lived in Romania) loves Latin American and Latino cultures.  She’s spent three months in Bolivia and volunteers weekly in North Carolina’s Latino community.  Does it make her Latina?  No.  But that’s not the point.  She still identifies with them in some way.  Same goes for my friend that was adopted from Korea by white parents.  Going back to Korea a year didn’t erase her Euro-American cultural influences, but it added to who she was in significant ways.  She is Korean American, even though she didn’t grow up in that community.  Barack has spent enough time in the African-American community that I’m pretty sure he speaks their language, though I don’t think he has disowned his Euro-American on Kenyan heritage, either.

Politics:
Did any of you see that audio that got released a couple weeks ago in which Barack said the Civil Rights movement didn’t go far enough because it never went into economic (as well as political) justice?  Indeed, this was a “tragedy” of the Civil Rights movement.  If that doesn’t make you an ally…

With that said, as much as I love Obama, I can’t say I trust him to be able to get everything done for the black community that he probably should, and I know at some points he may sell out and not try as hard as he could.  That’s reality.  (I hope it doesn’t happen, but anyone that fights for justice faces a constant temptation to sell out–I wouldn’t expect Barack to be any different.)

Still, if you look at the general direction of his policies, he is on the “right side,” which is of course, the left side.  In other words, he’s on the side that most black people, Af-Am professors, etc. would think is going to do the most good for the black community.  He’s not Clarence Thomas.  I think we can trust him to be generally aligned in a way that will benefit not only African-Americans but ethnic minorities in the U.S. generally.  After all, his family is about a diverse as you can get–Kenyan, Chinese Canadian, white-Asian biracial, African-American, white…  As a community organizer he worked with Latinos along with blacks, and he also thinks he’s got a little Native American heritage.  He’s not going to represent any of these groups perfectly, but I think he values multi-ethnicity and the African-American community in particular.

Community:
While others don’t have complete say over who you are, community acceptance is somewhat significant.  For example, just because I participated in a Pow-Wow doesn’t mean I can just decide to be Occaneechi.  Just because I attended a black church for a couple years doesn’t make me black.  Just a friend studied abroad in Japan and loves Japanese doesn’t make her Japanese.  Part of this is up to us, but a good part of it is up to others–will they accept us and recognize us as one of them rather than an other?  I think that in this campaign and election, the black community has stood up and said yes, we will own Barack Obama as one of our own.

******

Ultimately, I think we’ve just got to get past this people.  I’ve heard before that Obama’s not really black because he’s one of those arugula types.  Listen, people.  Anyone can like arugula.  Just because you are intelligent, are lucky enough to go to a good school, and have some money in the bank doesn’t make you white.  I would be interested to know how the same classmate (who I’m not dissing, just disagreeing with) would speak of Michelle.  Is she white-washed, too?  Because I think she’s pretty clearly black.  Unless Princeton changes that somehow.

Black kids have got it hard enough with their own peers calling them white because they’re smart, motivated, and successful.  Please, white people, do we have to do the same?

******

Lastly, I think it’s very significant to consider one last category:

Identity:
He has chosen this path, this identity.  It’s only respectful that we accept it as who he is, even if we at points want to criticize his politics (as perhaps not being radical enough in their favor for the black community).

And if that doesn’t convince you, what white person his age do you know that went to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on their first date with their now-spouse?  Uh huh.  Thought so.

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Filed under Ethnicity, Politics

Loving our older LGBT neighbors

Continuing the conversation about LGBT issues, an article from the Chicago Tribute caught my eye this week, and I’ve found an additional one from Newsweek since.  Both highlight the challenges facing the rising population of elderly LGBT people.

Supposedly there are about 3 million LGBT people over 55 in the U.S., a number expected to grow to 4 million in the next 10 years.  Besides the normal fears that go with aging, LGBT individuals are especially concerned with having someone to care for them (they’re 10 times less likely to have a caretaker if they become ill) and finances (since even legally married, they are not eligible for spousal social security and survivor benefits).  They also fear discrimination and finding care facilities in which they feel comfortable.

I hope the church doesn’t pass up this need and opportunity.  Today I finished the book Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw for one of my classes, and toward the end, the issue of caring for the elderly was mentioned.  If caring for our oldest neighbors is a neglected task demanding a resurgence of compassion, how much more, I think, Jesus’s heart goes out to these people, disdained by so many and lacking financial advantages and (often) children to care for them.

Jesus is already there with them.  As this societal problem grows, will we, the church, join him?

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The new evangelical non-partisanship

U.S. American news magazines think they have a hot new story.  Week after week they reiterate that U.S. evangelicals are changing, especially the younger crowd.  Governor Palin, for example, isn’t going to appeal to those concerned with the environment, says TIME, since she doesn’t believe humans cause global warming.  Increasingly issues of war and poverty are also on the radar for evangelicals, causing some of them to, *gasp*, even consider voting for Barack Obama.

This openness to new parties, does not necessarily mean a commitment to party or ideology, however.  I have yet to do formal research on the matter (maybe if I go to grad school for poli sci in another life), but my experience has kept the count fairly low. Evangelicals that disassociate from the Religious Right are rightly wary of partisanship, and many are also frustrated by a broken system in Washington that seems to spin its wheels more than it brings the meaningful change for which they yearn.

I know evangelical leaders that encourage the rejection of cemented party allegiances, emphasizing a loyalty to God that supersedes loyalty to party.  No party is perfect, they say, and each is a product of culture, not something directly created by God.   One might vote a certain way the majority of the time, or even partipate in “radical” activites (such a protesting a war), but it’s most important to focus on the issues that matter to God–whether they seem to paint you red or blue–and pursue righteous policies in those areas.

Others take this line of thinking to an extreme, which mixed with their jadedness, can be disastrous in the mind of a poli sci major like myself.  My dear songwriting buddy Derek Webb is quick to call out the United States for its domestic and foreign policies; in fact, at a concert at UNC-Chapel Hill this past Saturday night, he covered Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” in opposition to the Iraq War.  As you might have gathered, Derek and I care about a lot of the same things, but our approach to problem-solving is very different.  For example, a concert-goer says he spoke of voting almost as a necessary evil: “if you conscience lets you vote…”  He also encouraged people to get to know their neighbors (something I wholeheartedly recommend) in lieu of voting (a substitution I don’t).  This attitude goes far beyond Derek–I think most evangelicals today would rather sit and have dinner with the poor than fight for elected officials promising to fight poverty.  Politics doesn’t seem to work, they think, and it just created all this division and partisanship that left the evangelical community feeling oblivious or hostile towards issues of race, poverty, and the environment, to begin with.

But I completely disagree with Derek.  Politics doesn’t have to be broken, it doesn’t have to never work.  It, like most aspects of our culture can be redeemed and restored.  Politics can be a force for good, not evil.  Bureaucracy can even be used for good!  Power can be used justly and progress can be made.  Politics won’t save us any more than SUVs, microwaves, or Rihanna will, but politics can be used by God, just like SUVs, microwaves, and Rihanna.

And just logically speaking, if you believe, as evangelicals do, that there is a moral code that transcends humanity’s momentary likes and dislikes within particular cultural contexts, certain political parties must get more of that right than others.  We may disagree infinitely about which issues are important or which methodology is more effective or about how to decide between parties when none cares about all of “your issues” as much as you do.  But the fact is this: a certain party can (and probably does) have a moral edge over another, if not overall, at least when it comes to addressing particular subsets of issues in our society.

Let’s not demonize each other, and let’s not pretend to have things all figured out.  But let’s not pretend Democrats and Republicans are the same or that communism, conservatism, fascism, democratic socialism, or anything in between are in any way the same system.  They are different ways of seeing the world that must be evaluated based on one’s spiritual and philosophical sensibilities.  And if evangelicals believe the Gospel is the one stainless, scratch-free lense through which everything else can be properly viewed (even if no one seems to have perfect vision), I think they should be able to look at the cultural creations of these various ideologies, see none of them as perfect, yet clearly reject or embrace various aspects of each.  And if that’s true, it’s not just a matter of preference or a choice that we’re free to bypass.  It’s a gift and a responsibility to seek Jesus’s heart and vote (and protest and give and work and pray and speak and shop and dance and dress and drink) accordingly.

We may not always know how to do politics correctly, but I don’t think this is a neutral or irrelevant choice when it comes to kingdom-building.  Politics does real good and real evil in this world.  Let’s do our best to remain engaged, to possess a healthy dose of cynicism balanced by an overwhelming hope, and to take sides (based on issues, party, or ideology more broadly) when it makes sense.  After all, if someone didn’t take a firm political stand against slavery, apartheid, and other evils, where would we be today?

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Filed under Politics, Sociology, Sociology of Religion