How Rush Limbaugh Hijacked the Pope’s Climate Encyclical — & Our Parish Lenten Study Group

pope francis limbaugh 3

It’s Lent. Traditionally it’s a time for adult education in our parish. This year we decided to study the pope’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’.

The first meeting drew a group of 16 parishioners – almost all over the age of 60.

Perhaps understandably, the opening discussion never got much beyond statements familiar to most of us. More specifically, during our conversation we heard opinions voiced that:

  • The 125 year old Catholic social justice tradition is indeed admirable.
  • While capitalism has its problems, communism is just as bad or even worse.
  • Little can be done about global warming or about any social justice issues for that matter; it’s all due to irreformably corrupt human nature.
  • None of us is personally willing to change our lives much in response to the pope’s summons.
  • However, we might stop using Styrofoam cups during the parish fellowship hour after Mass.
  • We’re all on the same page and are preaching to the choir.
  • Some within the group have already moved off the grid and are generating electricity from solar panels.

Of course, most of those statements are questionable and worth discussing.

In any case, participants weren’t entirely to blame for the conversation’s lack of urgency. After all, the dialog exactly mirrored the source the group decided to use to focus its discussion – Discovering Laudato Si’: A Small Group Study Guide published by the Lexington diocese. It disappointingly succeeds in defusing the pope’s radical document in a way that Rush Limbaugh or any climate-change-denier might endorse. In its selection of papal texts, but especially in its introduction and conclusion, the guide actually adopts an overall tone and specific argument that:

  • The climate change debate is unresolved (p.10).
  • In the meantime, there is no urgency. In fact the church’s slowness of response is wisely traditional and purposeful (p. 27).
  • So Catholics shouldn’t “rush into the fray” (27).
  • In fact, it is not yet time for “larger responses” (27).
  • Instead the pope’s immediate summons is to personal change which itself necessarily takes time (27).
  • This means concentrating on “many little tasks” that address our own “ecological bad habits” (26).
  • Proper response, then, to the pope’s encyclical is to reduce, reuse, and recycle (27).
  • Our tiny tasks also include “helping the poor,” even though they often ask more than we can give, and even though helping them can be “dirty and dangerous,” and the poor themselves can be “angry, violent, or erratic” (24).
  • “Fortunately” we are not called to become climate change crusaders (26).
  • Doing so would be as bad as doing nothing (27).
  • And by the way, Marxism insists that “all capital and property should be controlled by the government” (5-6).

In view of such gradualism, complacency, misinformation, and discouragement of concerted activity, who couldn’t understand the group’s bemused lack of urgency in dealing with climate change and related issues?

And yet, the diocesan study guide flies exactly in the face of Laudato Si’ which adopts a strong position on the side of climate science. Its sense of urgency is unmistakable as is its overwhelming and specific focus on “the large issues.” According to Pope Francis, these call for abandonment of capitalism-as-we-know-it, for drastic structural change, joining world-wide movements, and restructuring economies according to a “preferential option for the poor.” Consider each of those elements.

First of all, the Pope unambiguously sides with climate science. Throughout the encyclical he endorses its findings:

  • “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system” (23).
  • The pope classifies climate change denial among what he calls obstructionist attitudes which range from a “denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” (14).
  • In any case, the pope adopts what the 1992 Rio Declaration called “the Precautionary Principle.” It states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures which prevent environmental degradation” (186).
  • Laudato Si’ adds that “If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (186).

Secondly, there is a sense of undeniable urgency in the pope’s words:

  • “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain” (161)
  • Humankind today finds itself in a state of global “crisis.” (The word appears nearly 30 times in the encyclical. According to Merriam Webster, “crisis” means an unstable situation of extreme difficulty or danger.”)
  • “Our contemporary lifestyle can only precipitate catastrophes” (161).
  • Consequences of inaction will be “dire” (161)
  • “Decisive action” is called for “here and now” (161)
  • “We urgently (emphasis added) need a humanism . . . in the service of a more integral and integrating vision” (141)

Thirdly, see how Pope Francis approves of “environmental crusades” and their actions. He says:

  • “Public pressure must be exerted in order to bring about decisive political action” (179).
  • “A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products . . . This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers.” (206)
  • “The Earth Charter asked us to leave behind a period of self-destruction and make a new start” (206). (TheEarth Charter – part of a worldwide environmental movement – is an international ethical framework for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century.)
  • “The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges” (14)

Fourthly, the Pope centralizes the “larger issues” including re-evaluation of capitalism-as-we-know-it. His critique of the reigning economic system is found prominently in Laudato Si’  (LS), The Joy of the Gospel (JG), and elsewhere in his speeches and homilies. He has said:

  • Unfettered markets and their “trickle-down” ideologies are homicidal (JG 53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).
  • The right to private property should not be exercised primarily for personal gain (LS 93)
  • In fact, the unfettered pursuit of money is “the dung of the devil” (Speech Santa Cruz, Bolivia, 2015).
  • Instead “ownership” of private property is primarily an administrative responsibility to be exercised for the common good (LS 95, 129, 156, 159).
  • The earth’s wealth more rightly belongs to the poor than to the rich: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs” (JG 57).
  • The poor have been robbed of their resources and reparations need be made (LS 30, 51).
  • “If you were to read one of the sermons of the first fathers of the Church, from the second or third centuries, about how you should treat the poor, you’d say it was Maoist or Trotskyist.” (Pope Francis 2010 address)
  • “We don’t want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm. (Speech in Cagliari, Sardinia 9/22/13).
  • “Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed” (LS 172)

Fifthly, according to Pope Francis all of these concerns belong to ordinary people who as moral agents,  must presumably educate themselves about their details:

  • The pope’s summons to address these issues is not directed towards the experts, but to “every person living on this planet . . . all people . . .” (LS 3).
  • In fact, the struggle for social justice and participation in political life is a “moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (JG 220, 258).

Sixthly, the pope offers an alternative to capitalism-as-we-know-it. The alternative is an economy structured according to a “preferential option for the poor.” This dictates:

  • Understanding Christian faith as essentially a call to prioritize the needs of the poor.” (In 2010 the future Pope Francis explained, “The option for the poor . . . is the Gospel itself.”)
  • An economy erected from the bottom-up. Its sponsoring question is how can we insure that farmers have land, that workers have jobs, and that everyone is decently housed?
  • Concern for all forms of life in the face of global warming, water and air pollution, massive extinctions, disappearance of rainforests, wasted food, waste in general, uncontrolled urbanization, rampant crime and loss of human meaning.
  • Drastic modification of market dynamics entailing at least the following: governments (1) intervening in the marketplace to insure the rights of all to jobs with living wages, housing, education, and health care, along with land for small farmers, (2) similarly regulating market forces to protect the global environment and all life forms from the most primitive to the highest, and (3) thereafter turning economies over to carefully monitored and controlled market forces under binding international agreements.

Finally, all of this – The Joy of the Gospel, Laudato Si’, the pope’s various speeches, and especially his address to the U.S. Congress raises specific questions about political activism and informed voting. For instance, does it mean voting:

  • Against climate-change deniers and for those who share the pope’s climate concerns?
  • Against champions of dirty fossil fuels and in favor of those supporting alternative, renewable energy sources?
  • Against those who would exclude refugees from finding shelter in the United States and in favor of those advocating sanctuary?
  • Against those who favor arms sales abroad and in favor of proponents of divestment from the arms industry?
  • Against champions of capital punishment and in favor of those calling for its abolition?
  • Against those proposing tax cuts for the richest 1% and in favor of increased redistributive taxes on their incomes?
  • Against those whose answer to global terrorism is war, bombing, and drone assassinations, and in favor of those who offer legal and diplomatic solutions to the problem of national security?
  • Against those who are selective in their “pro-life” advocacy, and for those who connect respect for life not just with abortion, but with providing care for unwanted children brought to term, with clean energy, environmental protection, universal health care, investment in public education, and opposition to capital punishment and war.
  • Conclusion

Pope Francis eco-encyclical is much more radical than the Lexington diocese pamphlet suggests. The study guide’s domestication of the pope’s urgent summons is not trivial. It fundamentally changes its message which is absolutely revolutionary (LS 114).

The earlier-mentioned Rush Limbaugh grasped that fact immediately. He said

“Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’ and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality . . . Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the ‘idolatry of money’. . . This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. . .”

He added

“Essentially what this papal encyclical is saying is that every Catholic should vote for the Democrat Party. Well, no, that’s what it is! How else do you interpret it when the pope comes out and sounds like Al Gore on global warming and climate change? Or when the pope sounds like Clinton or when the pope sounds like any Democrat?”

Limbaugh, of course, is wrong. Plenty of Democrats (including the current president) shy away from the pope’s call for international control of pollution, for debt-forgiveness, colonial reparations, universal health care, abolition of capital punishment, cut-backs in military spending, and limiting “pro-life” concerns to the abortion issue.

Nonetheless, the diocesan study guide’s insistence on gradualism, avoiding big issues and rejecting international climate “crusades” renders it unlikely that diocesan discussion groups will ever move beyond timidity, caution, boredom and resistance to discussing the issues it raises both small and (especially) large.

After all, Cultural Revolution entails serious conversations about relevant cultural elements that Americans find difficult: economic systems, historic relations between the U.S. and the “Third World,” theological convictions, models of church, what group participants actually believe about God, Jesus and the Bible – as well as about significant practical responses to what is arguably the most important public document of the present century.

Becoming revolutionary means opening participants’ hearts and minds so all of us might move beyond pseudo-certainties, drop defenses, learn something new, and possibly endure personal transformation. Most of us are not much used to any of that.

Nonetheless those are the tasks before us in our Lenten study group – along with the questions appended below:


  1. Is personal transformation desirable for you – personally, politically, and theologically? How might our discussion group stimulate such personal change?
  2. Are you willing to engage in serious reconsideration of the relationships between climate issues and economic systems, U.S. history, Global South realities, and reinterpretations of Christian faith?
  3. Is it really true that members of St. Clare parish are reluctant to respond positively and energetically to Laudato Si’?
  4. Would parishioners be willing to fund a solar energy project that would move the parish off the grid?
  5. What about petitioning Bishop Stowe to sponsor a similar project to move the entire diocese off the grid?
  6. What do you think is the most important issue raised by Laudato Si’?
  7. Is the pope correct in identifying climate change as a moral concern? Does it have the same importance, for instance, as abortion?
  8. What within you is the biggest obstacle to accepting Pope Francis’ message? Is it possible for you to provisionally remove or somehow suspend that blockage for purposes of discussing Laudato Si’? How would you do that?
  9. How would our Sunday liturgies change if our community recognized the truth and urgency of Laudato Si’?
  10. Do you agree that within our church there are many different ideas about matters of faith such as the identity of God, the status of Jesus, the authority of the Bible, the nature of salvation, and the connection between faith and issues such as climate change
  11. If so, how do we reconcile such fundamental differences with Catholic identity?
  12. Do you think it important to clarify what group participants actually believe about such matters?
  13. What should be done about theological and political differences – pastorally, liturgically, and in terms of community action?
  14. What practical steps might be taken to make the parish of St. Clare more vital, relevant, prophetic (like the pope) and effective in the world?

The Conversion of Pope Francis and “Why the New Pope Must Resign”

Francis Capitalism

“Why the New Pope Must Resign.” That was the title of an article I wrote just after the election of Pope Francis in 2013. In it I joined Argentina’s Horacio Verbitsky and others questioning the role of Jorge Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-’83).

Since then, friends have asked me about that. “What do you think now – in the light of the fresh spirit of reform the pope has introduced – in the light of his tremendous popularity?  Surely you were mistaken in your original, hasty judgment.”

That’s the typical question and observation.

My answer has been that I’m delighted with Pope Francis and the direction his papacy has taken. Both his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, and especially his new eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ are magnificent. Their criticisms of capitalism-as-we-know-it as the structural cause of world poverty and environmental destruction couldn’t be a clearer endorsement of a form of liberation theology that is both spiritually moving and politically engaged.

I’m glad the pope didn’t resign. Pope Francis is great.

But in response to my friends, I also add that the issue of Father Bergoglio’s involvement with the Dirty War is not resolved. Nor should it be ignored. Recalling its elements holds lessons for us – about the Roman Church’s history of supporting oppression, about whitewashed historiography, and most importantly, about the possibility of repentance and deep personal change.

Consider the first point, the Church supporting fascist oppression. It happened in Argentina during the Dirty War as it happened in Germany under Adolf Hitler.

When Bergoglio was Jesuit Provincial, he was accused of turning over to the army two of his Jesuit colleagues and former teachers, Fathers Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics. Both had been pro-socialist clerics and members of the Third World Priests’ Movement (MSTM). Such membership was considered a capital crime by the country’s ruling junta.

Yorio and Jalics had been embroiled in a long-standing feud with their Provincial not so much about their MSTM affiliation, but about their activities in a slum community the two priests served and lived in. Bergoglio didn’t have much time for Jesuits in his province being associated with left-wing causes – nor for versions of liberation theology tainted with Marxist analysis.

Like John Paul II and his chief advisor Josef Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI), he preferred a strain of liberation theology that prioritized the poor, but apolitically without revolutionary aspirations. Bergoglio liked to call that strain the “Theology of the People.” It prioritized their reflections on the gospel, and popular devotion to images, novenas, etc. Other versions of liberation theology were too “ideological.”

After being arrested and tortured, both Yorio and Jalics accused Bergoglio of fingering them to the army.

Father Yorio died without retracting his accusation. Fr. Jalics at first didn’t want to discuss the matter, saying that he and Bergoglio had reconciled.

Beyond the case of Yorio and Jalics, there was that of Father Christian Von Wernich. He had been a police chaplain during the Dirty War. After its conclusion, during the process of national reconciliation, Von Wernich came under investigation for his direct roles in police tortures and murders.

In response, while Bergoglio was a member, the Argentine Bishops’ Conference protected Von Wernich by transferring him to Chile under an assumed name. That is, the Bishops Conference treated accusations of torture and murder in exactly the same way bishops throughout the world had often dealt with allegations of sexual abuse of children: transfer the offender and cover up the past.

So, the question becomes, was Jesuit Provincial Bergoglio, like the predominant leadership of the Argentine Catholic Church, somehow cooperative with the ruling junta?

This brings us to my second point about historiography.

In defense of the future Pope Francis (and of the church hierarchy in general), his biographer, Austen Ivereigh, offers explanations that end up sounding much like the defense of Pius XII vis-à-vis the Nazis and his failure intervene against the Holocaust. Ivereigh argues:

  1. When the military took over in 1976, Argentina (like Weimar Germany) was in a state of political and economic chaos.
  2. So virtually all segments of society welcomed the military take-over (as Germans and the German Catholic Church welcomed Adolf Hitler).
  3. The military’s brutal Dirty War was secretive about the extremity of its measures. (Fr. Bergoglio testified that it took him some time to realize what was happening.)
  4. So people like Bergoglio didn’t really know what was going on (just as Germans claim they didn’t know about the concentration camps and ovens).
  5. When he did find out (like Pius XII) Bergoglio “worked quietly” to help potential victims escape – while fulfilling his primary duty of protecting the Jesuits from suspicion, investigation and reprisals from the ruling junta.

As with Germany such reasons end up sounding like excuses that raise suspicions of cover-up and historical obscurantism. They evoke the following observations and questions:

  1. Bergoglio gives every indication of being on the same page with John Paul II and Josef Ratzinger who also largely “looked the other way” when confronted with evidence of government brutality in dealing with left-wing elements of the clergy and faithful, e.g. in Central America in general and in El Salvador and Nicaragua in particular.
  2. Bergoglio clearly shared their disdain for priests involved in politics.
  3. If (as Ivereigh suggests) Father Bergoglio was so well-connected and friendly with all factions (including government officials and military leaders on the one hand, and their opponents including MSTM members on the other) how could he not have at least suspected what was really happening?
  4. If Jalics had forgiven Bergoglio (as he originally had said) what had he forgiven?
  5. Why did Jalics apparently change his story a few days after Pope Francis’ election? On being repeatedly contacted by the media about the issue, Jalics said, “The fact is: Orlando Yorio and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio.”
  6. Father Yorio offered no deathbed recantation of his charges against Bergoglio.

And that brings me to my final point about repentance and its significance for Catholics today.

As Ivereigh indicates, the prevailing method of dealing with such contradictions is to  reluctantly argue that Father Bergoglio perhaps did cooperate with the military – as did so many other churchmen in positions of authority during the Dirty War. However, in Bergoglio’s case, he also courageously helped many escape – at some risk to himself.

But then at some point, he underwent a kind of conversion and is now a progressive. At least at the administrative level, Bergoglio’s own testimony indicates that he experienced a profound conversion. He confesses that as a young Jesuit Provincial (he was only 36 when appointed), he was too headstrong, uncompromising and authoritarian.

Indications are, however, that the about-face went far beyond managerial style.

The exact turning point in the process remains unclear. It could have come after Bergoglio was virtually drummed out of the Jesuits by progressive elements which saw him as an impediment to the Society’s reform in the spirit of Vatican II.

Afterwards he spent two years in a kind of exile and deep introspection. Ivereigh reports that Bergoglio passed days hearing the confessions of simple shantytown poor people. He also spent hours in semi-depression, simply staring out his window. Colleagues worried that he was sick. Was it some type of breakdown?

Whatever the case, clear evidence reveals a subsequently changed man. Previously he was criticized by more liberal fellow Jesuits and others for failing to ask important questions about poverty. As they put it, “He’s great at ministering to the poor. But he never asks why they are poor.” (The criticism evoked the famous comment of Dom Helder Camara, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”)

But as pope in Laudato Si’ Francis makes no bones about why the poor have no food, or jobs, or homes, or education. With observations worthy of the MSTM members he rejected, the pope says, all of those problems are connected by the invisible thread called deregulated capitalism. His encyclical says that poverty, environmental destruction and a whole host of other problems are caused by capitalism-as-we-know-it. (So, predictably and true to Dom Helder’s words, Rush Limbaugh and others call Pope Francis a communist.)

Evidence of radical theological change goes much further. Consider, for instance, that Francis has:

  • Surrounded himself with liberation theologian advisers concerned with history and structural analysis.
  • Rehabilitated and consulted pro-socialist theologians blacklisted by his two predecessors – most prominently among them Brazil’s Leonardo Boff.
  • Identified Marxism as similar to the teachings of the early church fathers, claimed Marxists as his friends, and referred to them as “closet Christians.”
  • Echoed Latin America’s liberation theology speaking of Christian faith as “revolutionary,” because it challenges “the tyranny of Mammon.”
  • Peppered both The Joy of the Gospel and Laudato Si’ with frequent uses of the loaded word “liberation” contrasting the deleterious effects of “liberation” of markets (from government control) with the liberation of peoples proclaimed in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
  • Has similarly made Medellin’s phrase “preferential option for the poor” the watchword of his papacy, even going so far as to identify it with “the gospel itself.”
  • Beatified the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who is considered the patron saint of liberation theology. (Romero did, by the way, confront the ruling military and lost his life as a result.)
  • Described the world’s dominant economic system as running “counter to the plan of Jesus.” He said the system now in place and Jesus’ hoped-for Kingdom of God have different aims.
  • Worked with the Obama administration to open doors to Cuba which for more than 50 years has struggled to construct an economic alternative to capitalism-as-we-know-it.
  • In keeping with the insights of liberation theology, the pope has turned working against capitalism-as-we-know-it into a moral issue. In Laudato Si’ he wrote: “working for just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor” – is a “moral obligation.” For Christians, he said, “it is a commandment.” Here the pope echoed what he said in The Joy of the Gospel where he identified the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation that is “inescapable.”

All of this represents not only a personal conversion for Pope Francis, but a summons to his Church to follow in his footsteps.

What he has written in “The Joy of the Gospel” indicates that he recognizes in a Church the same crisis he underwent. It is out-of-touch and in need of a complete overhaul. “Everything must change,” he has said.

For too long, he has written, the Church has been mired in an authoritarian judgmental paradigm and in viewpoint-narrowness that has focused on important but non-essential matters foreign to the focus of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom. So-called “pelvic issues” were of little concern to Christianity’s Great Master.

The pope implicitly calls Catholics resembling his former conservative, apolitical self to engage in the process of political, economic, and ideological change before it’s too late. Stop staring out the window at a world falling apart, he tells us. Emerge from denial and obstructionism and come to grips with climate chaos and changing the economic system that causes not only environmental destruction, but world hunger, poverty, high infant mortality, and war.

Those are statements Fathers Yorio and Jalics could fully endorse.

Muhammad: Cars, Burkas, Lechery, Pedophilia, and Gold-Digging

Women in Islam

(This is the fourth in a series on Islam as liberation theology and on Muhammad as a prophet for our times. It is based on Karen Armstrong’s book, Muhammad, prophet for our times: London, Perennial Books, 2006.)

Have you noticed how champions of women’s liberation come out of the woodwork and suddenly materialize in the unlikeliest of places to justify wars against Muslims? After all, they argue, Sharia Law won’t even let women drive automobiles. How shocking! This contravenes (rich) women’s unalienable right to drive cars the same as men! Let’s go to war to liberate women!

And then there are those awful burkas and veils imposed by Islam. How cruel! Women should be allowed to wear mini-skirts and bikinis if they want. They should be allowed to coif themselves according to the West’s latest fashions, and to show their faces in public. Hell, if they want to be pole dancers, that’s their right! Those not recognizing it are worthy of death!

As we all know, such arguments have actually been used to mobilize support for wars in places like Afghanistan, Libya and Iran. And they’ve often been advanced by Republicans who like Rush Limbaugh, otherwise despise Women’s Liberation movements, and ridicule feminists as Femi-Nazis. But if it means killing Muslims, GOP Tea Partiers are happy to display pink ribbons. Whatever. Or as a Great Man once put it, “Bomb, bomb, bomb . . . Bomb, bomb Iran

These are the same people, by the way, who downplay the seriousness of rape. They blame it on men’s “understandably” uncontrollable impulses in the presence of women “provocatively” attired. After all women’s bodies are so programmed that pregnancy hardly ever results from rape. Or as another Great Man once said, “When rape is inevitable, just lie back and enjoy it.”

Can you spell “hypocrisy?”

Actually, according to Karen Armstrong, burkas, driving prohibitions, and veils have little to do with the Holy Qur’an and the spirit of the prophet Muhammad. Armstrong argues that he was a champion of women far ahead of his time. In general, women recognized in Muhammad a prophet on their side. In the face of cultural prohibitions, he allowed his wives to express their opinions freely and even to confront and disagree with him in front of others.

Muhammad also advocated complete equality of the sexes, with men and women sharing the same duties and responsibilities. Women were no longer to be treated as property bequeathed from one male to another. They could inherit estates, initiate divorce suits, and hang on to their dowries even following dissolution of marriage. As a result of such revolutionary teachings, women located themselves prominently among the prophet’s earliest and most enthusiastic followers.

Still, however, the western enemies of Islam insist on vilifying Muhammad as a lecher, pedophile, and gold digger. But these accusations turn out to be invidious calumnies. They stem from a failure to appreciate Arab culture 1400 years ago. It was an ethos that encouraged polygamy, just as had been the case among Israel’s patriarchs like Abraham and kings like David and Solomon.

In particular, Arab custom recommended the incorporation of vulnerable widows into the harems of those who could afford them, in order to protect the women from starvation and abuse. Additionally, treaties between tribes and nations were customarily sealed by marriage – again just as they had been in the culture of ancient Israel as described in the Hebrew Testament.

Acting in accord with such norms, Muhammad eventually assembled his own harem which came to include “child brides.” These were often part of the treaties just referenced. In such cases, cohabitation was postponed until the bride’s coming of age.

As for “gold-digging,” this accusation stems from Muhammad’s first marriage to Khadija, a distant relative who as a widow inherited a fortune from her first husband. She was a shrewd trader and employed a twenty-five year old Muhammad as one of her traveling merchants. This eventually led to a proposal of marriage on the part of the older woman. Muhammad accepted.

However, far from providing evidence of gold-digging on the prophet’s part, the history of the subsequent union offers ample proof of sincere love and respect between Muhammad and Khadija. She became his principal confidant as his revelations began to unfold. She encouraged him when they ceased for over two years. Following Khadija’s death, Muhammad continually upset his other wives by regularly singing her praises in their presence.

No, like other calumnies uttered against Muhammad and Islam, the ones about his repression of women contradict a reality that runs in quite the opposite direction.

It was men whose patriarchal instincts caused them to resist Muhammad’s leadership in this field. It was men who following Muhammad’s death interpreted one of the Qur’an’s surahs as requiring women to be segregated and veiled in public.

The surah in question (Number 33) was spoken by Muhammad during the reception following one of his late marriages. There some of his enemies acted passive-aggressively by overstaying their welcome, speaking disrespectfully to Muhammad’s wives, and generally preventing the newly weds from retiring for the night.

In response, after admonishing his guests about good manners, Muhammad gave Surah 33 the following expression:

“And as for the Prophet’s wives, whenever you ask them for anything that you need, ask them from behind a screen; this will but deepen the purity of your hearts and theirs.”

It was not until three generations after the prophet’s death that those controversial words were used to justify the veiling and segregation of Muslim women in general, as though they applied to all of them and not just to Muhammad’s wives.

Still even those late interpretations are understandable in the light of threats to Muslim culture, including those of our own day. As Karen Armstrong puts it,

“In times of vulnerability, women’s bodies often symbolize the endangered community, and in our own day, the hijab (veiling) has acquired new importance in seeming to protect the ummah (community) from the threat of the West (170).” (Parenthetical translations my addition)

In other words, Muslims are not blind. They see clearly the disrespect, abuse, and violence to which western women are routinely subjected. Evidently, it’s their judgment that such repression and negativity can best be avoided by eschewing mini-skirts, bikinis, fashionable hairdos, pole dancing, and even driving.

As another Great Man has said, “Who are we to judge?”