Opinion by Emily Hardman, special to CNN
(CNN) – I’m not a Muslim. I’ve never been imprisoned. And I don’t want to grow a beard. But I’m defending the rights of someone who is and does.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear Holt v. Hobbs, a landmark case cutting to the heart of the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom.
At issue is whether refusing to allow a prisoner to peacefully practice his religion violates a federal civil rights law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, known as RLUIPA .
In this case, Abdul Muhammad (formerly named Gregory Holt) is an Arkansas inmate who wants to observe the Muslim command to grow a beard, in his case a half-inch in length.
Arkansas already allows inmates to grow beards for medical reasons and Muhammad’s beard would be permissible in 43 state and federal prison systems across the country.
The remaining outliers, including Arkansas, attempt to justify their bans in the name of security. However, Arkansas has not identified a single confirmed security problems resulting from beards.
Editor’s note: Jill Strasburg is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a wife and a writer who muses on life, love and faith in her blog The Strasburg Family. The upcoming episode of "This is Life With Lisa Ling" explores the scourge of prescription drug abuse in Utah and within its Mormon community at10 p.m. ET/PT Sunday on CNN.
Opinion By Jill Strasburg, special to CNN
(CNN) – I became deathly ill two months into my marriage and during my long recovery, I could barely eat or drink. I certainly couldn’t do daily chores around the house, and I would stay in my pajamas throughout most days.
During this time, something remarkable happened: Women from my congregation whom I had never met began showing up at my house.
I was new to the area, had just joined the local Mormon church, and here were these women at my house with a gift, a meal for my husband, a smile, a hug and a sympathetic ear. They expected nothing in return. I could feel the love they had for me as it radiated from them.
That wasn’t the only thing I felt though.
Opinion by Candida Moss and Joel Baden, special to CNN
(CNN) – The Air Force has reversed course again and will allow an atheist airman to omit the phrase "so help me God” from its oath, the military branch said Wednesday.
“We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen's rights are protected,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said.
Earlier, the Air Force said the unnamed airman would not be allowed to re-enlist unless he recited the entire oath, including the disputed "God" section.
It was the latest religious controversy in the heavily Christian Air Force, but this particular issue has ancient and somewhat surprising roots: In the early days of Christianity, it was Christians who refused to swear by powers they didn’t believe in.
The oath was written into law in 1956 and, like the Pledge of Allegiance, did not originally include any reference to God. The final sentence came into the text in 1962, just eight years after “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Even then, however, it was not an absolute requirement in the Air Force: Official policy had stated that “Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.” But the lenient policy was updated and eliminated in 2013, leading to the most recent standoff, which Wednesday's announcement seemed to solve.
"The Air Force will be updating the instructions for both enlisted and commissioned Airmen to reflect these changes in the coming weeks, but the policy change is effective now," the Air Force said.
"Airmen who choose to omit the words 'So help me God' from enlistment and officer appointment oaths may do so."
The repeated fights over the Air Force oath highlight the fraught relationship between faith groups and military service.
Opinion by Matthew Paul Turner, special to CNN
(CNN) – There’s one detail about the Adrian Peterson child abuse charges that no one seems to be noting: his alleged crimes didn’t happen simply under the guise of “parenting” but rather “Christian parenting.”
But the NFL star's Christianity shouldn’t be missed or undervalued in the sharp debate about his actions. Those of us who grew up in conservative Christian churches know all too well the culture that shapes the parenting beliefs of people like Peterson.
Today, the most notable proponents of spanking are American evangelicals. They not only preach the gospel of corporal punishment, they also impart messages that lay the foundations for abuses against children and the protection of such abuse by our legal system.
We have books about spanking. Popular Christian talk shows promote the benefits of spanking. Pastors preach and theologize spanking. Organizations like Focus on the Family offer parents resources about how and when to spank.
The ties between Christianity and corporal punishment are so strong that a large number of conservative Christians parents simple deny studies that suggest spanking does more harm than good.
Now, I’m not saying that evangelical churches are to blame for what Peterson did to his son. But the church isn’t innocent in the matter, either.
Without the church, the popularity of spanking would have dwindled. Stricter laws would probably be in place to protect the rights and livelihoods of children. And people like Peterson would not feel as though he has a license to do whatever he wants to his child.
For decades, American evangelicals have fiercely fought any legal or cultural limits on parents’ “rights” to discipline their children.
As a result, American children are some of the least protected people in the world. They are often innocent pawns to the vile disciplinarian doctrine of folks like Michael and Debi Pearl, pro-spanking theologians who suggest that corporal punishment should begin when a child is only 6 months old.
But spanking theologies are not simply the teachings of Christian extremists.
Wenzhou, China (CNN) - At a gray church on the outskirts of Wenzhou in eastern China, Christians from across the county keep a nervous watch.
Some stand behind the iron gate; others sit just inside the church door. For more than two months they've waited, preparing themselves to protect the cross on top of their church.
"If I have to, I am going to hold it in my arms and protect it," one elderly man says. "They have no right to tear it down, that is why we have to defend our church."
Wenzhou is known as the "Jerusalem of China" and throughout this year the local Communist Party authorities have demolished scores of churches and forcibly removed more than 300 church crosses.
Chinese church leaders say it's the worst anti-Christian crackdown in decades.
"What the government here is doing is so barbaric, they're like bandits and we are furious with them," says Chen Zhi'ai, a respected church leader in the Wenzhou area. "Today we've seen the fundamental symbol of our faith violated and it hurts us deep inside our hearts."
By Jeff Wilson, special to CNN
(CNN) – Mindfulness meditation is a huge phenomenon – and a multibillion-dollar industry – in the United States.
It’s being used to help soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, to assist schoolchildren with attention difficulties and to bring stress relief from the hospital bed to the boardroom to the bedroom.
In fast-paced, multitasking modern America, mindfulness is used both to take a vacation from our hectic lives and to help us manage ever more work and stimulation in a mindful manner.
This mindfulness movement is diverse, but it traces back to Buddhist awareness techniques, especially as promoted by UMass Medical School researcher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Essentially, mindfulness is a technique of open awareness without judgment, which allows the meditator to observe their physical and mental actions and reactions without attachment or aversion.
Once upon a time, mindfulness meditation conjured up images of an orange-robed monk with a shaven head, sitting quietly somewhere in a jungle cave.
But now, the average mindfulness practitioner is a suburban soccer mom who meditates in order to increase her work efficiency, deal with her kids’ needs, watch what she eats and keep her sanity,
Whenever a foreign practice becomes mainstream, naturally, some confusion occurs. Here’s a list of four common misunderstandings that have appeared as mindfulness spread from the monastery to the middle-class home.
Opinion by Russell D. Moore, special to CNN
(CNN) – The country collectively winced as we watched an NFL running back punch his fiancee in the face on an elevator, captured by security video.
The horror in the country crossed all the usual ideological and political divisions. Consciences intuitively knew this was wrong and shocking.
The video brought to light for many Americans what every church and religious institution in America must deal with on an ongoing basis: violence against women.
As a Christian, I believe it’s important to see this issue through the dual lenses of both the responsibility of the state and of the church.
The state, and the larger culture, has a responsibility to work against such violence. The Scripture says that the state is delegated a “sword” of justice to be used against “evildoers” (Roman 13:4). That clearly applies in these horrifying cases.
Often, men who abuse their wives or girlfriends will seek to hide under the cover of therapeutic language, as they seek to “deal” with their “issues.”
There is no question that a man who would abuse a woman is socially and psychologically twisted, but we should not allow this to in any way ameliorate the moral and public evil involved in these cases.
Opinion by Matthew Paul Turner, special to CNN
(CNN) – The majority of America’s churches teach that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. But considering our country’s near-400-year history, can we honestly say that our concepts and perceptions about God haven’t evolved?
Is our contemporary American God the same as in 1629, when the Puritans began organizing a mass exodus toward their “Promised Land”?
Is our modern God the same as in 1801, when Christians at a revival in Kentucky became so filled up with God’s spirit that they got down on all-fours and barked and howled like wild dogs?
More recently, is our God the same as in 2000, when born again George W. Bush won (sort of) the presidential election by rallying America’s then thriving evangelical electorate with a Jesus-tinged GOP rhetoric he called “compassionate conservatism”?
The truth is, no. God is likely not exactly the same as God was yesterday, not here in the United States, not among America’s faithful. Here, God changes.
Our making God into our own image isn’t a new trend. We’ve been changing God since Anglo Saxons first stepped foot onto these shores. Here are five examples.
Opinion by Salam al-Marayati, special to CNN
(CNN) – This week, Barak Barfi, the spokesman for slain American journalist Steven Sotloff’s family, joined many Muslims in exposing the hypocrisy and hollowness of groups like ISIS.
He challenged ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to a debate that pits Islam’s theology of life against ISIS’ cult of death.
In doing so, Barfi cited verses in the Quran that shun murder even a 6-year-old could understand: "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you and do not transgress, God loves not the aggressors" (2:190).
This verse is about self-defense. It allows one to protect civilians by fighting combatants who attack first. It forbids aggression, which is a grave sin in Islam.
By citing this verse, Barfi challenged all extremists to a debate that would expose their bankrupt cult of death for the forgery it is.
Barfi also talked about mercy in Islam. Mercy is an essential attribute for Muslims. God delivered Prophet Mohammed to humanity to make us more merciful to one another.
By Rafael Romo, CNN Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
(CNN) – It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity: teenagers from five continents speaking directly with Pope Francis through a Google video chat.
The students from schools in Australia, Israel, Turkey, South Africa and El Salvador heard advice from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, speaking Thursday from the Vatican in his native Spanish.
“In life,” the Pope from Argentina told them, “you can (do) either one of two opposite things: You can build bridges or walls. Walls separate and divide. Bridges get people closer.”
The Pope also allowed the teenagers to express their views during the video conference using the Google Hangouts platform.
A student from Istanbul reflected on world peace. “People from all nationalities that contain different religions and ethnic groups must learn how to live in peace,” the Turkish student said.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.