Male circumcision rates in the

U.S. have dropped steeply over the last few decades, as an Associated Press article by Rachel Konrad highlighted this week:

According to data from the National Health and Social Life Survey, the

U.S. circumcision rate peaked at nearly 90 percent in the early 1960s but began dropping in the ’70s. By 2004, the most recent year for which government figures are available, about 57 percent of all male newborns delivered in hospitals were circumcised. In some states, the rate is well below 50 percent.

For Jews and Muslims, the question of whether or not to circumcise their infant boys often hinges around questions of faith, since male circumcision is a deeply rooted tradition in both religions.

But what significance does circumcision hold for American Protestants and Catholics?

According to the 2005 book, Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery, by public health analyst David Gollaher, the practice of “routine” infant circumcision was introduced in the U.S. in the late 19th century, carried by arguments that the surgery was a way to avoid disease. One doctor who advocated routine circumcision wrote in 1882 that American Christians would do well to borrow a leaf from the Jewish tradition:

Moses was a good sanitarian, and if circumcision was more generally practised at the present day, I believe that we would hear far less of the pollutions and indiscretions of youth; and that our daily papers would not be so profusely flooded with all kinds of cures for loss of manhood.

As Konrad notes in her AP article, a number of factors have led to the decline of routine circumcision in the U.S., including immigration from Asian and Latin American cultures where circumcision is not common and the popularity of “natural” childbirth and breastfeeding, beginning in the 1980s.

But evangelical Christians have also been considering the issue from a scriptural point of view. The question of circumcision raises the thorny and never-quite-answered question of how Protestants should relate to the Laws of Moses.

One evangelical mother, quoted in a 2000 Christian Parenting Today article, saw the issue this way:

I figured if God ordained circumcision for his people in the Old Testament, there probably were some good spiritual reasons as well as health reasons.

But other anti-circumcision Christian advocates point to passages in the letters of Paul, where the apostle writes:

I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.

Catholics have been joining the debate as well, as this discussion on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s site demonstrates.

The question for now: Will opposition to routine circumcision in the

U.S. increasingly take on a scriptural, religious bent?

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Reporting on a tragedy follows a set trajectory, and many reporters today are writing “what sense can we make of it?” stories, often using faith leaders as sources. Over the coming week, the otherwise arcane theological term “theodicy” will crop up in news stories across the country.

To take a deeper look at theodicy, ReligionWriter spoke with Wendy Farley, a professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., who has written on theodicy, suffering and religious ethics.

Below is an edited Q+A with her. (WARNING: Some Biblical literacy required.)

ReligionWriter: First of all, what is theodicy?

Wendy Farley: It’s a religious attempt to think about the idea that if God is all-powerful and all-good, then how can there be suffering and evil in the world?

RW: Is our modern American understanding of evil and suffering different from that found among people in the Bible?

Farley: There is a range of possible interpretations of theodicy, and almost all of these are found in the Bible. People continue to struggle within that range of possibility.

RW: What is that range?

Farley: The “Zeus” model is God is mad and punishing us, and that’s why we suffer — you can find that idea in the Bible. Then there’s Job, who is an example of innocent suffering. He testifies to God: “Why am I suffering when I am a good man?” God responds by being present to Job, not giving an explanation except the compassionate power of that presence itself.

RW: But God appears in a whirlwind and says, “Job, you weren’t there when I created the earth.” That doesn’t sound very comforting.

Farley: God lays out for Job the incredible beauty and complexity of creation and basically says, “This doesn’t work by small legal views of justice. But I love it all, and I love you.” God gets very angry at Job’s three comforters, who were saying to him, “Just admit that you were bad, and God will forgive you.” God says about them, “That’s not right.” God displays his care for Job in the midst of inevitable suffering.

RW: If you imagine yourself in Job’s situation, sitting on an ash-heap, scraping your sores with a pot shard — just like the Virginia Tech students today, looking around at this tragedy — how can you be a position to feel that loving presence?

Farley: It’s an existentially hard place to be in. It’s a place of terrible suffering. We want answers, that’s the way we’re made. The answer that, “God is in charge, bad things happen but still the world makes sense,” is an existentially powerful answer, and people find that comforting. That’s one of the options of the Bible, it’s one people have kept around for thousands of years, and you find versions of it in most of the religious traditions. It’s just not the only option.

RW: What are the other ways the Bible explain suffering?

Farley: From a Christian point of view, one way is to understand the coming of the Messiah as a continuation of the view of the Book of Job, namely, that God simply comes to us and is present to us. We have in the Passion the deepest possible intimacy of God with unjust suffering. There’s no suffering that we human being experience where God is not present to us. There is nothing, as Paul says, that can separate us from the love of God.

RW: God appeared to Job, but how do you feel the love of God if He doesn’t come to you in the whirlwind?

Farley: We feel it in prayer, we feel it in the care we give one another. Part of the Incarnation is God’s presence to us through each other, as Christ said, “When I was naked, you fed me.” There’s no theodicy that’s going to make it okay for people to suffer. But like most human beings, who have suffered very severely, I can say the presence of God isn’t taken away in suffering. It’s very empowering. Not that it makes you not suffer, but it makes you get through it with a grace and courage and beauty and dignity. We see people going through horrific things and responding with real moral beauty.

RW: Are you happy with the coverage theodicy gets in the press after disasters and tragedies?

Farley: The press doesn’t mediate a deep understanding of these issues. The press does what it’s supposed to do, which is not to be pastoral. I wouldn’t look to the press for a way to navigate tragedy. I do find the press tends to go to conservative ministers [as sources], which is not where I would go for comfort.

RW: You think the press tends to go to conservative sources in order to get a firm answer?

Farley: Probably. You are more likely to get a sound bite.

RW: Here we are on Tuesday, ages away from Sunday morning, and I wonder if people do look for spiritual answers in press reports.

Farley: I’m sure that’s true. That is a little frightening (laughs.) Reporters should be aware there are a variety of faithful ways of responding to suffering and catastrophe.

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