On religion, ‘Aliens in America’ is divine

ALIENS IN AMERICA: CHURCH. Monday night at 8:30, Ch. 11.During the CNN/YouTube Republican debate two weeks ago, one video questioner held up a Bible and demanded to know if the candidates believe "every word" in it. By coincidence, Monday's Christmas episode of "Aliens in America" also concerns itself with that area: spirituality, religion, belief. If you prefer having those subjects explored in a way that's reasoned, thoughtful, realistic, entertaining and ultimately rather uplifting, "Aliens" just might be your better bet. Tonight's "Aliens" will not be confused with a Bible study class. But it suggests that spirituality need not be lost even in lives that are seemingly overrun with the chaos and materialism of a secular world. Even better, it doesn't make that suggestion with thundering threats of purgatory. It tucks the message in with jokes, buffoonery, sarcasm and all the other basic sitcom trappings. It starts with the Tolchuck family embarking on their regular Sunday morning trip to Shop-Mart. Raja (Adhir Kalyan), the Pakistani teenager who has been living with the family and often serves as a kind of Greek chorus, pointing out what they're really doing, remarks that Shop-Mart seems to be their substitute for church. This bothers mother Franny (Amy Pietz) enough that she announces this morning they are turning around and going to a real church instead. So off the family goes, soon to realize that it's been so long since they attended services that the church has been torn down and replaced by a fast-food chicken restaurant. What to do? While Franny looks up another church on her Blackberry, they order chicken. "Just what the place always needed," says Gary, the dad, played by Scott Patterson. Franny finds a megachurch that has a convenient service. Raja asks what denomination it is. "Mega," replies Franny. Ah, sitcom jokes. But as it happens, this church visit dovetails with another subplot in which daughter Claire (Lindsey Shaw) has told Mom and Continue Reading

Religion shaping race & defining Prez candidates

A crowd cheered fervently in Iowa this month as Republican presidential candidate Sam Brownback quoted Mother Teresa telling him, "All for Jesus. All for Jesus. All for Jesus. All for Jesus." Barack Obama's recently launched Spanish-language radio ad in Nevada tells the targeted Hispanic audience, "Barack Obama is a Christian man." Hillary Clinton doesn't hesitate to let voters know the importance of prayer in her life, while Rudy Giuliani awkwardly dodges questions about his standing as a Catholic. And then there's Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Everywhere he goes, Romney faces questions about his Mormon faith. Religion has played a role in presidential elections throughout history. But not since 1960, when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic elected to the White House, has it been as omnipresent on the campaign trail. Historians and political experts say it's unlikely religion - or social issues embraced by Christian conservatives - will dominate the 2008 path to the Oval Office because the war in Iraq and homeland security seem uppermost in voters' minds. "Nothing in the conversation, thus far, makes it sound like gay marriage and abortion are going to outshine the war," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center. But there's no escaping religion on the campaign trail. While other issues loom large, voters want to know where candidates stand when it comes to faith. Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School and professor of church history, said the campaign now underway showcases the nation's "continuing religious saga." A century ago, "nobody would have believed" a Catholic could be elected president, Leonard said. The 2008 race is "just another illustration of the power of pluralism in American religious experience, that indeed a Catholic was elected and that indeed a Mormon is running as such a Continue Reading

FAITH IN THE CITY Visiting our communities of belief. Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom

Religious affiliation: Reform Jewish. Address and neighborhood: 1515 46th St., Borough Park. Years in present location: Esthetically pleasing building with its modest yet beautiful stained-glass windows was originally a Presbyterian church. Borough Park Progressive Synagogue bought it in 1919 and moved it from the corner to further down 46th St., where it remains today. Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom is a merger of Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom and Borough Park Progressive Synagogue. This blending occurred in 2004. Size and character of congregation: The congregation has 160 multigenerational member families. Spiritual leader: Rabbi Garson Herzfeld, rabbi since July 2005. Scheduled service: Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 10:30 a.m. Largest service and turnout: "During the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, we fill the place, which holds 225 people," said Herzfeld. Proudest moment: "Selfishly, my installation, with a wonderful rabbi speaker from Jerusalem who has known me since I was a rabbinical student," Herzfeld said. Most memorable wedding or other service: "We have had a lot of lovely services. This year, we had a wonderfully moving and spiritual Purim celebration," said Herzfeld. Longest-attending member: Helen Saperstein, who is 100 years old. Best singers: Music director David Williams, cantorial soloist Rabbi Jill Hausman and member Amy Dattner. Other programs or services: An active social action committee; a Passover food drive; a cultural committee; an active membership committee; a caring committee who visit the sick, those in mourning or to welcome new people into the congregation; an adult education program; a very small religious school, and a once-a-year late spring service at the beach, followed by a picnic lunch. Most prized possession The Torah scrolls. Biggest wish-list item "To grow in number, to nurture the congregation and to grow in the religion," Herzfeld said. What makes it special "We are Continue Reading

FAITH IN OUR TOWNS Visiting our communities of belief. Jericho Friends

Address and town: 6 Old Jericho Turnpike, Jericho Religious affiliation: Quaker Years in present location: 218 Size and character of congregation: "We have about 50 to 60 members who come from all over the country," Thomas Abbe, the group's clerk, said. "I would say about a dozen come on a regular basis. We're lacking in children now." Pastor: Quakerism teaches that all its members are equal and the group does not select one person to be its spiritual leader. However, there are two men, Thomas Abbe and Jim Campbell, who handle clerical tasks. Scheduled services: Sundays at 11 a.m. For one hour, the group sits together in complete silence, and then opens the floor to anyone who feels inspired to talk. Largest service and turnout: Abbe said that the group does not celebrate holy days like most religions, sticking to its normal weekly meeting on Sundays. "The whole Quakerism code is about simplicity," he said. Proudest moment: Abbe said pride is not a trait Quakers are comfortable with. "When we sit silent, it's an act of humility," he said. Even when the group participates in philanthropy projects, it is very low- key, he said. "Quakers have achieved a reputation for honesty and integrity that goes beyond any other standard you can name," Abbe said. Most memorable service: In 1998, "when my father died, there was a memorial service with more than 400 people," Abbe said. Longest-attending parishioner: Samuel Mitchell, Alice's son, has been a member his whole life, about 70 years, Abbe said. Abbe also added himself and his mother, Kathryn, to the list. The two of them have been members for 50 years, he said. Most popular after-service gathering spot: "There's not really much socializing going on in our meetings," Abbe said. "Some groups have coffee and doughnuts, but we don't have a practice of that. More or less, after the meeting, people go on their own way." Other services: "We have some very small projects we do, some food collections Continue Reading

FAITH IN THE CITY Visiting our communities of belief. Van Cortlandt Jewish Center

Religious affiliation: Orthodox Jewish. Address and neighborhood: 3880 Sedgwick Ave., Van Cortlandt Village Spiritual leader: Rabbi Jacob Sodden. Years in present location: The temple was founded in 1927 in the then-new Amalgamated Housing cooperative. In 1947, the temple moved to a converted mansion before settling down in the current synagogue, which the congregation built for itself in 1961. Size of congregation: About 100 members Scheduled service: Weekday morning service at 7; evening services depend on the time of sunset; Saturday service, 8:45 a.m., Sunday service, 8:30 a.m. What makes the congregation special: That they have survived and continue to offer daily Orthodox services in the Bronx despite a diminishing Jewish population in the borough. In its heyday, the temple had 750 members and a Hebrew school with 400 students. "We're thankful that we're still there," Sodden said. "We go forward, and we keep trying to get the community involved and get people to attend services." Largest service: The High Holy Days. Biggest issue: Funding the temple with a small membership. The synagogue has survived by renting the space to a senior citizen's program and the New York City Board of Education. "That has sustained us in the most recent stage of our history," Sodden said. Most prized possession: The temple's Torahs. Other services and programs offered Senior lunches in the senior center, a youth club, beginning Hebrew classes, an annual fund-raising dinner, lectures and observances of Israel Independence Day and Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Proudest moments Being one of the few remaining Orthodox Jewish congregations left in the Bronx. "All these years, I've been trying to tell people not to fall for the glamour of Riverdale," said Sodden, who has been the congregation's rabbi since 1961. What matters most, Sodden said, is the genuine practice of your religion, and not the location of Continue Reading

FAITH IN THE CITY Visiting our communities of belief. St. Pancras Catholic Church

Address: 72-22 68th St., Glendale Spiritual leader: The Rev. Vincent Gallo Size of congregation: Approximately 1,600 registered families. What makes the congregation special: A very close-knit parish. Gallo said many of the parish families have lived and remained in the parish for generations - grandparents, parents, children have all grown up here, attended the church's school, married and raised families here. Also, the memorial capsule buried on the grounds of the church with the names of all those who died on 9/11 and a fountain dedicated to their memory. Each year a memorial service is held on Sept. 11. People often stop to pray. Largest service: On Oct. 4, 2004 - centennial Mass - in addition to the church's present parishioners, it welcomed back former parishioners, priests and sisters of St. Dominic who had served in the parish, faculty - past and present - and neighbors and friends, who filled the church. Biggest wish-list item: The restoration of biblical murals in the transepts of the church, and reaching alumni for the centennial of the parish school in 2008. Biggest issue: Working with cluster parishes to ensure presence of parochial education in the community. Proudest moment: Church officials say there are many. One is when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict. The church had a big celebration. Four hundred people - men, women and children - joined with three choirs to give honor and praise and glory to God for the Holy Spirit's selection of the new Pope. Most memorable wedding or other service: On Oct. 5, 2003, the church began the centennial year by inviting back all of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville (the founding order of our school) who had taught in the school over the years. Sixty-six Sisters of St. Dominic returned to celebrate what we name "Dominican Sunday" with the celebration of Mass and a reception in the school auditorium. Rose Winifred O'Neill - 94 years young - was the star of the day. Continue Reading

FAITH IN THE CITY Visiting our communities of belief.

Religious affiliation: Jewish Orthodox Address and neighborhood: 1 Piermont Ave., Hewlett Years in present location: 9 Rabbi: Heshy Blumstein Size/character of congregation: "We have 175 families," Blumstein said. "We have a wide variety of different people who feel very strongly about traditional Judaism," but no ethnic group dominates. Scheduled service: Mondays and Thursdays, 6:30 a. m. and 8 p. m.; Tuesdays and Wednesday, 6:45 a. m. and 8 p. m., Fridays, 6:45 a. m., Saturdays, 7:30 a. m. and 9 a. m., and Sundays, 8 a. m. Largest service and turnout: "Saturday morning, and high holy days attract the most people," Blumstein said. "For the high holy days, we would have approximately 500 people, and every Saturday, we probably get about 250. " Most prized possession: "For all Jews, the Torah scroll, which loosely translated is the Bible, the divine document given to us by God really becomes the focal point and most prized possession in any one synagogue," Blumstein said. "Whoever embraces the Torah, their life will be improved. " Biggest wish-list item: "I wish for the day when Jewish people embrace their religion all over, and take time to study and understand all the traditions and study theTorah that God has given us," Blumstein said. Proudest moment: Blumstein said he takes great pride in watching young people celebrate their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. "To see all their studying paid off and see young men and women who understand their responsibility to their people and their world - I cherish these moments the most," he said. Most memorable wedding or other service: Once a year, the synagogue celebrates Simchat Torah, once the entire Torah has been read. "It's a festive day of singing and dancing with the Torah," Blumstein said. "The cause of the joy is the understanding of these divine documents ... it's pretty intense. " Longest-attending member: "Nathanial Lazan, one of our founders," Blumstein said. "He knows it Continue Reading

Conservative presidential hopeful Marco Rubio’s religion of many colors

Republican presidential wannabe Marco Rubio, a conservative, anti-gay marriage candidate from Florida, has lost and found his religion several times. As a child in Miami, he was a Roman Catholic. When his family moved to Las Vegas, he became a Mormon. When the family moved back to Florida he became a Catholic again. And then, in 2000, he began attending Christ Fellowship in Miami, a fundamentalist mega church that is rigidly opposed to homosexuality and asks employees to sign a declaration saying they've never been in a gay relationship. Now he attends both Christ Fellowship and a Catholic church, he says. All of which has sparked intense debate over just what, exactly, Rubio believes when it comes to God. His coat of many religious colors has led political pundits to declare the baby-faced aspirant is courting voters of all conservative faiths. If he can't decide something as fundamental as religion, experts say his changing beliefs could lead to questions about how he would run the country. "Some voters may be put off that he can't seem to make up his mind and it's certainly possible that it's a political strategy," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor who specializes in theological issues at the University of Central Florida. Political experts were hard pressed to identify another presidential candidate who regularly worshipped in two different churches. "It is rare to have a candidate with so many faiths, and who now has one foot squarely in a major religion and one foot squarely in another", he said. The 44-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, who was elected to the Senate in 2010, says he attends Christ Fellowship on Saturday nights and goes to Mass on Sundays at St. Louis Catholic Church. A Rubio spokesman declined an interview request from the Daily News, saying the candidate was too busy on the campaign trail, where the number of GOP hopefuls seems to grow by the day. But recent polls have shown Continue Reading

Arkansas Senate passes religion bill, similar to Indiana’s, seen as homophobic

The Arkansas Senate overwhelmingly approved on Friday a Republican-backed bill whose authors say is intended to protect religious freedoms but critics contend could allow businesses to refuse service to gay people. The Republican governor of Indiana signed into law a similar "religious freedom" bill on Thursday, prompting protests from human rights groups and criticism from some business leaders. The bill advancing in the Republican-led Arkansas legislature says "governments should not substantially burden the free exercise of religion without compelling justification." Supporters say a business should not be forced to, for example, cater a same-sex wedding if doing so would violate the religious beliefs of the owner. Two of the most powerful companies in the United States, retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc, which has its home office in Arkansas, and technology giant Apple Inc came out against the measure. "We feel this legislation is counter to this core basic belief and sends the wrong message about Arkansas, as well as the diverse environment which exists in the state," a Walmart spokesman said in a statement. Apple CEO Tim Cook, referring to the measures in the two states, said in a tweet: "Apple is open for everyone. We are deeply disappointed in Indiana's new law and calling on Arkansas Gov. to veto the similar HB1228." The measure passed the Arkansas House in February by a comfortable margin and now goes back to it for consideration of amendments in the Senate version. Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, has said he would sign the measure into law. Join the Conversation: Continue Reading

‘Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief’ review: Religion that lores Tom Cruise, John Travolta, other celebs

Tom Cruise, time to call L.R.H. in outer space! The searing, scalpel-sharp documentary “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief” delves deep into the world of the Church of Scientology, the out-there “religion” that claims Cruise, John Travolta, many celebs and thousands of others as “parishioners.” In the process, it exposes this controversial group in ways it’s never been seen before. The film (also airing on HBO starting March 29) has interviews with high-ranking ex-members to dissect Scientology’s mysterious ways and its monetary — and, it’s said, menacing — means of control. In addition to chronicles of physical and mental abuse, the film’s central tenet is how Scientology bullied its way into religion status by burying the Internal Revenue Service — which was looking to collect a billion-dollar tax bill — with 2,400 lawsuits. The IRS eventually surrendered, granting Scientology tax-exempt status. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney keeps the various parts of the story in focus as numerous bombshells are revealed.L. Ron Hubbard, a writer of mid-century sci-fi pulp and an inveterate fabricator, started the group after his book “Dianetics” became a phenom in 1950. As Lawrence Wright, whose nonfiction book provides this film’s basis, tells Gibney, “The deeper one goes into Scientology, the deeper they go into the mind of Hubbard.” To escape the taxes he despised, Hubbard took his group to the seas. (Scientology’s “clergy” are known as the Sea Org.) Hubbard died in 1986. Ex-Sea Org execs speak in the film, along with a former spokesman, an ex-second-in-command and others. Director Paul Haggis (“Crash”) is a crucial participant. In 2009, Haggis left the church, though not before he dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars over three decades in order to “get Continue Reading