In Khizr Khan’s inspirational story, a mighty river flows

Khizr Khan, father of fallen U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S.M. Khan, speaks as his wife Ghazala listens at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Maybe sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of our greatness and of the things we hold dear as a nation, but which we take for granted. Maybe it takes someone like Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who chased his American dream and is living it.

You remember Khan. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, the Gold Star father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq fixed a stern gaze at the television camera as if it were a portal into the American consciousness.

With his wife Ghazala beside him, Khan pulled a copy of the U.S. Constitution from his jacket and ripped then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim travel ban and his rhetoric on immigrants. Then Khan famously asked if Trump had even read the founding document.

“I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said as the audience roared. “In this document, look for the words liberty and equal protection of the law.”

An electric moment, it rocketed Khan to national prominence.

As we now know is his standard impulse, Trump took to Twitter to fire back. Never mind that attacking the grieving parents of a U.S. Army captain who had given his life for his country seemed outrageously undignified, beneath what we expect of someone wanting to be president.

Khan wasn’t surprised, he told me before an appearance last Saturday morning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin: “We had known (Trump’s) caliber and his mentality and his lack of empathy, his lack of compassion.”

Today of course, Trump is the president of the United States. Khan isn’t shrinking from the spotlight, either. He is traveling across the country with a newly published book, “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice.” The event at St. Andrew’s, where he spoke to a few hundred people about the book and about his life, was his 175th event since that fateful, life-changing night in Philadelphia.

“I’d rather be with my grandkids,” Khan told me with a warm smile. “But it’s for a good purpose — to share a message of unity and hope. We are lacking that now.”

But not Khan. His faith in America remains resolute. “The book,” he said, “is a tribute from (our family) to the goodness of America. We are expressing our gratitude.”

Later inside the school auditorium, Khan, wearing a dark suit and a Gold Star lapel pin, deftly wove his life story before a rapt, diverse audience. A Harvard-educated lawyer he spoke in a low, soothing timbre, and reminded them that among the things Americans cherish most are the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

“Human dignities,” he called them. “The founding document gave me these dignities. In Pakistan I did not have freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom to address my grievances in a court of law and due process.”

Life led from a seat on a small cot at his rural Pakistani home with no electricity to his current home of Charlottesville – yes, that Charlottesville in Virginia, where a rally of white supremacists exploded in deadly violence August 12.

In the moonlit darkness of his Pakistani home, Khan’s grandfather offered the young boy wise counsel, paraphrasing one of Rumi’s seven advices. “He told me, ‘So what if you are thirsty. Be a river for others,’” Khan said.

In Charlottesville, three days after the ugly violence, the Khans joined other families in walking the same route the neo-Nazis had taken. Like his grandfather, Khizr Khan had his own lesson to impart.

“We showed our children that these were not American values,” he said. “We stood together to show them that this is the real America.”

Some Americans have blamed Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants for emboldening white supremacist protesters. Khan didn’t address the criticism.

The Khans didn’t intend to accept the Democratic convention’s invitation to speak. Confidantes had warned them there would be backlash, and they were right. Khan receives much hate mail – most of it unsigned and with no return address – and he must travel with great precaution.

But they could not ignore the concerns of their Muslim neighbors’ children, who with Trump’s talk about banning Muslims from entering the U.S., were reluctant to attend school because they feared their parents would be gone — deported – when they returned.

“They would ask, ‘Is this possible? But we were born here,’” Khan said.

In some ways, Khan’s appearance at St. Andrews bore some of the hallmarks of both a celebrity appearance and an inspirational seminar for people thirsty for hope. A long line of people waited to have their photo taken with Khan, who exuded a quiet and gracious humility.

At times audience members fought back tears. At others they rollicked with laughter. The idea of holding up the Constitution had been an afterthought, conceived in a taxi on the way to the Democratic convention. Khan described a comical scene like something out of The Three Stooges: in rehearsing pulling the pocket-size Constitution from his jacket, he displayed the back cover, ruining the intended dramatic effect.

“Practice,” Ghazala scolded him.

In Austin and across the country, at a time when political civility has gone missing, at a time when some in America vilify those who don’t look like them, Khan might be the unlikeliest of rock stars, spinning a love poem to democratic ideals.

If he is thirsty, he is not letting on. Instead, he is a river to others.



A biblical alternative to ‘religious objection’ laws: submission

The Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs held a hearing Feb. 17 in the Senate Chambers at the Capitol to examine measures to protect religious beliefs. (Ralph Barrera / American-Statesman)

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other leaders of the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature want to protect the religious liberties of Texans who oppose same-sex marriage. To that end, Patrick has charged the Texas Senate’s State Affairs Committee to study and recommend so-called religious objection measures for lawmakers to consider during next year’s legislative session. In essence, Patrick wants the Legislature to let those who feel their “sincerely held religious beliefs” are under assault to decide for themselves which laws and Supreme Court rulings to follow.

The State Affairs Committee met Wednesday, and it quickly became apparent, as the American-Statesman’s Chuck Lindell reported, that protecting one person’s religious beliefs risks opening discrimination’s door. (When is a religious belief “sincerely held” and when is it not, and how can you tell the difference, is anyone’s guess.) The American-Statesman’s editorial board urged caution in an editorial published Sunday. It will not be easy keeping religious freedom and faith-based discrimination separate.

I can’t speak for other religions, but allow me to indulge here in the common practice of cherry picking biblical verses to point out that the Bible offers a remedy for conservative Christians who feel the federal courts and other government entities have infringed on their religious liberties by upholding gay rights and passing various nondiscrimination laws. Submission.

Take the opening verses of Romans 13, for example:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

This call to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,” as it is written in 1 Peter, Chapter 2, is repeated elsewhere in the Bible, most famously when Jesus says in Matthew 22:20-21 to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Let’s ignore for the sake of this blog entry how the powerful throughout history have used these passages to justify the divine right of kings, slavery or genocide to say that if it’s true that “there is no authority except from God,” then submission to the authorities is submission to God. If you read the Bible literally, then who’s to say the Supreme Court isn’t “instituted by God” and it’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage wasn’t granted through God?

Perhaps conservative Christians should be content rather than press lawmakers to carve out exceptions for them. Perhaps they should, as Paul instructs in 2 Corinthians 12:10, delight in being insulted and persecuted. God gives strength in weakness.

Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times last week in which he observed how since the beginnings of the republic conservatives typically start cultural battles, but liberals almost always win them. Any religious objection law that the Texas Legislature might pass next year will be a rearguard action fought for a lost cause. But losing, not winning, makes a culture warrior righteous, Prothero wrote. “Each defeat proves that America is in fact going to hell and is desperately in need of a defender,” he continued.

The thing is, those who hold themselves up as defenders of lost causes often win elections. And electoral wins are the wins that matter. Those are the causes the defenders of lost causes verily serve.

Why Abbott is really skipping seeing Pope Francis

Mexico Pope
In this Feb. 16, 2016 photo, Pope Francis blesses a wooden cross during a meeting with Mexican youth at the Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon Stadium in Morelia, Mexico, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

Pope Francis may not technically be coming to Texas, but for all practical purposes he might as well be. When he arrives in Juarez on Wednesday, Mexicans and Texans alike will be watching.

As many as 200,000 Catholics are expected to cross from El Paso to attend the papal mass in Juarez and thousands more are expected to watch from the American side of the border. Notably absent from the spectacle and celebration will be Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott, a practicing Catholic who often makes reference to his faith from the stump and the Capitol, was invited, but declined to attend due to a scheduling conflict.  He intends to swear in the state’s new education commissioner on Wednesday.

It’s no secret that the presence of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly this pope, poses a political problem for Abbott. Pragmatically speaking, the dilemma is  strategically easier for Abbott to navigate by being absent, rather than risk a public scolding by the pontiff.

Although Francis’ visit to the United States last fall was met with rock star enthusiasm by the public, his reception by Republican leaders was more muted. While Catholic theology and GOP ideology align on matters of abortion and gay marriage, the list of issues where they part ways is long: global warming, immigration, Syrian refugees, aid for the poor and the death penalty. (Texas executed Gustavo Garcia on Tuesday for for the shotgun slaying of a suburban Dallas liquor store clerk. The execution was the state’s third this year.)

Of all the Christian denominations, the Catholic church is one of the most publicly exacting on the intersection of politics and faith. In fact, that is why until recently Catholic lawmakers in the U.S. have tried to place political distance between their religion and their policies. They have let President (then candidate John F. Kennedy’s famous speech on the subject be their guide:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

It’s a strategy that Abbott has shrugged off on matters where he and the church agree, but may place him in difficult positions in the future as the number of Catholics and Latinos in the state continue to swell.

Francis has used his popularity and his pulpit to remind those in power of where the Church stands. Considering the fallout from Pope Francis’ visit last fall, maybe Abbott is wise to stay away.

Speaker of the House John Boehner met the Holy Father in private and quit his job the next day.

Correction: This blog has been updated to correct John Boehner’s title.




The Lenten Season has message for all

Bishop elect Most Reverend Daniel E. Garcia conducts a mass for staff and visitors at the Diocese of Austin Pastoral Center on Ash Wednesday. The bishop will be ordained March 3. 02.18.15 LAURA SKELDING/AMERICAN-STATESMAN 021915 Ash Wednesday PHOTO
Bishop elect Most Reverend Daniel E. Garcia conducts a mass for staff and visitors at the Diocese of Austin Pastoral Center on Ash Wednesday.  LAURA SKELDING/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

You may encounter a few folks today with what may look like a smudged, dirty forehead. Don’t be alarmed. It’s not a sign of a new yet-to-be-identified deadly virus. It is a sign, actually, of the start of Lent, a celebration with an encouraging message to be better people. A message that would serve many in this county, regardless of religious faith.

So, as Lent Season kicks off, today many Central Texas, as do other Christians all over the world, will receive ashes on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday. And, for 40 days and 40 nights – from today through March 24 – Christians will focus on simple living, fasting and praying.

Christians – including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodist, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and some Evangelicals – have typically observed the season by giving up an indulgence like sweets or coffee for Lent as a sacrifice. The gesture, some say, draws from the 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert before starting his ministry. Growing up, my go-to Lent sacrifices were soda and chips; but as I grew older, those were replaced with TV time and alcohol.

The focus for the Lent season in recent years has changed from personal sacrifice to be more about others. Giving up indulgences has been replaced with taking positive actions. Today’s faith leaders say the season should be more about contributions we can all make that benefit those less fortunate.

In his 2016 Lenten message, Pope Francis, called on for people to be kinder and more thoughtful of others. “These works remind us that faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbors in body and spirit: by feeding, visiting, comforting and instructing them,” the Pontiff said in his address.

Vatican Radio explained the Pope’s message like this:

“In his message … the Pope reiterates the importance of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and condemns the attitude and actions of the proud, the powerful and the wealthy who refuse to open the doors of their hearts to God and to the poor.”

As polarized as this country is today, the message to be a good neighbor is a much needed medicine.

It’s a beautiful message – and one anyone can adopt. There’s no need to be religious to make a positive impact on the life of someone in need. You just have to be more giving of yourself. What does that look like? Spending a few weeks being less self-absorbed. Volunteer where your talents are needed. Help feed the hungry. Donate to help the homeless. Give your time to someone in need. In short, be the best person you can be. That’s what the season is all about.

Sis boom brouhaha: Texas cheerleaders’ Bible-banner case, revived and revisited

On Oct. 17, 2012, then-Gov. Rick Perry and then-Attorney General Greg Abbott held a news conference to support the use of Christian-themed football banners by Kountze High School cheerleaders. (American-Statesman file photo)

In 2012, cheerleaders in Kountze, a small town about 95 miles northeast of Houston, brought some real religion to the religion that is Texas high school football by painting Bible verses on the large paper banners players run through as they take the field. In forsaking the traditional “Sink the Pirates!” or “Snap the Dragons!” the cheerleaders begot a national stir.

An atheist group immediately objected. Kountze’s superintendent, on the reasonable advice of the school district’s attorney, banned the banners. The cheerleaders sued the school district, or rather some parents sued on the cheerleaders’ behalf. A state district judge ruled for the cheerleaders. But the ruling was confusing so Kountze appealed, seeking clarity.

The 9th Texas Court of Appeals in Beaumont declared the cheerleaders’ lawsuit moot in 2014 because in the meantime the Kountze Independent School District had relented and decided to allow the Christian-themed banners. But in doing so, the school district reserved its right to exercise editorial control over the banners as needed. This displeased the cheerleaders’ lawyers, who asked the Texas Supreme Court to resurrect their lawsuit.

Which the court unanimously agreed to do last week. The justices then punted the case back to the 9th appeals court to decide whether the banners violate the First Amendment. The state’s Republican leaders, ever eager to reach for attention from the case, and with plans to make religious liberty a top issue during next year’s legislative session, rejoiced.

The cheerleaders argue that because they used private donations to pay for the banners and decided for themselves which biblical phrase to use on each one, the banners represent private speech and thus are protected by the First Amendment. They further argue that under the First Amendment, the school district, as a government entity, cannot stop them from exercising their religion.

Several school- and government property-related First Amendment rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court “cut against the cheerleaders in this case,” Vikram David Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law, and Alan Brownstein, a law professor at the University of California at Davis School of Law, explained in a 2012 legal analysis. A football game is a school-sponsored event that takes place on school-owned property. If the cheerleaders are acting as individuals and not as representatives of the school, as the cheerleaders’ lawyers assert, then the school district is unconstitutionally favoring their religious views and expressions over the views and expressions of other students when it allows only the cheerleaders to place banners on the field. Either the cheerleaders are school-endorsed participants in a school activity (which is how everyone sees them) and thus subject to school district rules and constitutional prohibitions against the government endorsement of one religion over another, or they are individuals whose speech and religious views are no more privileged than the views of anyone else. The cheerleaders want it both ways.

The Christian verses the cheerleaders painted on their banners are vaguely athletically applicable quotes from the New Testament — passages that should be familiar to anyone who remembers anything about their high school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” from Philippians 4:13, is one example. “But thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” from 1 Corinthians 15:57, is another.

The Kountze Lions have now played four seasons since the controversy began. The Texas Supreme Court’s decision last week prompted me to look up Kountze’s record for the first time since I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column in early November 2012 urging the cheerleaders to put aside the feel-good New Testament passages they had been using and turn instead to the fear and wrath of the Old Testament. The Lions were on a losing streak in 2012 and needed a spark to salvage a possible winning season and playoff berth — which would have been Kountze’s first after 40 years of wandering in the playoff wilderness. The cheerleaders needed to bring it on, I wrote. It was time for the Lions to take the field like bears sent to maul the children who mocked Elisha’s bald head. They needed to win a game.

But no. The Lions lost both their final games and finished the 2012 season with a 2-5 district record. It’s unclear how often the school’s cheerleaders — the group who first created the banners would have graduated two or three years ago — still use the Scripture-based banners but I can report that the Lions enjoyed a 4-3 district record in 2013 and 2014 and finally made the playoffs each year — alas, only to be blown out in the first round both times. (My guess is advancing beyond the regular season had more to do with the UIL’s doubling of the number of teams allowed to make the playoffs — Everybody’s a winner! — than with Providence, but I’m willing to be wrong.) The Lions reverted to their losing ways this past season, winning only two games.

From the facetious to the sincere, another suggestion, repeated: Cheerleaders, the lawsuit filed in your name will play out however it will play out. Forget it. Teach the adults who are using you to advance their own political agendas a soft lesson. Start the 2016 season with a banner quoting Matthew 6:6: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Then dedicate yourself to putting the fun back in your banners. Embrace the lower-case spirit that should animate football games. God is best kept with you, not by turning His word into football inanity.