Home » Posts » 07-14-08

Race for the White House ’08:

McCain Steps up Efforts to Woo Religious Voters
Dallas Morning News – 7/6/08

John McCain has stepped up his appeal to Christian conservatives, meeting recently with religious leaders in Ohio and making a publicized pilgrimage to see Billy Graham. But even as he woos evangelicals, his campaign is pursuing a different strategy – abandoning George W. Bush’s model of galvanizing the GOP base and targeting independents to make up for lost social-conservative votes. “We can’t win the election the way George Bush did by just running up the score with Republicans, running up the score with evangelicals and taking what we can out of the independent mix,” said Sarah Simmons, the campaign’s director of strategy. It’s a risky move, though, as religious conservatives have been instrumental to Republican victories for a generation. Some social conservatives warn that the appeal to moderate swing voters will jeopardize already lukewarm support from evangelicals. “McCain is in grave danger right now of causing a good number of potential supporters to just stay home in resignation,” said East Texas evangelist Rick Scarborough. Phil Burress of the Ohio Christian Alliance, who met privately with Mr. McCain a week ago in Cincinnati, said evangelical leaders urged him to pick a social-conservative running mate and to talk more openly about issues they care about, especially abortion and gay marriage. “We need something from Senator McCain to help rev up our people,” Mr. Burress said. “Our people are flat. They don’t seem interested.” The McCain campaign says it is committed to making evangelicals part of a winning coalition. In recent weeks, it has created nine-member Christian-outreach teams in 14 battleground states and arranged the visit with Mr. Graham. It is scheduling private meetings with local evangelical leaders, beginning with the session in Ohio. In addition, the campaign has a 1,000-person e-mail list of social conservative and national leaders with influence in local communities. Marlys Popma, who heads the McCain campaign’s religious-outreach effort, said that while the Arizona senator is not as openly expressive of his faith as Mr. Bush is, his record on abortion, same-sex marriage, home schooling and the appointment of judges is a strong selling point to social conservatives. “The more they see the good stuff about John McCain and then compare him to Barack Obama, we’re not going to have a problem getting excitement out of our base,” she said.

Obama Addresses His Faith
Washington Post – 7/6/08

Sen. Barack Obama ended a week’s focus on values by giving a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church a highly personal account of his spiritual journey and a promise that he will make “faith-based” social service “a moral center of my administration.” The address, to one of the oldest and largest African American denominations, brought the senator from Illinois back to friendlier ground after a week’s tour through Appalachian Ohio, conservative Missouri, the conservative stronghold of Colorado Springs, North Dakota and hardscrabble Montana. But in its religious tones, the address had a far wider intended audience. “In my own life, ” he said, “it’s been a journey that began decades ago on the South Side of Chicago, when, working as a community organizer, helping to build struggling neighborhoods, I let Jesus Christ into my life. I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, that he could set me on the path to eternal life when I submitted myself to his will and I dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works.” He suggested that he would apply the lessons of his faith to the problems he would face if he became president. “The challenges we face today — war and poverty, joblessness and homelessness, violent streets and crumbling schools — are not simply technical problems in search of a 10-point plan,” he said. “They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness, in the imperfections of man. And so the values we believe in — empathy and justice and responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors — these cannot only be expressed in our churches and our synagogues, but in our policies and in our laws.”

Obama Sets Off a Debate on Ties Between Religion and Government
New York Times – 7/5/08

On Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama did his best to reclaim for Democrats the idea of partnerships between government and grass-roots religious groups — and except for six little words he did a very smooth job. First, he recalled his own community service in Chicago, noting that it had been church supported. Then he reminded listeners that it was President Bill Clinton who signed landmark legislation widening the role religion-based groups could play in government-financed programs, and Al Gore who in 1999 first proposed a full-scale religion-based initiative. While Mr. Obama acknowledged President Bush’s promise to “rally the armies of compassion” through such an initiative, he maintained that the promise had gone unfulfilled because of too little financing and too much partisanship — and that he, Barack Obama, would not only carry out but also expand what Mr. Bush had pledged. He was two-thirds of the way through his remarks when he inserted the six words with the potential to put his whole effort at risk. Speaking “as someone who used to teach constitutional law,” he spelled out “a few basic principles” to reassure listeners that such partnerships between religious groups and the government would not endanger the separation of church and state. “First,” he said, “if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help, and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion.” That little phrase between the dashes — “or against the people you hire” — ignited a political explosion. “Fraud,” declared Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. “What Obama wants,” Mr. Donohue said, is “to secularize the religious workplace.” In its newsletter, the conservative Family Research Council called Mr. Obama’s position “a body blow to religious groups that apply for federal funds.” No less heated reactions came from the other end of the political spectrum, where the Obama proposal was denounced not for that short phrase but for what liberals saw as an abandonment of their principles and part of a suspicious move toward the center. The intense reaction on both sides was pretty predictable, but some people offered more analytic reactions. They welcomed Mr. Obama’s stance, yet made it clear that those six words pointed to deeper questions about religious freedom that could very well seal the fate not only of any new and potentially improved partnerships between government and religious groups but also even those partnerships that, in reality, had been operating for decades.

Redemption Politics
New York Times – 7/6/08

We all know that politics makes strange bedfellows, but how odd it must have been to have sat in on the recent meeting between Barack Obama and evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham, the conservative minister who once called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” Yet there they were, Obama and the evangelicals in Chicago on June 10, searching for — and apparently finding — considerable common ground. In the last few weeks, Obama has announced several outreach projects (including one named after Joshua, who, unlike Moses, was able to lead his people to the promised land). For their part, evangelical leaders, unpersuaded by John McCain’s episodic proclamations of faith, are wise, or perhaps even prophetic, to consider all the options. Maybe the distance between liberals and evangelicals, each eternal optimists in their way, is much smaller than we realized. In our week of national reflection, it’s worth recognizing that religious enthusiasm in America has as often as not had a reformist or even revolutionary cast to it. Consider the Declaration of Independence. It is not normally seen as an evangelical statement, despite the heroic attempts of the Christian right to claim it as such. God is mentioned four times, but obliquely, and never by name. Even so, the argument against kings derived much of its power from the vigor of Christian thought. The historian Pauline Maier was right to label this bit of parchment our American Scripture. More than we realize, we descend from a founding moment that was evangelical. In 1776, one minister spoke for many when he likened the struggle against England to the never-ending struggle against “the beast and his image — over every species of tyranny.” John Adams, who helped edit the declaration, attributed the text to God as well as to Thomas Jefferson and expressed his wish that future Americans would celebrate the great day “by solemn acts of devotion” (along with bonfires, gunfire, the clanging of bells and other raffish pursuits of happiness).

National News:

Jefferson Bible Reveals Founding Father’s View of God, faith
Los Angeles Times – 7/5/08

Making good on a promise to a friend to summarize his views on Christianity, Thomas Jefferson set to work with scissors, snipping out every miracle and inconsistency he could find in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Then, relying on a cut-and-paste technique, he reassembled the excerpts into what he believed was a more coherent narrative and pasted them onto blank paper — alongside translations in French, Greek and Latin. In a letter sent from Monticello to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson said his “wee little book” of 46 pages was based on a lifetime of inquiry and reflection and contained “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He called the book “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” Friends dubbed it the Jefferson Bible. It remains perhaps the most comprehensive expression of what the nation’s third president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence found ethically interesting about the Gospels and their depiction of Jesus. “I have performed the operation for my own use,” he continued, “by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter, which is evidently his and which is as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill.” The little leather-bound tome, several facsimiles of which are kept at the Huntington Library in San Marino, continues to fascinate scholars exploring the powerful and varied relationships between the Founding Fathers and the most sacred book of the Western World. The big question now, said Lori Anne Ferrell, a professor of early modern history and literature at Claremont Graduate University, is this: “Can you imagine the reaction if word got out that a president of the United States cut out Bible passages with scissors, glued them onto paper and said, ‘I only believe these parts?’ ” “He was a product of his age,” said Ferrell, whose upcoming book, “The Bible and the People,” includes a chapter on the Jefferson Bible. “Yet, he is the least likely person I’d want to pray with. He was more skeptical about religion than the other Founding Fathers.” In Jefferson’s version of the Gospels, for example, Jesus is still wrapped in swaddling clothes after his birth in Bethlehem. But there’s no angel telling shepherds watching their flocks by night that a savior has been born. Jefferson retains Jesus’ crucifixion but ends the text with his burial, not with the resurrection.

Muslim Leaders say Faith Gaining Ground in U.S.
Houston Chronicle – 7/5/08

Despite the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, acceptance of Islam politically and socially is on the increase in the U.S., National Muslim leaders gathered in Houston said Saturday. “American Muslims have become an important global force,” said Sayyid M. Syeed, director of the Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances in Washington, D.C. The 45-year-old organization, the largest Islamic group in the country, holds regional conferences to promote Islam and engage larger communities. They also hold an annual national conference for Muslims and non-Muslims. Syeed told Muslims attending the South Central Conference at the Westin Galleria that Islam has made great political strides in the U.S. since the terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers in New York. Keith Ellison, a House Democrat from Minnesota, was elected in 2006, and Andre Carson, a House Democrat from Indiana, was elected in 2008. Both are Muslim. “And all of this happened after 9/11,” Syeed said. The attacks made two changes in America, he said. “Suddenly America became aware of the presence of Muslims in America.” American institutions, particularly religious organizations, invited Muslims to groups and committees. “Wherever there are Protestants, Catholics and Jews around the table, there is an urge to get Muslims nominated and invited,” Syeed said. Secondly, American Muslims adapted to ideals involving freedom and community participation. Syeed said that Muslims in Europe were less flexible in their thinking because they often brought clerics from their home countries who often promoted isolationist thinking. “They perpetuate the same mentality and same approach in Europe,” Syeed said. European Islamic groups now look to the U.S. as a model of Muslim civic participation, he said. Louay Safi, an Islamic Society official, said Muslims consider community involvement an obligation. “If you sit down and do nothing, you’re inaction makes you responsible,” Safi said. “If you see an injustice, you stand up and help those who are victims of injustice,” Safi said. Attorney Shaarik Zafar of Chicago urged Muslims not to be afraid to participate or stand for election. “When people get to know who their Muslim neighbors are and see that they participate in the vital life of their community, it is likely they are being swayed,” he said.

Ohio Town Split Over Teacher Accused of Preaching
Associated Press – 7/8/08

Demonstrations on the town square show how divided people are over the school board’s decision to fire a science teacher accused of preaching his Christian beliefs in the classroom and burning crosses on students’ arms. John Freshwater, 52, was fired last month after an outside consulting firm released a report concluding that he taught creationism and was insubordinate in failing to remove a Bible and other religious materials from his classroom at Mount Vernon Middle School. Some residents consider him a courageous fighter for religious freedom. Others say he has brazenly violated the church-state divide. “This is going to be a mess,” said Dr. Allan Bazzoli, who has written letters to the local newspaper criticizing Freshwater. “Resident against resident, and worse, student against student.” Freshwater’s supporters have rallied on the town’s square urging school board members to resign. A much-viewed sign about a mile from town reads: “If the Bible goes, the school board should follow.” “The Bible, that should be OK to have,” said James Mills, 25, a former student of Freshwater. “Isn’t it in the Constitution that we have freedom of religion?” Mount Vernon, a small city in central Ohio surrounded by farmland, is dotted by churches of just about every denomination. The town has a strong evangelical presence. Freshwater, who has filed an appeal with the school board over his firing, said Monday he’s disappointed with the way the investigation was conducted. His appeals hearing is scheduled for Aug. 26.

Grassley: Some Investigated Ministries Making Changes
Religion News Service – 7/8/08

Ministries headed by evangelists Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn are both changing the way they operate even as a Senate probe into alleged lavish spending by six prominent ministries continues, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Monday (July 7). “Both Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn have indicated that they are instituting reforms without waiting for the committee to complete its review,” said Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, in an update on the investigation he began last year. “Self-reform can be faster and more effective than government regulation.” Roby Walker, a spokesman for Joyce Meyer Ministries in Fenton, Mo., confirmed that changes are being made but could not release details on Tuesday. Don Price, a spokesman for Benny Hinn Ministries in Grapevine, Texas, also declined to comment in detail but said “reforms and improved governance practices” were being shared with Grassley’s office. Grassley’s update noted instances of “whistleblower intimidation” where former employees “have received phone calls reminding them of their confidentiality agreements and threatening lawsuits if the agreements are breached.” Jill Gerber, a spokeswoman for the committee, would not disclose which ministries were involved in such calls, and declined to elaborate on the changes planned at Hinn’s and Meyer’s ministries. Grassley’s update described the responses from Hinn and Meyer as “in good faith and substantively informative,” but said the others are “incomplete” or “not responsive.” Broadcaster Kenneth Copeland has reportedly said his Texas-based ministry will not respond even if a subpoena is issued. Grassley’s memo said staffers are “consulting with Senate attorneys about next steps.”

Catholics to Examine Political, Social Issues
Cincinnati Enquirer – 7/11/08

In this election year, so-called “religious voters” are courted and polled and talked about. This weekend, a group of 700 Catholic voters – 24 from Greater Cincinnati – will declare exactly how they feel about political topics at the Convention for the Common Good. The convention is drawing from 20 Catholic social justice organizations, such as the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, Pax Christi USA, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and Franciscan Action Network. They’ll vote on a platform of issues, including peace, economic justice, universal health care, just and humane immigration reform, a consistent culture of life and environmental stewardship. “I think we’ll come away with a loud and clear message that will affirm a platform of the common good, that these are themes people across the country are concerned about both nationally and in Ohio,” said Stephanie Beck Borden, Ohio coordinator for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, one of the co-sponsors of the convention. Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby, is co-sponsoring the convention in Philadelphia today through Sunday. Speakers include Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking”; John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO; and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. Borden organized Greater Cincinnati’s input into the platform and will be among the delegates who vote on it. More than 2,200 people in 40 states contributed to the platform through meetings at churches and other Catholic organizations. “Part of our goal is to say these issues aren’t about party politics. They’re about what’s good for all of us,” said John Gehring, senior writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. “Religion in public life has often been very narrow and partisan. We wanted to create a new witness for what faith can be in the public square,” Gehring said. “It’s not about single-issue politics or divisive wedge issues.”


Obama’s Faith-Based Reform
Washington Post Op-Ed by E.J. Dionne, Jr. – 7/4/08

Barack Obama keeps trying to end the wars over culture and religion, and good for him. The 1960s are so 40 years ago. But Obama’s opponents, as well as some of his friends, won’t let him do it. His latest foray is on a subject dear to my heart: the effort to find constitutional ways to build partnerships between government and faith-based groups doing essential work for the poor and the marginalized. The outline Obama offered Tuesday suggests that he wants to learn from President Bush’s failures in this area, not simply reject an idea because it has Bush’s name on it. And give Obama points for acknowledging how hard it is to find the right balance between avoiding excessive entanglement of government with religion on the one hand and respecting the identity of religious charities on the other. “Some of these questions are difficult,” he said in an interview, “and I don’t have them all worked out.” The truth is that government and religious groups have long cooperated on social ventures that posed no threat to religious freedom. Students should be able to get government loans whether they go to Fresno State, Notre Dame or Yeshiva. Religious hospitals get Medicare and Medicaid money. Moreover, the government has had partnerships for many years with Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services, the Jewish Federations and other religious groups. And why not? If the religious charities disappeared, both the poor and the taxpayers would be in a lot of trouble. Unfortunately, while Bush loved to talk about the “armies of compassion,” he did not put much money or muscle behind a domestic compassion agenda. As David Kuo, former deputy director of Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, wrote in 2005: “From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants. It never really wanted the ‘poor people stuff.’ ” In suggesting that the faith-based policy be mended but not ended, Obama starts with the right reforms. “There was a lot of political and partisan decision making in the office,” he told me. He wants his faith-based agency “working with everybody,” and clear measures, applied equally, to guarantee “high standards” in both secular and religious programs.

Carroll: Religion and reform
International Herald Tribune Op-Ed by James Carroll – 7/9/08

Last week, Barack Obama made front-page news by announcing he would expand so-called faith-based initiatives, channeling federal money into social services through religiously affiliated institutions. The move was seen as a wily appeal to conservative Christians. Liberals were skeptical. Under President George W. Bush, “faith-based” is a fig-leaf for the naked removal of government from its role as social service provider. Bush has crassly exploited religion for partisan political purposes, even while drafting religion into the Republican war against “big government.” Was this Obama’s push-back? A former community organizer, the Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate declared that struggles against poverty and disease require “all hands on deck,” as if acknowledging the limits of government. He may not be old enough to have enlisted in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, but he surely knows that religiously affiliated institutions were one of its fronts. As anyone who remembers, say, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, knows, “faith-based” can be code as much for progressive social change as for conservative reaction. Many of Obama’s predecessor community organizers were paid through congregations with grants from Johnson’s Great Society. But the discussion of faith-based initiatives suggests that Obama’s religion problem goes deeper, even, than rumors about his being Muslim or the Jeremiah Wright controversy. The social liberalism that defines much of the Democratic Party, and, apparently, Obama, upholds an ideal of tolerance that transcends religious identity. It refuses to brand the irreligious, or even the antireligious, as somehow less human than those who worship God. Indeed, liberalism regards the openly secular character of the political realm to be an essential note of democracy – not a necessary evil, but a positive good. “Secular” is not a pejorative. Its tolerance tolerates even religious conservatives who are intolerant.

Our view on religious charities: Keep faith, lose politics
USA Today Op-Ed by David Kuo, 7/10/08

When President Bush created his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001, he spoke of the “armies of compassion” that would help address some of the nation’s social ills. Churches, synagogues and other religious institutions would use federal funding and enhanced private giving to help the homeless, support troubled teens and perform other good works. The reality, however, has been far less impressive and suggests some lessons now that Barack Obama has introduced the issue into this year’s presidential race. The faith-based initiative never received much funding or focus. So it never achieved what was intended, nor did it cause the church/state problems that concerned many, including us, at the time. It got only a tiny fraction of the $8 billion over four years Bush initially promised. More troubling for the program’s leaders, during Bush’s first term the office was used for political purposes, with big events held in swing states to mobilize social conservatives, former deputy director David Kuo asserted in his 2006 book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. In a January New York Times article, Kuo and Bush’s first director of faith-based programs, John DiIulio, wrote that funding had been concentrated on “large national organizations with religious affiliations.” This poses problems for religious organizations, as well, because taking taxpayer money means following secular rules. Given this troubled history, is it time to terminate the initiative? Not necessarily. Faith-based organizations can play a significant role, as they are often well-rooted in their communities and have a devotion to public service. The key to success is in getting funding beyond politically connected large institutions to the smaller ones located in areas with the most need. Whether the program can be retooled in that way is a dilemma for the next president. In a classic “mend it, don’t end it” move, Obama said last week he would continue the program but depoliticize it and focus on a few goals, such as summer schools for inner city kids. John McCain says he, too, would continue the program. Of the two, Obama brings more street cred because of his experience with churches as a community organizer. As a former constitutional law professor, he is also is well aware that the program involves complex and unsettled church-state issues.