Race for the White House ’08:
In Forum at Church, Rivals Meet Briefly and Part Sharply on Social Issues
New York Times – 8/17/08
Senators John McCain and Barack Obama shared the stage for only 36 seconds at a forum on Saturday, but in separate interviews gave a preview of the fall debates, offering sharply contrasting responses on social issues and personal world views . On the stage at Saddleback Church, an evangelical megachurch here, they briefly hugged each other and smiled, belying a nastier campaign between them that has taken place long-distance and over the airwaves. The hug was preceded by an hourlong interview with Mr. Obama and followed by an hourlong interview with Mr. McCain in the vast, warehouselike church before an attentive, enthusiastic audience of 2,200 people. Asked what their biggest moral failings were, Mr. Obama referred to his “difficult youth” when, he said, he experimented with drugs and drank alcohol. “I trace this to a certain selfishness on my part,” he said. “I couldn’t focus on other people.” Mr. McCain pointed to his first marriage, which he almost never does publicly. “My greatest moral failing, and I have been a very imperfect person, is the failure of my first marriage,” he said gravely. The candidates were interviewed by the Rev. Rick Warren, one of the most popular evangelical pastors in the country and the author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” The forum, which Mr. Warren arranged through calls to the candidates, whom he knows, reflected the importance of religion in American life and politics. It also marked the coming of age of a broader brand of evangelicalism that is more socially minded and diverse than the orthodox religious movement of the Christian right. Mr. Warren embodies the changing of the guard of that movement, away from traditionalist figures like Pat Robertson, and the scope of his questions reflected those broader interests. Mr. Warren asked Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, which of the sitting Supreme Court justices he would not have appointed. Mr. Obama quickly named Justice Clarence Thomas, saying he was not qualified for the top court at the time. “I don’t think that he was a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation, setting aside the fact that I profoundly disagree with his interpretations of the Constitution,” Mr. Obama said. Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, named all the liberal judges on the court and noted that there might be several vacancies soon. “This nomination should be based on the criteria on a proven record of strictly adhering to the Constitution and not legislating from the bench,” he said. Mr. McCain received the more rousing response from the audience, made up largely of church members here in Orange County, one of the most conservative areas in the country. He told more anecdotes but also filibustered more. One of the few points when Mr. McCain left the audience silent was when he said he favored stem-cell research. Mr. Obama skirted a question about when life begins, saying that determining such a thing was above his pay grade and sending murmurs throughout the audience. Mr. McCain said simply, “At the moment of conception.” Asked to define marriage, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain gave the same answer: that it is the union between a man and a woman. But Mr. Obama also said he opposed a constitutional amendment defining marriage that narrowly and said he supported same-sex civil unions. “For gay partners to visit each other in the hospital, I don’t think limits my core beliefs about what marriage is,” he said. Mr. McCain said courts in California were wrong to approve same-sex marriages but also said somewhat vaguely that that “doesn’t mean people can’t enter into legal agreements.” On abortion, Mr. Obama declared: “I am pro-choice, I believe in Roe vs. Wade, not because I’m pro-abortion but because ultimately I don’t think women make these decisions casually.” He also said, “I am in favor on limits on late-term abortion if there is an exception for the woman’s health.” Mr. McCain said he was “pro-life” and would be a “pro-life president.”
Obama, McCain, and Rick Warren
Boston Globe – 8/17/08
If anyone had any doubt about the influence of Rick Warren, last night provided a remarkable demonstration of his pull — Barack Obama and John McCain both agreed to submit, one after the other, to televised questions from the evangelical pastor at his church in Orange County, California. There’s lots of coverage of the Saddleback event in today’s papers. But there is also some critical comment now emerging about Warren’s role in the campaign. Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance and a frequent critic of the role of faith in politics today, praised Warren, but said: “Some of the questions Pastor Warren posed crossed the line and promoted the fiction that the American people are electing a pastor-in-chief, rather than a commander-in-chief. Questions like ‘What does it mean to trust in Christ?’ create a religious test for public office and should have no place in the political discourse for a secular office. America is the most religiously diverse country in the world, and Christianity is only one of those faith traditions. Millions of voters who tuned in tonight will feel disenfranchised by some of the questions posed in this forum. And both the candidates deserve criticism for engaging in a competition to be ‘holier than thou.’ The American people want real solutions for real issues. Discussing the personal theology of the candidates does little to elucidate those solutions.”
GOP Loyalty Not a Given For Young Evangelicals
Washington Post – 8/15/08
Jonathan Merritt is a Baptist preacher’s son with a pristine evangelical lineage. It was his dad, the Rev. James Merritt, who reportedly brought President Bush to tears in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks when he called the president “God’s man for this hour.” The Rev. Jerry Falwell was like a grandfather.”I grew up believing an evangelical couldn’t be a Democrat,” said Merritt, 25. “The two were mutually exclusive.” But in the past year, as the presidential campaign has focused on the country’s problems, Merritt has begun to question the party of his father. There was his recent revelation that “God is green,” a mission trip to orphanages in Brazil that caused him to worry about global poverty, an encounter with a growing strain of politically liberal evangelicalism that has taken off online, and a nagging sense that Bush’s unpopularity has been an embarrassment to the evangelicals who overwhelmingly voted for him. “When you look at the political party that has traditionally championed poverty, social justice and care for the least of these, it’s not been the Republican Party,” said Merritt, who now considers himself an “independent conservative” and is unsure whom he will vote for in November. “We are to honor the least of these above even ourselves. It’s very difficult to reconcile totally.” He is part of a growing group of young born-again Christians standing on one of the many generational breaks surfacing in this election cycle. Merritt still shares his parents’ conservative convictions on abortion, a core issue that forged Falwell’s Moral Majority and brought evangelicals firmly into the Republican camp, but he says they are no longer enough for him to claim the Republican Party. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that while a majority of young white evangelicals describe themselves as conservative on social issues, slightly more identified this year as either independents or Democrats than as Republicans. In 2001, about the time that Merritt was working as precinct captain for the Republican Party, an overwhelming majority of young evangelicals identified with the GOP. Merritt may no longer, but neither does he consider himself a Democrat. He is just the kind of young evangelical voter whom Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has targeted and Republican Sen. John McCain cannot afford to lose. In 2004, nearly eight in 10 white evangelicals supported Bush, according to exit polls. They accounted for a third of the president’s total votes. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll of registered voters last month, McCain led Obama 67 percent to 25 percent among white evangelical Protestants. Obama’s campaign is hoping that young evangelicals such as Merritt will be a way in.
Social Initiatives on State Ballots Could Draw Attention to Presidential Race
New York Times – 8/10/08
Divisive social issues will be on the ballot in several states in November, including constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in Arizona, California and Florida, and limitations on abortion in California, Colorado and South Dakota. Although research indicates that ballot measures do not drastically alter voter turnout, they have begun attracting the attention of both presidential campaigns. Unlike 2004, when same-sex marriage bans were considered in 11 states, no single issue will dominate statewide ballots. “Tax and spending issues are typically one of the main focuses of these measures, but this time that’s less true,” said Jennie Drage Bowser, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ms. Bowser said that many of the social measures on the ballots are being pushed by evangelical groups that hope to force Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to pay closer attention to their agenda. On the ballots are at least 108 measures, down from 204 in 2006. At least 30 measures may be added as signatures are verified. The same-sex marriage and abortion amendments are likely to attract the most attention, along with proposals to ban affirmative action. In Arizona, California and Florida, advocates hope to amend the state constitutions and define marriage as solely between one man and one woman. Similar amendments have been passed by 27 states. Mr. McCain has endorsed the proposal. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic nominee, who previously said same-sex marriage should be left up to the states, has said he opposes the ban.
Evangelical Leader Warns McCain On VP Pick
CBS News – 8/11/08
Political Players is a regular conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who shape American politics. This week, CBS News’ Brian Goldsmith talked with one of the nation’s key evangelical leaders, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission about John McCain’s campaign and his upcoming vice presidential selection. CBSNews.com: You’ve not always been the biggest McCain fan. Has he done a good job in this campaign reaching out to you, and reaching out to the Southern Baptists you represent? Richard Land: Well, I don’t endorse candidates. And so, girls who don’t dance don’t get invited to as many dances. I have not been the main object of Senator McCain’s attention because he knows I don’t endorse candidates. It’s my understanding that he has been reaching out to people that are considered opinion makers in the evangelical and the conservative Catholic world. I’ve had some contacts with the campaign. They have called me and asked me questions from time to time. And I have met with the senator a couple of times. I think he’s done a pretty good job. I think that the speech that he gave at Wake Forest on judges was a very helpful one–in which he reiterated that he was looking at Alito and Roberts as the kind of judges that he would appoint to be confirmed CBSNews.com: As head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptists, which is the biggest Protestant denomination in this country, do you think McCain has opened up enough about his personal faith? Richard Land: Look it’s obvious that McCain is not as comfortable talking about these issues about President Bush was, or as Barack Obama is. But that is not the prime concern of the Southern Baptists that I know. They’re more concerned about where he is on the issues that matter most to them, issues like the sanctity of human life, the traditional family, and religious freedom. And there was a poll done by our research arm in June, and eighty percent of Southern Baptist pastors said they were planning on voting on John McCain. One percent were planning on voting for Obama. And the rest were undecided.
Groups Weigh In on Fate of 14 Crosses
Salt Lake Tribune – 8/15/08
The battle over the fate of 14 crosses, memorializing fallen Utah Highway Patrol troopers, got a little more crowded earlier this month when two groups of national organizations stepped into the mix. Briefs filed Aug. 5 and 6 in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver support American Atheists Inc., a Texas-based group that first filed suit on the matter in 2005. The atheist organization argued that the 12-foot-high crosses, along state highways, are religious symbols that should be removed because their being on public land is unconstitutional – a violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits government establishment of religion. U.S. District Judge David Sam rejected that argument last year, saying the context of the crosses was secular in nature. He viewed them as symbols of sacrifice and reminders to drive safely. Sam also pointed out that because most of the deceased troopers were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith that does not use the cross as a symbol, the memorials couldn’t be construed as promoting religion and were merely markers of death. American Atheists appealed the ruling in March and now has the backing of those who signed off on this month’s briefs. The first supporting document was submitted by the American Humanist Association, the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The second came from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, the Hindu American Foundation, the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, the Union for Reform Judaism and the recently retired Eugene Fisher, who for three decades was in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Having these voices weigh in helps refocus attention on what matters, said Salt Lake attorney Brian Barnard, who’s representing the atheist organization. He said the case has been “characterized as a bunch of atheists trying to take the crosses down” and that having supporters who are clearly not atheists and are vested in protecting religious rights pokes holes in that assumption. Among arguments presented in the briefs is that calling the cross a secular symbol is offensive to Christians who have accepted the cross as their pre-eminent symbol for about 2,000 years.
Group Gives Thanks to the Lord — for Lower Gasoline Prices
Los Angeles Times – 8/13/08
Forget Congress. Forget President Bush. About four months ago, frustrated by the apparently immutable laws of supply and demand, Rocky Twyman turned to a higher authority in his quest for cheaper gasoline. The recent dip in prices, he says, is proof of divine intervention. “Prayer is the answer to every problem in life,” said Twyman, founder of the Pray at the Pump movement, whose members huddle around gas pumps and ask the Almighty to lower gasoline prices. “If the whole country keeps on praying, we can bring down prices even more, to even less than $2,” Twyman said. On Wednesday, at a Shell station in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood, Twyman and eight others linked hands and sang, changing the words of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” to “We’ll have lower gas prices.” They prayed for prices to come down — and for comedian Jay Leno, who joked about them in a monologue last month. According to AAA, which tracks such matters, the average nationwide price for a gallon of gas Wednesday was $3.78 — down from $4.10 a month ago, but still 25 cents higher than on April 23. The prayer group’s efforts began that day just a few blocks away, at the soup kitchen of First Seventh-day Adventist Church. When the soup kitchen’s volunteers, many of them senior citizens, began talking about cutting back their time because they couldn’t afford to drive, Twyman said, “God just impressed me to take them over to the pump, and the rest is history.”
Some Olympians Dissatisfied With Religious Center
Washington Post – 8/13/08
The Olympic Village’s religious center has become the target of a quiet protest by athletes, coaches and other delegates who say its staffing and services fall woefully short of the promises made by Chinese organizers. Previous Olympic hosts welcomed foreign chaplains, but China has banned them from living with the athletes. It has instead pledged that it will provide equivalent services from its pool of state-employed pastors, imams and other clerics. Josh McAdams, 28, an American athlete who runs the 3,000-meter steeplechase, said members of the U.S. track and field team have been “quite dissatisfied” with the center. Not only are the services conducted in broken English, but also most staff members do not have experience with sports or with foreigners. “They should allow chaplains — perhaps one from each country — to be in the village. . . . This is important, because for many of us, athletics is not only physical and mental but spiritual,” said McAdams, who is Mormon. Phelim Kine, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, said the ban on foreign chaplains runs counter to the Olympic charter’s “dedication to fundamental ethical principals and freedom of expression.” He also said the International Olympic Committee shares the blame. “This is yet another example of IOC’s failure to enforce and to stand up to China’s efforts to roll back basic freedoms that have been taken granted at previous Olympics,” Kine said.
Tyson Plant Reinstates Labor Day
New York Times – 8/8/08
Facing criticism for negotiating a contract that substituted a Muslim holiday for Labor Day as one of the plant’s eight paid holidays, Tyson Foods and the union at its poultry plant in Shelbyville, Tenn., said Friday that they had agreed to reinstate Labor Day as a paid holiday. In a contract reached in November, the union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, persuaded Tyson Foods to agree to let the Muslim holiday, Id al-Fitr, replace Labor Day as a paid holiday because many Somali workers at the plant wanted that day off. Of the plant’s 1,000 unionized workers, at least 250 are Somali. After a Shelbyville newspaper wrote about that contract provision last week, many anti-immigrant groups and conservative bloggers called for a boycott of Tyson, saying the contract betrayed an important American holiday and was an improper concession to Islam. In a news release on Friday, Tyson said it had asked the union to revise the plant’s contract and restore Labor Day as a paid holiday because some Shelbyville employees had expressed concern about the contract’s provisions. The revised contract again makes Labor Day a paid holiday but also keeps Id al-Fitr (pronounced eed-al-FIT-tr) — which marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting — as a paid holiday for those who want it. The Muslim holiday will replace a paid personal day. Under the revised agreement, employees who do not want Id al-Fitr off can continue to take a paid personal day of their choice.
Random House Cancels Novel With Islamic Themes
New York Times – 8/8/08
Random House has reversed a decision to publish a historical novel with Islamic themes, saying the company feared the book “could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.” The novel, “The Jewel of Medina,” by Sherry Jones, was scheduled to be published on Tuesday by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House. The 432-page book was described by the publisher as “a fascinating portrait of A’isha, child bride of the prophet Muhammad, who overcame great obstacles to reach her full potential as a woman and a leader.” Carol Schneider, a spokeswoman for Random House, said on Friday that the company “requested that it be postponed indefinitely” after consulting with experts and receiving unsolicited advice. “We thought it was not a good time, with tensions running as high as they do, to publish this,” Ms. Schneider said. After Ms. Jones and her agent said they wanted to shop the book elsewhere, they signed a termination agreement, Ms. Schneider added. Another novel on A’isha, “Mother of the Believers,” by Kamran Pasha, is scheduled to be published by Atria Books next April.
Optimism in Evolution
New York Times Op-Ed by Olivia Judson – 8/12/08
When the dog days of summer come to an end, one thing we can be sure of is that the school year that follows will see more fights over the teaching of evolution and whether intelligent design, or even Biblical accounts of creation, have a place in America’s science classrooms. In these arguments, evolution is treated as an abstract subject that deals with the age of the earth or how fish first flopped onto land. It’s discussed as though it were an optional, quaint and largely irrelevant part of biology. And a common consequence of the arguments is that evolution gets dropped from the curriculum entirely. This is a travesty. It is also dangerous. Evolution should be taught — indeed, it should be central to beginning biology classes – for at least three reasons. or at least three reasons. First, it provides a powerful framework for investigating the world we live in. Without evolution, biology is merely a collection of disconnected facts, a set of descriptions. The astonishing variety of nature, from the tree shrew that guzzles vast quantities of alcohol every night to the lichens that grow in the Antarctic wastes, cannot be probed and understood. Add evolution — and it becomes possible to make inferences and predictions and (sometimes) to do experiments to test those predictions. All of a sudden patterns emerge everywhere, and apparently trivial details become interesting. The second reason for teaching evolution is that the subject is immediately relevant here and now. The impact we are having on the planet is causing other organisms to evolve — and fast. And I’m not talking just about the obvious examples: widespread resistance to pesticides among insects; the evolution of drug resistance in the agents of disease, from malaria to tuberculosis; the possibility that, say, the virus that causes bird flu will evolve into a form that spreads easily from person to person. The impact we are having is much broader. A failure to consider the evolution of other species may result in a failure of our efforts to preserve them. And, perhaps, to preserve ourselves from diseases, pests and food shortages. In short, evolution is far from being a remote and abstract subject. A failure to teach it may leave us unprepared for the challenges ahead. The third reason to teach evolution is more philosophical. It concerns the development of an attitude toward evidence. In his book, “The Republican War on Science,” the journalist Chris Mooney argues persuasively that a contempt for scientific evidence — or indeed, evidence of any kind — has permeated the Bush administration’s policies, from climate change to sex education, from drilling for oil to the war in Iraq. A dismissal of evolution is an integral part of this general attitude.