Race for the White House ’08:
The 2008 primary election campaign began with candidates scrambling to embrace religious leaders, and it’s ending with candidates rushing to repudiate them. An election cycle that was supposed to usher in the marriage of religion and politics may be hastening its divorce. From the evangelical ministers who questioned the fitness of a Mormon to be president, to the religious-right activists who denounced John McCain as godless, to the McCain-backing radio preacher who said Hitler was fulfilling God’s will, to Barack Obama’s longtime minister who blamed the United States for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to Obama’s Catholic adviser who last week mocked Hillary Clinton, the clergy haven’t just made a bad show of it: They’ve behaved like small-minded bigots. These preachers have managed the amazing feat of making all the politicians involved in the campaign seem, by comparison, more tolerant, more reasonable, and less self-interested. It hasn’t been all clergy, of course. The vast majority of religious leaders have sensibly stayed out of politics – or, rather, above politics, where spiritual leaders function best. But encouraged by candidates and perhaps envious of the religious right’s influence on the Bush administration, many religious figures have sought to weigh in on the presidential election this year. What they’ve discovered is that once they turn their pulpits into lecterns, they lose the deference that attaches to men and women of God. The rain of criticism has caught many by surprise, more accustomed as they are to nods and amens.
Evangelicals Are Still Wary Despite McCain’s Outreach
New York Times – 6/9/08
Lori Viars, an evangelical activist in Warren County, Ohio, essentially put her life on hold in the fall of 2004 to run a phone bank for President Bush. Her efforts helped the president’s ambitious push to turn out evangelicals and win that critical swing state in a close election. But Ms. Viars, who is among a cluster of socially conservative activists in Ohio being courted by Senator John McCain’s campaign through regular e-mail messages, is taking a wait-and-see attitude for now toward Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. “I think a lot of us are in a holding pattern,” said Ms. Viars, who added that she wanted to see whom Mr. McCain picked for his running mate. Ms. Viars’s hesitation illustrates what remains one of Mr. McCain’s biggest challenges as he faces a general election contest with Senator Barack Obama: a continued wariness toward him among evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, a critical voting bloc for Republicans that could stay home in the fall or at least be decidedly unenthusiastic in their efforts to get out the vote. To address this, Mr. McCain’s campaign has been ramping up its outreach to evangelicals over the last month, preparing a budget and a strategic plan for turning them out in 18 battleground states this fall. The campaign has been peppering over 600 socially conservative grass-roots and national leaders with regular e-mail messages — highlighting, for example, Mr. McCain’s statement criticizing a May 15 decision by the California Supreme Court overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, or his recent speech on his judicial philosophy. It has also held briefings for small groups of conservative leaders before key speeches. Charlie Black, one of Mr. McCain’s senior advisers, recently sat down with a dozen prominent evangelical leaders in Washington, where he emphasized, among other things, Mr. McCain’s consistent anti-abortion voting record.
As Obama Severs Ties, County Pastors Voice Dismay
Washington Post – 6/5/08
The decision by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to leave Trinity United Church of Christ after more than 15 years is not sitting well with some African American pastors and scholars in Prince George’s County. The senator from Illinois announced Saturday that he was leaving the church after a video surfaced showing a Chicago priest in Trinity’s pulpit appearing to mimic a tearful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). The Rev. Michael L. Pfleger, a guest speaker during a May 25 sermon on race, charged that Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, felt entitled to the presidency because she is white. The Rev. Barbara Reynolds, a Prince George’s resident and Howard University School of Divinity lecturer, decried the media coverage of the incident, which she said is fueling the controversy. “I think this is a new low,” said Reynolds, a close associate of Trinity’s retiring pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose remarks sparked controversy for Obama earlier in the campaign. “If a politician wants to move up in government, they can come to church and jump and shout, but it is not okay to go to church where they are speaking truth to power and talking about racism, sexism and capitalism.” Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor, said of Obama’s decision to leave his church, “I think that it was inevitable because Dr. Wright was not out of the mainstream of American black preaching.
A Democratic congressman accused Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign of trying to exploit tensions between Jews and blacks. Rep. Rob Andrews, who had endorsed Clinton, said Friday that he brought up the issue this week because he believed talking about it would help reunite the nation’s divided Democrats. Andrews said that he made some positive comments about Obama just before Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary, and received a call from a high-ranking person in Clinton’s campaign shortly afterward. The caller told him about a campaign strategy to win Jewish voters by exploiting tensions between Jews and blacks, said Andrews, who declined to name the caller. “There have been signals coming out of the Clinton campaign that have racial overtones that indeed disturb me,” Andrews said. “Frankly, I had a private conversation with a high-ranking person in the campaign … that used a racial line of argument that I found very disconcerting. It was extremely disconcerting given the rank of this person. It was very disturbing.” Andrews first talked publicly about his claims in an interview with The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. published Friday. Clinton spokesman Phil Singer denied the accusation. “Comments like these, coming so soon after Congressman Andrews’ crushing defeat, are sad and divisive,” Singer said, referring to Andrews’ unsuccessful Democratic primary challenge against incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
Jewish Voters Could Tip Battleground States
USA Today – 6/5/08
When Republican John McCain talks about going after Democratic votes, his calculus includes a key group: Jewish voters. He has advisers reaching out to the community and takes counsel from friends such as Sen. Joe Lieberman. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is trying to assure Jewish voters they should not fear him because of his stance on Israel or the false assumption that he is Muslim, as some e-mails distributed anonymously through some Jewish communities claim. Jewish voters made up about 3% of the electorate in 2004, according to surveys of voters as they left polling places. But high turnout among Jewish voters in November could make a difference for McCain or Obama in battleground states. “If it turns out to be a close election, the Jewish vote could make the difference,” said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy with the Israel Policy Forum, a liberal think tank. Rosenberg and other Jewish leaders say the Jewish vote could make a difference in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. McCain and Obama both made their pitches this week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the nation’s largest Jewish lobbying organization. Although Jewish voters have traditionally voted Democratic, Republicans have tried recently to make inroads. President Bush received 24% of the Jewish vote in 2004.
Altar Egos Washington Post – 6/7/08
First it was Republicans, and now Democrats, scrambling in recent presidential elections to snuggle up closely to men of the cloth, seeking the endorsement of well-known clergymen and campaigning with preachers, all in an effort to demonstrate how godly they are. But a curious thing has happened in this year’s contest for the White House. Candidates are having to distance themselves from preachers, almost as quickly as they had sought their embrace. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) denounced his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who was videotaped asserting that the federal government had brought the AIDS virus into black communities and that God should “damn” America. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has found it necessary to disassociate himself from the Rev. John Hagee and the Rev. Rod Parsley, two conservative preachers who have expressed, respectively, anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim views. Just last week, Obama and his wife resigned from their church after a guest minister, the Rev. Michael L. Pfleger, mocked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Clergy have become ticking time bombs in this year’s presidential campaign, so much so that the Obamas say they won’t join another place of worship until after the election — if then. Interfaith Alliance has been sending out alerts about candidates for months, including when Clinton said last June that she’d like to “inject” faith into policy and when McCain said in September that the Constitution established “a Christian nation.” The group also included an Obama speech in October in which he told an audience that, with prayer and praise, “I am confident that we can create a kingdom right here on Earth.” The Rev. Welton Gaddy, the Monroe, La., Baptist minister who heads the Interfaith Alliance, also issued a statement of regret about the Obamas’ decision. “This is a sad day in American politics and even sadder in American religion. Senator Obama is at the center of the storm, but all who wed religion to partisan politics share responsibility for this tragic development.”
Cardinal Removes Pfleger from St. Sabina Parish
Chicago Sun-Times – 6/3/08
The firebrand pastor of St. Sabina parish was removed from his duties there Tuesday, according to a statement released by the Archdiocese of Chicago. In the statement, Cardinal Francis George says he asked the Rev. Michael Pfleger, 59, to “take leave for a couple of weeks from his pastoral duties.” The statement said Pfleger “does not believe this to be the right step at this time.” “While respecting his disagreement, I have nevertheless asked him to use this opportunity to reflect on his recent statements and actions in the light of the Church’s regulations for all Catholic priests,” George said. The recent statements in question were video clips broadcast on You Tube where Pfleger mocked Hillary Clinton for crying on the campaign trail. He suggested her tears were due to “white entitlement” leading Clinton to believe the Democratic nomination should go to her, not Barack Obama. Pfleger has been a priest for 33 years, serving nearly all that time at St. Sabina’s in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.
Opponents of Evolution Adopting a New Strategy
New York Times – 6/4/08
Opponents of teaching evolution, in a natural selection of sorts, have gradually shed those strategies that have not survived the courts. Over the last decade, creationism has given rise to “creation science,” which became “intelligent design,” which in 2005 was banned from the public school curriculum in Pennsylvania by a federal judge. Now a battle looms in Texas over science textbooks that teach evolution, and the wrestle for control seizes on three words. None of them are “creationism” or “intelligent design” or even “creator.” The words are “strengths and weaknesses.” Starting this summer, the state education board will determine the curriculum for the next decade and decide whether the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution should be taught. The benign-sounding phrase, some argue, is a reasonable effort at balance. But critics say it is a new strategy taking shape across the nation to undermine the teaching of evolution, a way for students to hear religious objections under the heading of scientific discourse. Already, legislators in a half-dozen states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina — have tried to require that classrooms be open to “views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory,” according to a petition from the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based strategic center of the intelligent design movement. “Very often over the last 10 years, we’ve seen antievolution policies in sheep’s clothing,” said Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education, a group based in Oakland, Calif., that is against teaching creationism. The “strengths and weaknesses” language was slipped into the curriculum standards in Texas to appease creationists when the State Board of Education first mandated the teaching of evolution in the late 1980s. It has had little effect because evolution skeptics have not had enough power on the education board to win the argument that textbooks do not adequately cover the weaknesses of evolution.
Anger Over Rachael Ray Scarf Opens Wounds for Arabs
Associated Press – 6/4/08
To Palestinian-American designer Nemi Jamal, the controversy surrounding a fringed black-and-white scarf worn by Rachael Ray in an ad for iced coffee is “just a disgrace.” Dunkin’ Donuts pulled the ad last week after critics said the scarf worn by the television chef symbolized Muslim extremism and terrorism. Not to Jamal, born in Jericho and now living in New City, N.Y., who said the kaffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress, is no fashion faux pas but a symbol of nationalism. She’s among the Arab-Americans who say the comments are inaccurate and show prejudice. “The Palestinian people consider this their flag,” said Jamal, who has designed jeans, pocketbooks and neck ties with the scarves. “People often have these in their cars and on key rings. It is about pride and class struggle, and nothing else. To say it stands for what they’ve said is just a disgrace.” Once the trademark headwear of former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, the hatta, as it is also called, dates back centuries and is used to shield those who live in the desert from the relentless sun and dust storms. Some wear the cotton cloth as a turban, while others wear it draped against their back and shoulders. The traditional headdress became symbolic during the Palestinian uprising against the British occupation from 1936 to 1939, and has been a symbol of nationalism ever since, according to Rochelle Davis, an assistant professor of culture and society at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. “While it has symbolism of solidarity with Palestine, it is not associated with terrorists and does not show that someone is sympathetic to terrorism,” Davis said. “To say that is just incorrect.”
Voters Will Decide on Gay Marriage
LA Times – 6/3/08
Setting the stage for a political showdown, the California secretary of state today said an initiative barring gay marriage had enough signatures to qualify for the Nov. 4 ballot. The proposal would amend the state Constitution to define marriage as a union “between a man and a woman” and undo last month’s historic California Supreme Court ruling, which found that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was unconstitutional. A coalition of religious and conservative activists submitted 1.1 million signatures for the ballot measure. Random sampling by Secretary of State Debra Bowen found that enough legitimate signatures had been collected. Many opponents of same-sex marriage saw the high court’s ruling as a rejection of past ballot measures against the practice, most recently Proposition 22, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. It passed in 2000 with 61% of the vote. Supporters of the latest initiative described Monday’s certification as “great news” but acknowledged that recent surveys had shown opposition to same-sex marriage weakening in recent years.
Gay Anglican U.S. Bishop Enters into Civil Union
Reuters – 6/8/08
The openly gay U.S. Episcopal bishop at the center of the Anglican church’s global battle over homosexuality, has entered into a civil union with his longtime partner at a private ceremony. About 120 guests gathered at St. Paul’s Church in New Hampshire for Saturday’s ceremony for Bishop Gene Robinson and his partner of more than 19 years, Mark Andrew. The event was kept private out of respect for next month’s worldwide Anglican conference, Robinson’s spokesman, Mike Barwell, said on Sunday. “It was absolutely joyful,” Barwell said by telephone. “A lot of his supporters and friends were there, including many members of the gay and lesbian community.” The 77 million-member Anglican Communion, a global federation of national churches, has been in upheaval since 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated Robinson as the first bishop known to be in an openly homosexual relationship in more than four centuries of church history. Robinson has in the past received death threats and wore a bulletproof vest under his vestments at his consecration in 2003. Two uniformed police officers stood guard at Saturday’s ceremony in the state capital Concord, said Barwell.
South Carolina to Offer Cross on Car Plates
New York Times – 6/6/08
South Carolina drivers will be the first in the nation to be offered license plates that carry the phrase “I Believe” and a Christian cross over a stained-glass window under a law that took effect on Thursday. Critics have threatened to fight the law in court, saying the license plate represents an illegal state endorsement of religion. The bill authorizing the plate passed the State House and Senate unanimously on May 22. It became law without the signature of Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, under the South Carolina Constitution. “While I do, in fact, ‘believe,’ it is my personal view that the largest proclamation of one’s faith ought to be in how one lives one’s life,” Mr. Sanford wrote on Thursday in a letter to Glenn F. McConnell, president pro tem of the Senate and a fellow Republican. The bill directs the Motor Vehicles Department to create the plate. Mr. Sanford told the department to charge people just enough to reimburse the state for the cost to produce the plate, estimated at $4 to $6, and to not allow any organization to benefit from its sales. The state offers 200 other specialty plates, supporting organizations like colleges, sororities, Boy Scouts and the Surfrider Foundation. The state charges up to $70 for those plates. The profit is sent to the sponsor. A supporting organization normally pays the $4,000 start-up cost to create a plate. Because no organization will sponsor the “I Believe” plate, at least 400 people have to buy one before the state will produce it.
Gaddy: Sending the Message That Hatred is Intolerable
By Rev. C. Welton Gaddy
Fort Worth Star-Telegram – 6/8/08
Many anniversaries are celebrated with anticipation and joy, but there are some that we would just as soon forget. Ten years ago, on June 7, 1998, James Byrd Jr. was brutally murdered simply because he was African-American. Byrd, a resident of Jasper, accepted a ride home from three men, one of whom he knew. Instead of taking him home, these men chained Byrd to the back of their pickup and dragged him more than three miles, killing him. At the time, this barbaric incident shocked the world. Ten years later, it is shocking that, according to FBI Hate Crime statistics, hate crimes are occurring in even higher numbers all around the country. The 2006 data — the most recent available — show hate crimes at the highest level since 2001. This past Tuesday, three men approached a Hispanic man in Charlotte, N.C., while he was checking his mailbox in broad daylight and punched him more than 40 times because of his ethnicity, investigators said. In New Jersey, on May 5, a Sikh teenager had his turban set on fire by a classmate. Incredibly, the school initially dismissed the act as a childish “prank.” Unfortunately, I could go on and on. How many more hate crimes must be perpetrated before our government takes action on this heinous and growing problem? Congressional legislation is pending that would help stem the tide of hate-motivated violence. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act provides federal assistance to local law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. That is why the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association support this effort. Though legislation alone cannot remove hate from individuals’ hearts and minds, hate crimes legislation can help to create a society that considers hate-motivated violence intolerable. The fundamental promise of the American dream is a society in which all people are safe as well as free. This is far more than a law-and-order issue; it is also a moral and religious issue. Nearly three dozen diverse religious organizations, including the Interfaith Alliance, strongly support this hate crimes bill. The sacred scriptures of many different religious traditions speak with dramatic unanimity on the subject of intolerance. Every person in the United States should enjoy the strongest possible guarantee of freedom from attacks motivated by bigotry. If we aspire to be true to the prophetic core of our religions, we cannot condemn hate and then sit idly by while acts of hatred destroy our communities. The British statesman Edmund Burke once said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (people) to do nothing.” Hate crimes legislation must be passed and signed into law so that innocent people such as James Byrd Jr. did not have to die in vain.
McCain’s Evangelical Problem
By Robert Novack
Washington Post Op-Ed – 6/9/08
Shortcomings by John McCain’s campaign in the art of politics are alienating two organizations of Christian conservatives. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family is estranged following the failure of Dobson and McCain to talk out their differences. Evangelicals who follow the Rev. John Hagee resent McCain’s disavowal of him. The evangelicals are not an isolated problem for the Arizona senator. Enthusiasm for McCain inside the Republican coalition is in short supply. During the four months since McCain clinched the nomination, he has not satisfied conservatives opposed to his positions on global warming, campaign finance reform, immigration, domestic oil drilling and how to ban same-sex marriages. Among all constituency groups, evangelicals are most crucial to McCain. After supporting Jimmy Carter in 1976, Christian conservatives switched to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and since then have been indispensable to Republican presidential candidates. Dobson and Hagee, not merely inside-the-Beltway interest group chairmen or think tank managers, command substantial followings.
Arizona Republic Editorial – 6/3/08
The Rev. Michael Pfleger says he’s “deeply sorry” for mocking Hillary Clinton from the pulpit of Barack Obama’s former church. Can she forgive him? Obama says he resigned his membership, in part, because he doesn’t want “to have to answer for everything that’s stated in a church.” Can America forgive him? Interesting questions. But not the best ones. This departure of a high-profile man from a high-profile church creates an opening for a discussion about religion and politics that should make people uncomfortable. Churches serve many functions in this nation and have justified their position as tax-exempt and constitutionally protected. Church is where people meet in prayer and thanksgiving. It is a place where the disaffected have organized discontent into a demand for justice. It provides a supportive community of like-minded people. It can offer Sunday-morning entertainment with a rousing sermon that includes the elements of theater. Church is also a political soapbox.