Race for the White House ’08:
Religion’s Sway Felt in Elections Past, Present
Baltimore Sun – 6/7/08
When it became known in late 1976 that the Plains Baptist Church had a 12-year-old policy on its books that excluded “blacks and other civil rights agitators” from worshiping there, its most prominent member – soon-to-be-president Jimmy Carter – rejected calls that he resign from the parish. “I can’t resign as an American citizen because there’s still discrimination,” he said at the time. “And I don’t intend to resign from my own church because there’s discrimination.” Thirty-two years later, a string of incidents involving presidential contenders, pastors and churches illustrates how tricky the navigation of religious terrain continues to be for political candidates. Sen. Barack Obama resigned his longtime membership with the Trinity United Church of Christ after public outrage over incendiary statements by its former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and a visiting Catholic priest, the Rev. Michael Pfleger. Sen. John McCain rejected the endorsements of two prominent evangelical ministers, the Rev. John C. Hagee and the Rev. Rod Parsley, after they were likewise assailed for inflammatory comments. In some ways, little has changed. Ministers – sometimes controversial ones – have been involved in politics since the founding of the Republic. If anything, “pastors are a lot more moderate than they used to be,” said Ted G. Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the co-editor of the journal Politics and Religion. “You used to hear in evangelical Protestant churches that the Pope is the Antichrist or the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon,” Jelen said.
Obama’s Play for the Faithful
Time – 6/12/08
It’s safe to say there’s no page in the Democratic handbook that recommends sitting down with several dozen right-of-center Christian leaders one week after clinching the party’s presidential nomination. So the fact that Barack Obama slipped away Tuesday afternoon to a borrowed Chicago law-firm conference room for some prayer and frank talk about his faith and to face some tough questioning from heavy hitters in the Evangelical, Catholic and mainline Protestant worlds could be the clearest sign yet that he really does intend to practice a different kind of politics. But it’s undoubtedly also a signal that he recognizes the damage done to his campaign by a spring that featured the Jeremiah Wright show and rumors about his true religious leanings — and ended with a decision to leave his church. Among those gathered on Tuesday were African-American preachers like T.D. Jakes, Hispanic pastors like Sam Rodriguez and a few conservative Catholics like Pepperdine professor Doug Kmiec, who has been denied Communion because of his public support for Obama. But the majority of attendees were white Evangelical leaders, including one conservative member of Evangelical royalty, Franklin Graham. “The purpose was not to line up endorsements,” says one Obama aide. “But some very important Evangelicals left this meeting impressed. I think they’ll go back to their enclaves telling an interesting story.” The nearly two-hour-long meeting opened and closed with prayer. For the balance of the time, Obama spoke about his faith journey — a topic that he has written and spoken about extensively but that was new to many of those present — and fielded sometimes pointed questions.
Texas Evangelical Republicans Reluctantly Back McCain
Dallas Morning News – 6/14/08
For religious conservatives at the Texas Republican Convention, even the song list at Friday’s prayer rally suggested dark days ahead for the GOP. On stage, a man sang, “While the storm clouds gathered …” In the audience, Kenneth Kidd mulled his party’s prospects in November. “We’re going to support McCain,” he said with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. “He may not have been all of our first choice, but he is our choice.” Evangelicals have been indispensable to Republican presidential candidates since Ronald Reagan in 1980 and were key to George W. Bush’s White House wins. But many are lukewarm about John McCain, who denounced religious right leaders in 2000 and has struggled to win evangelical support this year. Some analysts say Mr. McCain has made a political calculation to give up some support on the religious right to broaden his appeal to more centrist voters. Still, if Christian conservatives don’t actively work for Mr. McCain in their churches and neighborhoods, he could have trouble winning in the fall. “Obviously, the base of the party is not really excited about John McCain,” said Tim Lambert of Lubbock, who heads the state’s largest home-school organization. “I think he’s not reaching out to the base, not reaching out to the evangelicals. Bob Dole made that mistake in 1996.” This week’s state GOP convention underscored how much work Mr. McCain needs to do if he hopes to rally Christian conservatives. Many delegates explained their support for Mr. McCain in terms of their opposition to Barack Obama.
Christian Leaders Meet Privately with Obama
Associated Press – 6/11/08
Barack Obama discussed Darfur, the Iraq war, gay rights, abortion and other issues Tuesday with Christian leaders, including a conservative who has been criticized for praising the Democratic presidential candidate. Bishop T.D. Jakes, a prominent black clergyman who heads a Dallas megachurch, said Obama took questions, listened to participants and discussed his “personal journey of faith.” The discussion “went absolutely everywhere,” Jakes told The Associated Press, and “just about every Christian stripe was represented in that room.” Jakes, who does not endorse candidates and said he also hopes to meet with Republican presidential candidate John McCain, said some participants clearly have political differences with Obama. His support for abortion rights and gay rights, among other issues, draws opposition from religious conservatives. Some conservatives have criticized Jakes for praising Obama. Jakes said the meeting, at a law firm’s offices, seemed designed to prompt a wide discussion rather than to result in commitments from either Obama or those attending. Others familiar with the meeting said some participants agreed to attend only because it would be private. Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella organization for evangelical churches and ministries, said Obama asked participants to share “anything that’s on your mind that is of concern to you.” “I think it’s important to point out this isn’t a group of people who are endorsing Obama,” Cizik said in an interview. “People were asked for their insider wisdom and understanding of the religious community.” Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the gathering included evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics from across the country. “Reaching out to the faith community is a priority for Barack Obama,” she said. “This is one of several meetings he will have over the coming months with religious leaders.”
Obama’s Jewish ‘Problem’: A Myth?
Time – 6/16/08
Barack Obama received a standing ovation when he proclaimed his unwavering support for Israel to the influential lobbying group AIPAC last week. In her own AIPAC speech, Hillary Clinton said she was sure “that Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel.” But Clinton’s reassuring words didn’t soothe the wounded feelings of some prominent Jewish Obama supporters, who charge that Clinton campaign operatives manufactured fear about Obama’s ethnic background and doubt about his loyalty to Israel in an effort to turn Jewish primary voters against him. Obama has long had a strong core of liberal Jewish supporters in Chicago; his national Jewish support grew as his campaign surged. But so did rumors that he had a “problem” with Jewish voters because of his family background (middle name: Hussein) and that some of his aides held pro-Palestinian views. David Geffen, the Hollywood mogul who once backed the Clintons but turned to Obama, told NEWSWEEK that her campaign bears some responsibility for “an awful lot of disinformation” that sowed doubts about the candidate’s support of Israel among “older Jewish voters in Florida.” New Jersey Rep. Robert Andrews, an Obama backer, says that two months ago a top Hillary campaign operative told him Obama would have a “hard time winning in November” because of his alleged Jewish problem and indicated Clinton’s campaign was going to take advantage of those fears. Andrews says he found such talk “offensive,” but he didn’t know whether Hillary had sanctioned it. Asked for comment, the Clinton campaign referred NEWSWEEK to an article in the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, in which spokesman Phil Singer called similar comments by Andrews “sad and divisive.”
Warroad Preacher Vows to Put Politics in His Pulpit
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
The Rev. Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church wants to “open a dialogue” on political preaching. He’ll probably get his wish. Booth, a delegate to the Republican National Convention, alerted Americans United for Separation of Church and State to a recent sermon warning followers to oppose Barack Obama for his stance on abortion rights. Booth advised the group that defends church-state separation that he’s challenging federal prohibitions on political advocacy from the pulpit. On Wednesday, Americans United asked the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate whether the evangelical church with a following of 150 violated its nonprofit, tax-exempt status with Booth’s sermon. The IRS forbids churches “from directly or indirectly participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.” Booth was picked as a GOP national delegate during the Seventh Congressional District convention in April, about a month before he gave his sermon urging followers not to vote for either Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton. The pastor said he originally supported former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who had sought the Republican nomination, but will support the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
At Obama’s Former Church, Hurt Lingers
Washington Post – 6/15/08
A vast distance separates Obama from the church he quit last month, as hurt feelings continue to fester on both sides. Obama, his patience exhausted by the most recent controversial remark from a pastor, said in late May, “Our relations with Trinity have been strained.” And some of the church’s 8,000 members — as well as some other black pastors — feel abandoned, betrayed and misunderstood after their contentious turn in the national spotlight. This was not how it was supposed to be. Obama, the biracial presidential candidate who has pledged to unite Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, blacks and whites, was going to provide an opening for Trinity and other black churches to shatter their stereotypes and bolster their national presence. Instead, a landslide of negative video of Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and right-wing political attacks left Obama’s former church and others like it even more marginalized and vilified. As the controversy over Trinity crescendoed earlier this month, the church’s new pastor, Otis Moss III, released a statement to his congregation: “We, the community of Trinity, are concerned, hurt, shocked, dismayed, frustrated, fearful and heartbroken. . . . We are a wounded people and our wounds, the bruises from our encounter with history, have scarred our very souls.”
Seeking Common Ground in Faith
Washington Post – 6/14/08
For the first time in five Sundays of gatherings, the small group of Washington area Muslims and Jews around the fireside table seemed like it was about to move from polite chat on religious history to something unavoidably combustible: Zionism. An imam had taken out a book titled “Palestinian Holocaust” and quoted a tiny ultra-orthodox Jewish sect that opposes the state of Israel. An African American Muslim said Zionism struck him as apartheid-like. A rabbi cited the “billions of dollars” donors give Palestinians. “This seems like a good place for a period,” Khalil Shadeed, one of the two organizers of the three-month-long dialogue group, said gently. “I do recognize this is very challenging.” And with that, Shadeed stopped the two-hour discussion before it plunged too deeply into unnavigable waters. The clock had run out, and it was best, he said, to keep the discussion calm — a mantra of interfaith dialogue. Such dialogue is often a balancing act: hopeful yet guarded; genuine yet superficial; teetering on the precipice of the most emotional subjects but often stepping back. Rare efforts such as this one, which ended June 1, go beyond a single mass event and seek more depth and intimacy.
Southern Baptists Target Political Arena
Reuters – 6/11/08
America’s largest evangelical denomination adopted a resolution on political engagement on Wednesday signaling its intention to flex its muscles in the November presidential election. “Christians should seek to apply their spiritual and moral values to the political process,” read the resolution, adopted on the second and final day of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. The 16 million-strong SBC is a bedrock of political and cultural conservatism and a key plank in the Republican Party’s evangelical base which is credited with helping secure two White House terms for President George W. Bush. Religion and politics often mix in America where levels of belief are much higher than those found in most affluent countries and one in four U.S. adults count themselves as evangelical Christians, giving them serious electoral clout. U.S. religious organizations shy away from explicit partisan endorsements which could threaten their tax exempt status and the resolution adopted by the SBC on Wednesday was no exception. But several Southern Baptists interviewed over the course of the conference left no doubt that they were in the Republican fold even if they viewed the party’s presumptive nominee John McCain as the lesser of two liberals in the White House match-up with Democratic rival Barack Obama.
After Islam Flap, Schools May Limit Religious Assemblies
Houstin Chronicle – 6/11/08
About 200 Friendswood residents, divided over a junior high principal’s decision to let an Islamic group make a presentation to students last month, packed Tuesday night’s school board meeting as the governing body considered whether to ban any future religious presentations by outsiders. The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Houston sought permission to address the mostly Anglo student body at Friendswood Junior High after a Muslim student was stuffed head-first into a trash can by a classmate. Principal Robin Lowe agreed to the 40-minute PowerPoint presentation on the basic beliefs of Islam, which drew howls of protest from some parents, talk radio hosts and Christian clergy. Last week, Lowe requested and received a new central administration job because she felt the controversy made continuing at the junior high impossible, Superintendent Trish Hanks said. Most who spoke Tuesday blasted the school board and Hanks for not supporting Lowe. “I ask that you as a board take certain actions — reinstate Robin Lowe with a suitable and public apology,” said longtime Friendswood resident Tom Burke, drawing a loud burst of applause and whoops of approval from the audience. “Pledge to listen to the wishes of the large, but all too silent majority, and close your ears to the vocal minority. This community has been embarrassed. You can turn that around and make yourselves and your community proud.”
Sikh Offers Opening Prayer in Senate
Patriot News (PA) – 6/11/08
“Ek onkar satnam. There is but one God,” began the prayer that opened the Pennsylvania Senate on Tuesday, as Nirmal Singh of Fairview Twp. became the first Sikh to perform that traditional duty. “We pray to the one God who created this universe with all its colorful diversity, ranng, as we call it,” said Singh, using the Punjabi word. The Senate’s tradition of opening with prayer drew a complaint from a watchdog group last year that the prayers often contain language only a Christian would use — for example, “in Jesus’ name.” Prayers in civic settings are constitutional only when they’re nonsectarian, said Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Senate officials said they comply with the law by ensuring prayers come from a variety of faiths, not by monitoring prayers. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that developed in India during the 15th century. Singh’s prayer included phrases from Sikh scripture. “Sikh teachings are very universal, and I have tried to structure this prayer around its universality,” he said in an e-mail. “My concern obviously was to try and offer an invocation that is universal in spirit and intent but can be traced back to its Sikh linkage.”
A battle over science education could soon spill into the courts in Louisiana, where looming legislation would allow teachers to bring up scientific criticisms of evolution, global warming and other hot-button topics. The state House approved the bill Wednesday on a 94-3 vote. Because the Senate already approved a near-identical measure, supporters expect the upper chamber to pass this bill also. A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal would not say whether he will sign the bill, saying only that he will review it when it gets to his desk. “It’s not about a certain viewpoint,” said supporter Jason Stern, Vice President of the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative group pushing the bill. “It’s allowing [teachers] to teach the controversy. It’s an academic freedom issue.” Opponents, however, say it’s a thinly veiled attempt to allow into science class “intelligent design,” which they denounce as disguised religion and warn of lawsuits if the bill becomes law. Similar bills allowing teachers to criticize evolutionary theories have been introduced in Michigan, Missouri, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina, though some of them have died for the year as legislatures adjourned. The Discovery Institute, a think tank in Seattle that promotes the “intelligent design” theory, has helped craft many of the bills – a fact that has raised alarm among the bill’s opponents.
A Matter Of Belief or Evidence
Washington Post – 6/10/08
An integral part of many people’s lives, religion defines patterns of worship and socialization, but its impact, if any, on health is unclear. Some studies show a benefit to religious practice, while others — including much of the research into prayer — fail to prove its health value. The question of the role something as unquantifiable as religious belief might play in health troubles some scientists in an age when mainstream medicine is turning ever more toward epidemiological science to define research protocols and to determine the validity of treatments. That said, it’s not hard to understand why being religious might be good for the body, experts say. Religious people often attend regular services; this puts them in a socially supportive environment, which has widely acknowledged health advantages. And some religions promote healthful diets and discourage unhealthy behaviors such as drinking alcohol and smoking. “Religions package many of the ingredients of well-being to make them accessible to people,” said Richard Eckersley, a visiting fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University in Canberra. And the “psychological well-being” that religion can promote is “linked to physical health through direct physiological effects, such as on neuroendocrine and immune function, and indirect effects on health behaviors, such as diet, smoking, exercise and sexual activity.” Interest in researching the impact of religion and spirituality on how we live seems to be surging. David Myers, author of “A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists” (to be published in August) and a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., did a database search to compare recent and past interest in the topic. Between 1965 and 1999, 1,950 study abstracts mentioned religion or spirituality, he found. Myers’s search for the same terms in abstracts published between 2000 and 2007 came up with 8,719 hits, he said.
‘Pro-Life’ Drugstores Market Beliefs
Washington Post – 6/16/08
When DMC Pharmacy opens this summer on Route 50 in Chantilly, the shelves will be stocked with allergy remedies, pain relievers, antiseptic ointments and almost everything else sold in any drugstore. But anyone who wants condoms, birth control pills or the Plan B emergency contraceptive will be turned away. That’s because the drugstore, located in a typical shopping plaza featuring a Ruby Tuesday, a Papa John’s and a Kmart, will be a “pro-life pharmacy” — meaning, among other things, that it will eschew all contraceptives. The pharmacy is one of a small but growing number of drugstores around the country that have become the latest front in a conflict pitting patients’ rights against those of health-care workers who assert a “right of conscience” to refuse to provide care or products that they find objectionable. “The United States was founded on the idea that people act on their conscience — that they have a sense of right and wrong and do what they think is right and moral,” said Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel at the Thomas More Society, a Chicago public-interest law firm that is defending a pharmacist who was fined and reprimanded for refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. “Every pharmacist has the right to do the same thing,” Brejcha said. But critics say the stores could create dangerous obstacles for women seeking legal, safe and widely used birth control methods.
Candidates: Stop Misusing Religion
Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, Christian Science Monitor Op-Ed – 6/16/08
Americans will choose a new president in less than five months, but the losers of this election are already clear – the sanctity of religion and the integrity of democracy. The latest evidence came late last month, when Sen. Barack Obama announced his resignation from his home church. Such an important decision should have been made purely for personal or religious reasons. Instead, it was apparently driven by political considerations. As a practicing minister, I understand how painful it is for him to leave a church that has been an important part of his life for many years. It is the church in which Senator Obama was married, and it is the church in which his children were baptized. It is a place where he apparently found a community with his neighbors and with his God. But as president of the Interfaith Alliance, I also understand why Obama found himself in this situation. During the primary campaign, the major presidential candidates engaged in a frenzied rush to prove their religious bona fides. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign went on a self-described “faith tour” of South Carolina, based explicitly upon a verse from the Book of Esther. Senator John McCain got off the Straight Talk Express to pander to the religious right when he gave the commencement address at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. And Obama is equally at fault. Early in the race, his campaign set up a website to feature endorsements from clergy, despite the fact that tax law prohibits religious leaders from making candidate endorsements in their official capacities as men and women of God. Last fall, he asked a South Carolina congregation to help him “become an instrument of God,” despite the fact that the Constitution says no such thing. The candidates have sought the endorsements of clergy, and both Senator McCain and Obama are now having some buyer’s remorse. But candidates cannot have it both ways. They cannot continue to use clergy for political gain and then discard them when it no longer fits their agenda.
Obama, Religion and the Public Square
William McGurn, Wall Street Journal Op-Ed – 6/10/08
Barack Obama is no John Kennedy. And that may turn out to be a good thing. At least with regard to reversing one of the unintended consequences of Camelot: the idea that religious voices have no place on the public square. At first blush, Sen. Obama may appear to be an odd choice to lead such a reversal. Until very recently, he worshipped at a church whose preachers apparently regard America as something to be abhorred – and have a distressing penchant for being filmed while they do so. Earlier in the primaries, Mr. Obama took flak for his own comments describing small-town Pennsylvania as a place populated by those who “cling to” religion because they are “bitter.” And Mr. Obama’s positions on hot-button issues like abortion – as a member of the Illinois Senate, he voted against legislation protecting a child who was born alive despite an abortion – put him at odds with many of those thought to represent the religious vote. Yet there is more to Mr. Obama and religion than the recent headlines might suggest. Nowhere is that more clear than in the thoughtful address he delivered two years ago to a Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference. In that speech, the senator made clear his distance from religious conservatives, and called for an end to faith “as a tool of attack.” Yet the thrust of his remarks was directed squarely at liberal Democrats. Their discomfort with all things religious, he said, runs against American history, and robs progressives of the ability to speak to their fellow citizens in moral terms.
Getting to Know African-American Church is Overdue
Horace E. Smith, Chicago Tribune Op-Ed – 6/10/08
The controversy surrounding certain sermons and speeches made by particular members of Chicago’s clergy has put a spotlight on the African-American church. These unfortunate events have spawned characterizations by the media and political pundits that often reflect an incomplete, incorrect and negative image of one of the most vital, influential and positive institutions in America. What is meant by the term “black” or “African-American” church? There is no monolithic black church. African-Americans are a people whose worship and beliefs span the spectrum of religious thought and theology. We are a mosaic, embracing every religious persuasion and creed. We are Protestant, Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist and the list goes on. Though it may be convenient, it is not possible to label us simply. A serious error is made when there is an attempt to take a statement, sermon, speech or point of view voiced by a member of the African-American clergy and tie it to all or most Christians who happen to be African-American. The truth is no one leader from one church or denomination can represent or speak for us all. Those unfamiliar with the history and experience of African-Americans fail to appreciate the broad and comprehensive role the church plays in the community’s life. Because it is the most important and powerful institution of trust for our community, it is expected to speak about topics that appear out of bounds for a church.