AT THE CENTER
CENTER NEWSMay 23, 2013
Faith Leaders Helping Heal US-Pakistan Relations
May 22, 2013
Evidence Does Not Support Fears of Islam in the West
May 21, 2013
Tom Farr Quoted on Religious Freedom and Extremism by FrontPage Magazine
May 21, 2013
Tim Shah Featured in Deseret News Story on State Department Religious Freedom Report
May 21, 2013
Sin, Corruption and What Religions Can Do About It
May 20, 2013
Tom Farr's Presentation at the Common Word Conference on April 24
May 20, 2013
Roger Trigg Explores the Links between Philosophy of Religion and Religious Marginalization
May 20, 2013
Roger Trigg's Address to the Iona Institute Conference on "What We Owe Christianity"
May 16, 2013
Junior Year Abroad Network Annual Report
May 10, 2013
The Faith of the Novelist
May 7, 2013
Providing Relief by Need, not Creed
May 2, 2013
Article by Roger Trigg Claims Religious Freedom is Not Just Special Pleading
April 29, 2013
Timothy Shah Presents Paper on Religious Freedom, Democratization, and Economic Development
April 29, 2013
New Video: Tom Farr Addresses Religious Freedom and Terrorism with EWTN's Raymond Arroyo
April 29, 2013
The Terrorists Next Door?
The God Vote
As details surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden continue to emerge, this week’s episode of The God Vote, hosted by Sally Quinn and Jacques Berinerblau, considers the political and religious ramifications of bin Laden’s demise.
This week, The God Vote co-hosts Jacques Berlinerblau and Sally Quinn turned their gaze abroad and discussed the religious implications of the current unrest in Syria and Egypt.
On the morning of April 19, 2011, President Obama hosted the second annual Easter Prayer Breakfast. “I wanted to host this [event] for a simple reason,” announced the president to a White House stocked with some of America’s most prominent Christian leaders. “During this season, we are reminded that there is something about the resurrection. Something about the resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ that puts everything else in perspective.”
In this week’s episode of The God Vote, Sally Quinn and Jacques Berlinerblau discuss the global implications of Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ mock trial and burning of the Koran and the riots and murders throughout Afghanistan that it incited.
WATCH: "The core principles of Sharia are analogous to the core principles of the Constitution," says the imam behind the planned Islamic center near Ground Zero. Imam Rauf also talks about his hopes for the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolts in the Middle East and what he thinks of the arguments made by his critics.
One of most prominent questions facing international commentators today: are Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya (if Qaddafi falls) going to become the new Irans? Professor Samer Shehata, this week's guest on The God Vote with Sally Quinn and Jacques Berlinerblau, asserts Egypt is not going the way of theocracy. The year 1979, he says, is a false analogy to what just transpired in Egypt. Why? Islamist parties have emerged into new entities in recent years. Shehata points to their acceptance of the idea of citizenship as one example of this process of embracing modernity.
Picking up where we left off yesterday, here are the most important Faith and Values stories of 2008:
5. The rise of Progressive Evangelicals in triumph and glory?: All year long observers of American religion (myself included) have been predicting that 2008 would be the coming-out party for centrist and progressive Evangelicals. Unlike their conservative co-religionists, these new kids on the block would focus on issues other than abortion and gays. And by all accounts they were kids; it was the younger Evangelicals who many of us insisted were rapidly changing the face of The Movement.
So the prevailing wisdom compelled us to renew that subscription to Sojourners Magazine, write a check to Oxfam, and wear those "Jesus Was a Community Organizer" T-Shirts with pride 'cuz a new type of Bible-believing Christian--a kinder and gentler type--was about to rock the vote!
As promised, here are some of the most important Faith and Values stories of the 2008 election (compare them, if you wish, to those of 2007). My rankings in reverse order:
10: The Rise of the Faith-Based Operative: Last week, while giving a lecture at the American Academy of Religion and noticing scores of unshaven, scraggly, hung-over and rather forlorn-looking male and female graduate students strewn about the audience, I had an inspiration: "There will be more jobs in politics for those with advanced degrees in religion in the next ten years," I declaimed, "than there will be tenure- track positions in religious studies over the next century."
In 2008 we learned that having advisers and staffers who have competence in religion is essential to a successful presidential run. They can teach you how to neutralize vulnerabilities with Catholic voters. They can help convince fence-sitting Jews that you are a true-blue friend of Israel. They can warn you against seeking the endorsement of Reverends Hagee and Parsley.
Hey readers, it's me, the Jacquester. We had planned to do our recap of the 2008 election today, but we're going to wait until Monday for that. In the interim I leave you with a non-faith-based-politicking thought (My editor kindly permits me one per decade). Am I the only one who sees the recent spate of rumors about that Palin woman being a ditz and a diva as sort of, you know, sexist?
The not-very-tightly-knit community of Faith and Values pundits is unevenly divided between Narrative People and Numbers People. The latter perform vital statistical surveys about religiously based voting patterns and public opinion. Though, at their worst, they tend to speak in sentences composed of a noun, a verb and a polling result.
Narrative People, such as myself, are somewhat harder to find. We tend to look for larger cultural, historical and theological patterns. On the downside we are often bad at math, having barely made it out of trigonometry in eleventh grade. We are divas, rogue theorists and often spend way too much on clothes. And sometimes we overreach.
Now that Barack Obama is president-elect we have to figure out how issues pertaining to religion contributed to his victory. I will get to the exit-poll data tomorrow, but tonight I want to float the following theory: On the Faith and Values front Obama won this election, in part, because he avoided all the errors made by the Kerry campaign in 2004.
Georgetown University had the pleasure yesterday of hosting a variety of scholars, analysts, and activists at a conference devoted to the Jewish vote and the 2008 election. Many of our guests addressed issues that I have been writing about in this column and I'll discuss some of their views below. But remember that I am refracting their opinions through my own lens (and my lens is darkening at this late hour). So the opinions I attribute to them are, if you will, solely my own:
Yesterday, I made a variety of predictions about the way Evangelicals might vote next week. Today, I turn to Jews. But since tomorrow I am going to have a lot of experts, advocates and Beltway Insider Types lecturing about this subject at Georgetown University, I want to see what they have to say before going out on a limb. I will report back to you about the conference on Friday. For now, a few predictions and a few observations:
One week until Election Day. Time to start making predictions on the basis of the Faith and Values story lines we have been pursuing since the Summer of 2007. Today, the Evangelicals (tomorrow Jews):
A higher percentage of Evangelicals will vote for Obama than voted for Kerry: I would mortgage the house on this one (if only someone would extend me a line of credit!). Somewhere between 21-22% of Evangelicals voted for Kerry in 2004. Even a small increase for Obama is cash for the Democrats insofar as these Christians have turned away from them in droves since the Carter administration. So I repeat what I have been saying for months: if Obama gets between 28%-33% of the Evangelical vote nationwide, he's President-elect Obama.
Dick Morris, recalling Thomas Dewey's unpredicted 1948 loss, has recently suggested three ways that John McCain could Trumanize the front-running Barack Obama on Election Day.
Next week I am going to post copiously about the 2008 Jewish vote as well as convening a conference and press gathering on the subject at Georgetown University. But before heading out to the office to work on that, I want to quickly draw your attention to a recently released Gallup Poll that challenges some conventional wisdom.
Barring a Late October Surprise, it seems likely that after November 4 American Conservatism is going to have a couple of years to just sit back and reflect.
While it spends 2008-2012 lounging about in sweat pants and thumbing through newspapers at the local coffee shop, it might notice a disheveled American Secularism blogging at the next table over. It too will be in something of a funk; 2008 was not a good year for nonbelievers and Church/State separatists.
Did I ever mention that I'm not voting in the 2008 election? It only took me 16 months and 125 posts to apprise you of this. But it's true. I'm sitting this one out.
Whenever I report this to my compatriots they ply me with questions. And insults. I'll let you provide the insults. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions:
For the love of God, why aren't you voting in 2008?
Because from the moment I started researching and writing about this election back in 2006, I decided that my powers of analysis would be much keener if I didn't get emotionally involved in the process.
If you knew absolutely nothing about the United States (but wanted to know) and predicated your quest for knowledge solely on the three 2008 presidential debates between John McCain and Barack Obama you might come to the conclusion that American politicians have no desire to infuse their politics with religion. Events like last night's encounter at Hofstra University were so bereft of reference to faith-based issues, you might conclude that the United States was France!
What does it all mean? It means that Faith and Values politicking is geared to a lucrative niche market. A politician does the God Talk when addressing certain constituencies--constituencies like White Evangelicals that retain a rather un-Gallic conception of the role religion should play in the public sphere.
Last night, we didn't even get as much as a "God Bless America" from our two candidates. So absent any of that, please permit me the following random observations:
It's not that I assume that Barack Obama is going to be the next president of the United States (in fact, I anticipate a furious charge from a devil-may-care John McCain in the next 21 days).
But when conservative columnist William Kristol is urging the Republican presidential nominee to divest himself of an operationally incompetent and strategically incoherent campaign apparatus, then perhaps we can at least take a peek, a look-see, at a future in which a Democrat runs the country. Which Republicans might be challenging President Obama in 2012?
In terms of 2008 aspirants we can say that McCain and Fred Thompson will be too old. Rudy Giuliani too strategically incoherent. That leaves the following (with apologies to Tancredo, Brownback, Hunter, Paul and Keyes):
This past Sunday Governor Sarah Palin expressed surprise as to why her campaign has said so little about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. She told New York Times Op-Ed columnist William Kristol that she didn't understand "why that association isn't discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that -- with, I don't know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he [Obama] didn't get up and leave -- to me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up."
Let's say that McCain decided that he did want to bring that up (and maybe he already has). Would it work? I don't think so and here's why:
Because Americans are wikipediaing terms like "Hooverville" "Hoover flag" and "Hoover blanket": The nation's economy is on fire. So maybe now is not the most expedient time to focus on Obama's really questionable taste in pastors. Let there be no doubt: this association is troubling. But harping on Wright for the next few weeks would only confirm suspicions that McCain has no answers for a crisis that is quite conceivably raising the blood pressure of every single citizen of the United States as we speak.
Hey, Tom Brokaw. Here's an idea: when the candidates speak past their allotted time how about cracking out a kazoo, or dropping confetti and balloons on their heads, or blasting the theme song from Chariots of Fire? Just a thought.
We Don't Debate Religion: It's amazing how few of the debates (I count no less than 40 of them going back to the primaries!) have featured as much as one word about religion. I haven't figured out what this all means, but let me bring the following to your attention: In American presidential politics we often talk about religion but we don't debate religion. Why not?
How to describe Bill Maher's new documentary, Religulous? Let's see. How about this: like screaming "suicide bomber!" in a movie theater.
First, a helpful technical suggestion to all other New Atheists who may be working on anti-religious documentaries: only Borat is Borat. Maher's film is clearly indebted to the cringe-comedy stylings of the inimitable Sacha Baron Cohen. It too engages in protracted guerilla-interviews with unsuspecting subjects. Religulous even shares a director, Larry Charles, with the movie that immortalized phrases such as "It's a nice" and "hand love."
I have no formal training in comedy but, as Jews are wont to do, I consider myself something of a comedian (and a tragedian too!). These talents notwithstanding, the only insight I have about Sarah Silverman's recent pro-Obama video entitled "The Great Schelp" is that it is: 1) funny, 2) refreshingly anti-PC, and, 3) based on the rather questionable surmise that Jews might actually be able to tilt the vote in Florida.
As for funny, well, just watch the clip. That young African-American men and Jewish grandmothers have in common a love of track suits, Cadillacs and their grandchildren is perhaps the only joke from the video that I can recount on the august (web) pages of The Washington Post.
Yesterday, the Alliance Defense Fund staged its highly anticipated and controversial "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." Last night, I spoke by phone with three figures who have actively challenged or questioned the ADF's initiative. All agreed the stunt was a massive violation of federal tax law that should result in IRS sanctions.
According to the ADF's site, 33 pastors in 22 states were expected to preach "about the moral qualifications of candidates seeking political office. The pastors will exercise their First Amendment right to preach on the subject, despite federal tax regulations that prohibit intervening or participating in a political campaign."
Put differently, the pastors were threatening to break the law (and by all accounts they did!). The federal tax regulations which the ADF intended to violate are found in the Internal Revenue Service's 501(c) (3) section which prohibits charitable organizations from, among other things, endorsing political candidates. None of this seems to worry the ADF and its many lawyers. In fact, they are actually hoping to get a rise out of the IRS--all the better to get this party started in the United States Supreme Court.
In the last few days we have come to learn a lot about the John McCain Playbook. It features chapters like "How to Really Tick Off the National Press Corps," "Getting Talk Show Hosts to Loathe You," "Quarantining Your Running Mate From any Form of Meaningful Interaction with the Media," and the ever important "National Presidential Debates: How to Hold them Hostage to Your Awesome Maverick-y Whims."
The McCain campaign is fast becoming a gimmick machine, the Harlem Globetrotters of modern presidential campaigning (Look! There goes Steve Schmidt spraying water in the University of Mississippi's face, a la Meadowlark Lemon). For those who prefer football metaphors, the campaign is starting to resemble a team that runs nothing but trick plays (and, in an effort to achieve balance, lobs a couple of Hail Marys, as well).
On September 28th the socially conservative Alliance Defense Fund is going to goad, stoke and provoke a federal agency that most Americans hope will never, ever take notice of them. That agency would be the Internal Revenue Service and let me add that you must really be devoted to an issue, or certain of victory, or a masochist it you want to publicly draw a line in the sand with this office of government.
This past week a group of 300 rabbis formally announced their intention "to support Senator Obama for President." The formation of "Rabbis for Obama" strikes me as very good for the Democratic ticket. But not so good for Jews or, more precisely, Judaism.
Beliefnet has drawn attention to an innovative PR cum merchandising initiative from the Obama campaign. Religious supporters of the Senator from Illinois can now purchase tee shirts, buttons and bumper stickers with faith-specific messages such as "BELIEVERS FOR BARACK" or "PRO-FAMILY AND PRO-OBAMA," or "CATHOLICS FOR OBAMA."
According to Paul Monteiro, Deputy Director of Religious Affairs, the new products permit customers "to show your support for Barack Obama as a person of faith." Well, all of this got me thinking about other religious constituencies whose support for the Democratic ticket will be crucial come Election Day. What would their T-shirts look like? :
This past Friday marked the first time since John McCain's selection of a vice-presidential running mate that the Democrats actually "won" a daily news cycle.
Your weekend was eventful, so to refresh your memory: Sarah Palin did not exactly kill in her interview with Charles Gibson. Alaska lawmakers voted not to delay further inquiries into Troopergate until after the election. And most importantly, John McCain was taken to task on The View for recent attack ads on Barack Obama.
Watch the video and you will see the hosts pressing an uncomfortable McCain about two negative spots his campaign ran. One alleged that his opponent made porcine allusions in reference to Sarah Palin. The other suggested that Obama voted in favor of providing five-year olds with sex education.
Making sense of the Jewish vote in 2008 is something of an emerging specialization at the University of Faith and Values Politicking (where I coach the Kickline team in addition to my normal academic responsibilities). Here are a few questions and propositions to be considered:
Does John McCain's selection of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate dramatically impact the way Jews will vote?: My intuition screams "no!" But another voice in my head whispers that her appearance on the ticket could create difficulties if and when the Obama campaign decides it actually wants to win this election.
For now, what her selection does do is "seal the deal" for those who were leaning either Democratic or Republican. In just two short weeks, Governor Palin has emerged as the New Boogeywoman Of The Liberal Psyche. Jewish (and non-Jewish) voters of the Blue persuasion will be doing their very best to make sure she serves out her term as Governor of Alaska.
As for McCain supporters, unless there are groups out there like "Pro-Choice Jews for McCain," or "The Jewish Coalition for the Preservation of Moose" I don't see how Palin turns any Members of the Tribe away from the Maverick.
In terms of Faith and Values politicking, it's been a rough week for the Democrats. Yesterday, while Sarah Palin was (again) reminding folks of Barack Obama's views on bitter Americans clinging to religion and guns, Joseph Biden found himself enmeshed in the one religiously themed debate he must steadfastly avoid. The issue in question: What else? Abortion.
On Meet the Press this past Sunday Senator Biden reiterated that, as a Catholic, he is personally opposed to abortion. He went on to add, however, that as a public servant he does not wish to impose this religious conviction on others. (One of the Bishops who challenged this line of reasoning, as fate would have it, came from the battleground state of Pennsylvania. Yup. It's been a rough week.).
Yesterday, I implored Barack Obama to re-energize Progressive Evangelicals. He needs to convince them afresh that a Christian's political portfolio extends beyond opposition to abortion and gays. He needs to convince them that his policies better address their concerns about the environment, poverty, sexual trafficking, genocidal regimes and AIDS, than those of McCain. And he must convince them to spread this Gospel to their fence-sitting co-religionists
Today, I wish to stress that his campaign had better rethink its reluctance to get nasty in the domain of Faith and Values politicking. Obama, I think, tends to see this domain as some sort of sacred space, one in which laudable religious virtues should inform his behavior on the campaign trail. He appears to subscribe to an unwritten commandment (inscribed in no political Torah that I know of) stipulating that anything touching upon God or belief must remain strictly in the realm of the positive.
Now that Wasilla Bible Church member Sarah Palin has joined the McCain ticket, Barack Obama suddenly has an "Evangelical Concern" on his hands. I am not prepared to upgrade his predicament to an "Evangelical Problem." Not yet. But Governor Palin's emergence does put a crimp in Obama's carefully crafted Faith and Values outreach. Here are three reasons why and one key question to think about:
Hillary Clinton delivered a resplendent, American Odyssey of a speech last night. In so doing, she may have finally reanimated the increasingly lifeless campaign of her one-time rival, Barack Obama. Too, her address made nary a mention of religion and faith.
Michelle Obama also laid off the God Talk in her remarks on Monday. That's two nights in a row! Two nights in a row of what Republicans would have once dubbed as "godlessness" emanating from the featured speakers at the Democratic National Convention.
Michelle Obama's speech last night in Denver was quite skillfully executed. I would describe it as "a refreshing secular surprise." Surprising because of late we have come to expect nothing less than sermons and homilies from the 2008 Democrats. Refreshing because she managed to speak about family, community and country without quoting First Thessalonians, or mentioning her personal relation with Jesus Christ, or asking us to praise Him.
She didn't need to do any of that. Her party, after all, has so ramped up the God Talk that they no longer need to rehearse their religious bona fides at every turn. Too, there might have been other motivations for tamping down the faith-based stuff: the Obamas' messy divorce from their controversial church of two decades necessitated that she say little about her formative religious experiences.
In terms of target audiences, and in deference to the Democrats' love of 70s pop, let's refer to this evening as "Ladies Night." Cleverly, Ms. Obama interpreted Hillary Clinton's 18 million votes as a victory for the gals. From there she played countless arpeggios on the theme of her identity as a Family Woman.
On the eve of Barack Obama's announcement of his vice-presidential running mate the following bears repeating: the McCain team takes Obama's ability to play the religious card very seriously. And it would like to do everything within its power to pulverize that appeal to hanging-chad sized smithereens.
To this end, the campaign has released a variant of the infamous "The One" spot that it unleashed three weeks back. This contribution is entitled "The One II-Road to Denver." It has an afterthoughtish, let's-empty-out-the-cupboards quality about it, recycles old footage, and will probably, and rightly, be ignored.
Yet as an indice of some of the lines of attack that the McCain camp is employing it is of great interest. It also raises some urgent tactical questions for the Obama people (who had better stop "high-roading" it on F and V issues):
In terms of Faith and Values politicking, it's kind of hard to get psyched up about the prospect of Joe Biden coming aboard as Barack Obama's running mate. I can't think of any religious constituency he singularly and automatically delivers to the Senator from Illinois Come to think of it, I can' think of any constituency he singularly and automatically delivers. (Admittedly, that's not the only thing a vice-presidential candidate can bring to the table).
On the eve of Barack Obama's announcement of his vice-presidential running mate the following bears repeating: the McCain team takes Obama's ability to play the religious card very seriously. And it would like to do everything within its power to pulverize that appeal to hanging-chad sized smithereens.
Stop the presses! The New York Times and so many others are reporting that John McCain was not, I repeat not, sitting in what Pastor Rick Warren referred to as "the cone of silence" while Barack Obama was questioned during Saturday night's Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency.
The hands-down winner of Saturday evening's Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency was John McCain. The loser was American secularism. As for Barack Obama, well, let's just say it was his most Dukakis-y performance yet.
I am vacationing off the coast of Sicily where internet access is rather spotty (and where no sane person spends much time online anyway). But once I experienced John McCain's "The One" attack ad I immediately put down my octopus-hunting harpoon and started taking notes.
By the time Charlton Heston began doing his Moses shtick I realized I was in the presence of one of the biggest Faith and Values stories of the campaign. So please permit me a few reflections as I sip my Malvasia (BTW: how's the weather in DC?):
For those scholars and journalists covering religious politicking in 2008, John McCain is no muse, no inspired source of ideas and angles, no solvent of writer's block.
He certainly captured our interest when he referred to America as a “Christian Nation” back in the fall. He titillated us when he proclaimed himself to be a Baptist, not an Episcopalian. “Appreciative” is the word I would use to describe how many of us felt when he sought out and subsequently disavowed Reverends Hagee and Parsley.
But other than that, his run for the presidency has been dry toast on a cloudy day for Faith and Values pundits.
As for Barack Obama, well there’s a candidate who generates storylines! Just a few days ago he appeared in prime-time to address a magazine cover which, with a clin d’œil (THAT MEANS “A WINK OF THE EYE” FOR YOU NASCAR-FUME-ADDLED RUBES WHO DON'T UNDERSTAND FRENCH, LET ALONE THE NEW YORKER’S FINELY TUNED SENSE OF IRONY), depicted the Obamas, variously, as: 1) radical Islamists, 2) Black Power militants, 3) Supporters of Osama Bin Laden, and, 4) desecrators of Old Glory.
Senator Obama’s appearance on Larry King Live last night may finally put an end to the ructions caused by The New Yorker’s recent homage to Mad Magazine.
One could argue that the Obama campaign used the controversy over the offensive, albeit technically well-executed, cover as a pretext to get their man some free, national, prime-time exposure. If that was indeed the devious plan, then they pulled it off quite successfully.
“Well, if that’s the way he runs his campaign, I don’t really know if I want this guy to be my president”-- is a refrain I have heard from those covering the Faith and Values operations of both John McCain and Barack Obama.
Barack Obama, that spry Prometheus of the Religious Politicking Heavens, graciously offers observers of Faith and Values outreach something to write (and even think) about nearly every day.
He commandeers pulpits and makes inspiring speeches. He schmoozes with fence- straddling Evangelical and Catholic clergy. Without any prompting, he offers to play out George W. Bush’s third term by expanding his program of faith-based initiatives.
But what about John McCain? When it comes to politics and religion demonstrably less writing and thought have been devoted to him. In what follows I will present what I see as The Wonky Consensus regarding the Maverick’s F and V outreach. In order to balance things out, I will then discuss The Counter-Intuitive Wisdom.
That one must refrain from expressing a desire to castrate a presidential candidate, especially a candidate whom one claims to support, and especially when on the set of Fox and Friends, is a tried and true axiom of beltway punditry.
This past Saturday Senator Barack Obama was at it again. During an address at African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis he reiterated his commitment to expanding President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Such a program, he assured his listeners, would be “the moral center of my administration.”
Thus, the conversation that Obama sparked last Tuesday looks like it’s just revving up. In the hopes of pushing the discussion further along, permit me to provide some responses to frequently asked questions:
Yesterday Senator Obama delivered a bold address in which he spoke of establishing a “Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” This endeavor, he emphasized, “will be a critical part of my administration.”
I am not a legal scholar, but a mere biblical exegete. This disqualifies me from commenting authoritatively or even insightfully on the legality of this proposal--a proposal made by a politician who, incidentally, knows his constitutional law.
Still, Obama's plan strikes me as deeply problematic on both theoretical and practical grounds. Those who may be familiar with my work know that I have been very critical of Old School Secular Liberalism, seeing it as out of ideas and energy. But what I am about to say is going to make me sound so Old School Secular Liberal.
So be it.
Those of us who study religious politicking have had a most eventful spring. We have experienced the YouTube stylings of Father Michael Pfleger. We have had further encounters with the teachings of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Articles about John McCain’s difficulties with Evangelicals now come out at 15-second intervals, so we have been pretty captivated by that as well.
With all the ructions of the past few months, there has been little time to step back and see the Big Picture. It may be helpful, then, to pause and identify leading F and V trends in the second quarter of 2008:
Pundits were left scratching their heads as to what exactly James Dobson was aiming for in his excoriation of Barack Obama. My sources inform me that folks in both the Obama and McCain campaigns don't know what to make of his comments either.
Nor do I. Lest our fingernails dig down to our skulls, permit me a few random observations in an effort to make some sense of it all:
Mississippi native Burns Strider was, until just a few weeks ago, Senior Adviser and Director of Faith Based Outreach for Senator Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. As readers of The God Vote might recall, I thought the team he led performed quite skillfully.
Having completed his duties for the Clinton campaign, Mr. Strider has recently announced the formation of The Eleison Group (of which he is a Founding Partner). He describes it as “a full service firm focusing on faith and values in terms of communications, message development, targeting, strategic planning, clergy and faith group relations, developing relationships and advancing policy that speaks to the common good.”
I would describe it as a “Faith and Values Shop” and it’s one that is poised to further advance the Democratic Party’s surprising resurgence in the domain of religious politicking.
Whether or not you think that this resurgence is in the best interests of the Party (or the country), it’s a resurgence that Mr. Strider is uniquely equipped to bring to fruition. He has served as an adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, directed, the U.S. House Democratic Faith Working Group and Rural Working Group, worked on 15 campaigns (directing 5 of them), and spent two years in Hong Kong as a missionary with the Southern Baptist Convention where he served as a youth minister. In 2007, Religion News Service named him one of the “12 most influential Democrats in the nation on faith and values politics and issues.”
We at “On Faith” thought it would be interesting for our readers to hear from an expert in a form of political outreach that is growing increasingly significant in modern American campaigning, albeit one that is perhaps not widely understood by the public at large. We hope you enjoy this interview, as well as a video of a discussion that Sally Quinn and I had with Mr. Strider (which will be posted shortly).
When it comes to religious politicking, some really intriguing (and ominous) parallels are developing between McCain of 2008 and Kerry of 2004. Let’s start by looking at some of the things that Red John and Blue John share in common, shall we?:
Now I, personally, don’t have strong opinions about Father’s Day. It does, however, strike me as a tad bit incongruous that fathers are expected to spend Father’s Day, in its 7 a.m.-to-8 p.m. entirety, with their children and they are also expected to spend Mother’s Day doing exactly the same thing.
In the 72 hours since I laid out the first 5 of 12 steps that could help rejuvenate John McCain’s flagging Faith and Values outreach, his Faith and Values outreach has somehow flagged a bit more!
Not happily for the Senator from Arizona, stories about his woes with conservative Evangelicals are proliferating. See for example this article from CNN, or listen to this lively discussion on NPR’s To the Point where host Warren Olney interviews journalist Wayne Slater, Evangelical leader Mark DeMoss, Professor Ronald Walters, and me ("Can the Democrats Close the God Gap," June 11th).
Developing a Faith and Values campaign strategy for John McCain in the forthcoming general election is a daunting task. This is because his opponent, the Senator from Illinois, is exceedingly accomplished with religious rhetoric and exceedingly comfortable with diverse religious audiences. The Senator from Arizona is neither. Still, the brutal primary season has exposed vulnerabilities in Obama’s religious coat of mail. Moreover, McCain may have a few major faith constituencies in his pocket (see below). So not all is lost. Not yet. If the Maverick wishes to rack up God Votes in 2008, I would suggest that he consider following 12 recommendations. One of which, I will soon admit, is pretty risky:
With Hillary Clinton’s expected suspension of campaign operations Saturday, the Faith and Values Primary Season will officially come to an end.
Speaking on behalf those who study the intersection between religion and politics I want to give a shout out to all the Republicans and Democrats who ran for the presidency. Especially you, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. You guys were the best.
But now we must move to the general election and here are some of the stories I predict we will be following. First and foremost, expect the candidates to be exceedingly cautious with all forms of Faith and Values politicking. The carefree days when an operative could simply approach a cleric and say “Hey you over there with the megachurch and the media empire. Want to join our team?” are decidedly over.
McCain and Obama have endured third-degree burns across 33% of their spring campaigns as a result of their associations with incendiary spiritual mentors, advisers and endorsers. McCain’s camp was singed because they vetted Reverends Hagee and Parsley poorly.
Obama’s injuries were somewhat different and more difficult to heal. He now lives in constant fear of being jack-in-the-boxed by Reverend Wright or Father Pfleger, or whomever else: 1) was his friend, 2) wears a collar, 3) says awful things about America, and, 4) makes a cameo on YouTube.
The controversies surrounding Trinity United Church of Christ have, understandably, left him gun shy and hesitant when discussing religion. And this reluctance is problematic because Obama is unequivocally superior to McCain when it comes to appealing to religious constituencies.
He is endowed with a sharp theological intellect and knows how to do Advanced God Talk (i.e., God Talk directed to people who are not within your own faith tradition). Obama is a very special politician in that he can connect with people who are very different from him. In theory, he should be able to play the ecumenical card to great advantage.
This calls attention to a tactical quandary that confronts Team Obama: how will the Senator from Illinois press his competitive religious advantages in light of recent pastor disasters? Think of Obama like a fighter jet: lethal when in the air, but merely nice to look at when sitting in the hangar. At present, his Faith and Values operation is grounded.
His handlers have to figure out how to thrust him back into the oratorical heavens, so to speak. The challenge is to get him aloft without the publicity-seeking missiles of Trinity Church sending him hurtling back to earth.
At the same time, Obama’s Faith and Values unit will be waging pitched battles on the Evangelical, Jewish, and Catholic fronts. I assume that Mainline Protestants will vote for him overwhelmingly. Ditto for the "No Religion" people. But after that he will need to role up his sleeves and fight in the name of god votes
For starters, he will need to make inroads in the lucrative Evangelical market. His goals here should be twofold. First (and this is very doable) he needs to draw the small but growing progressive Evangelical wing to his candidacy.
Second (and this a bit harder), he must not alienate White Evangelicals who won’t vote for him anyhow. This may sound counter-intuitive, but given that McCain has a history of troubles with this group, Obama will increase his chances by not giving conservative Evangelicals any reason to circle November 4th on their calendars.
John Kerry won a scant 21% of the Evangelical vote in 2004. If Obama can carry between 31-35% this time around he will be in excellent shape. Kerry, however, carried 76% of the much smaller Jewish ballot. The 2008 Democratic nominee would do well to approximate this number. Of course, his adversary has already tarred him as inexperienced and unreliable on Israeli security and Iranian aggression.
To counteract this Obama needs to surround himself with highly skilled national security advisers who do not have neon-light blinking reputations as doves and/or "State Department Arabists." (His recent address at AIPAC was, in the view of some, also a step in the right direction).
Playing to his strengths, he needs to spend a lot of time kibbitzing in swing-state synagogues especially of the Conservative and Modern Orthodox denominations (He has solid support among the more liberal Reform Jews).
No convincing explanation has emerged for Obama’s struggles with Catholics in the primaries. Since one ought never futz around with the nation’s largest faith constituency, the Senator will have to think carefully about how to woo them. The trouble is that the staunchly anti-abortion McCain generally polls well among White and Latino Catholics.
While Obama’s pro-choice views guarantee that a segment of Catholics will never vote for him, once again his handlers must be confident that to know him is to love him. It is here where he must take to the skies and speak about things like compassion and unjust wars and grace. His rhetorical gifts and human touch (and choice of a Catholic VP?) will be of the utmost importance if he is to ascend to electoral heaven.
"My -- again what I want to do in church is I want to be able to take Michelle and my girls, sit in a pew quietly, hopefully get some nice music, some good reflection, praise God, thank Him for all of the blessings He has given our family, put some money in the collection plate, maybe afterwards go out and grab some brunch, have my girls go to Sunday school. That's what I am looking for." Senator Barack Obama discussing his reasons for leaving his church this past weekend in Aberdeen, South Dakota
“Disastertunist” is the term I use to refer to that person who always manages to find an opportunity lurking in what everyone else would consider to be an unmitigated disaster. One finds disastertunists working for all successful political campaigns. Their numbers are also pronounced among venture capitalists, professional alpaca breeders, and fans of the New York Jets.
The Obama campaign is desperately in need of such individuals and I would urge its human resources division to start posting those job descriptions now. Qualified candidates must have the ability--an ability lacking among his strategists-- to immediately recognize a catastrophe when they see one.
Such a person could have helped Obama’s handlers (and perhaps The New York Times as well) confront a truth they stubbornly resisted for months. Namely, that nothing, but nothing, has threatened his victory in November more than his association with Trinity United Church of Christ.
A disastertunist is an optimist, but ultimately a realist a well. The reality is--and it must be very painful for the Senator to accept--that there are people at Trinity who don’t very much like him and don’t wish him well.
A few bleary eyed reflections on last night’s three speeches:
The McCain Speech: I am not W
Demosthenes he’s not! The Senator from Arizona, as we learned again, is not an inspiring orator. But in his defense, he was saddled tonight with the most subdued audience in the history of rhetoric. Where are those four guys whooping it up behind Father Pfleger when you need them?
Then again, maybe “low-key” is the way to go. McCain will never out-dazzle Obama. He knows that and perhaps that’s why he staged his remarks in what looked like a crab shack. Making a virtue out of necessity his handlers will cast him as a down-to-earth alternative to the spectacular, high-falutin' Obama.
By the time you finish watching this YouTube video(which had about 95,000 showings as of this morning) it will be well on its way to reaching: 1) its one millionth viewing, and, 2) its one billionth close reading by Clinton and McCain staffers.
The action took place last Sunday at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Yes. That Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago! This time, however, the valedictory is made not by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but by a white Chicago Catholic priest by the name of Rev. Michael Pfleger.
During his sermon, Father Pfleger mocked Hillary Clinton’s tears before the New Hampshire primary. He opines that she cried because she felt "entitled" because she is white "and there's a black man stealing my show.' Father Pfleger apologized late Thursday for the remarks, saying his sermon was "inconsistent with Senator Obama's life and message."
Why? Why, I ask, did John McCain disarticulate his presidential campaign from Pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley last week? As we shall see below, he cut them off even though it looked like he would overcome the turbulence created by their support. I have a few theories, but first permit me to point out that the Senator's move spells trouble for Spiritual Endorsers far and wide.
In the bestiary of Faith and Values politicking the Spiritual Endorser occupies a place distinct from the Spiritual Mentor (with whom s/he is always confused). Spiritual Endorsers (such as John Hagee) are to be distinguished from Spiritual Mentors (such as Jeremiah Wright) in the following tripartite respect. To begin with, the Endorser need not be of the same faith tradition as the endorsee.
Watching the Oregon returns on CNN last Tuesday night, I was intrigued by an odd statistic: among those who described themselves as professing “no religion,” 61% cast their ballot for Senator Obama.
My curiosity piqued, I proceeded to scour Democratic exit polls to see if this was some sort of fluke. It was no fluke: of the 30 states where I could find comparable data, Obama won the “no religion” crowd an astonishing 26 times!
This pattern held in the early races where three or more candidates were on the slate. And it held in the later, head-to-head contests against Senator Clinton (though she carried them in Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, and West Virginia).
Much has been said over the past few weeks about the fatal, tactical missteps made by Hillary Clintonâ€™s campaign. These include a troubling lack of caucus know-how, an overabundance of underestimating the competition, and shortsightedness in long-term planning for the primary season.
After tonight's Oregon primary, it seems likely that more autopsic observations such as these are in store for tomorrow. But if there is one component of Clinton's operation that does not deserve the label "pathological," it would be her religious outreach unit; it was one of the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing effort.
Evangelical Pastor John Hagee has issued a written apology to Catholics. Bill Donahue has accepted the apology and decreed the case â€œclosed.â€ â€œWhatever problems we had before,â€ announced the president of the Catholic League, â€œare now history.â€
Under most circumstances only those devoted to the promulgation of ecumenical good will would pay any attention to this. But many people are paying attention to this. And they are not brimming with ecumenical good will.
Having had the weekend to further reflect on the Evangelical Manifesto, I am happy (and relieved) to report that I still concur with my initial assessment. After a few more perusals, however, three new observations come to mind.
To begin with the document might have been more aptly entitled â€œThe Evangelical Intellectualsâ€™ Manifesto.â€ Itâ€™s a thoughtful and challenging piece, full of self-criticism and open-ended questions. In this respect it brings to the fore a side of this culture which most non-Evangelicals never knew existed.
Televangelists, Megachurches, Jesus Campers, scandal-plagued pastors, and bestselling authors peddling low-wattage Christological pulpâ€”those are things that most non-Evangelicals knew existed.
This week a group of scholars and theologians released the â€œEvangelical Manifestoâ€ at the National Press Club. It is a thoughtful, ambitious, if somewhat uneven, treatise and I wonder if the decision to premiere the document in Washington D.C. was necessarily a wise one.
It might have received a more serious reading (which it deserved) had it been unveiled at Wheaton or Taylor, or some other Evangelical college of distinction. After all, a doctrinally freighted statement like, â€œAll too often we have been seduced by the shaping power of the modern world, exchanging a costly grace for convenience,â€ is not the type of claim that most journalists are equipped to assess without calling their contacts at the local seminary.
I would like to make a few observations about last night's primaries, in particular the themes and images struck by the candidates in their respective victory speeches. But first, permit me one unsolicited--and unoriginal--observation: Oh Good Lord what a friggin' mess the Democrat nominating process is!
Between pledged delegates and Super Delegates and the popular vote and secretive caucuses and Florida and Michigan, I confess to being utterly dumbfounded as to: a) whom the totality of Democratic voters (as opposed to, for example, Republican voters who gleefully participated in primary day festivities) actually favor, and, b) whether the whole convoluted process can in any way, shape, or form yield the most electable candidate.
It is midweek. Reverend Jeremiah Wright has spoken and every national news outlet has gone to Code Red.
The fallout from the pastorâ€™s triptych of fulmination (Moyers/NAACP/NPC) has whipped the punditry up into a frenzy. The pollsters are re-tabulating. The Super Delegates are posturing and re-positioning. The operatives are shouting their talking points. The moderators are appealing for calm.
Footage of Wright doing his (not un-amusing) â€œBut-Black-Folks- Do-It-Like-This!â€ routine is being looped endlessly. As is the image of a tense Obama standing on a runway and looking like his head is about to explode.
Standing on a tarmac yesterday a rather tense Barack Obama said of Jeremiah Wright: â€œHe does not speak for me. He does not speak for the campaign.â€
True enough. But how exactly should the Senator speak in the aftermath of the Reverendâ€™s recent attempts to McGovernize and Mondaleize his candidacy? Permit me to rehearse some possible responses to the existential threat posed by Wright. But please recall that none of the forthcoming proposals is particularly good. Like America's foreign policy options in Iran, the Senatorâ€™s alternatives in this crisis can be described as â€œbadâ€ and â€œworseâ€:
As with most analysts who cover the 2008 election I receive my share of spin-related e-mails (referred to from here on in as â€œSpreemailsâ€) from the campaigns of those running for high office.
It seems like an eternity since Senator Barack Obama’s winter of ascent. Remember the 12 consecutive triumphs? Remember Ted Kennedy and American University levitating off their moorings in Washington? Remember the 45-minute (!) victory speech on February 19th in front of nearly 20,000 delirious Texans?
But spring, as the jazz singers remind us, can really hang you up the most. March and April have brought with them some bad energy for the Obama camp. Was I the only one who saw an ominous portent in that cringe-inducing footage of some imbecile in Philadelphia hounding the Senator to pose for a picture and autograph his Cheese Steak? (Note to the Secret Service: the threat of being tasered is an exceedingly effective deterrent).
This has been the season of Rezko and Samantha Power and typical white persons and Reverend Wright and so much bitterness. As for the latter, the words are now well known. At a fund-raiser in San Francisco, Obama spoke of rural folks “cling[ing] to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
There were many winners at Sunday night’s Compassion Forum at Messiah College and no discernible losers as far as I could tell.
For starters, the sponsoring and organizing group, Faith in Public Life, handled logistics superbly. FPL is setting an agenda and it is doing so with a “Big Tent” philosophy of letting different religious Americans bring their concerns to the fore. Last night a theologically diverse group of pre-selected clergy asked questions about euthanasia, environmental concerns, poverty, AIDS, the relation between science and faith, and so on. In so doing, they broadened the issue palette pertaining to religious politicking considerably. This is where Faith in Public Life is making a major contribution to national discourse.
As I get ready for this Sunday’s Compassion Forum, I keep repeating to myself the French maxim: “Les absents ont toujours tort” (Who said that? La Rochefoucauld? When in doubt always say La Rochefoucauld).
The proverb translates as “those who are not present are always wrong” and my guess is that senators Obama and Clinton will discuss at length what they view as the wrongfulness of (the absent) John McCain’s policies, not to mention those of the party that he represents.
This raises the question as to why the Senator from Arizona declined the invitation to participate from the sponsoring group, Faith in Public Life.
Yet there is one rite of spring which leaves me decidedly glum. I refer to the start of baseball season. Compounding my despair is the veritable Cult of Baseball that predominates in the newsrooms of America. Question: How do you know itâ€™s Opening Day? Answer: When half the (often secular) pundits nationwide are writing columns about baseball being like religion. Like their religion.
Analysis of the first quarter of 2008 suggests that Faith and Values Politicking is Like Skating--Check That: Speed Skating--On Thin Ice With a Little Vial of Nitroglycerin Stashed in a Recess of Your Skin-Tight, Oddly Eroticized, Aerodynamic Suit. Indeed, a glance at the past three months reminds us of the truism that playing the religion card may diminish electoral profitability.
Take, for example, Mike Huckabee. His disquisition on amending the Constitution to God's standards clearly antagonized secularists. It also led some religious non-Evangelicals to change their perception of Huck from “likeable, guitar-strumming Christian dude” to “dangerous Right-wing fanatic.” But my hunch was that patriotic Evangelicals were dismayed by the intemperance of those remarks as well.
Over in the Obama camp, the combustive properties of God Talk are now also well appreciated. The Senator’s published tributes to Jeremiah Wright were eagerly cited by opponents celebrating the nation’s one billionth viewing of the Reverend's YouTube philippics.
Section 1. The right of presidential aspirants to discuss religion, invoke sacred texts, or mention God on the campaign trail is hereby repealed Section 2. Whenever a religious figure endorses any candidate for the presidency that candidate must reject aforesaid endorsement. Section 3. The Congress shall have power to have the offending religious figure immediately deported to France
Section 2. Whenever a religious figure endorses any candidate for the presidency that candidate must reject aforesaid endorsement.
Section 3. The Congress shall have power to have the offending religious figure immediately deported to France
Thatâ€™s because there is long tradition of outstanding and invigorating oratory in African America. How outstanding and invigorating? So much so that an accomplished speaker such as Senator Barack Obama would still be considered to be a mere promising Triple-A prospect by the lofty standards of black public rhetoric.
Why am I, as with many other members of the professorate, so enthralled by him? Well, for one he doesnâ€™t merely wish to solicit our votes, he wants to edify us as well. Yet in many ways this relentless quest to enlighten the electorate was one of the major problems with Tuesdayâ€™s oration.
It has come to my attention, however, that many of my compatriots do not. Reverend Barry Lynnâ€™s organization recently reported that 65 % of Americans believed that "the Founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation.â€ A 2006 study by the Pew Forum noted that nearly 7 out of 10 citizens say that â€œliberals have gone too far in keeping religion out of schools and government.â€
Here are some of the unusual things that happened four years ago. First and foremost, in the person of George W. Bush, Evangelicals had themselves a keeper, an ideal candidate. In their eyes he was â€œone of us.â€ The leadership was squarely behind him, as was the rank-and-file.
Admit it, Secular America. If Mike Huckabee had said something like this on the campaign trail you’d be locking and loading faster than you could hum John Lennon’s lyric “Imagine all the people, Living life in peace”:
And during the course of that sermon, I was introduced to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, He could set me on the path to eternal life.
And you’d probably be thinking again of applying for Canadian citizenship -- just ‘fess up: you were scouting properties in northern Manitoba back around Thanksgiving 2004 -- if the former governor of Arkansas declaimed:
And whenever I hear stories about Americans who feel like no one’s looking out for them, like they’ve been left behind, I’m reminded that God has a plan for his people. . . . But it’s a plan He’s left to us to fulfill.
Note to McCain operatives: Any and all attempts to malign Barack Obama as “all hat, no cattle,” "electoral eye candy," “eloquent but empty,” are doomed to fail. Most Americans will find it difficult to reconcile those descriptions with the heady and effortlessly intelligent person they see on the nightly news. Most Americans will reject the argument that the fellow with the J.D. from Harvard who lectured on constitutional law at the University of Chicago is all fluff.
Over the past month we have witnessed the emergence of a veritable sub-genre of political reportage: the don’t-count-Hillary-out-just-yet story. With its Yes She Can! effusions this type of journalism does not lack in counter-intuitive charms. But I think prudence (and a glance at the polls) dictates that we start thinking concretely about Barack Obama’s prospects in a general election. Any discussion of these prospects must take into consideration the good Senator’s ability to reverse trends that doomed the Democrats in the last election. In 2004 Kerry/Edwards lost nearly four out of every five votes cast by White Evangelicals. Compounding the problem was the strange fact that the majority of Catholics voted against their co-religionist from Massachusetts.
Over the past three years I have been making a variety of arguments about American secularism, nearly all of which were greeted with either apathy or derision. These arguments were made in scholarly articles and on this blog, but mostly in two books, Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics and The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously. The “On Faith” editors have asked their distinguished panelists to consider one of these ideas: the contention that secularism has become a taboo subject in the current presidential race. Before getting to their comments--most of which enlightened me, some of which induced a bout of tachycardia--let me briefly outline some of the once-unpopular positions that I advanced. The first argument was readily visible to those who studied the results of the 2006 mid-term elections. Namely, that the Democrats were starting to “get” religion. Doing so, of course, necessitated getting rid of excessive entanglement with secular policy positions, ideas, and candidates. Accordingly, I argued that the 2008 Democrats were going to abandon their traditional emphasis on issues pertaining to separation of Church and State (at least in their rhetoric). This they have done. As we will see below, the question remains as to whether this is just a ploy.
I confess to being a bit confused by the goals of last week’s widely discussed New Baptist Covenant Celebration. You know the one. It took place in Atlanta. Its most prominent impresario was President Carter. Something like 15,000 delegates from 30 organizations representing 20 million Baptists came to witness. It seems to have been a happy, soul-affirming and diverse affair. The New York Times describes the uplifted participants as “blacks and whites, old and young, Northerners and Southerners, Democrats and Republicans.” Although I have never personally experienced anything soul-affirming--that's because I do not possess a soul--none of this confuses me (Though for reasons that will become clear, I think the presence of Republicans may have been overstated). What confuses me is the dogged insistence of the conference organizers that this was not in any way, shape, or form a political gathering.
It seems like just a few months ago--October to be exact--I was chatting with a person working for President Bush who was anticipating a plum new job in the Giuliani administration. Sure, there would be some rough sledding with Hillary Clinton in the fall. She’s a formidable candidate. But in the end, my overconfident Muscatel-quaffing lunchtime chum looked forward to serving another commander-in-chief who would make national security his top priority. My conversational partner was mistaken. So were those pundits and pollsters who also viewed America’s Mayor as a lock. And as I articulate a few less obvious reasons to explain Giuliani’s stunning plunge let me begin by noting that Giuliani himself erred by accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency in August 2007.
On "The God Vote This Week,"
Over the past few weeks I have been tracking an intriguing trend: assorted presidential candidates are acknowledging that nonbelievers might actually be decent, patriotic Americans. The first raising-of-the-glass to the godless occurred a few weeks back. Mike Huckabee, under tough cross-examination by Tim Russert, asserted that “he wouldn't have any problem at all appointing atheists” to posts in his administration. “I probably had some working for me as governor,” he went on to observe. Who knew?
On "The God Vote This Week,"
It was John Edwards, I thought, who made the best impression at Monday's Congressional Black Caucus Institute debate. But the real story emerging from last night is that the Democrats are fielding not one, not two, but three credible, thoroughly electable choices for high office. If voter turnout in caucuses and primaries is a reliable metric, then it seems that Democratic voters are, shall we say, motivated. My surmise is that the vast majority of Blue-staters will rally enthusiastically around any of these candidates in a general election. Can the same be said about the fractured Republican base? If John McCain wins the nomination will Giuliani supporters--out of some previously undetected sense of loyalty to the GOP--work phone banks for him late into those autumnal nights? If Mitt Romney gets the nod will Mike Huckabee’s large--though not overwhelmingly large as South Carolina showed us--contingent of Evangelical backers grace him with their ballots? Yup. It was a great night for the Democrats.
This past Monday, as most of America now knows, Mike Huckabee effectively told the Constitution that it had better get right with God. In so doing, he committed the single most egregious Faith and Values’ blunder of the 2008 campaign. In a follow-up interview with Steven Waldman and Dan Gilgoff, the former governor of Arkansas conceded that he may have phrased it “awkwardly.” Yet his subsequent responses to their insightful questions did little to suggest he did not mean what he said. I will get to that fascinating interview next week. But today I want to return to Huckabee’s original words--words which will haunt this relatively young politician throughout his career:
I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do — is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family.
Now that we have examined Mike Huckabee’s views on wifely (and husbandly) submission, it is time to turn to another important issue that came up in last week's GOP debate. Namely, his assurance that as president he would never impose his faith on other Americans. He made this claim in response to a question posed by Carl Cameron--a question that itself raised some questions:
Cameron: Governor Huckabee, to change the subject a little bit and focus a moment on electability. Back in 1998, you were one of about 100 people who affirmed, in a full-page ad in the New York Times, the Southern Baptist Convention's declaration that, quote, "A wife us to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband." Women voters in both parties harshly criticized that. Is that position politically viable in the general election of 2008, sir? Huckabee: You know, it's interesting, everybody says religion is off limits, except we always can ask me the religious questions. So let me try to do my best to answer it.
In light of the responses to Friday’s post, I get the distinct impression that some of you are hankering for a little exegetical action. A few commentators have argued that Mike Huckabee was absolutely correct when he claimed last Thursday that the Book of Ephesians teaches us that: “as wives submit themselves to their husbands the husbands also submit themselves [to their wives].” But I am sticking to my guns. His "egalitarian" reading of that Scripture strikes me as extremely problematic. But more to the point, he is evasively backing away from the less-than egalitarian conclusions of the Report of the Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee to the Southern Baptist Convention—conclusions which he enthusiastically endorsed in a 1998 USA Today advertisement. First let's deal with the Scriptures. Then with the SBC report.
At last night’s intermittently entertaining GOP debate in South Carolina, Mike Huckabee was asked about a 1998 USA Today advertisement in which he and 130 other signatories endorsed the Report of the Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee to the Southern Baptist Convention.
One of the lines from the report that Huckabee and others praised a decade ago reads as follows: “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.” For months now, bloggers have been mulling this over -- something that the diligent Fox News staff must have picked up on (Though the ad, I as best I can tell, only appeared in USA Today and not The New York Times , as Carl Cameron's question indicated). Huckabee responded calmly, with the demeanor of a professor clarifying a popular misconception expressed by a well-meaning, but utterly misguided, freshman.
Precious little was said about Faith and Values during last night’s Republican Presidential Candidates Debate held in Johnston Iowa. Mike Huckabee cited Matthew 25:40 (It wasn’t his first time and it won’t be his last). The former governor of Arkansas also insisted that faith must drive a politician’s judgment and value system. A clear sign, indubitably, that he: 1) does not share John Kerry’s concerns about candidates wearing their faith on their sleeves, and, 2) can be expected to thump the Bible hard in the coming weeks. Then there was Alan Keyes. When he wasn’t chastising the moderator (and others) he reminded us that the Constitution is subservient to the Creator. Not an uninteresting formulation, actually. Article II, Section 1 demands that a president must “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution. Call me a talmudist, if you must, but Keyes raises a good theoretical question: if God Himself were to come down to earth and wreak havoc with our cherished constitutional liberties would an American president be obliged to take Him on? Aside from that, there was little God Talk at last night’s encounter. The proceedings were civil and sedate, though not overwhelmingly substantive. And this is where my post would conclude had not my wife--a New York fashion stylist currently living in exile--wandered into the room. Her impromptu comments on the sartorial strengths and weaknesses of the men assembled on stage livened up an otherwise dull evening. Our shared observations are noted below:
On Friday I devoted 99% of my 20/20 vision to a peculiar question asked by a participant in the CNN YouTube Republican presidential debate. You remember the one—a fellow named Joseph from Dallas dangled a King James Version of the Bible directly in front of the camera and asked: “Do you believe every word of this book? And I mean specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand.”
At Wednesday night’s Republican CNN/YouTube Debate Joseph from Dallas pulled off the complex feat of simultaneously creeping out a good part of the nation all the while provoking three GOP presidential candidates to bear their scriptural souls. His question, asked with more than a smidgen of menace, was phrased as follows: I am Joseph. I am from Dallas, Texas, and how you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book [he places the cover that reads “Holy Bible” in front of the camera]? And I mean specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand [turning the spine of the text to the camera indicating that it is the King James Version]. Do you believe this book?
It is my opinion -- and I’ll concede that I am probably not inner-tube floating in the American mainstream here -- that persons of questionable moral scruples can make perfectly good presidents. I will refer to this way of thinking about national leaders as The French Model in honor of François Mitterrand. When the president of France died in 1996 his long-time mistress was in attendance at his funeral. Anne Pingeot’s appearance at his grave (with her child by Mitterrand) surprised absolutely no one in the Hexagon. That none of his other mistresses (and their little ones) had the common decency to pay their final respects, now that was surprising. Of course, Mitterrand’s hyper-ambiguous Vichy past cautions us against fetishizing a public servant’s categorical right to privacy. For our purposes, we must understand that the French Model denies the existence of any correlation between personal ethics and political competence. And in this way the French Model is radically different from the approach we have had stateside for the past few decades.
Is it just my imagination or are Faith and Values issues less central to the current campaign than many of us thought they would be? It seems like an eternity since the Republican Simi Valley debate of last May--the one where three anti-evolution candidates raised their hands to the skies like Cro-Magnon men rejoicing over newly discovered fire. How things have changed. I first took note of this following the Republican debate of early October -- an event that was surprisingly light on God Talk. Religious themes were also few and far between at the MSNBC Democratic get-together on Halloween eve. And at last Thursday’s Las Vegas debate -- the one where John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama all started Kung Fu Fighting -- faith-based chit-chat was kept to an absolute minimum.
While stumping in Greenville South Carolina this past week Mitt Romney botched a scriptural citation. I feel his pain. I am not being cheeky. I really do feel his pain. The former governor of Massachusetts was just minding his own business, standing outside an adoption agency and riffing on the theme of children to assorted journalists and onlookers. CNN’s Peter Hamby who reported the story describes the scene as follows, jittery real-life syntax and all:
It’s official. Even though James Dobson explicitly denied it last month, we can now say with certainty: Conservative Christian America is “hopelessly fractured and internally antagonistic.” The signs of discord can be detected on any newspaper page. Last week Pat Robertson’s decided to throw his weight behind Rudy Giuliani. This came on the heels of Paul Weyrich’s endorsement of Mitt Romney. And through it all, the surging Mike Huckabee was being feted by scores of other Evangelical and Fundamentalist pastors. (Fred Thompson, by contrast, has yet to receive the unambiguous benediction of any major Christian figure. This leads me to wonder: would his candidacy suffer in any tangible way if he were to proclaim himself an atheist?)
Pandering to a religious constituency in a presidential election has its ups and downs. The ups: The fundraisers where the hosts invite all of their fabulous, deep-pocketed co-religionists: The clergy singing your praises (without specifically intoning your name) from the pulpit: Church photo-ops where old women in wheelchairs roll up to you (or are launched in your direction by shameless staffers) and clutch your hand at precisely the moment that the guy from AP is snapping pictures. And then there are the votes. Oh the votes! For it sometimes happens that a religious group votes in a block. Professor Berlinerblau’s Law: it is worthwhile to pander to a religious constituency when the constituency in question will give you over 75% of its ballot. Corollary to Professor Berlinerblau’s Law: the religious constituency in question had better be large enough to merit your attention, so Shakers are definitely out.
“I don’t believe in God.”
“You’re a rabbi, how can you not believe in God?”
“It’s what’s so great about being Jewish. You don’t have to believe in a God per se, just in being Jewish.” With these words, the underappreciated Mr. Beatty calls attention to a truism that is itself underappreciated by many observers of contemporary Jewish life. A small, but not inconsiderable number of Jews have either critically questioned or denied the existence of God, all the while maintaining a thoroughgoing, self-conscious identification with Judaism.
Tonight I will be in New York City speaking about religion and politics at the New School for Social Research How I am delighted to return to my ancestral homeland! How I am looking forward to dialoging with my co-presenter, the ever so thoughtful scholar of faith and faithlessness in the public sphere, Professor Wilfred McClay! And, oh, how I dread being subjected to Amtrak’s patented Fall-of-Saigon boarding techniques at Union Station! This surfeit of emotions may, understandably, detract from the quality of the forthcoming post.
I consider it to be one of the most important campaign developments of 2008 that every major aspirant for the presidency must now submit a Faith and Values Portfolio to the American electorate. These portfolios are usually crammed with the strangest things, the most variegated faith-based overgrowth (e.g., spiritual mentors, conversion experiences, family Bibles trotted out for inspection by journalists). But beneath this luxuriant vegetation all FVPs are rooted in a candidate’s: 1) personal narrative of faith, and, 2) vision of the place of religion in American public life. For the first time in recent memory all the Democratic frontrunners have solid FVPs. This is unusual. Around primary time there has always been a John Kerry, or a Howard Dean, or a Jerry Brown, or a Paul Tsongas, or a Michael Dukakis on the ticket--secular ministers without portfolio. But with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, the Democrats are assured of nominating a candidate who can appeal effectively to religious constituencies.
It is difficult to draw conclusions about the extraordinarily unscientific straw poll conducted at this weekend’s so-called values voters summit. (In fact, the polling methods were so irregular that I wonder if an ombudsman at some major newspaper is questioning the propriety of publishing the numbers). In order to take the results seriously one must assume that the members of the group sponsoring the event, the Family Research Council, are representative of something, anything, beyond themselves. Are they representative of Evangelical America? If so why did they shunt Giuliani into eighth place when all previous polling indicates that Evangelicals rank him at, or near, the top of the slate? Are they representative of America at large? If so how on earth did the iconoclastic congressman Ron Paul come in third?
Yesterday I conjured up a hypothetical faith-based calamity that might strike the Giuliani campaign. Today, there is no need to conjure. The scenario I am about to describe has already happened. But I am getting ahead of myself. In the winter of 2004 Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis had made it known that he would not grant Communion to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. The demurral from the campaign of the pro-Choice senator from Massachusetts was polite (as all responses to the Church must be): "The archbishop has the right to deny Communion to whoever he wants, but Senator Kerry respectfully disagrees with him on the issue of choice." Let’s call this a Communion-denial story. Political handlers hate Communion-denial stories. But here’s something they hate even more: journalists nationwide were so intrigued by this new angle that pretty soon the Kerry people had a Communion-denial story pandemic on their hands. The media started "what iffing"--writing stories about Eucharistic wafers that might be denied to Kerry were he to seek them on the campaign trail.
Consider this the first installment in my “Presidential Campaign Managers' Worst Faith and Values Nightmare” series. (Your applause and shouted words of encouragement are richly appreciated, though not entirely necessary). The purpose of these experimental posts is to ask what types of mishaps involving religious issues might lead a political handler to turn to The Bottle, non-prescription drugs, “spirituality,” what have you. Starting with the Republicans--who are, quite frankly, offering up more possibilities for fictional adaptation this election season than their dramatically underperforming counterparts--I ask myself what sort of misadventures lie ahead for Rudy Giuliani. Were I to be running the campaign of the GOP frontrunner, a few scenarios would deprive me of deep, restful REM sleep.
A whole bunch of things have gone awry for Republican White Evangelicals in the run-up to the 2008 election. First and foremost, they have been unable, inexplicably, to field an organic, homegrown, first-tier candidate of their own. This leads me to ask: why didn’t they just support (and bankroll) the affable, impeccably Evangelical (and underfunded) B-lister Mike Huckabee from the moment he threw his hat into the ring? Second, conservative Christian leaders are clearly not all on the same page. Some have been oddly reluctant to identify their dog in this fight. Others have placed their bets on completely different contenders (e.g., Richard Land seems fond of Fred Thompson. James Dobson was reportedly enamored of Newt Gingrich. Gary Bauer backed McCain in 2000. After his victory in the Iowa straw poll Huckabee picked up a handful of endorsements from lower-level pulpit politicos). This is related to a third problem: taking their cues from leadership the rank-and-file have been expressing their own rugged Protestant individualism. Refusing to unanimously line up behind one aspirant, they have dispersed their votes across the entire slate of GOP hopefuls. Catholics, Mormons, Episcopalians (or should I say Baptists?)—they’re open to it all! Let it never be said that these good Americans vote blindly for their own. Just ask Mike Huckabee.
As I prepared for Tuesday’s Republican debate I set out my Faith and Values Pundit’s Kit which consists of a Bible and a bowl of pretzels. While the snacks were groped repeatedly, the Bible remained unmolested. For this GOP event--unlike few others that I can recall--was virtually bereft of any scriptural citations, religious references, or God Talk. A milestone in Party history? A sign of coming change? Maybe. Maybe not. The explicit purpose of the debate, after all, was to discuss economic issues. Much to their credit the candidates stuck to the script (also to be lauded were co-moderators Chris Matthews, Maria Bartiromo, Jerry Seiband and John Harwood) who asked intelligent, thoughtful, and occasionally quirky questions all the while making sure that the proceedings chugged along briskly). Save Sam Brownback’s reference to the importance of nominating a pro-life candidate for president, none of the candidates seemed particularly interested in trotting out their religiously tinged applause–getters. Rudy Giuliani did not remind us about the influence that the Catholic Church has had on his life. Instead, he spent a good part of the evening attacking Hillary Clinton (a strategy which indicates that he has graciously accepted his party’s nomination).
On Thursday's Op/Ed page of The New York Times Dr. James Dobson relayed the minutes of a meeting of “pro-Family leaders” that took place in Salt Lake City the previous Saturday. Those assembled, according to Dobson, unanimously agreed that “if neither of the two major political parties nominates an individual who pledges himself or herself to the sanctity of human life, we will join others in voting for a minor-party candidate.” This bold declaration (aimed solely and squarely at one major political party) invites endless speculation. I will limit myself to four random observations. First: Dobson's threat could be seen as a total, what-I've-actually-got-here-is-a-pair-of-Jacks bluff meant to wrench as many concessions as possible from the first-tier of Republican presidential contenders -- Rudy Giuliani in particular. Dobson, in this reading, is helpfully encouraging the candidates to ask themselves the following questions: 1) What might it be like running against Hillary Clinton without the support of a constituency that accounted for 40 percent of George W. Bush’s vote in 2004? and, 2) What steps might I take in order to avoid that scenario?
“To be an atheist is to be in despair.”
"I’m not an atheist, I’m a secularist,” but even Bleilip did not know what he
meant by this.
If New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were to actually run for president one wonders how he would fare among those Americans for whom a candidate’s personal religiosity ranks among their greatest concerns. I am speaking, of course, of the so-called “values voters.” Now, let me immediately confess that I occasionally find myself hurling profanities at this category because it is so vague and imprecise. Here is one ambiguity that always burns my feathers: What do the values voters, as construed by the Faith and Values Industry, want? Do they require that a given politician profess: (a) a religion, any religion, as long as it is genuinely practiced? or, (b) their own particular religion?