Monday, July 26, 2004

Religious News Roundup for Monday, July 26th

There are several stories out today on churches caught in the political crosswinds of this election year. Kevin Eckstrom of the Religious News Service frets in the Winston-Salem Journal about the Democrats' so-called "God gap," as does this piece from PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. The Revealer believes that "A more useful investigation might look at who coined the 'gap' cliche, who promoted it and how many repetitions it required before becoming accepted fact." But Eckstrom's piece, even though it recycles cliches about the Democrats' "discomfort" with religion, provides some evidence that the Dems might be on the right track after all:

Democrats [are] increasingly finding the moral component of political issues.

When the public is asked which party does the better job of "improving morality," Democrats are gaining ground. Just three years ago, Pew found that the GOP held the advantage, 49 percent to 26 percent, over Democrats. A Pew poll released Wednesday showed Republicans with a slim advantage, 37 percent to 35 percent.

Increasingly, Democrats are casting non-abortion issues - the war in Iraq, health care, education and the minimum wage - as moral issues with religious overtones. "There's a sense that too much (moral) ground has been ceded here," Barnes said.

This sounds intuitively right to me. The fight is not so much to capture the vocabulary, but the way the issues are framed. The Revealer has a point in saying that the "God gap" is another conservative-driven meme, but it's one that Dems should have no problem breaking with the right response. They'll need to go further, of course, and recapture the vocabulary of faith, but first things first. Let's win back the country in November, and then take on the philosophical battle for hearts and minds.

Another postive step is the DNC's naming of a new Director of Religious Outreach. I'm not quite sure what to make of this. On the one hand, the new director is an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ, a moderate-left denomination in full communion with the UCC. On the other, the Kerry campaign has (or had) a similiar staffer who was treated pretty shabbily when attacked by the usual suspects. Let's hope the new person gets more respect.

On another front, there are more articles out on the Bush/Satan campaign outreach to churches in the Miami Herald and Hartford Courant. The bit about outreach to Catholics has gotten a fair amount of play around the blogosphere. Most of the commentary has run to the "don't they ever learn?" variety, but I disagree with this line of thought for a couple of reasons. First of all, there's utterly no indication in the articles I've seen that this initiative is any more recent than the outreach to conservative Protestant churches. Second, it's well-known that the Catholic church has some right-wingers who defer to no one in their allegiance to the Republican social agenda. Why would it be a surprise, then, that they would form part of Pres. Bush's base, or that his campaign would attempt to reach them?

The Hartford Courant article cited above has a couple of thoughtful responses to what all this politicking in churches means:

The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak, Jr. executive director of the Christian Conference of Connecticut called the tactics " a troubling development."

The intent of the separation of church and state, Sidorak said, wasn't to keep the church out of public life "but to prevent manipulation of the church by the state."


The Rev. John Rankin, president of the Theological Education Institute in Hartford, who described his own views as "pro-life Libertarian," said, "A church should address the issues, but should never allow itself to be used by either [political] party. ...I would be very critical of people, twisting the gospel for their own temporal, political purposes."

The Bush-Cheney campaign should be networking among evangelicals or black Christians rather than working from church mailing lists, Rankin added. "It's harder work, but well worth it."

To which I can only add: this advice stands for Democrats as well as Republicans.

Finally, the AP has an interesting article suggesting that the Religious Right's clout may be diminishing in Georgia. If the story is accurate, we may be seeing in the Peach State the beginnings of a dynamic that has played out in other states, including California, Illinois, and Minnesota: the local and state Republican parties are dominated by right-wing zealots who actually hamstring their candidates by demanding an orthodoxy that doesn't sell with a more centrist general public. That, in turn, plays into the "Emerging Democratic Majority" thesis. Keep your eyes on this trend, and keep me posted, if you would.

The Agape Press reports here on an expected flood of lawsuits against state-level DOMA's. Sounds like we're in for a fun couple of years. They also carry a brief report following up on a story I carried last week about Hamtramck, MI's vote to allow Muslim calls to prayer to be broadcast from a local mosque. The article is worth reading in its entirety:

Christian Citizen Continues Fight Against Pro-Islamic Ordinance

Chad Groening, Agape Press

A Michigan man says he believes voter confusion probably played a major role in the defeat of a referendum that would have repealed a Hamtramck city ordinance giving Muslims the right to broadcast their calls to prayer over loudspeakers. However, he insists the fight is not over. Born-again Christian Bob Golen says he is not surprised that Muslims were able to win Tuesday's referendum vote. He believes many Hamtramck voters may have been confused because of a school board recall issue also on the ballot. Golen thinks many of the people who were voting "no" on the recall issue thought they were voting on the issue of the Muslim prayer-call ordinance. The Christian citizen-activist says he intends to contact public-interest law firms around the U.S. that might be willing to pursue a court challenge to the ordinance. Believing the pro-Islamic noise ordinance to be a violation of the U.S. Constitution, Golen also intends to seek legal counsel locally, in hopes of finding someone who can help him prove his contention in court. Until such time as a hearing on that issue can be scheduled, Golen hopes to seek immediate relief against the Muslim prayer call broadcasts in his community, perhaps by getting a temporary injunction.

This points up two aspects of conservative evangelical belief: that they believe Christianity is in an ideological death-match with Islam, particularly in the "Christian" United States, and that they are deathly afraid they are losing the battle.

Another Michigan story: Bartholomew's Notes on Religion reports on how some faith-based initiatives actually play out. The money grafs:

The ACLU legal papers include corroborating statements from Hanas' aunt and a Roman Catholic deacon:

when Mr. Hanas' aunt called Christian Outreach to try to make arrangements for his deacon to visit him, the director of Christian Outreach, Pastor Rottier, told the aunt, that Mr. Hanas "gave up his right of freedom of religion when he was placed into this program." (Id.). The deacon further said that he had spoken with Judge Ransom several times about this issue and that Judge Ransom knows that he "won't have any other religious clergy in here." (Id.).


Perhaps the greatest irony is that the primary reason Mr. Hanas was sent to Christian Outreach--substance abuse counseling and rehabilitation--was not evident in Christian Outreach's program. There were no drug counselors or psychologists in this program, only repeated and all-encompassing religious indoctrination.

The Pew Forum has a transcript up from its "One Electorate Under God?" forum from last week. I've only glanced through it, but how bad can it be? It's got EJ Dionne in it, after all.

The AP reports that both plaintiff's attorneys and officials of the Catholic Church are concerned that church insurers may be holding settlement of sexual abuse claims against the church. I know, I know, sue the bastards for every penny. But what does that do to the innocent believers who may have their churches closed because an insurance executive wants to avoid a big payout? And how does it uphold the legal process when insurers can bollix up agreements made by both sides of a case?

Last up, two brief items: the Miami Herald covers the anniversary of the city's oldest African-American church, and BeliefNet has an article from a Jesuit about the worst sermons he's ever heard. Just a little taste to give you the flavor:

Would you believe that a priest actually preached about the dangers of contraception to a group of nursing home residents?

Yes. Yes, I would.


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