Category Archives: Religion and politics

Decline in Religious Affiliation Favors Democrats

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The saying goes that in politics demographics is destiny, meaning that the sectors of the voting public you appeal to will determine the outcome.

There has been a lot of analysis about how Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans were doomed in this election because they lost Hispanics, women and other subgroups.

I’m not convinced by the “demographics is destiny” argument. I think if an old white guy with the charm and political skills of Ronald Reagan came along, demographics would get swamped by popularity. But looking at how people voted along religious lines does yield some interesting trends.

The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life (http://www.pewforum.org) has the best overall analysis of how the faithful voted. According to Pew, things did not change much in 2012 from the last few elections: “traditionally Republican groups such as white evangelicals and weekly churchgoers strongly backed Romney, while traditionally Democratic groups such as black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews and the religiously unaffiliated backed Obama by large margins.”

Obama did not do as well with almost every religious group as he did in 2008, but the declines were not significant enough to swing the election. One exception where he did better, by 3 percentage points: Hispanic Catholics.

The recriminations among white evangelicals toward Romney and the Republican Party might be summed up in an opinion piece by Mat Staver, chairman of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal advocacy organization.

Staver wrote on the web site of Charisma, a magazine aimed at Pentecostals, that the problem lay in the Republican establishment, who favored the moderate Romney, and in Romney’s refusal to discuss social issues in favor of a single-minded focus on the economy.

“While evangelical Christians represented 26 percent of the total vote in 2008 and again in 2012, the issues that matter to this voting bloc were largely ignored! This enormous voting bloc could produce positive change if it had a pro-life, pro-marriage candidate who would inspire and unify them,” Staver wrote.

Staver’s claim that some conservative Protestants stayed home in this election may be correct, but according to Pew, Romney actually polled better among white evangelicals who did vote than did John McCain in 2008.

“Romney received as much support from evangelical voters as George W. Bush did in 2004 (79%) and more support from evangelicals than McCain did in 2008 (73%),” Pew reports. So much for evangelicals’ reluctance to vote for a Mormon.

In fact, Romney’s faith – a point of contention during the primaries – mostly disappeared from the radar after it was clear he would be the nominee. Prejudice against Mormons was not the reason Romney lost.

Demographics do count for something, and a graphic from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates the religious challenge facing Republicans. Titled “The End of the White Christian Strategy,” it shows that the coalition of religious groups that voted for Romney is virtually identical to the religious makeup of Americans 65 and older. Obama’s coalition of religious groups is similar to that of Americans 18 to 29.

The challenge especially falls along the lines of the religiously unaffiliated vs. regular churchgoers. Studies have shown that the numbers of Catholics and Protestants who are most faithful are declining, while the fastest-growing group is comprised of those who claim no religious affiliation. White evangelicals were the biggest bloc in Romney’s coalition – 37 percent of his total. Religiously unaffiliated voters were Obama’s biggest bloc – 23 percent.

It’s always possible that younger voters might be swept with religious fervor as they age and migrate to the Republican Party. But as the parties are currently constituted, a key Republican component will be gone within 20 years, while the Democrats’ future looks bright.

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Archbishop Dolan Prays without Partisanship

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

In his excellent new book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Ross Douthat describes how the heresy of nationalism – idolizing the nation – has rendered American religious groups captive to partisan politics.

“If you don’t want to vote for George W. Bush because of the Iraq War then you’re playing into the hands of Christianity’s left-wing enemies. If you can’t vote for Barack Obama because of abortion, then you’re an accomplice to the shredding of the Constitution. You simply cannot be a social democrat and an orthodox Catholic, or a conservative Christian who’s also genuinely antiwar,” he writes.

This polarization became evident again when the Catholic Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, agreed to give the concluding benediction at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. On the left, Sarah Posner blogged at Salon.com that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Dolan is president, “has unequivocally attached itself at the hip to the Republican Party.” Republicans, trying to fan anti-Democratic flames among Catholics, were gleeful that such an outspoken Catholic leader would make an appearance.

Two problems became apparent with the complaints on the left and the rejoicing on the right. One was that Dolan proved to be an equal-opportunity man of prayer. No sooner had he agreed to pray at the Republican Convention than it was announced that he would pray at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week. Dolan will have the distinction of being the only person to immediately follow each party’s nominee – Mitt Romney and Barack Obama – after their acceptance speeches.

The second problem was that nobody had yet heard Dolan’s prayer. It was a model of civil religion, quoting the Declaration of Independence and “America the Beautiful” more than the Bible.

Here’s part of what he said: “(W)e ask your guidance for those who govern us, and on those who would govern us: the president, and vice-president, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and on all those who seek to serve the common good by seeking public office, especially Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan. Make them all worthy to serve you by serving our country.”

That’s a noble sentiment that neatly managed to pray for Obama and Romney in one sentence. It’s true that Dolan made brief references to two issues more aligned with Republicans – abortion and religious freedom – but he also twice asked blessings for immigrants, an issue more favorable to Democrats.

In short, Dolan pulled off what Catholics have been doing for centuries now, and which politically active conservative Protestants have not yet gotten the hang of. He spoke of truths that transcend the politics of the moment, which both sides need to hear.

To be sure, Dolan is not completely above suspicion of partisanship. The Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fight with the Obama Administration about contraceptive provisions in the Affordable Care Act under the guise of “religious liberty” seems disingenuous. And abortion remains the issue without parallel or compromise for Catholic leaders.

Still, as Douthat says, “One need not agree with the exact balance they’ve struck to admire the consistency with which the Catholic bishops have defied easy partisan categorization over the years…” He is correct that what we need is faith that addresses the work of governing, without being partisan.

Republicans and Democrats who seek to use Dolan for their own ends will be disappointed, and that is an entirely good thing.

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Akin’s Apology

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Forgiveness is an increasingly rare quality these days. We live in an age that seems to have lost the capacity to forgive. The demand instead is for justice in as harsh terms as possible, for the redressing of wrongs.

So when someone, especially a public figure, asks for forgiveness, often the response is a resounding “No! Let ’em get what they deserve.” And that brings us to the curious case of Todd Akin.

Akin, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, was asked in an interview whether there should be any exceptions to proposed restrictions on abortion, including in cases of rape. He replied that women who are victims of rape – “legitimate rape,” in his words – rarely get pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Akin’s magical-thinking approach to biology and his discomfort at discussing a woman’s reproductive system (“that whole thing”) might be funny if we weren’t talking about such a horrific crime.

The resulting political firestorm has been embarrassing and potentially catastrophic to his campaign and his party, so he has attempted damage control by apologizing for the remarks. And he took the further step of asking for forgiveness.

In his apology ad, Akin said rape is “an evil act” and admitted that rape can cause pregnancy. Here’s the operative part of his mea culpa: “I used the wrong words in the wrong way and for that I apologize. … I have a compassionate heart for the victims of sexual assault. I pray for them. … The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold. I ask for your forgiveness.”

Akin is known for his conservative Protestant beliefs, and notice how they are evident in these scripted remarks. He used the language of transgression: “evil” for the act under discussion and “wrong” and “mistake” for his own speech. He used the word “heart” twice, first joining it with “compassionate,” a borrowing of biblical language that refers both to affinity and to the innermost self. He spoke of praying for victims. Akin tries to identify his transgression as a too-casual use of words, not callousness.

Finally, Akin makes a simple plea, again couched in biblical terms: he asks for forgiveness. In Akin’s religious world, this represents the depth of sincerity. It is a confession of wrongdoing, a baring of the soul and an attempt to repair what has been torn.

It is easy to question this sincerity. Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post called it “a crocodile tear of an ad,” and skeptics may ask whether Akin would have expressed such remorse if his political career were not suddenly in jeopardy.

Forgiveness is not always easily granted, depending on the offense. In this case, Akin made an outrageous statement that insulted the sensibilities of many women and the intellect of everyone. Some would not forgive Akin if their life depended on it.

My view is that Akin was sincere in his apology, but his sincerity can’t hide a paternalistic view toward women. Voters can be indulgent and grant him forgiveness for his clumsiness and still decide that his judgments about women and reproductive choice should not be given a seat in the U.S. Senate.

It is a legitimate – to use Akin’s word – public policy issue whether abortion should be permitted and under what circumstances, including in cases of rape. Akin has asserted his position, and his fate is in the hands of Missourians. He may receive forgiveness. Votes may be harder to come by.

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Obamacare Ruling: Political Parties at Prayer

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s a measure of how confused our society is these days that the Affordable Care Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on unlikely grounds by an unlikely majority. Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, not Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist, sided with the liberal justices. And the law was valid not by virtue of the Constitution’s commerce clause, Roberts said in his opinion, but because penalties for not having insurance are really a tax, which falls within Congress’ powers.

I leave to others the ruling’s implications for the presidential campaign, the stock market and the price of hummus in Riyadh. But if the ruling itself was unpredictable, the reaction from the religious sector was entirely predictable.

Those within the conservative Protestant orbit were appalled. The liberal Protestant camp and Jewish groups were elated. And the Catholics, well, it’s complicated.

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was astonished that the court “did not see the bill for what it really is: a blatant violation of the personal freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and perhaps a mortal blow to the concept of federalism.” By Land’s account, Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature should just give up and go home, the Tenth Amendment having suffered a mortal blow.

On the liberal side, Kathryn M. Lohre of the National Council of Churches appealed to a higher power: “We as churches follow the bold example of Jesus, who healed the sick, sometimes breaking the religious law that governed society.” Jesus always trumps the Constitution.

As for the Catholics, it depends on who you ask and about what part of the law. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, was delighted at the decision because it will bring health care to more people. The bishops? Not so much.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised the law for taking a step in the direction of universal health care, but they continue to assert that as an employer they should not have to provide coverage for contraception, even if employees pay for that coverage themselves. The bishops say it’s an infringement on their religious liberty, a view that is difficult for many non-Catholic observers to accept.

After the ruling, the bishops said they do not favor repeal. “The decision of the Supreme Court neither diminishes the moral imperative to ensure decent health care for all, nor eliminates the need to correct the fundamental flaws” in the law, they said.

The Affordable Care Act is a good illustration of the partisanship that has infected the nation’s religious scene. Conservative Protestants claim, correctly, that they have joined the political fray late, following the mainline Protestant church that for decades had played a genteel political game and the Catholic Church that has been intertwined in politics since the days of Emperor Constantine.

But it’s more than a little disheartening to see entrenched political ideologies reflexively given a theological rationale. Even the more nuanced position of the Catholic bishops has overtones of a conservative political agenda.

Religious groups should be able to make judgments about laws and the political process based on their values, but when those groups become rigidly partisan, they lose their credibility as organizations beholden to no earthly power. Some of these groups — on both liberal and conservative sides — have long since lost their identity as anything other than a political party at prayer.

Reaction to the health care ruling simply offers one more example of that.

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Scoring the Florida Legislature On Moral, Religious Matters

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

For 30 years, ever since the Christian right made an alliance with the Republican Party, governments have routinely addressed religious and moral issues, and the 2012 Florida Legislature was no exception. What was interesting this go-around, however, was what didn’t pass, as much as what did.

Casino gambling, for instance.  Miami, Tampa and Panama City are natural casino destinations, but this year a bill to allow three $2-billion resort casinos in South Florida didn’t even clear its first House committee hearing.

The GOP’s social and religious conservatives held the powerful gaming industry at bay and in this instance, served the public good by preventing the scourge of casinos.

But the party’s praying wing failed to get their way on an anti-abortion measure. A bill that passed the House would have imposed a 24-hour waiting period and required doctors to take annual ethics training. A bipartisan coalition of senators, including three female Republicans –- Paula Dockery, Nancy Detert and Evelyn Lynn -– blocked it from being heard on the Senate floor.

Except for a provision that new abortion clinics be owned by physicians – an attempted blow against Planned Parenthood – the bill’s requirements didn’t seem particularly onerous, but you have to admire the guts of those three senators. A lot has been written in recent months about the Republican Party’s so-called “war on women.” In this instance, women within the party declared enough and fought back.

Another failure that brings a sigh of relief was the absurd “Application of Foreign Law” bill, which passed the House, but never made it to a vote in the Senate. The bill would have banned courts from accepting foreign laws or tribunal decisions as part of non-business contracts. If this sounds strange, it’s because the bill was aimed at one thing only: Sharia law, the Islamic legal code that lawmakers seem convinced is about to take over American courts.

The measure was modeled on legislation propagated by anti-Islamic activist David Yerushalmi. Ostensibly, the worry is that divorce settlements, child custody arrangements or other domestic affairs governed by Sharia would be approved by Florida courts, but this is a phantom concern.

The Florida Bar called the bill unconstitutional and “a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.” Not only did Muslim groups oppose the bill, so did Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League. Orthodox Jews regularly use religious codes to govern their domestic affairs and this legislation might have affected them, too. Jewish lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, played a role in killing the bill, and good riddance.

One bill approved by both houses, unfortunately, allows school boards to permit student-led prayer in public schools. Although seen as a victory for the Christian right, even conservatives like John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council are dubious about its constitutionality. Lawmakers knew it likely violates legal precedent about separation of church and state, but passed it anyway.

Gov. Rick Scott ought to veto the measure, but you can be sure he won’t. Expect the inevitable lawsuit and the inevitable court ruling that strikes it down. The whole charade is a waste of time and precious tax dollars.

Assuming the prayer measure fails in the courts, the Legislature went 1-for-4 on the moral and religious front. As in baseball, not a very good average.

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Forgiving Newt: Peace or Politics?

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The phenomenon that is Newt Gingrich continues to amaze, even as he and the remaining three Republican candidates for president descend upon Florida this week. In the Jan. 31 primary, Republicans will decide whether Gingrich’s past and personality are insurmountable or simply don’t matter.

Which raises an interesting question about the nature of forgiveness, on political and spiritual levels.

First, let’s be clear about one thing. A man who is a known adulterer, is on his third marriage and has been fined $300,000 for violating Congressional ethics rules would not have passed moral muster through most of our nation’s history. Even 50 years ago, Gingrich would have been considered a scoundrel, unworthy of holding any elected office.

Yet here we are. Have times changed so much? Are we so much more tolerant of personal failings now? Have we as a society left Calvinistic judgmentalism behind? If so, is it a change for the better?

Religious conservatives – those keepers of the moral flame in the Republican Party – ought to be denouncing Gingrich the loudest, in no uncertain terms. Instead we hear a muted expression of unease about his “baggage” and murmurs that nobody’s perfect. Some religious leaders have voiced their preference for former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, but in last week’s South Carolina primary, many conservatives cast aside their moral qualms to carry Gingrich to a convincing win.

Why is that? Gingrich repeatedly has offered up the f-word – forgiveness – as the rationale for his political rehabilitation. In recent years, he converted to the Catholic faith. The adultery, the lying, all that is in the past, he says, a past for which he has sought and received forgiveness.

On a spiritual level, we have no reason to doubt this. The Catholic Church has about 2,000 years of experience dealing with sinners with worse records than Gingrich. If he says he has received absolution for the wrongs he has done, we should accept that.

Indeed, from a religious point of view, forgiveness is something we all need and crave. Without it, there would be no hope and no point in believing in something higher and purer than ourselves.

But should such forgiveness give us confidence in Gingrich the politician? Just because he has made spiritual peace with his past, should we reward him with the presidency?

There is an old saying, “The greater the sinner, the greater the saint.” That means those who have found mercy in the depths of depravity are better able to ascend the heights of holiness. But such conversions are apparent to others. Great saints who were previously great sinners – people like St. Augustine and John Newton – radiated faith, humility, compassion and peace.

I think it’s fair to say that we have not seen those qualities in Gingrich this campaign season. As a result, it is worth asking whether there has been any alteration in the characteristics that led to his political downfall.

This may sound like the moral calculus of an earlier, Puritan era. But the Puritans were not wrong on every count.

Just because forgiveness is something universally desired, just because it is something we want for ourselves and therefore something we may hope that Gingrich has found, does not mean we should give him a pass when it comes to his ambitions for political office.

Jesus once cautioned his followers about discerning saints from charlatans. “By their fruits you shall know them,” he said.

With Gingrich, we taste not the sweetness of a man with newfound peace, but the mouth-puckering sourness of the old Newt.

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Consider The Man, Not His Religion

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Now that Mitt Romney is officially the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination – and Florida’s primary on Jan. 31 could assure him the prize – he faces winds of religious prejudice. And that’s a pity.

Romney is a Mormon and some evangelical Christian leaders publicly oppose him based on his beliefs.

On Monday, St. Petersburg Internet preacher Bill Keller, the evangelical version of Ann Coulter, said, “Romney and Mormons lie when they claim to be a Christian, since the teachings of Mormonism are inconsistent with biblical Christianity.”

Keller’s remarks parallel those of the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, who said in October: “Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”

At an ad hoc meeting last weekend at the Texas ranch of Judge Paul Pressler, a stalwart in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders looked for an alternative candidate. Romney’s faith was not mentioned, according to one report, but after prodigious prayer and three ballots, they settled on former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

At a time when the American economy is at a critical point and we should be having a serious debate about Afghanistan, appropriate levels of government spending and a host of other issues, obsession with Romney’s religion is a distraction.

Just what problem do evangelicals have with Mormons? The short answer is the doctrine of the Trinity – the Christian doctrine that says God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all “of one substance.” The Mormons, part of a 19th century movement that questioned the use of ancient creeds, claim to be Christian, but believe God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate physical beings.

Traditional Christians also reject the claim that The Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith, regarded as a prophet by Mormons, as holy scripture. And until 1890, there was that little matter of polygamy.

The U.S. Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, but you can’t forbid deeply held religious prejudices that have dominated politics for decades.

However, prejudices are subject to change. Before John F. Kennedy ran for president, many Protestants said they would never vote for a Catholic. In more recent times, opposition to abortion and gay marriage have bridged the divide between evangelicals and Catholics, hence the evangelical leaders’ support for Santorum, a staunch Catholic.

America has elected many presidents who, like Romney, did not believe in the Trinity. Among them were Deists like Thomas Jefferson, Unitarians John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln, and Quakers Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Their theology was not an obstacle to their governance.

Religious creeds have a place as markers of belief, but they should not matter in evaluating presidential candidates. And indications are strong that Romney’s beliefs do not matter to most GOP voters, no matter how much some evangelicals wail and gnash their teeth.

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