Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Too Many Guns, Too Few Rules

(Originally published in Florida Voices)

President Barack Obama’s speech at the service for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School atrocity was one of the more remarkable recent moments in our national life.

To some, the speech may have seemed simply to be the president filling a time-honored role as national comforter in time of tragedy, but there was a tone to Obama’s speech that transcended both clichéd psychobabble and vague calls for policy debate.

It has been noted that Obama made free use of scripture, particularly the New Testament, in his speech. He relied on texts that do not provide cheap and easy answers in the face of evil acts, texts that suggest mystery and faith rather than weightless slogans. Anyone who doubts Obama’s professed Christianity would do well to study his speech.

But the president artfully shifted from comforter to prophet partway through the speech. It is the role of a prophet to speak the truth in such a way that everyone recognizes it, and that is precisely what Obama did.
Clearly these murders got to him in a profound way, and he realized that with this crime, the moment had arrived to say what needed to be said: We have all had enough of mass gun violence. That has been said before, but Obama said it with conviction and at a hushed moment when perhaps this time it may be heard.

The truth is that there are just too many guns and far too few regulations. It is no good pretending that this massacre could not be foreseen. After Columbine? After Aurora? How could it not have been? In that respect, we have all failed the victims of Newtown by not acting before now.

It was inevitable that in the wake of the shooting some people – including those we elect to enact  laws – would suggest that the way to stop such massacres is not fewer guns but more. One such lawmaker was Florida Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, who said that on two occasions within days of the murders.

Baxley said that allowing school personnel to arm themselves on school grounds is one option that should be “on the table.”

“In our zealousness to protect people from harm, we’ve created all these gun-free zones and what we’ve inadvertently done is we’ve made them a target,” he said.

It is clear that Baxley does not understand what has happened here. People do not want a schoolteacher to pull out a magnum and blow away a killer after he has already shot several 6-year-olds. They want potential killers not to have guns in the first place.

And that is where, in addition to slapping some sense into politicians like Baxley, ordinary Americans can do one concrete thing themselves. They can stop buying guns. And further, they can master the fear that leads them to want a gun. Only a small fraction of homes are victim to random violence, yet how many households have a gun in them just because we do not believe that we are safe enough?

If Newtown causes people to revile weapons rather than stuff them in the side table and glove box, perhaps the tide of our national conscience may begin to turn, and the truth of Obama’s call of “enough” may spread.

It will be up to the president to keep the focus on this vexing issue, despite the pressures to abandon it. But it is also up to us to take up a rallying cry: Give up the guns. Remember Newtown.

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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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The Looming Irrelevance of Richard Land

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

From the beginning, the Trayvon Martin case exposed fault lines about race in America. One of those lines runs through the largest Protestant denomination in the country, and it has put one of its most visible leaders on the spot.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, made some ill-considered remarks about the case on his weekly radio program in March. The resulting backlash has revealed how an aging Southern Baptist leadership is becoming out of step with the culture they once sought to change.

Land had accused President Obama and civil rights leaders of using the Martin case for political purposes. Among other things, he called Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “racial ambulance chasers” and said Obama had “poured gasoline on the racialist fires” with Obama’s comment that if he had a son, he would look like Martin.

“This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election …” Land said.

Since conservatives seized control of the denomination’s boards and agencies in the 1980s, Land has been the fiery and often demagogic spokesman for the conservative politics and theology the Southern Baptist Convention has embraced. When he took over the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the denomination’s agency for public policy and moral issues, he was determined to put Southern Baptists into the heat of the culture and political wars.

However, his leadership often has put Southern Baptists in a bad light. In 1998, Land was one of the architects of Southern Baptists’ boycott of Disney, ostensibly because its gay-friendly policies made it anti-family. He only succeeded in making mega-corporation Disney sympathetic and turning himself and his people into the worst stereotypes of Southern backwardness.

No doubt Land thought his remarks about the Martin case were business as usual. But they were particularly unfortunate for a denomination that continues to battle a racist past. It was founded in the 1840s over resistance to calls for the abolition of slavery. In a recent Huffington Post commentary about Land’s remarks, Jonathan Merritt pointed out that Southern Baptists were frequently at the forefront of opposition to the civil rights movement.

Land realized the error of his ways after meeting with the Rev. Fred Luter, who likely will become the convention’s first black president next month. He also was criticized publicly by some younger Southern Baptist leaders.

In his apology, Land confessed “insensitivity” towards Martin’s family and declared “racial profiling is a heinous injustice.” He also said he “impugned the motives” of President Obama, Jackson and Sharpton, and he sent a letter to Obama asking forgiveness, which must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Meanwhile, a young Baptist blogger detected that chunks of Land’s radio address had been lifted without attribution from other sources, and Land was forced to apologize again. He’s now being investigated by the denomination’s Executive Committee for plagiarism.

Just a short time ago, it would have been unthinkable that Land’s job would be in jeopardy, but he now looks vulnerable and this shows how the ground has shifted under the feet of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Land and many of leaders of the denomination’s conservative takeover are becoming senior citizens, and they are now worried about declining membership and baptisms. The confidence they had 30 years ago has slipped, and younger evangelicals are not interested in the kind of partisan cultural warfare that their fathers thought was necessary.

Land now represents a fading philosophy of public engagement, and his gaffes could be seen by Southern Baptists as a headache they don’t need.

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