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Dan Nejfelt
Dan Nejfelt, Faith in Public Life’s Messaging and Trainings Manager, worked at Sojourners magazine as part of his graduate study of journalism at the University of Missouri before coming to FPL. Prior to that, he taught remedial reading and writing to 7th and 8th graders in rural Arkansas as a Teach For America corps member. Dan blogs about health care, the Religious Right and budget issues.

Pew poll shows that voters value candidates’ faith

September 6, 2007, 5:04 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a new poll about the presidential candidates’ favorability ratings and popular perceptions of their faith. Pew’s summary leads off by saying that

So far religion is not proving to be a clear-cut positive in the 2008 presidential campaign. The candidates viewed by voters as the least religious among the leading contenders are the current frontrunners for the Democratic and Republican nominations – Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, respectively. On the other hand, the candidate seen as far and away the most religious – Mitt Romney – is handicapped by this perception because of voter concerns about Mormonism.

However, the data show clearly that religious faith is seen as a huge positive for every candidate about whom adequate data was gathered. Consider the attached table.

The report’s introduction doesn’t seem to match its results. Being perceived as religious clearly is a net positive for each candidate, including Romney. While there’s no disputing that Clinton and Giuliani are frontrunners in election polls and in “Godless numbers,” correlation doesn’t even suggest causation here. In fact, there’s a much clearer correlation between their popularity and perceptions that they are religious. Buried far beneath the study’s introduction is this:

Overall views of the presidential candidates are linked with views of their religiosity; those who perceive a candidate as being very religious tend to express the most favorable overall views of each candidate, followed by those who perceive the candidate as being somewhat religious. Those who view candidates as being not too or not at all religious, on the other hand, are much less likely to express favorable views.

Eighty-seven percent of people who view Hillary Clinton as very religious have a favorable impression of her, and only 22 percent of people who view her as not very religious have a favorable impression. Giuliani is viewed favorably by 77 percent of people who see him as very religious, but only by 43 percent of people who see him as lacking faith. In Clinton’s case, faith seems to be among her strongest assets, and perceived lack of faith looks like her greatest weakness. Giuliani too seems to benefit a great deal from perceptions of piety and to be damaged by perceptions of faithlessness. This pattern holds for all other candidates, as well.

A multitude of impressions, values and beliefs contribute to people’s candidate preference. That perceptions of religiosity vs irreligiosity do not perfectly mirror the results of the latest election polls is not an argument against the clear importance of religion to voters. If anything, Clinton and Giuliani succeed in spite of their “godless numbers.” For them and for all candidates studied, a religious image is an unmistakable asset.

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Iran in the crosshairs: How will the faith community respond?

September 4, 2007, 3:17 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

Five years ago last week, Vice President Cheney started pounding the drum for war in a now-infamous speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention about the imminent threat Iraq posed to the Middle East and the United States:

Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.

Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us. And there is no doubt that his aggressive regional ambitions will lead him into future confrontations with his neighbors, confrontations that will involve both the weapons he has today and the ones he will continue to develop with his oil wealth…

We are, after all, dealing with the same dictator who shoots at American and British pilots in the no-fly zone on a regular basis, the same dictator who dispatched a team of assassins to murder former President Bush as he traveled abroad, the same dictator who invaded Iran and Kuwait and has fired ballistic missiles at Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, the same dictator who has been on a State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism for better than two decades.

In the face of such a threat, we must indeed proceed with care, deliberation and consultation with our allies. I know our president very well. I’ve worked beside him as he directed our response to the events of 9/11. I know that he will proceed cautiously and deliberately to consider all possible options to deal with the threat that an Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein represents.

Many religious activists and leaders courageously and prophetically opposed the war, but on the whole the American religious community’s reaction was tepid and mixed. In March 2003, a Pew Forums on Religion and Public Life survey reported that

Nearly six-in-ten (57%) of those who regularly attend religious services say their clergy has spoken about the prospect of war with Iraq. But just a fifth (21%) say their priest or minister has taken a position on the issue. When churchgoers do hear a point of view, it mostly comports with the national stance of their religious faith: white Catholics and African-Americans are hearing anti-war

messages, while white evangelical Protestants are getting a pro-war point of view.

Five years later — almost to the day — President Bush made a disturbingly reminiscent case for war with Iran:

Iran has long been a source of trouble in the region. It is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Iran backs Hezbollah who are trying to undermine the democratic government of Lebanon. Iran funds terrorist groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which murder the innocent, and target Israel, and destabilize the Palestinian territories. Iran is sending arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan, which could be used to attack American and NATO troops. Iran has arrested visiting American scholars who have committed no crimes and pose no threat to their regime. And Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.

Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late.

I want our fellow citizens to consider what would happen if these forces of radicalism and extremism are allowed to drive us out of the Middle East…

Extremists would control a key part of the world’s energy supply, could blackmail and sabotage the global economy. They could use billions of dollars of oil revenues to buy weapons and pursue their deadly ambitions. Our allies in the region would be under greater siege by the enemies of freedom. Early movements toward democracy in the region would be violently reversed. This scenario would be a disaster for the people of the Middle East, a danger to our friends and allies, and a direct threat to American peace and security. This is what the extremists plan. For the sake of our own security, we’ll pursue our enemies, we’ll persevere and we will prevail.

As the Bush administration echoes its Iraq rhetoric in an effort to start war with Iran, will America’s clergy sit on the sideline or the fence, as most did in the run-up to the Iraq war? Or did they learn from the bloody lesson of Iraq that failing to oppose a war of aggression is to tacitly endorse it? As the Bush administration launches another attempt to scare us into another war, the time is at hand for clergy to answer this question in word and deed.

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Thank you notes from New Orleans

August 29, 2007, 11:31 am | By Dan Nejfelt

A series of benefactors

Posted by Johnny Jackson, Jr. August 29, 2007 2:16AM

My first encounter with an angel who happen to be members of a fishing club from the Baton Rouge area. I was caught in the flood waters of hurricane Katrine with my 81 years old mother, my mentally and physically challenged brother and my fragile nephew at my mothers two story home in the Press Park community of the upper 9th ward.

They rescued us in the dark of early morning and risk their lives trying to get her and my brother in the small boat. Even after two failed efforts, they stayed until all of us were safe in the small boat. After two day of not seeing anyone coming to provide any assistance, truly they were Angels to us.

When works bring faith

Posted by Barbara Evans August 29, 2007 2:14AM

I am a single mom with 2 children. My house was badly damaged by Katrina. It got flooded and had significant roof damage which caused major destruction upstairs and down. Super Bowl Sunday I was introduced to a guy, interested in seeing my house.

After seeing the devastation, he said he wanted to help me, calling himself a real “handy man.”

I thought his offer would only last a short time. He lived 1 1/2 hours away from my house. He worked on my house approximately 4-5 days a week for 9 months. He repaired my whole house; construction, electrical, plumbing,and painting.He did all this in his spare time; he had a full time job 8:00 to 5:00.

He would work long hours, sometimes till 2 a.m. and then still have to drive home.

He was determined to get us out of the FEMA trailer as soon as possible. He never accepted money; he just wanted to do his part to help. I don’t know why I was chosen, but I don’t think I could have done it without him. This man was my guardian angel and I will forever be grateful.

A gathering of angels

Posted by Bill Sanchez August 29, 2007 1:54AM

Touched by an angel? How about touched by 15 Angels? The capitalization on the term Angels was no accident. The group of teenagers that sacrificed not only their summer, but exposed themselves to untold hazards to come here and gut houses after Hurricane Katrina restored my faith in the future of this country.

One,in fact, had to be taken to the hospital with a severe infection of a minor cut. These heaven sent young volunteers not only gutted our house, they did it with grace and dignity, asking that one of us be present to preserve whatever of value (monetarily or sentimentally) they uncovered. There were more sentimental items than valuables left, I assure you.

Perhaps the most moving jesture they made was a purely personal one. As they cleaned out my office, they noted the loss of several Bibles and study references I had. These wonderful kids autographed and anotated a Bible they had been given to use for group devotions and presented it to my wife. I will never forget this act because it hepled me reach deep down inside and open up the door of my own faith that had almost closed. They provided me with the slogan that brought me through this mess, “I lost everything but my faith”.

Therefore, shamelessly do I solicit everyone to contribute to “Samaritan’s Purse”, the organization that sponsored these Angels on their mission of mercy. They themselves would accept nothing in return, not even a warm home cooked meal my wife offered.

I have no affiliation with that organization other than a warm spot in my heart that not even the Artic Circle could freeze over. I will cherish that Bible the rest of my life.

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Poverty in America

August 28, 2007, 4:13 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

The Census Bureau’s annual social and economic data report on income, poverty and health insurance came out today, bringing mixed news about Americans’ unmet needs. On the plus side, the poverty rate fell from 12.6 percent to 12.3 percent — 490,000 fewer people living in poverty. On the minus side, the poverty rate was still 12.3 percent, or 36,460,000 people.

One thing that often gets lost when we talk about poverty is the human face of it. Poverty is not a percentage. It’s a little girl who goes to school when she’s sick because she needs the free lunch. It’s a father who knocks on a neighbor’s door to ask for food for his children. It’s a family of four living in a tiny, noxious FEMA trailer that bakes in the sun and trembles in the wind. It’s a daily state of privation and insecurity endured by 36.5 million Americans, and the fact that we accept it is a serious moral issue. The decline in poverty is good news for 490,000 people, but that is dwarfed by the bad news of 36.5 million people still unable to meet their needs. We need to remember that when we order our political priorities.

PS, the adequacy of the Census Bureau’s poverty threshold isn’t something to be taken as valid on its face, but that’s a topic for another post.

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“The question that simply won’t go away”

August 27, 2007, 2:43 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

Yesterday I appeared on Air America’s State of Belief with Welton Gaddy to discuss the news media’s handling of questions about presidential candidates’ religious faiths, which I blogged about last week.

Rev. Gaddy did a good job of pushing me to explain why I was glad last week’s Iowa debate featured a question on the candidates’ beliefs about the power of prayer. In defense of the validity of asking personal questions about candidates’ faiths, I said

People aren’t electing platforms, they’re electing other human beings, and they really want to get a sense of who these human beings are. Identity is a very significant component of political campaigns, and this is one manifestation of that.

I stand by that, but at this early stage of the presidential campaign, the media and the electorate haven’t quite defined the role of religion and the proper way in which to discuss it, and you don’t have to look very hard for divergent opinions.

In Saturday’s Boston Herald, Scripps Howard columnist Bonnie Erbe said

If the Democrats are going to make “running against Bush” a hallmark of the ’08 campaign, they must promise to rebuild the now-wrecked wall between church and state. They must also pledge to keep their own religious beliefs out of government policy-making.

Dismayingly, Sunday’s debate showed some Democratic front-runners still feel the need to cater to the religious right.[emphasis added]

Erbe then critiques the candidates’ responses to the question about whether they believed prayer could prevent natural disasters. She had kind words only for Edwards and Richardson, calling Edwards “a deeply religious man, so confident in the power of his convictions that he can separate them from his role as a government official,” and Richardson courageous and “surprisingly impressive.”

But Richardson said his sense of social justice is rooted in his Roman Catholic faith. So does Erbe not believe Richardson should allow his sense of social justice to influence his policy positions? I’d think not and hope not. She probably didn’t mean to say that, but it’s a clear implication.

Erbe’s column is important because it’s a great example of the consequences of the religious right’s polarization of America. After seven years of an administration guided by a messianic foreign policy and a fundamentalist-influenced domestic agenda, she says that “a national leader’s belief that his (or her) policies are underwritten by God should be viewed in the same ominous light as a cross on fire.” The problem is her unspoken assumption that because religious motivation lay behind the Bush administration’s destructive policies, religiously motivated policies are inherently bad.

The negative results of Bush’s conservative religious convictions does not preclude the possibility that a future president’s progressive religious beliefs could inspire him or her to advance an agenda for the common good that leaves our nation and our world a better place. It’s tragic that Erbe sees “running against Bush” not as running against war, division, and pollution, but as running away from faith. It doesn’t have to be that way, and we need to talk about faith in order to reclaim it.

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