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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.

Common Ground Isn’t Always on the Right

August 24, 2007, 5:55 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

A recent Mother Jones article (not yet online) about Hillary Clinton’s membership in the secretive Fellowship prayer group and the relationship between her faith and her politics makes some fair observations, but it is also laden with misunderstanding and insinuation.

A conspicuous example is the contention that when the Fellowship “convinces politicians they can transcend left and right with an ecumenical faith that rises above politics…the politics always move rightward.”

By its very nature, a politics that transcends left and right requires an ideological flexibility and innovative mindset that enables us to find common ground. This can incorporate several dynamics: liberals moving right, conservatives moving left, finding original solutions, recognizing shared ideals, or any combination of these. To say that among Senate coreligionists the politics always moves rightward ignores not only these other possibilities, but also the recent record of distinctly leftward shifts.

Take health care. Conservatives will always stick to their rhetorical guns about health savings accounts, consumer choice and such, but look at their votes. Shortly before the August recess, 18 Republicans voted for a Democratic program to spend $35 billion to cover 9 million uninsured children, not with tax credits or subsidized health savings accounts, but at the full expense of federal and state governments. That is a leftward swing, even if it’s not universal healthcare.

Take global warming. While we don’t yet have greenhouse gas emission caps or a carbon tax, religious groups and scientific consensus are pressing Republican Senators leftward into the realm of reality. James Inhofe is a stalwart of climate change denial, but only a few years ago his was considered a mainstream conservative position. Talk is cheap, but it’s hard to say there’s been a rightward swing when their entire frame on the most pressing and financially consequential issue of our era has been discredited.

It is certainly possible for a shadowy religious group to exert rightward pressure on liberal members who seek common ground solutions. The Mother Jones article even provides a couple of examples. However, to say that these liberals bridge builders always become more conservative is to ignore the fact that the common ground isn’t always found on the right.

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Candidates probed on the power of prayer at debate

August 21, 2007, 4:02 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

On Sunday’s edition of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos the Democratic candidates answered a viewer’s emailed question about their faith: “My question is to understand each candidate’s view of a personal God. Do they believe that, through the power of prayer, disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse could have been prevented or lessened?”

Interesting that the viewer — and the moderator — chose to ask this question. It’s not about how faith informs policy or civic values. Instead it concerns what I would consider a more private aspect of faith (I am not an evangelical). This was not the first time the Democratic candidates have been asked such a personal, audience-submitted question. It reflects a desire to know not just what the candidates would do in trying situations, but also who they are.

Notice how all the candidates (well, at least the ones who actually answered the question) essentially answered “no.” I’d like to think the American people want a president who will make sure the levees are manned instead of only praying while a hurricane is bearing down.

But even if the questioner wanted to hear otherwise, I’m glad sure he asked the question. Are you? Do questions like this help give you a better idea of WHO these candidates who are bidding to be your president ARE? Or is this kind of information irrelevant to your vote?

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Elvira Arellano: mother, activist, deportee

August 20, 2007, 4:13 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

On Sunday the U.S. government deported Elvira Arellano, 32-year-old undocumented immigrant, separating her from 8-year-old son Saul, who is a U.S. citizen. He’s now staying with his family’s pastor in Chicago.

Elvira is an iconic advocate of immigrant parents’ rights who had taken sanctuary openly in a Chicago Methodist church for the past year. Last week she held a news conference to announce that she was leaving the church that had granted her safe harbor, and on Sunday she spoke at a rally in Los Angeles before Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers took her to Tijuana.

She was forceful enough and brave enough to stand up and demand notice. That’s the only reason her deportation was newsworthy. The uncounted masses of families pulled apart by deportation don’t makes headlines and are invisible to most of us. Perhaps that’s why we tolerate it.

Saul Arellano is a U.S. citizen, and his government took his mom away, even though she had worked hard, supported her young son, stolen nothing, and hurt no one. This is the status quo, and it is intolerable. Failing to establish a pathway to inclusion for America’s 12 million undocumented immigrants is endorsing the breakup of millions of families. This is an essential fact of immigration policy, and no amount of rhetoric will change it. I don’t know Saul, but I know he wants his mom back. And I know he deserves her.

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What’s really behind creation care?

August 20, 2007, 2:50 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

This post on creation care is also up on The Huffington Post. I wrote it after listening to “God is Green,” Mars Hill Church‘s five-part July sermon series. Go to the Huffington Post entry if you want to listen to the audio clips from the sermons.

Wednesday’s Washington Post featured an article about evangelical Christians’ growing concern with global warming and, more generally, environmentalism. The article explained the development mostly in terms of political maneuvering amongst leaders, mainly “a years-long international campaign by British bishops and leaders of major U.S. environmental groups to bridge a long-standing divide between global-warming activists and American evangelicals.”

But there’s more to evangelicals’ commitment to environmental stewardship, also known as creation care, than power-brokering elites. It’s rooted in a deep sense of duty to live up to God’s mandate to live in proper relation to the earth. In one installment of the recent “God is green” sermon series at Mars Hill Church, an evangelical megachurch in a converted shopping mall outside Grand Rapids, Mich., Pastor Rob Bell said:

We aren’t treating the earth well, would you agree? This grieves the heart of God…we produce more and more and more, and we’re doing it in such a way that earth simply can’t sustain it. And I would argue we do not first and foremost care for the earth because of the latest scientific studies — which verify that we are destroying the earth — or because of the latest fad. We do it because God said to.

Listen to his description of the mandate for proper relations with the earth; his voice teeters on the trembling, and you can almost see him concentrating on keeping his eyes dry.

But did God really say so? Over the course of the July “God is Green” series, which is available online as an MP3, Bell and other Mars Hill speakers preach from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Job, 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Matthew, Luke, John, Ephesians, Romans and Revelations. (Note to the unchurched: that’s about 1/5 of the Bible.) And they’re not just poaching a spare verse here and there. In the first installment, Matt Krick notes that:

No less than eight times in Genesis chapter 9 God says ‘My covenant is with you and all creation, my covenant is with you and all creatures, my covenant is with you and all the earth.’ God is clearly stating his concern and his love for his creation that He created good – to sustain it, to see it thrive, to see it flourish. This is the heart of God for creation, and we see the heart of God continue through the entire biblical narrative.

Listen to his explanation of God’s vision of our proper relation to the earth, even though it only scratches the surface of creation care’s theological underpinnings.

I first learned about creation care in a 2004 sermon series at Kairos, a Christian community for young adults in northern Virginia. This wasn’t some hippie granola church; I shared pews not only with fellow liberals, but with Heritage Foundation staffers fresh from their stints with the Coalition Provisional Authority. The specific details have faded, but I remember hearing that the earth is a sacred trust rather than a resource to be exploited. In other words, creation care is not just a platform, it’s an orientation. While pundits concerned themselves with the Kyoto protocols, Clear Skies, and Healthy Forests, we were reexamining the very way in which we conceived of the planet.

At Mars Hill, which draws upwards of 10,000 people to its Sunday services in conservative western Michigan, you could hear uncharacteristically liberal-sounding messages about working against “systems of exploitation” and even a hint of what a conservative opportunist would call class warfare: “If somebody actually wants to argue with you that we’re not doing some terrible things to our earth, this is somebody whose wealth and ignorance have simply isolated them from how serious it is.”

They even reject the sanctity of private property. Citing Leviticus 25:23-4 — “the land must not be sold permanently because you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land” – Bell calls man’s claim of total dominion over the land a symptom of our “deep sinful bend of entitlement, in which we start to believe that what belongs to God belongs to us.”

An encouraging feature of the four-plus hours of God is Green was the repeated confession of our failure to honor God’s covenant with humankind and creation. We flout the notion of sustainability; we fail to live simply; we are addicted to exploitation; we don’t sacrifice.

The most inspiring part of any good sermon is the call to action. In the final moments of the final installment of God is Green, Bell leads his thousands-strong congregation in a fervent, applause-interrupted prayer that Christians will no longer lag behind others who better model sustainable living, that they will heed God’s call to go green. The only excerpt I will take from it is to say “amen.” Please listen to the three-minute prayer.

While conflict over global warming and environmentalism exists within the diverse community of American Christians, it’s important to note that the argument is no mere political concern. The theological energy behind creation care and “going green” ensures that what we’re talking about is no mere squabble, but a movement.

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Washington Post’s dueling visions of religion in politics

August 15, 2007, 11:40 am | By Dan Nejfelt

Two columnists, two candidates, two visions of religion in the 2008 campaign.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Richard Cohen bemoans the publicity of presidential candidates’ religions and commends Rudy Giuliani for telling reporters that his standing as a “good or not so good catholic” was between him and the priests. The column is called “Giuliani’s JFK Moment” and praises Kennedy’s 1960 campaign declaration that his Catholicism would not dictate his decisions. Cohen marvels that

Kennedy made two other points in that speech that bear repeating. The first was that “far more critical issues” faced the country than a presidential candidate’s religion. The same, of course, is true today. Just for starters, there’s an agonizing war in Iraq that needs to end in a fashion that will not turn a mistake into a debacle — for Iraq, for the region and for the security of Americans here in the United States.

But second, and to my mind just as important, Kennedy’s speech was an affirmation of rational thought — a promise to deal with the great issues of state in a secular manner. Nowhere in the speech did JFK renounce his Catholicism or say it didn’t matter to him. But he did make clear that as president he would make decisions in “accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest.” In other words, he would use his noodle.

Cohen implies that to think rationally and to consult one’s conscience are distinct from and even incompatible with using one’s faith as a moral compass. Personally, I’d like to know if a Catholic candidate accepted the Catholic stance on the war, and if a Southern Baptist accepted that church’s position. If they disagree, I’d like to know how they reconcile dissent and faith. That might be a pretty clear window into a candidate’s conscience and “how he would use his noodle.”

Contrast this with Post columnist Michael Gerson‘s understanding of the role of faith in political decision making (from an August 3 column):

American political leaders have generally not talked about soteriology — how the individual soul is saved. In Christian theology, these choices are fundamentally private, and government attempts to influence them are both doomed and tyrannical. American leaders have also wisely avoided the topic of eschatology — inherently speculative theories about the end or culmination of history.

But religious convictions on the topic of anthropology– the nature and value of men and women — have profoundly and positively influenced American history. Many of the greatest advances toward the protection of minority rights, from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement, came in part because people of faith pushed for them. And religious men and women made those efforts because they were convinced that all human beings — not just all believers — are created in God’s image.

The difference between Cohen’s simplistic, ahistoric vision of faith in the political arena and Gerson’s nuanced, historical understanding is obvious and fundamental. Every day I scour the political headlines while putting together Faith In Public Life’s daily news (click here to subscribe!), and from what I see, it’s clear that Gerson’s view is gaining traction as Cohen’s fades into the pages of history.

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