In last week’s election, social conservatives failed to pass an anti-abortion amendment in the red-state stronghold of Mississippi, triggering questions about the role of hot-button social issues and the Religious Right’s influence in the 2012 election.
Rather than putting their full energy into causes such as “personhood” amendments, Religious Right organizations and leaders seem likely to focus primarily on economic issues. As jobs and the economy push social issues to the back burner, conservative Christian groups have latched onto the Tea Party’s extreme agenda.
Last year, the Family Research Council ran political ads focusing on the so-called threat of big government rather than abortion or same-sex marriage. This year’s Values Voters Summit, where GOP presidential candidates wooed Religious Right leaders, focused more on the economy than the culture war. Ralph Reed is predicting that “Teavangelicals” will decide the 2012 election. And it’s not just idle speculation – Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition will reach millions of Christian voters, spreading a low tax, small government gospel that disingenuously invokes “fiscal responsibility” as an excuse to gut crucial protections for families.
That might sound like shrewd strategy, but it also creates opportunities for progressives. Polls consistently show that Americans reject GOP efforts to slash taxes for millionaires and make draconian cuts that harm working families and the most vulnerable. A recent survey by Public Religion Research Institute shows that most people of faith are more sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street movement’s concerns than the Tea Party’s agenda. The poll found that 60 percent of Catholics and majorities of mainline Protestants and white evangelicals think we would be better off if the distribution of wealth were more equal.
The Religious Right’s stance on salient political issues is neatly aligned with the conservative coalition but clearly at odds with the views of most Americans. Progressives need to counter by offering a message that speaks to religious voters’ values of fairness, responsibility, compassion and justice.
I’m not saying quoting Scripture will win over conservative evangelicals, but presenting moderate people of faith with an authentic moral argument for a progressive economic vision will not only resonate, but also help change religion’s role in our political discourse. As my friend Richard Cizik said in a must-read Washington Post op-ed, “it’s time for a new values debate.” The more the Religious Right mimics the Tea Party, the less they reflect the Gospel. Let’s call them on it.
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State ballot issues loom large as voters flock to the polls today. Mississippians will decide on Initiative Measure 26, which would legally classify a fertilized human egg as a person. It would not only outlaw all abortion (including cases of rape or incest), but could also prohibit in-vitro fertilization and commonly used contraceptive methods. The Mississippi Medical Association even said this measure “will place in jeopardy a physician who tries to save a mother’s life by performing procedures and employing techniques have used for years.” IM 26 is not only radical, it’s downright dangerous.
For years I’ve worked with leaders on both sides of the abortion debate to find common ground without compromising core values. This approach not only helps defuse polarization, but also builds broad support for policies that assist pregnant women and prevent unintended pregnancy, which reduces the number of abortions. IM 26 is the absolute opposite of this approach. Even the Mississippi Catholic bishops and the National Right to Life Committee don’t support it.
A victory for working families?
As we’ve discussed before, Ohio voters are deciding today on Issue #2, a ballot initiative on whether to repeal Senate Bill 5 — deeply unpopular legislation that effectively stripped teachers, nurses and firefighters of the ability to collectively negotiate for safe working conditions, reasonable benefits and fair pay.
While progressives and labor are well-mobilized, a victory can’t be taken for granted. Defenders of SB-5 have mounted a massive disinformation campaign to confuse voters. But clergy across the state are standing up for working families and helping ensure the outcome reflects their commitment to workers’ rights.
Fraudulent claims of voter fraud.
Unfortunately, many states are erecting barriers to voting that could protect unpopular legislation like SB-5 from repeal efforts. Since the 2010 elections, a dozen state legislatures have restricted voters’ ability to cast ballots by adding onerous new ID requirements, restricting voter-registration efforts, or curbing early voting. While proponents claim these measures are necessary to prevent voter fraud, numerous investigations have failed to find any evidence that fraud is an actual problem. (Voter fraud was also a pretext for Jim Crow laws such as literacy tests.)
These statutes disproportionately affect groups more likely to support progressives – students, minorities and low-income voters. Using a nonexistent problem as a pretext to prevent people from voting is a dishonest tactic that runs contrary to American values. Preventing people from voting instead of trying to win them over clearly indicates a lack of commitment to their values and their well-being.
As radical politicians push unpopular policies that undermine democracy, severely restrict workers’ rights and dangerously redefine personhood, it’s more important than ever for people of faith to bring the focus of our nation’s politics back to the common good.
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Congress faces another test of its commitment to economic security for families today, when the Senate votes on legislation that would put 450,000 unemployed Americans to work repairing our crumbling infrastructure.
The outlook isn’t good. GOP Senators (along with two Democrats) recently filibustered a bill that would have saved or created hundreds of thousands of jobs for teachers and first-responders because it included modest tax increases on incomes over $1 million. Their priorities were clear: no job creation at all unless millionaires are spared from any shared sacrifice. This isn’t just a political choice, it’s a moral one.
But faith leaders are changing the debate for the better. As John and Nick have discussed, the Vatican issued a groundbreaking document last week that detailed the need for international financial regulation and condemned the destructive moral consequences of skyrocketing economic inequality.
Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Ryan, a Catholic who uses moral arguments to justify his budget priorities, gave an economic address laced with distortions, attacks and false choices. He even claimed to stand for equality of opportunity, completely eliding the fact that is federal budget proposal would have gutted crucial healthcare, nutrition, education and economic programs that help hard-hit families provide a better life for their children.
But as the always insightful E.J. Dionne said:
…what’s most instructive is that Ryan would not have given this speech if the Republican Party were not so worried that it is losing control of the political narrative. In particular, growing inequalities of wealth and income — which should have been a central issue in American politics for at least a decade — are now finally at the heart of our discourse.
For more than three decades, practically all wage and wealth growth in our nation has gone to the top 1% of Americans. Now that this outrage is no longer Washington’s open secret, those who defend policies that promote harsh economic inequality finally have to justify their priorities. And they know it’s a losing argument.
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In a little less than two weeks, Ohio voters will decide on Issue #2, a ballot initiative on whether to repeal Senate Bill 5 — deeply unpopular legislation that stripped teachers, nurses and firefighters of the ability to collectively negotiate for safe working conditions and reasonable benefits, and severely weakened their ability to negotiate for fair pay.
At a time of economic hardship for so many working families, such laws aren’t just irresponsible, they’re morally wrong. Clergy have been leading large-scale, public mobilizations against this anti-worker legislation. They’ve delivered petitions to lawmakers, preached against SB-5 and in favor of workers’ rights in congregations across the state, and spoken out at rallies and press conferences to call for repeal of the bill.
People of faith are looking for leaders to make a clear moral stand on the dignity of work and the well-being of families. While some political leaders are equivocating on repeal of SB-5, others are clearly making the connection between their religious values and their strong support for workers’ rights. Yesterday Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH) said:
“My Catholic faith is based on a fundamental belief in the value of all human beings, deserving of dignity and respect. Issue 2 gets to the heart of this belief in our daily lives – voting “No” on this measure shows that we respect the people who educate our children, fix our roads, and save lives every day. If we cannot clearly show our support for these people, especially in times like these, we really have to examine our priorities. Issue 2 is not just an economic question, but a moral question that reflects who we are as a people – do we respect and support our fellow men and women, or do we treat them as less deserving as they work every day to make all of our lives better?”
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The news coming out of Washington and New York differed remarkably this past weekend. In Manhattan, the #OccupyWallStreet movement continued to flourish as a national symbol of populist outrage at economic injustice and inequality, while conservative leaders at the Values Voter Summit distorted the protests and promoted religious bigotry.
Faith leaders brought a new dimension to the demonstrations in New York. I’m an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister, and I traveled to Wall Street this weekend with a lay Catholic friend dedicated to fighting for economic justice. Our other passenger was an inanimate object that spoke volumes — a statue of a golden calf — a powerful symbol of idolatry in Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions.
On Sunday, we joined hundreds of people for an interfaith worship service and march to reflect on the condemnation of greed throughout Scripture. The calf was displayed in the sanctuary during worship and carried at the front of our procession through Lower Manhattan. In church and in the streets, the cheers and prayers were overwhelming. People know deep down that greed has been idolized for too long in our nation, with disastrous economic and spiritual consequences, and our effort struck that chord. (And I was pleasantly shocked to see a photo of the calf on the front page of Monday’s Washington Post!)
The message was decidedly less inspiring inside the Beltway, where the Family Research Council Action Fund’s annual Values Voter Summit drew a who’s who of the conservative movement. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for example, called those of us protesting Wall Street’s destructive reckless greed a “growing mob.”
But Cantor’s cynicism paled in comparison to the shameful religious rhetoric of some other speakers. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, who has a history of hateful commentary, was nonetheless given a prime speaking slot. Among other things, he said “the more devout a Muslim becomes, the more of a threat he becomes to our national security,” and claimed that “Every single Mosque in America is a potential recruiting or training cell for Islamic terror.” Given that Fischer has made similar claims numerous times, the Values Voter Summit organizers have no excuse for giving him such a prominent platform.
While the voices at the Values Voter Summit were defensive and divisive, the message I heard this weekend in New York was fresh and promising. As the #Occupy movement gains steam and election season approaches, I hope those on the Right are not portrayed as the authentic voice of the faith community. The ongoing economic crisis and political polarization in our nation demand a genuine moral response, not a cynical political one.
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