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John Gehring
John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Catholic Program Director, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.

Defending the Global Common Good

February 22, 2011, 10:33 pm | By John Gehring

We’ve been tracking the myriad ways that federal budget proposals would eviscerate domestic programs that offer vital safety nets for the poor and make life harder for working families. Self-described deficit hawks are also positioning to make deep cuts to international humanitarian aid that are similarly cruel and misguided.

The Washington Post reports that House Republicans would reduce food aid programs by up to 50 percent, State Department funding for refugees by more than 40 percent and dramatically slash one of the main U.S. foreign food aid programs. Development officials predict these cuts would reduce or eliminate food for about 15 million people in places such as Ethiopia, Haiti and Sudan at a time when food prices are soaring. Catholic Relief Services warns lawmakers in a recent letter to Congress why this is a mistake:

Foreign assistance is not simply an optional commitment; it is a moral responsibility to assist “the least of these.” These priority programs support a wide range of life-saving and dignity-preserving activities, including: agricultural assistance to poor farmers; drugs for people living with HIV and tuberculosis; cost-effective vaccines for preventable diseases; assistance to orphans and vulnerable children; mosquito nets to prevent malaria; food aid for famines, emergencies, and development; emergency health care, shelter, and reconstruction in disaster-devastated places like Haiti; peacekeepers to protect innocent civilians such as in Sudan and the Congo; assistance to migrants and refugees fleeing conflict or persecution; and debt relief for poor nations. Cuts at the level being considered will result in the loss of innocent lives.

If you think that defending the global common good is only for bleeding heart liberals, conservative columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson makes a compelling case for why Republicans’ efforts to target international aid make little sense politically and substantively.

These reductions were intended to be symbolic, but what do they symbolize? Fiscal responsibility? Hardly. No one can reasonably claim that the budget crisis exists because America spends too much on bed nets and AIDS drugs. Our massive debt is mainly caused by a combination of entitlement commitments, an aging population and health cost inflation. Claiming courage or credit for irrelevant cuts in foreign assistance is a net subtraction from public seriousness on the deficit. So, do these cuts symbolize the Republican rejection of fuzzy-headed liberalism? Actually, the main initiatives on malaria and AIDS were created under Republican leadership. They emphasize measured outcomes and accountability. If the goal of House Republicans is to squander the Republican legacy on global health, they are succeeding.

Whither compassionate conservatism?

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Newt Gingrich and the EPA

February 11, 2011, 4:56 pm | By John Gehring

Newt_Gingrich.jpgNewt Gingrich, a proud and very public convert to Catholicism, yesterday called for the Environmental Protection Agency to be abolished at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) meeting in Washington. This is a curious position for a Catholic politico to take given the clarity of Catholic social teaching on the environment and Pope Benedict XVI’s frequent statements about global climate change.

Nicknamed the “Green Pope” by some for his vocal concern about environmental justice issues, Pope Benedict has urged governments to do more in addressing climate change. The Vatican several years ago announced its plans to become the first carbon-neutral state in the world. And the pope blasted world leaders for failing to reach a climate change treaty in Copenhagen.

Gingrich, who is weighing a 2012 presidential run, frames his position against the EPA as a common-sense effort to rid us of big-government bureaucracy and nettlesome regulations. But in doing so he, along with many other influential Catholic political leaders like John Boehner, paints a caricature of government that is anathema to Catholic teaching. The Catholic social tradition recognizes the vital role government has in promoting the common good, which includes protecting the environment. Mr. Gingrich and fellow conservative Catholic politicians should remember that the next time they put essential government agencies on the chopping block.

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Glimmers of Hope on Comprehensive Immigration Reform?

February 7, 2011, 4:49 pm | By John Gehring

As we’ve blogged about many times before, Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform has led Arizona and other states to adopt punitive, enforcement-only measures that are both impractical and inhumane. Now that Republicans control the House and Tea Party rhetoric has driven the debate further right, prospects are still dim for a major breakthrough any time soon. But there are glimmers of hope that should inspire faith-based and secular advocates to keep the pressure on.

Politico reports today that Sen. Lindsey Graham (who still needs to make amends for voting against the DREAM Act) and Sen. Chuck Schumer have resumed conversations about building political will behind comprehensive reform. These influential leaders are essential to building bipartisan support and have again started outreach to a diverse coalition of faith, business and labor leaders:

Now, conservative evangelicals, the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, business organizations and immigrant advocacy groups say they have gotten word from Schumer’s office that a renewed effort is under way. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce confirmed that it is back in the mix, after a hasty exit last year when Schumer proposed a legislative framework with a temporary worker program that favored labor unions. And Schumer and his staff have quietly begun reaching out to some unlikely players in the Senate, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who has professed a newfound freedom since winning reelection last year without the Republican Party’s help.

This is an important development, especially considering that defeat of the DREAM Act last December left many advocates skeptical about prospects for progress in the new Congress. It’s also a good sign that Graham and Schumer recognize the vital role religious leaders and faith communities will play in getting this done. The U.S. Conference of Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Religious Action Center for Reformed Judaism and other high-profile religious groups have made comprehensive reform a priority for years. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign, which earned kudos from Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice for their on-the-ground organizing in Arizona, is also keeping the pressure on the Obama administration to end Immigration & Custom Enforcement (ICE) programs that tear families apart and contribute to racial profiling.

Along with new energy on Capitol Hill, it’s also good to see Arizona-inspired immigration bills losing momentum in other states. As the Washington Post reported recently, many of these bills are facing a tangle of challenges:

State budget deficits, coupled with the political backlash triggered by Arizona’s law and potentially expensive legal challenges from the federal government, have made passage of such statutes uncertain. In the nine months since the Arizona measure was signed into law, a number of similar bills have stalled or died or are being reworked. Some have faced resistance from law enforcement officials who question how states or communities could afford the added cost of enforcing the laws. And some state legislators have backed away from the most controversial parts of the Arizona law, which have been challenged in court by the federal government and others.

The faith community deserves credit for keeping comprehensive immigration reform alive. Expect a diverse array of religious leaders to continue playing a key role in making sure our nation’s broken immigration system is fixed in a way that’s fair, practical and humane.

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US Evangelicals and the Murder of David Kato

January 28, 2011, 3:29 pm | By John Gehring

david kato.jpgThe murder of David Kato, a leading advocate for LGBT equality in Uganda, must serve as an urgent wakeup call to the international community and, more specifically, certain conservative Christian leaders whose demonization of gays creates a toxic climate that can lead to violence. Kato’s death has renewed a difficult and essential debate about the role some US evangelicals have played in fomenting anti-gay bigotry in a country where homophobia is deeply engrained.

At Religion Dispatches, Candace Chellew-Hodge has compiled several strong reactions from LGBT advocates that call out US religious right figures such as Scott Lively, the former head of the California affiliate of the American Family Association. Lively and others, including Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International, have led conferences and workshops in Uganda denouncing homosexuality as evil. These aggressive campaigns helped lay the foundation, or at the very least helped legitimize, draconian legislation introduced two years ago in the Ugandan legislature that would require a minimum life sentence for anyone convicted of having gay sex, and a mandatory death penalty if they were HIV-positive. The proposal, commonly referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill, would also ban the “promotion of homosexuality,” making it a crime to advocate on behalf of gay rights. David Kato and his group, Sexual Minorities Uganda, campaigned against the bill, which is still pending.

Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good organized a statement in 2009 signed by prominent Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant leaders — including a former U.S. Ambassador to Uganda and the Vatican – that condemned the proposed legislation. Their words are worth reflecting on as we mourn the loss of David Kato and recommit ourselves as people of faith to standing shoulder to shoulder with Ugandans living in fear because of who they are.

As Americans, some may wonder why we are raising our voices to oppose a measure proposed in a nation so far away from home. We do so to bear witness to our Christian values, and to express our condemnation of an injustice in which groups and leaders within the American Christian community are being implicated. We appeal to all Christian leaders in our own country to speak out against this unjust legislation. In our efforts to imitate the Good Samaritan, we stand in solidarity with those Ugandans beaten and left abandoned by the side of the road because of hatred, bigotry and fear….Regardless of the diverse theological views of our religious traditions regarding the morality of homosexuality, in our churches, communities and families, we seek to embrace our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as God’s children worthy of respect and love. Yet we are painfully aware that in our country gays and lesbians still face hostility and violence. We recognize that such treatment degrades the human family, threatens the common good and defies the teachings of our Lord — wherever it occurs.

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Defending Religious Liberty…Until the Kitchen Heats Up

January 28, 2011, 9:45 am | By John Gehring

richard land.jpgIt’s disappointing to see Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, pull the plug on the SBC’s support for a new interfaith coalition defending the rights of Muslims to build mosques. Here is his rationale, as explained to the Associated Press:

…the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission…said he heard from many Southern Baptists who felt the work of the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques crossed the line from defending religious freedom to promoting Islam. “I don’t agree with that perception but it’s widespread and I have to respect it…My constituents, many felt, ‘Yes. We certainly believe in religious freedom. People ought to have a place of worship. But it’s a bridge too far not only to advocate for that, but to file suit,’” he said.

Interestingly, the coalition was not the brainchild of Muslim or progressive Christian leaders. It was launched by the Anti-Defamation League – a prominent Jewish group devoted to fighting anti-Semitism and “all forms of bigotry.” The ADL faced widespread criticism for opposing the construction of Park51, an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. The ADL claimed that the project was disrespectful to the family of victims killed in the Word Trade Center attacks. But the organization has since become a leading defender of disputed mosque projects across the country, including those in Murfreesboro, Tenn. and Temecula, Calif.

As Justin Elliott writes over at Salon, even as the ADL rankles many with it’s unwavering support of Israel, friendly attitude toward Glenn Beck and opposition to a group of imams visiting Auschwitz, the organization deserves credit for sticking their necks out for a cause that is surely unpopular with some conservative Jewish supporters of the group.

Contrast this commendable leadership with Land, who in the face of grumblings from Southern Baptists chose to walk away from a fight that is at the heart of his office’s commitment to religious freedom. Southern Baptist critics who argue that the coalition crossed the line from defending religious freedom to “promoting Islam,” as Land says, offer a transparently weak argument.

No one expects the Southern Baptist Convention to become cheerleaders for Islam or launch a massive public relations campaign on behalf of Muslims. This interfaith coalition does neither. It simply, and essentially, protects a fundamental principle of our democracy: freedom to worship in peace.

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