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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.

Pastors or Generals?

December 16, 2010, 12:06 pm | By John Gehring

The Arizona Republic reports that the Catholic bishop of Phoenix is threatening to strip St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center of its Catholic status tomorrow after earlier this year the hospital decided that terminating the pregnancy of a young mother close to death from pulmonary hypertension – a condition that limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function – was medically necessary to save her life. The decision was made by doctors in consultation with Sister Margaret McBride, the hospital’s vice president, who sits on St. Joseph’s ethics committee.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted condemned the surgery as an abortion and announced this spring that McBride, a Sister of Mercy, had excommunicated herself. In a recent letter to Catholic Healthcare West, which oversees the hospital, Bishop Olmsted fumed with indignation from his episcopal perch like a disgruntled general. “There cannot be a tie in this debate,” Olmsted writes. “Until this point in time, you have not acknowledged my authority to settle this question.”

In order to retain its Catholic status, St. Joseph’s must now acknowledge that Bishop Olmsted was right in his criticism of the decision, submit to a diocesan review and certification to ensure full compliance with Catholic moral teaching and agree to give its medical staff ongoing training on the Ethical and Religious Directives, a document from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This is a classic example of why some Catholic bishops have lost the respect of even faithful Catholics, including those who view abortion as a tragedy that undermines the sanctity of life. An imperial style and dogmatic certitude in the face of the messy complexities of ministering to the sick and dying leaves little room for prudential judgment or nuanced analysis. One can believe abortion is wrong and at the same time recognize that in grave situations moral absolutes often collide with the real world, where life-and-death medical decisions are made in the most ethical way possible against a daily backdrop of ambiguity and imperfection. Unlike most bishops who have spent little or no time serving in hospitals, Sister McBride and other Catholic health-care providers have lived experience and practical expertise that should be respected.

Bishop Olmsted’s black-and-white determination also offers a telling contrast with Pope Benedict XVI’s recent statements about condoms, where the pope acknowledged that while the Church teaches condom use is wrong, “in certain cases” contraceptives can be “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” This is not situational ethics that violates Church teaching, but practical and humane theology that responds to the world as it is even as we strive to build a world that lives up to our highest ideals. The tragic pandemic of AIDS in Africa, the pope teaches, must have some bearing on the proper application of Church teaching. If it doesn’t, our religious leaders are taking a path radically different from the example of Jesus, who walked among the brokenness and sin of the world not as a moral bureaucrat offering edicts from on high, but as a real person who experienced the human condition in all its frailty.

Bishops are teachers of the Catholic faith. Bishop Olmsted, I’m sure, takes that role seriously. Jesus of Nazareth was also a teacher. But his most pointed words were saved for the Pharisees and Sadducees, those high priests and religious authorities of his time, whose fixation on the letter of the law left them blind to the spirit of the law.

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Why Perriello Makes Us Proud

November 5, 2010, 3:20 pm | By John Gehring

It’s rare to find a politician these days who doesn’t lose his convictions and ability to inspire when he arrives in Washington. Rep. Tom Perriello, who was defeated on Tuesday night in a wave of voter dissatisfaction with the economy, is that rare breed. He leaves Congress holding his head high. A leader who has roots in the progressive faith community, Perriello co-founded Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (where I worked for three years), helped launch Faithful America, co-founded Res Publica, a global civic advocacy group, and was a key player in starting Avaaz.org, an online advocacy community working on issues like global poverty, climate change and Middle East peace. Tom’s work with child soldiers and pro-democracy groups in Sierra Leone played a major role in the peace and reconciliation process that ended twelve years of violence in that country. He did all this before winning a House seat at the age of 34 in a district with decidedly conservative leanings. Now, if that doesn’t make you feel like a slacker, I’m not sure what does!

A lot of politicians pay lip service to values. Tom’s campaigns, and his brief tenure in Congress, reflected faith and values in action. He pledged 10 percent of his campaign staff time to tithing. Volunteer stops in Virginia’s Fifth Congressional district included visits to soup kitchens, domestic violence shelters, senior centers and Habitat for Humanity projects. Perriello’s Common Good Summer initiative mobilized hundreds of college students working on his campaigns to perform service in the community. Living out the social justice teachings of his Catholic faith, Tom believes political leadership is about right and wrong, not left or right. You can always tell more about a person in defeat than in victory. In an e-mail to supporters after the election, Tom showed the mix of grace and grit that won over so many:

I promised you I would have your back against the powerful interests in Washington, and last night, you had mine. Even though we fell short of reelection, we defied the pundits in the roughest of political years. Because I come out of faith-based justice work instead of politics, I can see last night as a victory for conviction and hard work for the idea that when you fight for the people, the people win…Because of our work together, we turned near-economic collapse into nine straight months of private sector job growth. Because of our work together, 1,800 homes in our district have been weatherized, putting people to work making $20 an hour. Because of our work together, over 20,000 young people in our district are getting more aid to afford college. Over 120 small business owners got the loans to live their American dream. And being a woman is no longer considered a pre-existing condition in this country…As I told the crowd last night, my father made me promise when I entered politics that I would always consider Judgement Day more important than election day, because doing what’s right is more important than winning elections. I believe he is smiling on us today, and that he is thankful for all of you who sacrificed so much to offer a better kind of politics in America.

You haven’t heard the last of Tom Perriello. Those of us who believe that faith, values and a commitment to the common good can restore a sense of higher purpose in politics will be watching his future closely. There is every reason to believe his best days await.

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Post-Election Breakdown: Religious Voters, the Economy and Moral Values

November 3, 2010, 5:22 pm | By John Gehring

America woke up to a new political reality this morning. Voters anxious about the economy delivered the House to Republicans, though Democrats held onto control of the Senate. In many ways, this wasn’t a big surprise. The president’s party historically loses seats in the midterms, and the results reflected deep anxiety over the current unemployment rate and deepening economic despair, as well as an emboldened Tea Party movement on the right. A Los Angeles Times’ editorial today provides a measured analysis that should help buck up progressives and others on the left wallowing in an endless round of what ifs:

In 1956, Eisenhower crushed Adlai Stevenson in their rematch; two years after that, Democrats picked up 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Those patterns have repeated more recently: Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, only to have Democrats lose 53 House and seven Senate seats in 1994; George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 and lost control of Congress two years later. Given that history, Tuesday’s results are hardly astonishing; indeed, they are more part of a trend than an aberration. Nevertheless, they do reveal powerful forces at work in our politics today. Specifically, they reflect the descent from 2008′s hopeful zeitgeist to 2010′s anger and bewilderment, emotions that found purchase in many of the bitter, partisan races decided Tuesday.

Faith in Public Life crunched some exit poll numbers last night and asked experts on the intersection of faith and politics to provide some commentary. First, the numbers.

Eighty-seven percent of voters said they were worried about the economy, and 62% said the economy is the most important issue facing the country. Exit polling, however, debunks the narrative being perpetuated by some partisans that the election was a mandate to implement a Republican agenda. It’s hard to make that case when forty-three percent of voters polled had a favorable view of the Democratic party, compared to 42% who had a favorable view of the Republican party. In many ways, the results last night can be read as a desperate cry from a weary electorate hungry for more bipartisan cooperation to lift the nation out of our economic crisis. Voters in 2010 were noticeably older and more politically conservative than the 2008 electorate. In 2008, 18% of voters were under 30; this year 11% were under 30. In 2008, 53% of voters were 45 or older; this year 67% were 45 or older. A significant flip was evident among Catholic voters. In this election, 54% percent of Catholics supported Republican House candidates, compared to 42 percent in 2008 and 44 percent in 2006. In 2008, 54% of Catholic voters voted for President Obama. The Senate race in Pennsylvania was an outlier, as Catholics nearly evenly split on support for Democratic candidate Joe Sestak and Republican candidate (and winner) Pat Toomey (51% breaking for Toomey and 49% for Sestak).

Faith leaders and analysts put these numbers in perspective, offering insights into what happened with religious voters yesterday, from the role of the Tea Party to the importance of framing the economy as a moral values issue.

Steve Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington: “Our nation’s diverse faith traditions, especially Catholic social teaching, emphasize the common good and the essential role government has in building a just economy that works for all. This tradition and powerful message is not heard enough today and is urgently needed at a time of economic anxiety, growing ideological polarization and voter anger.”

Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute: “One thing is clear from this election – the Tea Party movement was a mixed blessing for the Republican Party. This group, which represents about 1-in-10 Americans in the general population, has captured some of the enthusiasm, and part of the membership of, one of the key groups typically rallying the Republican base, the Christian Right. …On the other hand, the Tea Party hurt GOP chances in the Senate by backing several candidates who faced an uphill climb appealing to mainstream voters in state-wide elections.”

Rev. Jennifer Butler, Executive Director of Faith in Public Life: “The faith community knows firsthand how hard families have been hit by our economic crisis, and we know that this election reflected voters’ frustration with a still-stagnant economy. The fact that an overwhelming percentage of voters ranked the economy as their top concern speaks not only to individual anxieties, but also to our concerns about our nation and its values. Economic injustices are moral injustices.”

I will leave it to the professional pundits and party leaders to break down the political spin, but it’s clear that elected officials and candidates hoping to win over anxious voters in the next few years need to talk less about GDP, interest rates or unemployment rates and more about values, the dignity of work, and the common good. There is a deep well of moral wisdom from our nation’s diverse faith traditions waiting to be tapped.

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Deconstructing the Tea Party

October 28, 2010, 2:28 pm | By John Gehring

Much ink has been spilled of late trying to understand the Tea Party. Where did this backlash of populist anger come from, and how will it upend politics? What role does race play in a nearly all-white movement that gained strength only after the election of our nation’s first black president?

Public Religion Research Institute’s recent poll brought a new round of punditry (including our own analysis here at Bold Faith Type) after it found that nearly half of Tea Party activists identify with the Christian conservative movement (although fewer than a quarter of Christian conservatives identify with the Tea Party). This complicated the conventional wisdom that the Tea Party phenomenon is largely a libertarian movement that doesn’t care much about social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Old fashioned shoe-leather journalism is rare these days. But the Washington Post’s months-long examination of the Tea Party (the paper set out to contact every tea party group in the nation!) is a major contribution to the burgeoning field of Tea Partyology. This kind of reporting helps sort out fevered opinion from sober facts. The Post found that far from being a coherent movement, the Tea Party is a disparate collection of local groups. Many are quite small, meet informally and rarely take steps to engage the political system. The groups frequently disagree over policy issues.

Seventy percent of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year. As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general…The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated. The Atlanta-based Tea Party Patriots, for example, says it has a listing of more than 2,300 local groups, but The Post was unable to identify anywhere near that many, despite help from the organization and independent research.

This confirms my sense that the Tea Party movement is less a defined political movement wedded to specific policy goals than a loose nexus for the inchoate anger and sense of cultural loss that a certain segment of America (largely white, older and male) is now experiencing. “Take Our Country Back” and “Restoring Honor” are Tea Party mantras that reflect a particular response to a changing nation that is less white, less traditionally religious and losing global preeminence. For a Tea Party sympathizer who lost his job, is unnerved by immigrants moving into the neighborhood and doesn’t feel comforted by a black president with a foreign-sounding name, patriotic appeals to an idealized past anchored by Christian values resonate in powerful ways. This emotional, cultural identity appeal is far more potent than calls for smaller government or lower taxes – even as those principles fit easily with a vaguely defined “liberty” agenda.

In a similar way that Barack Obama represented something more profound than new policies for a younger generation of Americans hungry for change and hopeful about politics for the first time, the Tea Party gives shape and meaning to those who feel like something is slipping through their fingers. While The Post found that social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion rights “did not register as concerns” for most activists interviewed, Public Religion Research Institute reported that 57 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers agree that “America is and always has been a Christian nation.” I think we can get stuck endlessly debating whether the Tea Party is libertarian or an extension of the Christian right. It seems this fluid movement comfortably embraces both of these strains of identity without conforming with either. The big question that remains is what long-term impact the Tea Party can have in an increasingly multicultural America where the ground is shifting under our feet.

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Tough Questions for Church Leaders

October 21, 2010, 12:25 pm | By John Gehring

I hope that at least a few Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders take the time to read a new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell. The authors’ research, examining the intersection of religion and politics over the last half century, offers some especially critical findings about why a growing percentage of Americans – particularly twentysomethings – now identify their religious affiliation as “none.” Writing in an a recent Los Angles Times op-ed , Putnam and Campbell identify how many young people point to faith leaders embracing conservative politics as the source of their disillusionment:

So, why this sudden jump in youthful disaffection from organized religion? The surprising answer, according to a mounting body of evidence, is politics. Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics…Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives.

It doesn’t seem that church leaders got the memo. Just yesterday, for example, we learned that Archbishop Raymond Burke, a formidable player in the 2004 presidential election after he publicly said Sen. John Kerry should be denied communion because of his position on abortion, was one of only two Americans named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI. As religion writer David Gibson notes over at Politics Daily, Burke has said that those who voted for Obama engaged in “a form of cooperation” with evil and declared that Sen. Ted Kennedy should not be given a Catholic funeral. It’s hard to see how the Catholic Church and other Christian leaders begin to stem the tide of young Americans turning away from organized religion without some serious soul searching about their style of engagement in the political process. In an important essay for Commonweal magazine, Peter Steinfels, a Catholic and widely respected former religion writer for the New York Times, invites Catholic bishops to grapple with tough questions about this issue at their national meeting next month.

Only a few Catholic bishops have publicly acknowledged the need for this kind of critical thinking. See Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco John Quinn’s America magazine commentary warning bishops not to become Republican partisans, and a candid National Catholic Reporter interview with Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe that makes the case for “building bridges, not burning them.” We need more church leaders confronting difficult questions and thinking more prudently about their political engagement. Reading Putnam and Campbell’s book is a good place to start.

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