George Shultz Joins Evangelicals in Anti-Nuke Campaign

April 28, 2009, 2:51 pm | Posted by
Washington Post, God in Government
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*Faith in Public Life coordinated the media launch of the Two Futures Project.

Former Secretary of state George Shultz has teamed up with a slew of evangelical Christians to launch what could be seen as a crusade with a quixotic goal: the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons.

The fact is that Schultz has been working on that for a while with some old friends — former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, ex-Senator Sam Nunn and former Defense Secretary William J. Perry.

But now he’s garnered support from a slew of young evangelical Christians from across the social and theological spectrum: the Rev. Rob Bell, 38, founding pastor of megachurch Mars Hill Bible Church, Shane Claiborne, 38, considered the leader of the “New Monastic” movement and Jonathan Merritt, 26, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative.

“What human being things that he or she should have that kind of power to unleash that kind of destruction?” said Shultz in a news teleconference announcing the Two Futures Project on Tuesday.

It’s another issue around which Christians of various stripes have been able to achieve at least some common ground, including global warming, immigration, poverty and abortion.

The anti-nukes initiative is being organized by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, 31, a Baptist minister who founded the Two Futures Project and has been working on a nuclear weapons ban for the last decade.

Most Americans haven’t thought much about nuclear weapons since the Cold War, said Wigg-Stevenson. “To them, the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons can sound…like a lefty Utopian fantasy.”

But it isn’t, he insists.

They all point for inspiration to President Obama’s “Palm Sunday speech,” where he pledged to work toward elimination of nuclear weapons. President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also announced the start of negotiations on a new strategic arms-control treaty that would cut each nation’s long-range nuclear arsenals.

“What’s really critical is that these leaders see that there is a broad amount of support and sympathy for what they are doing in the general populace,” said Shultz.

The idea is to mobilize Christians in schools and churches to press world leaders into beginning what would admittedly be a long and drawn-out process to render nuclear weapons obsolete.

The project has also garnered the support of a slew of name-brand evangelical Christians, including Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Bill and Lynn Hybels, founders of Willow Creek Community Church.

Hybels calls it part of a “consistent ethic of life” that is, and should be, embraced by Christians.

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Young evangelicals call for end to nuclear weapons

April 28, 2009, 2:16 pm | Posted by
Associated Baptist Press
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A group of under-40 evangelicals attending a leadership meeting in Texas announced April 28 a new initiative to mobilize American Christians to eliminate nuclear weapons.

“We have all heard about this broadening of the evangelical agenda,” said Katie Paris of Faith in Public Life, a progressive group for advancing faith in the public square. “Today something new is happening. Younger Christians are setting the agenda — elevating and acting on an issue that has been off the popular radar for decades. They are engaging politics in a way that is very different from the generation that came before them, defying easy political categorization and breaking through theological division.”

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, 31, an ordained Baptist minister and member of First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., is the founding director of the Two Futures Project, a movement of American Christians calling for the global abolition of nuclear weapons.

“The truth that has been recognized in foreign-policy circles over the past several years must now make its way into the public consciousness,” he said in a conference call with reporters to announce the initiative. “In a post 9/11 era the weapons that we relied upon as our ultimate ace in the hole have in fact become the greatest threat to us all.”

Wigg-Stevenson said the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that produced a stalemate between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War “is now obsolete.”

“A two-tiered world of nuclear haves and have-nots will eventually lead to uncontrollable proliferation and an un-deterrable terrorist bomb,” he said, “which would not only cause mass casualties, but catastrophic economic effects that would leave no corner of the planet untouched.”

Wigg-Stevenson said nuclear weapons touch on a number of Christian moral concerns, including protection of innocent life, care for creation and concern for the poor. He labeled reliance on weapons of mass destruction “enacted blasphemy.”

“Who do we think we are to claim authority over life itself and the welfare of future generations?” he asked. “That power belongs to God alone.”

Jonathan Merritt, national spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative, spoke in support of the initiative.

“Nuclear weapons are not only unacceptable, they are un-Christian,” Merritt said. “As followers of Jesus we serve a God that abhors the shedding of innocent blood.”

“We understand that those that will be affected by the detonation of a nuclear bomb are not numbers,” Merritt said. “They are objects of God’s love, wonderful creations made in his image.”

Merritt said he is aware that some people think the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide is impossible.

“Calling something impossible is often a tool of distraction employed by those who simply lack moral courage,” he said. “As Christians, our decisions must be made on morality, not plausibility. We serve a God through which all things are possible. So when Christians hide behind the skirt of probability, it is the ultimate act of distrust.”

Merritt said he supports the Two Futures Project as a Southern Baptist, citing the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message article calling it the duty of Christians to seek peace and do all in their power to end war.

“Southern Baptists have always placed immense value on human life, which is an important part of the pursuit of peace,” Merritt said. “Therefore I find this effort wholly consistent with both my theological convictions and a long-held Baptist belief.”

Merritt said he also supports the initiative as a “member of a rising generation of Christ-followers who engage public policy differently than the generation that came before us.”

“As we attempt to mirror the ministry of Jesus Christ by promoting compassion and justice and peace, we seek to transcend partisanship, and we welcome the opportunity to partner with people of mutual good will,” he said.

Merritt, 26, the son of former Southern Baptist Convention president James Merritt, drew criticism from denominational leaders in March 2008 for spearheading the environmental declaration criticizing SBC resolutions as too timid on the issue of climate change.

Recently Merritt wrote an opinion article in USA Today saying Christians should show more compassion to gays. The SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission responded with an e-mail to state-convention ethics leaders citing criticism by the convention’s “gender-issues specialist,” Bob Stith. Stith said Merritt’s article did a “disservice” to evangelicals who are “actively engaged in loving outreach to homosexuals,” including the SBC’s own Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals, formed in 2001.

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No clones allowed. Religious groups back new NIH stem cell rules

April 18, 2009, 11:22 am | Posted by
Colorado Independent
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The Obama Administration issued long-sought guidelines Friday for advancing new federally-funded embryonic stem cell research reversing a nearly nine year ban by the Bush White House.

Despite hysterical and inaccurate claims by conservative religious groups over “fetal farming”, the National Institutes of Health guidelines do not allow embryonic cloning or other methods of deriving stem cells beyond those available through fertility clinics.

The Washington Post notes that while some in the scientific community hailed the new rules as pragmatic others grumbled that the political compromise would hamper promising research to cure terminal illnesses and life-threatening conditions.

The NIH modeled its revised policy on Congressional legislation that was long-championed by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver but unable to withstand veto threats by Bush. Degette and her Delaware Republican co-sponsor Michael Castle have indicated that lawmakers will press further for more expansive stem cell research rules.

Additional ethical safeguards, including signed donor consent and restrictions on obtaining only discarded embryos from fertility clinics for approved research purposes, were welcomed by centrist political leaders.

Faith in Public Life, a nonpartisan religious policy center,a nonpartisan religious policy center, posted responses from a variety of denominations on its blog on the proposed guidelines:

The United Methodist Church’s official position states that:

…Given the reality that most, if not all, of these excess embryos will be discarded-we believe that it is morally tolerable to use existing embryos for stem cell research purposes. This position is a matter of weighing the danger of further eroding the respect due to potential life against the possible, therapeutic benefits that are hoped for from such research…

The Religious Action Center says:

[T]he Jewish tradition teaches us that preserving life and promoting health are among the most precious of values… Indeed, our tradition requires that we use all available knowledge to heal the ill, and “when one delays in doing so, it is as if he has shed blood” (Shulchan Aruch, Yorei De`ah 336:1).

The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s statement says:

[We] affirm the use of fetal tissue and embryonic tissue for vital research. Our respect for life includes respect for the embryo and fetus, and we affirm that decisions about embryos and fetuses need to be made with responsibility… With careful regulation, we affirm the use of human stem cell tissue for research that may result in the restoring of health to those suffering from serious illness.

The Orthodox Union said in a letter to President Bush:

The potential to save and heal human lives is an integral part of valuing human life from the traditional Jewish perspective. Moreover, our rabbinic authorities inform us that an isolated fertilized egg does not enjoy the full status of person-hood and its attendant protections. Thus, if embryonic stem cell research can help us preserve and heal humans with greater success, and does not require or encourage the destruction of life in the process, it ought to be pursued.

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Obama’s faith-based council still finding its footing

April 17, 2009, 2:33 pm | Posted by
Religion News Service
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Advisers tapped to help guide the White House’s revamped faith-based office say their role is still evolving as the initiative tries to find its footing in the young Obama administration.

Initial members of the council, who were named in February, opened a two-day meeting with White House officials April 6. An additional nine members, who will round out the 25-member council, were also announced April 6.

The overhaul of the office centers on an expanded mission to go beyond matching faith-based groups with government funds, advisory council members said in recent interviews. One of the biggest changes is asking religious leaders to help shape policy on a number of hot-button social issues, including abortion.

While some viewed the Bush administration’s efforts mostly as a one-way directive on how to expand the reach of faith-based groups, Obama’s unpaid advisers report more of a two-way dialogue on a broader array of issues.

“The sense that you have is that there’s really somebody who is listening to what you have to say and will take it into consideration,” said one adviser, Bishop Vashti McKenzie, who oversees African Methodist Episcopal congregations in Tennessee and Kentucky. She said the level of communication is “certainly a change from the Republican administration” and also from the Clinton White House.

“There was some give-and-take,” McKenzie said, “but not at this level.”

The council is charged with helping shape policy in four areas: economic recovery, abortion reduction, interfaith dialogue and responsible fatherhood. McKenzie plans to focus her work on the fatherhood program.

Other advisers said they were given a courtesy heads-up as Obama drafted his executive order permitting federal funding of stem-cell research, or in regard to his nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services secretary. When some members expressed concern about proposed reductions in charitable deductions or rescinding conscience protections for health-care workers, the White House responded with explanations, they said.

Former Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page, one of the advisers, said he has been surprised at the rapid pace of some policy decisions — many of which he has not agreed with — but believes his views were heard when he questioned the plan to rescind conscience protections for health-care workers.

“I felt like there was some listening and some response in that particular issue,” he said.

Fr. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA and another adviser, said it was helpful when faith-based director Joshua DuBois got on the phone and explained the administration’s position on charitable deductions.

“At the same time, we’re all thinking, we’ll see how it plays out,” he said.

Richard Stearns, president of the evangelical relief agency World Vision and a member of the advisory council, said the panel seems to have two roles: serving as “a council of elders” that can offer their expertise to the White House, and also representing their constituents to decision-makers.

“I think there’s a broader tent, if you will, in this group,” he said. “President Bush’s faith-based office, right or wrong, was associated with evangelicals within the faith community. I think this group is broader and is including not just Christians of many stripes but also people of other faiths and people of no faith.”

The council includes noted conservatives like Page, and high-profile liberals, like Fred Davie, the openly gay senior adviser for the nonprofit Public/Private Ventures.

“There’s always a temptation to just get people on board who agree with you on everything,” said the Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, a progressive think tank in Washington. “But Obama is sticking to his word that he wants to bring diverse Americans together to talk about even some of the most controversial issues of the day.”

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Reduce, Reuse, Religion?

April 10, 2009, 5:54 pm | Posted by
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Jonathan Merritt doesn’t want to talk about his own views on gay marriage or civil unions — perhaps for good reason. Merritt is a young evangelical leader, a prominent writer on modern faith, and the son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president. The religious landscape of this country may be changing, but anyone who espouses equality could derail a future leadership role among evangelicals, who still vote overwhelmingly Republican and have viewed homosexuality as a defining social issue since the early days of the Moral Majority. Merritt prefers to zoom out during an interview and opine as candid observer rather than crusader.

My generation will not fight to preserve the platform for traditional marriage that our predecessors have fought for,” the 26-year-old says. “Older evangelicals are so stubborn and unable to compromise or reach out a hand. And they’re in danger of losing their legacy.”

Whatever his personal beliefs on marriage equality are, you’re not likely to hear him rail against a gay rights agenda in the vitriolic vein of Pat Robertson or James Dobson. On his blog Merritt criticizes a Starbucks-addled American culture that ignores the atrocities in Darfur. He renounces the use of torture. Most notably, Merritt recognizes the burden of 6.7 billion people on the world’s ecosystems and chastises Christians who don’t view conservation and carbon footprint reduction as godly mandates. “Environmental stewardship has been integrated into Christian thought since the beginning of time,” he says. “Unfortunately, when modern evangelicals began associating themselves with a particular political faction, they were skittish about issues seen as leftist or liberal policy.”

Merritt is not alone in his convictions. Over the past decade, a growing number of young U.S. evangelicals have started to shift the movement’s focus from a two-pronged ministry against abortion and gay rights to a more holistic worldview that addresses environmental issues under the banner of “creation care.” Scripture remains sacred, and sin and salvation are not trivial matters of the heart. But where their elders may preach about moral turpitude with a fundamentalist’s zeal, the new generation’s members are more inclined to accept ambiguity.

The real issues, they say, are climate change, mercury poisoning, and destructive coal-mining practices. Multiple religious environmental organizations echo the sentiment, and even commerce has caught up with the movement: You can now read Scripture passages from the Green Bible, a text released in October that underscores environmentally tinged verse in green, soy-based ink, printed on recycled paper. “So much of the [evangelical] agenda has come from the modern consciousness of the individual,” says Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest and theologian in Oakland, Calif. “Am I saved? Am I a sinner? Am I going to hell? But I think this generation has grown up with the realization that the planet is dying and that its survival is a little more important than whom people sleep with.”

Though generational differences are inevitable in many groups, young evangelicals are currently changing the sociological fabric of their churches. They are more likely to have gone to college than their parents, and they have increasingly grown up in middle-class suburban households rather than rural, lower-income areas, says John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “The evangelical community is not as insular,” he says. “There was a time when evangelicals tried to separate themselves from society. Now they’re moving toward the mainstream.”

Nor are they necessarily the “values voters” in lockstep with the GOP. Many see the war in Iraq and the erosion of environmental regulations as hallmark disappointments of the Bush administration, which carried 78% of the evangelical vote in the 2004 presidential election. Though Sen. John McCain carried a solid majority of evangelicals last year, 32% of those voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for Barack Obama — twice as many as voted for John Kerry in 2004.

Leif Bergerud, a 28-year-old divinity student at Duke University, believes Bush’s pro-oil environmental policies often belied his persona as a man of God. Sarah Palin was hardly a political remedy: The vice-presidential nominee’s socially conservative worldview and “drill, baby, drill” mantra may have been a Republican attempt to galvanize evangelicals unenthusiastic about a moderate McCain presidency, but the rhetoric disenchanted many, he says. “Most of us know we’ve gotten to the point where the science behind [climate change] is just indisputable,” Bergerud says. “We’re playing a role in altering our climate for the worse.”

On hot-button social issues, young evangelicals are a mixed bag. While most remain steadfastly anti-abortion, a majority are likely to support legal recognition for gay and lesbian relationships. According to a 2008 study, [the Faith and American Politics Survey, sponsored by Faith in Public Life], 58% of white evangelical Christians aged 18-29 support either marriage or domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, compared with 46% of evangelicals over 30.

Merritt says it’s easy to see why. Four out of 10 evangelical youths say they have a close friend or family member who is gay, twice as many as their older counterparts. When the issue becomes personal, attitudes change. “Many older [evangelicals] are in disbelief when you quote that statistic,” he says. “One man said to me, ‘Well, I have a cousin who is gay.’ I told him the difference is that I hang out with my friends who are gay on Friday nights. You just see your cousin at Christmastime.”

But espousing progressive beliefs on gay rights and climate change remains a gamble in evangelical leadership circles. Richard Cizik, former vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, is an illuminating example. As one of the movement’s most outspoken environmentalists, Cizik long drew fire from Christian conservatives who attacked his “relentless campaign” on climate change, according to a 2007 letter to the NAE calling for Cizik’s resignation (Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and Alan Chambers of Exodus International were among the 25 signatories). “We have observed that Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time,” the letter read, “notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage, and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.”

Cizik held on to his job, but his “shifting” views on same-sex relationships were the ammunition his detractors needed for the kill. In a December interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Cizik said he believed in civil unions for gays and lesbians, though he did not support marriage equality.

“We have become so absorbed in the question of gay rights,” Cizik told Gross, “that we fail to understand the threats to marriage itself — heterosexual marriage. Maybe we need to reevaluate this.”

Cizik resigned his position under pressure nine days after the interview aired. He later called his comments on civil unions “misunderstood,” and he drew fire from gay rights activists for signing a full-page ad in The New York Times decrying “antireligious bigotry” against churches that publicly supported the passage of Proposition 8, California’s anti-marriage equality ballot measure. (Through a spokeswoman, Cizik declined to be interviewed for this article.) Leith Anderson, president of the NAE, says in an e-mail response that the organization’s stance on creation care remains the same, that a “God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part.”

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