Faith in Public LIVE: Amy Sullivan, XPatriated Texan and David Buckley (Part 1)

July 31, 2006, 11:00 am | Posted by

Introducing Faith in Public LIVE: exchanges between bloggers and noted leaders in faith and public policy. Check back and comment throughout the week as this exchange grows, and visit this space every week to see a new series of conversations and debates.

This first edition kicks off with thoughts from Amy Sullivan, editor of Washington Monthly and author of an upcoming book on faith in politics. She writes about the Casey campaign, the Pennsylvania Pastors Network, and the potential benefits of just showing up. Check back soon to see responses from Thurman Hart of XPatriated Texan and David Buckley of FPL.

Hi Thurman and David–

Thanks for joining me in this first inaugural Faith in Public Life conversation. I have no doubt that our discussion will range in many interesting directions, but I want to start us out by looking at the Pennsylvania Senate race between Democrat Bob Casey and the Republican incumbant Rick Santorum. From almost the moment he entered the campaign, Casey has led Santorum by double-digits, an advantage that appears largely due to Santorum’s astonishing ability to alienate voters with a blend of sanctimonious social conservatism and unsavory K Street connections.

But Casey hasn’t just sat back to watch Santorum self-destruct (although you could argue that would have been an effective campaign tactic). Instead, he’s employed some fairly innovative techniques that have either neutralized Santorum’s advantage among religious voters or have actually given Casey an edge. The questions I’ve been thinking about are whether other Democrats could use those same strategies–and whether they would want to.

Let’s take Casey’s neutralization efforts first. It’s safe to say that Rick Santorum had counted on the groups of conservative clergy and religious activists who were mobilized by the GOP in 2004 to operate as something like a second arm of his campaign this year. Leaders of the Pennsylvania Pastors Network (PPN), the New York Times reported earlier this year, have sought to bring aboard ten field coordinators and plan to focus their efforts on registering “conservative” voters. In March, they invited Rick Santorum to address a training session for activists (he sent a videotaped talk) and they hired a former Bush campaign staffer who coordinated the 2004 campaign’s efforts with conservative Christian organizations.

In the past, Democrats would have fumed about this sort of thing, and maybe even filed a formal FEC or IRS complaint. But that would undoubtedly have been gleefully held up by Republicans as proof that Democrats are hostile to religion and want to shut out religious voices. This time, the Casey campaign did something different. After the PPN invited Santorum (but not Casey) to address their members in the spring–in violation of IRS rules for tax-exempt organizations–the Casey campaign contacted the group and said, in effect, it’s so great that you’re involved in important political efforts. We’d love to come talk to you as well.

That took the PPN aback. They hadn’t planned on providing a platform for the Democratic candidate. But it’s one thing to neglect to invite both candidates to an event. To ignore a candidate’s specific request to come speak after his opponent has already addressed the organization would be a blatant violation of the law. So today (July 31), Casey will be speaking to a lunchtime meeting of the group in Scranton.

The same thing happened with the PPN website. Originally, the group included information on its website about Santorum, the favored candidate. Cue the Casey campaign. Hey, that’s great–we’d love to be on there, too. Again, the PPN didn’t want to highlight Casey, but they couldn’t legally turn down his request and leave up Santorum’s information. So rather than give Casey equal space, they took down the Santorum material.

All of this should be comforting to those liberals who have worried that Democrats efforts in the area of religion automatically mean that the party must pander to evangelicals by shifting its social positions to the right. (The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus asked in a column: “What does it profit a party to gain a demographic but lose its soul?”)

In this case, the Casey campaign hasn’t done anything but engage with a group that was prepared to work solely on behalf of the Republican candidate, and politely ask for equal time (which also happens to be a request that they abide by the law). It’s so simple and brilliant that I’m still amazed no one had thought of this before. Democrats can’t stop religious conservatives from mobilizing, but they can make sure that those groups don’t give Republicans an unfair advantage.

The example of Casey, however, does raise some serious questions for Democrats, because I don’t think his campaign can be considered outside of the context of his pro-life stance. I hope we’ll move onto that topic in the next few days, because I have wondered–with Casey, Tim Kaine in Virginia last year, and Bill Ritter, the pro-life Democratic candidate for governor in Colorado–whether Catholic Democrats running in redd-ish states nowadays have to be pro-life.

All the Best,


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Hearing Diverse Voices on Vouchers

July 20, 2006, 12:14 pm | Posted by

Support for school vouchers has become one of the myriad of strategies used by some Republicans to convince Americans that only they care about religious people in America. The transparent logic goes, ‘See, we’ll give your Christian schools money. We must love you! Especially when you vote for us.’ It helps that this vote-seeking melds with the general conservative idea that equal education is not something that the government is capable or obligated to provide.

Luckily, our friends in the blogosphere have been active in taking on the idea that people of faith must blindly buy into the vouchers bonanza. As Peter Laarman writes over at the Huffington Post,

School choice, as part of the GOP’s “Values Agenda,? is quite deliberately framed in biblical terms to appeal to both the white “values base? of the party and to anguished African-American parents whose children may be doing poorly in school whether or not the school itself is underperforming.

Other incisive faithful critiques come from Mik over at JSpot, Bruce at Mainstream Baptist, and the Talk to Action crowd. We’re working on getting an education resources page together here at FPL to join the topic-based resources we already offer to the community.

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Why Sen. Obama Offers Hope to Atheists (and People of Faith, too)

June 30, 2006, 3:49 pm | Posted by

Apparently some in progressive Blogistan appear troubled by Sen. Obama.

You can see some of that at Hotline where the National Journal catches the confusion; as does MyDD:

Is it Bill Clinton’s fault? Or Lieberman’s? Or is it just common confusion over the demographic, best expressed at Pam’s House Blend whose term slippage in her title “Obama: Dems need to court the fundies” reveals the all too common broad generalization of faith in America?

Pam, what was that AP story title again?

But the most interesting debate occurs over at DailyKos spin off Street Prophets. Because many of the people leaving comments were actually present, and liked it. Chuck Currie posts:

“These days there are a lot of people on the political left who recoil at the mention of religion. Sadly, people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have defined for many what it means to be Christian. Secularists, said Obama, “are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.”

Here is Sen. Obama the next day, “So my point was that we need to have a more complex, more nuanced conversation about religion. And if we do that, then I think the whole country benefits.”

Oh, wait, a politician calling for nuance, is that how they usually court fundamentalists? See McCain in Lynchberg. By the way, Atrios et al, more nuance and complexity will only help with building a good wall of separation of church and state.

Here is Sen. Obama exhibiting some of that nuance:

“the history of the separation of church and state is what has allowed religious freedom to thrive in this country, and that when we talk about issues, it’s also important for us to recognize that there are folks who are non-believers, who are of different faiths, and we’ve got to translate whatever moral concerns or religious concerns that we have in a universal language that all Americans can talk about.”

Courting Destiny expresses that usual knee-jerk fear, writing, “Take away one little little piece of The First Amendment and the door opens for the entire First Amendment to be looked at and revised. Do most Evangelicals and other church going Americans want The first Amendment to be tampered with (sic)? I doubt it.”

As The Green Knight points out: “What he is doing is talking about long-term strategy for winning and for making positive change in the country.”

And I would add that the political chessboard doesn’t get smaller just because one disdains much of it. Over 250 million Americans believe in God and most of them even affiliate themselves with organized religion. The key to making America better for more people is to capture and control more the rhetorical ground. What Obama articulated is a progressive openness toward religion that will reduce the amount of value language available to the religious Right.

But most importantly, analyzing the rhetoric of Sen. Obama’s speech reveals that some folks are not reading it carefully. Read it again, he is on your side.

In fact, Sen. Obama, who admits to doubt, works to recontextualize the usual shibboleths.

The secular world needs to distinguish between means and ends. Usually, “separation of church and state” is their term, but Obama allows sharp evangelicals to see it as their term as well, raised as an historical wall against majoritarian pressure.

And now to the point that has many Kossacks boiling: “It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase `under God.’”

What Obama is really saying is that kids repeating “under God” is essentially meaningless, which is exactly what a good atheist believes.

Of course the state shouldn’t force us to say what we think is metaphysically meaningless, but on a functional (and tactical) level, the strict separationist actually infuses the phrase with meaning by directly attacking it. Much wiser to treat the term as meaningless, not just believe it. Instead, progressives win when they avoid making symbols out of what the Right can use to appeal to broad swaths of Americana.

Better to argue from the positive, by saying let’s mix mangers, dreidels, and sleighs because we are a diverse people and we respect everyone, etc., rather than pushing no mangers and crosses period. By diffusing the meaning of symbols, progressive pluralism brings the battle to our turf along with a foundation of values which appeals to the other 90% of people. I hate to argue from historical determinism but it is clear that the evangelical mind is opening and finding common ground with the rest of the world. Poverty, AIDS, the environment–if you are not aware of this, read more widely here!

Most of these kids graduating from Wheaton, Azusa, Westmont, BIOLA and Hope are bored with the old fights, and so are a new generation of Catholics. I know because I just sat in a room with several hundred of them, one of whom has been living on the Arizona boarder bringing water to migrants as they cross. She received a lot of applause. She may say “under God” but frankly her actions speak much louder than what those words symbolize to those on the far Right or left. Something is changing in the battle, and real liberal hope–an American government for the common good–just might materialize if we continue to welcome folks like her and Senator Obama into our “Democratic” process.

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Barack Obama Hangs the Right’s Rhetoric on a Prayer

June 28, 2006, 2:25 pm | Posted by

Today, the man President Bush calls “the pope” delivered an incisive speech articulating a principled way forward in the American debate over faith and public life. I sat four rows away, and it was good.

Speaking at the First National City Church, to a packed audience of mainline, evangelical, and Catholic progressive activists, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) began with a story familiar to many–having his religious bona fides questioned because he wasn’t conservative enough. Pushing past both the Right’s patently parochial rhetoric and the secular stammer of the left, the senator swung back with a vision for American values rooted in his hopeful prayer that “reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.”

The only African-American in the U. S. Senate, and only the third since reconstruction, Obama pointed out that the “single biggest ‘gap’ in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don’t.” And thus it follows that “we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people.”

While this might seem like easy words for the crowd, already the DailyKos community contains some prickly posts worried over the senator’s recognition that “under God” is not the most difficult or stultifying aspect of a child’s school life. Read their posts here as well as some Obama defenders who urge people to read the whole speech, not just the AP MSM angle.

But Obama is no religious ideologue, sharing in the speech about his own secularist upbringing, and even after joining the Trinity United Church of Christ he recognizes the value that doubt plays in the search for meaning. He points out that one American’s doubt shouldn’t force another’s awkward silence. In fact, the Left’s religious sotto voce leaves it unable to call the country to high ideals.

Not long ago Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker noted the junior Democratic senator joking at the Gridiron dinner.

“You hear this constant refrain from our critics that Democrats don’t stand for anything,” Obama said. “That’s really unfair. We do stand for anything.”

Listening to today’s speech it’s clear that Barack offers progressives (and the Democratic party) a new religious principle on which to stand.

He opposed CAFTA, has called for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and even in a skeptical The Nation article entitled “Mr. Obama Goes to Washington,” David Sirota notes the junior senator’s “rare flash of defiance when he unsuccessfully pushed legislation this year to create an Office of Public Integrity.” Obama has even blogged on DailyKos, addressing the sphere’s two dominant topics: troops out of Iraq and into Darfur.

“They are exactly right to be fired up about Darfur, he writes. “It is in our national interest to stop states from failing, and to stop genocide. But they also have to recognize that if we are willing to engage militarily in those circumstances, then there certainly are situations that call for direct military engagement in defense of our national interests.” He adds, “we are less equipped to deal with Iran because of the Iraq war.”

But Obama’s short record and today’s speech reveals more than progressive ideals and sharp political timing. He also envisions a way forward that eschews the Right’s solipsistic rhetorical grip on American values. He sees that the solutions to gun violence, poverty, war and failed immigration policy lie in our ability to turn personal ideals into broad movements for the common good:

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

By saying to the faithful and the secular of all varieties that the American conversation should always be privately honest and publicly plural, today, Obama leads a party hung by others’ prayer to a new vision for faith in public life.

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Obama and the Challenge for People of Faith

June 28, 2006, 1:57 pm | Posted by

I first heard then-State Sen. Barack Obama speak during his 2004 campaign in my home of Kankakee County, Illinois. Before the Democratic Keynote Address, I shook the hand of the “skinny kid with a funny name,” and he hooked me for life with his stump of “a campaign and politics that recognizes a common decency of every human being.” I listened and thought that Obama’s words could have been taken from a pamphlet on Catholic Social Teaching, but this universal message attracted both secular and religious individuals.

For the past several years, religious conservatives have given members of the progressive community plenty of reason to distrust people of faith in pursuit of justice and the common good. This morning, U.S. Sen. Obama, the Golden Boy of the Left, offered an account of his own political convictions grounded in faith and identified the challenge for faithful people whose faith compels them to seek social, economic, and racial justice.

On the final morning of Sojourners’ “Pentecost 2006″ Conference, Sen. Obama took to the podium this morning at National City Christian Church in Downtown Washington, DC. After being awarded the Joseph Award for his commitment to combat poverty as a community organizer and elected official, Obama delivered a thoughtful address on faith in the public sphere.

Obama described the contemporary polity in which a Religious Right has claimed a sole ownership of moral values and a Secular Left often relegates faith to absurdity. He affirmed the importance of a barrier between church and state, as a protection for both. According to Obama, people of faith can and have invoked monumental social and political change, but they do carry an extra duty. He explained, “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”

Obama demonstrates that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, rather that their rightful integration can be a powerful force to do good.

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