As the presidential race progresses, attacks on the President Obama’s faith have reemerged in the media. Most prominently, Franklin Graham went on MSNBC to perpetuate tired conspiracy theories about the sincerity of the President’s religious beliefs.
In response, Christian leaders from all denominations (including FPL’s own executive director Rev. Jennifer Butler) have come together to speak out against the misuse of faith as a tool for political gain.
leaders have signed a letter that calls for the media, public officials and other Christians to dispel misrepresentations of the President’s faith, along with the false notion that the President is waging “war on religion.” It says in part:
This gift of grace should remind Christians to enter the public square with a spirit of humility and respond to all we’ve been given (and forgiven) by serving our neighbor and protecting the vulnerable. That’s how we strengthen our witness. Using faith as a partisan tool weakens it.
See the full text and list of signers here.
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You’ve probably heard by now that Franklin Graham was yet again impugning President Obama’s faith on a cable news show yesterday. In addition to the usual dog-whistle rhetoric (“He has said he’s a Christian, so I just have to assume that he is,”), Graham overtly dabbled in conspiracy theory. Asked by the host if the president is “categorically not a Muslim,” Graham said “I can’t say categorically because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama and we see the Arab Spring and coming out of the Arab Spring the Islamists are taking control of the Middle East.”
Franklin Graham casting doubt on the president’s faith is a dog-bites-man story at this point, and Graham doesn’t need my help to make himself look like a demagogue — but it’s worth mentioning just how deeply wrong these attacks are. Not only does he dishonestly impugn the President’s Christian faith, he also advances anti-Muslim bigotry and puts forth a discrediting image of Christian leadership.
A pastor should not go on national television to speculate about the sincerity of other people’s Christian faith – especially to score political points. Franklin Graham should apologize to the President, and cable news shows should stop giving his religious bigotry and dishonesty a public platform. He has demonstrated a clear lack of credibility as a commentator on faith and politics.
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Faithful America has been running a campaign asking MSNBC to stop booking hate-group leader Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, on their shows. Perkins appears as a frequent contributor without being balanced by a progressive Christian leader or challenged for his organization’s hateful lies about the LGBT community.
While MSNBC is far and away the most frequent offender, other networks give Perkins a platform too. But on CNN earlier this month, anchor Don Lemon finally provided an example of how to do this right, challenging Perkins for his organization’s silence on violence against gays and lesbians.
Equality Matters adds context:
Though Perkins denies condoning violence against gays and lesbians, he’s made a living out of peddling homophobic myths that depict LGBT people as threats, predators, and enemies of the state.
Perkins’ FRC also has also long opposed efforts to protect gays and lesbians from violence. The organization has been a vocal opponent of efforts to include sexual orientation in anti-bullying and hate crime legislation. FRC Senior Fellow Peter Sprigg has openly advocated for the criminalization of homosexuality and even suggested that gay people should be exported out of the country.
Good on Lemon for speaking up. Hopefully other anchors and networks will take notice and stop giving this hate group credibility and a free pass.
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The results of this week’s Florida primary raise serious questions about the political influence of Religious Right leaders. As Amy Sullivan has pointed out, conservative Christian elites – men like James Dobson, Tony Perkins, the late Jerry Falwell – have rarely seen their favorite candidate win the GOP presidential nomination. I’m sure they’re used to settling for second best by now, but this year’s contest must be particularly frustrating.
As we’ve noted before a who’s-who of the religious right had an emergency summit in Texas just two weeks ago for the expressed purpose of coalescing around a conservative candidate, and the implicit purpose of stopping Mitt Romney. Nonetheless, Romney cruised to a crushing victory in Florida. Rick Santorum, the group’s favorite, finished a distant third, and Newt Gingrich, their second choice, finished 14 points behind Romney and outperformed him among white evangelicals by a mere two percentage points.
In other words, it would be tough to argue that these religious right leaders had any effect in Florida. But before we go declaring them dead, it’s important to note that while their influence over the outcome of the primary was negligible, the fact that every candidate espouses social conservative positions indicates that they’re still agenda setters in the GOP.
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One of the most important observations from Saturday’s South Carolina primary results was the apparent lack of impact the “evangelical endorsement” of Santorum by prominent Religious Right figures had on the race.
Mindful of ongoing division around a crop of candidates that failed to inspire the Christian conservative community, James Dobson, Donald Wildmon and Gary Bauer organized a summit of Religious Right leaders in Texas the weekend before the primary to coalesce around one candidate. (Presumably, they were also trying to avoid repeating history, given the conventional wisdom that this same group’s delay in rallying around Mike Huckabee in 2008 inadvertently contributed to the nomination of the less palatable John McCain)
Not only did the summit fail to unify the Religious Right (before the group’s agreed-upon 24-hour period of silence ended, leaks were already calling into question the legitimacy of the vote result), but the resulting “endorsement” also failed to generate support for Santorum among primary voters.
The graph below shows aggregate polling over time, measuring likely voters’ support for Gingrich and Santorum in South Carolina leading up to the election:
Note how Santorum’s numbers show actually dropped a bit after the summit on the 14th. Gingrich, of course, was the candidate who ended up taking off, presumably on the strength of his debate appearances that week. The final vote total (40.4% for Gingrich, 17% for Santorum) was only a few points off the average of the final day of polling.
Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, emergent evangelical Jonathan Merritt adds some more context to this phenomenon:
South Carolina is about as evangelical as states come, and Rick Santorum is about as perfect a match as gun-toting, grit-loving God-fearers could hope for. It says something about the state of evangelicalism when 65 percent of them would rather choose between a thrice-married “champion of family values” and questionably pro-life Mormon than the candidate anointed by the evangelical elites. Perhaps South Carolina has made clear what has been true for some time – that Christians are not monolithic and the American political process will no longer be significantly shaped by a handful of partisan religious leaders.
While it’s certainly accurate to point out that the king-making influence of these handful of Religious Right stalwarts seems to be greatly diminished, it would be dangerous to extrapolate too far and suggest this represents the end of the Christian right as a whole.
A quick glance at the current GOP platform testifies to the success the movement has had shaping the Republican party to its own likeness. Ed Kilgore explains:
Unlike 2008, no candidate in the field is pro-choice by any definition. Only Ron Paul seems reluctant to enact a national ban on same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain have been vocal in fanning the flames of Islamophobia; again, only Paul has bothered to dissent to any significant degree.
Mitt Romney, of course, has a history on cultural issues that instills mistrust among many on the Christian Right. But his current positions bring him entirely in accord with social conservative priorities, and if he were elected, he would enter office more committed to Christian Right goals than any president in history. And if he is the nominee, he will likely choose a running-mate (and potential successor) who will, like McCain’s in 2008 (after social conservatives essentially vetoed his first and second choices), delight the Christian Right.
While future candidates may feel less obliged to kiss the rings of Religious Right powerbrokers, so long as religious conservatives continue to make up a significant portion of the Republican primary voter pool, I wouldn’t expect radical changes in the increasingly conservative positions GOP candidates espouse.
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