Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sarah Palin: an American or an Amateur?

In Ralph Peters’ article ‘Our Sister Sarah Palin’s Anti-Elitist Charm,’ he argues that it is Palin’s “American” upbringing that makes her so appealing. She is one of “us”, not another elitist candidate who hails from an Ivy League school. He considers Palin the ultimate Republican candidate because she is the antithesis of the “gilded leftwing” Democrats who can have their decadent seven layer cake and eat it too. Peters is not strictly partisan in his article, though his bias for the Republicans, or against the Democrats, is clear. At one point in the article he even characterizes George W. Bush as having “disappointed our low expectations.” I understand his argument but venture to ask whether likeability should really be the ultimate factor in deciding eligibility.
Palin is credited with appealing to the “Americans who go to church and actually pray” (Peters). She may very well be an appealing, charming candidate who speaks to the Christian Right, the small-town worker and the conservative mother, but it doesn’t change the fact that she has very little experience. She served on the city council, and was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, and served one term as the Governor of Alaska. She has no experience in the federal government, nor does she have any foreign policy practice.
Another candidate of the people was Richard Nixon, who went to Whittier College and grew up with “financial hardships” (Wikipedia). He too attracted the Evangelical Christians and small-town citizens. In fact, William Martin writes in his book, With God on Our Side, that Nixon was the candidate of the religious right, with Billy Graham as his biggest supporter. Graham, the ultimate leader of Peters’ “American people”, never officially endorsed Nixon, but “continued to offer his friend advice and to work on his behalf” (Martin, 49). In one article that Graham drafted for Life magazine he addressed Nixon’s economic status by alluding to his opponent, John F. Kennedy, and saying, “it would be inappropriate for a candidate to win because…he happened to be richer” (Martin, 54). Nixon was the antithesis of John F. Kennedy, a wealthy prepster from New England who summered in Massachusetts and had a winter house in Palm Beach, who attended Choate, Harvard, and Stanford Graduate School of Business (Wikipedia). However, while Nixon did not come from such a lofty background, he was in fact qualified and experienced. He graduated second in his class from Whittier and received a full scholarship to Duke University Law School, where he graduated third. Nixon held a position as a Representative and Senator of South Carolina, and was the Vice President (Wikipedia). He may have been a candidate of the people, but he was highly educated and trained. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, is merely one of the people, and not worthy of being the vice presidential embodiment of American values.

Tax Law & the Constitution

In an opinion piece from the Los Angeles Times, it raises the question of “Does the Constitution have anything to say about the relationship between federal tax law and political speech by clergy?” This is answered by opposing sides, Erik Stanley head of the Pulpit Initiative for the Alliance defense who argues that the first amendment allowing free speech is more important than any tax law, and Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who believes that pastors should not endorse candidates from the pulpit. The main issue being addressed is, does the Johnson Amendment violate the first Amendment? The Johnson Amendment prohibits tax-exempt churches, and other tax- exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing a candidate.
Erik Stanley takes the position that the under the first amendment the Johnson amendment is in violation of the free exercise clause. Stanley says that “conditioning a church’s tax exemption on what a pastor says violates the first amendment.” He feels that the Johnson Amendment left out the constitutional rights of pastors, and that this regulation is “an excessive and unreasonable government entanglement with religion.” He also argues that the Johnson Amendment is in violation of the free-exercise clause of the first amendment, and he finds it untenable that pastors can apply scripture to every aspect of life except candidates and elections.
Barry Lynn takes the stance that when it comes to partisan politicking the government has a need to prohibit such practices by tax-exempt religious groups. Lynn counters and states that “that concerns over ministers’ constitutional rights being violated by tax laws are overblown.” He reminds us that just because there is this prohibition it does not always silence ministers and also that even secular nonprofits must follow the same rules. He feels that “the Johnson Amendment doesn’t bar political statements; it prohibits declarations in support of or in opposition to candidates for public office.”
While I can see Stanley’s point about pastor being able to apply Scripture to every aspect of life, couldn’t this be done without endorsing or opposing a candidate? So I think I am going to have to side with Lynn. A minister can still talk about politics in an indirect way and get their point across, without turning their sermon into a campaign commercial for candidates. Since ministers are influential, if they could endorse a particular candidate this might give an unfair advantage to that candidate’s campaign and would effect how campaigns are financed. While ministers might be tempted to do so, for they may have opinions on how each candidate may affect the lives of the people in their congregations, and perhaps on the morality in God’s eyes of such things as abortion, it is not their job to out and out endorse a given candidate. If they really wanted to do so, I suppose they could, if their church gave up their tax exempt status, not that they are likely to do so. But why should tax payers support such activity, even indirectly?

Link for article: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oew-lynn-stanley25-2008sep25,0,2620493.story

The "dream" of conservation ethics

At .17 square miles and with a population of 800, the Vatican is the smallest independent state in the world by both metrics. Yet that has not kept environmentalists from getting excited about it: the Pope just went Green. Workers have started to replace cement tiles on the Paul VI auditorium with 2,700 solar panels, a gift to Pope Benedict XVI by German company Solar World. Although the solar installation will only power a small part of the Vatican, it demonstrates a policy commitment that will have powerful implications for reconciling science—particularly conservation—and religion.

The late Stephen Jay Gould, a prominent Harvard archaeologist, argued that the areas of fact and morality were “nonoverlapping magisteria,” completely separate in the human experience. His contemporary, E.G. Wilson, took the opposite stance: the code of ethics continually expands and develops only through knowledge and scientific observation. However, a third view, Alasdair MacIntyre’s “virtue ethics,” has the most potential to turn environmental issues, based on good science, into forms that Americans will care about. MacIntyre posited that science is a socially-constructed activity; as members of society, scientists cannot interpret data without influence from their social experience. As Duke professor Kyle Van Houtan summarizes in his 2006 paper (which I read in my conservation biology class last week), “Conservation as Virtue,” this alone suggests that scientific issues like conservation ethics NEED a cultural vehicle to be brought into the limelight.

As it turns out, Van Houtan uses Chappelle’s “A Stone of Hope” to draw parallels between the Civil Rights movement and conservation ethics: “Segregation and disenfranchisement were overthrown dialectically—in the particular language, logic, and practices of a particular tradition. In this case, the dialectic was biblical, taking the form of a prophetic story, a pessimism in human institutions (this includes churches), corporate prayer, and—most notably—nonviolence.” Ultimately, as Chappelle argues, the Civil Rights movement was a religious cause with political implications; Van Houtan maintains that, while research can identify the scope of ecological problems, it cannot in itself form ethics that are socially sustainable. While media like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth have warned the masses of ecological crises, they have been unable to instill conservation morality. Academia has certainly failed to do so. As a result, the Pope’s actions are critically important to conservation.

American churches, including Catholic churches, have largely prioritized so-called “family values” over environmental issues, perhaps due to discord between religion and science. However, in March, the Pope made pollution of the environment one of seven new “social sins,” recognizing that environmental damage makes “the lives of poor people on Earth especially unbearable.” He recently told Catholic leaders that “God entrusted man with the responsibility of creation.” Roman Catholicism is by far the most dominant Christian sect in America, representing roughly a quarter of the country’s total population (there are 1.1 billion in the world). This is a significant new network for disseminating conservation ethics, and once those are in place, widespread interest can lead the population to conservation science. I believe that the Catholic churches in America have a long way to go in convincing their congregations that what they have been doing for centuries, degrading the environment, is a sin. It is an especially large obstacle given how dependent our lifestyles are on resource consumption—for example, where does one draw the line between safe and sin? However, there is no reason not to have a cautioned optimism about the future of conservation, as Martin Luther King did about racial justice. With the support of such a prominent world religious leader—not just a cultural vehicle, but a cultural juggernaut—sustainability can be a new “dream.”

"To serve Allah and my country"

In his op-ed article, The Push to ‘Otherize’ Obama, Nicholas Kristof delivers the disheartening results of a Pew Research Center survey of which 13% of voters identified Obama as Muslim, while another 16% remained unconvinced that he was Christian. Even more alarming, these percentages have risen since June! Theories of Obama as the Anti-Christ do not seem to help; the online Red State Shop sells products tarnishing an “O” with horns. While the most conservative Christians are not all too fond of McCain, they would rather vote for him than Satan. Never mind that Obama is more active in church than his opponent.

Kristof will suggest that “religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice.” He goes on to support his claim: “In public at least, it’s not acceptable to express reservations about a candidate’s skin color, so discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Mr. Obama is sufficiently Christian.” To justify, excuse, or otherwise mask racism, certain voters have taken a religious discrepancy (largely based on his middle name, Hussein, and his childhood in Islamic Indonesia) and run with it, well beyond its boundaries. It is to say Obama is “other,” or specifically un-American.

I could not agree more with Mr. Kristof, my only critique on his claim: he is not harsh enough! These voters are cowards. Although he does a great job of reprimanding his fellow journalists who choose to promulgate falsehoods at the disservice of politics. In reading his article I was reminded of another, (I was pleased to see Rachel used this piece on the 22nd) in which it is written: “One parishioner ruled out voting for Mr. Obama explicitly because he is black. ‘Are they going to make it the Black House?’” It is possible had I not read this article, I would have had a harder time buying Kristof’s argument. I wish I did not know of such ignorance.

Having studied abroad in South Africa last semester I was alarmed, terrified and saddened to witness the “xenophobic” attacks directed on foreigners – particularly refugees or immigrants from other African nations. Some of you may have heard of this in the news back in May. At the time I struggled to put the violence into an American context. But what makes us any different? Unless we are of Native American descent, we are all immigrants of this country. I see now that I was getting hung up on the PHYSICAL violence. There is no denying that killings, especially motivated by differences, occur in America. But in our capitalistic society, it is the malice in wanting the “other” to fail that is most dangerous. We see intentional sabotage on the personal and professional levels all too often. How Christian is that?

All said, shame on any Christian who pulls the wool over their own eyes allowing him or herself to be blinded by ignorance. It’s a cowardly way out…

What goes on in science class

In light of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species”, Christians and Jews have been forced to evaluate the nature of Scripture and think about how their sacred texts should be read. As expected, some religious people do not see evolution as conflicting with their faith, while others, especially many conservative Christians, see evolution as inherently contradictory to what they believe. These discrepancies are interesting in their own right, but become even more fascinating when those who oppose evolution argue that either evolution should not be taught in public schools, or that creationism (the idea that God created the world as depicted in Genesis) should be taught in science class alongside Darwin’s theory. Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, for example, has voiced support for this proposal.

This article by Robert Mitchum discusses a recent letter written by a group of rabbis supporting the teaching of evolution in the public schools. They argue that Darwinian evolution in no way hinders their religious views. Furthermore, and in response to the conservative agenda to also teach creationism, Rabbi Oler says, “Creationism and intelligent design are particularly religious matters that don't belong in public school system.”

In many ways this is similar to the debates in the mid 1800s about the appropriateness of reading the Bible in the public schools. While supporters of the practice argued that reading the Bible was nonsectarian, they really meant that it was generally Protestant, instead of denominationally focused. Not surprisingly, non-protestants found this practice offensive and moved to have it eliminated from the curriculum. Similarly, supporters of teaching creationism in schools are generally not Muslims, Hindus, or Agnostics; rather it is only those in the “in circle” who maintain that teaching creationism is an inclusive practice. To those on the outside it is unwanted religious propaganda.

In the end, while individuals are welcome to denounce evolution for belief in creationism if they wish, creationism has no place in the science classroom. Simply put, it is unfounded on scientific grounds. Excluding a scientifically based theory with religious overtones would be a different issue completely. However, given that creationism and intelligent design have virtually no support within the scientific community, the only realm creationism should be discussed (at school) is in the historical. Yet, many students familiar with the biblical narratives will have questions about what evolution means in light of the stories they heard growing up. Teachers should not shy away from discussing the history of the debate that has ensued in recent years, and should be ready to point students to religious leaders in the community who are willing to discuss the intersection of religion and science. The attempt to teach creationism in the name of “teaching multiple perspectives” must be resisted, for, as these rabbis argue, creationism is clearly a religious idea, and should not be sanctioned by a government school.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Does and should the Establishment Clause only apply to Congress?

Following Frothingham v. Mellon (1923) and Flast v. Cohen (1968), a recent decision was made in the Supreme Court case, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2007), setting precedent restricting taxpayer's legal standing in bringing suit in federal courts regarding Establishment Clause violations. As I’ll be discussing in this blog, the decisions in these cases have much broader and controversial implications.

Jesse Merriam gives a brief history of such cases dealing with taxpayers’ legal standing in Establishment Clause issues in The Pew Forum. Before getting in to the cases, you should understand that for any plaintiff to file suit in federal court, they must be victim of an injury caused by the defendant or they do not have legal standing. In the Frothingham case, decided in 1923, the Supreme Court “established the general rule that taxpayers do not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of government expenditures.” (Merriam) Their reasoning for this decision is that taxpayers aren’t actually injured by the way the government spends its money. Some time later, in Flast (1968), the Court decided that taxpayers had legal standing when they were questioning the government’s consistency with the Establishment Clause. The logic behind this decision was that taxpayers had standing because a constitutional provision protecting their rights was in question. The Court recognized that the Establishment Clause “specifically limits the government's power to spend money on religious activities.” (Merriam) Another case I should mention is Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State (1982). In this case, the government donated property that previously was a military hospital to Valley Forge Christian College. The Court decided that taxpayers in this case have no standing because it was the executive branch’s action and not legislation that authorized the donation and because the government was donating property, not spending tax dollars. This case, however, never held much precedent. Merriam says that the Court continued to follow the ruling from Flast, giving taxpayers standing when addressing concerns on constitutional provisions, such as the Establishment Clause.

The most recent case that’s been through the Supreme Court, setting precedent in regards to this issue, is Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2007). In this case, members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation brought suit in federal court on the grounds that executive officials in our government were violating the Establishment Clause. These executive officials, including President Bush, were holding conferences paid for by federal tax dollars to promote the elimination of “obstacles that religious social-service organizations faced in competing with secular organizations for federal funding.” (Merriam) The Supreme Court ruled against the Freedom From Religion Foundation members and narrowed the Flast The Court said that taxpayers do not have legal standing to bring suit against the executive branch for using their general federal funds for religious purposes, as long as there is no legislation authorizing or granting such action. In other words, the executive branch is free to do as they please with the federal tax money given to them- even promote religious activities- without running any risk of legal backlash from taxpayers. The majority supported their decision, through a couple of different concurring opinions, with reasons such as that since these executive funds are not explicitly for religious purposes, and that they are general funds with no specification on what they are to be spent on, the tax payers are not subject to injury. Another reason, argued through concurrence, is that if taxpayers are able to challenge the way the executive branch spends its money through the courts- in other words, if the courts are able to pass judgment on the constitutionality of executive expenditures- we will consequently be dealing with problems of the separation-of-powers among our branches of government. decision.

What’s interesting to me is that (although I haven’t read through the actual case and it may be addressed there) Merriam doesn’t acknowledge the majority’s opinion on how the First Amendment Establishment Clause shall be interpreted. It would make sense to me if the Justices within the majority made the argument that nowhere in the Establishment Clause does it explicitly prohibit the executive branch from respecting or promoting religious activities or institutions. The Establishment Clause is written as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” If you read this “literally”, you would agree with the majority that the executive branch can constitutionally hold such religiously-motivated conferences. However, the dissenters in this case argue that it makes no difference whether it’s Congress or the executive branch that authorizes the spending of federal tax dollars to promote a particular religious institution or religion in general. These Justices argue that taxpayers are subject to injury in either case and therefore have legal standing to challenge this in federal court. I would argue that the dissenters believe that Jefferson’s idea of the ‘separation of church and state’ means the ‘separation of church and state’ in its totality, meaning there should be no mixing of religious and government agendas, with no regard to any particular branch of government. The Court seems to have followed and used this interpretation of the ‘separation of church and state’ in the past.

It seems that the current Court has created a very narrow understanding and interpretation of the Establishment Clause. Do you agree with such interpretation? Or do you believe that this approach to applying the Establishment Clause to government action, i.e. protecting our religious liberties from government abuse, is a dangerous one? I believe the latter. I agree with Justice Souter’s presumption in his dissent that “if the Executive could accomplish through the exercise of discretion exactly what Congress cannot do through legislation, Establishment Clause protection would melt away.”

In wrapping this up, I’ll have you know that the precedent set by the majority in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2007) has been applied in lower federal courts in cases as recent as August of this year. Merriam briefly touches on such cases in his report on The Pew Forum (updated Aug. 13, 2008).

Patriotism or Religion

            As teachers of public school systems, the amount of constitutional protections they possess has been put into question in San Diego, California. A long-time educator at a public high school, Brad Johnson has taught the fundamental subject of math for twenty years. During this time, Johnson had proudly displayed banners saying “God Bless America” and “One Nation Under God” on the walls inside his public school classroom. The ability of Johnson to continue the display of both banners was recently disputed.
            The principal of the San Diego high school asked Johnson to remove the banners, or to prove the historical nature of the banners. When Johnson failed to do so, the principal ordered the banners to be taken down. The school district claimed that Johnson had limited constitutional rights inside the classroom, thus enabling the district to disallow the displaying of the banners.
            When Johnson believed his constitutional rights had been violated by the school district, he went to federal court to restore the displaying of the banners. The judge presiding over the case said, “….the federal and state constitutions do not permit one-sided censorship.” Judge Roger Benitez made this statement when he noted that other educators in the school system had religious posters displayed on the walls of their classrooms. The article went on to say that “Johnson had never referred to the banners while teaching,” which influenced Judge Benitez’s decision even more.
            As of now, the school district is continuing to explore their options. The board can continue the case through the court system by appealing, settling the case, or waiting for trial.
            Because the article highlights the issue of whether Johnson, a public school teacher, has limited constitutional rights in his occupational capacity, I side with the judge who denounced the school district’s action. This is because of two factors: the intent of Johnson and the school district’s tolerance of other religious material to be displayed in other classrooms.
            From Johnson’s original intention, the displaying of the two banners was a symbol of his patriotism. He was not attempting to push his religious convictions into the minds of students, nor did he ever mention the banners during class time. Here, I see Johnson’s First Amendment rights violated by the school district, as it is a public school.
            Next, the school district admittedly allowed posters “with Buddhist and Islamic messages” to be displayed in other classrooms, among other religious and cultural items. The intent of these posters could be purely academic, or they could be viewed as a way of the educators showing their pride in a particular religion. Either way, the limiting of religious and cultural displays undermines the First Amendment and arguably dismisses the spread of intellect through religious and cultural displays.
            I find it shameful that the taxpayer supported public school district attempted to force the removal of the two banners from the classroom walls of a longtime educator. The teacher never mentioned the banners in class, nor did he have the banners on display as a signifier of his religion. I find this important to the study of religion and American law because of the serious consequences that individuals and groups have attempted to misconstrue freedom of speech with religion, and the ways of limiting both constitutional freedoms. I can not fathom the reasoning of the school district to not have the two banners on display, as the purpose of education is to learn new things. Even though the banners were not discussed by Johnson in class, the curiosity the education system is hoped to instill in students could prod some of them to learn more about the banners.
        As the school board still has yet to decide on what to do next, expect more details about this issue to emerge. It would be an interesting case to see develop in the court system, as the constitutional protections of public school teachers could be one of the main aspects of a case.


Los Angeles Times

The Pew Forum

Does race matter?

In the article “A Fault Line that Haunts the Democrats” by John Harwood, he traces the role that race has played in elections from the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement to the present day, specifically in terms of its impact on the Democratic Party. President Johnson had predicted that the “landmark civil rights legislation he [Johnson] engineered would be met with a powerful backlash from aggrieved Southern whites.” (Hardwood, par 5) His prediction was ultimately accurate, which was made clear when “president Johnson lost five states in his native South – states that had historically voted for democrats.” (Hardwood, par 5) From this point on, Democrats lost multiple elections partly due to the loss of the white southern vote. William Martin’s book, “With God on Our Side,” provides a short description of Jerry Falwell and his ideological conversion from segregation to integration. Martin points out that “It is difficult to know just when Jerry Falwell changed his mind or public position on integration…”(Martin 58), suggesting that despite his public proclamations supporting integration, his ideological change was much more gradual. Southern whites, such as Falwell, lost confidence in the Democratic Party after the party’s move to support equal rights and it has taken southern whites decades to come to terms with the party’s base.

Bill Clinton has been a major factor in the recent expansion of the democratic base, because as Harwood states, “In 1992, Bill Clinton succeeded in broadening the party’s appeal to whites…” (Harwood, par 11) Nonetheless, the current election has brought the issue of race back and to the forefront, as evidenced by the fact that “one in five democratic primary voters in Pennsylvania said race was an important factor in their choice.” (Harwood, par 12) In this election, the Democratic Party is facing issues similar to those it faced during the 1960s because Obama has difficulties “connecting with working-class whites” and this “has become more consequential as the race moved to key electoral battlegrounds in populous states…” (Harwood, par 15) Nonetheless, as the article points out, Hillary Clinton has been able to create that connection with middle class southern whites and has continued to increase the prevalence of the Democratic Party within the white community. Now that she is no longer part of the democratic ticket for the White House, it is up to Obama to get these crucial votes. Will Obama be able to capture the southern white vote before the elections and how can he do it? Has America truly changed enough since the 1960s to see Obama in the same light as a white candidate?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sarah Palin, Clutch Player?

Chicago Tribune correspondent Jill Zuckman addresses Senator John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential candidate in an August 30, 2008 article. She presents this decision from the perspectives of both parties, providing balance on a controversial issue which spans not only parties and platforms, but also gender and religion. On the one hand, McCain’s choice simultaneously reached out to women, unions, and people concerned about the economy and “reassured social conservatives and Evangelical voters.” (Zuckman 4) On the other hand, Bill Burton, a spokesman for Senator Barack Obama called the selection a manifestation of “political panic” (Zuckman 5) and claimed that it “put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency [. . . .] that’s not the change we need, it’s just more of the same.” (Zuckman 6) By quoting spokespersons for both campaigns and providing the reader with undistorted facts about the relatively unknown Palin, Zuckman makes her writing academic and fair.

As evident in Zuckman’s article, Palin’s nomination has received both praise as a shrewd political move and ridicule as a foolish attempt to win Obama votes. Obvious differences in characters and the political environment aside, the 2008 presidential election actually mirrors the historic 1960 election, when the charismatic but inexperienced John F. Kennedy defeated incumbent vice president Richard Nixon. However, unlike Burton asserts, McCain’s choice of vice president does not represent “more of the same.”

Scoring every vote from the Protestant constituency was the strategy proposed to Nixon by evangelical preacher Billy Graham. In With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, William Martin chronicles the influence of Graham on Nixon’s choice of vice president. With Catholics united behind Kennedy, Graham advised Nixon to “concentrate on solidifying the Protestant vote” rather than choosing a Catholic running mate, which would “divide Protestants and make no inroads whatsoever in the Catholic vote.” (Martin 48) While Graham urged Nixon to strengthen his voting base, McCain’s choice of Palin does the opposite: her nomination reaches out to a diverse spectrum of voters at the risk of alienating some of McCain’s original supporters. Virgil wrote that “Fortune favors the brave” (Aeneid 10.284) and I believe that McCain’s bold nomination of Palin, while surprising and unorthodox, will ultimately pay off.

Is Sarah Palin Really a Radical?

According to Robert S. McElvaine, emerging evidence suggests that Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin is a “religious extremist” who needs to answer some serious questions about the influence of her faith on her political decisions. In his editorial for Newsweek and the Washington Post titled “Palin Should Address Disturbing Religious Connections,” McElvaine presents a series of quotations and examples to characterize Palin’s religious views. Many of these ideas, such as Creationism, belief in the Second Coming of Christ, and Palin’s indication “that she sees the ‘War on Terror’ as a holy war”, are reasons for concern for many voters. For example, some fear that as a Creationist, Palin “discounts science” and thus insists that humans are not the cause of climate change. In addition, questions continue to circulate as more information surfaces about Palin’s association with various churches, such as the Wasilla Assembly of God Church, that “all believe in a literal translation of the Bible.”

Clearly McElvaine is biased: he believes Palin’s views are extreme, so he carefully includes quotes and information that portray her as a radical Christian who plans to push her religious agenda into politics. He cleverly associates her with Wasilla’s pastor Ed Kalnins in order to cast her in an even more extreme light. That being said, I do think McElvaine makes a legitimate point that the public needs more information from Sarah Palin about her religious beliefs. Without such information, many voters may be misled and will find it difficult to make an informed decision about Palin.

McElvaine compares Palin’s situation to that of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and urges her “to allow herself to be questioned” as Kennedy did at the Houston ministers meeting. Just as Palin today faces criticism, Kennedy, too, was a controversial nominee, in his case because he was a Catholic. However, as William Martin illustrates in his book With God On Our Side, “Kennedy had anticipated the anxieties his candidacy was sure to create and had addressed the issue head-on” (p. 49). Kennedy repeatedly openly discussed concerns relating to his Catholicism, concerns which “made him suspect in the eyes of many Protestants” (p. 47). Martin emphasizes the effectiveness of Kennedy's insistence that his religious beliefs would have no effect on his actions as president. Kennedy ultimately made history by winning the presidency, successfully convincing enough Americans that his Catholicism was not a danger.

Is it possible for Palin to do the same and assuage the fears of present-day voters? In 1960, people were wary of a Catholic president. Today, although it is nearly half a century later, American voters obviously still place religion among their top priorities in choosing a candidate. The difference now is that, unlike Kennedy, Palin has not openly answered questions relating to her faith. Is the criticism that she faces unfair and undue? Or are there legitimate concerns that need to be addressed? Should we really demand that Palin defend her religious beliefs, or is America finally ready to leave religion out of the picture entirely?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Is gun control a moral obligation?

Recently, I engaged in a conversation concerning gun control in this election and found myself sinking into an inescapable quicksand that finally forced me to concede complete ignorance on the topic and its place within Catholic teaching. In a speech from 2007, McCain stated his opposition to strict gun control using the constitution as means of defense, asserting, ""I strongly support the Second Amendment and I believe the Second Amendment ought to be preserved — which means no gun control,". By means of a refresher, let me provide the Second Amendment in it's original form: A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Moreover, in a recent CNN article, nearly two-thirds of Americans agreed with Senator McCain and his support of private gun ownership; however, what I can't seem to reckon or understand is the connection between private gun-ownership, and the role of guns within a Christian community. On one hand, I fully understand the desire to own something that can protect and defend oneself, loved ones, family, etc., and the power felt through owning something that can efficiently and effectively reach an ultimate end: the termination of life. What I also understand is the moral groundwork underlying the necessity to fight evil and therefore the use of said object to reach that end. In fear of sounding too pacifistic, I will assert the importance of guns in appropriate situations; however, I am merely wondering why this object should be allowed within the private hands of free-willing human beings who, by their very nature, have proved to killing others without a present threat or evil.
As always, McCain supports and endorses issues that follow suit with his morals and principles, despite how appealing or effective they may be. An example of this can be seen in his stance on the issue of abortion. His moral conscious trumps the desire to appease those advocating pro-choice within America. However, turning to the issue of gun-control, I question the source from which he draws from in regards to this specific moral issue. Firearms in their material nature are not bad, therefore, is it just for any human being to own a firearm, correct? Logically speaking, yes. Is it then right to assume these said owners will use their firearms in a just and responsible manner? Hypothetically speaking, it should be easy to conclude. Nevertheless, the United States is plagued with school-shootings, irresponsible gunfire, and murder caused by a guns on an near daily basis. Therefore, I believe it is a moral obligation, religious and secular, to control distribution and use of guns in America. Unfortunately, research has turned up nothing in terms of the Catholic Church's stance and moral position on gun control; And, while I understand McCain must look through a secular, constitutional lens when developing his stance on no further need for gun control, I believe it is the moral duty of the Church to guide it's followers towards a life devoid of such deadly objects by endorsing heavier gun control laws in America.

Life and Death

The current presidential election presents the American voter with two specific issues regarding the destruction of human life, namely war and abortion.
John McCain supports the status quo, so to speak, with regards to the “War on Terror,” as it has been inanely dubbed by the talking heads of the current administration. McCain supported a change in strategy and a surge in troops that inevitably resulted in the deaths of Americans and Iraqis alike. A McCain administration will almost certainly continue the conflict in Iraq until the country has been sufficiently stabilized and has promised an American presence there for years to come (a la post war Germany and Japan).
On the flip side of the war issue Senator Obama certainly proves more dovish than Senator McCain. He has repeatedly stressed the importance of face to face talks with leaders of the world’s rogue regimes. He has opposed the Iraq war from the start, opposed a surge in troops, and until very recently has demanded an immediate precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. An Obama administration would in all likelihood result in fewer deaths of American servicemen/women than a McCain administration.
As commander in chief of the armed forces the POTUS has invested in him the Constitutional power to send Americans into harms way. It has been argued by some that because of this power the POTUS has the ability to cause far more death by being “pro-war” than “pro-choice.” He (or she) is inextricably linked to the decision to go to war and final authority rests in his (or her) hands. Many pro-lifers in this election cycle sincerely believe that a vote for a pro-life candidate will do little, if anything, to impact the current culture of abortion on demand while a vote for a pro-war candidate will have immediate repercussions resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands. This myth must be debunked.
A cursory overview of the two candidate’s history on abortion is necessary. John McCain has received a 0% rating from NARAL in 16 of his 20 years in Washington. He has consistently voted to confirm pro-life judges and would continue to nominate them to the various courts were he elected president. He opposed partial-birth abortion. He is in favor of parental consent laws. A quick look at NARAL’s website makes it quite obvious they hold him in very low regard. He is opposed to the Freedom of Choice Act. I could go on and on but it gets redundant. The point being Senator McCain always has, without equivocation, stood up for the rights of the unborn and has promised to continue to do so should he be elected president.
Senator Obama has received a 100% rating from NARAL for all three years he has been in the Senate. He opposed the confirmations of Justices Roberts and Alito, and has vowed he would only appoint pro choice judges to the nation’s top courts. He has voted against parental notification laws, which recent studies show to drastically reduce the number of abortions. He has never once cast a vote impinging on a woman’s “right” to choose, even when it meant choosing to kill the baby after it was completely separated form the its mother and posed no possible health risk. He has said that the first thing he would do as president would be to pass the FOCA.
Now to imagine that the POTUS holds no sway over the future of abortion in this country is incorrect. Under the Bush administration, despite its plethora of flaws, a pro life agenda has unquestionably been asserted. A ban on partial-birth abortion has been enacted, something that would not have happened under a President Obama (and didn’t under President Clinton). Tax payer funding for abortion has been cut. Two very pro life judges have been placed on the SCOTUS, where as the opposite would be true under an Obama administration. And, after all, it is the court that makes the laws. The FOCA, which would effectively strip away any and all pro life victories made at the county, state, and federal level, never had a chance of becoming law (read the text of the act online, it’s pretty extreme). It would under President Obama. Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has been halted. It would be funded by President Obama. The list goes on but I will stop here for the sake of my word count.
The point to be made here is that if you stand for a woman’s right to choose, so be it. If that’s what your conscience tells you, that’s fair. I’ll disagree with you, but I can respect that. The problem that must be avoided is the self delusion of pro lifers that things would not be so bad under a President Obama with regards to life issues. Barack Obama is the furthest left of any presidential candidate in the history of our country and he would mold policy to ensure his views are reflected in the laws of our land. Again, if leftist abortion policies are your thing, Barry’s your man. For those of us who are bothered by a potential Obama presidency because of his stance on life issues, please do the research and see for yourself just how damaging his administration would be to the pro life movement.

Southern Church Pioneer in Gay Rights

In his article entitled Church Gives Sanctuary to Gay Man and His Family, Samuel Freedman describes a church in the very conservative State of North Carolina that willingly accepts and offers full membership to members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. I would just like to say...Bravo! I applaud you, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. In the face of adversity, you have defied the conventions of your church associations, and accepted everyone for who they are. Again…Bravo!

In today’s society, we are fighting for a new set of civil rights. While racism still exists in today’s society, and we must be ever vigilant to fight it at every turn, a different type of discrimination has developed. The gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender community is fighting hard for equal rights, and they should have them. This issue is multifaceted, and very complicated. However, one issue I would like to discuss is the idea of adoption.

With a divorce rate at over 50%, and children growing up in one parent homes, GLBT couples should have the right to adopt children. In fact, in many states they already do. However, in Florida, GLBT citizens are not permitted to adopt children. While I understand some of the concerns that some may find problematic, such as negative reactions of some towards the children, and ridicule the children might face in school, no real reason exists as to why GLBT people should be denied. Children statistically do better in school and social interactions when they have grown up in a two parent home than they do in a single parent home. I will not generalize, however, and say this is always the case, because, of course, it is not, s. But America has been seeing a downward trend in the number of children growing up in a two parent household. Take the GLBT couples out of the equation, and the number of eligible couples deemed worthy drops significantly. Why should we deny these couples and children the right to family? Just imagine the number of children who would be able to find homes and have the life they so desperately want.

So, good for you Pullen Memorial Baptist Church for being open to the changing culture, and helping to fight the new civil rights fight. Continue to be the voice of change, and I hope that someday you will not be alone.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Government holds foreclosure power on the Church

A recent article from http://www.thedeal.com/newsweekly/features/say-a-little-prayer.php talks about how many Churches around the nation have been failing to pay their mortgages, something that seems particularly important given the new government bailout plan for the top lenders in the nation. "Many churches live on the edge, especially those independent of larger denominations. With few exceptions, "income" depends on congregant donations," Matt Miller writes, "hard times, demographic changes, ambitious expansion, even loss of faith in the minister have created financial peril." With the economy in shambles, people have become more careful about their spending habits. Many churches, like Upper Room, are filled with “"normal, hardworking people making enough to get by," a group that may find it difficult to put much into the plate on Sunday morning.
What are the implications of this? If the government bails out these lenders who hold the mortgages for churches, is there a conflict of the first amendment? Should the government buy all of the mortgages except for the mortgages for churches? Would the government owning churches across the nation violate the establishment clause? It seems that the government could foreclose whenever they deemed appropriate, but could personal religious affiliation or bias creep into those decisions? It is difficult to answer many of these question while so many details are left up in the air, but this is an important issue that will need to be addressed sooner than later. Imagine the outcry if the government foreclosed on a Mosque, a Synagogue, or a Kingdom Hall but avoided foreclosing on a Baptist, Methodist, or independent evangelical church.
It seems to me that the government has its hands tied in this matter. How could they possibly bail out lenders without bailing out all of the mortgages? If the government doesn’t bail out the lenders, on the other hand, we could have a housing crash and the economy could tank further than it already has. I don’t claim to be an economic genius, but the foreclosure of millions of homes can’t be good for the bottom line. Whether or not churches will bring a case to court if/when the government is forced to foreclose is yet to be seen, but if that problem does arise I can imagine a decision in which the court decides that governments cannot own the interest on churches. While this wouldn’t impede upon free exercise, it definitely skirts the issue of establishment. At what point does the government have too much control over the actions of the church? What type of decisions can be made by the government regarded whether a church should remain open or not. I think these are serious issues that some thought should be given too. I don’t claim to have a concrete grasp on first amendment issues and I welcome suggestions about how this scenario could play out. It is an interesting thought that the government would be holding the mortgage of thousands of churches, and I believe that if it happens, some type of case would be brought sooner than later.

McCain's shyness towards religion

In an article titled, “McCain Shies Away From Religious Talk” by Jonathon Martin, McCain seems to be criticized for not speaking openly about his religion or religious beliefs. The interview took place in April, while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were trying to capture the democratic parties nomination. Martin, along with Senator Sam Brownback, believe that McCain’s shyness about his religion could have a negative impact on the presidential race, especially because both Obama and Clinton are “accustomed to discussing the role faith plays in his or her life.”
McCain says that his religion is a personal decision and implies that it would not have an impact on his politics. What really drives McCain is his of a “love of country and sense of duty instilled by a military family with a long legacy of service.” Although both of those things are important, the American voters are going to want to know were McCain stands in terms of religion. Although most people are taught that there is a separation between church and state, a large amount of people know that it is not that simple. Many decisions that presidents make are based on what they believe are the morally and ethically correct things to do. Most of their moral and ethical decisions come from their faith, which typically comes from their religious background. Therefore, without knowing about what he believes in terms of religion, it could be hard to speculate on what his policy-making decisions could be.
The article then goes on and talks about a story that McCain told when he was a prisoner of war in Hanoi. The story was about a North Vietnamese guard that loosened the ropes, one night that tied the prisoners together. McCain said, “On Christmas, that same guard approached me, and without saying a word, he drew a cross in the sand.” Although that might have been a proud moment for McCain, it does tells a lot more about the religion of the prison guard than about his own religion, reinforcing the idea that McCain in uncomfortable discussing his faith. Orson Swindle, one of McCain’s closest friends and a fellow POW said, “I don’t recall us talking specifically about our faith. We talked about our friends, families, our resistance posture, and that our country didn’t seem to have the will to win.”
Typically the Republican Party is more open about religion and discussing faith, but that is not always the case, McCain as proof. I am certainly not saying that John McCain is not a deeply religious person or does not have a strong set of beliefs; my point is that it is the nature of American politics to have to be able to openly discuss them, and not being able to discuss them could be a problem for McCain in November. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0408/9361.html

Christian GI Ruled Conscientious Objector

This article http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/09/24/national/main4473382.shtml is about a soldier in the U.S. Army attaining conscientious objector status through a federal judge. The soldier claims that he had a religious awakening two years ago that left him opposed to war. Military investigators failed in their attempt to show that the soldier’s religious objections to war were insincere.

The Military Selective Service Act states that the armed forces can not make a person, “by reason of religious training and belief,” serve if they are conscientiously opposed to war in any form. This does not include political, sociological, philosophical, or moral views that are not religiously based.

This is a form of establishing religion in my opinion because it is expressly saying that only religious views are important enough to attain conscientious objector status. People who do not have a religious background would not be allowed this status even if they lived their entire life preaching non-violence.

The Army attempted to challenge this soldier’s religious objections as insincere one year ago and he was forced to go through federal court. This might give the federal court too much power. They might view a Christian background as more favorable than some of the less “established” religions which brings up the question of what constitutes religion. Does this allow people who do not want to be in war to take advantage of the system by saying their religious views make them a CO when someone who is actually opposed, but non-religious, can’t?

Lastly, the U.S. District Judge that ruled determined the Army did not provide a “basis in fact” to show that the soldier’s beliefs were insincere. How could a court ever factually determine that someone does or does not believe something? It seems to me that everybody should be able to achieve CO status if they take their case to a federal level because it is impossible to determine whether someone is acting with good faith.

After Hours: Imposing Fees on Relgious Groups Use of State Facilities

An article that appeared in a recent version of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel discusses a lawsuit filed on behalf of a church in Madison, Wisconsin against a local school district. On September 10, 2008, the Open Door Church filed suit against the Sun Prairie Area School District arguing that the district’s actions had violated its First and Fourteenth Amendment Rights. At the core of the dispute is the school district's adoption of a fee system for community organizations or groups that wish to use the district’s facilities. However, as part of this fee system the district has allowed for the fees to be waved for all non-religious organizations. While they recently changed their policy to enforce a fee for all users the new policy contained a grandfather clause that allowed all groups who had previously waived fees to continue to hold such a waiver. As a result of this policy, the Open Door Church’s youth group is charged a fee for its use of the facility for weekly meetings while other, non-religious groups have access to the space for free.

Controversies such as the one presented in the Sun Prairie Area School District Case illustrate the complicated relationship between not only the two religion clauses but also with the rest of the First Amendment. The question that this case seeks to resolve places this Wisconsin school district at the top of two slippery slope arguments. If it is found that religious groups have access to government resources where does that access stop? Must we use government property, money and other resources to support religious groups? Wouldn’t such action be abhorrent to the establishment clause? On the other edge is the risk of hindering the freedom of speech and freedom of exercise that individuals and religious institutions possess. Determining the answers to these questions is essential in order to understand the very literal role that religious institutions have in relation to the state.

However, making such a determination in the case at bar, appears to this author to be quite simple, the actions of the school district clearly violated the Open Door Church’s First Amendment rights. The district’s decision to allow other community groups and organizations to use the space without a fee means that the space is, in First Amendment terms, a public speech forum. This means that the public school district does not have the ability to ban association and speech within that forum solely because of the religious nature of that speech. In 1981, the Supreme Court held in Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981) that a state university’s policy that banned religious organizations use of meeting space on campus was unconstitutional as it violated their First Amendment rights. The Court found that it violated both their right to freedom of speech and freedom of association because the denial of use of a public forum was made solely based on the content of their speech. That is to say that the public institution could not ban use of a speech forum (which the campus was determined to be) just because of the religious nature of the speech. While the parallels between this case and the case in Madison are clear what is not clear is to what degree the state and religion can be connected. Such controversies and decisions do not allow us to subscribe wholly to Jefferson’s ideal “wall of separation” and thus, the government must face some entanglement with religion.

Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

This op-ed addresses the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program that the Bush Administration introduced in 2001. The author argues that although President Bush initially "spoke about the 'armies of compassion' that would help address some of the nation's social ills," the results have been "far less impressive." The author blames this on a lack of funding for the program, as well as the program being misused as a political tool to garner support from deeply religious voters. The author does not believe that the program needs to be scrapped entirely, however, just fine-tuned so that it is doing what it is supposed to be doing. The author believes that Barack Obama's plan for the program, one that will "depoliticize it and focus on a few goals, such as summer schools for inner city kids," offers the correct remedy for the program's shortcoming.

The problem with the author's argument is that it presumes the fact that the government should be able to give funding to religious organizations. The author asserts that, "The key to success is in getting funding beyond politically connected large institutions to the small ones located in areas with the most need." The question that remains, however, is can the government provide funding to these faith-based organizations without violating the Establishment Clause? There is certainly some legal precedent for the idea, based on Bradfield v. Roberts (1899). In Bradfield, the Supreme Court upheld legislation that provided federal funding to a hospital that was in religious in its origin. The Court advanced the argument that a law respecting a religious establishment is not necessarily one that establishes a religion, and that so long as the federal funding is still being used to fulfill a government function, it is acceptable. However, that argument is much easier to make and defend when one is talking about a hospital, which theoretically administers medical aid to anyone in a medical emergency, regardless of their religion or creed. This universal benefit to society that a hospital fulfills may not be the case with some of the programs that Barack Obama's plan wants to provide funding for. As noted above, Obama's plan would "focus on a few goals, such as summer schools for inner city kids." Who is to say that these schools based in a religious establishment would necessarily offer the universal benefit to a society in the way that a hospital does? Even if the school is open to anyone of any religion on paper, in practice students of different faiths than the one practiced by the establishment running the school may have a much more difficult time feeling welcome and accepted at these types of schools and programs. Many taxpayers would likely not want their taxes being used to support a program that does not welcome people of all religions, nor they be coerced to contributing to such a faith-based organization in this manner. It seems that the precedent set by the Bradfield case is problematic when applied to this scenario, and would only work if the religious institution that is receiving the government funding would set aside its religion while fulfilling the government's work. This brings about another question: do these religious institutions really want that type of funding if it brings those restrictions? As the author of the op-ed writes, "This poses problems for religious organizations, as well, because taking taxpayer money means following secular rules." Quite simply, some of these religious institutions may not be willing to give up their rights to preach their religion to those that they help just to receive this government funding. My own personal view on the matter is that government should leave those charities in the private sector in the private sector, and not risk violating the Establishment Clause just to provide those charities with a little more funding.

Reverse Endorsements?

Earlier in the semester Gabriela posted about pastors’ inability to endorse political candidates based on the non-profit status of their church. This led to a string of comments and an interesting discussion in class. It seemed to me like the consensus in our class was that if pastors wanted to formally endorse a candidate in their church, they needed to be ready to give up their tax-exempt status. But what about what I call “reverse endorsements," or pastors and churches that condemn voting for a particular candidate either through word or action. For example, there was an article about Sarah Palin’s former pastor who questioned the salvation of citizens who do not vote for George Bush in 2004. Furthermore, an article from U.S. News and World Report discusses how the Catholic Church frequently denies communion to politicians who are pro-choice, including John Kerry in 2004 and most recently Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Many have questioned whether the Catholic Church is overstepping its boundaries with these types of decisions and I question how this action is any different than endorsing a specific candidate. By saying you shouldn’t vote for candidate A, aren’t you saying vote for candidate B?

This is not the first time bishops have denied communion to Catholics over a political issue. In the 1960s, Catholics in New Orleans and St. Louis were refused communion because of their rejection of integration in Catholic schools. The bishops of these dioceses at the time tried to work with the dissenters, but to no avail. Because of their support of segregated schools, these people were not allowed to join in full communion with the church.

These scenarios are not exactly the same, mainly because the events in the 60s did not focus on a single political candidate. However, they both demonstrate the Roman Catholic Church influencing politics and the thinking of the members of the church. This is obviously not an isolated event, so I think the government needs to reconsider its policy on only banning churches from actively endorsing political candidates. In no way do I want to completely remove the discussion of politics from the pew, as I think it is essential to be able to share political opinions with those who have a similar core system of beliefs. However, I think churches, especially those with as much power as the Catholic Church, need to be held in check. Attention should not be brought to specific candidates, whether through word or deed.

What it is about religion that makes it impossible to limit its influence in government?

Pew Research Center conducted a survey this summer to collect statistics on the voting public’s opinion of the relationship between Church and State http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/08/21/religion.politics/index.html?iref=newssearch. The survey reports that more Americans prefer Jefferson’s strict separation than have in the last ten years. Interestingly, this increase was more apparent among Republican voters than Democratic voters and for conservative voters in the survey, political decisions regarding social issues, such as gay marriage, warrant this separation more strongly than less “important social issues.”

The article makes a key point that “it seems that the more important social issues are to conservatives, the more likely they were to say that religion and politics should not mix…Among people who said gay marriage was a very important issue, the number saying houses of worship should keep out of politics doubled.” This fact is reminiscent of George D. Armstrong’s pro-slavery argument. His argument maintained that the separation of Church and State with regards to this social issue was imperative and that the decision to emancipate the slaves was solely that of the State. However, although the conservatives and Armstrong purport to advocate for the separation of Church and State, religion still appears to be at the base of American politics. Armstrong cites scripture to justify his pro-slavery argument and according to Greg Smith, “ ‘voting intentions among white evangelicals have not changed at all’ …Sen. John McCain, ‘has a huge lead even among younger evangelicals” just as President Bush had in his election year.

The survey results suggest that American voters in the current election understand the importance of isolating government from religious influence, yet “still feel a president should have strong religious beliefs.” This view is consistent with Jefferson’s vision for the young United States. Just as Jefferson, despite his adamant rejection of joint Church and State, acknowledged the importance of religion in the history of America and the in making of “honest men” (Meacham pg. 75), so too do current American voters return to religion as a key factor in their voting decisions. The Constitution clearly describes the principle of separate Church and State to be at the core of American government, while at the same time the Declaration of Independence includes the, “Creator,” and “Nature’s God” in its text. Similarly, while the survey’s statistics report a majority that believes in the separation of Church and State, the presidential candidates are constantly critiqued on their religious beliefs and backgrounds and even asked to debate in churches. The survey illuminates a discrepancy between the ideals of voting Americans and the reality of how they vote. The survey indicates that most voters advocate the separation of Church and State, yet the reality is that voters continue to allow religion to influence their vote. The predictable presence of religion in U.S. politics begs the question: What it is about religion that makes it impossible to limit its influence in government?

See You at the Pole tomorrow


September 24 is the national See You at the Pole day (SYATP). It began in 1990 in Texas, and has turned into a national and international event. Students gather around the flagpole in the morning before school to pray at the beginning of every school year. SYATP is led by students for other students, and is not affiliated with the actual schools. Administration and faculty, however, are encouraged to join the prayer. According to their website, http://www.syatp.com/home/, “See You at the Pole™ is a great place to connect with God, connect with other believers, and connect with your campus in the name of Christ.” The idea is that SYATP will allow Christians to meet others with similar beliefs and support one another during the year. The article also emphasizes that students can make a difference in their schools and the ‘Kingdom.’ There was a rally in Milton, PA to get area teens excited for SYATP. “We want to raise the need for kids to pray for their schools,” said Audrey Metzler, of Community Mennonite Fellowship. “It's a mixture between rallying kids and showing them what it's all about.” SYATP encourages students to pray for their schools, the government, and other institutions; essentially, they want to integrate prayer into these traditionally secular realms.

See You at the Pole brings several issues to the forefront. They have a clear agenda to bring the Christian faith and God into public schools. This is a fine line the students are flirting with; they have the freedom of religion and of speech, but public schools are to remain secular. Public schools cannot give preference to any religious group, and this is happening with the Christian faith.

The intentions of SYATP seem harmless enough. It is a chance for Christian students to unite within their school and pray for the school and other students. I think in practice it goes beyond its original intent. Many students used SYATP to advocate religion for other students in the school. If the prayer does not interfere with the actual school day, the students have a right to practice their religion at the flagpole. The event should be curtailed if it grew so large that other students were pressured into joining or could not go about their school day in a normal manner. Also, it seems to me this would be significantly more controversial if students were of a non-Christian religion. If an Islamic group met on school grounds, the community, parents, and faculty would be outraged. SYATP is organized by students, but faculty often participates in the event. In positions of authority, they should not be involved in religious practices within the school. SYATP is a religious event that takes place on school grounds yearly, hoping to promote Christian belief within the schools. It is their right to practice religion as they see fit, but once that hinders anyone else’s education it is no longer an acceptable practice.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Open heart surgery for Amish infant?


WNFY Channel 7 in New York recorded on Friday that, Gideon and Barbara Hershberger, an Amish couple, were being petitioned by the county Department of Social Services to court because they refuse to let their 17th month old son receive open heart surgery for religious reasons. The article states that it is important to know that they are not brought to court on criminal charges. The county is stating that it is neglect on the parents behalf because if the surgery is not completed the child is in grave danger of losing his life. The county wants the child to be removed from the parents’ custody to perform the surgery, and then, I assume, they could have their child back. Karen Johnson-Weiner, an expert on Amish culture, commented on this situation from a sociological perspective stating, “parents in this culture, like any other, love and care for their children and want to do what’s best. For Amish parents what’s best involves not just this world, but the next.”
This article draws on many different sociological and constitutional aspects. It draws on the free exercise clause addressing whether the Amish have the right to withhold their son from medical attention due to religious beliefs. The questions that need to be addressed have to do with the sincerity of their beliefs and who has the right to decide that, which is something we discussed in class today in the US v. Ballard case. This case gets even more complicated because there is a child involved. When that is the case, the state takes authority in deciding what is in the best interest for the child.
I feel that in this case the parents are in the right because it has to do with the Amish, and they have precedence in our society as a group of religious citizens that have been committed to their practices and beliefs for hundreds of years. This has to be taken into consideration because if it were a new religious movement, the motives and intentions would have to be more heavily questioned. What the Amish believe to be true has not changed over time, but our medical technology has. Just because we have the technology, should it be used? Does this technology mean that the courts have the right to intervene? I am more on the side of the Amish parents; however, I am not sure if I would feel the same way if it were a different religious group or institution.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Yes, Obama's Candidacy is Historic... Now Let's Consider That Fact History!

In their August 2008 article “A Step Forward Seen For Blacks in America,” Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta investigate the role Barack Obama’s candidacy has played in changing the perceptions of American citizens. Cohen and Agiesta are careful to balance the current optimism expounded by the media (“The opinion that Obama's rise is symbolic of general progress for African Americans is shared across lines of party, education and income…”) with less hopeful statistics like the fact that “nearly two-thirds of African Americans saying [race] relations are ‘not so good’ or downright ‘poor.’” Providing a fair assessment of the situation regarding race, Cohen and Agiesta cite numerous studies that point to a general trend of increased optimism among both African Americans and whites, though the optimism among whites is significantly less pronounced. As evidence of the growing racial optimism, they point to a post-convention poll indicating that Obama’s nomination makes “more than a third of U.S. adults…prouder to be Americans” (Michelle Obama, anyone?). Obama’s speech accepting his party’s nomination came on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” highlighting not only the significance of Obama’s historic nomination but also the intricate relationship between the two men.

In his book Stone of Hope, David Chappell details Martin Luther King Jr.’s meteoric rise to the forefront of the civil rights movement. Chappell carefully delineates King’s intellectually influences and motivations to provide a new perspective and context to King’s work. One of the more interesting points is Chappell’s notation that “King could never embrace liberal optimism” (Chappell 46). At the forefront of today’s liberal movement, especially with respect to Barack Obama’s message of “hope” and “change,” is the so-called liberal optimism which Chappell describes as the belief in "the power of human reason to overcome 'prejudice'" (Chappell 3). Thus, it is ironic that the man who some see as the final product of King’s civil rights movement embodies the philosophy with which King could never come to terms. Some might say that this diversion from King’s philosophy signals a regression in the kind of civil rights movement in which King so fervently believed.

I, on the other hand, choose to believe that this discrepancy is ultimately a sign of progress and that Obama may have provided the missing link to a still-incomplete civil rights movement. As Chappell notes with his discussion of other prominent civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin and Modjeska Simkins, the civil rights movement most certainly did not begin and end with King. Chappell ends his discussion of King and his contemporaries with the acknowledgment that the civil rights movement was just beginning: "[they] left a legacy of thought and experience that later rebels drew upon" (Chappell 66).

Chappell's "rebels" bridged the gap between whites and blacks at some point between King’s assassination and Obama’s nomination. Though some African Americans still suffer the repercussions of past wrongs, it is now evident that the opportunities in the United States are available to all and that all Americans truly are created equal. The difference between Obama’s philosophy and King’s philosophy points to remarkably different phases in the civil rights movement. One phase came at a time of great despair and existential feelings with regard to hope. The other comes today, at a time when minorities no longer believe that to hope would be foolish.

And yet, questions still linger in this political campaign. Will some Americans still vote for Obama simply because he is African American? Will some who still harbor racist ideas vote against Obama for the very same reason? Will others be able to vote against Obama simply because they disagree with his political views and not have to suffer accusations of racism? Or will Americans finally recognize the candidates as equals and vote for—or against—them as such?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Historical Parallel Between Romney and Nixon

In Daniel Gilgoff’s article, Why the Religious Right is Stuck with McCain, two claims are maid. The first, and less important, is that McCain is a candidate that strays quite a bit from the values held by the evangelical Christian voting block. He argues this effectively, but focuses more on a second issue: that Mitt Romney did not secure the Republican nomination for president because evangelical leaders failed to speak out on his behalf.

What is interesting about this is that this echos fairly strongly the 1960 presidential election between JFK and Nixon. In his book With God on Our Side, William Martin presents the idea that Nixon lost the election because Billy Graham failed to speak out publicly (and explicitly) on his behalf. He makes the case that, historically, the religious right—as a voting block—follows the advice of religious leaders. This seems to be an accurate representation. High-profile religious leaders, according to Gilgoff, failed to talk about religion’s role in politics, and Romney lost the nomination.

Furthermore, Miller speaks to the role JFK’s Catholicism played in his race for president, and how he was able to overcome the “fears” of the religious right through open conversation about their possible issues with his faith. This is fairly similar to the issues many people had with Romney’s Mormon faith. The religious and political identity of the religious right seems to be relatively consistent with the same group of the 1960s, and unlike JFK, Romney was unable to assuage their fears.

There are strong parallels evident between the 2008 presidential election (and the primaries leading up to it) and the 1960 presidential election with regards to the religious right. Miller’s book provides us with a history of this voting block and claims that it holds much power when it comes to politics. This seems to hold true in today’s political landscape. As Gilgoff’s article shows, the religious right and its leaders are still very influential, and the historical trend Miller presents falls in line with what we see today.

Head of State, Not of Church

In an opinion piece posted on the “About Faith” forum, a group managed by Newsweek and the Washington Post, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an influential seminary in the Southern Baptist Convention, defends the position that it is not hypocritical to believe that “a woman could lead a nation, and not a congregation”. This question was raised by the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention asserts:

"A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation".

Additionally, the SBC asserts that only “qualified men” are called to serve as church pastors: “This conviction was not invented by Southern Baptists. It was, and now remains, the honest conviction held by most Christians around the world, and for good reason.”

Which begs the question: if SBC members believe that it is not a woman’s place to lead a church or to be head of a household, why then would they support a woman in a bid for the (Vice) Presidency? Is an exception being made for Gov. Sarah Palin because her politics are in line with theirs, or could they wholeheartedly endorse any woman’s decision to run for office?

Mohler defends the SBC statements on wifely submission, and on women’s inability to serve as church leaders, by stating that they are drawn from the Bible and are widely accepted among Christians. Because the Bible gives explicit teachings on the issues of women’s roles in the home and church, evangelicals support these positions. However, according to Mohler:

“Our confession of faith does not speak to the appropriateness of women serving in political office. The reason for this is simple -- the New Testament does not speak to this question in any direct sense.”

This line of reasoning seems to make sense within the framework of the SBC assertions, but I don’t believe that it is strong enough to hold up against outside arguments. There are too many logical gaps and questions which remain unaddressed for Mohler’s statement to be accepted at face value. For example, if Palin were to become the President, and thus the head of the nation, under the SBC guidelines, wouldn’t she be ultimately accountable to her husband, and under his leadership? Isn’t the office of President a post with moral and ethical dimensions, similar to a pastor, on a much larger scale?

Additionally, drawing such a distinct line between the role of women in church and in politics seems a bit crass given the religious right’s fervent interest in policy and the national moral agenda; they rally voters around hot-button moral issues with religious implications (and thus are attempting to violate church/state separation). It is opportunistic to embrace Palin because she can (a) further their agenda, and (b) put a compassionate face on a movement which is frequently viewed as patriarchal and in favor of strict gender roles. If there is a public showing of support for Palin, it makes the right seem progressive and stereotype-shattering for embracing a woman in power.

While Mohler’s arguments for supporting a female candidate for the White House are logical within his framework, I do not believe that the support for Palin is motivated by any larger purpose or great desire to see a woman in office. It still seems very hypocritical to deny so much power to women in other aspects of their lives, and then to make a public show of rallying around one particular female candidate who can help to further their interests.

So, is Your Church Pro-Life?

In his September 2008 article, “Abortion Issue Again Dividing Catholic Votes,” David Kirkpatrick examines a demographic that Obama and McCain are urgently courting this election season: Catholics. Not only do they make up a third of swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, Catholics, “once a reliable Democratic voting bloc,” are also suffering bitter divisions over abortion. What Kirkpatrick deems “a struggle within the church over how Catholic voters should think about abortion” has polarized them. But abortion’s divisive power and the allegiances it may prompt to either McCain and Obama are unsurprising in context of the issue’s volatile nature. More noteworthy, perhaps, is the polarizing influence of Catholic leadership on the issue abortion, especially in the context of a more unifying religious-political leadership throughout America’s history.

Kirkpatrick details efforts by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania to mobilize parishioners into a political force. He asserts that many bishops are openly pro-life and have thus denounced Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, produced “nonnegotiable” voters guides that espouse five social issues Catholics must support (abortion opposition is, of course, included), and commended McCain’s position on abortion. However, some bishops have modified their views since 2004, and now “explicitly allow Catholics to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights if they do so for other reasons.” Other organizations, such as Catholics in Alliance for Common Good, may look past abortion to social justice, the economy, and war. In areas such as Scranton, PA, there have been countless meetings with, events for, and endorsements made of the two presidential candidates by clergy and influential bishops.

The tradition of Church leaders advancing political agendas is hardly new. In the introduction of his book, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, William Martin traces the merging of religion and politics from America’s Puritan colonialists through the Great Awakening and the Great Revival. Martin’s emphasis on the nation’s fervently religious roots supplements his analyses of religious leaders who have sought to unite faith and governance in order to win “lost souls” (p. 4) throughout history. Charles Finney, a Northern leader in the Great Revival, sums it up best: “true Christians…are ‘bound to exert their influence to secure a legislation that is in accordance with the law of God.” (p.5) Martin’s portrayal of the Great Awakening and the Great Revival emphasizes that revival preaching unified Christians, giving them “a sense of community with others of like belief,” (p.5). Though the 20th century saw many splits in Christianity, the ultimate political goal of Christian fundamentalists by the middle of the century was “to establish an association that could represent evangelical believers in all denominations,” (p.23).

For Catholics today (especially compared to many white evangelicals) no such unification over issues seems to exist. Kirkpatrick’s argument suggests that a partisan wedge, supplemented by “diocesan newspapers and weekly homilies,” has emerged over which issues to support. Furthermore, by suggesting that the “faithful” adhere to the Catholic Answers voter guide, or that those who focus only on abortion ignore the Church’s full doctrine, clergy from both sides of the debate create divisions deeper than political party. They reinforce a divide between the perceived faithful and the unfaithful, the “true Christians” and the untrue ones. Is this trend emerging within other religious groups as well? Is politics the new litmus test for faith? I certainly hope not.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Stones, Mountains, Audacity, etc

In his article entitled “Obama’s Indoctrination,” Ralph R. Reiland begins by exploring a variety of statistics derived from a branch of the Justice Department to expose the “murderous fires” within the black community. He then moves to rebuke religious leaders for fueling the flames before congregations. He specifically accuses Jeremiah Wright of acting as if it is beneficial for young black people to hear that the very world they live in is eternally and irrevocably pitted against them. Using Obama’s call for the firing of Don Imus as an example of the senator’s previous intolerance of hate speech, Reiland paints Obama’s silence as acquiescence with Wright. In his closing, the author portrays an Obama who aids in preying on the fears and prejudices of a people “overdosed on rage and victimhood.” As such, Obama’s actions have completely conflicted with his messages of hope, new politics, and change we can believe in, rendering him unfit for the presidency.

Reiland’s work is no doubt convincing but has its limits, and a particular one that must be noted, is his obvious disdain for Wright, and his coinciding rejection of all that Wright claims. Clearly, Wright’s call for God to “damn America” is very much between the two of them, but his comments on the degradation of women, the high percentage of imprisoned, and the rampant drug usage, all true of most black communities are issues in need of debate. Reiland is not wrong in his claim that boiling rage and demagogic ranting are not the answers, but neither is silence. Though knowledge may at first “jack up the level of the resentment and racism,” it will be an unequivocal part in dousing these flames within the black community. Reiland would be correct in claiming Obama’s “aforementioned Kool-Aid” is bitter or problematic, but not so in denying it could very well be the panacea American race relations need.

In his work on the civil rights movement, “A Stone of Hope,” David L. Chappell devotes a chapter to discussing the “prophetic ideals” that served as an engine for civil rights. He states that the influence of the late Martin Luther King Jr. is the “best” place to start. Much to the credit of his famous “I Have A Dream Speech,“ Dr. Martin Luther King has historically been conveyed as somewhat of an idealist hoping for mankind to right its wrongs in and of itself. But Chappell’s work explores King’s rejection of liberal optimism as well as his deviation from the “fundamentalism” of his father’s church. King did believe in the ability of the oppressed to usher in change, but not without further subjugation to oppression. In light of Chappell’s King one can better understand the actions of Obama concerning Wright. Obama is aware of his optimistic excesses, and also of Wright’s hopeless pessimism. Perhaps in exposing himself to Wright, Obama intends to find the middle ground from which King so powerfully commanded all but a bloodless revolution. Just as King carved his “stone of hope” from a “mountain of despair,” Obama could very well be extracting his “audacity of hope” from a larger source of pre-existing anguish, dejection, and resentment.