1. Losing their Religion: Civil-Liberties Groups' Tepid Criticism of Obama's Faith-Based Office.
There's a troubling timidity to the critiques of President Obama's new Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP) and its auxiliary Advisory Council from the quarters of Washington's civil-liberties watchdogs.
It appears that some of the justifiably proud guardians of the Constitution are still trying to find their footing in the Obama era. For eight long years, they stood their ground against the excesses of the Bush administration. They opposed the dominionist expeditions of the religious right into the halls of power and the halls of justice for even longer. Obama, they felt safe in concluding, was a fellow traveler and a comrade in arms for beating back the dangerous intertwining of government and religion.
After Obama announced over the summer that he intended to maintain a reformed version of the Bush faith-based initiative, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) -- composed of religious, civil-rights, educational, labor, health, and women's advocacy groups that first formed in reaction to Clinton-era "charitable choice" statutes and later opposed Bush's faith-based initiative -- addressed an open letter to Obama and John McCain. In it, the coalition asserted that "charitable choice statutes and the Faith-Based Initiative have been counterproductive, undermining fundamental civil rights and religious liberty protections."
Yet since Obama's election, the coalition's rhetoric is more muted. Rather than directly take aim at the government's faith-based institution, CARD members are tinkering with the margins. So far, they have limited their criticism to Obama's reneging on his campaign promise to undo the Bush executive order that permits state-sanctioned and taxpayer-funded employment discrimination by recipients of faith-based grants. Obama's transition and administration staff listened to the CARD coalition but chose not to hear what it was saying.
2. Helping the Widows and Orphans: Political and Theological Arguments Against the OFBNP.
While the CARD coalition has largely made legalistic arguments against the OFBNP, a broader political critique of its Advisory Council highlights how, in fashioning both the office and the council, Obama has absorbed conservative demands about the role of religion in public discourse, provision of services to the poor, and setting of public policy and legislation.
Feminist critiques of the OFBNP and the council are not fixated on counting heads -- although the council is, so far, made up of only four women and 11 men, with 10 seats remaining open -- but on its domestic-policy mandate. In addition to addressing poverty, OFBNP also focuses on "abortion reduction" and encourages "responsible fatherhood."
Dr. Mary Hunt, co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) and a feminist Catholic theologian, calls the OFBNP's and its Advisory Council's "circumscribed agenda" a holdover from a 19th-century view that religion concerns itself with domestic issues like women, children, and families. Hunt, who questions whether a faith-based office should exist at all, says that if one of its purposes is to confront poverty, "the parties at the table shouldn't just be faith-based groups but groups working on economic issues." She adds that being religious "doesn't make you anymore or less effective on these issues." The issues on the council's agenda "need to be dealt with legally, medically, and through education and social work. I'm not sure religion should be given any privileged place in those discussions."
Dr. Kate Ott, associate director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, said, "If I were to rewrite the priorities ... instead of saying [they're] encouraging responsible fatherhood, [they should] encourage responsible sexual decision-making by both men and women; instead of ‘addressing’ teen pregnancy, [they should] reduce teen pregnancy through comprehensive sex education." On the "fatherhood" issue, Ott added, "the frame in which the council is working is that ... heterosexual family relationships are essential for the flourishing of our society," which "dismisses [faith] traditions that acknowledge other relationships."
Hunt echoed those concerns about a hetero-centric focus on fatherhood, stating that the stance "comes from a more conservative, leftover Bush administration approach. I'm very surprised to see that there, instead of something bolder and more innovative ... what about providing health care, day care, elder care?" What's more, she added, only two of the 15 members are not Christian. "That's a serious issue as well."
3. The Religious Right Wants a New Name.
When an article appeared in Christianity Today last week positing that the religious right didn't want to be called the religious right anymore because the term had become too pejorative, the response was an electronic titter.
"Cry me a fricking river," wrote Street Prophet's Dan Schultz. "Sometimes the truth hurts," tweeted Pam Spaulding. "If the phrase 'Religious Right' has negative connotations, it probably stems primarily from the fact that the people who have traditionally represented the Religious Right have caused it to, you know, have negative connotations," noted Right Wing Watch.
But then again, why bother giving it a new name? The end is near, anyway.
4. Failing to find true "common ground" on "abortion reduction."
In the Christianity Today piece (as well as in other coverage of the religious right, center, and left labeling debate), Jim Wallis, the president of the evangelical group Sojourners who is best known for his rhetoric against poverty, is portrayed as a progressive. ("[Wallis] is not progressive on issues of sexuality, whether LGBTQ or procreative justice," said Hunt. "When Jim Wallis is seen as progressive, the so-called religious left is off the planet somehow.")
In an interview last week, Wallis insisted that he's for comprehensive sex education as a means of "reducing abortion." He also emphasized economic support for women --insofar as promoting women's economic well-being through policy could prevent abortions. But when I pressed him on whether he agreed with Obama's reversal of the global gag rule -- widely seen as essential for women's health worldwide -- Wallis said he could offer no opinion on the issue, not being "an expert on the actual rule." The critical question, he said, is "does something like this reduce abortion or not?" He added that activists believe the Supreme Court is not likely to overturn Roe. Instead, they're aiming for the "common ground" to "change cultural things, like young male sexual behavior [and] how do you support women in terms of their self esteem and protecting them from abuse by older men?"
Wallis also told me that he's "never supported criminalizing abortion," but the recent discovery and dissection of a 1996 pro-life statement, "The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern," by the journalist Frederick Clarkson, suggests otherwise.
Clarkson traces the connection between the statement, signed by Wallis, among others, aimed at making abortions more difficult to procure and current "common ground" strategies for "abortion reduction." The statement, signed by major religious-right figures like James Dobson, was also signed by proponents of the Come Let Us Reason Together abortion-reduction strategy, including Wallis and Mercer University Christian ethics professor David Gushee. In it, they proposed a program of action, which called for the criminalization of doctors who perform abortions (but not of "women in crisis"), an increase in "crisis pregnancy centers," and a constitutional amendment overruling Roe v. Wade and identifying the fetus as a person. The manifesto laid out virtually every anti-choice method of restricting abortion short of changing the composition of the Supreme Court to reverse Roe, the legal strategy Wallis and others see as unlikely.
Gushee said this week, "I still stand behind this statement. Strategically, abortion-reduction strategies that do not require an overturn of Roe stand the best chance of actually moving this issue ahead in constructive ways. But the principles articulated in this statement still reflect my own views."
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