The FundamentaList (No. 71)

1. "Real" Catholics, "Fake" Ones, and Kansas Governors.

The outcry from the anti-choice religious right over President Barack Obama's nomination of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas to serve as health and human services secretary reached a fever pitch last week: The "radical extremist" who's not a "real" Catholic was given a stamp of approval by a key congressional religious-right ally, fellow Kansan Sam Brownback.

The religious right is still figuring out how to play its hand in Democratically controlled Washington, particularly in the nearly filibuster-proof Senate. Just a few years ago, the crew complained so mightily about the "obstructionist" Democrats who allegedly stood in the way of right-thinking Bush judicial nominees. With the situation reversed, the religious right had hoped that minority Republicans -- Brownback in particular -- would block Sebelius, solely because of her record on abortion rights.

Never mind that the HHS secretary will have the more pressing agenda of health-care reform on her plate.

Brownback, who will retire from the Senate when his term is up in 2010, might just have his eye on the position Sebelius is set to vacate. It probably wouldn't behoove him, then, to block the nomination of the popular governor.

2. Why Doesn't the "Broader" Evangelical Agenda Include Health-Care Reform?

The rapid-response team at Faith in Public Life (FPL) released an endorsement of Sebelius, signed by a number of the most visible self-described centrist evangelicals. This group of evangelicals, together with the Democratically aligned FPL, has been advocating for a "broader agenda" for evangelicals beyond abortion and gay marriage. They based their endorsement of Sebelius on one issue, though: "abortion reduction."

This leads one to wonder whether the vaunted "broader agenda" includes health-care reform.

FPL's operating principle appears to be to aim for an agreement between FPL staff (which claims the progressive label) and center-right evangelicals, even if that area of agreement is very narrow and elides addressing more controversial issues. I asked FPL's communications director, Katie Paris, whether the group had a position on Obama's reversal of the Bush administration's "conscience" rule, which would have permitted health-care providers at federally funded facilities to opt out of providing reproductive health services -- even contraception -- if they claimed it violated their moral beliefs. "We try not to do sign-ons for everything under the sun but are always open to getting the good word out however we can," was her reply.

As it turns out, at least one member of the coalition has an issue with Obama's reversal of the Bush rule. "This is going to be a political hit for the administration," Pastor Joel Hunter, who serves on Obama's advisory council for his Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, told The Washington Post. "This will be one of those things that kind of says, 'I knew it. They talk about common ground, but really what they want is their own way.'"

3. Pesky Labels and Political Agendas.

Sebelius has the support of some of her fellow Catholics as well. Catholics United, a group that formed in early 2004 to advance the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' manifesto, also endorsed her and launched the Web site Catholics for Sebelius.

"Faithful Citizenship," which Catholics United promotes, lumps abortion together with war, the death penalty, and domestic violence in a list of moral prohibitions. It says that abortion is "never morally acceptable" and supports "legislative efforts to end" it. That's in line with the view of abortion of some of Sebelius' evangelical endorsers as well.

Catholics United has a cheerleader in Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. A Catholic himself, Dionne describes the organization as a "progressive" group that is one piece -- along with the FPL coalition -- of a "rapid mobilization" that "marked the emergence of an organized movement of religious progressives as a forceful counterweight to religious conservatives, and it brought home the centrality of abortion reduction to the overall argument." That, he contends, makes "some traditional feminist groups nervous."

All those labels! Are these religious groups "progressive"? Are they a "forceful counterweight" to conservatism, or simply a softer manifestation of it? Is abortion like domestic violence? If these are what pass for "progressive" values, that means conservative religious ideology has produced a rightward shift in progressive thinking. Dionne is promoting the notion that progressivism, and in particular religious progressivism, has shifted in this direction and will save Democrats from religious-right onslaughts. That's how he wants progressivism to be, though, not how it is.

I haven't found any feminists who are "nervous." Quite the contrary, they view Obama, with his commitment to choice and reproductive health, as a forceful counterweight to eight years of Bush. Dionne has an unpleasant habit, though, of suggesting that they bear just as much blame for the disintegration of civil discourse as the religious right.

Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, scoffed at Dionne's characterization of the significance of Catholics United. "This is ridiculous. ... [In Dionne's] world, the far right are wrong, and these middle centrists who just want abortion to go away are the right ones, and he'll elevate a tiny insignificant group like Catholics United because he's ideologically a fellow traveler with them."

4. Stem-Cell Research Still Controversial Among Centrists.

Reaction in the progressive religious and secular community to Obama's reversal of the Bush ban on federal funding for stem-cell research was positive, and the religious right was expectedly livid.

For the conservative evangelicals outside of the the religious right who claim to have a broader agenda, stem-cell research also remains contentious. Randy Brinson, the executive director of the Alabama Christian Coalition and an evangelical who spurns the religious right, told me, "This is one more example of President Obama caving to the interests of the far left instead of the findings of the scientific community." (Brinson erroneously contended that adult stem cells are superior to embryonic ones.)

"From my understanding, President Obama is not authorizing federal funds for the creation or destruction of embryonic stem cells for research, which is already forbidden by the Dickey-Wicker amendment," Hunter said. "He is asking the NIH to come up with new, and much-needed, guidelines for legal and ethical research, including whether to use embryos that are already slated for destruction. We must remain vigilant so that we do not slide into a casual use of human embryos. But given the options of destroying these embryos or using them to enhance the possibility of someone's healing, then I believe the latter is a more moral choice of those two options."

Hunter's statement points to the impending debate: The Dickey-Wicker amendment, which Democrats in Congress aim to overturn, prohibits government funding for the creation of new embryonic stem-cell lines but not research on already-created lines. Common ground, anyone?

5. More Evangelicals, More Atheists.

Trinity College released its 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) this week, one of the biggest surveys of American religious beliefs. Comparing its results to the last two surveys, conducted in 1990 and 2001, the research team found a 10 percent drop in the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christians since 1990, and a 7 percent increase in the number of people identifying themselves as having no religion. Today, 76 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, and 15 percent say they have no religion.

One of the most striking findings was how Christians are becoming more evangelical. Thirty-four percent of all American adults -- nearly half of all Christians -- self-describe as "born again" or "evangelical." Meanwhile, the mainline Protestant denominations continue to see a drop in membership, falling from 19 percent in 1990 to only 13 percent today.

Mark Silk, director of Trinity's Program on Public Values, described a "huge change" over time, with decreasing numbers of mainline Protestants and increasing numbers in the "mega-church crowd." The "norm" in non-Catholic Christianity, he said, has become "some sort of generic evangelicalism."

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