1. Evangelicalism and Torture: Is Repentance the Answer?
Last month's Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll showed that the more religiously observant one is, the more likely one is to justify torture. In response to the finding, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) hosted a conference call for reporters, where representatives offered a mix of dismay and repentance, plus a pledge to better educate their flocks.
In the poll, religious observance and support for torture was most highly correlated among white evangelicals. That fact was particularly embarrassing for Evangelicals for Human Rights (EHR), NRCAT's closest partner. In reaction, EHR president David Gushee penned an anguished plea asking Jesus why 62 percent of his evangelical brethren believe torture is sometimes or always justified. "What is this thing called 'Christianity' in this country, Lord Jesus?" wrote Gushee in the Associated Baptist Press. "Does it have anything to do with you?"
As pained as Gushee is about the trends in his own religious tradition, there are still questions he's not asking that would get at the root of evangelical support for torture. Those questions should be trained right on the country's military.
2. Investigate "Spiritual Warfare" in the Military.
The media has covered aggressive evangelism in the military for years. Scandals have included the ties between Pentagon brass and the evangelical organization Christian Embassy and the aggressive and even hostile evangelism at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Another story that received attention was the post-9/11 comments of Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who, in speaking to evangelical audiences, compared Islam to Satanic evil and framed the "war on terror" as one of spiritual warfare.
Boykin worked for the Pentagon's Special Operations Command, headed by Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone. There, according to legal expert Scott Horton, "the most serious abuses involving the military occurred, starting with Cambone's authorization of torture in rules of engagement issued shortly after 9/11." (At the time Boykin's comments about Islam first came to light, religious-right leaders defended him for speaking "truth.")
Just after the 2008 election, the Secular Coalition for America and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers asked the incoming Obama administration to change military regulations to protect the rights of non-adherents. The two groups also sought to improve the process for investigating and punishing cases of proselytizing and religious discrimination. Yet there's still too little attention paid to both issues -- in no small part because religious interest groups on the right are quick to cry discrimination against them when evangelism is questioned.
According to Jeff Sharlet's recent Harper's piece, the Pentagon continues to turn a blind eye to internal discrimination as well as to ignore the mockery and proselytization of Muslim civilians. (The article's title, "Jesus Killed Mohammed," comes from the words a special forces unit spray-painted, in Arabic, on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that then rolled through Samarra, Iraq.) The piece focuses on the high rate of evangelicals in the armed forces, particularly in its chaplaincy and officer corps. Among the feeder groups for the phenomenon is the 15,000-member Officers' Christian Fellowship, whose executive director described the "global war on terror" as "a spiritual battle of the highest magnitude," meaning a battle of Jesus' godly followers against satanic forces.
If a form of evangelicalism that is actively encouraged in the military equates perceived Islamic enemies with Satan's legions, it's not hard to imagine how justification for torture could follow.
When asked about this phenomenon, though, Gushee minimized the problem. "I think that the most extreme anti-Muslim views that you sometimes hear coming out of very, very conservative evangelicalism have a small effect," he said last week. But when that very, very conservative evangelicalism has such a powerful influence in the military, isn't it time to investigate the effect of the military evangelism -- not just on torture but on military personnel and civilians worldwide?
3. Notre Dame Controversy Highlights Obama's "Abortion Reduction" Conundrum.
Anti-abortion radicals continue their confrontations with police at the University of Notre Dame over Obama's upcoming commencement speech. While their tactics might be less confrontational, 20 percent of U.S. Catholic bishops also oppose Obama's appearance.
But about half of all rank-and-file Catholics hadn't even heard about the "controversy," according to a recent Pew poll. Of those who had, 50 percent thought it was fine for Obama to speak at Notre Dame. (Interestingly, only 33 percent of white evangelicals thought it was proper for Obama to speak at this Catholic university -- that's about half of those who think torture can be justified.)
The protesters oppose Obama's position on reproductive rights. But Obama has Catholic defenders on the issue, such as representatives from Catholics United (CU) and theologians like Thomas J. Reese of Georgetown University. CU and Reese argue that Obama favors reducing abortions -- but they favor a different means of accomplishing that goal than the president does.
While Obama focuses on preventing unintended pregnancies, his Catholic endorsers support the Pregnant Women Support Act (PWSA), which is also backed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bill includes supposed inducements to carry unintended pregnancies to term. PWSA does not, however, fund sex education or contraception -- because the Church opposes it.
CU and Reese say that the PWSA is "common ground" and that Obama is committed to it. But the claim that Obama supports the same common ground they do blurs very real and important distinctions between Obama's described approach and theirs. Moreover, if Obama fails to tilt in a more conservative direction on sex and sexuality issues, will these anti-abortion "common grounders" abandon him? And if he does satisfy their demands, what does that mean for the future of reproductive rights and sexual health and the Democratic Party's commitment to those essential issues?
4. What's the Matter With That Common Ground?
In his new Times column this week, Ross Douthat argues that supporting the PWSA is the Democrats' key to winning future elections. "If Obama's abortion-reduction proposals owe more to Democrats For Life than to Planned Parenthood," Douthat writes, "there are abortion opponents who will seize even that thin straw as a sign of progress. And the Democratic Party will have a chance to peel off more votes from one of conservatism's crucial constituencies."
But the problem -- which neither Douthat nor CU nor Reese seems to recognize -- is that the PWSA is not the administration's preferred strategy nor is it even the "common ground" that center-right evangelicals prefer. Obama has consistently advocated for a prevention strategy as the best means of reducing the need for abortion, and that's why he supports Prevention First, a bill that increases funding for comprehensive sex education and contraception. Meanwhile, another coalition of mostly evangelicals convened through Faith in Public Life and Third Way has supported blending the goals of both the PWSA and Prevention First approaches While these "common ground" advocates often boast they will end the "culture wars" -- something Douthat appears appropriately skeptical of -- they often mask their real goals by claiming they don't want to fight over Roe anymore. Because these religious leaders are disappointed by what they view as the impossibility of Roe's reversal, they believe the government should then make abortion less available, less accessible, less affordable, and more stigmatized. Obama faces these pressures from the very religious groups that he's made a concerted effort to court as he moves ahead with both the 2010 budget and reproductive-health policy.
5. Obama Budget Eliminates Abstinence Funding, But Work Remains on Sex Education.
Reproductive-health advocates were heartened last week when the Obama administration released its budget, which eliminated federal funding for abstinence-only sex education. But they were less enthusiastic about the administration's decision not to call for a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortions for low-income women through Medicaid, and other restrictions on abortion coverage. They also were dismayed by the administration's failure to call for comprehensive sex education, rather than just teen pregnancy prevention. Comprehensive sex education is broader and would include addressing LGBT issues and sexually transmitted disease prevention.
Comprehensive sex education still gives a lot of conservative religious types the willies. Many congressional Democrats fear rocking the boat too much on the issue -- which is why many reproductive- and sexual-health advocates are pushing the Obama administration to lead the way so Congress will follow and fund comprehensive sex education.
And abstinence-only, despite the funding cut, isn't completely gone. In a conference call with faith-based groups last week, according to participants, Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes and Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships director Joshua DuBois indicated there still could be funding for abstinence education. They said that 25 percent of the $100 million requested in the budget for prevention of teen pregnancy could be used for abstinence education if the program met the administration's standards that the program was proven to delay sexual activity, increase contraceptive use, or reduce teen pregnancy.