The FundamentaList (No. 81)

1. Obama's Notre Dame Speech A Success, But What Lies Ahead?

Observers and pundits praised President Barack Obama for his speech at the University of Notre Dame's commencement Sunday, because of his rejection of fundamentalism and deft handling of the militant religious right. But viewed in the context of Obama's entire faith-based outreach project, the events at Notre Dame highlighted how he has embraced traditionalist, conservative religion -- to the detriment of sexual and reproductive justice.

In his speech, Obama credited religion with playing an important role in American civic life, which it undoubtedly does. The speech, like every one he has given on religion, was designed to defuse highly charged, faith-based debates about public policy. Obama thinks that listening to all religious voices is one way to "tamp down some of the anger" over issues like abortion. That balanced approach looks eminently reasonable, particularly when Randall Terry acolytes are shouting "abortion is murder" in the commencement hall.

But relying on selected religious arguments isn't justifiable when they conflict so profoundly with sound public policy.

Of course it would have been unimaginable for the president to accept an invitation from an institution like Notre Dame -- which follows the Catholic Church's teaching on all issues, including abortion and birth control -- and talk about a woman's autonomy or the need for contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies.

But back in Washington, that's exactly the quandary Obama has created for himself, because he has given "people of faith" a role in shaping policy through the advisory council to his White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP). "People of faith" have something very important to contribute to public life, he claims, but he still hasn't figured out a way to reconcile that very important contribution with his public-policy objectives.

2. Conflicts Between Sound Policy and Church Doctrine.

On reducing the need for abortions, Obama's own preference is a commonsense public policy to fund comprehensive sex education and contraception to reduce unintended pregnancies. This has been the position of mainstream reproductive-health advocates for decades. This has also been the position of religious organizations like Catholics for Choice, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and the Religious Institute for Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. But Obama hasn't reached out to those voices for a public, religious imprimatur for his own policy positions.

Instead, Obama has focused his outreach efforts on more conservative religious groups (you know, the ones who haven't been voting Democratic). He claims to honor their position on moral issues. But when the dust settles on the Notre Dame controversy, he'll have to figure out what to do with the policy advice he has sought from the council. How Obama reacts to that advice will demonstrate whether the council is mere window dressing to shore up support from swing constituencies or whether Obama will yield to conservative religious dogma on reproductive-health issues.

3.Conservative Religion and Impediments to Progressive Policy.

It's fine for Obama to offer paeans to the good that religion has done for society. But in many instances, religious dogma has done society much harm. That shouldn't be glossed over in the name of achieving "common ground."

In his speech, Obama talked about how we need to "make adoption more available." But in Massachusetts, Catholic Charities of Boston decided to cease providing adoption services rather than face the "immoral" prospect of placing a child with a gay or lesbian couple. (The president of Catholic Charities USA serves on the OFBNP advisory council.)

Obama has shown signs of backpedaling on other LGBT issues in other situations, too. Obama once supported repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits states from recognizing same-sex marriages from other states. Now, his position is not so clear. He has forcefully advocated for repeal of the military “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; now, he is waffling.

Obama also talked about preventing unintended pregnancies in his speech but did not specify that the best way to do that -- birth control -- is contrary to church teaching, although over 90 percent of American Catholics ignore that doctrine. (The general counsel of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also holds a place on the council.)

The president once talked about abortion in terms of a woman's autonomy and right to choose. Now it's a "wrenching" decision with "moral and spiritual dimensions" and a "moral tragedy." That's the wrong way to frame the issue and is clearly aimed at appeasing social conservatives, rather than advancing the president's own policy goals.

4. Making the Moral Case for Reproductive Health While Public Support is High.

Several academics and polling experts, including John Sides at the Monkey Cage and Nate Silver and Ed Kilgore at Five Thirty Eight, have demonstrated that two new polls from Gallup and Pew do not, as advertised, show that Americans have become more "pro-life" or that approval of legal abortion has declined. That, of course, has not stopped religious-right activists from making hay of the findings and arguing that Obama's position is out of touch with the majority of Americans (who, they neglect to acknowledge, elected him anyway).

Because of that deception on reproductive rights, it's more important than ever for the president to lay the moral groundwork for his own position -- not just to recognize the moral qualms of abortion opponents.

There is an ethical case for allowing safe, affordable, legal, and accessible abortion. Women should be free to get an abortion without interference by religious critics telling them that they are committing a sin and should subsequently be racked with guilt or suffer depression. Since women don't make the decision to have an abortion lightly, as Obama acknowledges, they should be left alone to make that choice. They are not children who need help in making the "right" decision. Moreover, there is great diversity of religious and philosophical views on what constitutes sin. Research shows many women do not feel guilt after an abortion but relief.

Full reproductive health for women requires access to comprehensive medical services, including abortion and contraception. Such a policy includes poor women receiving federal aid. It also includes sex education, because our children deserve better than religious dodges from discussing real facts about sex, responsibility, and use of condoms and other methods to prevent disease and unintended pregnancies. They deserve better than sex education that is not fully inclusive of LGBT issues. The main obstacles to implementation of this policy are theo-conservatism and the Democrats' irrational fear of alienating adherents to it.

5.Anti-Muslim Film Employs Scare Tactics About Sharia Law in the U.S.

The producers of an incendiary and misleading documentary, The Third Jihad, are ramping up their efforts to disseminate the film and its message that "radical Islam" threatens freedom in the United States through the imposition of Sharia law.

Although the film had a limited release last year, the group promoting it, The Clarion Fund, has relaunched it. Last week, they hosted screenings at the National Press Club in Washington and -- ironically enough -- the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The group has also made the DVD available for purchase on their Web site. The film features interviews with and praise from politicians including Rudy Giuliani, Tom Ridge, and Joe Lieberman.

Last year, just before the election, the Clarion Fund paid to deliver 28 million copies of its previous film, Obsession, as newspaper inserts in swing states. The film, which compared "radical Islam" to Nazism, drew an interfaith chorus of denunciations. Rabbi Jack Moline, a prominent Conservative rabbi, called Obsession "the protocols of the learned elders of Saudi Arabia."

The Clarion Fund has ties to Aish Hatorah, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish organization that the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has called "just about the most fundamentalist movement in Judaism today," adding that "its operatives flourish in the radical belt of Jewish settlements just south of Nablus, in the northern West Bank, and their outposts across the world propagandize on behalf of a particularly sterile, sexist and revanchist brand of Judaism. Which is amusing, of course, because 'Obsession' is meant to expose a particularly sterile, sexist and racist brand of Islam."

I wrote about the films, and the links between Aish Hatorah and The Clarion Fund for the New York Jewish Week last year, but the piece appears to have disappeared from the paper's Web site. It has been reprinted in full at the Failed Messiah blog.

Follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at

You may also like