The FundamentaList (No. 84)

1. HHS Faith-Based Appointment: Kerfuffle or Crisis?

Last Thursday, President Barack Obama tapped Alexia Kelley to lead the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Health and Human Services. The appointment did not, as some commentators described it, cause a "kerfuffle" or "skirmish" between the "religious left" and "religious progressives," whatever those terms mean. The appointment of the executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) isn't really about disputes between religious figures; it's about something much more urgent. It raises serious doubts about the wisdom of having an Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP) at all.

It is now obvious that it is impossible to have a religiously neutral program. The White House has insisted that the faith-based centers in a dozen federal agencies are intended to bolster capacity in faith-based and community organizations to deliver social services. If that's the case, then center appointees should be functionaries without religious agendas. Building capacity in nonprofits isn't a spiritual issue -- it's a technocratic one. The administration raises questions by placing religious activists in these positions: Is the administration favoring one view of religion over another? Is it favoring one denomination over another? Is it favoring one perspective within a particular denomination over another?

2. Economic Justice and Restrictions on Abortion Access.

Just one week after the 2008 election, Kelley participated in a teleconference hosted by Faith in Public Life (FPL), aimed at painting a portrait of a new faith coalition that allegedly helped elect Obama. During the call, Sojourners president Jim Wallis touted the emergence "of a new faith coalition led by blacks and Latinos, younger Christians, younger evangelicals, progressive Catholics and Protestants." This new faith coalition, Wallis continued, "will replace the religious right, but without becoming a religious left. It will challenge both parties."

"Social conservatism," Wallis proclaimed, "is now married to social justice."

Kelley made that marriage clear by laying out a Catholic argument that linked poverty to abortion -- and by arguing that alleviating poverty will reduce the abortion rate. She asserted that it is a "mistake to treat abortion and social-justice issues separately. Abortion is a social-justice issue. … When women have access to pre- and post-natal health care, good jobs, and a range of social and economic support, they are more likely to choose life."

Kelley's insistence that social and economic supports reduce abortions has several serious flaws. The link she draws between poverty alleviation and abortion reduction is questionable, both empirically and morally. Her public statements also strongly suggest that she favors restrictions on access to abortion services and make clear her refusal to challenge church prohibition on birth control.

Kelley's claim to link social-justice to abortion hijacks the longtime advocacy of the reproductive and women's rights communities for greater economic equality for women. By arguing that economic supports will reduce abortions, she turns poverty reduction into an argument against choice. While reproductive-justice advocates argue that economic support is necessary to support women who choose to have families, Kelley suggests that it is necessary to support women so that they choose to carry unintended pregnancies to term. (The unstated -- but obvious -- implication is that no morally correct woman, given all those supports, would choose an abortion.)

Contrary to CACG's arguments, countries with low abortion rates have lower rates of unintended pregnancies due to sex education and widely available birth control. By linking poverty and abortion, Kelley suggests that abortion is a social ill that needs to be eradicated, rather than a medical procedure that needs to be protected from restrictions that make it less available and safe, thereby endangering the autonomy, health, and lives of women. "We've got to address poverty and economic-justice issues if we're going to be successful in ending and reducing abortion," she said in the FPL post-election teleconference.

When asked about the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), Kelley relied on the opposition of Catholic bishops, who insisted that the bill was at the top of Obama's agenda back in November (despite all evidence to the contrary). She echoed their concern that FOCA would overturn what she called "reasonable restrictions" on abortion access. She said that the bishops emphasized "that you need both an economic- and social-justice approach and the pursuit of legal protections, reasonable restrictions as well." Legal protections, that is, for the "unborn."

3. Religious Leaders Mourn Assassination of George Tiller.

To the extent that Obama has been led to believe that appointing advocates like Kelley is essential to winning over religious voters, he needs a broader education in the varieties of theology. He might look to Daniel Maguire, who teaches moral theology at Marquette University and participates in the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics. This week, Maguire eulogized George Tiller at a service in Milwaukee.

In the eulogy, Maguire noted, "All the world religions, including Roman Catholicism, have a strong pro-choice position existing alongside the no-choice position. … Yet religious leaders, almost all men, fan the lethal fury of fanatical terrorists. Their pious hands are not clean when these people act out violently. Most of these religious leaders do not even know the openness to abortion choices in their religious traditions and should be sent back to school."

In Washington on Monday, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice hosted an interfaith memorial service for Tiller. Local religious figures attended the service, as did feminist icons like Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards and Feminist Majority head Eleanor Smeal. Throughout the emotional service, the church pews were flanked by an unnerving sight: A phalanx of federal marshals patrolled the church to protect Dr. LeRoy Carhart, the physician who worked with Tiller and eulogized him.

The Rev. Karen Brau, senior pastor at Luther Place Memorial Church and a fellow Lutheran with Tiller, took aim at Obama's plea for common ground in his Notre Dame speech: "This tragic death shows us that common ground is sometimes hard to find."

Maguire, in his Milwaukee eulogy, also rejected "common ground." He said, "President Obama at Notre Dame called for 'common ground' with anti-choice people. He was wrong. There is already common ground. It is called Roe v. Wade. That is the common ground for the law of this land, and the anti-choice people are using pressure, threats and violence to prevent women citizens from acting within that law."

"This is what angered George Tiller," Maguire said. "This is what killed George Tiller."

4. Confronting Fundamentalism in Islam.

A documentary about Asra Nomani, the journalist who challenged the prohibition on mixed-sex prayer at her West Virginia mosque, premiers next week on PBS as part of the station's America at the Crossroads series. A Mosque in Morgantown follows Nomani as she confronts the institutional sexism and intolerance in her mosque and in her religion, as well as highlights what she called the "slippery slope from intolerance to violence."

In her encounters with the men at her mosque, Nomani questions sermons that claim a woman who loses her chastity is "worthless," that the West is on a "dark path," and that "to love the prophet is to hate those who hate him."

At first blush, it would seem that there is much in common between Nomani and the creators of The Third Jihad, the incendiary film that critics charge unfairly portrays Islam as intolerant, violent, and bent on taking over America. The producers of the The Third Jihad have stepped up their media campaign with a screening in New York this week, alerting the press that Rudy Giuliani believes the film to be a "wake-up call."

"Their criticisms are legitimate, honestly," Nomani told me this week. "There is a literal interpretation that can lead to violence." But, she continued, "it's the same as John Hagee literalism," which, if taken to its logical conclusion, politically speaking, would never allow the Palestinians a homeland (and which, theologically speaking, could end the world). "We can take on Christian preachers' hatefulness -- that's OK in liberal communities. But that's what I wish we could do in Muslim communities," she said.

But Nomani still has criticism for The Third Jihad: "I don't buy into the language of Islamophobes because it's become its own politics, the use of Islamofascism." The film, she said, "is so full of fire and brimstone about hordes of Muslims taking over the country, it's disproportionate to the situation."

5. Pro-Peace Christian Group Urged to Stand Up to Christian Zionist Fundamentalism.

During the Bush administration, the harmonic convergence between the Christian Zionist theology and the neoconservative political agenda ground U.S. peace efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a halt. But Christians who support a two-state solution, as evidenced at this week's annual conference of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), are hopeful that Obama's call for a settlement freeze will open the door for more robust advocacy for Palestinian statehood.

What struck me about CMEP, a coalition of 22 denominations' policy arms, is how different it is in tone and strategy from Christian Zionist movements I've covered. The CMEP attendees, church members from all over the country, are liberal mainline Protestants and Catholics. They reject biblical literalism of the Christian Zionist apocalyptism and its blind fixation on Israel as God's land transfer to the Jews. In contrast to people I've met at Christians United for Israel (CUFI) events, who get a one-sided view of the conflict by traveling to Israel with televangelists like Hagee, many CMEP attendees I met had traveled to the occupied territories to document human-rights abuses.

While CUFI hardly represents a majority of Christians, it has a formidable political operation, fundraising capacity, and organizing strategy compared to CMEP. And its ability to capitalize on fear, of course, is not to be underestimated. This week, Hagee warns in a video e-mail to supporters, "these are dangerous days for Israel." He asks, "Will our leaders in Washington stand with Israel, or will they focus their energy on forcing Israel into making concessions?"

Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation, gave the CMEP audience a big heads-up about the Christian Zionists' organizing power, of which many in the audience seemed well aware. CMEP supporters need to organize and mobilize, and they need to advocate their case with members of Congress. "If there's not a counterbalance [with the Christian Zionists]," he said, "I don't see how even this president with his determination and good intentions succeeds."

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