1. Army Secretary Nominee Has Questionable Record on Church-State Separation.
Rep. John McHugh, a Republican from New York who is President Barack Obama's nominee to be secretary of the Army, is drawing scrutiny from church-state separation advocates the Secular Coalition for America and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation because of his congressional voting record on church-state separation issues. Opposition, or even indifference, to church-state separation is no minor matter in the military, given repeated revelations of violations of constitutional protections at the Pentagon, Air Force Academy, and in the field.
McHugh's voting record in the House shows a disrespect for church-state separation generally, as well as a disregard for the ongoing infringement of service members' constitutional rights from aggressive proselytization in the armed forces. In 2005, in the wake of the exposure of egregious constitutional violations at the U.S. Air Force Academy, McHugh voted against an amendment to a bill that would have required the secretary of defense to report to Congress on progress made in addressing proselytization of cadets. The amendment would have made "clear that coercive and abusive religious proselytizing at the Air Force Academy is inconsistent with the professionalism and standards required by those who serve at the Academy."
In 1999, McHugh voted for an amendment that, had it passed, would have allowed public schools and other government buildings to post the Ten Commandments. In the last two congressional sessions, he voted for another religious-right favorite, the "Pledge Protection Act," which would have removed federal courts' authority to hear constitutional challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance. This attempted power grab would have been an unprecedented infringement on the separation of powers. Had it passed, Congress would have rewritten the constitutional authority vested in the courts to hear "all Cases ... arising under this Constitution."
McHugh also has co-sponsored efforts to amend the Constitution to "restore religious freedom." A classic religious-right effort to make infringement on freedoms appear to be an expansion of freedoms, the measure would have permitted people to pray and "recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including schools." But civil-liberties critics argued that the amendment would have sanctioned an expansion of organized prayer at events like public school graduations, authorized "Christian nation" declarations, and required government funding of both secular and religious schools.
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told me in an e-mail, "John McHugh almost ensures a continuation of the stranglehold of dominionist Evangelical Christians on our military. His voting record speaks with a litany of special privileges for the Christian agenda. This decision adds to status-quo appointments [of] a SecDef [Secretary of Defense], DoD IG [Department of Defense Inspector General], and SecAF [Secretary of the Air Force]."
2. An "Ad Feminam" Attack on a Catholic Critic of the Kelly Appointment.
"Kissling v. Kelley," read the headline of a blog post by Michael Sean Winters at the Jesuit magazine America. But Winters, author of, Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats, was not actually describing a conflict between Frances Kissling, founder and former president of Catholics for Choice, and Alexia Kelley, Obama's new pick to head the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Health and Human Services. Winters' pretext, of course, was Kissling's criticism of the Kelley appointment, but his purpose was quite different. The headline should have read, "Winters v. Kissling" or "A Real Catholic v. A Fake One."
Assessing someone else's religious bona fides is always a tricky business, and Winters' foray into the thicket is fraught with mean-spirited accusations. "Now, asking Ms. Kissling to assess the choice of a 'faith leader' is a bit like asking a strict vegetarian whether you should have the foie gras or the sweetbreads," was his opening salvo. He went on to attack Kissling's distinguished career as an advocate for worldwide reproductive justice and health. He called her pro-choice stance "functionally no different from that of Randall Terry on the pro-life side," and accused her of wanting "to takedown [sic] a pro-life Democrat who represents a new generation of women, a generation tired of the 'Stay away from my ovaries!' pro-choice shouting that Kissling made famous." (Winters conveniently avoids the fact that the current president of Catholics for Choice, Jon O'Brien, the first critic of the Kelley appointment, has no ovaries.)
Mary Hunt, co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) and a formidable feminist Catholic theologian herself, called Winters' piece "a gratuitous slam" and an "ad feminam" attack.
I haven't read Winters' book, but the title and his other writing suggest that he's firmly in the camp of Kelley's organization, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG). CACG advocates for a broad range of social-justice issues, but it also equates abortion with issues like torture, war, and poverty. (By advocating for a "whole" agenda that focuses on more than just the culture-war trigger issues, CACG distinguishes itself from the religious right but surely is not alone among a wide range of conservative and progressive Catholics who devote themselves to combating poverty, war, and torture.) Winters' type of advocacy on abortion, though, has helped push Obama away from his formerly full-throated support for reproductive justice and health (but not of the "stay away from their ovaries!" variety, to be sure) and toward that elusive "common ground."
There's no doubt that Obama's current "common ground" efforts have more to do with holding a perceived voting bloc together than with crafting a reproductive health policy that will best protect the well-being and conscience of American women, girls, and their families. Winters even boasted that "the good news is that the President is evidently listening to Kelley not Kissling."
I agree that's evident, but that's not necessarily good news. Although Winters has a right under the First Amendment to critique Kissling's theology, Obama has a different part of the First Amendment with which to contend. As president, he and his administration shouldn't be seen as endorsing one religion over another, or even one interpretation of a religion over another. This is especially true when it comes to listening to religious voices on abortion policy -- a dicey proposition in the first place.
3. Are LGBT People Going to Be Left Out of Immigration Reform?
A coalition of civil-liberties and LGBT-rights groups is rightfully outraged by Obama's reneging on his campaign promise to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and particularly by a Justice Department court brief arguing that the statute be upheld.
DOMA allows states and the federal government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where it is legal and to deny same-sex couples civil-rights protections that married heterosexuals enjoy. As a candidate, Obama pledged to repeal DOMA. As he advocated for civil unions and equal federal protections for same-sex couples while on the campaign trail, he noted, "You don't poll whether people get treated equally or not. That is something that you do because it's right."
But it increasingly looks like Obama is feeling the pressure from religious leaders who claim to be advocating a "whole" agenda, including immigration reform, but whose "wholeness" does not include LGBT people. An estimated 36,000 gay and lesbian Americans are prohibited from securing green cards for their spouses still overseas -- as married immigrants can do -- because of DOMA.
Religious leaders, including the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, oppose the Reuniting Families Act, an omnibus immigration-reform bill introduced in the House, which includes provisions permitting gay and lesbian immigrants to sponsor their partners still living in their home country for residency in the United States. They also oppose the Uniting American Families Act, proposed in both houses of Congress, on the same grounds.
Rodriguez is part of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform but said in a CCIR teleconference last week that his anti-gay stance does not represent the official position of this coalition. The coalition does not take an explicit position one way or the other on the rights of LGBT immigrants, despite its call on the president and Congress "to make humane and holistic immigration reform a top priority in 2009."
4. All Roads Lead to Virginia Beach.
For religious politics and entertainment, Virginia Beach is best known for Pat Robertson's media empire. Although Robertson is the city's best-known religious-right figure, Rock Church, founded by the late John Gimenez, has played a significant role in political organizing as well. Gimenez, a Pentecostal preacher who joined forces with evangelical giant Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, was the organizer of the America for Jesus and Washington for Jesus rallies that were thought to have helped mobilize the religious right for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
A recent appearance there by Newt Gingrich on his "Rediscovering God in America" tour highlighted Rock Church's continuing influence for politicians seeking to mobilize the religious right. During his appearance at Rock Church, Gingrich, the twice-divorced recent Catholic convert, claimed, "We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism." He appeared at the event with former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and -- another paragon of virtue -- Iran-Contra figure Oliver North.
These seminars are nothing new for Gingrich and Huckabee, who made the rounds during the 2008 presidential primary paying homage to America as a "Christian nation" to "Renewal Projects" around the country. A related project in Texas, called the Texas Restoration Project, paid for with tax-exempt funds, came under criticism for appearing to endorse Rick Perry for governor in 2006. During the presidential primaries, other Republican candidates complained that Huckabee was the only candidate invited to speak at the events.
Gimenez also inspired Bishop Harry Jackson, the Maryland megachurch pastor who has insinuated himself into the District of Columbia's political process on gay marriage. Jackson spoke two years ago at Rock Church, foreshadowing his D.C. anti-gay-marriage crusade. He told the audience that he became involved in political activism as a result of watching the 1980 Washington for Jesus rally.
Gingrich and Huckabee are both thought to be pondering 2012 presidential bids and are clearly setting their sights on mobilizing the religious right like in the old days. Culture wars over? Not yet.