The FundamentaList (No. 41)

1. Obama's Evolution on Late-Term Abortion Coincided with His Campaign's Pushback Against Wright, Muslim Rumors.

Barack Obama set off a firestorm last week with his comment to Relevant magazine editor Cameron Strang about abortion:

"I have repeatedly said that I think it's entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don't think that 'mental distress' qualifies as the health of the mother."

Setting aside Obama's misread of Supreme Court precedent and subsequent suggestion that women choose abortions because they are feeling "blue," his progressive base was surprised to hear that he had "repeatedly said" that states can restrict late-term procedures.

A review of news coverage of his position on late-term abortion shows that Obama only began to emphasize his support of a ban this year and did so in religious media outlets and settings and on Fox News.

Obama, a longtime supporter of reproductive rights, has long been a critic of the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Carhart upholding the federal ban on the late-term intact dilation and extraction procedure (which did not include an exception for the mother’s health). In 2007 he said that the "ruling signals an alarming willingness on the part of the conservative majority to disregard its prior rulings respecting a woman's medical concerns and the very personal decisions between a doctor and patient," but did not say he would support a ban if it contained an exception for the mother’s health. He continued to critique the Carhart decision throughout last summer, calling it "a concerted effort to steadily roll back" reproductive rights.

Yet by January of this year, battling back against the Jeremiah Wright tapes and the Muslim rumors, Obama took to religious news outlets to prove his Christian credentials -- he shifted emphasis and began talking about his support for late-term abortion bans. He told Christianity Today that "I think we can legitimately say -- the state can legitimately say -- that we are prohibiting late-term abortions as long as there's an exception for the mother's health." And in April, Obama told Fox News' Chris Wallace that "I strongly believe that the state can properly restrict late-term abortions. I have said so repeatedly. All I've said is we should have a provision to protect the health of the mother."

By June, in his meeting with 30 Christian leaders, Obama was asserting that the health exception would be limited to "physical" rather than "mental" health, the Rev. Sam Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference told me, an emphasis that Rodriguez said he welcomed.

2. "Abortion Reduction" and the Democratic Party Platform.

I spoke this week with the Rev. Tony Campolo, a spiritual adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and a member of the Democratic Party Platform Committee. Campolo, an advocate for an "abortion reduction" plank in the party's platform, said he was speaking for himself and not the party or the committee (which has not met yet). Campolo emphasized health care and economic solutions for adult women but backed away from comprehensive sex education for teenagers, because of pressure on elected officials from the religious right.

Campolo advocates improving the economic lot of poor adult women by requiring Medicaid to provide contraceptives, raising the minimum wage, providing universal health care, day care, and paid parental leave -- measures that would improve women’s lives in general, notwithstanding their effect on abortion rates. But offering contraceptives through Medicaid to teenagers would be "extremely difficult" to sell and "would open up the Democratic Party to frontal attack by conservative Republicans," he said. And Campolo favors federally funded abstinence programs, not just to prevent pregnancy but because "everyone has to understand that sexual acts are not just feel-good experiences," but ones with a "spiritual dimension. ... We have to explain why we're saying no, in terms that transcend religiosity."

3. Obama on Abstinence and Abortion Reduction: Teach Kids Sex is "Sacred."

Campolo's discussion of abstinence and the spiritual side of sex didn't seem that far off from what Obama told Relevant last week:

"If we are continuing what has been a promising trend in the reduction of teen pregnancies, through education and abstinence education giving good information to teenagers. That is important -- emphasizing the sacredness of sexual behavior to our children. I think that's something that we can encourage. I think encouraging adoptions in a significant way. I think the proper role of government. So there are ways that we can make a difference, and those are going to be things I focus on when I am president."

Obama got kudos from Planned Parenthood in 2007 for co-sponsoring Prevention First, a bill that would fund comprehensive sex education. But when Obama starts talking instead about abstinence to Christian magazines, he's going down a dangerous path. If he wins in November, and if evangelicals can claim a role in his victory, what will they expect from his administration, given that he talks about "the proper role of government" in the same breath with "the sacredness of sexual behavior" and abstinence?

4. Huck for VP: God and the Fundraising Spigot.

Warren Smith, publisher of the Evangelical Press News Service, who is in daily contact with religious-right activists, told me this week that religious-right leadership is expressing mounting interest in Huckabee as a running mate, because "that would plainly send the message that John McCain cared about the issues of the religious conservatives and was interested in the leadership of the religious conservative movement."

Although the religious-right leadership has moved from lukewarm to more enthusiastic on McCain, Smith said movement elites believe they need Huckabee on the ticket to sell McCain to the grass-roots. And although there could be other candidates they'd be comfortable with (such as Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, or Mark Sanford -- but not Mitt Romney), Huckabee is better known and, in their view, a vetted commodity. Smith added that if McCain does pick Huckabee, religious-right organizations could boost their own fundraising by telling their donors that "because of our intervention McCain picked Huckabee instead of Romney."

5. Grassley Investigation Update: When Is a Parsonage Not a Parsonage?

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who is spearheading the Senate Finance Committee probe into the finances of six televangelists, released some preliminary results of the investigation Monday. All six of the television ministries he investigated, which all have church tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, maintain a complex web of financial transactions at home and overseas. Grassley's statement didn't draw any conclusions about whether any of the ministries violated their tax-exempt status, but the committee's preliminary findings show how a complete lack of transparency or accountability requirements for churches has allowed these television ministries to mushroom into massive and profitable business operations -- tax free.

According to a statement from Grassley's office, there are almost 100 for-profit and not-for-profit entities related to the six churches, and the committee has not determined whether the churches violated tax laws by enriching themselves or their ministers through these companies. The committee is also looking into whether the churches are giving employees minister status so they can claim tax-free parsonage allowances and whether the televangelists are claiming parsonage allowances for multiple residences. Also at issue: allegations that some of the ministries are intimidating whistleblowers -- especially troubling since ministry finances are legally shielded from public disclosure and so whistleblowers are a principal source of information about what goes on inside them.

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