The Common Good

Religious "Centrists" May Decide the Election

Sojomail - November 1, 2004

Editor's Note
Quote of the Day Citizenship in perspective
Hearts & Minds Jim Wallis: Religious "centrists" may decide the election
Media Watch Sojourners in the news
For the Record Study estimates Iraqi civilian deaths at 100,000
Religion and Politics Christian in the middle
Warning: Satire Osama 101
Boomerang Readers write
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This week, we will be sending several "mini-SojoMails" as part of our special election coverage. We hope you enjoy the extra insight and encouragement in these critical moments. We'll be returning to our weekly schedule next week.


"If you enroll as one of God's people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are God's laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also."

- Clement of Alexandria, an early church father, in Protrepticus, 10


Religious "centrists" may decide the election
by Jim Wallis

Moderate Catholics and Evangelicals may help decide this election. They are what widely respected University of Akron researcher John Green calls "centrist" Catholic and Evangelical voters who comprise 19% of the electorate and are concentrated in some of the most important swing states.

I just finished a 15-city bus tour in those very states, trying to raise poverty as a "religious issue." After almost two weeks of grassroots dialogue with faith-based community leaders, civic officials, journalists, low-income families, and almost 40 audiences of Christian citizens in 12 days, I am convinced that the election may hang on what those "centrist" religious voters ultimately decide the most important "religious issues" are in this campaign.

Everywhere we went political conservatives said the only religious issues at stake in this election year are gay marriage and abortion. Right-wing Catholic bishops have successfully reduced broad Catholic social teaching - which also contains strong commitments against poverty, capital punishment, and unjust wars - down to just the two hot-button social issues. While those narrowed views are outside the mainstream of Catholic social teaching, the conservative bishops' views captured front-page coverage early in the campaign when they suggested that John Kerry be denied communion for his pro-choice stance. When a different and more prominent Catholic bishop's position was made clear and the Vatican itself spoke to counter such single-issue voting, the clarification was buried in the papers. The damage had been done to Kerry, seemingly with collusion between the conservative right-wing bishops and the Republican Party. These bishops don't point out that President George Bush defied church teachings by prosecuting a war of choice in Iraq, or that the Pope vigorously challenged him on his war policies when the two met at the Vatican. I heard more than one Catholic leader declare that "there is no consistent pro-life candidate running for president."

We also discovered that local newspaper ads and bumper stickers asserting that "God is Not a Republican or a Democrat" and challenging "single-issue voting" have sparked real debate at evangelical Christian colleges and churches throughout the Midwest battleground states. As John Green points out, most "centrist" evangelicals are conservative on abortion and family values but don't believe those are the only important moral issues. Compassion for the poor is a growing evangelical concern, as is good stewardship of the environment (especially among a younger generation of evangelicals), as are issues such as HIV/AIDS, and human rights violations and genocide in places such as Darfur in western Sudan.

Iraq is also an issue for many centrist evangelicals, as is America's conduct of the war on terrorism. A group of more than 200 theologians and ethicists from mostly conservative seminaries and Christian colleges has just issued a strong statement called "Confessing Christ in a World of Violence." It asserts that our very affirmation of Christ is being challenged by a "theology of war emanating from the highest circles of American government," by the "language of righteous empire" being employed by those same political leaders, and by the claim of "divine appointment" for a nation and its president in a new war on terrorism that deals much too simplistically with the moral issues of good and evil, and "dangerously confuses the roles of God, church, and nation."

All this could have consequences for the election. If the "religious issues" are successfully narrowed to just abortion and gay marriage, President Bush will carry most of the centrist Evangelicals and Catholics. But if the religious issues are defined more broadly to include poverty, the environment, human rights, the war in Iraq, and the White House's too-easy "good versus evil" theology in the war on terrorism, John Kerry will get serious consideration by those same moderate Christian voters.

Kerry has been playing catch-up on the religion question to Republicans more comfortable with the language and a president who touts his evangelical faith. It may be too little too late, but the more Kerry invokes the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped his needy neighbor on the road, while accusing Republicans of "passing by on the other side," the clearer the contrasts on issues such as jobs, health care, and economic fairness will be. And when Kerry quotes the New Testament epistle of James, asserting that "faith without works is dead," he indicts Bush's "compassionate conservatism" that was gutted by tax cuts for the rich while leaving little for poor and working families.

Centrist Catholics outnumber conservative Catholics by 2 to 1. And Green points out that only one third of Evangelicals are solidly in the Religious Right camp. How the moderates in each group decide to vote could clearly decide the election. So what are the religious values in this election? If there are only two, Bush will win enough religious votes to win the election. But if enough of those Evangelical and Catholic centrists decide that their religious and ethical values apply to more than just abortion and gay marriage, Kerry has a real chance to win this election.

+ Read more commentary by Jim Wallis

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Sojourners in the news

Some sites may require free registration to view articles:

Election spins not only facts, but faith
+ The Washington Post

Professors sign petition challenging 'theology of war'
+ The Holland Sentinel (Michigan)

George Bush: Personality is the essence of his campaign
+ The Salt Lake Tribune

God is not a Republican
+ Lufkin Daily News (Texas)

Some clergy: Bush isn't our chosen one
+ The Miami Herald

Faith a dividing issue in race for presidency
+ Lexington Herald-Leader

Abortion rate rises during Bush administration
+ The Baptist Standard

President Bush's 'theology of war'
+ The Wall Street Journal

Religious moderates finding their voice
+ The Seattle Times

Bush, Kerry ignore Burger King Moms
+ Newsday


Study estimates Iraqi civilian deaths at 100,000

A peer-reviewed study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has been released estimating that 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died, either directly or indirectly because of the U.S. invasion. Most of the deaths were attributed to U.S. airstrikes. The estimate is based on a sample survey of about 1,000 Iraqi households and is far higher than previous figures - which never topped 16,000. One Human Rights Watch researcher, who has done his own estimate, has expressed skepticism. The Pentagon says it doesn't keep data on civilian casualties.

+ Read more


Christian in the middle
by Linda Mele

Apparently, the only friends I have who are comfortable sending me bulk e-mails are conservative Christian Republicans. In this election year, I have received countless right-leaning e-mails that have contained long lists of the sins of Democrats without acknowledging that Republicans, too, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I was dismayed at the un-Christlike nature of the e-mails, but more dismayed that people I know, love, and respect thought I would find them amusing, fair, or enlightening.

Why does the whole society, Christian and non-Christian, assume that an active, devout Christian must espouse the party doctrine of the GOP in all circumstances? If Jesus returned to earth, would he necessarily be a Republican, join the NRA, lobby for pro-business interests and looser environmental laws, and then go duck hunting with Dick Cheney to celebrate victory on all of the above? And if we're supposed to support George W. Bush because he shares our faith, then what of Jimmy Carter? Shouldn't we also have been a big supporter of his? When did Christians cut an exclusive deal with the Republican Party? I must have missed the memo.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not in love with the Democratic Party either. I am troubled by the morals and logic that give us "Save the Whales," "Save the Rainforest," "Save the Guy on Death Row," but go ahead and kill the unborn child. They support life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness gained at the expense of another life, masked with smug confidence in a contradictory value system. Adding to my consternation is that the mere expression of my opinion that there is a moral imperative on the question of abortion results in my being labeled intolerant. Liberal Democrats claim to be the sole arbiters of tolerance. Yet if you are not for them, you are against them. You are "anti-abortion," not "pro-life." Claiming that people who don't agree with you are your enemies is the precise definition of intolerance. But be careful about breaking this news to liberal Democrats.

+ Read the full article


SATIRE: Osama 101
by Ed Spivey Jr.

While the two political parties are still arguing over how the latest Osama bin Laden video will affect the election, Pentagon investigators have discovered far more serious implications. After carefully scrutinizing the tape, officials believe Osama is no longer in a cave in Pakistan and may, in fact, be in the United States. A closer look at the video is revealing. The drab, institutional background and the cheap particle board lectern - combined with the the droning monotone of his speech delivery and his apparent lack of interest in the subject matter - proves that, in all probability, Osama is teaching Psychology 101 at an American university.

My own daughter, a college freshman home for the weekend, anecdotally corroborated this theory while watching the video broadcast. After a few minutes of Osama's flat tenor and his body language - that of a 24-year-old graduate student convinced he's forgotten more about psychology than these young tweenks would ever learn - my daughter did what any freshman would do during a dull lecture: she automatically began scanning the room for the opposite sex. Seeing none in our living room (except her father, who has not been a person of interest for a several decades) she automatically went to Option Two in the bored freshman's list of lecture-hall survival tips: she surreptitiously reached for her cell phone to check messages. But, reminding herself that she was watching one of the worst criminal mass murderers in the world, she settled into the seriousness of the moment.

For a man who's reportedly been suffering a debilitating kidney disease and whose principal occupation for the past three years has been keeping bat droppings out of his hummus, Osama looks remarkably fit and ready. Granted, the golden robe thing was over-dressing to the extreme, but compared to the traditional courdoroy jackets with elbow patches of his peers, he looked positively trend-setting. Judging by the facial hair it seems that, prevailing hair trends notwithstanding, the fundamentalist extremist still thinks this looks cool. (It's a mystery why our own extremists - Jerry Falwell, Dick Cheney, Texas - haven't adopted this look, since it has proven to invoke instant admiration from street mobs. Show 'em a long beard, and they're plastique in your hands every time.)

We can only hope American campus life has had a moderating effect on the Saudi-born terrorist mastermind. At least in this classroom setting, Osama has probably set aside his usual fashion accessory - the assault rifle - in favor of the laser pointer, a more civilized instructional tool. And we shouldn't be surprised if Osama's familiar extremist rhetoric has mellowed during his first semester, with his promise that "American streets will run with blood" slightly adapted to now include streets running with lattes-half-caf, with steamed milk on the side. (In fact, while Pentagon experts may be at a loss to explain the dark flecks in his familiar grey beard, it's only because they've never been late to class and had to wolf down a chocolate biscotti.)

White House officials were taken by surprise by this new, more people-friendly Osama, and were quick to caution against being taken in. "He probably grades on a curve," warned press secretary Scott McLellan, "and you know what that means: more activist judges forcing gay marriages onto an unsuspecting American public." White House press aides later clarified McLellan's remarks, adding that he forgot to mention that Osama is a trial lawyer.


Readers write

John C. Soltman writes from Lacey, Washington:

In his opinion piece, "Apocalypse now and then" [SojoMail 10/27/2004], author David Batstone used a phrase that is worth a second look: "A body politic bitterly divided," describing the American situation at the time of the 2004 election. Apparently pejorative, "a body politic bitterly divided," is a fair statement of how democracy works. "Bitterly" suggests deep conviction. People in a true democracy care deeply about issues affecting their government.

Of course there are many matters where easy agreement prevails, and these don't begin to test democratic government. There are also other systems of government, monarchies or oligarchies, where bitter divisions aren't encouraged or tolerated. A mark of true democracy is division and conflict in dealing with the tough aspects of living together and with the rest of the world. The mark of true democracy isn't "an overwhelming majority," but "a slim margin" hammered out by the body politic as it deals with troublesome issues.


Margaret E. Hamilton, Ph.D., writes from Fullerton, California:

I wanted to thank David Batstone for his editorial discussing the need for reconciliation after the election ["Apocalypse now and then," SojoMail 10/27/2004]. Last week a friend sent me an e-mail describing in detail the extreme fundamentalism of some of President Bush's supporters. As a person on one side of the divide, extremely alarmed by the actions of the president's administration, I was left wondering if our nation would ever be whole again. The two sides will not even consider the validity of the other's position and many people embrace so-called facts that support their unwavering position without any validation of their information. Will we ever have enough truth to trust again? It recalls the feeling at the height of the Vietnam War and no doubt if there were people who remembered the aftermath of the Civil War, they would be recalling those times as well. I have switched from worry about the re-election of President Bush to the need to reconcile such extreme differences among us. We must all prepare to admonish whoever is elected to make every effort to reach out to those who disagree. Batstone is right: even if Kerry is elected, our society could still slowly fail if we can't agree to seek common ground.


Dr. Mary Lyons-Barrett writes from Omaha, Nebraska:

I enjoyed reading your Campus Lines article, "Is life a single issue?" [SojoMail, 10/27/2004]. The media has been quick to point out talk that the Vatican may excommunicate politicians supporting abortion, but not so quick to point out that the Vatican's Compendium on Social Doctrine of the Church that was released mid-October contains the Vatican's repeated condemnation of preemptive attacks that would include the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq. Since countries are not mentioned by name, the conservative media in particular has glossed over this, but this is important to realize since the Catholic Church has many positions on life and today rarely justifies even capital punishment.


Amrita Burdick writes from Kansas City, Missouri:

I continue to be astounded by those who cite the "mass graves" ["Sonny Moon, pastor of Yorkville United Methodist Church, Yorkville, Georgia, writes," Boomerang 10/27/2004] as a reason for invading Iraq, forgetting that in 1982 Reagan removed Iraq from terrorist-nation status. Following that, in August 1983 there was a first incident of Iraq gassing people. There were CIA reports on the incident. We knew it and ignored it, sending Rumsfeld as a special envoy to shake hands with Saddam Hussein and then re-initiate trade with the country. Among Saddam Hussein's first purchases were helicopters. We continued selling helicopters, chemical precursors, and we sent military advisors through the end of 1988. After the Iranian press showed photos of the massacre at Halabja, Congress passed a "Prevention of Genocide Act," imposing sanctions on Iraq. The Reagan administration vetoed it. It seems more than a little hypocritical to sell a tyrant the weapons used to commit murder and then to kill more of his people to try to get rid of him more than a decade after these crimes.


Carrie Bail writes from Williamstown, Massachusetts:

God may not be either a Republican or a Democrat, but I do believe that God is a Red Sox fan!

[Editor's note: Believe it or not, Sojourners magazine has actually addressed this thorny theological concept. + Read more about it]


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