The Common Good

Another Religious Swing Vote

Sojomail - August 7, 2008


We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this—companies that have made big investments around the world.

- a Chevron lobbyist, who asked not to be identified, speaking about a lawsuit brought on behalf of thousands of Indigenous Ecuadorian peasants over the dumping of billions of gallons of toxic oil wastes into their region's rivers and streams. Chevron is pressuring the Bush administration to eliminate special trade preferences for Ecuador if its government doesn't quash the case. (Source: Newsweek)

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Another Religious Swing Vote

One of the stories I first heard on my recent visit to Australia was about what helped swing the vote last November to Kevin Rudd, the new Labor prime minister. I read some new political data by veteran pollster and researcher John Black, who is respected across Australia's political spectrum. Black reported that the pivotal swing vote to Labor this time was among evangelicals and Pentecostals, especially in some key seats in the states of Queensland and South Australia.

That was especially surprising and significant in a very secular country. The Labor Party here, like parties of the left elsewhere, has not been known as "religion friendly," and the Liberal Party (the conservatives in Australia) has had much of the religious vote by tradition and default. But this time was different for a number of reasons.

First, Kevin Rudd was a new kind of Labor candidate who speaks openly and comfortably about his faith. Rudd is a Catholic, is theologically articulate, and even likes to write articles about German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Even more important, the evangelical/Pentecostal swing vote was due to how the agenda is changing in those faith communities. In the past, as in the U.S., issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and cloning seemed to be the primary concerns among the religious. But now the “religious agenda” includes global poverty, climate change, and the rights of Aboriginal people, especially among a new generation of Australian believers.

Christian organizations, such as World Vision, are among the leading voices on poverty, the environment, and the trafficking of women and children in economic and sexual slavery. The university events at which I spoke last week were led by “Vision Generation,” a youth movement sparked by World Vision that is leading a campaign to challenge the chocolate industry's use of child workers in West Africa, where 70 percent of the world's cocoa is harvested. The venues were packed. And everywhere I went, the protection of the earth and the threat of global warming was front and center.

Rudd’s clear Christian faith and his embrace of the new agenda of social justice and environmental stewardship seemed to be the big reasons why the evangelical and Pentecostal vote shifted this time. And that swing made a crucial electoral difference.

As I reported in a recent blog post, I met with Kevin Rudd over dinner one night and had a long conversation about all these issues. But I also met with the leading Independent senator, Nick Xenophon, who may represent the balance of power in the new political configuration. He is from the Greek Orthodox Church and is also an articulate Christian on social justice. On my last day in the country, I was also able to chat briefly with the opposition conservative leader, Brendan Nelson, who told me he meets regularly with faith leaders in Australia, and has also read my books. All the media interviews I did during the week were eager to explore the issues of faith and politics, both in the U.S. and in Australia. For a "secular" country, the social and political impact of faith seems to have become a hot topic.

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Slicing the Cake of Power in Zimbabwe (by Nontando Hadebe)

The latest development on talks between the opposition party -- the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) -- and ZANU-PF President Robert Mugabe is that they have produced a 50-page document as a way forward in power-sharing and the installation of a transitional government. The duration of the transitional government is still being debated -- the opposition wants two years and ZANU-PF wants five. The plan is to eventually dissolve the transitional government and hold fresh elections to appoint a new government. The document is yet to be finalised by the parties. The full text is not yet available to the public -- the information I am giving is from several newspapers.

A Bias Against Sunday Segregation (by Sondra Shepley)

American churches are still segregated, and it is the way most of us — regardless of our race — would like to keep it. At least, so suggests the recent online CNN article, "Why Americans Prefer Their Segregated Sundays." Curtiss DeYoung, professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, is quoted in this article as saying that only about 5 percent of American churches are racially integrated and half of those churches are moving in the direction of becoming all-black or all-white. In his book United by Faith, DeYoung and his co-authors Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim argue that when churches can be integrated they should. The reality of residential racial segregation presents a real and sometimes insurmountable hurdle to church integration. However, as inner-city gentrification becomes more of an established part of city life, there is a question about the church’s role in creating stable environments for integration, instead of merely transitional integrated bodies created by the market economy.

A Ragamuffin's Dream (Part 1, by Claudia Mair Burney)

Blessed are the poor in spirit. What?!?! That one's gonna have to bake a little longer. It's been a coupla thousand years now, and you know what? We're still trying to deal with the fact that you're talking about us! Who wants to be poor? And I'll tell you quite frankly, Lord, it isn't even about riches. We don't want great wealth. We want to get off of food stamps, and be okay enough that when we do we don't promptly wish we had them back. We want to take care of our families. We want to be able to keep our low-paying jobs -- plural -- and please, please, please can you help with that busted-up transmission?

A Ragamuffin's Dream (Part 2, by Claudia Mair Burney)

Finally, I answer, "O Lord, my God, you have made me a simple servant, and I mean that literally. I don't know at all how to act. I serve you -- okay, I try to serve you -- in the midst of a people whom you have chosen. And some of them are hungry. Some can't buy a job. Some watch discouragement blacken to despair in their sad, forsaken-feeling hearts. The broken are so vast in number they cannot be counted. Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to serve your people. And it would be great if, while you're at it, you could help with the knowing what's right and wrong thing. That always comes in handy."

Prophetic Distance and the Perils of Picking a Winner (by Brian McLaren)

"Prophetic distance" requires that you be not too near relationally, not too connected emotionally, not co-dependent or sycophantic -- distant enough to maintain the ability to speak the truth (as you see it) to power. If you lose that distance, you are in danger of becoming what some have called a "useful idiot" -- a yes-man/woman who has lost independence, objectivity, fairness, and the ability to differ.

A Victory Over Predatory Payday Lending (by Tom Allio)

The payday lending industry is intent on rolling back the consumer-protection legislation promoted by the Ohio Coalition for Responsible Lending (OCRL), which was signed into law on June 2 by Gov. Ted Strickland. The industry is seeking two ballot initiatives for the November election. One would completely overturn H.B. 545. The second initiative would eliminate the central section of the bill, which prevents payday lenders from charging exorbitant interest rates -- rates that amount to an astounding 391 percent APR for the typical two-week loan.

Celebrating the National Housing Trust Fund (by Andrew Wilkes)

At long last the wheels of Washington have rolled out a bill to address the housing crisis! On July 30, President Bush signed the Housing and Economy Recovery Act into law. Despite its imperfections, the bill establishes an important provision for extremely low-income Americans -- the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund (NHTF). This fund will provide much-needed resources for rental housing from a percentage of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's new business, thereby insulating the funding from the appropriations process in Congress. No less than 90 percent of the funds must be dedicated to "the production, preservation, rehabilitation, or operation of rental housing."

A Sequel to the 1968 Olympics 'Salute' Story (by Duane Shank)

Jarrod McKenna's post on the 1968 Olympics witness/protest brought back memories of that event, and the impression it made on me. And there is a sequel to the story. On October 3, 2006, Peter Norman died from a heart attack. John Carlos had this reaction: "Peter was a piece of my life. When I got the call, it knocked the wind out of me. I was his brother. He was my brother. That's all you have to know." Tommie Smith added, "It took inner power to do what he did, inner soul power. ... He was a man of solid beliefs, that's how I will remember Peter -- he was a humanitarian and a man of his word." Over the years, the three men had stayed in touch. Though stripped of their medals and criticized by the U.S. media, Carlos and Smith had returned home as heroes to the black community, while Peter Norman faced ostracism and hostility in Australia for his role in the protest.

The Indescribable Drama of Transfiguration (by Phyllis Tickle)

The Greek word used in the New Testament accounts of the events on the Mount of the Transfiguration is metamorphothe. While the ages have translated that word as transfigured, it actually comes closer to conveying something English can't quite convey. It wants to say something like "changed shape and beingness and allness into some other form thereof," or something equally awkward and wordy. What happened, in other words and in the fullest sense, was a "metamorphosis," which again is Greek and again has no really clear or felicitous analog in English.

The Olympics, Human Rights, and Holy Mischief (by Jarrod McKenna)

"God Is Love," inscribed on the tracksuit of the athlete who would become the second-fastest man alive, is what first caught the attention of Australian Olympic official Ray Weinberg in the early '60s. But it wouldn't be until Peter Norman participated in an act of holy mischief for human rights (which became known as the "Black Power Salute" of the '68 Mexico games) that this Australian would so publicly put 1 John 4:8 into practice with his African-American brothers. Life magazine said it was one of the most influential images of the 20th century. Two African Americans and one white Australian took to the winner's dais and, motivated by their shared faith, all wore Olympic Project for Human Rights buttons while the black Americans raised their fists.

Am I Liberal or Conservative? Or Both? (Part 1, by Romal Tune)

It wasn't until I started working in the world of religion and politics with advocacy organizations on Capitol Hill that I ever heard anyone define Christians as liberal or conservative. These terms were not used in my church experience. But when I recall different experiences working in the church, I can see how some members of the churches where I worshiped then, where I worship now, and in congregations across the country, fit into these categories. I've found it difficult to determine which of these categories I fit into as a Christian. Am I liberal or am I conservative? More importantly, can the two co-exist in the church?

Am I Liberal or Conservative? Or Both? (Part 2, by Romal Tune)

All I'm trying to say is that whether we wear the label of Christian conservative or Christian liberal, what matters most is that we are Christian. The Bible reminds us that there is no male or female, Jew or gentile, bond or free, but in Christ we are all the same, sinners saved by grace. What I've learned is that many of my liberal and conservative friends draw the line around issues of gay rights and abortion. But people in the church I attend disagree on these issues, and yet somehow are still able to worship God together on Sunday morning. To me that's evidence of the Holy Spirit -- that in spite of our disagreements, we all agree that God is worthy of our worship and deserving of our praise. Each of us is evidence that the gospel still works; if it didn't, we wouldn't gather together on Sunday mornings.


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