Archives For Republican Party

So, it has come down to this. The Republican Party, the unchallenged standard-bearer for conservative Christianity in America since Ronald Reagan was president, seems to be deciding between a sometimes-moderate, formerly pro-choice, Mormon, and an ethics-challenged serial philanderer with unfavorability numbers that would make any politician blanch, in their presidential primaries. The candidates who seemed to bank their support on evangelicals and conservative Christians: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum, have seen their campaigns run out of steam, dismantle in a stream of never-ending gaffes, or slowly fade into the background. It’s enough to make one wonder if the power of conservative Christianity in the United States is waning. Two recent articles at The New Republic debate this very question. The first, from Michael Kazin, argues that we are experiencing the twilight of the Christian Right.

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich

“…contrary to the whims of lazy pundits, the waning of enthusiasm for battling over “social issues” is not due to higher concerns about jobs, the deficit, and the economic future [...] Put simply, the Christian Right is getting old. According to the largest and most recent study we have of American religion and politics, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, almost twice as many people 18 to 29 confess to no faith at all as adhere to evangelical Protestantism. Young people who have attended college, a growing percentage of the population, are more secular still. Catholicism has held its own only because the Church keeps gathering in newcomers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, few of whom are likely to show up at a Santorum rally. To their surprise, Putnam and Campbell discovered that conservative preachers infrequently discuss polarizing issues from the pulpit. Sermons about hunger and poverty far outnumber those about homosexuality or abortion. On any given Sunday, just one group of Christians routinely grapples with divisive political issues: black Protestants, the most reliably Democratic constituency of them all.”

Kazin concludes that if conservative Christians “hope to transform our pluralistic, profane culture into a new Jerusalem”, they will have to “find new holy battles to wage.” So are the culture wars essentially over? Are Christian conservatives no longer kingmakers in the Republican Party? Not so fast, says Ed Kilgore, who notes that while the Christian Right has botched attempts to control this election cycle, news of their demise is greatly exaggerated.

“It is true that they have been less conspicuous in this campaign, and less united in candidate preferences. But if they haven’t been able to pull their muscle behind a single candidate, that’s not a sign that they are on the wane—it’s a sign that, as far as the Republican Party is concerned, they have already won. Look at the potential nominees: Unlike 2008, no candidate in the field is pro-choice by any definition. Only Ron Paul seems reluctant to enact a national ban on same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum. and Herman Cain have been vocal in fanning the flames of Islamophobia; again, only Paul has bothered to dissent to any significant degree.”

Kilgore points out that the fight over abortion, a key issue for Christian conservatives, is escalating at the state level, not diminishing, and that a younger generation of culture warriors, some more radical than their elders, are just beginning to come into view.” Indeed, if there’s been one new phenomenon this year within Christian Right circles, its been the emergence of controversial neo-Pentecostal spiritual warriors into the mainstream. Journalist and author Jeff Sharlet has long argued against assertions that the Christian Right will fade away after a bad election or two, or because the current crop of leaders are growing old. That they have been a part of our spiritual makeup since the beginning.

“We don’t like to consider the possibility that they are not newcomers to power but returnees, that the revivals that have been sweeping America with generational regularity since its inception are not flare-ups but the natural temperature of the nation. We can’t conceive of the possibility that the dupes, the saps, the fools—the believers—have been with us from the very beginning, that their story about what America once was and should be seems to some great portion of the population more compelling, more just, and more beautiful than the perfunctory processes of secular democracy. Thus we are at a loss to account for this recurring American mood.”

So should we worry about the Religious Right? In so far as they battle against the rights and freedoms of religious minorities, yes, we should. Bad candidates and legislative setbacks don’t erase generations of grassroots organizing from the pulpits, and it would be folly to believe otherwise. Until demographics finally hit that magical tipping point, and conservative Christianity becomes simply one voice among many, vigilance is the watchword. As for Newt Gingrich’s ethical problems, we should never forget that evangelicals love a good forgiven sinner.

Influential conservative evangelical Christian, and former presidential candidate, Gary Bauer, engages in a thought experiment for his most recent USA Today column.

Gary Bauer

Gary Bauer

“A thought experiment: Imagine a presidential candidate. He has spent years in politics, rising to become a trusted leader in his party. He also has spent time in the business world, has an impeccable personal life, a deep understanding of the issues, and is eloquent in speech and moderate in temperament. Sounds like a dream candidate, right?”

I see where this is going; this is obviously about Mitt Romney, right? I mean, Bauer is part of an upcoming semi-secret meeting of conservative Christian presidential kingmakers that some have defined as a “stop Mitt” gathering, and Bauer has endorsed social conservative darling Rick Santorum, the official not-Mitt of Iowa. But then, Bauer throws us a rhetorical curve-ball!

“But imagine that, along with those qualities, the candidate is also a Wiccan, a modern pagan. It’s not an implausible idea. Some estimates put the number of American Wiccans at more than 100,000. It’s safe to say most voters would at least have a few questions for our hypothetical candidate. After all, Wicca involves magic, spell-casting and sorcery — not exactly mainstream religious practices. But would this candidate’s beliefs make you question his fitness for office? Would you oppose him based solely on his faith?”

A Wiccan candidate! The other religious other in America! Is Bauer going say that a politician’s positions and experience are more important than their personal faith? Would Bauer endorse a sufficiently conservative Pagan?

“The question Americans should ask is not whether a candidate is affiliated with a particular faith but rather whether that candidate’s faith makes it more likely he or she will support policies that align with their values.”

Oh man, he’s totally going to say he’ll vote for a Pagan!

I wouldn’t vote for a pagan, I’d vote for a Catholic or a Jew whose policies reflect the traditional understanding of marriage and defend the sanctity of human life much more readily than I would vote for the man next to me in the pew who doesn’t support those things.”

What? Wait a minute, what about all the rhetoric about supporting policies that align with a voter’s values? I guess the minute you enter the world of “magic, spell-casting and sorcery” all other considerations fly out the window. You see, when it comes down to it, voting for a non-Christian is anathema to the conservative Christians who make up a large portion of the Republican party’s base. The not-so-secret “controversy” about Romney among Christian conservatives is that many of them think Mormon’s aren’t Christian either, but he’s the likely candidate so the smarter leaders are looking for some other way to tip-toe around the issue (like talk about “Wiccans”).

The funny thing is, a Pagan politician isn’t a hypothetical. There’s (the very conservative) New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, a Heathen whose had quite a bit of attention focused on his faith. There’s Jessica Orsini, Alderwoman in Centralia, Missouri, a Hellenic polytheist who recently celebrated Columbia, Missouri’s decision to outlaw gender discrimination. In November Virginia Pagan Lonnie Murray won a seat on the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District (TJSWCD), and Rita Moran, chairperson of the Kennebec County (Maine) Democratic Committee, served as an openly Pagan at-large national delegate for Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. That’s only a sample, a selection of higher-profile examples. There are many more Pagans working at the grass-roots in local committees, groups, and political parties. A Pagan politician isn’t merely plausible, it’s an ongoing reality. Something that I suspect will change the dynamics of Bauer’s thought experiment.

The dominance of Christianity in the United States, while still impressive, is “softening.” Our population becoming polarized between those who place religion first, and those who don’t. The reality of non-Christian politicians on the national stage a growing certainty. We already have openly Buddhist members of Congress, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Hank Johnsonof Georgia, and its only a matter of time before we elect our first Hindu to Congress. The “thought experiment” of a non-Christian high-profile candidate has become a fact of life, one that conservative Christians will have to increasingly wrestle with. All that said, I do agree with the sentiment, if not the wording, of Bauer’s closing point.

“It’s important to ask candidates about their beliefs, in part because politicians frequently exploit religious faith [...] we could ask the Wiccan candidate whether sorcery would be covered under his health care reform proposal. [...] Americans have not only a right but a responsibility to consider the values of those who seek to lead them — whether they arise from life experience, political ideology or religious belief.”

If Wiccan “sorcery” is fair game in a hypothetical political campaign, doesn’t that mean questions over Dominionism and associations with fringe Christian groups by top-tier Republican candidates are also fair game? If Bauer is correct, and lets assume that he is, we’ve been far too easy on the current crop of Republican hopefuls, and reporters should ask for more robust and challenging questions regarding how their faith informs their politics. In the meantime, I hope Mr. Bauer comes up with some fresher thought experiments.

There are a lot of reasons, and a lot of commentary, for why Jon Huntsman isn’t a front-runner in the Republican presidential nominee race; he’s seen as too liberal, or he’s too nice, he’s a Mormon not named Romney, or maybe it was that bizarre first campaign ad. What hasn’t been alleged, until now, is that he isn’t sufficiently Christian, and might be a Chinese “Manchurian candidate.” However, thanks to a racist attack ad that’s so extreme it almost plays as a parody, those allegations are now removed from conspiratorial toxic message boards and white supremacist conventions and given their fifteen minutes in the 2012 presidential race.

The ad begins asking of Huntsman, “The Manchurian Candidate,” “What’s he hiding?” It features “traditional” Chinese music and clips of Huntsman doing things in China: speaking Mandarin, taking interviews from Chinese press, walking around in China– you get the idea. It then asks a series of questions during the montage like, “American values, or Chinese?” and “Weak on China? Wonder why?” It also takes a detour to slam him for being Mormon (“A man of faith?”) before the coup de grace, a doctored photo of Huntsman in what appears to be Maoist military garb. Essentially, it makes “Willie Horton” look like Will.I.Am’s “Yes We Can” ad.

The ad was placed by an independent group calling itself “New Hampshire Liberty 4 Paul,” and was quickly disavowed by the Ron Paul campaign, who said it should be taken down (Paul supporters have also traveled down the rabbit hole of trying to prove the ad was a “false flag” designed by Huntsman to discredit their candidate). Naturally, the ad was condemned by a variety of critics, including the Hindu American Foundation, who took exception to the implication that Huntsman raising his adopted Indian daughter Asha within a Hindu context was something that should be attacked.

The Huntsmans with daughter Asha Bharati

The Huntsmans with daughter Asha Bharati

”This deplorable ad is blatantly racist and religiously intolerant, and crosses all lines of acceptable political discourse,” said Suhag Shukla, Esq., HAF’s Managing Director and Legal Counsel. “Instead of vilifying Governor Hunstman, he should be applauded for being open minded enough to raise his adopted daughter as a Hindu.”

This ugly ad, however, does highlight qualities about Jon Huntsman that I think are admirable, and speak to the best qualities of our nation. The willingness to put duty above party affiliation by accepting the position of Chinese ambassador from President Obama, the willingness to learn a second language in order to better communicate our values, and understand another culture’s values, the recognition that diplomacy can be a strength, and a commitment to religious pluralism that includes raising an adopted daughter “to learn about and appreciate her native culture and the faiths associated with it.” I may not agree with Jon Huntsman on a number of issues, but if he were elected president I wouldn’t constantly worry that he would try to imprint his beliefs on the many religious minorities that call this country home, something that can’t be said for several other candidates.

Indeed, from all accounts Huntsman’s personal religious life is a mirror of America’s unique mix of faiths and philosophies, far from the political will of the Republican Party’s Christian conservative base, who see any non-adherence to a certain religio-political rigorousness as a heresy that must be punished at the ballot box. Just read this excerpt from a National Review article on Huntsman’s religious outlook.

Last year, Huntsman told Fortune that he receives “satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies” and doesn’t consider himself to be “overly religious.” (ANew York Times article last week noted that Huntsman’s comments to Fortune made a splash in his home state; “many Utahans can recite from memory” Huntsman’s quote, according to the Times.) In March, the Washington Post reported that “Huntsman’s relatives and friends describe him frequently as an independent thinker, unbeholden to any church or party doctrine,” and that “many Republicans faithful to the church in Utah dismissed Huntsman as a ‘Jack Mormon,’ a derogatory term referring to a non-practicing Mormon.”

As the Pew Forum has pointed out, “the religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories.” 35% of Americans attend more the one place of worship, and sizable minorities mix Western and Eastern forms of religion into their daily lives. Huntsman and his “satisfaction from many different types of religion” is mainstream, yet every election cycle the Christian character, and only the Christian character, of each candidate is scrutinized. Any hint that a candidate might enjoy, or even tolerate, the practices the other faiths instantly make him suspect, and a target for attack. If you need an example, just look at what happened when Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, who is an ardent Christian, attended a traditional Hindu blessing.

If Jon Huntsman’s campaign has little chance of succeeding, and there’s every indication that’s the case, then perhaps he could be that prophetic voice for American pluralism within the Republican Party. That conservative politics shouldn’t be hijacked by an all-or-nothing strain of Christian belief, that melding religious orthodoxy to political stances can become toxic if left unchecked. Perhaps Huntsman could be the voice of all those Americans who attend multiple churches, or have children who are Wiccan, or Buddhist, or atheists, or those who like to do Yoga and enjoy reading their horoscopes. You know, normal Americans, the “mushy middle” that actually gives some credence to our country being a “melting pot” of ideas and cultures. Maybe Huntsman can embrace the audacity of his pluralistic life and bring us something new.

In 2008 the Libertarian Party nominated former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr as their candidate for President of the United States. Many modern Pagans who consider themselves libertarians/Libertarians were displeased by this turn of events, as Barr had notoriously tried to ban Pagans from serving in the military, claiming that equal rights for Wiccans and Pagans set  “a dangerous precedent that could easily result in the practice of all sorts of bizarre practices being supported by the military under the rubric of ‘religion.’ ” However, what was acceptable behavior in the Republican party of 1999 wasn’t going to pass muster with Libertarian live-and-let-live notions of freedom, and so Barr kinda-sorta recanted his position.

“I got to ask Barr a question I’ve wanted to ask him for quite some time. He’s repudiated and apologized for many of his previous positions and I asked him if he would repudiate his absurd anti-Wiccan crusade of 1999, when he wanted all Wiccans banned from the military. He said yes, with a bit of hemming and hawing. He said that he had reports from several military leaders that Wiccans doing rituals on military bases were causing problems and that’s why he did what he did, but that since that time it’s become clear that there are no problems with allowing Wiccans to serve and to practice their religion on military bases like any other religion. I did ask him for any specific problems that were reported to him back in 1999 by these military leaders, but he said he didn’t want to get into specifics. I’m sure that’s because there are no specific incidents and those military leaders who complained to him did so out of bigotry, or because the problems it caused were really caused by bigotry against Wiccans.”

Sadly, this change of heart seemed to only last as long as the presidential campaign, once he no longer had to curry political favor his obvious scorn for modern Paganism reemerged. Barr’s moral compass seems more guided by what will enrich him at any moment, than from a recognizable ethical philosophy, and his ongoing prominence within the Libertarian Party no doubt continues to keep many small-l libertarian Pagans at arms length from the party that purports to represent their views.
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Johnson and Barr on Fox News together in 2010.

Now, it seems, there might be an alternative for Pagan libertarians/Libertarians in the form of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who just announced that he’s abandoning his bid for the Republican presidential nomination to run on the Libertarian Party ticket.

“This was both a difficult decision – and an easy one,” Johnson said. “I have a lot of Republican history, and a lot of Republican supporters. But in the final analysis…I am a Libertarian – that is someone who is fiscally very conservative but holds freedom-based positions on the issues that govern our personal behavior.”

You can read his full statement, here. Johnson, in stark contrast to Barr, openly courted modern Pagans in a now-famous press conference with Pagan and Hindu media representatives (The American Spectator calls him a “pro-choice pursuer of the pagan vote”). I saw it as a hopeful harbinger that our political system could embrace the full religious and philosophical diversity of our county.

“What does it all mean? I think it represents two opportunities. First, there’s an opportunity for politicians to realize that America’s religious diversity isn’t simply a stock phrase to pull out when describing the virtues of our country. According to the Pew Forum, 16.1 percent of Americans claim no formal religion, while another 2.3 percent are part of religious tradition outside the Christian-Jewish-Muslim monotheistic paradigm. Those aren’t insignificant numbers, and they put the often lumped-together “other/unaffiliated” category on a statistical par with evangelical and mainline Protestants. Despite this, moral debates are almost always framed along a left-right Christian axis; Rick Warren gets to interview Obama and McCain, while Hindus, Pagans, Buddhists, and practitioners of indigenous traditions rarely get to ask questions on a national stage. Gov. Johnson’s courage in talking to religious minorities might have been driven by a modicum of desperation in getting his message out, but it should be seen as a harbinger of what campaigning to religious groups will be like in the future.”

Already, some are wondering if a Johnson Libertarian run could act as a spoiler for the Republicans in 2012, though a Libertarian spokesperson pointed out that (aside from the libertarian-beloved Ron Paul) “you can’t spoil tainted meat.”

“All of the Republican Party presidential candidates ” except for Ron Paul ” have a track record of voting for higher levels of government spending. Many have raised taxes, supported bailouts, and/or voted to expand Big Government.

The mere fact that two Libertarian presidential candidates, one past, and one potential, could have narratives so entwined with modern Pagans is remarkable in of itself. Add to that fact that if Barr should run for the LP nomination again against Johnson (though he endorsed Newt Gingrich, so maybe he won’t) it stands to reason that their respective attitudes towards minority religions will no doubt come up in debates and news stories. Pagan leaders and media should prepare themselves now for mainstream reporters looking into the “Pagan angle” of the Libertarian Party’s 2012 candidate. At the very least libertarian/Libertarian Pagans should be pleased that the party may be moving from Barr to Johnson in 2012, one wonders how many conservative Pagans will jump ship from the Republican Party to support Johnson’s candidacy. Interesting times are ahead.

It’s been a crazy year so-far in the race to see who will become the Republican candidate for President of the United States in 2012. It seems like just about every candidate, with a few notable exceptions, is getting their 15 minutes of “frontrunner” status before the seeming inevitability of Mitt Romney reasserts itself again. I’ve covered some of these candidates (and potential candidates) here, particularly when I’ve felt their flirtations with certain pernicious elements of the Religious Right had become problematic, and now its former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s turn.

Gingrich is currently enjoying some time in the sun, after a period when many (from across the political spectrum) thought his candidacy was doomed. While it remains to be seen if this latest “not-Mitt” will manage to stay afloat, an issue I’ll leave to the political pundit class, I do have one question for the former Speaker: are we still surrounded by “paganism”?

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGm_tHINZGs

You see, back in 2009, Gingrich gave a speech to the Rock Church congregation in Virginia on “Rediscovering God in America,” it was there he gave the grim news for conservative-minded Christians.

“I am not a citizen of the world. I am a citizen of the United States because only in the United States does citizenship start with our creator. [...] I think this is one of the most critical moments in American history. We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism.”

Oh, and he invoked St. Paul during the speech to make sure we understood what he was talking about. These comments caused quite a  bit of conversation at the time, and I even wondered if Newt knew with whom he was getting into bed with.

“Maybe Gingrich, a recently converted Catholic, doesn’t realize the dog-whistle language he’s using. When you say “paganism” to these folks, it doesn’t merely mean secularists, or modern Pagans, or atheists, it also means Catholics, and any Christian who isn’t fully on-board with their mission of ‘religious supremacy’.”

There’s been some articles recently about how conservative Christians are now flocking to Gingrich, so will this mean he’ll double down on this kind of rhetoric, or will he maintain his largely secular-ish brand of conservatism? All I want to know is, are we still surrounded?

I have a new piece up at the Washington Post’s On Faith section examining the importance of the recent video Pagan media press conference with Republican presidential candidate, and former New Mexico governor, Gary Johnson.

Screenshot of the Johnson-Pagan Media Conference

Screenshot of the Johnson-Pagan Media Conference

Here’s a short excerpt:

“What does it all mean? I think it represents two opportunities. First, there’s an opportunity for politicians to realize that America’s religious diversity isn’t simply a stock phrase to pull out when describing the virtues of our country. According to the Pew Forum, 16.1 percent of Americans claim no formal religion, while another 2.3 percent are part of religious tradition outside the Christian-Jewish-Muslim monotheistic paradigm. Those aren’t insignificant numbers, and they put the often lumped-together “other/unaffiliated” category on a statistical par with evangelical and mainline Protestants. Despite this, moral debates are almost always framed along a left-right Christian axis; Rick Warren gets to interview Obama and McCain, while Hindus, Pagans, Buddhists, and practitioners of indigenous traditions rarely get to ask questions on a national stage. Gov. Johnson’s courage in talking to religious minorities might have been driven by a modicum of desperation in getting his message out, but it should be seen as a harbinger of what campaigning to religious groups will be like in the future.”

I hope you’ll head over and read the whole thing, and leave your thoughts in the comments section. This “town hall” has gotten far more attention than I thought it would, getting noticed by congressional paper The Hill, snarked about at Wonkette, New York Magazine, and Gawker, and reported on by New Mexico newspapers. This may not be the kind of attention Johnson hoped for, but I do think that his choice to do this will have resonance far beyond his campaign, and could start to change the way politicians view religious minorities.

Earlier this evening a live Google+ video interview/”hangout” with GOP Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson and members of the Pagan media was held. Pagan media organizations participating in the Q&A with the former New Mexico Governor included Cara Schulz of PNC-Minnesota, Star Foster of Patheos.com, Devin Hunter of ModernWitch Podcast, David Salisbury of PNC-Washinton DC, Crystal Blanton of PNC-Bay Area, and myself. In addition, Ramesh Rao of the Hindu American Foundation also took part. The conference was streamed and recorded by Keith Barrett, and you can watch the entire press conference embedded below (or at this link).

There was also a post-conference podcast hosted by Devin Hunter and Rowan Pendragon where participants shared their thoughts on the event.

A number of issues were discussed, including religious freedom, the rights of minority religions, LGBTQ rights, drug policy, education, taxes, and much, much, more. Stay tuned to PNC-Minnesota in the coming days for more details.

Aside from the political issues discussed, I think this is a big step forward for Pagan media on the Internet, and does much to establish ourselves as a community with serious concerns that deserve to be addressed on a national level. My thanks to Cara Schulz of PNC-Minnesota, who did a marvelous job moderating, for making this happen.

ADDENDUM: The story has been picked up by The Hill.

The former New Mexico governor spoke with members of the Pagan Newswire Collective, ModernWitch Podcast, and Patheos.com, among others. He said it was important to reach out to voters that fall outside the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, while slamming his own party for being too beholden to the Christian right. “I think the world looks down on Republicans for their socially conservative views, which includes religion in government,” Johnson said. “I think that should not play a role in any of this. When Republicans talk about values – you know what? I bet you and I have the same values.”

So it looks like talking to Pagans will gain you some attention.

ADDENDUM II: You can now read a full transcript of the conference, here.

“You know all I have is my own experience and my own experience would be having been Gov. of New Mexico two terms I did not get the social conservative vote in New Mexico in the primary. I ended up getting the social conservative vote in the general election because then it seems like all the Republicans took on their second most important issue which was dollars and cents. And I really thought .. I really think I excelled in the area of dollars and cents. As Gov. of New Mexico it just wasn’t an issue ever. It wasn’t an issue when it came to filling my cabinet, filling the heads of agency. It was never an issue when it came to filling boards and commissions. It just wasn’t an issue. And I don’t expect it to be different as President of the United States. It’s just not a consideration. It’s just not something I ask of people and for the most part most people don’t volunteer it. All though there are those that do. It’s not something that I consider in my actions my appointments.”

A big thank-you to Masery at the Staff of Asclepius blog!

[This post is reprinted from PNC-Minnesota, and was written by Cara Schulz]

For the past few weeks PNC-Minnesota has been working to set up a unique opportunity for Pagan media – a live interview with GOP Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson. In addition to PNC-Minnesota, five other Pagan media organizations will participate  in a 2 hour live video Q&A with Gov. Johnson to take place on a Google+ hangout on Sunday, October 16th at 6:30pm CST to 8:30pm CST.  As the Hindu and First Nations communities share common interests with the Pagan community, two media slots have been reserved for them in addition to the six afforded to us.  This is a rare opportunity for Pagan media to ask a Presidential candidate questions about topics that are important to our diverse community.  It could be a first step in greater access to interview political candidates for Pagan media.

Gov. Gary Johnson

Gov. Gary Johnson

The Q&A session will be streamed live courtesy of  Keith Barrett, a Business Technology Leader and Analyst in middleware services.  The Q&A will also recorded for future play back.  The link for the live feed will be posted on PNC-Minnesota on Sunday.

Other Pagan media organizations participating in the Q&A with former New Mexico Gov. Johnson include Jason Pitzl-Waters of The Wild Hunt, Star Foster of Patheos.com, Devin Hunter of ModernWitch Podcast, and David Salisbury of PNC-DC and the Human Rights Campaign.

You can be sure I’ll be asking a variation of my “one question, “ and I hope this press interview will lead to more opportunities for the Pagan community to quiz political leaders and candidates about issues that concern us. If you have a question you would like a member of the Pagan media to ask, let us know in the comments section. My thanks to Cara Schulz of PNC-Minnesota for making this happen.

I truly admire it when public figures bluntly state their true views on a subject. There is so much hedging, retracting, and re-positioning in modern politics that it can be hard to pin down anyone on anything. So when Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 10,000-strong First Baptist Church of Dallas, introduced and endorsed presidential contender Rick Perry at the Values Voters Summit it was something of a jolt to hear him publicly proclaim what many Christians secretly profess.

“That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult,” Jeffress told reporters here. “Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.”

There it is: “Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” That’s the bottom line. No matter how conservative you are, how in-line your values are with the Republican party, a massive chunk of the grass-roots and conservative king-makers won’t embrace you if you aren’t (the right kind of) Christian. As Andrew Sullivan says, “If you turn a political party into a church, as the GOP essentially now is, sectarianism will eventually emerge.” There is only one exception to this “don’t vote for non-Christians” rule, and that is if the only choice is between Romney and Obama.

“I’m going to instruct, I’m going to advise people that it is much better to vote for a non-Christian who embraces biblical values than to vote for a professing Christian like Barack Obama who embraces un-biblical values.”

Of course many conservative Christians have been trying to make the argument that Obama isn’t actually a Christian for years now. So in their minds it would be non-Christian vs non-Christian (In which case thumbs-up Romney? I guess?).

According to a Pew poll, 68% of Americans are ready to vote for a Mormon president. That support or understanding is built on a “big tent” view of Christianity. If Mormons are just another flavor of Christianity, then it’s OK to vote for them (and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been on a charm offensive for years). However, that support evaporates if you aren’t seen as religious. 61% of voters see atheism as a negative when considering a candidate, no doubt numbers are similar if you have religion but are part of a “cult” and not seen as part of the Judeo-Christian mainstream. As Jeffress would say: “Private citizens can impose all kinds of religious tests.” As it stands now a third of white evangelical Protestants (34%) say they are less likely to support a Mormon. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s a potentially damaging percentage when you take into account the fact that more than half of Republicans are evangelicals.

This is a problem for the Republicans. Not because they prefer Christians, but because Christianity is losing its hold on America, or “softening” as Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves would put it. If you become the party of “Christians only” (outside of rare exceptions) you’re setting yourself up for long-term demographic irrelevance. As Americans become more comfortable with atheists, agnostics, and minority religions, the more a political party whose grass-roots demand theological purity suffers. Right now we are in a place where it seems only a Christian (or possibly a Jew) could be elected president, but as the calculus changes, the groups that are more agile in embracing a post-Christian future will ultimately benefit.

On September 28th the Get Religion blog, which critiques religion coverage in the mainstream media, asked its readership a question: “Let’s pretend for a minute that you get to spend 30 minutes with any presidential candidate. What questions would you ask? How would you shape those questions that makes sense for your readership?” The author of that post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, then narrowed that down to “you get one question to ask a candidate: Go.”

Here’s my response:

“Do you think this is a Christian nation? If so (or if not) what roles and rights should adherents to minority faith groups expect in the United States? Do you feel a follower of Wicca should have the same rights and expectations in this country as an evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, or Catholic?”

Stretching my question into rules-bending multi-part territory, I would follow up and ask if they agreed with the notion that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment only applied to Christians and Jews, a theory advanced by Christian pseudo-historian David Barton and American Family Association spokesman Bryan Fischer. Of course Barton’s and Fischer’s opinions regarding the First Amendment aren’t even remotely accurate or historically valid, but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming heavyweights within the politically-minded Christian conservative network.

It’s no great secret that it is vital to get the support of conservative Christians if you want to win the Republican nomination for president of the United States. They are the lifeblood of the Republican grass-roots, the ones who ultimately set the agenda, and tomorrow the Values Voter Summit, perhaps the ultimate symbol of that power, begins. The speakers list is a who’s who of the confluence between the Republican party and conservative Christianity, and all the Republican hopefuls will be there to try and garner more support going into the primaries. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will be speaking at this event just before Bryan Fischer, and People For the American Way have called on him to publicly denounce his views.

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney

“At next week’s Values Voter Summit, Mitt Romney is scheduled to take the stage immediately before Bryan Fischer, an American Family Association (AFA) spokesman with a long and shocking record of bigotry against gays and lesbians, American Muslims, Native Americans and other minority groups. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum are also scheduled to speak at the event, which is sponsored by the anti-gay Family Research Council, the AFA, and other Religious Right groups. PFAW is urging these candidates for our nation’s highest office to condemn bigotry.

What makes this even harder to ignore for Romney is the fact that Fischer has also publicly stated that Mormons aren’t entitled to First Amendment protection either, and that Church of Latter Day Saints still supports polygamy.

“On a recent episode of his television show Focal Point, Fischer said that the First Amendmentdoes not apply to Mormons and that the Church of Latter Day Saints still supports polygamy. But next week, Fischer will be sharing a stage with America’s most famous Mormon, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, TPM reports in a story headlined “Awkward: Mitt Romney Set to Share Stage with Anti-Mormon Shock Jock.” Despite the “inflammatory, hateful and occasionally just plain bizarre remarks” Fischer has made on his show, Republicans vying for the presidency, including Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich all made appearances on Fischer’s show earlier this year, TPM reports.”

It really all comes down to my one question, do minority religions have the same rights and expectations as the politically and culturally dominant (Christian) faiths? I see this as a Rubicon moment, will Romney, who many believe will become the Republican nominee, actually say anything to repudiate the notion that his faith isn’t equal in standing to other Christian faiths? Does he have the courage of character to strike a blow for American pluralism, or will he make nice with Fischer, a man whose record of utterances are so vile even his own organization distanced itself from him.

“The American Family Association celebrates Religious Freedom for all people and for all beliefs as one of the foundational values that make the United States of America a great nation [...] under American law all religions enjoy freedom from government interference.  However Joseph Story’s view continues to have proponents, including Bryan Fischer, one of American Family Radio’s talk show hosts.  However, the American Family Association (“AFA”) officially sides with Jefferson on this question.   AFA is confident that the truth of Christianity will prevail whenever it is allowed to freely compete in the marketplace of ideas.”

Andrew Sullivan says that the “Christianists” have succeeded in taking over the Republican party, and that this is the reason Romney isn’t a shoo-in for the nomination.

“Well, a few years later, examine the candidacies of the two front-runners for the GOP. One [Rick Perry] launched his campaign in a revival meeting calling for God to solve our economic problems (having previously led mass prayers for the end of the Texas drought); the other [Michelle Bachmann] emerges entirely out of Dominionist theology and built her entire career in the Christianist world of home-schooling, and anti-gay demonization. One reason Mitt Romney is not a shoo-in? Sectarianism, and his own previous deviations from binding orthodoxy. And it is this fundamentalist mindset – in which nothing doctrinal can be questioned, and the real world must be bent to the shape of a rigid theo-ideology – that defines these two candidates.”

I can’t remember a candidate for either party who was both a front-runner, yet almost universally disliked by the party he’s trying to woo. Clinton and Obama’s long 2008 primary battle may have been exhausting and divisive, but both managed to emerge unscathed and willing to work together when it was done. I’m not sure if the same can be said of Romney once this is all said and done. In any case, this is the moment. Romney can say to the values voters: “I’m with you, but as a Mormon I recognize that all faiths need to be respected under the First Amendment.” This can also be an opportunity for the other candidates to stand behind Romney on this one thing, if nothing else. Sadly, Mormon-raised religion commentator Joanna Brooks doesn’t think it will happen.

“It’s a marvelous image:  a strong-jawed Mitt Romney acting all presidential, crossing the stage and quietly holding Bryan Fischer accountable for his rancid bigotry, not only against Mormons, but against all of Americans who are non-white, non-straight, or non-Christian (as Fischer defines it). But it will never happen. [...]  Saturday morning, Mitt Romney is going to look Bryan Fischer in the eyes and give him a handshake and a smile. If he’s feeling really passive-aggressive, maybe he’ll have Ann Romney come onstage and pass Fischer a plate of home-baked cookies. And if things get really heated, maybe Romney will love-bomb Fischer by sending a thousand free copies of the Book of Mormon to his radio studio.”

There’s little chance that I’m going to vote Republican in this, or any, election, but the seeming impossibility of Mitt Romney standing up for religious minorities saddens me.  If the eventual Republican party nominee can’t say “this is a nation where all faiths are allowed to the table, and protected by our Constitution” then something is fundamentally broken.  I’m not expecting any Republican to suddenly embrace Wiccans, or to showcase Dan Halloran at a campaign stop, but I am expecting a basic adherence to the notion that people of all religions are included and protected in our great democratic experiment.