Who Cares About Minority Faiths?

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Generally speaking, the lead-up to the Presidential primaries and caucuses is when we start to form our opinions on the character of the Presidential candidates. This is when the smaller constituencies (and issues) are given some face time, when the dialog isn’t so scripted, and we get a clue about how they would handle individual issues important to us. I have been looking for signs and portents concerning how the Presidential front-runners will address issues important to non-Christian minority faiths, and so far the waters have been murky, with most of the attention being paid to Christian swing voters.

“Clinton and Obama have both hired strategists to coordinate faith outreach. Obama also has a faith point person in each of the three early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. His campaign held a series of “Faith, Action, Change” forums with New Hampshire voters and hosts weekly conference calls for religious leaders. Team Clinton has assembled a Faith Steering Committee, with working groups targeting individual denominations. Edwards’ campaign says it is leaning on his Campaign Manager David Bonior to help rally Catholics, considered a key swing constituency.”

While it is generally agreed that the Democratic candidates are somewhat more sympathetic to minority faiths than Republicans (especially considering the large number of conservative Christians running this time around), no candidate should get a free ride simply because they would be “better” than their opponent on a certain issue. Frankly, what I have seen so far hasn’t endeared me to any of them (on this issue). Two opportunities have now passed for the Democratic front-runners to make a stand for those of us who check “other” in the religious category. First, despite the demands of Hindu groups, no candidate has spoken out against the Christians who heckled Rajan Zed’s opening Senate prayer.

“Let me also say that the presidential candidates should address this issue for reasons that go beyond the notion of common decency. They should address this situation because it gets at a fundamental constitutional and ethical matter — whether we believe that the government must treat all religions equally.”

Now the three Democratic front-runners (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards) have blown off a historic Democratic forum on Native American issues, stating scheduling problems for their lack of attendance.

“American Indian leaders vowed 2008 would be different – Indian country would be one of the stops on the road to the White House. But a historic presidential forum at the Morongo Band of Mission Indians’ reservation in Southern California has attracted only three of the eight Democratic candidates: Bill Richardson, Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich … “If they won’t come talk to us now, they certainly won’t be responsive to us if they get in the White House,” said Kalyn Free, a Choctaw from Oklahoma who is organizing the Democratic forum, called “Prez on the Rez.” Top contenders said they could not attend because of scheduling conflicts. The event is the first attempt to bring a presidential debate to Indian country.”

The event “Prez on the Rez”, drew hundreds of elected tribal leaders from across the country, and the three lower-rung Democratic candidates that did attend (Bill Richardson, Mike Gravel* and Dennis Kucinich) were warmly received by an audience stung by the snub of the front-runners.

“It will have an impact. The reality played out here today will have an impact in Indian country,” said Frank La Mere, chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s Native American Coordinating Council. “There is some fence mending to be done between now and the Iowa caucuses.”

This makes two opportunities for the main Democratic hopefuls to take a stand concerning the rights of religious minorities (not to mention address dire issues like outsider rape, corporate despoiling of sacred grounds, and ongoing issues concerning tribal sovereignty) that have been missed. One wonders if their campaign strategists have them avoiding any action that could be deemed “unchristian”. If so, we may have to end up guessing as to who might actually take the concerns of religious minorities seriously. But I’ll keep reading the news looking for further signs as to which candidate will step away from wooing moderate evangelicals and Catholics long enough to speak about religious freedom for everyone.

* Of special note is that Mike Gravel received a standing ovation from the crowd when he vowed to free Leonard Peltier if elected.