Friday, January 25, 2008


By William Fisher

OK, we liberals are spooked by ‘Jesus Freaks’. We don’t want them passing a Constitutional amendment telling us who we can marry. We don’t want them teaching our kids Creationism. We don’t want them mandating that we just have to have that baby.

In short, we don’t want to have anything to do with these fringy lunatics of the religious right.

Well, no so fast. Hang on a minute.

Would you be surprised to discover that you have a lot more samenesses than differences with Christian evangelicals?

Well, so was I. Until I covered a telephone news conference last week sponsored by an evangelist group called Faith in Public Life.

The purpose of the conference call was to challenge President Bush to use his State of the Union speech to salvage his legacy by “changing course on the most pressing moral issues of our time.”

They must be talking about abortion, stem cell research, school prayer, gay marriage – those so-called ‘values issues’, I thought.

Not so.

Here’s some of what we reporters heard:

First, the participants – some of the best-known names in the evangelical world – called George W. Bush “an explicitly evangelical president” with a “sadly truncated” moral vision.

Then these Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders challenged the president to use his speech to announce major changes in his administration’s policies on war, torture, climate change, and U.S. and international poverty.

They credited Bush for some of his efforts, including his programs to address the HIV-AIDS pandemic in Africa, increasing foreign aid, and his domestic Faith-based Initiative. But it was highly critical of many other Bush Administration policies, particularly the war in Iraq, providing insufficient resources to help millions of Iraqi refugees, seeming indifference to growing poverty in the U.S., the use of torture, and failure to take a leadership position on global climate change.

The group was particularly critical of the president and his team regarding the use of torture as a tool in the war on terrorism. Rev. David Gushee, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights – did you know there was one? -- said, “In his well-intentioned efforts to protect national security, President Bush and his team over-reached by authorizing and employing torture that certainly qualify and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Noting that “these decisions were made in secret” following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., Gushee said that once abuses such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal were revealed, the courts, the media and public opinion forced Bush into “a kind of tactical retreat.” But, he added, Bush “still reserves the right to authorize the CIA to employ a range of secret ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques, including waterboarding.”

He criticized the president for threatening to veto pending legislation that would make these practices illegal, and urged him to abandon his objections to using the Army Field Manual as the standard for all interrogations, including those carried out by the CIA.

“It is hard to overstate the devastating effect of this policy on the moral standing of the U.S.,” Gushee said. He added that “euphemizing torture as something else does not make it any less torture.”

He urged the president to tell the American people Monday evening, “On behalf of the U.S., I personally apologize for the use of torture by this nation.”

Fat chance!

The came Sister Anne Curtis of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy, who recently returned from Iraq. She focused on the plight of the estimated four million Iraqis who have either fled to neighboring countries or who have been internally displaced by the war. She told us U.S. efforts to assist these refugees – many of whom have become targets for insurgents because they worked for American authorities – are under-funded and under-resourced.

Talking with refugee families, she said, “I felt a great sense of shame and deep sorrow as a citizen of the U.S.,” she told us reporters. “President Bush needs to understand the reality” of the refugee situation. He has “a responsibility, a moral obligation, to end the war in Iraq, aid the refugee applicants, and provide for the necessary funding of refugee assistance,” she said.

But aren’t these the same folks who have been so tight with Dubya, Cheney, and Karl Rove? Sure didn’t sound that way. One of the speakers, Dr. Ron Sider, opined that “The evangelical world has been hurt by its identification with President Bush’s immoral choices.” Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action – another outfit most of us have never heard of.

But how about former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to bring it more in line with scripture? Sider said, “I would not state it that way. This is not a Christian nation. We should not talk about making the Constitution in line with any religious text.”

In fact, the group had some harsh words for the religious right. “It’s just not enough to articulate opposition to abortion, gay marriage and judicial decisions we may not like,” said Rev. Gushee.

“I think we have yet to sort out the legacy of an explicitly evangelical president who sadly has had such a truncated vision of what moral leadership looks like. The limits of that vision have been painfully apparent over the last seven years,” he declared.

While the group appeared to favor President Bush’s Faith-based Initiative, they criticized him for failing to adequately fund the program. One member noted that Bush mentioned it in his first year and last year, but between these two points has been silent on the subject.

Poverty in the U.S. was also high on the group’s agenda. Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, noted that in 2002 his organization provided 43 per cent of its services to the working poor; by 2006, the number had risen to 52 per cent.

“More than 36 million people living in poverty in the U.S. is simply unacceptable. It is a moral and social crisis, because as a country we have the knowledge and the resources to significantly reduce this number,” he said. He criticized congress as well as the president for failing to pass legislation to address the long-term health care needs of poor children.

Global Warming was another major concern for the group. Rev. Paul deVries, a board member of the National Evangelical Association (NEA) and an original signer of an “Evangelical Climate Initiative” statement, urged Bush to use his Monday night speech to lay out his commitment to “take care of God’s creation.” He should “praise the scientists, praise the congress, and lay out a program to set an example for the rest of the world.”

That puts Rev. deVries on a collision course with the likes of right-wingers like James Dobson, Chuck Colson, and Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But he’s been there before. These were the folks who led the NEA’s successful fight against any kind of statement supporting action to address climate change. They said it was not a “consensus” position.

The group also expressed concern about the current economic downturn triggered by the sub-prime mortgage market meltdown. Rev. deVries called attention to “the extraordinary levels of deceit” by banks and mortgage companies, and charged that “no one seems to have the guts to say so and conduct a thorough investigation.”

He added, “The bank robbers have taken over the banks.”

On achieving a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, Rev. Sider said President Bush could have a “huge impact” on current negotiations. But he added, “This is not going to happen unless he invests himself and his credibility” in the effort.

The moral of this story is: All evangelicals aren’t loyal Bushies. They aren’t even all Republicans. And they’re certainly not homogenous. On many, many issues, they’re pretty much like most of those who are reading this column.

Those readers won’t agree with a lot of their beliefs and positions. But there’s a lot more common ground than most of us would have guessed.