FaithWorld

Obama work week one: pleases some religious activists, angers others

U.S. President Barack Obama has pleased some religiously motivated activists in his first week in office and angered others, setting the stage for “culture war battles” to come.

Obama courted voters of faith during his election and several groups were pleased by his decision on Thursday to close Guantanamo prison and bar harsh interrogation techniques of terrorism suspects that critics said amounted to torture.

“The religious community has labored faithfully for three years to end U.S.-sponsored torture. We are grateful today for this important step,” said Linda Gustitus, president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Some of the most active critics of the detention policies of former president George W. Bush were drawn from the faith community and included centrist evangelicals, Catholics and Jewish groups.

But Friday’s move by Obama to lift restrictions on U.S. government funding for groups that provide abortion services or counseling abroad, reversing a key social policy of his Republican predecessor, has roiled religious conservatives. You can see our report here.

GUESTVIEW: Obama inauguration: An interfaith invocation to answer the critics

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

By Matthew Weiner

The choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, and the drama surrounding it, was President-elect Barack Obama’s latest carefully planned move to prove that he is not a far out liberal, but instead mainstream. Obama is good at the art of compromise, but also at improvisation. The liberal outcry that followed, and his addition of the openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to join the party, continues to demonstrate his skill as political tai chi master. (Photo: Obama and Warren at Saddleback Church,17 Aug 2008/Mark Avery)

But Obama would be more in keeping with his own sense of diversity if he had the first ever interfaith invocation. Instead of a single speaker from a single religion, why not have many from a diversity of faiths and political positions? Instead of a liberal Christian or an evangelical Christian, he could have a conservative Christian, a liberal Jew, and a Muslim, a Buddhist  and a Hindu (or any such combination).

Can policymakers use Darwin’s insights? New twist on old debate

The latest issue of The Economist has a provocative essay on Darwinism asking if Charles Darwin’s insights can be used profitably by policymakers. You can read it online here.

America … executes around 40 people a year for murder. Yet it still has a high murder rate. Why do people murder each other when they are almost always caught and may, in America at least, be killed themselves as a result?” it asks.

It goes on to ask why men still earn more than women 40 years after the feminist revolution and why racism persists.

Christian missionaries stir unease in north Africa

“A new breed of undercover Christian missionary is turning to Muslim north Africa in the search for new converts, alarming Islamic leaders who say they prey on the weak and threaten public order,” writes our Rabat correspondent Tom Pfeiffer. (Photo: Foreign Christians worship at Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Rabat, 12 Nov 2008/Rafael Marchante)

His feature (read it here) says missionary groups estimate the number of Moroccan Christians has grown to 1,500 from 100 in a decade and that Algerian Christians number several thousand, although no official figures exist. It quotes Moroccan converts from Islam who fear persecution,  an American missionary who works undercover, Muslim officials who denounce this evangelising and local Roman Catholic bishop who will not baptise Moroccans because it’s against the law.

The growth of evangelical missionary work in Muslim countries in recent years presents a dilemma for Christians.  Jesus told his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” and these missionaries are doing that. But in the process, at least some are endangering the lives of their converts, breaking local laws and creating tensions that can lead to a backlash against all Christians, including long-established local churches who have come to a modus operandi with Muslim authorities.

Thirst for faith in Angola, but which kind?

“Those who are thirsty need to seek the right fountain: the one without the spoilt water” — Angolan Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento

There seems to be quite a thirst for faith these days in Angola, which abandoned Marxism in the 1990s after three decades of civil war and is now experiencing a boom in religious sects that often mix traditional African belief in witchcraft with elements of the Christianity brought by the Portuguese colonialists.

Some 900 religious groups are waiting for the official registration required by the government, which has launched a campaign to stamp out illegal sects in the capital Luanda and provinces bordering Democratic Republic of Congo where witchcraft is believed to be widespread. Last week, an ailing 28-year-old woman died when her sect barred her from seeking medical treatment and 40 children were rescued from two other religious groups that accused them of possesing evil powers.

Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento, the leading Catholic cleric in this mostly Catholic country, told Reuters in an interview (full story here) that he saw a bright side to the sect boom: “The positive side of this phenomenon is that it shows there is an increasing thirst for God. But those who are thirsty need to seek the right fountain: the one without the spoilt water.”

WashPost column: “Armband religion killing Republican Party”

Has religion turned into a vote loser in U.S. elections? In covering the U.S. presidential campaign, most analysts took religion as an important vote-getting factor and asked which candidate was appealing most to which religious group. Much was made about how the Democrats were more comfortable with “Godtalk” on the trail.

Now Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker has asked whether religion has turned into a serious vote loser for the more faith-friendly party, the Republicans:

“The evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn’t soon cometh. Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party … the GOP has surrendered its high ground to its lowest brows. In the process, the party has alienated its non-base constituents, including other people of faith (those who prefer a more private approach to worship), as well as secularists and conservative-leaning Democrats who otherwise might be tempted to cross the aisle.”

European Christian politicians respond to pope’s call

College des Bernardins, 1 Sept 2008/Charles PlatiauOne recurring theme in Pope Benedict’s speeches is the need he sees for Christians to speak out more in public on moral issues. A group of European politicians has taken up the challenge and held a brainstorming session in Paris to “find forms of political commitment that responds to their convictions and to the challenges of the 21st century,” as their hostess, French Housing and Urban Development Minister Christine Boutin, put it. The meeting was held at the Collège des Bernardins, the refurbished medieval college where Benedict spoke only last month about Europe’s Christian roots.

Although most politicians there could be described as Christian Democrats, there was no question about starting a specifically Christian political party. Instead, speakers stressed they wanted to bring Christian values back into the general political discourse after decades of being derided as old-fashioned. Several speakers from France mentioned the way secularists had sidelined them in politics. “We Christians have gotten used to living under a kind of house arrest,” said Jean-Pierre Rive, secretary general of the Church and Society Commission of the French Protestant Federation. “We have to get back into politics.”

The financial crisis, they said, provided a dramatic example of what can happen when greed and shady bank practices sideline values such as solidarity and concern for the poor. “A new world is being built and we Christians must play our part,” said Boutin, one of the most outspoken Catholic activists in French politics, at the Oct. 10 meeting. “Christians in France have lost the habit of communicating their experiences. There are politicians who are open to new ideas now. Let’s meet them and talk with them.”

Who is the most Christian among U.S. candidates?

Given the faith factor in U.S. politics, it was probably inevitable that someone would come up with a poll asking who is the most Christian among the presidential and vice presidential candidates. The Times in London has done it — and come up with some interesting results so far. After an initial lead by the candidate thought to appeal most to evangelical Christians, the candidate now way out in front is the one who rumours say isn’t a Christian at all.

Articles of Faith blogThe online poll is open until next Wednesday, so click to Ruth Gledhill’s blog Articles of Faith to vote. The poll is a bit confusing — the post starts out asking whether Sarah Palin is a good Christian and then presents a voting table asking you to choose the “better Christian” among the presidential and vice presidential candidates. The winner of a four-horse race should be termed the “best” in the group, but maybe that sounds too judgmental.

Anyway, after voting, let us know here if you think this poll is representative of American voters’ views or skewed by votes from outside the United States.

“Religulous” — a film call to atheist arms

Maher and director Larry Charles pose during Toronto International Film Festival, 7 Sept 2008/Mark BlinchComedian and talk-show host Bill Maher has issued the latest “call to atheist arms” in his recently released documentary “Religulous.”

He wants his fellow non-believers and doubters to “come out of the closet” to counter what he views as religion’s dangerous influence on the world. To do so, he preaches to the converted in “Religulous”, a scathing documentary that skewers Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

The film is part of the “neo-atheist” backlash to the rising influence of religion in public life, following a path recently blazed by a trio of best-selling books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins, a renowned Oxford biologist, has also presented a documentary critical of religion called “Root of all Evil?” on British television.

What Americans hear in church

If you’re a white evangelical or black Protestant attending church in America, you have probably heard a thing or two about homosexuality. If you’re Catholic, maybe not.

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Those are among the findings of a new survey conducted by Public Religion Research on behalf of Faith in Public Life, a non-partisan resource center.

It found that among the white evangelicals and black Protestants surveyed, 67 percent said their pastor speaks out about the issue of homosexuality — among Catholics that number drops to 37 percent.