Showing posts with label religion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label religion. Show all posts


Rick Warren Christian Forum Analysis

John McCain and Barack Obama participated in the Saddleback Civil Forum on Presidency hosted by Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, last Saturday. The audience was comprised mostly of Christian conservatives. Pastor Warren conducted the forum in two parts: the first being a one-on-one with Barack Obama and the second a one-on-one with John McCain. Both candidates were asked identical questions, although John McCain received a few more questions because he generally answered more quickly. No follow-up questions were asked, nor were members of the audience allowed to ask questions. Both candidates were interviewed for an hour each. Per Pastor Warren, McCain was placed in a soundproof area backstage so that he wouldn't have an unfair advantage because Obama would receive the questions first.

Barack Obama

Coming into the forum, Obama's task was to present himself as surprisingly palatable to Christian conservatives who might have been hostile towards him. As a liberal pro-choice Democrat who is mistakenly seen as a Muslim, Obama was entering politically unfriendly territory.

Obama generally spoke in a careful, thoughtful way. However, because he was clearly thinking about his responses on the fly, this led to a lot of hesitation in his delivery. This may feed into the idea that Obama is not a good speaker without a teleprompter and that he is too cerebral and dispassionate. However, he did seem more comfortable talking about his faith than the Democratic stereotype. And his desire to find consensus at the expense of ideological purity underscored his message of unity. Again, his responses showed him to be careful and methodical in his thinking. There were no yes or no answers, but rather a lot of nuances. But again, this could come across as him being slow on his feet, weak, calculating, or indecisive.

Best moment: His final words of the evening in which he spoke honestly to the public by saying if they wanted better roads, better schools, health insurance, and energy independence, it would require sacrifices in that we would have to pay for them or make some tough lifestyle changes. Being upfront about the small print may help voters view him as a bit more trustworthy. This contrasts nicely with other politicians who promise the moon without telling anyone how they would pay for it.

Worst moment: Pastor Warren asked when a baby should have human rights. While his actual answer was quite thoughtful and showed Obama as wanting to find common ground by reducing the number of abortions, he gave Republicans a delicious piece of video by saying that the question of when life began was "above his pay grade." Look for that soundbite to find its way into many an attack ad from now until November. These four words crowded out everything else Obama said on the subject, which is unfortunate for him because it likely blunted any momentum he had been building with the crowd and the Christian conservative community in general.

John McCain

Judging from the amount of laughter and applause, John McCain seemed to connect with the crowd better than Barack Obama, though the evangelical crowd was obviously more likely to be in McCain's corner to begin with. McCain also talked a lot about his personal story (particularly Vietnam) and talked more to the audience, whereas Obama talked more to Pastor Warren.

Anyone who has watched a lot of political coverage over the past few months probably noticed that McCain delved into his stump speech on many occasions. He pivoted from flip flopping to hammering home the importance of offshore drilling and recycled his jokes about France having a pro-America president and not knowing whether a $3 million earmark about studying bear DNA was a paternity issue or a criminal issue. The audience responded favorably regardless.

Pastor Warren seemed to let him get away with this. Careful observers also may have noticed that Warren commonly referred to McCain by his first name, thus leading some to believe that McCain's interview was softer. (read the transcript here)

McCain tended to give short, snappy answers to Pastor Warren's questions. This made him look strong, decisive, and authoritative. However, he also had a tendency to answer questions before they were asked and did not provide much explanation or justification for his responses. President Bush is infamous for not listening to others and for black-and-white thinking. John McCain seemed to display a similar sense of rashness and bimodal thinking, which contrasted greatly with Barack Obama's more measured approach.

Because follow-up questions were not a part of the forum, McCain was fortunate that Pastor Warren did not challenge him on some of his responses. When asked what to do about evil, for example, McCain simply said "defeat it." That response played well with the crowd and reinforced his commander-in-chief aura. But as the situation in Georgia indicates, the US military does not have the troops available to "defeat" evil there. Evil is taking place on a daily basis in North Korea and Darfur. Will we "defeat" evil there too? McCain is clearly trying to project strength, but he may have overplayed his hand by reminding voters of what they dislike about President Bush--"dead or alive" and "bring it on." This kind of tough talk may not play well with an electorate that is weary of war and nervous about getting involved in another conflict.

Best moment: "I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies." Any doubts Christian conservatives had about John McCain beforehand likely dissipated upon hearing this remark. He was clearly trying to shore up his base and increase their enthusiasm about his campaign. The catcalls and loud applause he received suggested that he was successful. A ginned up evangelical base makes Obama's ability to pick off Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina a bit more difficult.

Worst moment: When he was asked which Supreme Court justice he would not have nominated, he only needed to name one. However, he rattled off the names of all four moderate to liberal justices. Then he pandered to the crowd by saying Justices Roberts and Alito were "his two newest favorite justices." This may have played well with the crowd, but it undermined his "independent" message and made him look more partisan and less moderate. This plays right into Obama's message of bipartisanship and finding common ground.

One of the disturbing bits of analysis being propagated by the media, such as CNN analyst Tony Perkins, is the idea that part of the reason why John McCain did so well was because the expectations for him were so low. I am not sure why expectations for him were so low or if they should have been low to begin with. John McCain is drubbing Barack Obama among evangelicals. And Democrats are not known for being friendly to Christians. And Barack Obama is still fending off questions that he's a Muslim. So if anything, Obama displayed a lot more courage by entering "enemy territory" and presenting himself as a man of faith whom Christians can find tolerable. Having said that, Obama is still on the wrong side of many critical social issues as far as evangelicals are concerned, so he likely did not win many new votes.

It is very difficult for McCain to appeal to moderates, independents, and conservatives at the same time. A Republican could have won in 2000 or 2004 by appealing mainly to conservatives, but they represent a smaller slice of the electorate in 2008. John McCain will need to expand his base in order to win this election. Casting his lot with religious conservatives may strengthen him in the South, but they make him more vulnerable in the West, where libertarian-conservatism is more popular than social conservatism. Voters in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada in particular should be watched carefully. Alaska, Montana, and the Dakotas are also closer than many people think.


The only major news that resulted from this debate is that this debate actually happened and consisted of largely substantive questions that standard journalists would be wise to pursue on their own. As for the politicians' performances, they likely confirmed people's existing opinions. People who were already supporting John McCain probably still support him and think he did a good job. People who were behind Barack Obama probably thought he performed adequately. McCain came across as Bush-like in his black and white thinking. Obama came across as weak and indecisive because of his hesitant delivery. John McCain probably staunched the bleeding among evangelicals, but Barack Obama probably didn't scare them away from his own camp either.

Coming out of the forum, the contrast between the two candidates is great. Barack Obama clearly appeals to voters' intellect and requires you to think about what he says. John McCain clearly appeals to voters' gut and requires you to trust what he says. Guts won in 2000 and 2004 and is the message Hillary Clinton should have adopted earlier. But perhaps the electorate is so sour right now that it doesn't matter.

This race is looking less like a blowout with each passing week.

Barack Obama: B-
John McCain: B+


The Obama Caricatures Revisited

The liberal magazine The New Yorker provided the latest bit of controversy with the cover of its latest issue. If you haven't seen this provocative cover by now, you can access it here.

The New Yorker essentially took every false impression of Obama and meshed them together into cover art that can accurately be described as brilliant, tasteless, courageous, and slanderous. While some may have found this cover tasteless or irresponsible, cries for censorship seem a bit overboard and will not gain much traction.

Voters who understand satire know what this cover is all about. Barack HUSSEIN Obama is dressed as a proud Arab Muslim while an angry-looking Michelle Obama is dressed as a radical Black militant with a machine gun and an afro. Both are doing a "terrorist fist jab," as opposed to a more benign fist bump. No flag lapel pin is to be found on Obama's shirt, but an American flag is burning in the fireplace under a portrait of Osama bin Laden, whom Obama reveres. After all, Obama is an unpatriotic terrorist sympathizer who has no allegiance to the United States and can't wait to destroy this nation from within.

The New Yorker's combination of satire and hyperbole should (emphasis on "should") lead voters to realize that these persistent rumors about Obama are completely unfounded and that this caricature of him is obviously both invalid and silly. However, voters who didn't buy into these Muslim rumors to begin with or who later arrived at the truth about Obama didn't need this magazine cover to prove these rumors false. Also, it is important to note once again that The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. Obama's liberal base would be more likely to read this magazine than other voters, but they were already comfortable with Obama and understand the satirical aspect of the cover. So that begs the question of exactly who The New Yorker's audience was. (Imagine the outrage if a conservative publication like the National Review had used this cover!)

Notice my use of the word "should" in the previous paragraph. Remember, this nation is not long removed from "freedom fries," accusing people who disagreed with President Bush's war policies of being "against America," and viewing flag pins as the only unequivocal way to express one's patriotism. But these voters don't read The New Yorker. Many of them have probably never even heard of it. And they probably weren't going to vote for Obama either. These voters will probably look at this provocative magazine cover and conclude that his lack of forcefully denouncing it means the caricature must be true. Obama can't win with these voters and shouldn't waste his time with them.

Yes, a significant part of the electorate is decidedly anti-Obama for reasons that are unrelated to his liberal ideology. Think about all the advantages a generic Democrat has over a generic Republican on issue after issue in most polls. There's an unpopular war, a shaky economy, an unpopular two-term Republican president, and greater dissatisfaction among voters with the Republican Party. But Barack Obama the candidate is only barely beating John McCain the candidate. So it would seem that Obama's underperformance in spite of so many favorable indicators to the contrary is at least partially due to an anti-Muslim, anti-Black vote. The anti-liberal vote doesn't care one iota about Obama or The New Yorker either, but at least their opposition is more benign.

The danger for Obama is that these kinds of stories only get people talking about the very stuff Obama is trying to avoid--not because he's a closet Muslim radical, but rather because it takes him off message. He would much rather talk about his plan for the economy and Afghanistan than how offended he was by some magazine cover. And because Obama is still new to the political scene, voters are still forming their impressions of him as a politician. Surely, he would rather define himself than have others define him the way Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger, Wesley Clark, Jesse Jackson, and now The New Yorker have done with varying degrees of success.

As for political ramifications, this controversy is not good news for Hillary Clinton either. Some of her campaign volunteers were responsible for spreading some of these rumors before the Iowa caucuses last fall. And Clinton herself did not definitively swat down rumors about Obama's religion by claiming that he was not a Muslim "as far as she knew." In other words, her veepstakes odds may have become a little longer.

Of course, the fact that people are at least talking about this magazine cover is good for society because dialogue breeds understanding. Anytime the nation talks about ethics and race, progress is being made. Obama's candidacy is forcing everyone to reassess issues of race, religion, and gender.

Also, as an unintended advantage for Obama, voters who disagree with his politics may support him regardless because they view his election as a means by which they can repudiate the media, the punditry, and tabloid journalism in general. They might not like his politics, but they are fed up with the sideshows, phony outrage, misplaced priorities, insincere retractions, and forced expressions of contrition that have plagued this campaign season.

Having said all that, this controversy illustrates another problem with the nexus of politics, the media, and voters.

When voters complain about their politicians not offering enough specifics, media feeding frenzies like this magazine cover are often to blame. Until voters demand more from their politicians and audiences demand more from the media, it will only be a matter of days before the nation is distracted yet again by another surrogate- or media-induced controversy. Politics should be about governance, but it is treated as an extended soap opera in which people spend more time dissecting and anticipating missteps than actually analyzing their policies. Our short attention spans are exploited by the media whenever they seize on these distractions.

At what point will voters and the media stop focusing on these sideshows? Why should anybody care what Pundit X, Talking Head Y, and the staff at Media Organization Z think? This campaign should be about Barack Obama's and John McCain's plans for the nation. Our political discussion should be about the economy, taxes, immigration, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Supreme Court, domestic spending, and foreign policy. But this pragmatism is nowhere to be found, as the campaigns have come to be defined by flag pins, fist bumps, cooking recipes, genitalia, Vietnam, pastors, White entitlement, and now magazine covers. Again, while it is good that the nation is discussing issues of race, gender, and religion, even if awkwardly, it must be stated that the way in which our nation's political dialogue can so easily be derailed by peripheral matters is doing everyone a great disservice.


The Veepstakes: Mark Sanford

One name that keeps being mentioned as a rising political star is South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican currently serving his second term. Sanford may be the governor of a relatively small state, but he is far from a political unknown. After George Allen's "macaca" meltdown, some pundits looked to Sanford to fill the void left by the former Virginia senator as a consensus conservative by running for president this year. There were even a few Draft Sanford movements online that persist to this day.

Sanford is young, handsome, a Washington outsider, and a strong fiscal conservative. The anti-tax wing of the GOP would love to see him on the ticket. He is also a small government Republican with a libertarian streak. So he would appear to complement John McCain in that regard.

However, he might not be the best pick for McCain because even though Sanford is a relatively popular second-term governor, he will likely have a lot of explaining to do for his South Carolina record. The problem isn't so much Sanford as it is the legislature he has to work with. His libertarianism has been a common source of friction between him and the state legislature. The South Carolina legislature routinely overrides his vetoes and behaves in such a way that polarizes large segments of the state's population. So the legislature's antics are marring Sanford's record.

South Carolina's government is overwhelmingly Republican. The lieutenant governorship and all statewide offices are controlled by Republicans. The only Democratic statewide office holder is Superintendent of Education Jim Rex. Republicans have a 73-51 advantage in the state house and a 27-19 advantage in the state senate. Both senators and four out of the six congressmen are Republicans. So Democratic opposition can't really be blamed for South Carolina's ills.

For example, the South Carolina legislature recently passed a bill allowing Christians to profess their faith by the creation of a license plate displaying a cross and the words "I Believe." The bill passed the legislature unanimously and became law without Governor Sanford's signature. (Many legislators thought it was a bad bill, but nobody wanted to see their name in an attack ad claiming "they voted against God.") Opponents of the bill have filed a lawsuit claiming that this license plate violates the separation of church and state because similar license plates for other faiths do not exist and would have to meet far more restrictions before being approved, such as not being able to incorporate any text.

South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer even offered to personally pay the $4000 fee required by the Department of Motor Vehicles to begin production of the plates. In light of the potential lawsuit, Bauer remained defiant:

"We're not going to back down. We're going to fight for a change. I'm tired of seeing Christians back down in fear of a lawsuit."
It is worth noting that South Carolina has a very strong evangelical Christian presence. Blue laws are still enforced, as some businesses are not allowed to open before 1:30pm on Sundays. Sunday alcohol sales were prohibited until voters finally overturned that law at the ballot box this spring. Legislation banning sex toys even made it to the house floor two years ago.

Knowing the history of Christian conservative influence on South Carolina's government, this license plate controversy should not come as a surprise. But should Sanford be tapped to be McCain's running mate, he will likely have to take a stance on the license plate issue at the risk of exacerbating McCain's problems with the evangelical wing of the party or alienating the moderates and independents he desperately needs. These moderates and independents (and even some conservatives) are devout Christians, but many of them are also increasingly uncomfortable with the blurring of the lines between politics and faith. This could also bolster Barack Obama because his message of inclusion and unity could contrast with the South Carolina legislature's polarization. Sanford would also have to explain why he never signed (or vetoed) the bill or why he couldn't keep his lieutenant governor in check.

To be fair, Mark Sanford has tried to control the legislature with his veto pen, but the legislature commonly overrides his vetoes and enacts policies that are fiscally unwise or otherwise divisive. This doesn't matter to Sanford's political opponents because they will claim that as the chief executive of the state, ultimate responsibility for the state rests with him.

It is also worth noting that Sanford did not endorse McCain before the South Carolina primary in January. McCain narrowly won that contest, but by not endorsing him when he needed it most, Sanford likely lost a bit of his clout in the McCain camp. He did eventually endorse McCain, but by then, absent an unbelievable comeback by Mike Huckabee, it was clear McCain would be the nominee. By contrast, Florida Governor Charlie Crist endorsed McCain shortly before the hotly contested Florida primary, thus burnishing his standing with McCain through his loyalty.

Looking at the electoral map, Sanford doesn't do much more than solidify Republican support in the South. However, the South is the base of the GOP. If McCain is unable to carry this region on his own, then he has a serious problem that cannot be remedied with Sanford or any other candidate. At the very best, Sanford could make it a bit tougher for Barack Obama to pick off North Carolina and Georgia, but Sanford will be of little help in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

His fiscal conservatism should help McCain win New Hampshire, but again, that is a state that McCain should be competitive in without any help. After all, he won that state's Republican primary in 2000 and 2008. So all in all, Sanford is neither an offensive nor defensive pick. He doesn't help hold Republican states that are significantly threatened (he won't be of much help in Virginia or Ohio) and he doesn't help McCain pick up vulnerable Democratic ones either (e.g., Pennsylvania).

In addition to this, Sanford's national profile is a bit too low. Voters outside of the South know very little about him. The brand of Republicanism he and his legislature practiced in South Carolina may make these voters less comfortable with McCain because South Carolina Republicanism is very different from the more moderate brand of Republicanism one can see in Colorado or Wisconsin. Democrats will probably attempt to tie Sanford to the evangelical wing of the party, thus making a McCain-Sanford ticket less appealing in the competitive states McCain needs to win. Running up the score in Kentucky and Alabama will not get him to 270.

All in all, Mark Sanford may look like a strong contender on paper, but he appears to introduce a lot of controversies that McCain can ill afford. Unfortunately for Sanford, many of these controversies are not due to his own actions, but rather to the tribalistic actions of the state legislature he has limited control over. And because his endorsement was "a day late and a dollar short," he would not appear to have the inside track to the vice presidential nomination. The fact that he doesn't do much to expand McCain's map the way Mitt Romney, Tom Ridge, or Tim Pawlenty does should serve as another disqualifying factor.

(For two very comprehensive and well written South Carolina blogs, I recommend reading The Palmetto Scoop and Elonkey.)

Next installment: Joe Biden


The Veepstakes: Mitt Romney

The 7-10 wishes everyone a happy and safe Independence Day holiday.

Given the holiday, political news has pretty much come to a standstill. After the holiday, although many people won't be paying attention to politics because of the dog days of summer, the main story will be the selection of vice presidential running mates by John McCain and Barack Obama. This political cease fire affords political observers a rare opportunity to take stock of how various potential running mates are faring, unencumbered by the 24-hour news cycle.

Over the next few weeks, I will assess some of the more popular names being tossed around for vice presidential picks. In my first installment, I will focus on McCain's chief rival from the primaries: Mitt Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor seems to be the most logical and most beneficial pick for John McCain. I was originally skeptical about his political future, but have since become more bullish about his chances.

Romney will not help deliver Massachusetts, but it could make the light blue states of New Jersey and Michigan a bit more likely. The fact that he is Michigan's favorite son and that Michigan's economy is faltering under Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm's leadership makes Michigan perhaps the single best Republican pickup opportunity after New Hampshire. Gov. Granholm's struggles make Romney's business experience an even stronger asset. This street cred Romney has on the economy has the added bonus of potentially putting an end to the nagging questions about McCain's knowledge of economic issues. And given today's fragile economy and rising gas prices, voters outside of Michigan may also respond favorably to Romney's economic message.

But McCain won't be the only person who benefits from this selection. If McCain wins the election, he would likely serve just one term. This would then put Romney next in line to ascend to the presidency in 2012. And if McCain loses the election, Romney's stock value will have increased so much by supporting the Republican nominee and defending conservative values that he should be the frontrunner in the 2012 campaign.

Of course, every rose has its thorns. The Republicans are trying to hammer Barack Obama on changing his positions for political expediency. Framing him as a typical politician may be smart because the more voters doubt Obama, the more comfortable they will feel with McCain. However, adding Mitt Romney to the ticket will make it a lot harder for the Republicans to attack Obama on changing his positions because of Romney's infamous contortions on gay rights and abortion rights. McCain even mocked Romney as the candidate of change in one of the debates.

Also, McCain has a charisma deficit that is only further magnified by Obama's galvanizing speaking ability. Romney would not do anything to offset this, as his inability to connect with voters is partly to blame for his failed run for the nomination.

His great personal wealth could help McCain keep up with Obama's advertising budget, it would also remove another weapon from the GOP arsenal. Having a net worth of over $200 million would only make Republicans look ridiculous as they try to label Barack Obama as an elitist even though he is worth far less. It could also bring back stories of Cindy McCain's net worth, which some estimate at over $100 million. That might take away some of the edge from attacks on Michelle Obama.

In terms of demographics, his Mormonism would undoubtedly help him in the purple state of Nevada, which is right next door to the home base of Mormonism--Utah. But this is a mixed bag because McCain is having trouble solidifying support among the evangelical wing of his base. This is unfair to Romney, but the primaries proved that there is significant resistance to him because of his faith. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee capitalized on this.

Should McCain choose Romney, the Obama campaign may feel more optimistic about evangelicals either staying home or even voting for Obama who is making inroads with the religious community by talking about faith. These voters are not happy about Romney's previous positions on issues important to them, like gay rights, gun rights, and abortion. This would open up North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, and possibly Arkansas (if the Clintons campaign for him there). If Obama snatches North Carolina, that would force McCain to win Iowa and Wisconsin. If Missouri goes blue, that would force McCain to add Minnesota to his column. Money McCain has to spend defending traditional red states like North Carolina is money he is not spending on offense in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Minnesota.

In short, the three main benefits of a Romney selection would be money, Michigan, and economic competence. But he neutralizes several Republican weapons and may potentially do McCain harm by not shoring up his base in the South. McCain could certainly do worse than selecting Romney, but this pick may introduce a bit too many unintended consequences to make McCain comfortable selecting him.

Next post: Hillary Clinton


On Religion, Politics, and Denouncements

It seems that Barack Obama appeals to two types of people. The first type is traditional liberals and run-of-the-mill Democrats. They like his views on immigration, international relations, tax policy, and social issues. They are pro-choice. They are economic populists. They are more receptive to government intervention and regulation. They voted for Kerry. They voted for Gore. And they voted for Clinton. They were all left-leaning Democratic politicians whose political views largely matched their own. They might not have liked these candidates when they were at the polls, but the "D" after their names was more important than the name itself.

The second type is voters who view Obama as a means of expressing their anger at everything related to politics as we know it today. They hate big money. They hate the idea of corporate lobbyists feeding at the political trough. They hate the 24-hour political news cycle. They hate the media's tendency to focus on stupid stuff. They hate conventional wisdom. And they hate talking heads and incurious journalists who recycle the same old themes. To them, Obama's campaign is as much about them as it is about Obama. To them, an Obama victory in November would represent a triumph of people over the system and everything that makes it undesirable.

This latter group of voters consists of what I will call "protest voters." Some of these people are independents who dislike partisan rhetoric. A significant number of them are Republicans that Obama affectionately calls "Obamicans." (Even former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan may vote for Obama.) And many more are regular voters who have nothing to do with politics at all but believe Obama connects with them in a way that other politicians who came before him haven't. That explains why his donor base is so large and why so many of his contributions are for less than $100.

Hillary Clinton does not connect with voters the way Obama does because she has run a poor campaign and is blaming everyone for her bleak political situation except herself. It's sexism. It's the media. It's the national party disenfranchising (her) voters in Michigan and Florida. It's debate moderators. It's the right wing smear machine. It's the unfair system of caucuses instead of primaries. It's your mother-in-law and her hairdresser. And that turns voters off.

John McCain does not connect with voters the way Obama does either because he has one foot in the pool of bipartisanship and independents and the other foot in the pool of the unpopular George Bush and his off-putting allies. Thus, McCain's credibility is under suspicion. He is neither completely trusted by the right nor fully embraced by the middle, so he's suffering from a bit of identity confusion.

The reason why I referenced Obama's "protest voters" is because of the latest pulpit problem surrounding the Obama campaign. Catholic priest Michael Pfleger gave an incendiary sermon mocking Hillary Clinton and invoking the idea of White entitlement as it relates to the United States' racist past. This kind of rhetoric is common in liberal circles. The reason why this is such a big deal, however, is because Rev. Pfleger gave this sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ, also known as Obama's church--the same church where Rev. Jeremiah Wright gave his now infamous sermon about how September 11 should not have been a surprise to the United States.

Needless to say, the media are all over this story. Pundits are talking about how this strikes at Obama's "judgment" again. And Hillary Clinton is calling on Obama to denounce Pfleger explicitly. Comparisons between Michael Pfleger and Jeremiah Wright are commonplace.

This reaction was predictable, but regardless of how one feels about this pastor's remarks, one fact cannot be denied. This year's presidential campaign is setting a very dangerous precedent.

To start, Obama was not at the church when Pfleger blasted Clinton and invoked White guilt. And how often does Obama go to his church now anyway? He is in the middle of an intense campaign for his party's nomination and likely doesn't have the time to make it back to Chicago every weekend to go to his church. Why should he be held accountable for what that church's pastor is saying? Pfleger wasn't his pastor; Wright was! Why should he have to dissociate himself from that church because of this new pastor? And how offensive are these calls for divorce to people actually agree with Pfleger's remarks?

Having to disavow or dissociate yourself from an entire organization simply because someone in that organization, no matter how prominent, makes controversial remarks or has a potentially offensive policy is an unfortunate development because it prevents the electorate from focusing on issues that are far more important to their day to day lives. And it threatens to silence any politician whose views or personal history is deemed "too different" for others to accept.

Until 2000, Bob Jones University, a Christian school, had a policy that banned interracial dating. Should all Bob Jones University graduates have repudiated or boycotted their own college simply because of the school's politically incorrect policy? After all, those alumni paid thousands of dollars to go to that school and went there voluntarily, just as Obama voluntarily joined and stayed at that church.

There are several politicians who were affiliated with the Conservative Citizens Council, a White-supremacist organization. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, these affiliations lasted as recently as the 2004 election. Should all politicians who were once members or allies of this organization immediately denounce it and sever all ties with it? What about George Allen? What about Haley Barbour? They have won several elections despite these ties. Where were their calls for divorce? George Allen eventually lost his Senate re-election bid in 2006, but that was because he called a rival campaign worker a "macaca," not because of his relationship with the Conservative Citizens Council.

Jerry Falwell blamed September 11 on gays. How many politicians were still trying to curry favor with his church and that political wing after that? Even as recently as this campaign cycle, politicians, including John McCain, were still trying to win Falwell's endorsement. Where were his calls for divorce? Were such calls as intense as they are for Obama now?

Freedom of religion is protected under the Constitution. And separation of church and state has been advocated since our Founding Fathers' generation. But it seems that tabloid journalism is threatening this freedom because it is making politicians have to answer for people they have little or no control over. And what is the political statute of limitations for dealing with people who made offensive remarks in the past? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? And why should we care?

Imagine that there comes a point when Obama is forced to leave his church because of media and political criticism. How fair is that? How many politicians have been drummed out of their own church because other people who could care less about them don't like what the church preaches? If Obama left his church, where would he go? Would his critics accuse him of mixing political calculations with the covenant? Would the media and his critics go to great lengths to research the backgrounds of all the pastors at this new church? What about the other worshipers who simply want to pray and enjoy Sunday fellowship without having to worry that the punditry will badmouth their church?

This gotcha game when it comes to religion has shifted from an unseemly though passably politically relevant exercise (e.g., Jeremiah Wright) to an outright offensive distraction. Not only is it offensive to the people who worship at the "offensive" church (nobody likes to have their church and their congregation branded as "wackos"), but it's also offensive to the millions of voters who don't care about this stuff at all and would much rather learn more about how our presidential candidates plan to handle Iraq, the struggling economy, fighting terrorism, and addressing gas prices.

The United States has a serious complex when it comes to religion. People who don't go to church at all are branded as God-haters. Non-Christians who seek to have their faiths be afforded the same level of acceptance or prominence in society as the Christian faith are excoriated for "forcing their beliefs" on others. Now people who don't go to churches "we" approve of are demonized as insufficiently Christian. And worst of all, this manufactured controversy surrounding Obama is giving license to others to demand that their political enemies pay for the actions of those to whom they are only tangentially related.

I sense that this latest controversy surrounding Obama will only make these "protest voters" even angrier or create a whole legion of new ones. And uncommitted voters and nonpartisan observers who are wondering how to make ends meet are probably looking at this supposed "pastor problem" and wishing people would just give this guy a break and let him run his campaign. People who were already against Obama don't need to be further swayed by yet another "offensive" sermon. But calling on him to sever ties with people for offenses they once ignored in the past reeks of political opportunism and is deeply offensive to people who don't believe anyone should have to worry about accounting for the shady characters that may or may not exist in their six degrees of separation.

If our nation continues down this road, there may be no one left deemed "decent" enough to run--unless he never befriended anyone or joined any group or organization whatsoever.


Iowa Predictions (R)

Against my better judgment, I will attempt to handicap the Iowa caucuses tomorrow and offer my predictions. (Why not have a little bit of fun, right?) In this post I will address the Republican race. (I addressed the Democratic contest here.)

The Republican contest consists of two smaller contests: the battle for first and the battle for third. The battle for first is between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Huckabee came out of nowhere and surged to the top of the polls in recent weeks, much to the chagrin of Mitt Romney, who has invested millions from his personal fortune in the state. However, it is possible that Huckabee peaked too soon, as crises abroad reminded voters of the importance of electing a president with foreign policy chops. Huckabee fumbled the issue by tying the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto with Pakistani illegal immigrants. This fumble likely benefited John McCain in his quest for third more than it benefited Romney in his quest for first simply because Romney's foreign policy credentials are also suspect.

Romney seems to be more of an establishment Republican who adequately represents the evangelical and business wings of the party. Huckabee is more of the insurgent or outsider candidate who wants to take the party in a whole new direction. However, Christian conservatives who like Huckabee (because he has the Christianity without the Mormonism and the anti-abortion rhetoric without the anti-anti-abortion past) probably have reservations about his policy depth in other areas. Romney has also attacked Huckabee hard over the past few weeks on his record on illegal immigration, taxes, and crime. Evangelical Christians will have to be honest with themselves about their personal biases, as Romney seems to be a more complete candidate than Huckabee. Huckabee seems to be the candidate of these voters' hearts while Romney is the candidate of these voters' heads.

The battle for third is between John McCain, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani. A third place showing by McCain would give him tremendous momentum because he has not campaigned much in Iowa at all. This momentum would serve him well in New Hampshire, where he is much more competitive. Put another way, Romney cannot spin a second place loss to Huckabee as a victory. However, McCain can spin a third place loss to Romney and Huckabee as a victory.

Fred Thompson has a vested interest in placing third as well because if he fails to do so, it's hard to see how he remains relevant later on. He is polling under 5% in New Hampshire, so it will all come down to South Carolina for him. But placing fourth or fifth in Iowa would probably end his campaign before he even makes it to South Carolina because it's hard to see how a candidate can go from a fourth place showing in Iowa to a sixth place showing in New Hampshire to victory in South Carolina.

Third place would be nice for Rudy Giuliani to have, but because he's not making a serious play for any state before Florida, Iowa is relatively meaningless for his campaign. A Huckabee victory in Iowa would be good for Giuliani not only because it would prolong the battle between his divided conservative opposition, but also because when it comes time for the media to generate their "What went wrong?" stories, they would more likely be about Romney instead of Giuliani, even if Giuliani placed fifth.

What about Ron Paul?

Nobody is saying much about it, but there will be serious pressure on the other candidates to drop out of the race or explain themselves if they place lower than Paul. Despite Paul's popularity online and among regular voters, it is clear that the establishment and the main candidates in general view him with contempt. Should Paul place third or fourth, that would be a severe embarrassment to Giuliani and Thompson in particular. After all, it is Giuliani who famously smacked Paul down in the debates when it came to discussions about the reasons behind the September 11 attacks. And as for Thompson, it would be hard for his followers to conceive of their candidate, once the great hope of conservatives everywhere, faring worse than the "loony libertarian."

Final prediction: Romney 32%, Huckabee 24%, McCain 17%, Paul 11%, Thompson 8%


On Faith and Politics

Politics has generally been put on hold for Christmas, although some people in the early caucus and primary states might not think so, as they are bombarded with flyers, pamphlets, and phone calls from the various campaigns on an almost daily basis.

The Christmas holiday has served three purposes this year as it relates to the politics. First of all, it provides campaigns, candidates, and voters alike a brief respite from the daily stump speeches, meet-and-greets, interviews, and crowded school gymnasiums. Secondly, it has given pundits and the media a chance to dissect the candidates' Christmas ads, how authentic they are, and how well they connect with voters. And finally, it serves as the impetus of this particular writing: the role of religion in the presidential campaign.

Christmas is obviously a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and is probably the single most important holiday of the year for Christians around the world. However, these candidates' Christmas ads do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they form the latest chapter in a disturbing series of overtures that blur the line between being open about one's faith and overtly trying to appear more religious than one's rivals. And that is very dangerous.

Perhaps the United States has been on this course for years, given the ascendancy of the religious right, composed primarily of conservative evangelical Christians. There have been several high profile cases and news events that have been of the utmost importance to these evangelical voters: assisted suicide, Terri Schiavo, gay marriage bans, and getting closer to overturning Roe vs. Wade due to John Roberts' and Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court. The threat from radical Islamic terrorists has also heightened the sense among many people that a religious war between Islam and Christianity is imminent or already upon us. The media have addressed religion in extended documentaries this year, as was done by CNN with its highly acclaimed "God's Warriors."

Faith has played a leading role in the 2008 presidential campaign as well. CNN sponsored two forums on faith and politics earlier this summer in which the Democratic presidential candidates sat down and discussed the role of faith in their lives while taking questions from members of the audience. These forums were roundly criticized as "a sham, a fraud, and a travesty" by National Clergy Council President the Reverend Bob Schenck.

One of the more innovative aspects of this year's presidential campaign so far has been the YouTube debates. These debates gave regular people a means through which they could confront the candidates directly and pose questions to them that pundits and media professionals might not ask. However, one of the questions at the Republican YouTube debate this fall came from a man holding a Bible and asking sternly if the candidates "believed every word in this book."

Mitt Romney has been the source of much scrutiny since the inception of his campaign because of his religion. A Mormon, he is viewed with suspicion by many evangelical Christians who view Mormonism as a cult. Romney has been unfairly dogged by questions about his faith on the campaign trail and has struggled to placate his critics and skeptics. Rival Mike Huckabee helped create more controversy by linking Mormonism to Satan. (He later blamed the media and apologized.) Earlier this month Romney even went so far as to give a speech on how he viewed faith in America. (Click here for an excellent discussion about Mormonism in modern America.)

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama has received a lot of scrutiny from voters who wonder if he is a Muslim. Of course, it didn't help that members of Hillary Clinton's campaign staff were behind a whisper campaign falsely accusing him of being a Muslim who wanted to take down America from within. It also didn't help when esteemed political figures like former Nebraska Senator and Clinton ally Bob Kerrey appealed to voters' fears while disguising his remarks as praise.

And now with the Christmas ads, there's talk about subliminal religious messages, overt religious messages, and cries of upsetting people over innocuous religious messages. (Rowan Williams of The Times of London has a timely reminder that "God is for life, not just for Christmas.")

It seems that religion (read: Christianity) has become the new "support our troops" psychological weapon that Americans are using to impugn the patriotism and character of other Americans. Somehow, if you don't support President Bush's war policies, you "want America to surrender to the terrorists." And now if you don't wear your religion (read: Christian faith) on your sleeve, you "are a God-hating liberal who wants to wants to take God out of the public square." Both of these are obviously ridiculous lines of thinking, but they are quite real. No politician wants to be caught on the wrong side of this divide, so everyone falls over each other in their attempts to out-Christian their rivals. Why else would Rudy Giuliani place such an emphasis on receiving the endorsement of Pat Robertson? Why else would John McCain, who once denounced evangelical leaders as "agents of intolerance," give a commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University? Why else did Romney feel pressured to give that detailed speech on faith earlier this month? (Did the rise of "the legit Christian" Huckabee have anything to do with it?)

I believe the electorate is asking the wrong questions of their presidential candidates, and the media are complicit in their misguidedness. So long as one's faith would not prevent that person from governing effectively, it really shouldn't matter how often a politician goes to church, which church he goes to, or if he even goes to church at all. Voters should look to their pastors, rabbis, imams, and holy books for religious guidance and spiritual comfort. They should look to their elected officials for leadership and wisdom regarding economic, foreign, domestic, and social policy.

It's a travesty that Romney is being penalized for his faith while Huckabee keeps getting distracted by journalists who question the integration of his faith into his campaign. It's a travesty that Democrats are penalized for being perceived as unfriendly towards religion because they do not place issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments at the top of their agenda. And it's a travesty that of all the possible questions CNN's managers could have selected for that YouTube debate, they had to ask a question about how much of the Bible each candidate believed was true.

Lou Dobbs has complained in the past about the influence religion has in American politics. And other people, including conservative Christians, are beginning to become a bit uncomfortable with all this talk about religion as well. Peter Wehner, a former aide to President Bush, recently wrote a column warning Huckabee about the emphasis he has placed on religion in his campaign:

"Invoking one's faith is not unprecedented in American politics and is not, by itself, disconcerting. It can even be reassuring. But it is also fraught with danger. If certain lines -- inherently ambiguous lines--are crossed and faith becomes a tool in a political campaign, it can damage our civic comity and our politics and demean our faith...

"...[F]or those of us who are Christian, there is an important context to bear in mind: Jesus's entire ministry was directed against the pretensions of earthly power, and Christianity is trans-political, beholden to no party and no ideology. The City of Man and the City of God are different, and we should respect and honor those differences."
Dennis Byrne of the Chicago Tribune also has had enough of all this religious talk:
"The bigotry of secular purists has created a backlash, and, as is often the case, the backlash goes too far. The moral and religious beliefs of public officials inescapably guide them in their decision-making. It can't and shouldn't be otherwise. And voters have a right to consider what principles guide the candidates in the exercise of their office.

"But to require a detailed accounting of all those beliefs to see if they conform to a particular sectarian belief goes beyond what a democracy can or should tolerate."
Impartial observers abroad may look at this intersection of faith and politics and wonder how we are different from the enemies we are trying to defeat abroad. But it seems that many of us are too blind to consider this and would repudiate such remarks as being anti-American without addressing the actual substance of these remarks.

Mike Huckabee in particular should be credited with prompting this discussion--not about faith per se, but about its role in selecting a president. As for his political fortunes, because of how tightly he has woven faith into his campaign, he now runs the risk of being seen as a one-dimensional candidate--the Christian candidate. And that may turn off a lot of moderates and even Democrats who once viewed him as a conservative with a smile.

Religion and faith are hugely important issues. Too bad they seem to be important for all the wrong reasons, at least as far as politics is concerned.


The YouTube Debate: Critiquing Conservatives' Criticisms

There have been a lot of rumblings in the blogosphere about CNN's handling of the Republican YouTube debate this week in Florida. Popular conservative bloggers such as David Limbaugh of Town Hall and Michelle Malkin have excoriated CNN for including the questions they asked and not thoroughly vetting the "undecided voters" who participated in the debate. For example, there are links between the retired Army general who asked if gays should be allowed to openly serve in the military and Hillary Clinton. Also, during the post-debate segment, CNN conducted an interview with a focus group and highlighted an "undecided" voter who was so uninspired by what she had seen that she decided she would vote for Edwards. However, this "undecided" voter really had been an Edwards supporter all along.

To the conservative community, these are two instances show that CNN is biased against conservatives and is an arm of the Clinton political machine, as it is often derided as the "Clinton News Network." I happen to believe that conservatives may have a point when it comes to criticizing CNN's news judgment or the quality of their vetting process, but I also believe that a lot of their complaints is simply partisanship as usual.

To be sure, CNN was remiss in its journalistic responsibilities when they selected the questions that would be asked during the debate. One of the questions that made it on the air was from the Club for Growth's Grover Norqust, so it's reasonable to assume that there were other questions from other voters with political connections. In this age of eagle-eyed and tech savvy bloggers, the author of each video submission should have been subjected to a reasonably rigorous vetting process. It's easy to go to Google and type in a person's name and see what pops up. And if that yields too many search results, add the words "democrat" or "republican" and see if that narrows anything. If nothing obvious pops up, then there's a good chance that the question isn't a "plant." Remember the controversy surrounding CBS's Dan Rather and George Bush's military records? Eagle-eyed bloggers spotted something suspicious about the documents CBS News was basing their story on and did a bit of research on their own. They were able to quickly find out that the "military documents" were bogus, and this led to Dan Rather's demise. So, if a few independent bloggers could be so good at background research, why can't CNN?

Regarding the substance of the questions, the conservative blogosphere is railing against CNN and the "liberal media" for asking questions that paint Republicans in a negative light. They claim that several of the questions asked seemed to be confrontational ones akin to the sort that liberals would pose to them, rather than ones conservatives would pose to other conservatives. These are questions like the ones about gays in the military and the Confederate flag.

Here's why I disagree.

First of all, Republicans cannot complain about being asked these "liberal talking point" questions because several of the questions the Democrats received in the last CNN debates were about issues that are important to conservatives. Does anyone remember the question from the man in Michigan who had a huge shotgun and asked if the Democrats believed he had the right to keep "his baby" to protect himself? Another question came from a man with a guitar singing about how much he hated taxes. Taxes and gun rights are major issues indeed, but they are generally not issues that Democrats tend to focus on. Perhaps Democrats have had so much trouble electorally (at least prior to 2006) because they are not quite as adept at handling these issues as opposed to talking about the environment, education, and poverty.

Similarly, Republicans don't often talk about the role of gays in the military and the Confederate flag. They're happy to talk about "a strong national defense" and "states' rights," but talking about kicking gays out of the military and talking about the Confederate flag at all are much more politically risky. I think it's great that the Republicans had to answer these tough issues because if they don't answer them now, they won't be prepared to answer them in the general election. And for what it's worth, these issues do matter to a lot of voters, including Republicans. South Carolinians are abuzz with chatter about Mitt Romney's comments on the Confederate flag, for example. It even made today's newspaper.

Secondly, these conservatives often ridicule Democrats for not having a debate on the conservative-leaning Fox News Channel. A common attack on Democrats is "How can they stand up to Osama bin Laden and the terrorists if they can't even stand up to Fox News?" So, to use their same criticism, how can these Republicans not be rattled by Iran and North Korea if they are so easily rattled by CNN?

Politics is not beanbag. People running for office and even current office-holders often have to enter hostile environments and field tough questions from abrasive people. Mitt Romney has had to deal with people refusing to shake his hand because of his religion. Condoleeza Rice has endured protests from antiwar voters during congressional hearings. Hillary Clinton has had to remain calm while members of some of her audiences accuse her of being selfish and driven by her own lust for power. And of course, John Kerry could only watch as one particularly stubborn student was tased by the University of Florida Police. And what about Bill Clinton cutting down Fox News' Chris Wallace in an interview last fall for what he thought were unfairly tough questions? And every Sunday, politicians hit the airwaves to be grilled on shows like "Meet the Press," "Face the Nation," "Late Edition," "Fox News Sunday," and "This Week." That's why politicians have to be thick-skinned. That's why politicians have to be skilled at maintaining their composure. That's why politicians have to be prepared to talk about almost anything at anytime. That's why politicians have advisors and consultants and press secretaries. If these politicians think the questions are too tough, they should enter another line of work.

There is one question, however, that conservatives might have found okay that actually made me a bit uncomfortable. It was the question about what the Bible meant and how much of the Bible each candidate believed. This question tripped up Romney and was deftly fielded by Huckabee, but I don't think this question should have even been included at all.

Since when did one's interpretation of the Bible determine one's suitability for elective office? This is a very dangerous question that undermines what we are supposedly fighting against in Iraq and Afghanistan. I, for one, believe religion should be a private matter. But I'm not naive enough to believe that politicians should never discuss their faith at all. But what if a non-Christian or an athiest were running for president as a Republican? That candidate would have been at an inherent disadvantage because he would not be able to answer that question "correctly." And how can anyone give an answer about one's interpretation of the Bible that is more "correct" than another person's interpretation?

Consider Article VI of the Constitution (emphasis added):

"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Asking about one's interpretation of a religious text like the Bible comes awfully close to violating this. I can only wonder if political observers abroad (especially Muslims) are wondering about our nation's hypocrisy when it comes to religious tolerance in light of this question. I really wish Ron Paul had the chance to respond to this at the debate. That this question wasn't posed to him was a travesty in that there was a great opportunity to really get voters to actually think critically about the role of religion in our politics.

Let's hope that Anderson Cooper and the CNN political team do a better job of tightening things up in the future. In the meantime, conservative bloggers ought not protest so much about this because it's happened before and it will happen again. It's called politics.


Sorting out the Religious Right (R)

One of the main components of the Republican base is the Christian right. These evangelicals and social conservatives place a premium on addressing the issues of restricting abortion, banning gay marriage, keeping God in the public square, and restricting stem cell research. Despite President Bush's failures (Katrina, managing the war in Iraq, spending) and controversies (the Valerie Plame saga, domestic wiretapping), the Christian right generally gives Bush high marks because of two obscure men: John Roberts and Samuel Alito, Bush's conservative nominees for the Supreme Court.

As we enter the twilight of Bush's presidency, the Christian right is now looking for Bush's successor. Given that the next vacancies on the Supreme Court are likely to come from liberal retirements (Justices Ginsburg and Stevens), one would think that Christian Republican voters would pay special attention to the current field of Republican presidential candidates and coalesce behind the candidate that best represents their views. Given the size of their ranks and their ability to haul in campaign cash, the Christian right is a powerful wing of the Republican Party that most Republican politicians actively court.

But something seems wrong this campaign season. The top six Republicans (Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson) all have major flaws that prevent conservatives in general from throwing their weight behind any single candidate. In turn, that makes the Republican field particularly difficult to analyze.

Rudy Giuliani, who is on his third wife, seems hawkish enough on defense and has a 9-11 halo, but he has dressed in drag and has moderate to liberal views on abortion, gay marriage, and guns. Mike Huckabee is a credible conservative, but the antitax wing of the party has serious reservations about him and he is dogged by perceptions that he can't raise money and he can't win the general election. John McCain has a long record of conservative accomplishments, but he has angered the Republican base with his views on campaign finance reform and illegal immigration and alienated evangelicals when he refered to leaders such as Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance". Ron Paul is staunchly pro-life and a fiscal hawk, but his libertarian views put him out of step with traditional Republicans. Mitt Romney's personal biography allows him to appear as a family values Republican, but his religion matters to evangelicals and his rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail is quite different from his previous rhetoric from his governor and Senate races in Massachussetts. Fred Thompson was supposed to be the conservative savior for Republicans who liked "none of the above," but he has tended to underwhelm on the campaign trail and he has made statements suggesting that he does not fully understand some of the issues and/or is not as conservative as people had originally made him out to be.

So I would expect that support for any of these candidates is soft. This confusion and fragmentation apparently characterizes the Christian right as well. Consider the endorsement race. Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani. The National Right to Life Committee endorsed Thompson, although Focus on the Family founder James Dobson is strongly against Thompson. Bob Jones University Chancellor Dr. Bob Jones III endorsed Romney. Former presidential candidate and evangelical favorite Sam Brownback threw his support behind McCain. And then there are rumors that James Dobson may endorse Huckabee.

What does this all mean? For one, it means that ideological purity might not be as important as electability. This would explain Giuliani's high level endorsement and Huckabee's lack thereof, although Huckabee is much stronger in Iowa than Giuliani is. It may also mean that past legislative accomplishments matter more than rhetoric and promises about the future. This would explain Thompson's endorsement, as the NRLC cited his previous votes on abortion in the Senate at their reason for supporting him while disregarding the federalist views he expressed recently on Meet the Press. However, this would not explain the Romney endorsement. It may also mean that the Christian right is more diverse than pundits realize in terms of their priorities. Does this mean that a Democrat could attract evangelical support? It could also mean that Hillary Clinton is influencing evangelicals just like she's influencing Republicans in general. This would explain Romney's endorsement, as Dr. Jones said "this is all about beating Hillary." This naturally begs the question of what would happen if Clinton were to lose the Democratic presidential nomination.

There are still too many candidates in the race to make sense of this. But there are a few things that could happen that would help clear things up a bit:

1. Hillary Clinton's lead could become even more precarious. If Republicans begin to doubt that Clinton will win the nomination, how will this affect Giuliani and his endorsement from Pat Robertson?

2. The annual "War on Christmas." This seems to be a favorite of Fox News and religious conservatives. Will a Republican be tripped up on the campaign trail by a question about "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays?" Could that be a tiebreaker that moves evangelicals from one Republican to another?

3. A surprise Supreme Court vacancy. Should Justice Stevens retire before the race for the Republican nomination is settled and Bush appoint a new conservative justice who gets approved by the Democratic Senate, would evangelicals' political agenda be fulfilled? Replacing Stevens with a conservative justice would likely be enough to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which is a major goal of evangelicals. Would these evangelicals further mobilize to pack the Supreme Court with a possible sixth anti-Roe justice? If so, who would they coalesce behind?

4. Fourth quarter fundraising totals. If Ron Paul or Mike Huckabee turns heads with their fundraising in December, will that dry up evangelical support for candidates like John McCain and Fred Thompson? This is not to say that evangelicals will support Ron Paul, but it would allow them to question the wisdom of supporting Thompson if Paul can raise more money than he can.

5. The Iowa results. The Iowa caucuses are less than two months away. What will happen if Mike Huckabee places a strong second or beats Mitt Romney and wins the contest outright? Will evangelicals view this as unimpeachable evidence that Huckabee, not Romney, is the most viable candidate who represents their views?

Stay tuned.


T.E.R.R.O.R. (The Enmity Regarding Romney and Obama's Religion)

Although I am a news and political junkie, I am not an avid reader of traditional news magazines, such as Time or Newsweek. I do, however, subscribe to National Journal and am quite pleased. One of my favorite features of National Journal is their "Political Insiders Poll" which checks the pulse of Washington's top power players, such as consultants, campaign staffers, party officials, and even politicians themselves. This poll provides an excellent opportunity to contrast the mentality of the "Washington in-crowd" with the mentality of regular people.

This week's poll asked if Mitt Romney needed to address the issue of his religious faith the way that JFK did back in 1960. Here are the findings:

Among Republicans (83 respondents)
59% said do it soon
16% said do it only if he becomes the Republican nominee
23% said it's not necessary

Among Democrats (79 respondents)
44% said do it soon
42% said do it only if he becomes the Republican nominee
11% said it's not necessary

You have to subscribe to National Journal to read the comments associated with some of these responses, some of which were quite entertaining ("Faith voters will be so desperate to elect a Republican they can stomach [that] they will stick with him no matter what."). However, even without that added bit of color, these data reveal an unpleasant reality about our current state of politics and our nation's collective tolerance.

What a sad commentary.

Now consider this piece by the Politico's Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin. This piece addresses a widespread e-mail whisper campaign spreading disinformation about Barack Obama's religion. One of the e-mails is entitled "Who is Barack Obama?" and goes on to say that "Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background." The e-mail goes on to make further insinuations playing on our fear of Muslims by suggesting that Obama would not be loyal to the United States.

How utterly contemptible.

The United States has made great striedes in the name of equality over the past few decades. However, this progress has been a bit more rapid for some groups than it has been for others, as is evidenced by this USA Today/Gallup poll measuring voters' comfort with electing "certain types" of candidates.

Globalization, immigration, the abolition of Jim Crow laws, and the civil rights and women's suffrage movements have made sexism and racism far less acceptable to the general public compared to 30 years ago. However, in this age of terrorism, religious bigotry is still considerably more acceptable among a lot more people.

September 11, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the gruesome beheading videos have undeniably caused Muslims to be viewed with great suspicion. Radical Islamists, such as the Taliban and the Al Qaeda leadership, have come to be seen as the face of the Islamic faith. Their advocacy of sharia law, which is based on a strict interpretation of the Koran, seems to be the polar opposite of the freedoms we enjoy in the West. In addition to this, their record of violence and human rights abuses lead many others to believe that "most" Muslims are dangerous.

Opportunistic politicians are preying on this fear with Barack Obama. I believe Obama should be proud of his name because "Barack Obama" is who he is, however unusual his name may sound. His middle name happens to be "Hussein," which obviously lends more ammunition to his political enemies. I've heard many people, particularly (though not exclusively) conservative and Republican talk show hosts (i.e., Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, both of whom have audiences of tens of millions) commonly refer to Barack Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama" even though including his middle name is obviously unnecessary. However, while including Obama's middle name may be unnecessary regarding identifying who Obama is, it is quite effective at conveying what Obama may be. And it is contemptible.

Obama is obviously not a Muslim. And even if he were, it shouldn't matter at all. Who cares?

Needless to say, if so many Americans are willing to turn on one of their own as he aspires for holding the highest office in the land, it is easy to understand why there is such a gulf between the United States and the Islamic world. Simply put, "we" are scared of "them." And because we are scared of them, we cannot begin to understand them or lend credence to their views. This sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they confirm their irrationality to us on a daily basis simply because we do not attempt to meet them halfway and only judge them on our terms. That's why the Iranian president's recent trip to New York was such a public relations disaster for the United States. (You can read more of my take on that here.)

So in short, we will continue to view Muslims and the Muslim world hostily as long as we remain willfully ignorant of who they really are. And analyzing them through our own Western Judeo-Christian lens serves only to further disappoint us while confirming our own convenient suspicions of them. Why should we expect Muslims abroad to be friendly towards us if we are trying so hard to turn them into enemies we should fear, as some are doing with our own Barack "LOOK AT ME!/MY NAME IS HUSSEIN!/I AM AN ISLAMIC TERRORIST!" Obama?

Such nonsense is not restricted to bigotry of the overt variety. It comes in more subtle forms as well, as Mitt Romney is finding out. Much has been written about the fact that Romney is a Mormon. Fairly or not, a lot of people view Mormonism with suspicion because of its previous positions on polygamy, prophets, and the inability of Blacks to serve as priests. Evangelical Christians in particular view Mormonism as a cult. This is a unique problem for Romney because these evangelical Christians make up a sizeable portion of the Republican base. It will be quite difficult for any Republican to win their party's nomination without the support of this constituency.

I can only imagine how many times Romney has been told on the campaign trail that he is going to hell or that he is not a "true Christian." The hypocrisy of these supposed "Christians" who would hold Romney's religious views against him is astounding. "Do unto others" and "Judge not, lest ye be judged" apparently don't mean anything.

There has been a long-running joke about the Republican frontrunners: The only candidate who hasn't had a bunch of wives is the Mormon. I don't find that particularly funny, but one would think that this alone would endear him to the "Christian family values" wing of the Republican Party. Yet the "Mormon cult" thing remains as a huge stumbling block.

So Romney is stuck.

However, if Romney were to play down his Mormonism or avoid talking about it at length, he would be blasted for trying to hide from who he really is (a cultist!). And of course, if he were to address the issue directly, it would likely be a brutal experience for him that would dominate a few news cycles. However, I believe this to be the best course of action for him to take. If he puts himself and his Mormonism out there, takes his lumps, and successfully allays the concerns of his skeptics, I believe he would become an even more formidable candidate than he is now. "Even though" he's a Mormon, he would be seen as "more normal" than many voters thought. And since neither Fred Thompson nor Rudy Giuliani is talking much about their faith, this could potentially allow Romney to become the preferred choice among evangelical Christians. Mike Huckabee's momentum would likely stall if evangelicals' support for Romney became firm.

So I would look for Romney to voluntarily become more open about his faith in the future. And look for Obama to make a few more visits to Christian churches as well. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with talking about your faith or visiting churches and worshipping together. But the fact that some politicians have to do this primarily to quiet disinformation campaigns from bigots is clearly disappointing.


Why Minorities Don't Vote Republican

GOP presidential candidate Tom Tancredo is at the center of a firestorm over controversial remarks he recently made regarding fighting terrorism:

If it is up to me, we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland of that nature would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina."
(Please don't hold back. Why don't you tell us what you really think?)

If you have the stomach for this, you can read more about his remarks here.

President Bush rightly says that the War on Terror is not a war against Islam. Terrorists are Muslims that have hijacked their own religion and use their warped interpretation of it to justify killing innocents. But even though terrorists are not even worth their weight in garbage and are the scourge of the earth, Tancredo's approach to dealing with them is all wrong. Attacking holy sites in Mecca and Medina would only turn a billion Muslims against the United States for generations. If Americans thought they had a problem with terrorism now, they haven't seen anything yet if Tancredo gets his way.

It seems that Tancredo's remarks are not being well-received in the blogosphere, but these criticisms are generally coming from private citizens, as is evidenced by the comments readers posted at the end of the articles about this incident. One official at the State Department did call his remarks "reprehensible," but this gets at something even larger about the Republican Party that I want to address here.

Have you heard any of the other GOP presidential candidates repudiate Tancredo's remarks? Have you heard President Bush repudiate Tancredo's remarks, especially since he's talking about a better way to approach fighting terrorism? People may label Tancredo as a "firebrand" or "crazy," but I have yet to hear any of his fellow Republicans go so far as to call his remarks out of line or to even call him a bigot.

Minorities agree with conservatives and Republicans on a wide variety of issues. Immigrants (who are often ethnic minorities) are incensed about illegal immigration, especially since they had to jump through hoops and deal with the agonizing void of bureaucracy and paperwork just to enter the country legally. Lower class individuals, often Blacks and Hispanics, would love paying lower taxes to help better support their families. And gays also believe that a strong military is imperative in light of the fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq.

But Republicans destroy any possible chance of winning minority support when luminaries in their party say stuff like what Tancredo said and nobody calls them out for it.

When Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton says something stupid or inflammatory, Republicans quickly call on other Black leaders to shoot down their remarks and say they don't speak for all Blacks. I've read countless letters to the editor of my local paper (generally Republicans) saying that American Muslims should be protesting terrorism in city streets across the nation and that because they don't, these letter writers can't help but wonder if Muslims in general cannot be trusted.

But where are they with Tancredo? Why the double standard? If Jesse Jackson speaks for all Black people, Rosie O'Donnell speaks for all lesbians, and Michael Moore speaks for all liberals, then why doesn't Tom Tancredo speak for all Republicans? Why doesn't Ann Coulter speak for all conservative women? Why doesn't David Duke speak for all Southerners? Why should a State Department spokesman be the only person to say Tancredo is out of line? Is their silence indicative of the possibility that they actually agree with him?

These Republicans talk about how Christianity is under attack in the United States at the hands of God-hating liberals. These Republicans talk about how gay marriage threatens their way of life. These Republicans talk about how the Spanish language is destroying America. These Republicans rail against "Happy Holidays," "Season's Greetings" and other attempts to sound inclusive. Republicans seem to have a lot of perceived enemies, but the only thing these enemies want is to be seen as equals.

This is not to say that Republicans should pander by engaging in identity politics in an attempt to woo minority voters, but when so many people in one political party present themselves as being downright hostile to them in this regard, they will never win the political support of people who feel they are not welcome. Minorities are not going to listen to Republicans on taxes, terrorism, or immigration when they give them so many reasons to believe their traditions, cultures, and identities are not valued.


Whither Vitter: What is a Conservative?

I wrote the following letter to the editor of The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper. It was written in response to the ongoing statewide debate about ending blue laws. I wrote the letter on June 29 and it was published shortly before Independence Day:

The ongoing debate over blue laws perfectly illustrates why the Republican Party is in trouble.

Religious conservatives (primarily from the South) believe blue laws are necessary so that people can attend church or spend time at home with their families. Having to work on Sundays would prevent them from worshiping freely and spending Sundays in department stores and shopping malls goes against what the Sabbath represents.

Small government and libertarian-minded conservatives (primarily from the West), who may or may not be religiously devout, believe it should be up to individual people to determine how they want to spend their Sundays. If someone wants to go shopping at 11:00 Sunday morning, that is their perogative and they don't want other people taking this choice away from them.

How much longer will religious conservatives and libertarian conservatives be able to coexist as Republicans? I sense a divorce on the horizon.

-Anthony Palmer
Columbia, SC

What does this have to do with Senator David Vitter of Louisiana? Everything.

Politically savvy readers of The 7-10 probably know by now about Sen. Vitter's current political crisis by now. For those who are unaware, the phone number of Sen. Vitter appeared in the phone records of the "D.C. Madam," who is charged with running a prostitution ring out of D.C. area hotels. Sen. Vitter has since apologized and "asked for forgiveness."

Everybody loves a good sex scandal, no matter how much we complain about how the media focus too much on such tawdry subjects despite all the other more serious issues going on in the world. What makes this story all the more intriguing is the fact that it concerns a Republican. And it's not just any Republican--it's a "family values" Republican.

Jubilant squeals of hypocrisy from liberals and Democrats are predictable. Grumbling among conservatives and Republicans about liberal media bias and double standards as they investigate this story are also predictable. But not many people are talking about how this relative non-story illustrates a growing problem within the Republican Party. It's a problem that pits two major factions of the GOP against each other: small-government conservatives and the religious right.

Like I said in the letter I sent to The State, small-government conservatives generally want to be left alone. They don't want the government meddling in their personal lives and have more of a live and let live philosophy. These conservatives have a strong libertarian streak. While they may not agree with certain behaviors, they don't mind because they feel people should have the right to live their lives how they want, so long as they are not hurting anyone else. Soliciting prostitutes is probably not something most people would view as positive, but to these conservatives, to each his own. So their reaction to the Vitter story is likely one of lament that "big government" is interfering with personal liberties. Government itself is the enemy, not Vitter, and not the prostitutes.

Social and religious conservatives, however, are probably in mourning over one of their "lost sheep." To them, the enemy is not the government, but rather our society's decaying morality and liberals and homosexuals that promote this decay in values. These social and religious conservatives are staunch opponents of sex-related issues such as abortion and gay marriage. They passionately defend keeping "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, advocate prayer in public schools, and want nothing other than monogamy to be taught to schoolchildren. Infidelity is obviously feverishly railed against.

The problem for Senator Vitter is that while he has campaigned and legislated as an "Ozzie and Harriet" Christianist conservative, his encounters with the D.C. Madam and her ring of prostitutes are more reflective of the freedoms a small-government leave-me-alone conservative would defend.

How can both types of conservatives coexist under the Republican nameplate?

This dynamic is playing out in the presidential race as well. John McCain is of the Barry Goldwater mold of leave-me-alone conservatism. Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback are vying for the mantle of torchbearer of the religious right. Both groups constitute two of the three main constituent groups of the GOP (with the final group being defense hawks). And now many jaded Republicans are looking optimistically at Fred Thompson because they believe he is a blend of all three.

However, the influence of religious conservatives has been growing. Terri Schaivo, stem-cell research, constitutional bans on gay marriage, and the Ten Commandments have galvanized these conservatives into action, with varying degrees of success. However, the fact that these issues have been pushed to the forefront of the political dialogue (especially when Capitol Hill was dominated by Republicans before the Democratic takeover in 2006) is a testament to the political muscle these conservatives have developed over the years.

Now the Republicans are cannibalizing each other because no one can really say what a "real conservative" is now. How many times have you heard the GOP presidential candidates stress their "conservative bonafides" in the debates? Rudy Giuliani talks about the importance of being on "offense" against the terrorists. Mike Huckabee is "pro-life for the whole life." Ron Paul is basically a full-blown rebadged Libertarian. John McCain yearns for "smaller, smarter government."

There's got to be some sort of compromise or mutual understanding between these camps. If they can't reconcile their differences, they stand no chance in 2008. A divided house cannot stand, right? Perhaps to get around this issue, many of the candidates are comparing themselves to Ronald Reagan. However, this is merely a distraction because these conservatives have no choice but to redefine themselves as themselves. Disingenuously trying to run as someone they obviously are not is not likely to be a winning strategy. (Just ask John Kerry.)

So that leaves us with my original question: Exactly what is a conservative? Hopefully the political fallout surrounding David Vitter will help us understand.


On Biases

One reason why the 2008 campaign is drawing so much attention among the chattering classes is the "first" factor. The nation has the chance to elect the "first" Black president (Obama), the "first" female president (Hillary), the "first" Latino president (Richardson), or even the "first" Mormon president (Romney). All four of these candidates are viable in my estimation. The fact that they can transcend racial, gender, or even religious barriers is a testament to the progress America has made regarding prejudice and tolerance.

Or has it?

There was an interesting USA Today/Gallup Poll that came out a few days ago that asked respondents the following question (which I paraphrased):

If your party nominated a generally well-qualified __________, would you be comfortable voting for that person?

This question was completed by adding the words "Black," "woman," and "Mormon." Here are the results:

84% of respondents said they would "comfortably" vote for a Black candidate; 9% would vote for one, although they would have some "reservations" with doing so; 5% said they would not vote for that candidate; and 1% had no opinion.

78% of respondents said they would vote "comfortably" for a woman, 10% would vote with "reservations," 11% would not vote for such a candidate, and 1% expressed no opinion.

58% of respondents would vote comfortably for a Mormon candidate, 14% would vote for such a candidate with "reservations," 24% would not vote for such a candidate, and 4% expressed no opinion.

I could spend all day talking about the implications of this poll data because it's a real eye-opener. But unfortunately, it's an eye-opener for all the wrong reasons.

Let's examine these issues one at a time.

Considering that the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts are not even 50 years old, it is encouraging to see such high levels of support among the citizenry regarding Black and minority candidates in general. It would be pollyanaish or naive to lament the fact that there is still a sizeable chunk of the population that continues to harbor such prejudices in this day and age, but instead of focusing on the 1 out of 20 open racists (The US population is 300 million; 5% of that is 1.5 million, which is roughly the population of Montana and Wyoming combined), it would be better to rejoice in the fact that about 9 out of 10 people could presumably be counted on to put their money where their mouth is.

However, is the support among the so called "comfortable" voters really that solid? When Douglas Wilder became the nation's first Black governor, the election results were far closer than the polls had suggested. One could only conclude that White voters would tell pollsters one thing while doing something entirely different in the privacy of the voting booth. However, that was in 1988. Now it's almost 20 years later. Massachussetts elected the nation's second Black governor ever in Deval Patrick, and he won in a landslide. And even though Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee lost his Senate race last November, he actually performed 3-5 points better than the polls predicted. So maybe, just maybe White voters are more tolerant of being governed by Blacks than Blacks are willing to give them credit for.

The arguments against a female candidacy tend to center around one issue: the need to display strength and firmness when addressing conflicts. How would a female president have responded on September 11? Or when the levees broke? Or when the bomb ripped the federal building in Oklahoma City to shreds? Could a woman really be trusted to go toe to toe with the world's worst dictators and hold up against the pressures that come with the presidency?

Of course, a potent counterargument would be that men have done a lousy job of handling these issues, so perhaps a woman really is needed to "clean house." Psychologically speaking, women are more relational or communal characters, while men are more individualistic. Perhaps a woman's desire to find common ground or at least reach out to others could be useful in the diplomatic sense.

I suspect, however, that there's a large section of the male electorate that has an insecurity with successful women, especially if the woman in question makes more money, has more education, or has more accomplishments under her belt than they do. This is often true in the dating world, as men often feel threatened by women who occupy higher positions on the socioeconomic ladder. Think about it. It's much more common for the husband to be the working professoinal while his wife is the part-timer, the housewife, or the full-time worker in a junior position. It's much less common to see an attorney wife with a truck driver husband. If a wife is an attorney, I'd be willing to bet that her husband is a university professor, a dentist, or a scientist of some sort. The idea that a successful woman can threaten a man's ego is a foolish reason not to support a female candidate for president. However, this is a very real issue to many people. Thus, these poll data seem about right to me.

Admittedly, the results of this poll regarding the Mormon candidacy took me by surprise. 3 out of 5 people is not a particularly high level of support when it comes to being open-minded enough to potentially consider you before you even begin to express your policy positions. And the fact that your religion makes your candidacy a nonstarter for 1 out of 4 people is almost mind-boggling. I do not know how this 24% broke down in terms of political orientation. My kneejerk reaction is to assume the bulk of these people are religious conservatives or evangelical Christians that view Mormonism as a cult. Those on the left seem a bit more inclusive or tolerant regarding other faiths, as is exhibited by the "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays" debate.

So let's just assume for the sake of argument that most of these stalwarts are evangelical Christians. While I am not an authority on the Mormon faith at all, you would think that the fact that a Mormon is a believer in God would endear Mormons to mainstream Christians on at least a basic level. After all, their ire seems to be trained more towards athiests.

Unfortunately, the Mormon Church has had its image tarnished by polygamy and racism. The polygamy practice, however, largely died about 100 years ago. The racism charge is almost as laughable because this supposedly Christian nation is the same nation that sanctioned slavery, codified Jim Crow, established internment camps, and publicized lynchings. So it seems like the pot calling the kettle black in this regard.

Obviously, the Mormon candidate in the race is Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachussetts. I highly doubt Gov. Romney is going to legalize polygamy during his tenure in the White House. After all, he's the only top tier GOP candidate who is still on his first wife. And even if Romney did decide to take up the polygamy crusade, do you honestly think Congress will go along with him?

The "Mormons are racist" line of thinking, by the way, makes even less sense to me. While the North was certainly not a racially harmonious paradise in the past, I have a hard time accepting the notion that Romney is a racist simply because he is a Mormon. How could Romney ever have gotten elected as the governor of Massachussetts of all places with such views?

I personally don't care one way or the other about the teachings of the Mormon Church, but the arguments against a Mormon candidate just don't wash with me. These arguments seem to be based on fear. Actually, you could say that about all of these counterarguments. However, my sense is that there are a lot of voters out there who are inclined to send a message next Election Day, even if they don't agree with the candidates' views. Sometimes a President can transform a populace by his (or her!) very existence. Such a candidate can get the nation to talk about these issues in a way that no civil rights or feminist leader ever could. This bodes well for Romney, Obama, Clinton, and Richardson.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.