WASHINGTON (BP)–A group of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders has promised to hold the 110th Congress to a new “faith agenda” that shifts emphasis away from opposing abortion and “same-sex marriage” — issues close to the heart of conservative Christian “values voters” — to issues traditionally associated with more liberal, mainline denominations and interfaith groups.
In a news release prior to a teleconference from Washington Jan. 9, the lobby Faith in Public Life said Congress should heed the power of religious voters who “rejected a go-it-alone strategy in Iraq and politicians that put power ahead of policies that promote the common good.”
“As a result, Democrats made gains among faith voters — reaffirming God does not belong to either party and religious voters span party lines,” the statement from the organization said.
Party politics nevertheless may be in play. Newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi urged Democratic lawmakers as early as January 2005 to use more religious language and develop a “faith agenda” for their party, a newspaper on Capitol Hill reported.
“House Democrats are people of deep faith and share the values of faith communities,” Pelosi told Roll Call in January 2005. A Catholic from San Francisco, Pelosi assembled a “working group” of 15 to 25 House members to assist Democrats in casting the party’s vision in a way that would reach the “faith-minded,” according to the paper. That group is now chaired by Rep. James Clyburn, D.-S.C., and is working to build relationships with faith communities.
Pelosi also told Roll Call that the Republican Party had pandered to religious voters. But exit polls in the 2004 presidential election showed strong turnouts by mostly conservative “values voters” in states where amendments that prohibited “same-sex marriage” were on the ballot.
After last year’s mid-term elections, various media outlets reported that some “conservative Democrats” were more socially conservative than the Republicans they faced and defeated. Democratic gains in Congress included several congressmen and senators who claimed to have strong religious views.
Presumptive presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, D.-N.Y., also has taken steps to make inroads into the faith community, hiring an “evangelical consultant,” Burns Strider, to work on her potential bid for the White House, sources on Capitol Hill have reported. Strider once was a staffer for Pelosi, and has worked for Clyburn as the lead staffer for the Democrats’ “Faith Working Group.”
But Katie Barge, spokeswoman for Faith in Public Life, contends that Democratic candidates’ discussion of faith and values last fall was “more than just a campaign strategy.” And so in the teleconference, Barge said a broad coalition of religious organizations had come together to push Congress to work toward legislation on economic and social justice issues that are not “right or left, Republican or Democrat, but right and wrong.”
Their key issues are:
A ‘LIVING WAGE’ AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE
One of the issues in the new faith agenda is the proposal of federal legislation to increase the minimum wage. Paul Sherry, national coordinator of the “Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign,” which lobbied successfully during last year’s mid-term elections for minimum wage increases in several states — Ohio, Colorado, Arizona, Montana and Missouri — said most Americans are “morally outraged” by low pay. He said the new Congress should raise the minimum wage from “an unconscionable $5.15 to a long overdue $7.25.”
The Democratic-controlled House was apparently listening, passing the minimum wage increase Jan. 10 by a vote of 315-116. Eighty Republicans voted with the Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 in three steps over 26 months.
But Sherry, who recently sent a letter signed by 1,000 interfaith religious leaders to Congress encouraging the passage of minimum wage legislation, signaled that if such an increase passed, there would be further efforts to raise the federal minimum wage. He described the proposed $7.25 figure as “an important weigh station on the way to a living wage.”
The House bill will move on to the Senate where Republicans likely will slow its passage. The White House also has expressed its concern that the hike is too steep for many small business owners.
Federally mandated, but unfunded minimum wage increases, while they put more money into the pockets of nearly 5 million Americans almost immediately, historically have hurt the average hourly worker and led to hiring freezes and layoffs with employers who hire unskilled laborers, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis, the Heritage Foundation, the Employment Policy Foundation and the Employment Policies Institute. The increase also causes rapid inflation as manufacturers, restaurant chains and retailers pass along higher costs to consumers.
Jeff Carr, chief operating officer with Sojourners and an ordained Nazarene minister, said during the teleconference that he favored raising the minimum wage. He said his group had proposed a “Covenant for a New America,” a policy agenda designed after Hurricane Katrina — a disaster that “really revealed what was going on in America.” The covenant, Carr said, calls on Congress to reduce poverty by one-half in America and pass legislation that guarantees health insurance for children. It also calls on Congress to work with the United Nations to end global poverty.
“If you look at the polls,” Carr said, “Americans say poverty and economic justice are the most urgent moral crises in American culture.”
Economic and social justice with regard to immigration reform is the concern of Sam Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Rodriguez, who described his group as representing nearly 15 million “evangelical, born-again” Hispanics, acknowledged during the teleconference that the 2006 elections were overwhelmingly about Iraq, but he asserted that the Republican Party lost Hispanic voters in double digit numbers because of their refusal to deal with the immigration issue.
“There is a strong faith ethos in the Hispanic community of the issues of immigration, poverty and economic and social justice,” Rodriguez said, encouraging Congress to pass legislation that secures the borders and stops illegal immigration. But he also advocated providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country and a guest worker program for those who want to come to the country for jobs. Rodriguez also described recent raids on factories by immigration authorities and anti-illegal immigration legislation in small towns as “legalizing racial profiling.”
Rodriguez presumably was referencing Farmers Branch, Texas, where the city council recently garnered national attention by passing legislation that made English the official language for city business and made it illegal for property owners in the city to rent to illegal immigrants. The city is now being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The new faith agenda also focuses on “creation care,” Paul de Vries, a board member with the National Association of Evangelicals and president of New York Divinity School, said during the teleconference. He discussed the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), signed in February 2006 by several evangelical leaders, including Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lakeside, Calif. He said the National Association of Evangelicals had long been thought of as “the secret hand of the Republican Party,” but that he hoped both Republicans and Democrats would listen to the NAE’s thoughts on climate change.
“God specifically made humans responsible [for creation] as His image, and as His representatives on earth,” de Vries said, noting that taking care of the environment is a way of showing love to neighbors who are “both upwind and downwind from the smokestacks.”
“How we treat His creation He takes personally,” de Vries said. “We’re people lovers, but we can be tree lovers at the same time. We’re people huggers and tree huggers.”
De Vries also said that people should learn to respect “God’s presence in all of His creation.”
Evangelicals, however, have traditionally rejected similar notions of “panentheistic” theology, a concept borrowed from Hinduism that declares God is in all. And 22 evangelical leaders, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, signed a letter asking the NAE not to take a position on global warming, which they cited as a theory without consensus in the scientific community.
NO WAR AND ‘TORTURE’
The United States should end the war in Iraq, the leader of a peace activist movement said during the teleconference. Rick Ufford Chase, who leads the organization Christian Peace Witness for Iraq — a coalition of peace fellowships from both Catholic and Protestant sectors — said his group intended to remind Congress that it has a “clear moral imperative to end the war” and bring U.S. military forces home. This imperative, he said, was “backed up by a political imperative in the last election, but one that is being ignored.”
Chase’s group is mobilizing a silent vigil in front of the White House March 16 to “say ‘no’ to war, ‘no’ to torture, and say ‘yes’ to rebuilding and ‘yes’ to justice.” The group also will host a service at the National Cathedral when several faith leaders will call for an end to the war. Chase also advocated financing the rebuilding of Iraq.
Jeanne Herrick-Star of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) also addressed the Iraq war, and more specifically what she called the torture of Al Qaeda suspects at the hands of U.S. military and intelligence operatives. NRCAT wants public oversight and debate over provisions passed last year which outlined what physical techniques may be used against detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention centers. She called on Congress to “abolish torture, particularly U.S.-sponsored torture.”
Herrick-Star also called for Congress to “roll back” military commissions or tribunals. She said prisoners should be tried under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, “which doesn’t allow for hearsay or testimony obtained through torture.”
Faith in Public Life’s board is led by Meg Riley, director of advocacy and witness for the Unitarian Universalist Association. She formerly was director of UUA’s Office of Gay, Lesbian and Bi-Sexual Concerns. Jennifer Butler, an ordained Presbyterian minister, leads daily operations with the lobby and is a member of the United Nations Executive Council of the Committee of Religious Non-Governmental Organizations. She is the author of “Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized,” a book which describes the alignment of U.S. government policy with conservative Christian values. The book was released in December 2006.