Category Archives: Events

How Jerry Falwell Changed the Republican Party

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

Jerry Falwell “stamped out” anti-Semitism in the Republican Party, said Michael Sean Winters, a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter—and no Falwell sympathizer—at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC earlier this week.

By making Israel a concern for conservative Christians, Falwell ensured anti-Semitism “has no political currency,” Winters explained. “Although he himself and many people in his pews had some anti-Semitism, there’s no political oxygen for those kinds of attitudes to reach any expression—and I think that’s undeniably a good thing.”

Winters, author of the new book, God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, appeared at CAP on Monday with Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne to discuss how the controversial figure has shaped both Christianity and politics in America.

Falwell, who grew up in a non-religious household in Lynchburg, Virginia, converted to Christianity shortly after starting college, and six months later, enrolled in seminary. As a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, Falwell was initially resistant to politics. “Fundamentalists have a long tradition and teaching called the spirituality of the church, that the church should not be involved in moral reformation,” Winters explained. “This obviously has its roots going all the way back to the Reformation and the discussion between faith and works, but was also a direct response to the social gospel movement.”

Even though he condemned Martin Luther King, Jr. for “politicizing Christianity,” by the 1960s and 1970s Falwell had started to engage with politics—first with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, and later with gay and lesbian rights and the 1978 IRS guidelines that determined whether a school had sufficiently desegregated. The next year, in 1979, a group of Republican operatives came to Falwell, asking that he “galvanize the base” on behalf of the Party, and in the same year he established the Moral Majority, which became one of the largest lobbying groups for evangelical Christians.

With his jump into politics, Falwell created a new brand of Christianity, Winters said. “In the 1950s and 60s, as Jim Crow was being pulled apart, you see the first explicit ideas about Christian nationalism and American exceptionalism coming to the fore,” he explained. “If they were no longer going to be racially superior, they had to feel that need to feel superior elsewhere—and that gives rise to the real hyper-patriotism and the sense of American exceptionalism that you didn’t find in the South previously…Southerners were not always too proud to be part of the Union.”

Bringing fundamentalist Christianity also brought new attitudes to conservative politics. “Republicans now tend to view all issues in terms of this absolute, fundamentalist view,” said Winters. While politics used to be about competing interests, now “it’s about ideology, and if you disagree, you’re not just wrong or have a different interest or have a different perspective—you’re a heretic, you’re a Republican in name only. And you just don’t see that attitude before Falwell.”

This development has been evident throughout the Republican primary season. Speaking on Fox Business Network Monday night, Mitt Romney argued that he is even further to the right than fellow Republican candidate Rick Santorum. “Rick Santorum is not a person who’s an economic conservative to my right,” Romney said. “His record does not show that he has the fiscal conservative chops that I have.”

Santorum hit back just hours later, telling voters in Alabama—which handed Santorum a surprise win in its primary yesterday—“If you look at the state that just voted on Saturday, Kansas, there’s no more rock rib solid conservative state in the country than the state of Kansas, it’s about as red as they get. Oklahoma, about as red as they get. And who won Kansas and Oklahoma?”

“This really is his contribution to the Republican Party, and in that way, shaped it more than Reagan,” he said. “I do think that today’s Republican Party is more heir to Falwell than it is to Reagan.”

Although Falwell may have brought the notion of conservative orthodoxy to the Republican Party, he also helped “get evangelicals over the idea that they could not be ‘yoked’ with non-believers” if they were pursuing a common cause. It is this development, Winters added, that may actually be helping Mitt Romney with evangelical voters.

“I think that Romney not only relies upon the idea that it’s okay to do business with Mormons, who they would consider heterodox in religious matters,” he said. “But I actually think Romney’s Mormonism helps him with evangelicals, because without that, he’s just a moderate former governor of Massachusetts…What evangelicals know about the Mormon Church is it’s conservative and it underwrote the campaign in California against Proposition 8. I’m not sure that it plays the way current narratives sense that it plays.”

Winters, a self-proclaimed progressive Catholic, said studying Falwell was like “waking up in a photographic negative,” but also credited the late pastor for two important political developments—“stamping out” anti-Semitism on the right and enfranchising millions of Southern voters. “I do think Falwell gets credit for bringing millions of Americans into the political process,” Winters said. “I don’t like the way that they vote—but that’s a different issue.”

Aviva Kempner and “The Rosenwald Schools”

By Monika Wysocki

In celebration of Black History Month, the National Archives in Washington, DC hosted a preview of Aviva Kempner’s newest film, The Rosenwald Schools, which chronicles the story of Chicago businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Inspired by the social justice-oriented teachings of his rabbi, Emil Hirsch, and Booker T. Washington’s book, Up From Slavery, Rosenwald helped finance more than 5,000 schools for black children and awarded scholarships to up-and-coming luminaries such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison.

Speaking to a packed room last week, Kempner shared the stage with Stephanie Deutsch, author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South. Moment caught up with Kempner after the event to find out more about this fascinating bit of history.

MM: What is the message of The Rosenwald Schools, and how is it different from your previous works?

AK: I make films about under-known Jewish heroes. In my previous films, all the characters are battling a particular kind of “ism”—in Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg it was sexism, in Partisans of Vilna it was fascism, and in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg it was anti-Semitism. In this again, we have an under-known Jewish hero, Julius Rosenwald, and an “ism”—racism. And he takes his mission very seriously in terms of providing funding for education and housing for black Americans. He was so inspired by Booker T. Washington’s book and realized that in the south there was such an incredible need for education.

 
MM: What initially drew you to this story?

AK: It’s an essential part of American history, a part of Jewish-American history. Julius Rosenwald was a man who gave away 62 million dollars in his lifetime, which today if you do the math would probably be more like a billion dollars. And he believed that his money should serve the public good; he started small in the Jewish community and then eventually really changed the world. He made a difference for 600,000 black children in the South, and he made a difference in Chicago. And it wasn’t for his greater glory—it was to make a difference in our society, which is very admirable, and it was decades and decades before the civil rights movement.

MM: What kind of response to the preview have you gotten from the Jewish and African American communities?

AK: On the one hand, the subject of the film is very esoteric and not well known outside of people who know Chicago history or are big philanthropists. But even though it’s not as well known, it’s something that’s very compelling to all different types of viewers. Today’s response, with people becoming very enthusiastic about sharing their own stories, is very typical. I always have people saying “My relative received a Rosenwald fellowship but I didn’t know much about it before this…” or “This is fascinating, I want to know more.” But, I had more tears at the preview at the Jewish Film Festival.

 
MM: What are some of the common misconceptions or little-known facts about the relationship between Jews and African Americans in the United States?

AK: The most important unknown fact is that there was this incredible working relationship between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington that resulted in over 5,000 schools for black children, decades before the civil rights movement. Today, they’re actually rebuilding these schools to make community centers and other things. The irony with Julius Rosenwald was that he never went to college himself but was a huge advocate of education. But there’s a commonality there in terms of valuing education.

 
MM: What kind of impact do you hope The Rosenwald Schools will have?

AK: Julius Rosenwald is one of these unsung heroes that can be a role model for us all. I hope audiences will walk away with a desire to learn more, and be inspired to get involved in philanthropy in their own lives. This is an incredible story of one man, one fund, one community working together that shows that matching grants really make a difference. The better educated you are, the more compassion you have, the more you tend to embrace your fellow human beings.

MM: When can audiences expect the see the finished film?

AK: Depending on the funding, it will either be done near the end of this year or early next year. If anyone is interested in donating to the project, they can do so by visiting the Ciesla foundation website or the film website.

For more on this topic, check out our previously published exclusive photo essay on Jews and African Americans. http://momentmag.com/Exclusive/2009/02/Jews-Blacks-1.html

Religion in the News

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

The biggest religion news stories in 2011 involved tensions with Islam, followed by faith in presidential politics, a new Pew report reveals. Some of the key findings in the study, “Religion in the News,” include:

  • Religion coverage made up just 0.7 percent of all mainstream media coverage in 2011, down from two percent in 2010
  • Religion received as much attention as race, gender and LGBT issues
  • Islam made up nearly one-third of all religion news stories last year
  • The top religion stories of the year included: religion in the election, Peter King’s “Radical Islam” congressional hearings, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, the Westboro Church protests, religion in September 11th commemorations, the Catholic priest abuse scandal and Terry Jones’s Quran burning

For more on religion coverage in the mainstream media, Moment speaks with Jesse Holcomb, a research associate with Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and one of the authors of the study.

MM: Your report says that religion accounted for only 0.7 percent of all mainstream media coverage in 2011. Why do you think religion gets so little attention?

JH: First of all, we’re talking about a fairly big news hole, and by that I mean a large space for a whole variety of topics. There are a lot of topics that get just a small share of that total pie, and religion is one of them. Part of it may be because other topics tend to get a lot of attention—politics, government, in this past year, foreign affairs, economics—and can crowd out the other subjects.

Another potential reason is methodological. In our daily analysis of the mainstream news media, we don’t study every story that appears in every newspaper, and we don’t study the entire hour of a news broadcast, or all 24 hours of a cable channel. We use a sample, so we look at the first half hour of news shows, and with newspapers, it’s the front page as well as the homepage of news websites. So what we’re really looking at is the stories and subjects that get the most attention, that get the most priority by news organizations. These would also presumably be the stories that people see most often. So it is possible that religion might appear inside the newspaper, but what we’re talking about is the top of the newscast. For those reasons—and a combination of other reasons—religion is just not one of those top subjects. However, it does appear as a thread in many other stories, especially politics.

MM: Why does Islam dominate religion news coverage, and what kinds of stories do we see about it?

JH: Muslims represent a numerical minority in the United States, so it is quite striking to see how many of the major religion stories of the year were focused on Islam. Lots of these stories revolve around some sort of conflict or tension. Those are traditionally the kinds of themes that can generate lots of attention. You won’t see as many stories in the top of the news cast that say, “everyone’s getting along.” These conflicts and tensions tend to drive the news agenda, so there may also be something in the zeitgeist of news room culture or perceived public opinion that is concerned about the issue of Islam.

MM: According to the report, the other big religion stories involved faith in politics. Has religion in the presidential race always been such a big story, or has it received more attention this year because of Mitt Romney and Mormonism?

JH: No, religion and politics tends to be a perennial theme in religion coverage in the mainstream news media. It was certainly a big aspect of religion coverage in 2007 and 2008. In fact, even though we have at least two major candidates for whom faith is an important part of their biography, the attention to religion and the campaign this year as a percentage of the whole, is less than it was in 2007, the last time we had a primary. So in fact it has gone down, if you look at those two years side by side.

MM: Do you think this news coverage of Mormonism is helping Americans understand the religion better? One Pew poll found that 62 percent of Mormons in the United States think that Americans know nothing or not too much about their religion, and another said 49 percent of white evangelicals don’t consider Mormonism to be Christianity.

JH: That’s a really good question, but it’s not a question I can answer definitively with our research. I do know that there have been complaints from the Mormon community about the way their faith has been portrayed in the news media, a common one being that Mormons have not been given the opportunity to define themselves in the press, that Mormons are often defined by people of other faiths, or characterized in a certain way by reporters. We can expect that Americans are getting a lot of their information about the Mormon faith through the media, but whether there’s a cause and effect between the kind of coverage there is and their attitudes, I can’t say.

A large portion of the attention to the Mormon faith in political coverage in the past year was focused on one incident, which was when an evangelical pastor who had endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry came out on the record and suggested that the Mormon faith is a cult. It got a lot of attention, and created some waves. No one in the mainstream media were condoning that kind of speech on the part of that pastor, yet it was a story that got a lot of play. And you could argue, for better or for worse, that it defined that faith in the context of the campaign throughout the year.

MM: Judaism was not mentioned at all in the report. What kind of religion news coverage have Jews seen in 2011?

JH: That’s right. One way that we broke down the media coverage was by looking at which religious faiths got the most attention, and which ones didn’t. So along that spectrum, Judaism was not one of the major faiths that was featured. Although we don’t break it out in the published report, I can tell you that the Jewish faith accounted for about four percent of all religion coverage over the past year. So it’s a small percent—it’s certainly more than Buddhism or Scientology, but it’s significantly less than the attention paid to Islam, Christianity. In the big stories over the year that involved Judaism, there wasn’t necessarily one theme. There were stories about a congressional race in New York involving a Jewish candidate, and stories about archaeologists in Israel digging up the ancient city, and so on—a of collection of stories that didn’t necessarily fall along one special theme.

Election News Roundup

By Monika Wysocki

Here’s a look at a few religion and politics highlights from this week…

The newest front-runner in the wildly unpredictable GOP primary, former Senator Rick Santorum, has dominated the media cycle with his provocative remarks about President Obama—accusing the President of governing based on “a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible,” and accusing him of orchestrating an “assault on all religion in America.” On Monday, Santorum’s spokeswoman mentioned President Obama’s “radical Islamic policies” in an interview on MSNBC—only to call the show after the interview to say she misspoke.

In the midst of the religious attacks, Santorum is surging in national polls and attracting larger crowds at public events, putting him on the stage as a serious contender for the nomination. Despite widespread disapproval and calls from 15 religious organizations for presidential candidates to refrain from using religion as a “political wedge issue,” Santorum’s remarks are likely to raise his profile and appeal to the surprising number of Americans who are unsure about President Obama’s faith. Which is no small matter—the latest research by the Pew Forum found that “beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance…” If Santorum succeeds in re-invigorating false claims that President Obama is a Muslim, the president’s approval ratings will likely suffer—despite his candid remarks on his personal religious beliefs.

Santorum is not the only candidate that has doubts about the sincerity of President Obama’s faith. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has also accused the President of “an assault on religion,” while Gingrich today called the president “the most dangerous president in modern American history,” arguing that the Obama administration has failed to address the problem of radical Islamists. Franklin Graham expressed similar notions on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” saying that “Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama.”

Santorum’s controversial remarks might win him support from evangelical Christians that are alarmed over the recent contraceptives debate, but in the long run the religion-based rhetoric could also alienate women and independent voters. Dick Polman points out that the largest Catholic college in America routinely offers birth-control coverage in its employee benefits and that the majority of Catholics support a federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control. In the end, Santorum’s attempts to brand himself as the most conservative of the GOP candidates and President Obama as an anti-Catholic may do the GOP more harm than good in November.

Journalists Lynn Sweet and Ron Kampeas on the Jewish Vote

By Alexis McNamee

For more on the Jewish vote in the 2012 presidential election, yesterday we listened in to “The Jewish Federations of North America Teleconference Series on the 2012 Presidential Election,” featuring Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau Chief at the Chicago-Sun Times, and Ron Kampeas, Washington Bureau Chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). In light of Mitt Romney’s win in Florida, the two experts focused on the important issues for Jewish voters today: the economy and foreign policy. Kampeas recalled Romney stating he would stand “shoulder to shoulder with our allies [in Israel],” whereas Obama has openly criticized Israel on its settlement policy. Yet Kampeas believes that as long Obama is “pro-Israel enough,” Jewish voters will not be deterred from re-electing him. Relations with Iran are also an increasingly important topic—Kampeas predicted voter focus will only shift to this matter if oil prices spike, but also noted that Republican candidates have been taking a more negative stance than Obama. Kampeas and Sweet later discussed Mitt Romney’s proposal to privatize Medicare, and said Jewish support would require Republicans to present a strategy that would protects seniors despite Medicare cuts. Both agreed that the economy is the most important issue to Jewish voters. Sweet suggested that the only way to guarantee an Obama loss in the fall would be if the unemployment rate rises above nine percent before the election. Still, both Sweet and Kampeas predicted that Obama would win more than three-quarters of the Jewish vote—roughly the same rate as in 2008.

A Moment With…Omar Sacirbey

By Sarah Breger

A June 2011 Pew poll found that 76 percent of Muslim Americans approved of President Obama’s performance in the White House—a figure far above the national average. The Muslim American community also voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in 2004 and in 2008, a major shift from 2000, when more than three-quarters voted for Republican George W. Bush. Despite these numbers, many Muslims are disillusioned with the president and the changes they believe he promised but hasn’t delivered. While the Muslim electorate is far from monolithic, and its numbers make up just a small fraction of the country’s population, Muslim voting power may prove significant in a close election.

Moment’s managing editor Sarah Breger speaks with Omar Sacirbey, a Boston-based correspondent for the Religion News Service and other publications, on this often-overlooked portion of the electorate.

MM: You recently wrote an article on presidential hopeful Ron Paul’s support in the Muslim community. Is there a “Muslim vote” in America? What are some factors that contribute to the Muslim vote?

OB: There’s more diversity in the Muslim vote this time around than in past elections. There’s a number of reasons for that. The community is becoming more diverse in terms of immigrants and American-born Muslims, and Muslims who came here when they were very young. Regarding Ron Paul, there is a mix of factors as to why this is happening. One is disappointment in Obama. When Obama won the 2008 election Muslims were hopeful, but those hopes have been somewhat tempered. Now, three years into his administration, many Muslims are disappointed that he hasn’t gotten the United States out of Afghanistan; they’re disappointed that he hasn’t done more, in their view, for the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and they’re disappointed in regards to civil rights issues, such as the Patriot Act and policies on indefinite detention, and so on. When they hear Ron Paul, they’re turned on by his statements on getting the United States out of Afghanistan and out of foreign engagements altogether; his desire to cut aid to Israel, indeed, to cut all foreign aid in general but again that he is including Israel; as well as his strong opposition to the Patriot Act and what a lot of Muslims—and others—see as draconian civil rights policies.

MM: Do Muslim Americans align with his social policies?

OB: There’s a mix. A lot of people are willing to overlook disagreements on these social issues in favor of these broader issues. Just like maybe some “values voters” might be willing to overlook Newt Gingrich’s divorces in favor of his conservative agenda.

MM: And are there areas where winning the Muslim vote is vital? 

OB: It’s hard to imagine the Muslim vote being a “make or break” kind of a vote, but it could make the difference in some states where there is a fairly large Muslim population, such as Michigan or Ohio, which are swing states. Possibly even Pennsylvania, where the Muslim population is probably smaller than in Michigan or in Ohio, but perhaps still big enough that in a state that’s going to be closely contested it could make a difference. There’s also a fairly significant Muslim population in smaller states, like Iowa. Again, it’s hard to see them making a huge difference, but if it’s going to be a closely contested election, every vote really will count.

MM: Are there candidates who are actively courting the Muslim vote?

OB: In this field—no. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum are viewed by Muslims as pretty much anti-Muslim candidates. I think you’d be hard pressed to find Muslims who support these guys. We will likely see similar behavior from Obama as in the past election, where a lot of Muslims were disappointed that when opponents would say, “Oh, he’s a Muslim,” or has Muslim sympathies, he wouldn’t say, “Well, I’m not a Muslim, but what’s wrong with being a Muslim?” like Colin Powell did. A lot of Muslims were disappointed in that, but others understood it and are willing this time around to forgive him for that

MM: Will the recently proposed anti-sharia legislation and surrounding discussions factor into voting decisions or serve to galvanize the Muslim vote in any way?

OB: It wouldn’t surprise me, because it has become such a prevalent issue since the whole process was initiated in Oklahoma—a lot of Muslims really are upset by this. They consider sharia to be personal and private and don’t want any kind of mixing between religion and government. They’re really offended by these types of actions, and scared by what they consider to be ignorance and hatred of their faith by these people who are in government. The anti-sharia movement has been a catalyst for many Muslims to become more active, even just getting out more in their communities. If you have a kid in your local elementary school, you’re maybe that much more likely to go to a PTA meeting, to go to a school board meeting, just getting out there and being visible. I think if that’s been the case, then it stands to reason that there could be a backlash against this anti-sharia movement, and a desire by Muslims to stand up and vote against people that are advocating these kinds of laws could be a factor that gets them out to the polls in November.

CAP’s “God in Politics” Forum

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

The Center for American Progress in Washington, DC hosted a forum earlier this week on “God and Politics: Examining Religion in the 2012 Religion.” Jews were never mentioned in the 90-minute talk, but speakers raised some illuminating points about the country’s religious voters:

  • Changing Demographics: The white mainline Protestant population is in decline, says Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. While the Catholic population has been steady, the demographics are shifting—the number of white Catholics is dwindling as Hispanic Catholics are on the rise. These racial divisions are also reflected in voting patterns: non-white Christians voted heavily for President Obama, while white Christians were split.
  • Evangelicals and Mormons: Almost half of white evangelicals—49 percent—say Mormonism is not a Christian religion, slightly higher than the 47 percent who say they would be uncomfortable with a Mormon president, according to PRRI surveys. Even factoring in other factors like Mitt Romney’s moderate social views and his work at Bain Capital, Jones says, “In the data, we see a consistent sign that his religion, particularly among evangelical voters, is still playing an independent role.”
  • More Believe Obama is Muslim: Forty percent of Americans still say they don’t know Obama’s religion, and 18 percent say he’s Muslim. “That number has actually gone up from 12 percent since he’s come into office,” Jones says.
  • Religion and Favorability Rating: Jones explains the strong correlation between perception of religious difference and favorability rating: Of the 51 percent of Americans who say Obama’s religion is at least somewhat different than their own, only 7 approve of him. Similarly, those who say Mormonism is very different than their own religion favor Mitt Romney 20 percentage points below those who say Mormonism is similar to their own.
  • What All Religions Agree On: Six in ten Americans agree with the statement, “Society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal.” Every major religious group agrees despite a stark partisan divide.
  • Trouble for Obama: Obama could lose this fall, says Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary. But only if four circumstances come together—evangelical voters show up in record numbers, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics sit this election out, Obama’s campaign has poor religious outreach, and if the Catholic bishops voice their discontent with the White House. “If you have those four, then the president could be in very big trouble,” he says.
  • Hispanic Vote: Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Hispanic Evangelical Coalition, says Hispanic evangelicals could be swing votes in several states this year. “The question, I think, is, are they voting around the immigration reform issue, or are they going to vote with their sisters and brothers in the wider evangelical communities around social conservative issues?”
  • Religious Intolerance: Since the anti-Catholic backlash against John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, “religious intolerance has mutated,” says Casey. “Now the targets are different, and they’re harder to detect because people have more social pressure to not admit it to a pollster. We do know that if you’re a Muslim, a Mormon, or if you’re unaffiliated, you’re in deep trouble if you’re running for elected office in the United States.”
  • Historic Anti-Mormonism: “This meme of Mormons not being trustworthy, of being secretive, of not being fully assimilated into the United States—this has been with us for more than a century,” says religion scholar and journalist Joanna Brooks. “So what Mitt Romney is working out and working through right now is more than a century in the making.”