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Terry Mattingly's weekly column on religion and the media.
Updated: 2 hours 20 min ago

Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

When it comes to fine cuisine, few gourmands would fight to be served peanut butter, sardines, beans and some other canned goods -- often cold.

While these foods are not very appealing, they are kosher. Thus, they are common items on the menu the Florida Department of Corrections has offered prisoners requesting kosher meals.

First Amendment activists have repeatedly clashed in federal courts with Florida officials who insist a kosher-food option would be too expensive.

"These aren't prisoners who have made up some kind of religion that requires them to eat lobster every day, claiming they're members of the Church of the Lobster," noted attorney Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket team filed an amicus brief backing the prisoners' rights, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

"No one goes to a lot of trouble to eat bread and beans," he added. "The prisoners are making these requests because this is what they believe God wants them to do. … The 'religious' diet these prisoners are being served is, frankly, unpalatable."

Federal and Florida officials have been haggling over these dietary details since 2011, leading to six federal-court decisions backing the prisoners. The state says a kosher-foods program costs about $12.3 million a year, compared to a U.S. government estimate of roughly $384,000.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently dismissed, again, Florida's claims that it isn't required to offer kosher meals in state prisons. Currently, 35 states and the federal government provide "religious diets" to prisoners.

"Our nation's prisons are not less safe because Jewish prisoners can have an acceptable religious diet. We would argue exactly the opposite," said Blomberg. "Our prisons are safer when people of different faiths are treated with respect and are allowed to follow their beliefs and there is no evidence out there to the contrary."

Religious-liberty disputes have, of course, been making headlines in recent years. In some cases, broad coalitions -- with activists on left and right -- have won significant victories linked to worship and visual symbols linked to faith.

For example, a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas won the right to grow a short beard, in keeping with this faith. Native Americans have fought against federal laws forbidding them to possess eagle feathers, which are used in their sacred rites. A Sikh believer at the IRS won the right to carry a small ceremonial knife in federal buildings. The "kirpan" is one of five sacred symbols Sikhs strive to wear at all times.

It helps, in the Florida cases, that most of the prisoners requesting kosher foods are active in traditional faiths -- Judaism, Islam and the Seventh-day Adventist Church -- that have clearly defined and often ancient dietary laws.

"There's no requirement that you show that your faith is old and has specific requirements, but that does help show the court sincerity and consistency," said Blomberg, in a telephone interview. "Sincerity is important. When many faithful prisoners are denied a religious diet, they don't eat food that violates their faith -- they go hungry."

However, religious groups that once stood united when defending the national Religious Freedom Restoration Act have clashed in cases pitting religious liberty against what some now call "sexual liberty." While many support the rights of prisoners to follow the teachings of historic faiths, these coalitions have splintered when discussing the rights of public officials and business owners to follow ancient doctrines about marriage and sexuality.

Then there is the ongoing case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order that has clashed with the White House over Obamacare mandates.

The First Amendment principles are supposed to be the same, inside prison walls and in the public square, argued Blomberg.

"The most powerful government in the world doesn't need to force nuns to provide contraceptives and other forms of birth control in the health-care plans they offer to people who work in their ministries," he said. "Our government has plenty of other ways to deliver these services to those people -- other than forcing nuns to violate the teachings of their faith. …

"There is space enough in our culture to allow different people with different beliefs to live peaceably in the same land. We really think most Americans would agree with that statement."

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Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

Monday, November 21, 2016

No doubt about it, most mainstream pollsters thought the vote totals that rolled in during Election Night 2016 were intriguing, then stunning and, as dawn approached, almost unimaginable.

How did the chattering-class insiders miss what was clearly widespread heartland support for New York billionaire Donald Trump?

But there was one surprise left in the details of the early exit polls. In a race packed with soap-opera conflict and fiery rhetoric about personal ethics, morality and even faith, the experts looked at the role that religion played in 2016 and discovered -- to their shock -- that it was a rather normal modern election year.

"Actually, that's astonishing news," said Gregory A. Smith, who helps coordinate religion polling at the Pew Research Center. "If you consider all of the tumultuous events during this election year and how much tension there has been and all of the other stuff that's been up in the air, it's amazing that things were so steady" in terms of religion and voting, with "only a few numbers up or down a bit.

"Religious groups that have consistently supported the Republicans gave every indication they would back Donald Trump and that's how things turned out. The religious groups that traditionally back Democrats did so, but the turnout was down a bit. The religious groups that are usually divided were divided."

The so-called "God gap" (also known as the "pew gap") held steady, with religious believers who claimed weekly worship attendance backing Trump over Hillary Clinton, 56 percent to 40 percent. Voters who said they never attend religious services backed Clinton by a 31-point margin, 62 percent to 31 percent.

As always, headlines focused on white evangelical Protestants and early exit polls showed that 81 percent of them voted either to support the thrive-married and often profane Trump or to oppose Hillary Clinton. Earlier Pew Research Center polling found that 51 percent of white evangelicals who said that they would vote for Trump indicated that they were actually taking a stand against Clinton.

Smith said learning how many evangelicals actually supported Trump -- including Hispanics and African-Americans -- is a question many hope to answer with future waves of exit-poll numbers. Trump's support from white evangelicals wasn't all that unusual in comparison with the three previous White House races, in which white evangelicals backed GOP candidates to the tune of 78, 74 and 78 percent.

Meanwhile, white Catholics supported Trump by a 23-point margin -- 60 percent to 37 percent -- compared with Mitt Romney's 19-point victory in that crucial swing-vote niche. Hispanic Catholics supported Clinton by a 41-point margin, 67 percent to 26 percent.

Clinton also drew overwhelming support from the growing coalition of Americans who are religious liberals, unbelievers or among the so-called "nones," people with no ties to any religious tradition. In the end, nearly 70 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans voted for Clinton, compared with 26 percent for Trump.

The percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans continues to rise in the population, especially among young adults, said Smith. However, pollsters are curious whether higher numbers of young "nones" will eventually begin voting. There was early evidence that "nones" voted in higher numbers in Democratic primaries, supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders, than in the general election.

"What we have here is a large group of potential voters," he said. "We have to see if they turn into actual voters."

Clearly, this coalition of unbelievers and "nones" has become a major force in Democratic Party life, said John Green of the University of Akron, a veteran researcher on faith and public life. Pollsters will be searching in the deeper pools of unreleased exit-poll numbers to see if that reality is affecting the party's historically broad coalition.

For example, asked Green, it's logical to ask if a "drift to the left on cultural issues" -- especially conflicts affecting religious liberty -- caused tensions with working-class Catholic voters in pivotal "Rust Belt" states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

"A Democratic Party that heavily depends on unreligious voters for support may find it harder and harder to run campaigns that appeal to constituency groups in the party that are intensely religious," he said. "That would include working-class Catholics, but there eventually could be tensions with evangelical Hispanics, with African-American churches and others. We will see."

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Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

Monday, November 14, 2016

It's been nearly a quarter of a century since foreign correspondent David Aikman wrote a novel about a second American Civil War, with a government led by urban socialists going to war with heartland conservatives.

Alas, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

About a year ago, the bitter events unfolding on cable-TV political news made it rather clear that it was time for a new edition of that post-Cold War thriller, "When the Almond Tree Blossoms."

"No matter who wins … there are people out there who think we are headed toward some kind of civil war," said Aikman, in an interview just before Election Day.

"It's disappointing that our nation really hasn't come to terms with all of its internal problems. Right now, it feels like it would take a miracle -- some kind of divine intervention -- to heal the divisions we see in American life today."

Aikman was born in Surrey, England, and came to America in the 1960s to do a doctorate in Russian and Chinese history, after his studies at Oxford's Worcester College. After contemplating a career in diplomacy -- he speaks German, French, Chinese and Russian -- he moved into journalism and became senior foreign correspondent at Time magazine. Among his many adventures, Aikman witnessed the 1989 massacre in China's Tiananmen Square and introduced readers to a Russian politico named Boris Yeltsin.

Ironically, Aikman wrote "When the Almond Tree Blossoms" -- the title is rebel code drawn from Ecclesiastes -- while preparing to become a naturalized United States citizen in 1993. In the novel, the liberal "People's Movement" -- backed by Russia -- rules the East and West coast power centers, as well as the industrial Midwest. The "Constitutionalists" control most of the Bible Belt and have dug into the Rocky Mountain West. But who will the pragmatic Chinese support?

Aikman said he wouldn't "change one iota" of his vision of Russia evolving into a totalitarian regime run by a strongman. On the other hand, "China has actually become much nastier in recent months, especially on religious issues," he said.

Aikman built his fictional civil war primarily on political and economic trends, along with a dash of conflict about morality and culture. Decades later, it's clear that cultural tensions -- often linked to religion and sexuality -- are creating deep cracks in American life.

Rather than violent conflict, "I think we're going to see an OK Corral shootout between state courts and legislatures over decisions by the Supreme Court and executive orders from the White House," he said. "It seems that Congress has lost the ability to find compromises on our most divisive issues."

For example, what happens if other states join Massachusetts in declaring religious sanctuaries "public spaces" under that state's new transgender anti-discrimination law? At some point, clergy may need to start adding "trigger warnings" to their sermons, offering outsiders an opportunity to leave their services if they do not believe ancient doctrines affirmed in that body of believers.

Obviously, said Aikman, the U.S. Supreme Court is not through dealing with hot-button cases involving religious liberty and the Sexual Revolution.

In the new edition, Aikman also added a postscript highlighting themes in the novel that have, if anything, become more relevant through the years.

For example, he wrote: "A major component of the book -- the People's Movement's hostility toward Israel and indeed toward American Jews -- has been expressed so far only by fairly far left elements of the American political scene. There nevertheless remains a serious danger that anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments within the United States itself could at some point develop into a major internal ethnic squabble in which Jews are blamed for many things wrong with American life."

Over the years, readers have asked Aikman why he ended the book at a crucial turning point, as an action by China created a new dynamic in the war.

The short answer is that he wanted was prepared to produce a sequel, but turned to writing a number of nonfiction projects, such as his books "Jesus in Beijing" and "One Nation Without God?"

"I have an outline and I know the rest of the story," he said. "I have to admit that I find it surprising, and rather sad, that the topic remains so relevant."

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Donald Trump and his angry, working-class Catholic men in the Rust Belt

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Diocese of Rockville Centre had to know the calls were coming, after Bishop William Murphy's letter was read in Sunday Masses.

"Support of abortion by a candidate for public office, some of whom are Catholics, even if they use the fallacious and deeply offensive 'personally opposed but …' line, is reason sufficient unto itself to disqualify any and every such candidate from receiving our vote," the bishop advised Catholics in Long Island and other communities east of New York City.

Murphy added, "Let me repeat that," and did so -- word for word.

The bishop also said he believes America is "heading in the wrong direction" -- especially on religious freedom -- and asked each believer to "examine your conscience" before voting.

A diocesan spokesman stressed that Murphy was "absolutely not" signaling support for Donald Trump for president.

This unusual Rockville Centre salvo was news, in part, because U.S. Catholic leaders have been surprisingly quiet in 2106 -- even with Sen. Tim Kaine, a Catholic progressive, in the vice-president slot for the Democrats. Some Catholic leaders have even received flak, from left and right, for noting that both major-party nominees have disturbing track records on matters of character and honesty.

Meanwhile, many Catholic voters will remember an earlier war of words between Trump and Pope Francis on immigration, with the pope noting that "a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel."

All of this matters, of course, because it's almost impossible for Republicans to take the White House without winning the "Catholic vote" in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other swing states.

Meanwhile, a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll showed white Catholics were evenly split (44 percent each way) between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Hispanic Catholics (84 percent) strongly backed Clinton.

Gender numbers were even more interesting, with 49 percent of white Catholic women supporting Clinton, while 58 percent of white Catholic men back Trump. Another 13 percent of white Catholic men were undecided, or refused to answer, along with 9 percent of white Catholic women.

That's a lot of undecided voters, especially if many of them are in strategic blue-collar communities, noted ETWN's Raymond Arroyo, the Catholic network's managing editor for news. While much has been said this year about angry white males hurt by global economic trends, the experts often fail to note that lots of them are "from typical labor-union Catholic backgrounds, either Polish, Italian, German or whatever," he said.

"Catholics are considered bellwether voters, but I think that's true because they're actually quite secular and they go where the country goes," said Arroyo, reached by telephone.

"Catholics don't vote because of any one issue. It's a matter of feeling and fit. … I'm hearing from lots of people who are still looking at Trump and trying to figure out who he is as a person. They've heard all the locker-room stuff. But many of these working-class Catholics don't mind that he's a guy who has been around and messed up -- like they have. … They're mad and they're looking for a fighter."

In a recent EWTN interview, Arroyo asked Trump hard questions about issues of honesty, character and morality, and received familiar, evasive Trump answers.

The GOP nominee, as expected, jumped on WikiLeaks emails that appeared to show Clinton staffers -- including campaign chair John Podesta -- discussing their clashes with traditional Catholics and the need for a "Catholic Spring" to force changes in Catholic doctrine, thus ending a "middle ages dictatorship."

The New York billionaire said his favorite saints are Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II, the latter because of he "had a special something. … There was a toughness, but there was a warmth that was incredible." Trump declined to discuss his prayer life, saying that subject is "between me and God."

What now? Arroyo offered this Election Day advice: Watch Catholic men in the Rust Belt.

"Lots of working-class Catholics aren't sure if they're Republicans or Democrats these days," he said. "They keep swinging back and forth. ... What I hear them saying is: 'I'll go in that voting booth and make a choice, but I'm not talking about it. I'll go behind that curtain and do what I have to do.' "

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Life after 2016 and the 'lesser of two evils' wars among religious conservatives

Monday, October 31, 2016

As the 2016 White House race unfolded, the Facebook home of one of Princeton University's best-known scholars was packed with cries for help.

The battle lines were clear. Religious conservatives wanted to know if they had to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Was picking the "lesser of two evils" still evil? Was it morally wrong to refuse to choose?

Robert P. George made his own convictions clear.

"If you truth bomb Trump but go silent on Clinton, shame on you," wrote George, an outspoken Catholic and distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Princeton. "If you truth bomb Clinton but go silent on Trump, shame on you. Whole truth!" In another salvo he added: "A ghastly choice for Catholics & others: One will taint and bring disgrace on our moral values. The other will wage unrelenting war on them."

With Election Day drawing near, George finally republished a note from June, pleading for charity in these arguments.

"Friends, we are in a terrible fix here. And it is putting some of us at each other's throats. It must not be permitted to do that. Donald Trump is dreadful. Hillary Clinton is horrible. One called for the killing of the innocent family members of terrorists. The other promises to protect the killing of unborn babies up to the point of birth," he wrote.

"For some of us, it just isn't obvious which of these two scoundrels would do greater harm in the long run," he argued. Whatever happens, those "who believe in limited government, constitutional fidelity and the Rule of law, flourishing institutions of civil society, traditional principles of morality, and the like are going to have profoundly important work to do. And we will need to do it together."

Yes, Republicans face what many are predicting will be a "civil war" between Trump insurgents and the party establishment, said George, in a telephone interview. It's also hard to know what will happen to the religious right after some of its elders backed the New York billionaire to the bitter end, no matter how lurid the evidence of his wild past.

What really matters is what happens to people in traditional faiths, including activists who never fit into old organizations led, in most cases, by evangelical Protestants, he said. Do the math. It will be hard for the Washington, D.C., establishment to completely ignore conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Southern Baptists, Eastern Orthodox Christians, traditional Muslims, Pentecostal Christians and others if they form coalitions on key issues.

It's not too late to make a "serious effort to combine religious groups into some kind of effort to defend religious liberty," said George, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The faithful in these faiths are "not going to flee to monasteries and abandon public life. … If the Republican Party falls apart, then they will look for some other vehicle in the future, perhaps another political party that emerges out of the wreckage of this election. It has happened before."

While it's easy to focus on White House executive orders and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, George acknowledged that religious believers face new challenges. For starters, it's clear that leaders of some major corporations -- think Google, Apple, Microsoft and others -- have decided to back the evolving doctrines of sexual liberation over the convictions of those defending centuries of religious teachings and traditions.

It will be hard to "push back" against the Chamber of Commerce, especially in debates among Republicans. However, religious leaders will, he said, at the very least need to plead with corporate elites to "remain neutral on issues affecting religious freedom."

That may sound idealistic or impossible. However, it's important to learn from the past -- even the recent past. George noted, for example, that Trump successfully attacked Republican orthodoxy on trade and corporate issues, but then claimed he had abandoned his history of support for abortion rights.

"Think back to the years after Roe v. Wade, when it appeared there was no way religious conservatives could win on abortion in battles with corporate interests and the Republican Party donor class," he said. "Who won those debates inside the GOP? … This time, Trump knew he couldn't challenge what the Republican platform says on abortion and on religious liberty. He didn't even try. That's important."

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Heart of the problem: Why so many men think church is for women (Part II)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Sunday after Sunday, believers stand and sing at the start of worship. Here is the question author Leon Podles wants church leaders to ponder: Which of these two entrance hymns would inspire the most fervor in men?

First, consider these modern lyrics: "I am God of the Earth like a Mother in labor I bring all to birth. With all the Earth we sing your praise! We come to give you thanks, o lover of us all, and giver of our loving. … We are your work of art, the glory of your hand, the children of your loving."

Now for something completely different: "The Son of God goes forth to war, a kingly crown to gain; his blood red banner streams afar: who follows in his train? Who best can drink His cup of woe, triumphant over pain, who patient bears his cross below -- he follows in His train."

Yes, times have changed and the second hymn is rarely heard today. However, Catholic and Protestant churches -- especially in the Western world -- have been struggling with masculinity issues for centuries, noted Podles, in recent lectures at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore. In most pews, women now outnumber men by ratios of two or three to one.

"The attitude toward church among the majority of men in Western cultures varies from, 'It's OK for women and children' to general indifference to a hostility that has on occasion led to mass murder," he said, referring to the slaughter of priests and monks during the Spanish Civil War.

"Why are men more distant from Christianity? Men and women are equally fallen, are equally in need of healing grace. Why are men more resistant to the ministrations of the church?"

Speaking to Latin American bishops in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI openly worried that "this kind of distance of indifference by men, which strongly calls into question the style of our conventional ministry, is partly why the separation between faith and culture keeps growing."

When men walk away from the disciplines of faith, Benedict added, they face the "temptation of surrendering to violence, infidelity, abuse of power, drug addiction, alcoholism, male chauvinism, corruption and abandonment of their role as fathers."

In his lectures, Podles -- updating his book "The Church Impotent" -- stressed several ways religious leaders can strive to reach men.

* Music and art matters. Why have so many clergy abandoned strong hymns and embraced the "Jesus is my boyfriend" genre? Meanwhile, sacred art often avoids depicting Jesus as king and judge, while featuring softer, emotional images. In the early 20th Century, the psychologist G. Stanley Hall asked American men to react to popular images of Jesus. Common responses included: "Looks sick, unwashed, sissy, ugly, feeble, posing, needs square meal and exercise."

* Bishops need priests committed to excellence in preaching and liturgy, because, "men are turned off by activities that seem to be inept and just another form of killing time," argued Podles.

* Understand that fathers are crucial to reaching sons. Focusing on fathers "avoids conflicts and jealousy" and shows men that priests assume a father's spiritual leadership is crucial in a Christian family -- as research has consistently shown.

* Don't be afraid when men show strong convictions -- even anger. "Was Jesus being a good Christian when he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers, fit for hell? There are five explicit mentions and at least 25 indirect references in the Gospels to the anger, frustration or indignation of Jesus," said Podles.

* Create ministries that allow men to help protect others and provide meaningful aid. "Men want to serve other people, but they want to do it in guy-like ways," he said. For example, consider allowing men to repair cars for the poor.

The bottom line: Do not fear challenging men to do difficult, even painful, things.

"We tend to gloss over all the mentions of honor and glory in the New Testament, but they really are the goal at which we aim -- to be honored by God, to hear His voice saying, 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' " said Podles. Thus, spiritual leaders must remember that, "men want to be respected, to be assured that they are real men. But the only real validation can come from an infallible judge."

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A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

It was conventional wisdom, in the Middle Ages, that women were more pious than men and that women went to Confession and took Communion during great church feasts "while few men do," as a Dominican priest observed.

Austrian theologian Johann B. Hafen saw this trend in 1843: "During the year who surrounds most frequently and willingly the confessional? The wives and maidens! Who kneels most devoutly before our altars? Again, the female sex!"

Early YMCA leaders found that one out of 20 young men claimed church membership and that 75 percent of men "never attend church" at all. A Church News study in 1902 found that, in Manhattan, the ratio of Catholic women to men was 3 to 1.

What about today? To see what is happening in Catholic sanctuaries worshippers just have look around.

"You may have noticed that in many Catholic churches everyone in the sanctuary except the priest is female and sometimes the masculinity of the priest is doubtful. I remember a 50-year-old priest with a page-boy haircut," observed author Leon J. Podles, speaking at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore.

"Most Catholic pastoral ministers in this country and elsewhere are female, so often there is not a male in sight during Communion services. ... There have been recent changes in some countries in the ratio of women to men in the church, but it has not been a result of more men, but fewer women attending."

The three-lecture series by Podles, a former federal investigator with a doctorate in English, served as an update on his controversial 1999 book "The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity." His remarks ranged from medieval theology to the "Jesus is my boyfriend" school of contemporary Christian music.

Some religious traditions do not fit this pattern, such as Islam, some forms of Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Christianity and other churches in the East. Podles said Western church leaders -- Catholic and Protestant -- urgently need to back research into why this is the case.

During his lecture on the history of this issue, Podles kept returning to two themes. First, in the Christian West faith increasingly focused on emotions and feelings, as opposed to action, service and sacrifice. Then this approach soaked into worship and sacred art.

"My theory is: men distance themselves from church because they think church, and maybe Christianity in general, is feminine, and they want to be masculine and don't want to be feminine," he said.

Throughout history, men have been willing to make great sacrifices to defend the faith and spread the faith. The list of laymen recognized as martyrs and saints was long, Podles explained -- until the late Middle Ages.

What men have never been willing to do, he noted, in a follow-up interview, is meekly follow leaders they do not believe are strong and inspiring.

"The idea got around" in the medieval church, he said, "that women were supposed to be docile and obedient and willing to do whatever they were told to do by priests. Then the idea got around that being a good Christian -- period -- meant that you needed to be docile and obedient. ... Then these two ideas became intertwined."

This eventually affected hymns, theology, art and literature. The bottom line: It's hard for priests to tell young men -- take lacrosse players at Catholic schools, for example -- that they must become "brides of Christ" to find salvation.

"Only if men become like women can they become Christian. That is the message that was long given to men," he said. Meanwhile, "masculinity values risk-taking; religion is for those seeking security. Masculinity is tough-minded; religion is for those seeking comfort. Masculinity accepts reality; religion is a fantasy. Masculinity is independent; religion demands obedience."

These mixed theological signals have made many men uncomfortable.

Consider, for example, this prose by English Puritan leader John Winthrop, in which he tells Jesus: "O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable are thou! Lett him kisse me with the kisses of his mouthe, for his love is sweeter than wine: how lovely is thy countenance! How pleasant are thy embracings."

Podles was blunt: "One does not have to have read Freud to find such language suspicious. Many men have found it objectionable. But some women still respond to it and make dates with Jesus."

NEXT WEEK: Parish strategies to appeal to men.

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Seeking Christian solidarity in, for starters, a few American voting booths

Monday, October 10, 2016

Michael Maturen is a Catholic writer, a businessman, a grassroots political activist, a former evangelical Anglican priest and a professional magician.

Seeking the presidency of the United States may not have been the next logical move for this self-proclaimed "nobody" from the tiny town of Harrisville, on Lake Huron in Northeast Michigan.

"I'm a magician, I sell cars and I'm running for president," said Maturen, laughing. "I am not delusional. People in the American Solidarity Party don't think we can win the presidency. Our goal is to promote the ideas behind our party and the idea that it's time to change our political system. … Two parties are not enough when you look at the reality of modern America."

This would have been more obvious if the party's founders had kept its original name, as in the Christian Democracy Party-USA. That would have linked it to major political parties -- primarily in Europe and Latin America -- with the "Christian Democrat" label.

Maturen said the name was changed because, while the party is built on Catholic social teachings, America has become such a diverse culture. The new name does offer a nod to Saint Pope John Paul II and Poland's Solidarity movement.

"Lot's of people are pretty disgusted with where we are in America," said Maturen. "What changed my own thinking was the ugliness of this election cycle. As a simple matter of ethics, I knew that I couldn't support Donald Trump and, since I am pro-life, I knew I couldn't vote for Hillary Clinton."

The American Solidarity Party is just getting started, of course, with chapters in two-dozen states and new members clicking into the ranks through social media. Maturen and his running mate, Juan Munoz of Texas, are on the 2016 ballot in Colorado, while working to clear legal hurdles in Louisiana and Florida.

At this stage, the goal is to arrange authorized write-in status in 30 or more states, he said. At some point, candidates from alternative parties will have to crack into the U.S. House of Representatives. As for the White House, an alternative candidate will eventually need to win enough votes to complicate the "winner take all" structure of the electoral college.

While seeking a "centrist" label, Maturen stressed that the party's platform is consistently progressive on matters of economics -- supporting single-payer national health care, for example -- and conservative on morality and culture. It defends human life from conception to natural death, thus opposing abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and the death penalty. It condemns all forms of torture.

The platform also states: "We deplore the reduction of the 'free exercise of religion' guaranteed by the First Amendment to 'freedom of worship' that merely exists in private and within a house of worship. … We will defend the rights of public assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We oppose the expansion of censorship and secrecy in the interests of 'national security.' "

Obviously, there are hard questions linked to this kind of project, noted philosopher David McPherson of Creighton University, writing in the interfaith journal First Things. For starters, many Americans don't want to vote for a party that cannot win. But in the year of #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary, there are voters -- especially Catholics, Mormons and evangelicals -- seeking ways to vote without pangs of guilt.

"Voting for the ASP may be seen as a protest vote against a system that presents us with such poor choices. But it is not merely a protest vote, because if we are to work fully toward the kind of politics we need, we must first break from the political status quo," argued McPherson. "The ASP should thus be understood as seeking primarily to build up a cultural movement, which ideally will come to have political influence."

Still, Maturen conceded that it's hard to think about the future while this White House race keeps causing bitter debates about religious believers needing to vote for the "lesser of two evils." What about the doomsday scenario in which Trump or Clinton grabs control of the U.S. Supreme Court for years to come?

"As a Catholic, I truly believe that your actions in life are supposed to line up with your beliefs," he said. "At some point we have to try to start voting that way."

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