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The following article appeared in Newsroom religious
news service on 2000-DEC-13. It is reprinted by permission.

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U.S. political divide confronts next president's religion policy

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Regardless of whether the next president of the United States is Texas Governor George Bush or Vice President Al Gore, division among the electorate and in Congress makes it more difficult for the incoming administration to set an agenda for religion issues on both national and international fronts, scholars and activists contend.

"The next administration will have to be able to say to the nation, ‘We (Americans) are not enemies, we’re diverse,’ " argued Bill Merrell, vice president for convention relations for the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee. "This will help the American people see the unity beneath the surface of diversity."

Elliott Mincberg, vice president and general counsel for People for the American Way, emphasized the importance of "common ground" efforts on the part of the next president as courts and legislatures continue to coax workable solutions to conflict over domestic religion policy. He pointed to President Bill Clinton’s record as one a future administration might do well to emulate.

Clinton "set a model demonstrating that positive things can be done" in the area of religion, Mincberg remarked, noting the issuance of presidential guidelines on religious expression both in public schools and in the federal workplace. "...What the Clinton administration did ... was use the bully pulpit, to use the phrase of one (presidential) candidate, to unite and not divide," to bring people together on the issue(s). I hope the future administration will proceed along that kind of line."

Citing among other things the outgoing president’s "ability to reach across religious lines," Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism, argued that Clinton had proved himself "one of the finest presidents in terms of expansion of religious protection and freedom since James Madison."

Others, however, remain unenamored with Clinton’s approach to religion issues.

"The mood or tone set by the Clinton administration," contended Merrell of the SBC, "implies certain kinds of speech are not tolerated if they’re not supportive of what are considered liberal issues like same-sex marriage and abortion...Speech directed at the right wing has resulted in the vilifying of religious people, and that’s unacceptable...setting one segment of the population against another is not honorable." The Southern Baptist Convention does not consider itself part of the right wing, he said.

Merrell argued that the next president would need to set a high moral tone for the nation in both speech and behavior, and promote the value of human life. "Moral influence accompanied by applications of such laws that are appropriate can change a place," he said.

Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis and an informal adviser to Texas Governor George W. Bush on Catholic issues during the campaign, claimed that while "Clinton has been willing to admit religion (into public discourse) ... it is religion …without any moral teeth. It is all about tolerance and good feeling for diversity." In a new administration, Hudson posited, "there must be a general reversing of pressure to eliminate religion from the public square and an understanding that society profits when religion -- religious symbols and a religious message -- makes its way" into the public arena.

Arguing that efforts to "make the public square naked" of religious expression to protect religious minorities are "wrongheaded," University of Richmond law professor Azizah Al-Hibri pointed out that such an "approach doesn’t appreciate the pluralistic nature of American society in which everybody should get to say something. We should protect minority religions as the majority religion makes its voice heard, rather than making society so secular that even the minorities feel uncomfortable."

While Al-Hibri did not comment on Clinton’s record in this area, she argued that the 2000 presidential election only magnified the national divide over how faith should figure into U.S. policy. Americans, she said, have proven to be "on the one hand staunchly secularist and on the other more willing to lower the wall of separation between church and state so as to include faith in the public square." She called on the next administration to lead the country in a conversation about religion’s place in public life in light of what she perceives as America’s increasing spirituality.

Government cooperation with religious charity organizations looks to be one of the ascendant religious liberty issues in the coming year regardless of who gets into office, observers on both sides say. Both presidential candidates have addressed the issue, referred to as "charitable choice" after a provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that allows the government to give money to religious institutions as long as the resources are not used to force individuals to participate in religious practices.

Under the banner of "compassionate conservatism," Bush aggressively administered charitable choice in Texas; Vice President Al Gore has vocalized his support for the provision.

Debate centers around whether government funding should go to what are called "pervasively sectarian" institutions and what sort of safeguards should be established to ensure freedom of conscience for individuals receiving charity. The American Jewish Committee is working with other organizations to put together a consensus statement on the issue and to delineate the arguments on both sides.

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Looking to other religion issues, AJC legislative director and counsel Richard Foltin noted a divided Congress would make it difficult to predict the fate of any one side’s agenda.

"The question will be, how does the new president deal with a Congress that’s evenly split," Foltin said. He argued that issues like school voucher programs and education savings accounts, both of which the AJC opposes, would be difficult even for a marked majority to pass. "... None of these (religion) issues breaks down cleanly between Republicans and Democrats," he said.

Still, a Republican legislative agenda on religion issues will be of interest should Bush take the White House and give Republicans control of both it and Congress for the first time in nearly 50 years, posited the Religious Action Center’s Saperstein.

"We’ll see whether they’ll try to ram through things of fundamental concern to key constituencies in their party," he said. For instance, the religious right, he claimed, wants "nothing more" than to see what is known as the Istook, or Religious Freedom, amendment to the U.S. constitution passed.

Originally introduced in 1997, the RFA would open the door to greater maneuverability in the area of public school prayer. The amendment states that while the government may not prescribe prayers or compel or require people to pray, "the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed."

Christian Legal Society senior legal counsel Kim Colby speculated that "with margins as close as they are in the House and Senate," Istook’s amendment, if introduced, would probably not get very far. "I can’t see it being given serious attention when there are many other difficult things for (Congress) to deal with. Why go into a fight you would be unlikely to win and one that would be messy?"

In the area of foreign policy, many scholars believe the Clinton administration has done well to integrate religious freedom concerns in America’s dealings with other nations, especially in the wake of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and position of religious freedom ambassador-at-large, among other structures within the U.S. State Department meant to track and promote religious freedom around the world.

In particular, current commission chair Elliott Abrams praised the two annual reports on religious freedom released to date by the State Department as required by the 1998 act.

"The report is an authoritative volume of useful information that bespeaks a lot of activity on the part of our embassies," he said. "However, we have not as yet been able to integrate our desire to promote religious freedom into foreign policy." U.S. policy toward China, for instance, does not reflect religious freedom concerns at present, he claimed.

In order to expand America’s promotion of religious freedom, Abrams argued, a future administration would need to bring to the table "a deep personal commitment on the part of leading officials."

Saperstein, who also serves on the commission, contended that an expansion of religion’s role in foreign policy would include priorities such as raising the issue of religious freedom systematically in U.S. dealings with other nations; developing a "comprehensive strategy to get other nations to join us" in our efforts; "getting the (State Department) report into the hands of foreign service officers in other nations; and seeking coalitions to deal with issues in other countries that are problematic."

He said he assumed a Gore administration likely would continue to promote religious freedom concerns in the direction set by the previous administration as encouraged by the 1998 act. He added that he was "not at all clear" how a Bush administration might prioritize religious freedom issues.

University of Richmond’s Al-Hibri, also founder of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, urged the incoming administration to ensure that a multitude of voices are included in dialogue and fact-finding about international religious freedom issues and pertinent policy-making decisions.

She observed that the Clinton administration had reached out to the American Muslim community in symbolic ways, for instance, initiating some conversation with Muslim leaders. "This is a modest beginning," she offered. "But an administration really concerned could follow up these efforts more substantively, which would be good for America." American Muslim Dr. Laila Al-Marayati serves on the five-member U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"The way we live together at home will be reflected in what we do vis a vis other nations," Al-Hibri added.

As the U.S. expands its dealings with other nations over concerns about religious freedom, it is important to be "as balanced in our judgments as we can," offered Doug Johnston, president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, D.C., even as practices that demand criticism or condemnation present themselves. An incoming administration, he said, should strive to recognize any positive steps countries may be taking.

"Other countries don’t like being beaten over the head, but it becomes far more palatable if we also recognize any good things they may be doing."

He added that both presidential candidates had cited as prospective advisers individuals who "grew up under a long-standing paradigm of international relations, which has to do with maximizing power and all but totally ignores the passions religion generates and the actions that flow from those passions."

"While it is now accepted that religious freedom is a touchstone of U.S. foreign policy," Johnston argued, "it is incumbent upon policy makers to incorporate more fully in their deliberations religious and other cultural concerns."

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  1. Newsroom is a service of Worldwide Newsroom Inc., PO Box 70, Oxford, OX2 6HB, UK. Fax: +44 1993 776 259; Email: [email protected]

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Copyright © 2000 by Worldwide Newsroom Inc. Used by permission
Originally published: 2000-DEC-13

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