Ayn’t You Glad?

A brief comment on this morning’s (er, last night’s) events: I’d really like to thank Mitt Romney for selecting a politician who identifies with a religious minority to run alongside him in November. Objectivists have been heartlessly maligned by our industrio-capitalist society ever since the Messiah Ayn Rand left us mortals with only Peter (Alan Greenspan) and Paul (Leonard Peikoff) to propagate her legacy.

Actually, GOP VP-nominee (that’s painfully catchy) Paul Ryan does in fact belong to a minority religious affiliation, albeit one that isn’t without pretty significant influence and trust in today’s America: like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum before him, he’s Roman Catholic. He actually represents an interesting alternative to Newt and Rick, though, as his speeches are far more often peppered with reverence for the Atlas Shrugged author and how she inspires his “fiscal responisibility” platform than they are with appeals to Pope Benedict or condemnations of abortion.

Nevertheless, Ryan is rated a 0% both by NARAL on women’s reproductive rights and by the Human Rights Campaign on LGBT advocacy.

Almost certain he tried to sell me insurance once.

Again, naturally, this is an election year where the economy is the issue de force. Which makes Romney’s selection, a fellow whose faithful devotion to his fiscal philosophy even led him to require his staffers to read Rand’s holy magnum opus, even more unsettling for those of us who support socioeconomic equality and class restructuring. Oddly, the only time Ryan falls back on his Catholic faith is when challenged as a Randroid, where essentially he dismisses the notion that his economic philosophy is centered in cold, hard isolationism (painted with the bright colors of “responsibility”) and holds that he derives his values from Thomas Aquinas.

Fair enough. Although, Aquinas asked that we “beware of the person of one book.” And, of course, that we worship capital-R Reason, and the individual will is the path to salvation, and that a just price is dependent on the costs of production and not the collective needs of society. Perhaps our “future VP” is just afraid of aligning himself with the “A”-word?

Keep pedaling, James Taggart. Er, I mean, Bruce Wayne. Er, I mean, Paul.

Walker Bristol grew up in southeastern North Carolina, in a town somewhat known for being the principal filming location of Dawson’s Creek (his parents, and reality, insist that his brother Dawson was born and named prior to the show’s pilot). He escaped to Boston when he was 17, and now serves Italian food and studies religion and linguistics at Tufts University. He wrestled in high school, but now mostly ballroom dances and jams on the piano with the rest of the Tufts Freethought Society. For the first decade of his life, Walker believed “incorrectly” that he was living in the Star Wars universe. Having never been to space, he remains agnostic on that question.

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The Case to Protest the Convention

Perhaps because of the red-white-and-blue-tinted spotlight gleaming upon individuality, perhaps because of the utter sensationalization of politics—the American voter is often selecting the person, not the party. It’s one of several things that non-Americans who are (sometimes is seems unavoidably so) aware of the workings of U.S. public life consider peculiar, the relationship between our executive leaders and their party. Barack Obama did not achieve the presidency by first becoming the official chairman of the Democratic party—and I doubt if any Republican would ever consider nominating Michael Steele or Reince Priebus (giggle) for the office. The absence of a Prime Minister, the varied duties of the President, the (rhetorical) focus by many American leaders on seeking compromise—it seems party affiliation in today’s America is more a convenient shorthand, a malleable stamp, than an affiliation that commands allegiance.

Take that and run: what, then, are the Republican and Democratic National Conventions than further emphases placed on symbolic preference? Should we give them any attention at all? The party leaders certainly think we should. We face an election that could well be determined according to a single state—and in the last cycle, the neck-on-neck battleground was North Carolina. Barack Obama overstepped McCain by only a few thousand souls. And it was thereby not at all surprising, and indeed seemed like a well-informed decision, for the DNC to select Charlotte, NC as the site for the 2012 convention. Liberals below the Mason-Dixon line, hold our ground in newly-blue territory! The left is no stranger to optimism.

And, of course, optimism is no stranger to disappointment. North Carolina is far from being decided—in fact, given recent events, her Democrats seem to be subject to age-old disjointedness on social issues. Specifically, May 4th taught us how even despite great mobilization of the considerable student populations, they couldn’t protect the state’s constitution from an amendment securing a narrow definition of marriage.

Opposition, formidable in numbers.

There is certainly a Christian left, who Democrats have in the past considered, following a strategic cue from the right, yet largely rejected tapping by sacrificing leftist positions on abortion or same-sex marriage. If he wants to secure North Carolina, Barack Obama may in fact have to take that step—at least in a superficial way—which may entail essentially shifting his focus from social to economic issues. Lower-class North Carolinians who could  seek retribution from the crime of poverty inflicted upon the lower class in the state—a state with over 17% of its citizens below the poverty line, 3 % more than the national average). And much like the rest of the country, it is (especially) heavily racialized: more than one in every three black North Carolinians live in poverty.

What does this mean for a DNC strategy? There seem to be two dimensions of influence the convention holds, those being how it is absorbed by the public, and how it is absorbed by the party. It would naturally be entirely foolish to say that simply by virtue of location, it guarantees salvation for the NC Democrats. Rather, it seems to draw to NC national attention, which is almost certainly unwanted if the goal is winning over moderates.

Thus is the corner that the Charlotte convention has been backed into: the influence it will have on the public, particularly left-minded moderates, whose gaze will shift towards the unfortunate social chaos that characterizes the North Carolina democrats. A chaos which shows no hope of reordering itself before November: John Edwards will continue to wink at women jurors, junior staffers will continue to quit the Raleigh office charging their officials with sexual harassment, Bev Purdue will continue to suffer sub-50 approval rates, Amendment One will in all likelihood remain in the books.

Despite this, the Convention will certainly serve a not insignificant role within the party itself. This internal dimension will involve who the convention chooses to emphasize—given this is an election whose results are greatly dependent on what direction the American (and, for Ezra Klein, the European) economy drives in the coming months, it seems leftist economic superstars are who the Democrats ought to be affirming. If at the convention, Elizabeth Warren’s anti-corruption, pro-middle class economics can be spotlit, hope could be salvaged and propel the left forward, even if 2012 holds a further fiscal downturn. Of course, Charlotte remains home to some of these very institutions which Warren seeks to reform or rescind, namely Bank of America—and ironically enough, protesting laws generated as a response to the Convention’s placement led to the eviction of the Bank’s primary antagonist, Occupy Charlotte.

“In what many observers consider a dry run for this summer’s Democratic convention, the city has decided that constitutional protections end at the city limits. It has outlawed camping, reserves the right to search private property like backpacks, briefcases and duffel bags, and has banned a long list of common objects.” (The Nation)

Don’t get me wrong, North Carolina should not be abandoned by the party—merely to say that the Convention itself is neither a sufficient, nor necessary, nor even really a notable factor in whether Obama will retain those fifteen electoral votes. Grassroots and GOTV campaigning, particularly via rounding help from the younger voters who made up the minority in the May Amendment One election, ought to be extensive—particularly given that recent polls show Obama leading Romney in the state by scarcely a single point.

“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” If Obama’s inaugural pledge (albeit somewhat bone-toss-y) to the major religious affiliations of this country should inspire us to anything, it is resistance. Progressive North Carolinians: prove wrong the notion that your local Democratic party can suffer infidelity, irresponsibility, and incompetence and regain a state’s electorate merely by *more* bone-tossing. Speak out. Stand outside the walls of the Bank of America stadium and demand policy reconfiguration from the party leaders while they’re all in a single place. Democrats account for most of the nation’s non-Evangelicals. Kennedy knew it half a century ago: we have to make this a world safe for diversity.

Walker Bristol grew up in southeastern North Carolina, in a town somewhat known for being the principal filming location of Dawson’s Creek (his parents, and reality, insist that his brother Dawson was born and named prior to the show’s pilot). He escaped to Boston when he was 17, and now serves Italian food and studies religion and linguistics at Tufts University. He wrestled in high school, but now mostly ballroom dances and jams on the piano with the rest of the Tufts Freethought Society. For the first decade of his life, Walker believed “incorrectly” that he was living in the Star Wars universe. Having never been to space, he remains agnostic on that question.

The Candidates’ Shifting Gaze

Like any good blog should, we admittedly experienced a hiatus over the last month and change. But let your fears subside! We hath returned, and will do our very best to proceed with semi-regular content covering, analyzing, and advocating religious minorities in the 2012 election.

Just over six months remain until November 6th–and finally, the general election can begin.

We seem to have reached the phase of this cycle wherein, amid a series of compelling primary victories, a single, shiny, possibly robotic candidate has emerged out of the fray of infighting among the Republican contenders, and directed his efforts towards butting the head of the incumbent Democrat.

And so comes the question that has hidden itself beneath every scenario wherein Romney reigns: where are his (former) fellow Republican contenders’ voters, who have expressed nontrivial discomfort with a Romney-fronted ticket, to turn? Himself being of course, as Chelsey has investigated, “the Mormon” that snuck his businessman backside into the mix of Catholics and Evangelicals that have historically characterized the party (there was also, for a time, Huntsman, but his uncompromising dedication to being not-completely-evil rendered him fairly unlikely ever to go awfully far).

In remaining de fideli to my column’s domain, I’ll focus on Southern Evangelicals, who indeed seem to make up the demographic Romney would be find most strategic to rally in the interest of sustaining the right-wing base.

E Pluribus, Unum (although Romney would prefer the alternative)

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a not-so-foolish April 1st USA Today opinion piece, rightly noted the never-breaking dedication evangelicals have had to the right in past elections: three to one evangelical voters aligned themselves with the GOP nominee in both the 2004 and 2008 elections. Land continues to note that, naturally, Rick Santorum has been far out-supported by evangelicals in the latest primaries, although Romney’s recent appeals to the Tea Party–who naturally overlap with evangelical voters–have proved viable in, for instance, Tennessee.

Land follows with an interesting point: that the “the evangelical…unease about Romney has not been primarily about his Mormon faith but about his earlier pro-choice and liberal social positions.” He argues that to secure the evangelical base, Romney ought to emphasize his “pro-life [anti-choice] and pro-family [anti-family]” positions, and pick an ultra-socially conservative VP. It can of course be noted that McCain suffered from a similar problem with the evangelical base, although he certainly didn’t have to juggle the “Mormon problem”, which he solved in much the way that Land suggests Romney should: emphasizing social conservatism, primarily by picking the Ice Queen of Republicania to join him on the ticket. McCain’s evangelical support in 2008 was negligibly less than that of Bush II four years prior.

An important thing to take from this though, I think, is how Barry Obama might want to respond to the evangelical base shifting behind Romney. Naturally, Obama has warranted enough infamy on the right to rally almost any right-wing base behind his opponent (Land also highlights this fact). So what might the Nobel Peace Prize-recipient-for-not-being-George-Bush do? Seems like it is perfectly aligned with our lovely blog’s mission right here: turn to religious minorities.

This probably isn't as strategically viable as the man on the left might imagine

Using pluralistic language, emphasizing holidays that past presidents have ignored, meeting with faith leaders from a number of backgrounds–many of this is already underway in the Obama administration. But the 1/4 of this country who don’t identify with a Christian denomination are systematically subjugated and fractured by those with the megaphone–particularly in the South–and while some of their responsibility to unite falls upon their own backs (especially through nonreligious-inclusive interfaith partnerships, but that’s another blog), the President has to up his ante. He’s got to identify that his opponent, presumably the aforementioned Romulan but maybe still an ultraconservative superhero, is almost inevitably going to harness the power of the “Moral Majority”, and it is absolutely nonstrategic for him to think himself capable of turning hearts so hardened. But the son of an atheist and a former Muslim shouldn’t have much difficultly bringing himself and his allies to look to the invisible members–indeed, voting members–of predominately Christian communities who can make a significant dent in the armor of the conservative evangelical base.

Not to further the violent imagery, but this battlefield is primarily centered below the Mason-Dixon line. It certainly may feel fruitless to vote, locally or nationally, as a part of a culturally marginalized group. That’s why it is so important for big-name figures–indeed, the biggest name in the world–to align themselves with the loners of Southern American non-Christian households.

EDIT: And, of course, immediately after hitting “Publish” I’m faced with an article shouting that Rick Santorum has ended his candidacy, effectively securing Romney as the nominee. Huzzah for predictability?

Walker Bristol grew up in southeastern North Carolina, in a town somewhat known for being the principal filming location of Dawson’s Creek (his parents, and reality, insist that his brother Dawson was born and named prior to the show’s pilot). He escaped to Boston when he was 17, and now serves Italian food and studies religion and linguistics at Tufts University. He wrestled in high school, but now mostly ballroom dances and jams on the piano with the rest of the Tufts Freethought Society. For the first decade of his life, Walker believed “incorrectly” that he was living in the Star Wars universe. Having never been to space, he remains agnostic on that question.

Newsreel 2/11

  • Rick Santorum gained momentum this week by taking three caucus states in one fell swoop. While many still take Romney as the inevitable Republican nominee, this shows that race is far from over. Especially when Gingrich, who at this point has only won one state, has promised to not drop until the bitter end
  • In spite of the beating that Romney took earlier in the week, today it looks like he might be regaining some momentum after pulling out a win in Maine. Ron Paul, though, the only potential GOP candidate still in the race to not yet win a state, won 36% of the vote putting him just 3% behind Romney’s 39%. It seems that Paul isn’t going down without a fight.  
  • On top of his win in Maine today, Romney also won the CPAC straw poll. My gut tells me, though, this has less to do with the party actually liking him, but more as a pragmatic step that the GOP is making to make sure that they actually have a fighting chance against Obama. Mitt just can’t seem to catch a break.  
  • In other news, Obama has come to a compromise on the issue of the government mandate for all employers to cover contraception for their employees. This comes loud opposition by Catholics (and, later, the backing of many Evangelicals), who claimed that this trampled their religious freedoms.
  • Obama also has signed an executive order for the expansion of government collaboration with faith-based organizations by building upon the Office of Faith Based and NeighborhoodPartnerships started under the Bush administration. It’s still unclear, though, whether or not he is going to keep his promise to attach strings to that money that require that any organization taking government dollars to not discriminate grounds in their hiring practices against those of a different faith or no faith at all. Bush allowed it and Obama at least claimed on the campaign trail that he wouldn’t. He’s yet to act on that promise, though.
  • This last one is completely and totally off topic but there was an awesome piece for the New York Times written by a philosopher out of Notre Dame named Gary Getting entitled “How to Argue About Politics” that came out a couple weeks ago. I know on the internet if it’s more than 5 hours old it’s old news, but it’s a fantastic piece none that everyone should take to heart when discussing politics. Seriously. I’m pretty sure most of the problems we have today in this country could be solved by taking the lessons of this piece to heart. 

The Contraception Question

President Obama seems to have followed the example of the Komen Cancer Foundation (ironically) as he plans to amend a decision regarding women’s health that was met with widespread criticism. His administration’s recent health care mandate requiring private insurers to, as a part of minimum coverage, include contraception sent a number of religiously minded figures and politicians, most prominently Catholics, up and over the wall.

To keep from straying too far from the election, and geography, at hand, Republican former Senator George LeMieux, who is running in 2012 to reclaim a seat on the senate floor representing Florida, commented that he doesn’t see value in religious institutions (particularly those of his own faith, Catholic) taking government money at all. LeMieux thinks that “many of the problems of the federal government – that it’s too large and spending too much, is a moral problem at its base.” And, of course, he adds that America is becoming “too secular” and there’s a “war on Christianity”. I certainly think the last point is in error– although Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent Newsweek cover story brings up an interesting counterissue.

But anyway, LeMieux carries with him the general conservative response to Obama’s health care mandate, that it is restricting the liberty of religiously affiliated institutions by (until just recently) foregoing their religious exemption and forcing them to provide benefits that they see as antidoctrinal. A couple important things to note in this vein: firstly, a point my friend raised in a discussion earlier this week, to be “religiously affiliated” does not equate to having an all-religious staff. Many universities and hospitals that might qualify for a religious exemption have a number of staffers that may disagree entirely with the organization’s religious views (as if an organization can really even have religious views– maybe policies, but at any rate, that’s a issue for another time). A Methodist nurse at a Catholic hospital could easily find the contraceptive benefits useful and religiously sanctioned even if her bosses think that it’s a bad idea.

And in a way, though, I do agree with LeMieux’s initial point: why are these religiously affiliated institutions taking taxpayer money at all if they don’t want to abide by the policies dictated by our elected officials? It just seems like a strategically bad decision on their part–to expect lawmakers to run the risk of violating the Establishment Clause (in at least a spiritual sense, so to speak) to provide certain institutions with special treatment? Those accusing the President’s administration of being “anti-Catholic”, simply because they have set 21st century-level health standards that happen to conflict with a certain tradition’s beliefs and practices seem to, as the saying goes, want both to have and to eat their government-funding cake.

In 2012 election terms, I wouldn’t expect LeMieux to, if elected, devote a awful lot of time to encouraging religious institutions to disassociate themselves from the government, except in the sense of supporting privatization everywhere. His comments came as a sort of afterthought, where he was truly coloring himself an opponent of the contraception law and, as a religious minority candidate himself, wanted the government to recognize the exemption for religious institutions. I’d personally prefer to see a health care system that gives people a universal option for health care rather than this mandated stuff, and for the American government and media to work to educate people more on health issues so as to combat the opposition to contraception in the first place. Nevertheless, while 2008 seemed to be an election year of the economy and the war, 2012 seems to have replaced concern over conflict overseas with health care. And in swing states down below, in Florida as well as North Carolina, the concerns of the religious–minority or not–will almost certainly continue to take the forefront of political discourse.

Walker Bristol grew up in southeastern North Carolina, in a town somewhat known for being the principal filming location of Dawson’s Creek (his parents, and reality, insist that his brother Dawson was born and named prior to the show’s pilot). He escaped to Boston when he was 17, and now serves Italian food and studies religion and linguistics at Tufts University. He wrestled in high school, but now mostly ballroom dances and jams on the piano with the rest of the Tufts Freethought Society. For the first decade of his life, Walker believed “incorrectly” that he was living in the Star Wars universe. Having never been to space, he remains agnostic on that question.

Newsreel 01/28

  • This week’s South Carolina Primary saw New Gingrich emerge in a landslide victory over Mitt Romney and the rest of the runners in the race-to-race-against-Obama. Pew Forum released an exit report on the religious breakdown of the voters, noting that Gingrich took both the evangelical vote and that of those who consider it important that a candidate shares their religious views (curious, as Gingrich is a former-evangelical now-Catholic).
  • Writing on the South Carolina primary, president of the Secular Coalition for America Dr. Herb Silverman contributed a piece to the HuffPo citizens coverage of the 2012 race on Stephen Colbert’s endorsement of Herman Cain.
  • Mitt released his tax returns this week, revealing that he gives $20 million dollars annually to the Mormon church. WaPo columnist Lisa Miller points to this and a number of (ahem…biased) sources to suggest that religious people are, on the whole, more generous. Barring a simple correlation-causation mistake, I think it’s beyond silly to say, as she does, that someone might be “nicer” simply because they ascribe to specific faith tradition. Do you think she’s onto something?
  • On the topic of the Romulan family, a piece in Gawker looks at the conversion of Mitt’s father-in-law from “staunch atheism” to Mormonism.
  • In the 18,431,235th Republican presidential debate of this election cycle, GOP candidates discussed how their religious beliefs will or should affect their roles as president.
  • Turning our attention briefly away from the fiery-topic GOP race, the Obama administration, in addition to delivering this year’s State of the Union address, upheld a health care mandate requiring almost all employers’ insurance plans– including many Catholic organizations, which met criticism– to provide contraceptive services to women at no cost. Analysts worry that this might pose an obstacle to the Catholic votership as the incumbent president seeks reelection. Small price for women’s reproductive freedom, if you ask me.
  • And finally, a bit off-topic: Seemingly in an effort to garner support for the forthcoming Florida primary, Newt Gingrich, in all his scientific credibility, revived a Bush II promise that, if elected, he’d annex a new state by the end of 2020: on the moon. Without increasing NASA’s budget. In a time of financial austerity. A number of astrophysicists weighed in on the economic near-impossibility of the idea, but here’s everyone’s favorite, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who notes that, if possible, “the world” ought to have a moon base, to “push civilization as a whole forward in a way we never imagined before.”

The Palmetto Candidate

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” So it would seem, from Matthew 18:20, that Jesus was on Saturday walking among the polls of South Carolina, where Republican voters in one of America’s most evangelical Protestant states made their contributions to the selection of the 2012 Republican nominee.

But the January 21st primary shed surprise across faces of voters nationwide, as Newt Gingrich pulled a 13-point victory over everyone’s (reluctantly) expected victor, Mitt Romney. And now, officially, Mitt– who for so long seemed definitively to succeed John McCain as the GOP’s challenge to Barack Obama– has thus far only won one of three state primaries.

Quick aside: That is, in places where Obama makes it onto the ballot. Yep, some folks, most recently in Atlanta, have yet to cede that someone with a foreign dictator’s middle name could possibly have been born in this country. Even in Hawaii, with the highest percentage of multicultural-Americans in the country.

At any rate, the evidently-undoubtedly-American Newt Gingrich has now found himself locked in a duel with Mitt Romney for the red-ink place on the presidential ballot. It seems this mysterious landslide came from Gingrich’s staunch Catholicism, which he frames not as a Kennedy-esque pluralistic faith but rather as a position against the “secularization” of America by the “cultural elite” (who exactly is he referring to here, anyway? The “elite” in our culture, looking for instance at Cee Lo Green’s New Year’s Eve rewriting of Lennon, certainly seem to have no interest in driving religious sentiment, albeit perhaps pluralistic,  anywhere but back into public life).

Indeed, a Pew Forum survey determined that Gingrich scored best among South Carolina’s staple evangelical crowd, receiving 44% of their vote. He also won out in voters described as Catholic, although not quite as decisively as he did with evangelicals (he and Romney split the Catholic vote 37% and 29%). Growing up in southeastern North Carolina, I’d chalk this up to a feeling of slightly more progressive Catholicism among Southern voters. That demographic shares a number with the significant Hispanic minority in the Carolinas, who might be sympathetic to Romney’s tendency to emphasize his support for legal immigration even when advocating for border security and criticizing amnesty. Incidentally, Gingrich and Romney experienced a clash over immigration earlier today, as Gingrich turns his focus towards winning the Latino vote in the general election.

Romney and Gingrich chat

"Pull my finger, Frenchie, or pull the ad calling me a serial hypocrite. Your choice."

And yet, I’m not expecting Gingrich to go too much further. Looking primarily on the religious front, as we do under this domain name, neither candidate at this point offers a traditionally Protestant worldview to the GOP votership. Republicans are left with a choice: between a former-baptist whose conversion to Catholicism has come alongside a string of divorces and questionable family values (despite his cat-like ability to dodge questions in the realm), and a Mormon who has gone to great lengths to draw common ground between his faith and that of the non-Mainline voters who dominate the party.

On the 31st, Florida will hold its Republican primary, and then we’ll have a hiatus of Southern primaries until March 6th with Georgia, Tennessee, and Virgina (yes, they count as Southern, at least according to my arbitrary scale based on prevalence of sweet tea). Now the race has been (realistically) diminished to a duo of GOP prospies, both of whom count themselves among minority religious groups. And both will likely find that they have to pander to the Deep South’s characteristic evangelical crowd if they want to emerge first, as it’s seemed to work for Gingrich in SC.

Walker Bristol grew up in southeastern North Carolina, in a town somewhat known for being the principal filming location of Dawson’s Creek (his parents, and reality, insist that his brother Dawson was born and named prior to the show’s pilot). He escaped to Boston when he was 17, and now serves Italian food and studies religion and linguistics at Tufts University. He wrestled in high school, but now mostly ballroom dances and jams on the piano with the rest of the Tufts Freethought Society. For the first decade of his life, Walker believed “incorrectly” that he was living in the Star Wars universe. Having never been to space, he remains agnostic on that question.