Political Intelligence

For the Love of God

Old Time Religion

During the past five years, the Bushies, using the megaphone of the mainstream media, have created a simple but widely accepted storyline about religion and politics. Republicans care about God and morals. Democrats, and particularly liberals, are not religious. Now is the time, according to Christian activist, author, and commentator Jim Wallis for progressive Christians to “take back the faith.”

Wallis appeared in Austin this month to speak about his concerns, which are the focus of his new book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.

“The monologue of the religious right is over and a new dialogue has begun,” Wallis vowed at El Buen Samaritano Episcopal Mission on September 21 during the first of a pair of lectures he presented for the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest’s annual Blandy Lecture series. Wallis serves as editor of the magazine Sojourners (which is both liberal and religious), and has authored several books concerning faith and ethics in public life. In 1995, he helped form Call to Renewal, a “national federation of churches, denominations, and faith-based organizations from across the theological and political spectrum working to overcome poverty.”

Walking up and down the small stage of El Buen Samaritano’s large, airy San Francisco de Asis Church, the self-described “19th-century Evangelical Christian” expounded his views on the use—and misuse—of religion in American politics. By neglecting its own religious constituency the left has allowed the religious right to co-opt faith and values in public discourse—with disastrous consequences, Wallis said.

“When only one side talks about faith and values, they get to define what it means,” he said. “The right is very comfortable with the language of faith, and values, and God. So much so that they think they own the territory. Or maybe even own God.”

He added that the religious right, ever touting its dedication to “family values,” has been able to polarize voters by narrowing public discourse on morality to two issues—abortion and gay marriage—diverting attention from more important issues that affect families.

“I am still an evangelical Christian, and I find 3,000 verses in my Bible about poor people,” Wallis said. “I insist fighting poverty is a moral values issue, too. And protecting the environment, otherwise known as God’s earth. Going to war is a religious matter, and a moral one too.”

In addition to the sins of GOP policy, Wallis also criticized what he sees as the left’s avoidance, and downright dismissal, of religion in the public sphere.

“How does the left forget that every major social reform movement in our nation’s history—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor laws, civil rights—were fueled in the beginning in part by faith and religion?… I believe in the separation of church and state, I really do, but that doesn’t mean the separation of moral values from public life, or the banishment of religious language from public discourse.”

Bend it Like Benham

Everyone seems to have a theory about why the major hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast recently. Some have blamed global warming; others fault the federal government. Few, however, can match the doomsday visions of Rev. Phillip “Flip” Benham.

Benham is the director of the Dallas-based anti-abortion group Operation Save America (formerly Operation Rescue). In Benham’s view, the Lord cast down Katrina and Rita upon America as a warning that we must stop the sins of abortion and “homosexual sodomy.” (Note to our hetero readers: Benham was very specific about the homosexual part, so it looks like you’re off the hook on the sodomy end of things until further notice.) Basically, we must repent all our other sins or the Lord will rain down ever greater horrors upon us.

On September 23, Benham put out a press release that reads in part, “God is roaring to us in America. Can we hear Him now?” The good reverend’s statement continues, “This time He is using Rita to get our attention. He has something to say to a nation that ‘legalized’ child sacrifice. We have been warned, we have experienced His judgments [those being Katrina and Rita]… Our call as a nation is to repent—not rebuild. REPENT! He will not be silent. God has more disaster than our federal government has relief!”

Benham hasn’t always been so preachy. In 1970, he received a BA in political science and international relations from that noted outpost of piety Florida State University (consistently rated the nation’s top party school). After a stint in the Army, Benham bought and ran the Mad Hatter Saloon in Kissimmee, Florida, before a religious epiphany in 1976. In 1994, he took over Operation Rescue, known for its aggressive protests of abortion clinics.

In a phone interview with the Observer, Benham said his organization has distributed thousands of pounds of food and water and medical supplies to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “We’re bringing bread with one hand, and the bread of life with the other—that’s our Lord Jesus… Jesus is the one who died for our sins, not Buddha, not Allah, not any of the others. It was Jesus.” He continued, “[The storms] are judgments. If you don’t stop child sacrifices—if you look all through the Bible—you’ll see that if you didn’t stop child sacrifices, that nation has ended.”

We need to note here that more than 30 years have passed since abortion was legalized in America. No matter, contends Benham. “People shouldn’t mistake God’s patience,” he says. “We will pay the price… Blood will fill the streets. There’s no police force who can stop that.”

Wither the Rio Grande?

Recent events probably have you thinking that global warming’s major impact on Texas will be huge hurricanes that frequently storm out of the Gulf and flood half the state. The real danger, however, may not be too much water, but too little. A new report by a coalition of environmental groups argues that the most debilitating long-term threat from global warming will be a steady depletion of the state’s major river—the Rio Grande. The river and its reservoirs supply most of the drinking water for Texas’ fastest growing cities, including El Paso, Laredo, McAllen, and Brownsville.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, a Colorado environmental outfit focused on global warming, wrote the rather sobering report, entitled “Less Snow, Less Water,” in conjunction with other progressive groups, including the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG). The groups analyzed government climate data in the West’s four major river basins: the Colorado, Columbia, Missouri, and Rio Grande. They found increasing temperatures in all regions. The Rio Grande river basin, according to the report, is experiencing its hottest five-year period in more than a century—about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit above average. The warming trend is most severe in January, February, and March—a finding consistent with climate studies that predict global warming will be most acute in winter. That has reduced the mountain snow packs that supply most of the water to the West’s river basins. Seventy-five percent of the water in the West starts as snow. The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization analyzed snow pack measurements by federal government climatologists going back to 1961 and found a steady decline in snow pack size.

The report blames these trends on global warming. “This isn’t just some hot weather cycle,” says Luke Metzger of TexPIRG. “This is the Rio Grande River Basin at its hottest stretch in the last 110 years. This is abnormal. Global warming is here and is something that we’re going to have to deal with.” TexPIRG and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization are part of a coalition called Clear the Air that advocates reducing emissions of so-called greenhouse gasses that climatologists believe are causing a steady rise in global temperatures.

The Rio Grande—sapped by lengthy droughts and farmers taking too much water for irrigation—is already one of the driest major rivers in the country. For five months in 2001, the river ran dry—for the first time in anyone’s memory—petering out 300 yards short of the Gulf of Mexico. That may become the norm. James Earhart, a climatologist in Laredo with the Rio Grande International Study Center, predicts that, based on the current trends, the river will run dry in Laredo by the end of the century.

On the plus side, it will be much easier to cross.

A Gay Time at ACC

Warren Chisum would like you to know that he doesn’t hate gay people. That’s not at all why he co-sponsored Proposition 2, the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions in Texas that will go before voters on November 8. Chisum, a folksy rancher and straight (we assume) Republican state representative from the panhandle town of Pampa, debated Anne Wynne, an Austin lawyer and gay-rights advocate, about Prop 2’s merits, or lack thereof, on September 15 in front of about 200 people at Austin Community College. Chisum wanted to make clear that the amendment isn’t anti-gay; it’s pro-marriage.

Chisum argued again and again that the amendment was needed to protect “traditional marriage” by defining it as strictly between one man and one woman. “My intent is to protect traditional marriage as it has been since the beginning of time in this state,” Chisum said. “You either are a man or you are a woman. You fit under marriage between one man and one woman. You can find a person of the opposite gender and you can be married. It does not discriminate. That’s the facts.” The young audience of mostly left-leaning college students was having none of that. Their derision toward Chisum was apparent in frequent boos and hisses.

Chisum was asked, if the amendment was just about defending marriage, then why does it also ban civil unions. In his response, Chisum revealed more than he perhaps intended. “If marriage was just about love, [civil unions] might have some merit,” he said. “But marriage is a lot more than just whether or not you love a person. It’s about respect, it’s about honoring. It’s about marrying for a purpose. If in fact we start degrading that and allow people of the same gender to call themselves married, then we’ve destroyed the institution of marriage and then marriage has no meaning whatsoever. If you start down that road, where do you stop? Do you have multiple partners? Is that possible?” Chisum didn’t say why gay people couldn’t marry out of “respect” for their partners or how allowing gays and lesbians to marry would “degrade” the institution. But he’s not anti-gay. Really.

By the end of the debate, Chisum looked like he had been rode hard and put up wet. Asked by a reporter if he thought he had changed any minds, Chisum responded, “It’s not likely.” The odds on election day, however, are on Chisum’s side. Similar constitutional amendments have been proposed in 17 other states, and voters have passed every one.

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Published at 12:00 am CST