Faith and Politics

Monks Win Latest Court Battle in Bid to Sell Caskets

NEW ORLEANS -- In a sometimes harshly worded ruling, a federal appeals court last week smacked down the Louisiana funeral board's continued attempts to prevent a group of monks from St. Joseph Abbey from selling their hand-crafted caskets.

"The great deference due state economic regulation (does not require) courts to accept nonsensical explanations for naked transfers of wealth," wrote Judges Patrick Higginbotham, Catharina Haynes and Stephen A. Higginson of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 23. "We insist that Louisiana's rules not be irrational."

The appellate judges sent the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court, refusing to consider the funeral board's appeal of a lower court ruling that said it was unconstitutional for the state to give funeral directors exclusive rights to sell caskets.

"Simply put, there is nothing in the licensing procedures that bestows any benefit to the public in the context of the retail sale of caskets," U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. ruled in July 2011. "The license has no bearing on the manufacturing and sale of coffins. It appears that the sole reason for these laws is the economic protection of the funeral industry," which he wrote is not "a valid government interest."

After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the abbey's timberland outside Covington, La., a longtime a source of revenue, the monks decided to sell their handmade caskets as a way to supplement their income. The abbey invested $200,000 in St. Joseph Woodworks and sold two types of caskets, "monastic" and "traditional," priced at $1,500 and $2,000 respectively.

"To be sure, Louisiana does not regulate the use of a casket, container, or other enclosure for the burial remains; has no requirements for the construction or design of caskets; and does not require that caskets be sealed," the appeals court ruled.

Muslims Back Obama, But By Smaller Margin Than 2008

Muslim families walking in Los Angeles.

Muslim families walking in Los Angeles.

Nearly nine in 10 Muslim American voters pulled the lever for the Democratic candidate in the last two presidential elections, partly because of Republican policies and rhetoric that many considered anti-Muslim. In 2008, they also thought President Obama would usher in an era in which Muslims would be more accepted at home, and relations between America and the Islamic world would see improvement.

But this year, Muslim American support for President Obama shows signs of waning, which could be enough to affect the 2012 election in key swing states where a few thousand votes could have a big impact.

Several of those swing states -- most notably Virginia, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Ohio -- have enough Muslim voters to turn a tight race, experts say.

According to a poll of 500 Muslim American voters released Wednesday (Oct. 24) by the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Washington, 68 percent of Muslims said they would vote for President Obama, while 25 percent were undecided. The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points, also found that 91 percent of Muslims intend to vote.

Millennials' Reflections on the New American Values Survey

Sojourners' 2012-2013 interns.

Sojourners' 2012-2013 interns.

On Tuesday, the religion, policy, and politics project at Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) hosted a forum to release PRRI's fourth American Values Survey (AVS), a large national, multi-issue survey on religion, values, and public policy.

We sent some of our interns to listen in on the findings. Here's what they thought about some of the issues raised by the report.

Turn Down The Noise: Fast, Pray, Vote

Yelling, Dmitriy Shironosov /

Yelling, Dmitriy Shironosov /

Note from Jim Wallis: On October 25, Troy Jackson wrote this piece for God’s Politics. He called for a “media fast” on November 2 — today. I thought this was a compelling idea so I am putting it out there again. So Turn Down the Noise: Fast, Pray, and Vote — today or one of the days before the election. Read and heed.

I was a teenager when the rock and roll "documentary" Spinal Tap premiered. Like many in my generation, I love the scene when Spinal Tap member Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) proudly shares with reporter documentarian Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) that the band's special amp has dials that go up to eleven: 

"You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? ... Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?" Marty responds, "Put it up to eleven," and Nigel emphasizes the point: "Eleven. Exactly. One louder." 

This election season, I have come to believe that Nigel was on to something. You see, here in Ohio we have seen political advertising go "one louder" and receive "that extra push over the cliff." The NOISE is so deafening, I'm convinced the campaigns and super PACs have discovered a way to turn the dial all the way up to 11!

The George McGovern I Remember

Sen. George McGovern in 2011. Photo by Cliff Owen-Pool/Getty Images

Sen. George McGovern in 2011. Photo by Cliff Owen-Pool/Getty Images


I will miss George McGovern. The former senator from South Dakota and Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 died in a hospice on Sunday, at 90, surrounded by family and friends who loved him.

Indeed, many of us did.

1972 was the first year I was old enough to vote in an election, and McGovern was the first presidential candidate for whom I voted.

To this day, I am more proud of that vote than most of the others I have cast since.

Some of McGovern’s people contacted me while I was still at seminary during the 1972 campaign. They wanted McGovern to have a chance to meet and talk with evangelical Christians, since his own Christian faith was very important to him — being the son of a Methodist minister and even having studied for a divinity degree himself for a while before deciding to go into teaching history. I agreed to help.

They couldn’t understand why most evangelicals at the time were for Richard Nixon, a man who turned out not to be one of the U.S.'s most honest, humble, or deeply religious presidents.

Watch the Vote: The Ground Game

Voting illustration,  suwan reunintr /

Voting illustration, suwan reunintr /

For the next 12 days it’s all about the ground game. With most voter registration deadlines passed, the fight against voter suppression has shifted focus from registration drives to calling banks, car-pools, and calls to vote early.

Bishop Dwayne Royster is Executive Director of P.O.W.E.R.  (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild), a 37-member interfaith organizing coalition in Philadelphia. Royster is also lead pastor of Living Waters United Church of Christ in Philadelphia. In a recent interview Bishop Royster explained just how vital the fight against voter suppression has been for the people of Philadelphia.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative, Philadelphia is the 6th poorest large city in America with a poverty rate that held at 25 percent in 2011. The unemployment rate is higher than the national average at 11.5 percent, and nearly half of all high school students engage in a fist fight at least once in the course of a year. Tensions are high in the City of Brotherly Love.

Politics, Debates, and the Nones

Debate image, Lightspring /

Debate image, Lightspring /

Monday night, I hit a new low. During the last presidential debate, I found myself arguing via Facebook about faith and politics … with a fellow pastor’s wife. Let’s just say, I managed to break each of Eugene Cho’s 10 commandments with my snark.

She who shall not be named suggested that anyone willing to support a certain candidate must be blind, stupid, or foolish. When I made it clear that I have prayed and reviewed the facts and would be supporting said candidate, I was told that my “prayers must not be backed by the Word of God.” I was then lambasted for my so-called "unbiblical" views. Oh, no she didn’t! 

Aside from feeling personally attacked, I was more frustrated that this kind of bad theology remains in the church. It’s no wonder that more and more people of faith are identifying as the “nones”— or none of the above when it comes to religious beliefs. Who wants to be associated with Christianity — Protestant, Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, etc. — and the Church when they are often dominated by such judgmental people who dare to speak for God? 

Obama's Biggest Religious Coalition? The Nones

The largest slice of President Barack Obama’s religious coalition -- at 23 percent --  is not very religious.

They’re the “nones,” also known as unaffiliated voters, according to a new American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Gov. Mitt Romney’s biggest bloc of religious voters are white evangelical Protestants, at 37 percent, followed by white mainline Protestants and white Catholics, each at 19 percent. Comparing the candidates' supporters, the more diverse religious and nonreligious coalition that's favoring Obama tends to be younger and growing, which could make it easier for Democrats to win elections in the future.

But there’s a down side for Obama, said Dan Cox, PRRI’s research director.

“The people most likely to support him are the least likely to vote: Latinos, the millennials (voters 18-29), and the unaffiliated,” Cox said.

Jews Rally Around Woman Arrested for Praying at Western Wall

Man praying at Western Wall. Photo by Ryan Roderick Beiler.

JERUSALEM -- Jews from Manhattan to Mozambique held prayer vigils on Monday to protest the arrest and incarceration of an Israeli feminist as she was leading 250 American Jewish women in prayer at the Western Wall. 

The Oct. 16 arrest of Anat Hoffman, who co-founded Women of the Wall to enable Jewish women to pray together at the wall, has elicited outrage, especially from American Jews, the vast majority of whom do not practice Orthodox Judaism.

The wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, has segregated prayer sections for men and women. Israeli regulations on holy sites forbid “conducting a religious ceremony contrary to accepted practice” and “wearing unfit attire.” 

Hoffman was officially arrested on charges of "disturbing public order."

Survey: Gap Between 'Social Justice' and 'Right to Life' Catholics

More American Catholics believe their religious leaders should be focused on issues related to poverty and social justice during this election season, rather than spending time and energy on other issues such as abortion, according to a new survey released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute.

The results of the 2012 American Values Survey demonstrate that American Catcholics -- and the "Catholic vote" -- is far from the monolith some politicians might like to believe they are.

"The survey confirms that there is no such thing as the 'Catholic vote,'" Robert P. Jones, CEO of PPRI and co-author of the report, told Reuters. "There are a number of critical divisions among Catholics, including an important divide between 'social justice' and "right to life' Catholics."

For instance, on the question of the public engagement of the church, the 2012 American Values Survey found important divisions between Catholics who prefer a “social justice” emphasis that focuses on helping the poor and Catholics who prefer a “right to life” emphasis that focuses on issues such as abortion.