'We're the Greatest': Empty Boast or Call to Action?

President Obama delivering his acceptance speech Tuesday night in Chicago.

I believe we can seize this future together -- because we are not as divided as our politics suggest; we're not as cynical as the pundits believe; we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions; and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America. And together, with your help, and God’s grace, we will continue our journey forward, and remind the world just why it is that we live in the greatest nation on Earth. -- President Barack Obama, 7 November 2012  

Yesterday I joined a Facebook exchange about whether the United States is indeed the greatest nation on Earth. By quite a few objective criteria, I argued, we trail other nations: health care accessibility, lifespan, maternal mortality, education, infrastructure development, employment, equality of opportunity ... well, the list is frighteningly long. We are clearly not the greatest nation on earth by any standards that people from other nations would accept, and we are becoming less great every year (for a European view of America's decline, read this sobering article - in English - from Monday's Der Spiegel).  

Yesterday I also told my two little dogs -- Muffin the poodle mix and Tiggy-Winkle the terrier -- that they are the best little dogs in the world. By quite a few objective criteria, I am deluded about my dogs. Tiggy  digs holes in upholstered furniture, and she barks so much that she was nearly kicked out of obedience school ("Just give up," the trainer advised; "she's going to bark, whatever you do"). Muffin snores, refuses to cooperate with her groomer, and bites large dogs. But I love my dogs passionately. I wouldn't trade them for any Westminster champions or obedience winners. Several friends, watching me interact with Tiggy and Muffin, have said they would like to be my dogs.

The 'Nones' Say 2012 Election Proves They are a Political Force

Man Holding Sign Exclamation Eugenio Marongiu / Shutterstock

Man Holding Sign Exclamation Eugenio Marongiu / Shutterstock

Last month, Lauren Anderson Youngblood, communications manager for the Secular Coalition for America, approached Broderick Johnson, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign, as they both left a conference on religion and the election.

The SCA is an umbrella group representing 11 nontheistic organizations. So who, Youngblood asked Johnson, could she reach out to with their concerns about civil rights, access to health care and education?

“He said, ‘We don’t view you as a constituency,’” Youngblood said. “He said, ‘We don’t do outreach to that community.’”

After Tuesday's election, that may soon change. According to a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study released last month, “nones”  those who say they have no religious affiliation or do not believe in God  are the fastest-growing faith group in America, at 20 percent of the population, or 46 million adults.

In addition, nationwide exit polls conducted Tuesday show that "nones" made up 12 percent of all voters  more than the combined number of voters who are Jewish, Muslim or members of other non-Christian faiths (9 percent), and only slightly smaller than the combined number of Hispanic Catholics and Black Protestants (14 percent). 

‘Mormon Moment’ Ends with a Loss — But Romney’s Religion Still Won


Mitt Romney concedes defeat to President Barack Obama Nov. 7, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY — Mormons in Utah and across the nation were thrilled by the prospect that one of their own might occupy the highest office in the land.

That won’t happen now. But Mitt Romney came closer than any other Latter-day Saint since that once-beleaguered brand of Christianity burst onto the American scene in 1830.

"For many Latter-day Saints, it was a surprise that a Mormon candidate was able to make it as far as Mitt," said Stuart Reid, a Mormon and a Republican state senator from Ogden, Utah. "He’s done more than any single person in recent church history to share with the general public what a Mormon is, putting up a very positive image about Mormons and creating interest in our faith that was unprecedented."

Despite the defeat for Romney, Mormonism came out a winner, said Philip Barlow, chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University.

"It developed a thicker skin in the eyes of the world," Barlow said, "and the world could see that a Mormon who runs for office isn’t, by definition, a nut case."

Overall, most observers say, the Romney candidacy was a net positive for his Utah-based faith.

Faith Means a Lot of Waiting Around

Oil lamp, KJBevan /Shutterstock.com

Oil lamp, KJBevan /Shutterstock.com

“Long Time Gone” is David Crosby’s anthem of hope in jeopardy. He wrote it the night Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. 

“I believed in him because he said he wanted to make some positive changes in America, and he hadn’t been bought and sold like Johnson and Nixon – cats who made their deals years ago with the special interests in this country in order to gain power,” Crosby wrote in the liner notes of the 1991 CSN boxed set. “I thought Bobby, like his brother, was a leader who had not made those deals. I was already angry about Jack Kennedy getting killed and it boiled over into this song when they got his brother, too.”

In the ‘60s, the Kennedys represented hope for change: racial equality, economic justice, and abolishing the death penalty, for example. Five decades later, you still don’t see many long-haired politicians, but that hardly seems the matter of dire culture import that it apparently was in 1968. And now we have a black president. Still, on the whole, Crosby’s words seem prescient, rather than anachronistic. 

Almost 50 years later, we’re still giving legal benefits to some couples but denying them to others, not to mention that we fill our prisons with brown-skinned people, too many women are still ashamed to report rape or domestic violence, greedy people hoard resources while others go hungry, and the president who campaigned on hope hasn’t been able to bring any real change in our unjust economy.

Obama Endorses Gay Marriage Push in Washington, Maine

Late last week, President Barack Obama endorsed the same-sex marriage referendum on the Washington state ballot and also formally backed a similar measure on the ballot in Maine.

The support from the president -- who in May came out in favor of gay marriage -- on Oct. 25 provided a boost for the campaign in favor of Washington's Referendum 74 just as a new poll showed that the race was getting tighter.

The announcement came in a statement issued by Paul Bell, the Washington press secretary for Obama's re-election campaign:

"While the president does not weigh in on every single ballot measure in every state, the president believes in treating everyone fairly and equally, with dignity and respect.  Washington's same-sex marriage law would treat all Washington couples equally, and that is why the President supports a vote approving Referendum 74."

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.

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.

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.

Evangelicals Mobilizing for Romney Campaign

RNS photo by Katherine Cresto via Flickr

Mitt Romney speaks to crowd in Nashua, NH.RNS photo by Katherine Cresto via Flickr

The Romney-Ryan ticket is the first Republican presidential campaign in history without a Protestant candidate, but this hasn't deterred evangelicals from launching massive get-out-the-vote and registration efforts to help Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan win the White House.

Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed, who has been involved in pushing evangelicals to the polls since 1988, has launched what he described as the "largest voter registration, voter mobilization and get-out-the-vote effort ever targeted at evangelical voters," specifically those who would be new additions to the voter rolls.

Reed's effort targets not only presidential swing states but also those with critical Senate and House races to help elect conservatives down ballot as well.

Working with third-party contractors, Reed and his group were able to identify and mail voter registration packets to slightly less than 2 million unregistered evangelicals based on everything from Census data to television preferences to what books they may have purchased online.

"There are millions of Bibles purchased in the United States every month. Most people aren't interested in finding out who is buying those Bibles — I am," Reed said.

Reed said he has a voter file of 17 million evangelicals in battleground states, and each household will be contacted seven to 12 times before the election through mail, email, phone calls and text messages.

Debating the Value of the Debates

file404 / Shutterstock

Conceptual abstract background: Communication. file404 / Shutterstock

Why, exactly, does it matter if President Barack Obama gave a lackluster performance in the recent presidential debate?

These quadrennial campaign sideshows have nothing to do with one's capability, preparation, aptitude or suitability for the presidency.

Why does Gov. Mitt Romney's spirited performance matter? What does a “victory” by one candidate mean, other than momentary bragging rights?

Surely we know that these debates are about as meaningful as an Oscar winner's thank-you speech. What we want from a president is a steady hand in dealing with a wicked and wayward world, a collaborative spirit in bringing a broad reach to government, and a magnanimous spirit in consoling war widows, helping victims of disaster, protecting the weak from the relentless predations of the strong, and trying to preserve an “American Dream” to which all, not just a few, are invited. We want signs of character, not a telegenic mien.

Presidential debates are like first visits to possible in-laws. You hope not to belch at supper — and then you return to the world where you are actually exploring marriage and building a life.