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Episode no. 1144

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Coming up — religion and politics, seemingly inseparable in this presidential campaign.

Professor CLYDE WILCOX (Department of Government, Georgetown University): The majority of Americans are religious. They’ve got values that they use to judge politics by, and so how could you possibly pull those two apart?

ABERNETHY: And what children face when they become too old for foster care. Plus, teaching young people about the tragedy of world hunger.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: Welcome. I’m Bob Abernethy. It’s good to have you with us.

Both presidential campaigns zeroed in on religious voters this week. Senator Barack Obama pledged to expand President Bush’s faith-based initiative if he’s elected. The Democratic candidate spoke to a community outreach ministry in Ohio. He said he’s committed to helping religious groups get access to federal social service dollars and that he would ensure the program is constitutional.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): I’m not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I’m not saying that they’re somehow better at lifting people up. What I am saying is that we all have to work together — Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and nonbeliever alike — to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

ABERNETHY: Just days before Obama’s speech, Senator John McCain met with Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham. The meeting at Billy Graham’s North Carolina home was private. The Grahams did not endorse the Republican, but afterwards Franklin Graham said he was impressed by McCain’s, quote, “personal faith and his moral clarity on important social issues facing America.”

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: Religion has played an unusually prominent — and controversial — role throughout this campaign season, raising the question: What are the appropriate boundaries between religion and politics? Kim Lawton has our report.

Reverend LOUIS HUSSER (Pastor, Crossgate Church, Robert, LA, during sermon): What is right always outweighs what is wrong. Can I get an “Amen?”

KIM LAWTON: “Citizenship Sunday” at Crossgate, an evangelical church in Robert, Louisiana. God and country are the order of the day. There’s lots of patriotic music, a push to register new voters, and a sermon called “What’s Right with America?”

Rev. HUSSER (during sermon): Celebrate the freedom that we have as Americans, because it’s a God-given freedom. If you agree with that, can I get an Amen?

LAWTON: Pastor Louis Husser stresses that the Citizenship Sunday efforts at his church are all nonpartisan. He believes people of faith have a moral obligation to be involved in the political process.

Rev. HUSSER: One of the challenges with Americans is that we have been sold this idea that you separate politics from your faith and nothing could be farther from the truth.

LAWTON: But determining the proper relationship between religion and politics has long been a tricky business. From the earliest moments of the primary season, the situation this election cycle has been more volatile than ever.

Reverend C. WELTON GADDY (President, Interfaith Alliance): We’re in the midst of a political marketplace that is infused with religion. And there is a highly charged discussion going on, and sometimes you can’t tell the politicians from the religious leaders.

LAWTON: Both the Democrats and the Republicans are reaching out to people of faith in organized and unprecedented ways. Campaigns are seeking — and repudiating — clergy endorsements, while political activists are digging for dirt in the candidates’ spiritual connections. And in the midst of it all, controversies are heightened in a nonstop digital information age.

Professor CLYDE WILCOX (Department of Government, Georgetown University): I can’t really articulate where the line is, but I think in some ways, maybe we have crossed a line that’s important that we rethink.

LAWTON : The IRS has set up a few guidelines. Churches and other religious groups that get a tax exemption may not get involved in the campaigns of individual candidates or engage in partisan politicking. Clergy may not endorse candidates from their pulpits, although they can make endorsements as private citizens. But there are a lot of gray areas. And for many, the question is not just what’s legal, but also, what’s moral?

Rev. GADDY: It is not what can I do? It’s what should I do as the leader of a house of worship or as a candidate for the presidency of the United States?

LAWTON: The issue of clergy endorsements has been particularly controversial this time around. To what extent should a candidate be accountable for everything his or her endorser has said and done? John McCain sought the endorsement of evangelical megachurch pastor John Hagee.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ, during speech at CUFI): And I thank you for your spiritual guidance to politicians like me who need it fairly often. It’s very hard to do the Lord’s work in the city of Satan.

LAWTON: Then political activists discovered controversial past comments Hagee made about Catholics, and about the Holocaust. Those comments flew around the internet. Hagee said his views were being distorted and unfairly attacked, but McCain ended up rejecting his endorsement. McCain also distanced himself from another endorser, Ohio pastor Rod Parsley, over past comments the evangelical leader made about Islam. Parsley said his sermons had been quote “turned into political weapons.”

Prof. WILCOX: When a religious leader makes a political endorsement, then they have entered into the political arena and they have subjected their past views, public — you know, and as much as we can know of the private ones — to some kind of scrutiny, which is one of the reasons they should think twice about political endorsements.

Rev. GADDY: Whoever plays in politics is going to be involved in hardball politics and that shouldn’t be a surprise, especially when the stakes are so high.

LAWTON: Meanwhile, do clergy have the right to criticize who their parishioners endorse?

Douglas Kmiec is a prominent professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University. An official in the Reagan administration, Kmiec is a well-known opponent of abortion. Many fellow Catholics were shocked when he announced his support for Barack Obama who’s pro-choice. Then a priest denied Kmiec Communion because of his endorsement.

Professor DOUGLAS KMIEC (School of Law, Pepperdine University): Every time I stand in the Communion line now, I have a memory of walking up to my priest and being denied. I think that memory will be with me like a car accident for the rest of my life.

LAWTON: Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony called the denial “shameful” and “absolutely indefensible” as a matter of Canon law and Church policy.

Prof. KMIEC: While I understand the zealotry of the good father who wanted to disagree with me, it is very clear in Catholic teaching that it is not the position of the Church that they are to tell voters, Catholic voters, how to vote.

LAWTON: Some of the most contentious moments in the race have surrounded Obama, his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, and his former congregation Trinity United Church of Christ. After months of controversy over sound bites from Wright, Obama formally broke ties with the church where he had been a member for 20 years.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (D-IL, during news conference): It seems plausible, at least, that you wouldn’t want your church experience to be a political circus.

LAWTON: In contrast with the case of clergy endorsement, Wilcox believes that candidates should not be held accountable for everything their personal pastors have said and done.

Prof. WILCOX: You can get spiritual advice from people you don’t agree with, just the same as you can get your teeth cleaned by a dentist you don’t agree with or go to a doctor who you don’t agree with politically.

LAWTON: He says candidates deserve a zone of religious privacy.

Prof. WILCOX: We want, you know, candidates to be able to go to a church and not have every single thing the pastor says recorded and shown on YouTube and whatever, because they need to have someone they trust to give them advice in tough times in their life. And there’s nothing tougher in someone’s life than running for president.

LAWTON: But many analysts agree that if candidates talk about their personal faith in a political context, it is legitimate to probe how that faith affects their politics.

Prof. KMIEC: Faith is an extremely important part of community and I don’t think we want to leave it at the door unexamined. At the same time, we don’t want to mock, we don’t want to ridicule, we don’t want to demand that someone separate themselves from their faith.

LAWTON: Wilcox says religion can never fully be separated from politics.

Prof. WILCOX: Religious values have underpinned some of the key social movements like ending slavery, civil rights and so forth. A majority of Americans are religious. They’ve got values that they use to judge politics by, and so how could you possibly pull those two apart?

LAWTON: At the Interfaith Alliance, Welton Gaddy favors a strict separation between church and state. He agrees that faith does have a role in politics, but he worries about the danger of exploitation.

Rev. GADDY: I don’t know anybody that has gone into this election cycle running for the presidency of the United States whose major purpose was to advance the influence of religion in this nation. The goal is votes.

LAWTON: The solution, he says, won’t come from the IRS or the courts.

Rev. GADDY: It’s only going to be settled when the hearts and minds of both politicians and religious leaders resolve that we won’t do anything in a campaign that after the campaign is over, leaves religion compromised, crippled or questioned.

Prof. KMIEC: Religion is not just a political party. Indeed, it is far more than that. It is a way of life. And because it is a way of life, it has an intersection with politics but it’s far greater than the political process itself.

LAWTON: But in a closely divided election year, that’s not always easy to remember. I’m Kim Lawton reporting.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: In other news, conservative Anglican bishops have proposed creating their own council that would train priests and interpret Scripture. The proposition came at the end of a week-long meeting in Jerusalem, where the bishops came to protest the worldwide Anglican Communion’s stance on gay issues. The bishops also suggested creating an alternative province for conservative dioceses in North America. The conservatives say they want to stay within the Anglican Communion, but Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual head of the Communion, said the group’s proposal would create more problems than it would solve.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, and ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, were together in Rome this week to launch a special jubilee year in honor of St. Paul. The two represent traditions of Christianity that have been divided for a thousand years. They hope this effort will lead to more unity in the future.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: In China, officials met with representatives of the Dalai Lama to discuss easing tensions between China and the followers of the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader. The talks came several weeks after rioting in Tibet over Chinese control. Government officials have accused the Dalai Lama of instigating the violence, but he denies that and says he wants to work peacefully for more autonomy and religious freedom in Tibet.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: We began our program this week with a story about faith-based social services. Here’s a great example: churches taking care of young people who need foster care, but have become too old for foster homes. Foster parents can be wonderful, or, in some cases, less so. But for all foster children there comes a time when they must leave, ready or not. In the language of social services, as Mary Alice Williams reports, they have “aged out.”

MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: Times Square — crossroads of New York. Of all the homeless teens each year who step off the bus at a crossroads in their lives, the least prepared to survive and thrive have one thing in common: foster care.

JASMINE RIOS: I didn’t think I would become homeless. I had no other place to go. I was scared. I was really scared.

WILLIAMS: Jasmine Rios had been in the foster care system since the age of three when she was taken from her alcoholic mother. Through the years she was bounced from home to home –five in all.

Ms. RIOS: I got beat up. So, I tried to fight back, but I didn’t win. I just felt really bad about myself. And I felt like I was a loser.

WILLIAMS: Each year, some 20,000 foster kids in this country turn 18 and get turned out. The University of Chicago reports less than two-thirds of them complete high school. Many don’t have jobs. And their rates of arrest, health problems and welfare dependency are far higher than the population as a whole.

On her 18th birthday, Jasmine “aged out” of foster care with little but the shirt on her back. Jasmine found that when the government closes doors, providing little help as these kids age out, faith-based groups open theirs. A block from that bus terminal, she found Covenant House, a Catholic crisis center for runaway teens that provides food and a warm bed, no questions asked.

BRUCE HENRY (Executive Director, Covenant House, New York): Our experience is that when somebody ages out of foster care, they do not have the skills to live on their own. So, within a fairly rapid period of time, they’re accessing the shelter system.

WILLIAMS: Bruce Henry is the executive director of Covenant House in New York. He says around 36 percent of the youths they see are foster kids.

Mr. HENRY: You see a system that, until you’re out, you’re treated as if you’re seven. And now suddenly you’re out and you’re ill-prepared to live in the world. The foster care kid is terribly, terribly dependent.

WILLIAMS: Covenant House provides a bridge to independence with job training classes like this one for future food handlers. Covenant House also provides job placement, health care and counseling. It’s part of the “rights of passage” program where 20-year-old Basim Miller has been for the last three months.

BASIM MILLER (Resident, Covenant House): Coming to the Covenant House was, you know, one of my last options.

WILLIAMS: When Basim was three his mother was murdered by his father. He was placed in, and kicked out of, four foster homes and spent a harsh winter homeless, squatting in an abandoned building.

Mr. MILLER: I would never know where I would get food. I would never know when a source of income would come in. And so trying to rely on yourself is really hard. And it just, it makes you want to cry just to know that there is really no help.

WILLIAMS: In “rights of passage,” Basim shares a room with three other young men. He’s got a job and is ready to start high school again.

Mr. MILLER: My case manager in “rights of passage” has basically set up a goal, like a short- term goal and a long-term goal, to help me out in the future.

WILLIAMS: In some states, kids like Basim can stay in the foster care system until they’re 21. while other states make them age out at 18, often with no stable housing, health care or job possibilities. And even those states that permit kids to stay longer, Bruce Henry believes, exert pressure to make the kids move on.

Mr. HENRY: I think our feeling is that there are dozens of ways to tell the kids it’s time to move on. As kids get older in the system, there is no question that the message to them is, “maybe you’re ready to move out.”

WILLIAMS (to Mr. Henry): What happens to the kids who don’t get services?

Mr. HENRY: The number one place they access the government next is jail.

ALLISA BREEDEN: When I did sign myself out I was in a bad position that I guess as time went on I just kept trying to recover. You are forced to make transitions like way before your time. It’s mainly being an adult before you’re an adult.

WILLIAMS: Allisa Breeden was 15 and not getting along with her mother when she was sent into the foster care system living in four different homes, one three times.

(to Ms. Breeden): Did that make you angry?

Ms. BREEDEN: Yeah, it really did. Yeah, yeah, because I was living out of garbage bags. And you know, I can’t remember having like a room, my room, or something to always come home to.

WILLIAMS: Finally, Allisa has her own room. After aging out of the system at 18 she was lucky enough to end up here with five other foster girls at this brand new residence in the tiny borough of Highland Park, New Jersey.

(to Ms. Wilson): This is pretty great.

SHABREE WILSON: I’ll show you the closet.

WILLIAMS: The girls all come out of foster care and pay 30 percent of what they earn to rent an apartment here with a bath, microwave and refrigerator. And they share a common living room along with kitchen privileges. Although they’ve never met before they share the same history; a succession of foster homes, abuse, neglect and now, hope.

Ms. WILSON: They give us counselors so it’s like somebody’s going to be walking me through it, or whatever. I’m not going to be just thrown out there and forced to learn it. In case I slip and fall I will have somebody there to help me up.

WILLIAMS: That was the hope of Reformed Church of Highland Park Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale who built housing for them out of thin air.

Pastor SETH KAPER-DALE (Reformed Church of Highland Park, NJ): Irayna Court is the upper two-thirds of this building. Up until last August there was a flat right there.

WILLIAMS: Pastor Seth spotted that roof while sitting at his kitchen window in the Parsonage. He was reading a newspaper article that said New Jersey had no housing for the 300 teens who age out of foster care each year, and that 60 percent of the state’s homeless population had been in foster care. Pastor KAPER-DALE: It’s a staggering number.

WILLIAMS: It took partners to build these apartments. Pastor Seth got the state to help fund it, an interfaith social service agency to run it and members of the congregation to donate skills.

Pastor KAPER-DALE: There are many places in Scripture that talk about the variety of spiritual gifts that are out there. Some are given the gifts of prophecy, and others, the gifts of tongues and the gifts of all sorts of things. And what we now know is that some are given the gifts of understanding air rights law.

WILLIAMS: Like Rob Roesener, an attorney who structured a complex deal to subdivide the air space for housing.

ROB ROESENER (Attorney): I see Christianity as a service-oriented religion where you reach out to those in need — those who are less fortunate than you. And this was an opportunity for me to, to live out that faith. And, so in that way I think my faith is stronger in that I see that when you do give and you help those less fortunate, you get back.

WILLIAMS (to Kaper-Dale): What does the church get from the girls?

Pastor KAPER-DALE: The church has grown in number. It’s also given people a way to really live out their faith.

WILLIAMS: Six apartments to serve 20,000 aging-out foster kids might seem a drop in the bucket. But to Pastor Seth, it’s just the start.

Pastor KAPER-DALE: I actually don’t think it’s a huge number. If every faith community were to build five or six apartments think of how quick you could make that number disappear.

WILLIAMS (to Ms. Breeden): So tell me about this place.

Ms. BREEDEN: This place is beautiful. Oh my God, you see the colors. You can walk through any part of this building and smile because it is so beautiful. I love it, I love it. They’ve got a coffee machine. How could you not love a place with a coffee machine?

WILLIAMS: A coffee machine seems a small blessing. But for the record number of teens aging out of the child welfare system, it’s a small symbol of what churches can accomplish.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY this is Mary Alice Williams in Highland Park, New Jersey.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: The World Bank has issued a new plea to wealthy nations to confront the global food crisis. Bank president Robert Zoellick said dozens of countries are in dire need because of the rising costs of food and fuel. He urged the leaders gathering in Japan this week for the G8 Summit, including President Bush, to meet what Zoellick called a $10 billion immediate humanitarian need.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: Although the magnitude of the crisis can be overwhelming. The Christian relief group World Vision has come up with a creative way to help church youth groups understand the problem of world hunger and what they can do about it. It’s called “The 30 Hour Famine” and we watched one at Trinity United Methodist Church in Hackettstown, New Jersey.

BILL ANZEL (Youth Leader, Trinity United Methodist Church, Hackettstown, NJ): We start at 1 p.m. on Friday afternoon. So most of them stop eating whenever they finish lunch at school.

We meet here at about six o’clock in the evening. We gather. We do some ice breakers. We do some games. We do some Bible studies during the night.

We do take water breaks. We give them popsicles at intervals. But basically that’s about it for the 30 hours — just drinks when necessary.

We usually sleep for about six or seven hours before we get up and start the activities for the next day.

We had the opportunity to have a table out on Main Street as part of the multi-cultural celebration that’s going on in order to have the kids out there and let them inform people of the town about what we’re doing and what’s going on with the problem of world hunger.

What we try to do is we try to impress on the kids what their money can actually buy in a supermarket. So one of the projects that we do is that we send groups of four, five or six to the local supermarkets. We ask them to purchase items that stock our pantry here at the church, which we then use to feed people who come in who don’t have food.

ABERNETHY: Throughout the 30 hours, the kidsalso participates in the “Twenty-Nine Thousand Project.” In assembly-line fashion, they cut 29,000 hearts out of red paper, apply a piece of tape to each one and then stick them to the walls of the church’s gymnasium. The hearts are a visual reminder of the 29,000 children worldwide they say who die each day from hunger and hunger-related diseases.

ASHLEY LUTZ: You don’t really think of 29,000 being a large number until you actually have to work and do it and do the labor. It puts 29,000 into perspective. And it’s a lot.

JENETTE MITCHELL: Everyone here understands what the world’s going through and if we can make a difference to one person, I think that’s the most important thing.

ABERNETHY: Finally, the 30 hours end with a worship service — and at last — food.

Mr. ANZEL: Everybody chose to be here, and it was because we definitely feel that God called us to be here and do something for each one of our neighbors because we have so much and they don’t.

ABERNETHY: With sponsorships from families and friends, those kids in New Jersey raised more than $13,000 dollars for World Vision and its anti-hunger work.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: That’s our program for now. I’m Bob Abernethy.

There’s much more on our Web site, including more of Kim Lawton’s interviews about religion and politics on our “One Nation” page. Audio and video podcasts of the program are also available. Join us at pbs.org.

As we leave you this Fourth of July weekend, more of “God Bless America” from Crossgate Church in Robert, Louisiana.

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