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Episode no. 1151

FRED DE SAM LAZARO , guest anchor: Coming up – Democrats and soon the Republicans hold their national conventions.

What are the challenges as the candidates reach out to people of faith?

And in Thailand, a shelter that offers new life for girls vulnerable to human trafficking.

Plus, the colorful Hindu festival that celebrates the birth of the deity Krishna.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO : Welcome. I’m Fred de Sam Lazaro sitting in for Bob Abernethy. Thank you for joining us.

The election season moves into high gear this week with the Democratic National Convention in Denver, followed by the Republican gathering in St. Paul. Religion continues to play an unusually prominent role in the campaigns. But not everyone is happy about that. According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, a narrow majority of Americans – 52 percent -now say that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics. In 2004, only 44 percent thought that.

And while Republicans are most often seen as the party friendly toward religion, the Democrats have made some gains. Nearly four-in-10 Americans now say the Democrats are friendly toward religion – up from just 26 percent two years ago.

Meanwhile, religious groups continue trying to have an influence. A large rally of evangelical Christians was held on the National Mall in Washington last week. Organizers say more than 50,000 people gathered to pray for the nation and highlight moral issues they consider critical in the election. Among other things, there were calls for bans on abortions and same sex marriage.

At the conventions, and in coming weeks, both political parties have a lot at stake as they try to mobilize religious voters. Kim Lawton has our report.

KIM LAWTON : Every weekend, more than 20,000 people come to services at the evangelical Saddleback Church in southern California. Last Sunday, pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren urged his massive flock to carefully consider who to vote for in November.

Reverend RICK WARREN (Pastor, Saddleback Church, during sermon): What we need in America more than visionaries, more than smart leaders, is we need leaders with character.

LAWTON : On the previous evening, both Barack Obama and John McCain were at Saddleback making their case to be the next president. As part of the discussion, Warren asked them to describe what their Christian faith means to them.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Presidential Candidate at Saddleback Forum): It means I believe in – that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican Presidential Candidate, at Saddleback Forum): Means I’m saved and forgiven. And we’re talking about the world. Our faith encompasses not just the United States of America, but the world.

LAWTON : Georgetown University Professor of Government Clyde Wilcox says faith can tell voters a lot about a potential president.

Professor CLYDE WILCOX (Government Department, Georgetown University): How will we know how anyone will behave in a crisis? Well, we can look at past behavior, but we can also think, “What is it that are their bedrock values that they don’t want to change?” And for most Americans those values would be religious.

LAWTON : As Democrats and Republicans head to their national conventions, both camps are actively competing for religious voters. The candidates are talking about their personal faith, and the campaigns are developing wide-ranging strategies for faith-based outreach.

It’s somewhat unfamiliar territory for the Democrats who’ve been criticized in recent presidential elections for appearing not friendly toward religion. This time around, Democrats promise things will be different.

The chief executive officer of the Democratic National Convention in Denver is Leah Daughtry, a fifth-generation Pentecostal pastor. As part of the convention, Daughtry has planned an interfaith prayer gathering and other faith-related events.

Reverend LEAH DAUGHTRY (CEO, Democratic National Convention): All of us have values. We all come to our lives with a certain set of values. For many of us, those values spring from a place of faith. So, what we want people to walk away with is understanding that this is just another part of the Democratic Party.

LAWTON : She acknowledges that hasn’t always been the Democratic image in recent years.

Rev. DAUGHTRY : It was a puzzling phenomenon to me to see the party that I’ve always been a member of labeled as a party that doesn’t have people of faith or isn’t open to people of faith. So, I think for me it was really more about us as a party saying, “No, wait a minute. We are people of faith. There are millions of us.” We became more vocal. We decided to stand up. We decided to stand up for what we believe and to say, “This is who I am. I’m inside the party. I’m a person of faith.”

LAWTON : One key part of the new Democratic strategy has been reaching out to evangelicals, a longtime constituency of the GOP. Obama has been appealing to those voters using God-talk and biblical references.

Sen. OBAMA (at Saddleback Forum): We still don’t abide by that basic precept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.

JOSHUA DUBOIS (Director, Religious Affairs, Obama Campaign): We’re very humble in our approach to the outreach. We’re certainly not hoping to win outright the evangelical vote, but we are certainly going to make a serious effort to introduce Senator Obama and his values to the nation. And I think a lot of folks are going to respond to that.

LAWTON : Growing numbers of evangelicals want to expand their agenda beyond abortion to also include issues like poverty, AIDS and the environment.

Rev. WARREN : What I’m hearing is, you know, not lock-step in Republicanism. That’s what I’m hearing. I’m not hearing people saying, “Well, I’m going to move away from life.” But I am hearing people saying, “I’m moving away from just pulling a lever.”

LAWTON : Evangelicals are the single largest bloc of religious voters. In 2004, 40 percent of George Bush’s total vote came from social conservatives. New polls show the majority of those voters are supporting John McCain, but not with the same level of enthusiasm they gave George Bush. And there are still significant numbers of undecided evangelical voters. If the Obama campaign can siphon off some of those evangelicals, it could make a big difference, especially in a close election.

John McCain has had a rocky relationship with evangelicals, including some highly-publicized rifts with Religious Right leaders going back to the 2000 elections. Many conservative evangelicals have been frustrated that McCain has not spoken more about his faith or emphasized their key social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.

Political observers say McCain can’t automatically rely on the faith outreach strategy that worked so well for George W. Bush.

Prof. WILCOX : By the issues, social conservatives should still support him. But a generation of Christian right leaders has been increasingly ineffective and older. And, I think the McCain campaign is not really geared up for that yet so I think they’ll have a little bit more problem.

LAWTON : At a news conference last week, social conservatives urged the McCain campaign to do more to mobilize their movement.

TONY PERKINS (President, Family Research Council, speaking at news conference): It’s not an issue of whether most evangelicals are going to vote for John McCain. It’s an issue of intensity. It’s an issue of excitement. It’s an issue of passion.

Sen. MCCAIN (at Saddleback Forum): I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies.

LAWTON : Many evangelicals hope McCain will expand his Saddleback forum comments at the Republican convention and beyond.

Governor MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Presidential Candidate): I think the Republicans are going to see increasing numbers of people rally around John McCain. They’re comfortable with his own depth of personal character, his faith, his honor. And they know that his positions really do reflect more of what they believe to be important.

LAWTON : While evangelical voters have been getting most of the attention, Roman Catholics will also be crucial in this election. In 2004, a slight majority of Catholics voted for Bush, but then in the mid-term elections in 2006, a slight majority swung back to the Democratic side. Both candidates are still refining their Catholic outreach strategies.

Prof. WILCOX : Older Catholics if they are more religious tend to vote more Democratic. Younger Catholics if they are more religious tend to vote more Republican. And so this has been, this will be, a really key constituency.

LAWTON : Another challenge will be reaching out to communities of faith while not alienating other voters. This is an especially complex question for the Democrats.

Prof. WILCOX : They do have a secular part of their voting bloc, maybe 20 percent of Americans are seculars, another 10 percent are religious but don’t like to hear religion and politics mixing. Some are Jews who don’t want to hear Christian politics mentioned so much.

LAWTON : Daughtry says this hasn’t been an issue for them so far.

Rev. DAUGHTRY : We really haven’t had, you know, blowback from people who are afraid we going to make this the church of the Democratic Party. It’s all a value system. We’re not basing our values as Democrats on a holy text. We’re basing it on a value system of how we love and treat and care for each other in community.

LAWTON : As the campaign outreach strategies move forward, some observers worry about the potential impact on religious communities.

Prof. WILCOX : The mission of a church is not really to elect a candidate. The mission of a church or a synagogue or a mosque or whatever is to, you know, reach out to their congregants and provide them with guidance and advice. And oftentimes politics can interfere with that.

LAWTON : Rick Warren doesn’t endorse candidates, but I asked him if he was worried about religious voters becoming another special interest group.

Rev. WARREN : Well, it is an interest group. Sorry to say that, but it is an interest group. And it happens to be, probably the largest interest group. I mean, unions are an interest group. Teachers are an interest group. Gays are an interest group. So should only other interest groups be allowed to have the candidates come to their venues?

LAWTON : He says people of faith should – and will – be a factor at the polls this fall.

Rev. Warren (during sermon): And I don’t understand when people say, “I don’t like any of the candidates so I’m not going to vote.” Oh come on! Then you need to move to another country – really. And you need to see what it’s like to not have real freedoms and not to be able to have a voice.

LAWTON : Both campaigns plan to work overtime to capture those votes. I’m Kim Lawton reporting.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO : Kim will have on-the-scene reports from both conventions, beginning with the Democrats next week. We’ll also have lots of additional ongoing coverage on the “One Nation” page of our Web site, including blogs and special dispatches from the conventions and analysis from a panel of experts. Join us at pbs.org

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO : Three months after striking down a ban on same-sex marriage, California’s high court delivered another decision favoring gay and lesbian plaintiffs. The court ruled that doctors cannot deny care to gays and lesbians for religious reasons. The case involved a patient who had sought to have a child by artificial insemination. Doctors at a San Diego clinic, who are Christian, refused to offer services, asserting their own freedom of religion, although they said their decision was based on the patient’s unmarried status, not her sexual orientation.

The debate over doctors’ freedom of religion was also refueled in Washington this week. The Bush administration has proposed stronger protections for medical providers who refuse to perform abortions because of religious objections. The new rules, which would take effect after a 30-day comment period, apply to more than half a million mostly health-care facilities that receive federal funds.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO : Pope Benedict XVI added his voice to concerns for the people displaced by the conflict between Russia and Georgia. The Pontiff called for opening humanitarian corridors between the disputed region of South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia in order to allow burials for the dead, treatment for those wounded and the return of an estimated 128,000 people who fled their homes. Benedict expressed hope for a stable peace and respect for the rights of ethnic minorities in the conflict.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO : After years of delays, greater numbers of refugees from the Iraq war are finding safe haven in the U.S. A report by the UN High Commission for Refugees says about 9,000 Iraqis have been resettled here, almost a quarter of them in the past month. The U.S. government had promised to accept a total of 12,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of September. An additional 5,000 with ties to the U.S military will also be admitted. Some two million Iraqi refugees still live in Syria and Jordan.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO : Hundreds of government officials and activists wrapped up a meeting in Bangkok this week by calling for more efforts to curb the exploitation of children. East Asia and the Pacific Region have been especially afflicted by the problem, and the remote, so-called hill tribe populations who number in the tens of millions are particularly vulnerable. I traveled recently to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand to visit the new life center, a faith-based group working to help young women escape or avoid victimization.

This dress rehearsal for a soap opera is full of drama: drug abuse, rape, guns and prostitution. But for the performers acting out the scenes, this stuff is not necessarily fiction.

These performers reside in a shelter for girls in northern Thailand. Most are at risk for, or actual victims of, human trafficking. The skit is aimed at tribal communities in the surrounding mountains. That message will come in one of six languages spoken by different hill tribes that inhabit the vast region where Burma, China, Laos and Thailand converge.

This shelter was founded in 1987 to serve as a safe haven for tribal girls who’d been exploited. Since then, the New Life Center has housed about 1,500 girls.

KAREN SMITH (Director, New Life Center): The New Life Center was opened by missionaries who were also anthropologists – Paul and Elaine Lewis. They saw countless women coming down out of their villages into the cities and being stuck in exploitative labor. And the needs were so great for education, for training, for knowledge for these tribal women. And they saw such great suffering. They saw women working in fish factories for 18 hours a day, and they saw the women who were getting forced into prostitution.

DE SAM LAZARO : The trouble for hill tribe communities begins with their isolation. Faye Wimon, a member of the Lahu community, works at the New Life Center.

FAYE WIMON (New Life Center): The road is not developed yet – that’s why there’s no school. So many of the hill tribe people and also they didn’t get put into good schools – and also the young people, especially the young women. So they have to stay home. They have to help their parents to take care of their younger brother and sister when their parents work in the field. And also, the other problem is about citizenship.

DE SAM LAZARO : In Thailand, which has seen impressive economic growth in recent decades, half of the three million hill tribe people are not recognized as full citizens. That means many cannot buy land, vote, travel freely or work legally.

Ms. SMITH : The citizenship issue in Thailand is a complicated one. If you are a tribal mother for whom the nearest hospital is five hours away, you are not able to go down to that hospital to give birth. And when a child doesn’t have birth registration, that starts the cycle.

DE SAM LAZARO : Many young women fall prey to traffickers and the underground economy.

Ms. SMITH : They might find a situation where they’re promised a particular job and they end up moving to a particular place and the job they end up with is not what they were promised. And they end up being a victim of human trafficking.

DE SAM LAZARO : That’s what happened to Mali who left her village, and by age 13, began working in one of Bangkok’s notorious sex trades.

MALI (Former Victim, through translator): I didn’t know what kind of work it was but she said it was a good salary and I didn’t have to work too hard. I went to work in the show bar, and they wouldn’t let me leave. They beat me. It was very hard work. One day the owners forced me to go with a guest. The guests were usually foreigners and I usually went with two or three guests a night.

DE SAM LAZARO : After five years in prostitution at the bar, Mali was approached by a faith based anti-trafficking group that offers to help women who work in the sex industry.

MALI : They came like regular customers. They watched my dance show and when my dance was finished they came up and started talking to me. I told them that I didn’t want to be here, that some people did want to be here but I didn’t. I felt that it was shameful. Even though I made a lot of money, I thought there were other things I could do.

DE SAM LAZARO : Each day the young women spend time with activities like music lessons and homework. There’s also training in cooking, sewing and cosmetology, skills that could land them a job when they leave the center.

MALI (through translator): When I was at the New Life Center, I studied, I went to school. I learned a lot of things: how to sew, read and write. I became a different person and I have a new future.

DE SAM LAZARO : In the evening they’re off to night school, a program set up by the government to teach young adults with little formal education.

Along with education and job skills, some 20 to 40 percent of residents here also acquire a new faith, converting to Christianity from traditional tribal religions in which they were raised.

Ms. SMITH : Every other year, we have a baptism ceremony for the girls who do become followers of Jesus. And this past November, there were 24 girls who were part of that baptism ceremony.

DE SAM LAZARO : But she and the resident chaplain insist the young women reach that decision on their own.

Reverend KIT RIPLEY (Resident Chaplain, New Life Center): Our residents have come from situations where they have experienced, many of them have experienced, tremendous coercion and manipulation. So they know what that’s like and they can put their finger on it pretty quickly. They’re very savvy when someone is trying to manipulate or force them to make a decision or to do anything with their life and often very resistance to that. So I feel like it’s just important be open to where they are spiritually. And a lot of that is waiting until they ask questions. I pray for residents at home and pray for their healing and their growth. And at that point I believe it’s up to God to work in their lives throughout their spiritual development.

DE SAM LAZARO : Spiritual development, sexual abuse counseling, education and job training are all part of the healing process, but so is legal advocacy. The center employs a full-time staff member to work on obtaining citizenship for the girls. That process takes between two and 10 years.

MALI (through translator): I’ve had lots of job offers, people asking me to work in different places but I don’t have citizenship so I can’t work anywhere legally.

Ms. SMITH : The situation if very, very complicated. In fact, right now in Thailand, the Thai government has 23 different levels of status for its ethnic minorities.

DE SAM LAZARO : One major complication is the widely disparate economic and human rights conditions between Thailand and less prosperous neighbors like Burma and Laos. It prompts tribes’ people from those nations to travel across the mountain borders into Thailand. Long term, things could get even more complicated in the larger region.

Ms. SMITH : Just recently, new roads were opened between China, Lao and Thailand and they are huge eight-lane highways. And we know that whenever new roads are built that opens up an opportunity for business and the exchange of goods, but it also opens up the opportunity for the exchange of humans. And so I think there are still lots of risks for ethnic minorities.

DE SAM LAZARO : But for a hundred or so of these vulnerable young women, the New Life Center will continue to be a refuge.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO : On our calendar, this week marks the holiest time of year for members of the Jain faith. They are celebrating the 18-day-long festival of Paryushana. It’s a time for Jains to restore friendship and ask for forgiveness.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO : Also this week, the major Hindu festival, Janmashtami, celebrates the birth of the popular deity Krishna – and with a real baby. Nidhi Singh was our guide at a celebration in Chantilly, Virginia.

NIDHI SINGH (Rajdhani Mandir Temple, Chantilly, Virginia): In Hinduism, we believe in one God. However, our one God has several forms – Brahma, who’s the creator, Vishnu, who is the preserver and Shiva, who’s the destructor of all evil.

Lord Krishna is a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu.

The teachings that Lord Kirshna imparted in the “Gita,” I can take from that and incorporate into my life and find hope, guidance, spirituality, peace, comfort, many different things.

The devotees come here to participate and celebrate Lord Krishna’s birth.

When we celebrate Lord Krishna – and there’s a lot of singing and dancing because that’s what he used to do when he as younger.

There’s loud chanting and people are singing and getting very excited about the midnight hour. And we’re getting ready to welcome Krishna.

As the midnight hour approaches, we dim the lights.

The priest comes out and actually brings a live baby in a cradle, carrying him on his head, depicting how it truly happened with Lord Krishna. Lord Krishna was carried in a cradle by his father on his head to safety, to keep him safe from the evil king.

What we do is called “ardi” – in which means we take a flame rotate it clockwise around the God, and worship him with that flame. And then that flame is offered to the congregation to take the blessings.

The priest start handing out “prasad,” which is God’s offerings – food items typically milk-based products, because Lord Krishna was very fond of milk and butter.

I come with all my worries, my thoughts from the outside world, everything that’s on my mind. I’m giving up my ego. I’m leaving behind my worries and being reminded of God’s love – of not feeling defeated by any hardship that I might be facing and getting strength to continue to do my dharma as Krishna taught – continuing to do the right things – not questioning why or what I’m going to get in return for it.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That’s our program for now. I’m Fred de Sam Lazaro. There is much more on our Web site. On the “One Nation” page you can find video excerpts from the presidential candidates forum at Saddleback Church, as well as interviews with Rick Warren and supporters of the two candidates. Audio and video podcasts of our program are also available. Join us at pbs.org.

As we leave you, music from last week’s evangelical rally in Washington.

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