BOB ABERNETHY, host: Welcome. I’m Bob Abernethy. It’s good to have you with us. Our panel of top reporters looks to the year 2012, and the top religion and ethics stories they see ahead. Kim Lawton is managing editor of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. Kevin Eckstrom is the editor-in-chief of Religion News Service. And E.J. Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist for the Washington Post, and a professor at Georgetown University. Welcome to you all, and Happy New Year.
ALL: Happy New Year.
ABERNETHY: E.J., the Iowa caucuses take place in just a few days. What do you see there and what is the role of religious conservatives in the Republican campaign?
E.J. DIONNE (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Well, in the Iowa Republican caucuses religious conservatives always play an important role. And what’s been striking for most of this campaign is how fragmented they’ve been. There’s been a real argument among them about who the better candidate is. There’s no national champion as we talked about last week, Mike Huckabee, four years ago really emerged as a unifying candidate for Christian conservatives. Some of that also I suspect has to do with other forces in the Republican Party. There is the Tea Party which includes a lot of evangelical Christians, one should say, but is a kind of different thrust and you have a campaign built much more around economics and the role of government than around the issues that specifically inspire religious conservatives, such as abortion and issues related to gay marriage. So I think that there is not going to be the kind of clarity about their role this time as there was four years ago.
KIM LAWTON (Managing Editor, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly): And of course, we do have two Mormon candidates and that’s still an issue. It hasn’t been front and center this time around for evangelicals as much as it was last time around but there has been talk about Mormonism is a cult or Mormons aren’t Christians and that’s a prevailing attitude among many voters which makes them maybe in a primary a little more hesitant to vote for a Mitt Romney or a Jon Huntsman. One interesting comment last time, a couple months ago, was from when Cain was getting all the support but then all the allegations starting coming forward about him and one evangelical pastor said so, our choices are we vote for a Mormon who’s had one wife, we vote for a Catholic, Newt Gingrich, who’s had several wives or we vote for an evangelical, Herman Cain, who apparently had a whole harem. So, you know, they’re not liking their choices.
DIONNE: You know what’s interesting this time compared with the last time is Mitt Romney ran into I think some real anti-Mormon prejudice the last time. The Latter Day Saints church has really made a very aggressive effort this time to kind of fight against that by explaining its faith. I was at a session that they organized by the Poytner Institute over at the Pew Forum where they were talking about here’s who we are and here’s who we’re not and I think it’s obviously very useful for the church but I actually think it’s a useful way to combat religious prejudice generally.
KEVIN ECKSTROM (Editor -in-Chief, Religion News Service): One of the things I’ve been struck by and may be worth watching is the difference it seems of the Mormonism between Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Everyone knows that Mitt Romney is a Mormon and an outspoken one. He was the equivalent of a church pastor for a long time. He built a temple in Boston. He’s very Mormon. Jon Huntsman is also Mormon but to a different kind of way. It’s almost like oh yeah and he’s Mormon, too. And so I think it will be interesting to watch to see if Huntsman actually goes anywhere whether or not he will face the same sort of Mormon scrutiny that Romney has.
ABERNETHY: Why should he be considered not as great a Mormon as Romney?
ECKSTROM: Well I think it’s mostly because people just don’t know much about him or don’t even know who he is. I think he’s a relative unknown. It’s not that he’s any less devout or any less of a good Mormon that Romney. But, Romney, I think took the brunt of the anti-Mormon sentiment.
DIONNE: But I also think Romney was a real leader in the church. I think that’s right. And I think this is a very important part of his identity and he’s been very clear about that.
LAWTON: And we should say too that while evangelicals in the primaries might say I don’t know if I want to vote for a Mormon, if you put a Mormon up against Barack Obama, they’re going to vote for the Mormon most likely, because there’s so much anti-Barack Obama sentiment out there within conservative voters. And so I do think that it’s more of an issue in the primaries than it would be in a general election.
ABERNETHY: Has there emerged yet what looks like a great underlying theme for the election of 2012? Is it going to be jobs? Is it going to be the role of government? What do you see?
DIONNE: Well, the economy is always an issue in American elections. And when the unemployment rate is this high and when you’ve gone through such a terrible economic time since 2008, since the crash of 2008, it’s inevitable that the economy is a central issue. But I thought one of the most interesting events of the year in terms of speeches that politicians give was Barack Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, where Teddy Roosevelt, a hundred and one years ago, gave his New Nationalism speech which set him up for his run as a progressive third party candidate in 1912. And I think Obama was really sending a signal there that he wants this election not just to be a referendum on the past and he has some interest in that because the economy is still, even if it improves, is going to be less than people want. But he wants it to be about the future and about the role of government in the economy, what should government do to make opportunity available to the middle class? What should the rules of the economy be? And I think that, I happen to like the speech, whether you like the speech or not, I think it set a really interesting framework for the election because the Republicans in this election will clearly but running as much more pure free market candidates without government interference, lower taxes, less regulation. I think there could be a clarity to this campaign and to the argument that we haven’t seen in a long time.
LAWTON: And religious groups have been involved in these economic debates and in the economic campaigning, political campaigning, as well, on both sides, which makes it interesting to have that moral injection on both ends of the debate and so you have people from a more moderate, more liberal standpoint talking about the immorality of hurting people who are already vulnerable, cutting programs that would hurt the poor, cutting programs for foreign aid and so there’s been a lot of concern about that which is translating into politics. But you also have it in the conservative side. It’s immoral to leave a lot of debt to our children. A lot of that kind of language and that is seeping into the campaigning as well.
ABERNETHY: It’s interesting that, E.J., maybe you can note this. It’s not winner take all, is it, this year? Is it? Can’t you come in second and still have a lot of delegates and be influential at the convention?
DIONNE: Historically, Democrats got rid of winner take all which is one of the reasons why the ’08 race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton went on so long. Republicans have, at the front end, have tended to get rid of winner take all though there is some of it still at the back end of this process. But it could mean that the Republican race will last longer this time.
LAWTON: Or never end.
DIONNE: Yes, or maybe never end. I mean it’s the first time I’ve heard talk of a brokered convention which journalists love because that would be fun but it never happens. And I still don’t think it will happen.
ABERNETHY: I wanted to ask you about that.
DIONNE: If no one gets a clear majority, in other words, if there were at least three candidates with significant blocks of delegates, I still don’t think it will happen, but it’s more plausible it seems, at this moment, more plausible than it’s been in a long time.
ABERNETHY: What about somebody being nominated who is not now running?
DIONNE: Well, there are a lot of Republicans who long for that. I have been very struck by some of my conservative friends who are genuinely unhappy with the make-up of this field. And, I’ve been reminding people, maybe just showing that I’m getting older, there was a write-in campaign for Henry Calbot Lodge that carried the New Hampshire primary way back in 1964. And you wonder if something like that will happen. Again, still unlikely but this has been such a strange contest I don’t rule anything out anymore.
LAWTON: And I’m going to be watching too, on the other side, the Democratic side, how President Obama is going to reach out to people of faith. That was a huge issue in the 2008 election. President Obama had mounted a campaign of faith-based outreach, unprecedented for a Democratic candidate in a really long time. And, you know, is he going to continue that? Is that going to be as robust? And how are people of faith feeling about him? And I know you’ve also looked at the fact that there is some dissatisfaction with him.
ECKSTROM: Right, both on, obviously on the right, but also on the left. There’s a lot of progressives who saw him as the knight in shining armor who was going to come in and right all the ills of the world and obviously that hasn’t happened. And so I think the President’s biggest challenge is, when it comes to religion, is not speaking in Catholic terms, or Jewish terms, or mainline Protestant terms or anything like that, but is getting anybody out to vote for him. I mean, getting his base and getting just any of his supporters, whatever faith they may be, getting them motivated enough to go out and vote for him.
DIONNE: And I think you saw in 2010 that Democrats on the progressive side really fell down in terms of their organizing among religious people compared to what they did in 2008. And they have some ground to make up now.
ABERNETHY: What about gridlock in Washington? Is there any possibility, any even remote possibility, that in this election year coming up there will be any change in that?
DIONNE: Do you believe in miracles?
LAWTON: This is a religion show.
DIONNE: It is a religion show.
ABERNETHY: But look, there is a new poll, Pew poll, I think, that says there’s the greatest disapproval of Congress now that there has ever been in the past. So where does that lead? How does that affect the election?
DIONNE: First of all, those of us who are journalists can be grateful to Congress because somebody can poll lower than we do. I mean, my sense is that the only way you really could see some systematic breaking down of the gridlock is if it looks like President Obama is going to win the election, in other words, if by the middle of the year, he got what looked like a reasonably big lead a lot of the Republicans in Congress who have wanted to block his programs say wait a minute. He’s going to win. We’ve got to get reelected. We’ve got to start working with him. That happened with Bill Clinton in 1996 where the gridlock broke up. If, on the other hand, the election continues to look competitive in the middle of the year, as if you were to place a bet, that’s probably where you would place it, then I’m not sure there’s a lot of political interest on either side in sort of making concessions. I think they will fight it through to the end and then see what happens.
ABERNETHY: What do you imagine the future to be for the Occupy movement?
ECKSTROM: Well it will be interesting a, whether they can make it through the winter. It’s cold out there. But then b, sort of what do they become? One of the big sort of criticisms of this movement has been that nobody quite knows exactly what they want or what they stand for or what they’re even demanding. And so I think the big challenge for them in 2012 is going to be saying OK this is what we need to happen. It’s an election year, there’s a lot of people paying attention, so they probably have a better chance than not. But, the questions that they raise, the moral questions about fairness and equity and corporate responsibility, those aren’t going away, whether or not the movement is able to harness that into something kind of tangible, I think, is still a little unclear.
ABERNETHY: It’s been seen as very secular movement even though religious people have helped it in many ways.
LAWTON: Well, that’s what I want to watch. That’s exactly what I want to watch. Because it does have this perception that it’s a bunch of you know secular, I don’t know, unemployed people hanging around but there’s a strong religious current in it. And that was growing toward the end of 2011 and so you saw African American clergy getting involved, wanting to liken it to the Civil Rights Movement. You had a lot of mainline Protestant, Catholic, other church leaders providing support on the edges. Some of them told me that they didn’t want to be too out front, they didn’t want to look like they were high jacking the movement, but they are there and how is that going to affect what they do, what the rhetoric is, and is that going to continue.
ECKSTROM: It’s also worth noting that one of the most iconic images from this movement was when they paraded around a golden calf, modeled on the bull of Wall Street. When the marched that around lower Manhattan and here in Washington, D.C. That’s clearly a Biblical image so it’s not a completely secular kind of loosey goosey movement.
DIONNE: God and mammon is a rather old theme.
ABERNETHY: What about the extremely interesting cases that are going to be coming down from the Supreme Court, beginning with Obama’s healthcare? The Supreme Court’s going to hear that case and hand down a decision about it right in the middle of the election campaign.
DIONNE: And there’s some much speculation about how a court that often goes five to four in a conservative direction but doesn’t always go five to four in a conservative direction will rule. And, some of the judges in the circuit court who have upheld the healthcare plan have been conservatives and they were, in some ways, you felt they were writing to justices like Scalia and Thomas and Roberts and Alito and saying wait a minute it would not be conservative to overthrow this law. Then the other debate is which way would Republicans or President Obama be better off? Would it be a stinging defeat for Obama and therefore hurt him or would it take this issue off the table or even allow him to go on the offensive and say well we do need a national healthcare plan again so it is going to be an extraordinary day when the court rules on that.
ABERNETHY: Are religious groups involved in that, have they got appeals going for them?
ECKSTROM: Quite a few, especially from the conservative side. One of the first, original challenges to this healthcare law came out of Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell. But there’s a lot of conservatives who, not only for their conservative political ideology, but their religious ideology, don’t like the idea of the government telling them you have to have insurance. And, that’s really what the fight is over is the mandate to purchase individual health insurance or pay a fine. So there’s a lot of conservative groups who are against it. But there’s also a lot of progressive groups who are very much in favor of this, in fact don’t think it went far enough. The interesting group to watch is actually going to be the Catholic bishops because the bishops fought tooth and nail over provisions of this law but then after it was passed and signed into law they said well, we’re not going to fight to remove it.
DIONNE: And then you also have the Catholic Health Association which runs a very large share of hospitals in the United States, a minority, but they have a vast system and there other religious hospitals, religiously sort of affiliated hospitals, in the country who in general supported the healthcare reform because it would expand coverage of poorer Americans, working class Americans, who use their facilities.
LAWTON: But, one of the more contentious parts of that, sort of a lesser aspect, was coverage of contraception. And the Catholic Church was very concerned about being forced to cover things they don’t agree with, such as contraception. And so, that was a battle that’s still going to be played out on some of the local levels.
ABERNETHY: The Supreme Court is also going to consider and hand down an opinion, presumably, about immigration.
LAWTON: Well this has been a really difficult issue, especially for a lot of people in the religious community. A lot of people of faith have been actively helping immigrants and some of the laws, the Arizona law is going to be up before the Supreme Court, there was also a law in Alabama that a lot of religious groups were involved in. And people of faith are helping immigrants, they don’t want it to be criminalized to help immigrants, they are also don’t want the people that they are trying to help be considered criminals. I am interested that even evangelicals seem a little divided on this issue. Technically they tend to me more law and order people and therefore against loosening up on immigration. On the other hand, you have a lot of evangelical congregations that are seeing an influx of Latinos in the pews. And, so it’s a personal issue for a lot of these people. And you know, the kids in the youth group might be, their parents might be undocumented. So you’re seeing some wiggle room in the religious community.
DIONNE: Latinos, immigrants, illegal as well as legal, are among the most vibrant parts of both the evangelical world and the Catholic world. And I think you, the truth of the matter is a lot of the churches are in competition with each other to try to win the allegiance of Latinos which I think helps explain why a lot of Christian groups, regardless of their views on other matters, have tended to be more open to immigrants cause these are the people in their congregations.
ECKSTROM: And speaking of courts, another case to watch, it’s not at the Supreme Court level just yet, but the Prop 8 battle in California. In 2008, voters passed basically an end to same-sex marriage and it’s gone through the courts so far. Federal court has ruled against Proposition 8, saying that it’s unconstitutional. Now it’s going to the federal appeals court and regardless of what the federal appeals court decides, which could very well come in 2012, it’s probably going to go to the Supreme Court very soon after so this is going to be a crucial decision to watch for where that debate’s going to go.
LAWTON: And speaking of gay issues, we have in 2012 a couple of mainline Protestant denominations that are going to be meeting and this has been a tough issue for them and it’s going to continue to be tough in 2012. The United Methodists will be meeting and one of the issues before them is going to be can they marry, can their clergy marry same-sex couples in the states where that is legal. They can’t do that right now. There has been a group of retired United Methodist ministers that is doing that because active ministers could face penalties or the possibility of being defrocked. And, so that’s going to be up for grabs. In the Episcopal Church, you still see this slow breaking apart in the whole worldwide Anglican Communion over some of these issues, interpretation of scripture, and there are a lot of court battles and individual congregational battles going on there too.
ABERNETHY: And E.J., the Pope is scheduled to go to Mexico and to Cuba.
DIONNE: You know, the Vatican’s relationship with Cuba has been fascinating. I happen to be in Rome when Pope John Paul’s trip to Cuba was announced and there have been some interesting differences of opinion. The Vatican has tended to be in favor of a gradual, peaceful transition from the Castro regime. And the fact that the Pope is willing to go there speaks to this desire for a gradual change. Some of the Cuban community in the United States, the Catholic Cuban community one should say, are very uneasy about this. They would like a sort of harder push to get that regime out. So there have been some arguments over the years between our Cuban community, particularly in South Florida, and the Vatican. It will be fascinating to see how exactly, what Pope Benedict says about alterations in that regime and religious freedom. Castro himself, is a dictator, he also has had this kind of lifelong fascination with religion. He seems to be an atheist “but”. Maybe the “but”’s getting bigger as the years go by.
ABERNETHY: Folks, our time is almost up and in the couple minutes remaining I want to ask you, in addition to what we’ve just been talking about, what else are you watching? What are you really keeping an eye on that you think is going to be happening in 2012?
DIONNE: Well I’m looking in the campaign, I think it could be a very good campaign or a really terrible campaign. The good campaign, as I said, is because the parties will probably be as philosophically divided as they have been since 1964. We could have a really fundamental debate where we decide on a direction for the country for some time ahead and that could be a great thing. I also worry that with all of this advertising, the money that can be spent by outside groups because of the Citizens United decision, we may have more outright lying on the air and I know a lot of people think well campaigns are full of lies. It could be much much worse this year and I am very worried about what that’s going to do to us and what it might, how people will feel about this process at the end.
ABERNETHY: Kevin, are you looking at anything that might be a little brighter than more lies?
ECKSTROM: Well, actually I was going to say the end of the world because in 2011, Harold Camping famously said that the world was going to end on May 21st and then it was October 21st. It didn’t happen. 2012 apparently is supposed to be the year that the world will end according to the Mayan calendar so I don’t expect it to happen.
ECKSTROM: Yes, the ancient Mayan calendar. So, a lot of people are wondering if that’s actually going to happen. I don’t think it will but doomsday stories are always fun.
DIONNE: That’s the boldest prediction I’ve ever heard on this show.
ECKSTROM: That’s right.
LAWTON: Well, I’ll take it back to a more serious note, hopefully, I don’t know. That was pretty serious. Another case before the Supreme Court is a church state case that looks at who gets to define who is a minister. Does a congregation get to decide who their ministers are? Or does the government have an input? And this makes a difference when you talk about clashes between religious beliefs and civil rights law. So, for example, if you are a congregation that believes only in a female pastor does that violate gender, anti-gender discrimination laws? And so, there’s been a lot of differing opinions in the court and how broadly does the definition of minister go. If you perform ministry in the church by running the screen in the front, does that make you a minister? If you are the janitor, some people say that’s a ministry, does that make you a minister? And what was really surprising to a lot of religious groups was that the Obama administration argued that there should be no exceptions. That religious groups should not be exempted from these civil rights laws and that had a lot of religious groups upset so I’m going to be watching that and especially the reaction to that decision.
ABERNETHY: Our time is almost up. Is up now. Thanks to Kevin Eckstrom, to E.J. Dionne and to Kim Lawton. Happy New Year to you all and to all our viewers. I’m Bob Abernethy.