BOB ABERNETHY, host: Welcome. I’m Bob Abernethy, and this is our look ahead at the top religion stories we expect to be covering in 2013. We do this with the help of Kim Lawton, managing editor of this program; Kevin Eckstrom, editor in chief of Religion News Service; and E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a professor at Georgetown University, and a columnist for The Washington Post. Welcome to you all. One of the big events of the new year will be the inauguration of Barack Obama to a second term, so we asked a wide variety of religion leaders what they hope for during the president’s next term.
REV. SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference: If President Obama would revert back to the—that young, powerful, fiery spokesperson in the 2004 Democratic National Convention who talked about reconciling the blue and the red state, about the God of the blue state and the God of the red state, then I believe that he has a chance to really emerge as a transformative, catalytic president reconciling our nation. We are more polarized today than ever before.
REV. JOIQUIM BARNES, New Hope CME Church, South Carolina: I’m hoping that he would be able to work well, that Congress would be able to work with him to come up with a real budget that’s going to help the least of these, and because when you help those who are in the most vulnerable situation, you end up helping the whole country.
SISTER MARY ANN WALSH, US Conference of Catholic Bishops: Foreign aid is 1 percent of the budget, and we talk about cutting that, and that’s a frightening thought while some of us are eating at banquets while people are starving outside our door. That’s not right.
REV. RICHARD LAND, Southern Baptist Convention: To pass a comprehensive tax reform that would get rid of most of the deductions. Not charitable deductions, however. Charitable deductions are critical to civil society, but to eliminate a lot of loop holes and to bring about a bipartisan effort to get the government on a sound footing.
REV. JIM WALLIS, Sojourners: The principle is you’ve got to protect poor and vulnerable people as you find a path to fiscal sustainability. Both are moral issues.
BISHOP GENE ROBINSON, Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire: It’s hard to overestimate the importance of getting healthcare to 40 or 50 million people who did not have access to it before. That’s just huge, and as the wealthiest nation in the world, not to have healthcare for all was just a profound embarrassment.
BISHOP JAIME SOTO, Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento: As bishops we’ve been working on healthcare reform for years. Now there are issues about the healthcare reform that’s been passed, the Affordable Healthcare Act, that we have concerns about, one, some of the conscience issues.
RODRIGUEZ: I hope he protects religious liberty. I hope he defends the right and protects the right and advocates for religious pluralism.
RABBI SHIRA STUTMAN, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue: The issue of marriage equality, because I think he’s already started to take that on in his first administration, and I just feel like we’re so close we can taste it as we saw, as evidenced in the past election with more and more states, thank God, passing legislation about marriage equality
REV. LUIS CORTES, Esperanza: We have a coalition of people of faith who are actually trying to get both the Republicans and the Democrats to have a conversation on immigration. The president did promise that he wanted to address it. We’re hoping that Congress can work together and this year we can come to an agreement on a more comprehensive immigration reform package.
ARCHBISHOP GEORGE CAREY, Former Archbishop of Canterbury: If we can solve the problem of Israel and make sure that Israel has a proper, proper nation with safe borders and so on and yet at the same time allow the Palestinians to have their own state. If we can solve that one, then many of the world’s problems in terms of interfaith dialogue will be resolved.
SAYYID SYEED, Islamic Society of North America: It’s very critical for America to have good reputation, to have good liaison, with the Muslim world.
HODA ELSHISHTAWY, Muslim Public Affairs Council: We do hope that the president could maybe visit a mosque or attend an American Muslim institution and really show that direct engagement, that hey, listen, you are part of the American framework and part of the building of this country.
RAJDEEP SINGH, Sikh Coalition: We’re cautiously optimistic that the Obama administration will finally allow Sikhs to service in the U.S armed forces with their articles of faith intact. It would be a very important and historic step.
LAUREN ANDERSON YOUNGBLOOD, Secular Coalition for America: We’d like to see the Obama administration take the lead in acknowledging and including nontheistic Americans in the decision-making process.
WALSH: Pro-life issues are always a concern. Someone has to protect the innocent life, and certainly we think our government ought to be able to do that.
STUTMAN: I also really hope and pray that in the second administration he takes on the issue of climate change. I think that unfortunately it’s become a politicized, highly contentious issue and that it’s not, and it’s becoming more clear to us as the days go on that it’s something that we need to take on.
RABBI DAVID SAPERSTEIN, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: Whatever can be done to make our children safer, including stopping availability of assault weapons and these magazines that can kill people, and having people able to get weapons without adequate background checks. It’s really time to put an end to that, and I hope every parent in America calls for it, and when political leaders move, the religious community will be there to give it both moral sanction and political support.
SOTO: As a religious leader, we always have religious hope, and we expect the best of our political leaders, and that’s important for us to do now. I think it’s important for us to pray for our political leaders and to ask that they do the right thing.
ABERNETHY: As those wishes indicated, there are a lot of tough issues that many people want Washington to deal with right away, all at once. But Kim, where to begin?
KIM LAWTON: Indeed, where to begin? That is a very full plate, and in recent days Congress hasn’t been that great about dealing with multitasking, shall we say. I do think because of the tragedy at the elementary school in Connecticut there is a lot of momentum about gun control and taking up that issue right away. A lot of people in the religious community are really advocating on that, and there’s a groundswell. Now, some of that’s the emotion of what happened, which was horrible, and, you know, a lot of people are hoping that doesn’t fade in Congress and the administration can do something right away. But then you’ve got the fiscal issues which are there and really important.
E.J. DIONNE: I think Kim is absolutely right about guns. I think that we have—this is an occasion when we really can take steps that we haven’t been able to take for a long time, because a lot of people were so riveted and so deeply concerned by the death of all these children. So I think they’re—I hope we do something in that area. I think there’s a real opportunity on immigration reform this year, partly because President Obama won such an overwhelming share of the Latino vote, he knows he owes something to that constituency, but partly because Republicans do not ever again want to get such a low share of the Latino vote, and I think there’s an opening there, and then I think President Obama made a very central promise, which is we can get this economy to work again, not only for the best off among us, but also for the middle class and for the poor, and finding ways to promote shared growth. That involves education, it involves tax policy, it involves job training. I think that is the core promise of Obama’s second term, and that’s where he’s going to have to put a lot of attention.
ABERNETHY: In your book, Our Divided Political Heart, you talk about our historic attention to individual matters and, on the other hand, the community, the group. Do you see signs now in this climate that the gap between those two ideas can be narrowed?
DIONNE: Well, I think historically we always have as a country. We’ve always upheld both individualism and community as part of us, and I think what you’ve seen on the conservative politics, historically conservatives cared a lot about community as well as individualism, and I think over the last two to four years, partly because of the Tea Party, you’ve had much more emphasis on the conservative side on individualism, and I think since the election you’ve had sort of the compassionate conservatives that start to make a comeback, conservatives who say, “We do need this balance,” and so I’m looking—I think as a country we essentially voted for balance, and I think a lot of conservatives want to move their movement closer to it.
ABERNETHY: And in the gun debate you have people talking about “my right to bear arms” and, on the other hand, the need to protect the community, so what you’re talking about comes right down to the heart of this issue.
DIONNE: Right, and with rights come responsibilities, and I think that in the gun debate people are moving from purely a focus on “don’t ever touch anything having to do with my weapon” to “wait a minute, we have obligations to others, including those kids.”
ABERNETHY: Kevin, what do you see?
KEVIN ECKSTROM: Well, along this notion of, you know, who has to make the tough calls, in the budget debate, in the fiscal cliff and all of this, we’re facing a profoundly moral debate about whose responsibility is it? Do we balance the budget, make cuts on, you know, by cutting social programs for the poor? Do it we do it by keeping tax rates low for the rich? And ultimately we have to decide as a community who has to foot the bill to get us back on solid financial ground. And so there’s a lot of religious groups have said, “Yes, we need to do something about our fiscal mess, but we cannot do it in an immoral way, and we cannot do it in a way that punishes the people who can least afford it and rewards the people who can.”
ABERNETHY: One of the things that’s going to be coming up is the realization more and more of what’s in the Obama healthcare plan as things begin to kick in. Who wants to pick up on that, on the requirement that, for instance, that groups offer contraceptive coverage?
LAWTON: Well, that’s going to be very controversial, and that’s going to come up again very early in this year, because the mandate that came down from the Obama administration that employers cover contraceptive services free of charge, and that includes many faith-based employers, and so you had this coalition of Catholic Church and also a lot of evangelical groups saying, “This violates our religious freedom.” Many of them have filed lawsuits. The Obama administration has tried to find a compromise. So far they hadn’t found one that made people happy, but there are a couple of deadlines this year, and so they’re going to have to revisit this issue, and so that’s something that is going to be argued out.
DIONNE: Go ahead, Kevin.
ECKSTROM: I was going to say the courts are really the place to watch this, because I think, as Kim said, there’s more than 30 lawsuits that have been filed about this, and the very early ones that have come back, the courts seem to be fairly skeptical about the administration’s ability to force a Catholic institution, for example, to provide contraception.
ABERNETHY: The bishops fought hard on this one. How does that leave their relationship with the White House?
DIONNE: Well, that’s exactly where I was going to go, because I think that in the wake of the election there were, I mean, first of all, the Catholic Church has been divided in its attitude toward President Obama. The Catholic vote split almost down the middle, very slight lead for Obama largely because of his overwhelming strength among Latino Catholics. I think what you have among the bishops now is a sentiment that says, “Can we possibly work this out? We don’t want to be in a state of war with the Obama administration for four years.” And I think within the Obama administration you have quite a number of people who want to make sure they provide contraception coverage but don’t want to be in a state of war with the church, and so I think there are going to be some real efforts to try to reach a compromise that both sides can live with, and I think that’s also imperative because you’re actually going to see the Catholic Church, along with a lot of evangelicals, working with the administration on immigration reform. I think that one of the most powerful parts of the coalition in favor of immigration reform are the Christian churches, because Latinos are such a growing part of both the Protestant and Catholic constituencies in America.
ABERNETHY: Let me take you to things going on overseas, especially in the Middle East. Not a lot was heard about this during the campaign, but here we are. Syria is in terrible trouble. It’s all around. Here at home even, interfaith efforts have been cancelled because people couldn’t agree about what to do about Israel and Palestine. What do you see in the Middle East? Do we have a moral obligation to intervene, for instance, in Syria?
LAWTON: Well, that’s something that really surprised me. I think we were all so focused on the election last year and, of course, a lot of the candidates didn’t want to bring it up because really tricky, difficult, difficult issues but I’ve been surprised by the lack of moral debate about this issue, not that I’m advocating that we intervene, but I’m surprised that we, I haven’t heard a debate about it. We saw in Libya people saying, but it’s just humanitarian intervention. There are people being slaughtered and children and dying, and we have to do something to prevent genocide or to prevent all of these civilian deaths. It’s happening in Syria. We haven’t had that same kind of a public conversation. That surprised me. And certainly, you know, Egypt is messy, and Israel and the Palestinian situation, very tricky things that the religious community, as you suggested, very much involved in a lot of those issues.
ECKSTROM: I think we’re a war weary country.
ECKSTROM: And I think that explains a lot of what happened, including what happened in the election. In the end, Mitt Romney didn’t want to pick big fights with Barack Obama on foreign policy, and I think there are lots of people who look at Syria and say, “We really should do something about this,” and then they say, “But what can we do that will actually improve the situation and not get us inveigled in place and in circumstances that we don’t want to be inveigled in?” I do think it’s very troubling looking forward that we may be losing the opportunity to have a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. I think time really is running out on that, and I think there is a lot of frustration in the administration over what can they actually do? And whether or not we can argue about what they did in the past, you know, I think a lot of people would like to do something but don’t see what the promising path is right now.
ABERNETHY: And there are lot of troops in Afghanistan who perhaps would like to come home and a lot of people here who would like them to come up, but that seems to be something for the year beyond, 2014. I‘m wondering whether you think that’s going to be advanced.
ECKSTROM: I think a lot of people just want this over, and I think a lot of people, when it comes to Afghanistan, have kind of not thrown up their hands, but I think there’s an increasing acknowledgment that there’s only so much that we can do there. There’s only so much that we can “win.” So it’s going to be, you know, a question, and what you’re going to see a lot of debates on is to what degree does religion play into the future of Afghanistan? What’s the place of Islam? What’s the place of women’s rights and human rights? And at some point America has to basically step aside and let them figure it out for themselves, but it’s come at a very high, high cost.
ABERNETHY: There was a situation in Britain where the Anglican church, the Church of England, decided that women should not be able to be bishops.
LAWTON: Continue their policy that they’ve been having, yeah.
ABERNETHY: And a big backlash on that. Where is that going to go?
ECKSTROM: It’s a fascinating debate to me, and what you have is a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who’s going to be coming in, in 2013, and he is a big supporter of women bishops, as is the government, the prime minster and, you know, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury. Here’s I think why this debate matters. The church when it refused to allow women bishops was seen as stodgy, old-fashioned, out of step with the times, and the government has even said, “You know what? Fix this. Get it right. Get on with it already.” And if the church is unable to do that, if the church is unable to sort of meet the calls to be a modern, egalitarian institution, it’s going to make it look even more and more irrelevant and, you know, Britain already is an increasingly secular place. Now, what does that mean for us here at home? Obviously, England and the United States are different places, but Europe is kind of on the vanguard of the secularism movement, and to the degree that their leading religious institution looks irrelevant or out of step with the times, I think that there’s important lessons for us here about how religious groups and religious institutions accommodate themselves to the wider culture, and one of the things that you’re going to see that on here at home, I think, in 2013 is the gay marriage question, which is going to be headed to the Supreme Court. So to what degree religious institutions can adapt to the larger culture is, I think, going to be—there’s going to be a lot there.
LAWTON: But for a lot of these religious institutions they don’t adapt to the wider culture. You know, they take pride in saying, “Well, we’re countercultural because we stand for what we believe is right, whether or not the culture agrees.” And I think you’re right. That’s where it really, you know…
ECKSTROM: That’s where the tension is.
LAWTON: … the clash comes when you talk about gay marriage, because for a lot of religious institutions this is a faith issue, an issue of morality. They see God ordaining marriages between a man and a woman, and they look at the Bible and say they believe homosexuality’s a sin, and so to have the culture sanctioning marriage in that way is a problem for them. Not everybody in the religious community obviously thinks that way. There are many people who say it’s equality and justice for gay couples, so there should be gay marriage, but that’s what’s really interesting for some, the Roman Catholic Church, evangelicals—how do they operate in a culture that’s changing when their beliefs aren’t changing, at least in the core?
DIONNE: And there is this fascinating issue within, if you will, global Christianity, where what seems to be the case is, and Anglicanism is a case in point, that social conservatives in the wealthy countries find themselves allied with socially conservative sentiments in the Third World, and so it gets very complicated, because people on the progressive side of the church, who advocate a much more generous policy on the part of the rich countries toward the Third World, are allied with the Third World on those issues, but on some of these other questions the social conservatives find themselves allied with large chunks of the church in the less well-off countries, and it’s created a really interesting debate inside global Christianity.
ABERNETHY: Do you all find people saying, perhaps not with the right words, but a feeling that underneath all these particular issues there’s just something wrong? There’s something wrong in this country?
ECKSTROM: I think there’s a wide sense that we’ve somehow gotten off track. You know, after the shootings in Connecticut Mike Huckabee said it was because we removed God from schools. Other people thought that was ridiculous. But there’s a, you know, you can look at Congress, and why can’t we get anything done? But the bottom line is we can‘t get anything done. We can’t make big decisions anymore, at least it seems that way, and so the debate is not necessarily if we’re on track, but how do we get back? How do we fix it? And that’s I think where the debate is.
DIONNE: You know, whenever we get into pessimistic moods I always think of my favorite Churchill line that Americans always do the right thing after first exhausting all of the other possibilities. And we’ve been through a rough time. We had 9/11, we had two wars that we got bogged down in and it became very unpopular, then we had the greatest economic crash since the Great Depression, so yeah, we haven’t been in a great mood as a country, and I think we do think we need to fix things, and we do confront a global economy that’s quite different from where we were 20 or 30 years ago, but I’m actually not a pessimist about this. I feel like we’ve begun to come out from under some of these things, and that we still have a lot of problems to grapple with, but I think we’re this close to beginning to grapple with them in a way that we’re going to find promising, and I think within religious community you’re seeing a lot of storing. You’ve seen, you know, certainly a lot of work on social justice questions. We talked last week about the rise of the unchurched, the “nones,” and I think within our religious communities there’s a realization that they need a new kind of vibrancy if they’re going to speak to these folks who often call themselves spiritual but not religious. So I just want to speak up for hope, if not optimism.
ABERNETHY: Good, good. So our time is almost up, and I want to ask you what you’re going to be watching for particularly, of something that the rest of us might not have thought about? Kevin?
ECKSTROM: You know, one of the stories that came out of 2012 that’s going to bleed into 2013 was the Vatican crackdown on American nuns. At this point, the two sides are still talking. There’s not been a formal offer on the table as to what the Vatican wants to do with American nuns, but that, I think, is going to happen at some point, perhaps in 2013, and it’ll interesting to watch either side kind of jockey for a position there.
DIONNE: I’m going to be looking for a new conversation about the family, and I’m not talking about gay marriage. I’m talking about a sense on both the left and the right that the stability of the family is important to social justice, and that I think that we might have an opportunity to have a constructive conversation on issues that up to now have been mostly divisive.
LAWTON: E.J. and Kevin both took what I was thinking about saying already. That’s the bad thing about going last. I do—I will be watching congregations. As E.J. referred to some of the news that came out last year about the rise of people who don’t have those affiliations with organized religion anymore and it’s now about 20 percent of the American population and how are religious communities responding to that, not just Christian communities but, you know, across the board? And are they coming up with new ways of talking to people, of new ways of looking at themselves, new ways of encouraging people in their relationships with God? And also what about those “nones,” as we call them, n-o-n-e-s? Where are they in society? Are they a movement that’s going to have a political impact, or are they just sort of random people that aren’t affiliated with anything? Do they have political clout? Are they going to be able to organize, mobilize, and become a social movement, just as we’ve seen some of the religious groups become social movements?
ABERNETHY: Thank you. Our time is up now, I’m sorry to say. Thanks for a great conversation To Kim Lawton, managing editor of this program, Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service, and E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution, Georgetown University and The Washington Post. Happy New Year to all of you.