Faith, Politics and Your Vote

Religious Leaders from a Range of Faiths Discuss Belief and the Vote

Over the past few months, we’ve been bombarded by political ads and the hype surrounding next month’s presidential election. But do we really pay attention to what the pundits and spin doctors have to say, or do we vote our conscience? And what role, if any, does religious upbringing play in helping us decide?

BustedHalo invited a cross-section of religious leaders, activists and educators from across the country to share their thoughts on the moral and societal issues facing the country and the changes they’d like to see in a post-George W. Bush America.

Our panel includes:

Salam Al-Marayati Fr. John Coleman, SJ Dr. Richard Land
Rev. Alexia Salvatierra Varun Soni Fr. Larry Snyder

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director/co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Fr. John Coleman, SJ, professor of social values at Loyola Marymount University.

Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor and executive director for Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in California.

Varun Soni, dean of religious life at University of Southern California and the first Hindu spiritual leader at an American campus.

Fr. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA.





BustedHalo (BH): Throughout the campaign, both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have adopted “change” as a rallying cry. What does change mean to you as a person of faith, and what would you like to see addressed during the new administration’s first 100 days in office that truly signals a change is coming?

Fr. Larry Snyder: The most dramatic change to me would be a change in priorities. What if legislation that targeted the health of children, alleviated the struggles of the working poor and focused on building strong communities were given priority in the first 100 days? Imagine, putting people before all of the other activities the government is tasked with doing. The future of our country is strong when the next generation lives with hope, when the economy is strengthened by good jobs and an engaged workforce, and when people take ownership for their neighbors. Instead of always dismissing this, why don’t we take a risk and give it a try?

Varun Soni: I believe that the three most important issues in this election are all intimately connected: the economy, the war in Iraq and the environment. In the first 100 days, making a commitment to policing corporate practices, withdrawing from Iraq and developing a green collar industry would be a momentous change of direction from the previous administration.

Alexia Salvatierra: I’d like to see two crises addressed that are causing terrible and unjust suffering across this country: the crisis of the working poor and the broken immigration system. Both these issues are rooted in a spiritual sickness—the profound disconnect between the haves and have-nots—rooted in the false belief that some people are worth more than others.

Fr. John Coleman: I’d like to see a stimulus package for the middle-class and a serious attempt to address the underlying issues in the current economic failures. This recent bailout package is just a stop-gap.

Dr. Richard Land: We need significant reform in Washington, DC. Clearly, the economic mess we’re in is a gridlock of partisanship. We need a complete overhaul of the regulatory system and budgetary process. It’s important that we get a line-item veto for the president to do away with earmarks and wasteful spending—that’s fundamentally immoral. The people’s money need to be appropriated in an open, transparent way.

Salam Al-Marayati: For the Muslim community, we hope that the barrier of engagement will be broken by the next administration. On the foreign policy side, the main problem we see is the lack of participation of Muslim-American voices in the decision-making process. We weren’t at the table when they were considering war, or dealing with Pakistan, or addressing the Palestinian issues. We want to be involved not just for photo ops, but in serious discourse of the issues.

BH: How should the new president address the following issues: First, the concern over poverty and economic justice here and abroad?

Varun Soni: The new president should address the many converging factors that create poverty and economic disparity both at home and abroad. Poverty can only be combated through a multi-faceted strategy that involves serious investment in education, health care and other integral social services.

JC: The new president should address some kind of serious plan to get us universal health care. Secondly, the administration needs to focus on early childhood education. There’s an enormous difference between children who start school from a certain kind of economic situation versus those who come from socially-deprived families.

Dr. Richard Land: We are wealthy enough as a country to do what we can to alleviate poverty and suffering. First, we need a radical overhaul of the public school system. For most Americans, the key to upward mobility is education. Unfortunately, many of our schools don’t function well as educational institutions. Until the public schools have to compete for students, they’re not going to reform. Money’s not the problem, we need to make a federal commitment to giving people vouchers and tax credits so that families have an alternative.

Fr. Larry Snyder: Every society will ultimately be judged on how it treats the most vulnerable. Why does 12 percent of the population live below the poverty line in the most prosperous country in the world? Does the ever-increasing consumerism of developed countries keep developing countries from enjoying not only prosperity but also fundamental human rights? In making executive decisions, the next president will need to have a conscience sensitive to these realities.

BH: What about the issue of peace versus violence in conflict resolution?

Fr. John Coleman: The new president should make explicit that the United States eschews any use of torture, and give a clear, concise timetable for ending the war in Iraq. He must also articulate the repudiation of the Bush Doctrine. Finally, he should make some clear indication that in a globalized world, the U.S. will pay more attention to multilateral institutions and work with them to address a number of issues.

Varun Soni: My own belief is that violence begets violence and that war rarely leads to peace. There must be a political solution to end the violence in the Middle East, as a military solution is not tenable.

BH: What about ethics of life issues such as abortion, capital punishment and genocide?

Dr. Richard Land: I strongly believe that life begins at conception and that every human being is deserving of life. I do believe in capital punishment, but that doesn’t mean that I support the way capital punishment is handled in the U.S. There’s discrimination against persons of color and the poor, and disparity between male and female inmates who are condemned. When people look at this issue, they think, Isn’t it odd for someone who is pro-life to be for capital punishment? But what’s even more interesting is the people who are pro-choice are against capital punishment. But to me, it makes a lot of sense. Those who are pro-life believe in the sanctity of human life. The people who are pro-choice have a different quality of life ethic. They’re not as offended by murder as those of us who are pro-life. Romans 13 talks about the role of government, that God ordained a civil magistrate to punish those who are evil, that the use of lethal force is an option reserved for the state.

Fr. Larry Snyder: Where people at any stage of life are not valued and protected, there can be no ultimate security for anyone. “Look for me in the least among you…”

Fr. John Coleman: I’d like to see no capital punishment for those under 18. I’d also like for the administration to address the issue of reducing the number of abortions in the U.S. We should live up to our stance against genocide and examine what, if anything, can be done about Darfur.

BH: What are your thoughts when it comes to the subject of human rights and dignity, and how would you like to see the new president address issues such as torture and human trafficking?

Varun Soni: Over the last century, mankind has made great technological strides as a result of the industrial and informational revolutions. However, we need to also evolve spiritually and psychologically; otherwise, we will continue to engage in the same destructive behavior with much more severe consequences. The new president must discuss how we all have the same goals of prosperity and security, and that the only way for us to achieve these goals in a meaningful way is by working together and realizing that no one is free while others are oppressed.

Fr. Larry Snyder: We have only one race—the human race, but far too often, superficial perceptions are the excuse for justifying hatred and intolerance. The new president should build an administration where there is diversity in thought and personnel.

BH: And finally, the issue of racial justice?

Salam Al-Marayati: Most of the racial injustice against Muslims is based on the public opinion of Muslims in America, which affects our credibility abroad. The president can use his office in a very effective way to alleviate these misapprehensions. There’s still a considerable level of ignorance and animosity, like this perpetuation that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. Even if he were, would it be such a terrible thing?

Dr. Richard Land: I’m committed to racial justice and reconciliation. One of the areas that would encourage that would be to empower marginal individuals to make choices for their families, such as allowing poor, minority parents to have the same choices as upper middle-class parents when it comes to education. The highest support for school vouchers comes from segments of the African-American and Hispanic populations. I also think it’s counter-productive to continue affirmative action—it only perpetuates and creates prejudice when it didn’t exist before. It takes away a person’s most powerful weapon: performance. You don’t solve racial injustice by discriminating against any race.

Varun Soni: In order to understand the ongoing racial discrimination in the U.S., it is necessary for the next president to discuss racial disparities in a historical context. Only by understanding how racial discrimination has been institutionally perpetuated will it be possible to address the structural elements of racial injustice which continue to plague us.

Fr. John Coleman: The mere election of Barack Obama would be an achievement of racial justice. If that happens, that will already signal something else. The new president should also follow programs that are primarily racially-blind by addressing problems economically rather than on racial grounds.

Alexia Salvatierra: I don’t claim to be a policy expert, but I do have 30 years of experience in community organizing. This experience tells me that the process creates the outcome. In all of the areas discussed above, I would like to see processes that are truly democratic, transparent and designed to engage a broad spectrum of stakeholders, particularly honoring the input of those who are most affected and closest to the problems. I also think that the president needs to be a moral leader. I believe that the core values of all of the great religious traditions support civic values which are essentially moral values, such as the need to prioritize the common good and to protect the vulnerable. To meet either of these goals will not be easy. Currently, out-of-control corporate power has an inordinate impact on all of our political processes. The president will need to be courageous in order to maintain moral integrity in the face of this reality.

Tomorrow, members of our panel discuss the factors that will influence their vote, and share their advice for young adults and first-time voters.

Part Two >>