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Personal/Theological Notebook: A Few News Stories Catching My Eye

A few news stories that caught my eye over the last few days that are related, for better or worse, to religion in America....:

Optimism in Evolution
Obama’s View on Abortion May Divide Catholics
McCain and Obama face questions about their faith

Guest Columnist
Optimism in Evolution
By OLIVIA JUDSON for The New York Times
Published: August 12, 2008

When the dog days of summer come to an end, one thing we can be sure of is that the school year that follows will see more fights over the teaching of evolution and whether intelligent design, or even Biblical accounts of creation, have a place in America’s science classrooms.

In these arguments, evolution is treated as an abstract subject that deals with the age of the earth or how fish first flopped onto land. It’s discussed as though it were an optional, quaint and largely irrelevant part of biology. And a common consequence of the arguments is that evolution gets dropped from the curriculum entirely.

This is a travesty.

It is also dangerous.

Evolution should be taught — indeed, it should be central to beginning biology classes — for at least three reasons.

First, it provides a powerful framework for investigating the world we live in. Without evolution, biology is merely a collection of disconnected facts, a set of descriptions. The astonishing variety of nature, from the tree shrew that guzzles vast quantities of alcohol every night to the lichens that grow in the Antarctic wastes, cannot be probed and understood. Add evolution — and it becomes possible to make inferences and predictions and (sometimes) to do experiments to test those predictions. All of a sudden patterns emerge everywhere, and apparently trivial details become interesting.

The second reason for teaching evolution is that the subject is immediately relevant here and now. The impact we are having on the planet is causing other organisms to evolve — and fast. And I’m not talking just about the obvious examples: widespread resistance to pesticides among insects; the evolution of drug resistance in the agents of disease, from malaria to tuberculosis; the possibility that, say, the virus that causes bird flu will evolve into a form that spreads easily from person to person. The impact we are having is much broader.

For instance, we are causing animals to evolve just by hunting them. The North Atlantic cod fishery has caused the evolution of cod that mature smaller and younger than they did 40 years ago. Fishing for grayling in Norwegian lakes has caused a similar pattern in these fish. Human trophy hunting for bighorn rams has caused the population to evolve into one of smaller-horn rams. (All of which, incidentally, is in line with evolutionary predictions.)

Conversely, hunting animals to extinction may cause evolution in their former prey species. Experiments on guppies have shown that, without predators, these fish evolve more brightly colored scales, mature later, bunch together in shoals less and lose their ability to suddenly swim away from something. Such changes can happen in fewer than five generations. If you then reintroduce some predators, the population typically goes extinct.

Thus, a failure to consider the evolution of other species may result in a failure of our efforts to preserve them. And, perhaps, to preserve ourselves from diseases, pests and food shortages. In short, evolution is far from being a remote and abstract subject. A failure to teach it may leave us unprepared for the challenges ahead.

The third reason to teach evolution is more philosophical. It concerns the development of an attitude toward evidence. In his book, “The Republican War on Science,” the journalist Chris Mooney argues persuasively that a contempt for scientific evidence — or indeed, evidence of any kind — has permeated the Bush administration’s policies, from climate change to sex education, from drilling for oil to the war in Iraq. A dismissal of evolution is an integral part of this general attitude.

Moreover, since the science classroom is where a contempt for evidence is often first encountered, it is also arguably where it first begins to be cultivated. A society where ideology is a substitute for evidence can go badly awry. (This is not to suggest that science is never distorted by the ideological left; it sometimes is, and the results are no better.)

But for me, the most important thing about studying evolution is something less tangible. It’s that the endeavor contains a profound optimism. It means that when we encounter something in nature that is complicated or mysterious, such as the flagellum of a bacteria or the light made by a firefly, we don’t have to shrug our shoulders in bewilderment.

Instead, we can ask how it got to be that way. And if at first it seems so complicated that the evolutionary steps are hard to work out, we have an invitation to imagine, to play, to experiment and explore. To my mind, this only enhances the wonder.

Olivia Judson, a contributing columnist for The Times, writes The Wild Side at
More Articles in Opinion » A version of this article appeared in print on August 13, 2008, on page A21 of the New York edition.

Obama’s View on Abortion May Divide Catholics
By JOHN M. BRODER for The New York Times
Published: August 6, 2008

WASHINGTON — Sixteen years ago, the Democratic Party refused to allow Robert P. Casey Sr., then the governor of Pennsylvania, to speak at its national convention because his anti-abortion views, stemming from his Roman Catholic faith, clashed with the party’s platform and powerful constituencies. Many Catholics, once a reliable Democratic voting bloc, never forgot what they considered a slight.

This year, the party is considering giving a speaking slot at the convention to Mr. Casey’s son, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who like his late father is a Roman Catholic who opposes abortion rights.

The likely shift reflects concern among Democrats that they need to do more to regain the allegiance of Roman Catholic voters, who broke decisively for President Bush in 2004 and could be crucial to the outcome in a number of battleground states this year. Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, lost the Catholic vote badly to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, like Mr. Obama, is a supporter of abortion rights, during the primaries in states like New Hampshire, Missouri and Ohio. In Pennsylvania, Catholic voters preferred Mrs. Clinton to Mr. Obama by a 40-point margin.

The Obama campaign is being close-mouthed about its convention plans and would not confirm whether Mr. Casey would be given a prime-time speaking slot. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that the call was Mr. Obama’s, but that a prominent speaking role for Mr. Casey would assist in the candidate’s efforts to woo Roman Catholic voters.

Mr. Casey, who endorsed Mr. Obama early and campaigned extensively for him in Pennsylvania, said there was no formal offer yet from Mr. Obama or the party. But, he said, “I think we’ll get something worked out.”

Mr. Casey’s appearance would be an important signal to Catholics, especially those who follow church teachings and oppose abortion. Mr. Obama could also use his choice of a vice-presidential running mate to reassure Roman Catholics. Among those that his campaign is vetting is Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Roman Catholic whose faith has been part of his political identity. At least three other Catholics have also been mentioned as possible running mates: Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.

Although abortion is central to the political crosscurrents around Catholics — Ms. Sebelius has vetoed a number of bills that would restrict abortion rights in Kansas, prompting the archbishop of Kansas City to suggest that she stop receiving communion — part of Mr. Obama’s strategy is to emphasize that there are other issues on which they can base their votes. It would be a way to address the perception that Mr. Obama has a “Catholic problem.”

Douglas W. Kmiec, a conservative Catholic legal scholar at Pepperdine School of Law, said that although the formal teachings of the American Catholic bishops put primacy on the sanctity of life, including fetuses and embryos, doctrine allows for voting on other grounds, including the Iraq war, which the Vatican has opposed from the start.

Mr. Kmiec, a Republican who served in the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan, said he was supporting Mr. Obama because his platform met the standard of justice and concern for the poor the church has always defended. This year, Mr. Kmiec was denied communion by a priest at a gathering of Catholic business people because of his support for Mr. Obama. Mr. Kmiec said, “The proper question for Catholics to ask is not ‘Can I vote for him?’ but ‘Why shouldn’t I vote for the candidate who feels more passionately and speaks more credibly about economic fairness for the average family, who will be a true steward of the environment, and who will treat the immigrant family with respect?’ ”

He urged Mr. Obama to invite Mr. Casey to speak as an answer to those who believe they cannot vote for someone who supported abortion rights.

Mr. Kmiec’s and Mr. Casey’s views put them in conflict with millions of lay Catholics, for whom abortion is a nonnegotiable issue, and many Catholic clerics, including Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, the site of the Democratic convention.

Archbishop Chaput, who has stopped short of telling his flock how to vote, has called abortion a “foundational issue.” He has said that a vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights or stem-cell research, like Mr. Obama or Senator John Kerry in 2004, was a sin that must be confessed before receiving communion. Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, Senator John McCain, an opponent of abortion rights, met last week in Denver with Archbishop Chaput.

The archbishop declined an interview request but his spokeswoman, Jeanette DeMelo, said that his views had not changed. In a column this year, Archbishop Chaput wrote that Catholics could support a politician who supported abortion only if they had a “compelling proportionate reason” to justify it. “What is a ‘proportionate’ reason when it comes to the abortion issue?” the archbishop wrote. “It’s the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life — which we most certainly will. If we’re confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed.”

That is a tough standard for Mr. Obama, or any supporter of abortion rights, to meet. Republicans are gearing up campaigns to depict Mr. Obama as a radical on the question of abortion, because as a state senator in Illinois he opposed a ban on the killing of fetuses born alive.

Mr. Obama has said he had opposed the bill because it was poorly drafted and would have threatened the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that established abortion as a constitutional right. He said he would have voted for a similar bill that passed the United States Senate because it did not have the same constitutional flaw as the Illinois bill. Mr. Obama has opposed the federal ban on so-called partial-birth abortions for similar legal and constitutional reasons.

That explanation did not wash with many abortion foes and most Republicans.

“When you look at his opposition to the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act in Illinois and the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, which many Mass-attending Catholics view as bans on infanticide, Obama’s more extreme than any other Democratic presidential candidate,” said Leonard Leo, who directed Catholic outreach for Republicans in 2004, and is an informal adviser to the party and the McCain campaign.

Mr. Leo also said that the appearance of Mr. Casey on the dais at the Democratic convention would not be enough to address the concerns of faithful Catholics.

“He might get a slight bump from Casey among Catholics generally, but it doesn’t get him all the way there because Casey-the-Younger isn’t his father, and Mass-attending Catholics have figured that out,” Mr. Leo said.

William A. Galston, a domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Catholics were the quintessential swing voters. Mr. Galston said they were roughly a quarter of the electorate but lived in disproportionate numbers in the swing states of the Midwest. Polls show them closely divided between the two candidates. Mr. Galston said Mr. Obama could improve his standing with Catholics by, like Mr. Clinton in 1992, conferring with a group of Catholic leaders and then giving a substantive speech at Notre Dame or another Catholic institution.

Mr. Obama should also speak out in favor of legislation now before Congress to provide financing for alternatives to abortion like free prenatal care and adoption assistance, Mr. Galston suggested. Mr. Obama should also invite Mr. Casey to speak at the convention, he said.

“I spend a lot of time with Catholic intellectuals, and no matter how liberal they are and inclined to support Democrats, they speak with vehemence about the exclusion of Casey’s father from the 1992 convention,” Mr. Galston said. “They don’t accept any of the explanations. I think it would be a dramatic act of historical rectification that would resonate with Catholics.”

More Articles in US » A version of this article appeared in print on August 7, 2008, on page A16 of the New York edition.

McCain and Obama face questions about their faith
Aug 16, 12:53 AM (ET)

The Rev. Rick Warren is so prominent and respected that just being seen with him is a boon for any presidential candidate. For Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, their appearances at a forum Saturday night at Warren's evangelical California megachurch bring risks along with rewards.

The event will play to one of Obama's strengths, talking about his Christian faith, but it will also underscore the gulf between his views and those of the most conservative Christian voters.

Many of McCain's positions are more in line with the evangelical worldview, but he is uncomfortable - and some critics say unconvincing - while talking about his personal beliefs.

The candidates will appear separately, spending one hour each with Warren, before coming together on stage for a handshake. The pastor, who does not endorse candidates, will be the only one asking questions.

Warren is an anti-abortion Southern Baptist who is nonetheless part of a shift away from the religious right's strict focus on abortion and marriage. The environment, poverty and education have also become pressing concerns, especially for younger evangelicals.

Warren is best known for building Saddleback Church into a 23,000-member megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., and for writing the multimillion-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life."

But he and his wife, Kay, are also leading advocates for HIV/AIDS victims worldwide. They have invested enormous resources in their PEACE Plan, now under way in Rwanda, which aims to combat corruption, illiteracy and other social problems through church partnerships with government and business.

Older-guard evangelical leaders who oppose broadening the agenda have been leaning on Warren. In a stream of statements in the days leading up to the forum, they implored him to press the candidates about their positions on abortion.

Larry Ross, who represents Warren, said the pastor has been consulting with other clergy and with experts in different fields to develop questions for the candidates about leadership, the Constitution, human rights and "sin and righteousness issues."

"The more liberal camp just assumes that Pastor Warren is going to make this a Christian litmus test of the presidency. Others, who are more conservative, fear he is going to wimp out on some of the issues," Ross said. "He says, 'Neither group understands or knows me.' He's going to ask tough questions, fair questions, not gotcha questions."

Obama has proven adept at explaining how his Christian faith has shaped his policies. The church forum also gives him a perfect setting to counter the misperception that he is Muslim. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 12 percent of respondents believe the Illinois senator is Muslim.

"It's a great way for him to do what he can to make connections with not only moderate evangelicals, but also the many people out there who read 'The Purpose-Driven Life,'" said Mark Silk, who specializes in religion and public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

However, Obama will inevitably be asked to explain his support for abortion rights and other issues that clash with conservative Christian theology.

The Obama campaign has been diligently courting religious voters with a presence on Christian radio and blogs, and through "American Values Forums" and other events.

In June, Obama took the bold step of holding a private meeting with a large group of evangelical leaders, including the Rev. Franklin Graham, who challenged him on his beliefs in salvation, his support for abortion rights and other issues.

The benefit of the forum to McCain, who attends a Baptist church, is less clear.

While many of his views, including opposition to abortion, match the outlook of conservative Christians, he is far less comfortable than Obama discussing his faith. McCain did not participate in a spring forum at Messiah College near Harrisburg, Pa., where Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed religion and their personal lives.

McCain supporters have taken to circulating excerpts from his memoir "Faith of Our Fathers," that explain his beliefs. He recently met privately with Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, one of the most vocal U.S. bishops on the duty of Catholics to make the abortion issue a priority in choosing public leaders.

Yet, many evangelical leaders have backed him only reluctantly. And he put conservative Christians on edge Thursday by floating the prospect of picking a running mate who supports abortion rights. Conservative Christians comprise about one-quarter of the electorate.

"You just wonder, is he trying to shoot himself in the foot?" said David Domke, author of "The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America."

No one expects Obama to lure the most traditional Christian voters from the GOP. Polls consistently show McCain winning frequent churchgoers by large margins. But in a close general election, Obama could win by taking a small percentage of the evangelical vote away from the GOP.

"Obama is going to make real inroads for people who want to be satisfied that this is a pretty religious guy but that he's not a lunatic," Silk said.

The person with the most at stake may be Warren himself. The impression he makes Saturday will shape his reputation, the public view of his church and his position among evangelicals for a long time to come.

"I think Rick is in an unenviable position in that he stands to get attacked from the right and the left, based on what direction he takes," said Mark DeMoss, an evangelical public relations specialist who had supported former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the GOP primary. "As an evangelical, I am much more interested in his list of questions than in either of their answers."
Tags: america, christianity, cultural, ethical, evolution, media, new york times, personal, political

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