Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

The Real Story of the Democrats’ Abortion Plank & What It Reveals About Obama

Below the fold is a detailed account, adapted from my Wall Street Journal Online column, of the behind-the-scenes struggle over the abortion plank of the Democratic Party.
The executive summary:
The Obama forces engineered an interesting and potentially important compromise. It moved the platform in the pro-choice direction on a few things in order to get pro-choice forces to agree to a key request from pro-life liberals: language affirming and supporting women who choose to carry the baby to term instead of having an abortion.
The Democrats had always talked about “freedom of choice” but usually spoke only of one choice, having an abortion. Pro-life liberals are convinced that many women have abortions for economic reasons, so providing them with support could actually reduce the number of abortions more than the Republican approach of emphasizing legal restrictions. (That argument summarized here.) The platform provides the outlines of a potential Democratic argument for reducing abortion number while preserving abortion rights.
The compromise tells you a great deal about Obama’s possible governing style. He did not put forth specific language ahead of time. His team worked quietly behind the scenes with different constituencies – pointedly declining to ever have the factions in the room at the same time. The resulting compromise got support from both the pro-life liberals and pro-choicers. Like most such compromises, it can and will be criticized for not gong far enough in either direction
In fact, a few days ago, I was one of the people who accused them of “squandering” an opportunity. Now that I understand how this came down, I’m a bit more impressed with what the Obama campaign did. Once it became clear that the pro-choice forces would not agree to strong language demanding a reduction in the number of abortions — a stand that could cost the Democrats dearly in the fall — the Obama camp was faced with a choice. They could try to roll the pro-choice groups. That would have made a big splash and appealed evangelicals and Catholics, but would have alienated pro-choice groups and splintered the party. Or it could have worked toward a compromise that would gain some modest ground for pro-life forces while getting support from both sides. They chose the latter.
It’s classic Obama, really. Ultra-pragmatic, consensus-buidling, favoring incremental steps in the right direction over broad culture war battles. Stated in negative terms, the left-wing attack on Obama (he’s a compulsive compriser) is far closer to the truth than the right-wing caricature (he’s ideological radical). More positively (?), he’s not a cross between JFK and MLK. He’s a cross between JFK and LBJ.
But the plank will end up as meaningless if Obama doesn’t push the Third Way approach aggressively. He spoke a bit about it at Saddleback but it was overshadowed by his lousy answer on whether determining the beginning of life was above his pay grade. Dropping a sentence or two into Q&As is not going to do the trick, especially given the attacks against him as a pro-abortion extremist.
The abortion issue is stuck in a particular groove. Both pro life and pro choice forces have something in common: they like to focus on questions about legal restrictions. Most Americans take a different view, wanting abortion to be legal despite thinking that it’s wrong. The Democratic Party plank opened the door to a new abortion politics, but it’s far from clear that Obama is going to plunge through the door and attempt to rally the country behind a Third Way approach.
UDPATE: A conservative argument that the platform actually became more pro-choice.


* * *

Adapted from The Wall Street Journal Online

Barack Obama has cast himself as someone who wants to forge common-ground solutions. Reporters have looked for examples from his time in the Senate and the Illinois legislature.
But one need not look that far back. His latest test was over the abortion plank of the Democratic Party platform, and it’s hard to think of a more challenging political balancing act.
On the one hand, he has become convinced that he has an opportunity to win large numbers of evangelicals. On the other, the abortion-rights groups are important constituencies to the party, and winning independent women will be crucial.
And then there was the Hillary Clinton factor. “There was a sensitivity in the campaign with how the language would play with Hillary supporters,” says Rachel Laser of the Third Way, a progressive group that has helped forge a platform compromise.
The Obama campaign made a crucial decision – not to have the abortion rights and antiabortion forces meet. “It was a cordial harmonious process in which neither side talked directly to each other,” said Michael Yaki, the platform director who worked on crafting the abortion plank. During July he held about a dozen face-to-face meetings with groups in a conference room at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington but always made sure that pro-life and pro-choice sides were not scheduled back-to-back lest they bump into each other.


A Trio of Progressive Evangelicals
On the evangelical side, the key players were the Rev. Joel Hunter of Northland Church, the Rev. Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelical who was on the Democrats’ platform committee, and the Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of Sojourners. Each was politically progressive in other ways but firmly anti-abortion.
Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good were the leading Catholic advocacy groups for the pro-life position.
On the pro-choice side, the key players represented the National Abortion Rights Action League, Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and the National Organization for Women.
At no point did the pro-lifers push hard for legal restrictions on abortions, including partial birth abortions. But they did push for clear language casting the Democratic Party as supporting a reduction in the number of abortions and not merely a reduction in the “need” for abortion. As Dr. Hunter explained, emphasizing a reduction in the need was backwards – making it sound like the real goal was stopping unintended pregnancies and abortions were a side effect.
Politically, the Obama campaign’s faith outreach coordinators, Joshua Dubois and Mark Linton argued that having some sort of abortion reduction agenda would help win religious voters – especially moderate evangelicals and Catholics – in swing battleground states.
But the pro-choice forces adamantly insisted that the word “need” remain. “Reducing the need is the only terminology that the pro-choice community is comfortable with – for good reason,” says Ms. Laser, who conveyed those views to the Obama campaign.
The pro-choice forces had two concerns. First, they feared that calling for reducing the number of abortions could lead to more legal restrictions on abortion. The pro-life progressives, Ms. Laser and the Obama campaign had to convince the pro-choice leaders that they could embrace abortion reduction without it eroding legal rights. “There’s been this fear factor that somehow looking for common ground will mean the demise of abortion rights. There was an intense fear of the slippery slope,” Ms. Laser says.
Their second fear was that the language would somehow stigmatize women who had abortions – “that it’s a morally wrong decision,” Ms. Laser says.

Avoiding Moralistic Language

Mr. Yaki viewed this as the landmine that could blow up the discussions. He decided to avoid moralistic language, including any direct statement that the party wanted to reduce the number of abortions. “We deliberately steered the language from having any morality put into it because it would have been difficult to agree on the definition of morality – Biblical, societal, individual. Once you go down that path, the ability to reach a compromise would have been limited.”
Instead, he tried to craft the plank so “either side could put their own moral gloss on the language.”
In the end, the pro-life people capitulated on that point – accepting language saying the party wanted to reduce the need for abortion not the number of abortions — and worked with Mr. Yaki to achieve a different goal: getting in language that encourages and supports women who choose to have the baby.
This was a big shift. In the past, pro-life and pro-choice groups had been able to find common ground over prevention – birth control and family planning – as a key way of avoiding unintended pregnancies. But this was different. Pro-life advocates wanted a parallel structure in which the party supported both choices that a woman might make when pregnant, having an abortion or carrying to term. Indeed, they believe that many women have abortions because they can’t afford to raise a child.
The pro-choice advocates feared ulterior motives. If we make it seem like having the baby is preferable, won’t that lead to legal restrictions?
Installing a Pro-Choice Lock Box
Mr. Yaki assuaged their concerns by beefing up previous platforms’ language on a woman’s right to choose. “We put a woman’s right to choose in a lock box and strengthened the language significantly,” he says. “We needed it to assure that we were not backtracking.”
Once the women’s groups became comfortable with that, they were willing to go along with allowing the “other choice” to get prominence.
The language was dramatic: While the 2004 platform said Democrats “stand proudly” as supporters of Roe v. Wade, the 2008 platform became even more emphatic: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”
In exchange for that strengthening, the pro-choice forces then went along with language that champions and supports the choice of a woman to carry the baby to term: “The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.”
Some have complained that the platform lacks a conscience clause.” The 2000 platform had said “we respect the individual conscience of each American on this issue.” The 2004 platform dropped it. Some pro-lifers had wanted that back in – but they didn’t make it a top priority and the clause was not restored. Yaki also thought the conscience clause didn’t add much coming off as “a weak apology” instead of real respect.
What about the language that had been in the platform in the 2 previous campaigns that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” I had assumed that it was the pro life people who wanted to keep that in and the pro choice folks who wanted out. Not so, say Yakki and Lasar. Yakki said the term had become meaningless since it had not been backed up with specifics. Lasar agreed: “We’ve felt that the time for the party to make clear tha the rare goal is not an afterthought. It’s equal priority.”
The final language was vetted with senior Obama campaign officials, including Karen Korbluh, Anita Dunn, Heather Higginbottom and Dana Singiser.
The Obama campaign’s style was revealing. Through most of the process, the campaign did not dictate the language or even signal what it wanted the outcome to be. However, they included the pro-life progressives as in the conversation, which by definition changed the terms of debate. “There was a genuine concern how, not just the pro-choice communities whose opinion they dearly valued, but how a broad constituency of others felt about the language, including Catholics and evangelicals and leading pro-life Democrats,” says Ms. Laser. “The concern was genuine.”
A Breakthrough
Mr. Yaki described the result as “progress–small, but significant.” It gives pro-life Democrats a platform off which they can advocate abortion reduction in even stronger terms. “All the ingredients are there for those who want to see an abortion reduction agenda but still within the context of a woman’s right to choose,” he says. “For the first time, the Democratic Party is using ‘reduce’ and ‘abortion’ in the same sentence, and for the first time it talks about the decision to have a child and supporting that decision. The breakthrough was affirming that from the choice position, there are two paths and heretofore the Democratic Party had only talked about one path” – abortion, not carrying the child to term.
After the platform was announced both NARAL and the pro-life forces praised the platform. NARAL President Nancy Keenan emphasized the stronger language protecting abortion rights. “The language in this platform reaffirms, in the strongest of terms, the Democratic Party’s solid commitment to a woman’s right to choose as defined by Roe v. Wade,” she says. “We are pleased that the party adopted language that is consistent with NARAL Pro-Choice America’s work to ensure that women have access to a full range of reproductive-health options, including preventing unintended pregnancy, bearing healthy children, and choosing safe, legal abortion.”
Pro-life liberals hailed it, too, emphasizing different points, of course. “The platform takes a significant step forward in affirming those whose moral convictions lead them to make a different decision than abortion,” declared Jim Wallis.
Dr. Hunter argued that this approach will actually reduce the number of abortions more than the Republican approach, which focuses on legal rights and judicial appointments. “Every indication is that with financial support and different forms of supporting pregnant mother and then some post birth help also we could come close to 50% reduction in abortions. That’s huge. That’s huge,” he said. “If we insist on keeping this an ideological war we’re literally not saving the babies they could save.” He even feels that Democrats could “steal the thunder from those who are seen as traditionally pro-life.”
Dr. Campolo said it was a real step in the right direction and urged Sen. Obama to go even further in his personal language.
Obama Touts Plank at Saddleback
And at the candidates forum at Saddleback Church on Saturday, Sen. Obama did just that. “I’ve now inserted this into the Democratic Party platform, is how do we reduce the number of abortions?” Sen. Obama said. “The fact is that although we have had a president who is opposed to abortion over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down and that is something we have to address.”
After the Rev. Rick Warren pushed him to talk more about legal restrictions, Sen. Obama returned to this theme: “What I can do is say, are there ways that we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, so that we actually are reducing the sense that women are seeking out abortions? And as an example of that, one of the things that I’ve talked about is how do we provide the resources that allow women to make the choice to keep a child. You know: Have we given them the health care that they need? Have we given them the support services that they need? Have we given them the options of adoption that are necessary? That can make a genuine difference.”
So if abortion is a test case of Sen. Obama’s ability to find common ground, how did he do?
His team and allies did succeed in crafting a plank that opposing camps could agree on. They showed skill at mediation and bridge building. They made pro-choicers feel comfortable taking a new step but reassuring them on their basic concerns. They made pro-lifers give in on several small points to get one big victory.
But they did all that in part by stripping the language of fire. Once you know the history and negotations, it’s sort of an impressive accomplishment. But to the naked eye, it’s hardly a rallying cry for a third way.
The public is accustomed to viewing the abortion debates about being about legal rights. Sen. Obama’s approach – to be pro-choice but reduce the number of abortions by making it easier to choose birth instead of abortion – is new, and likely to be viewed with suspicion by both sides. Given Sen. Obama’s consistent pro-choice voting record, it will be tough to get this third way approach to break through.
So far Sen. Obama has not given a major policy address on abortion or included it in advertising. He usually only discusses abortion when asked, often during interviews about his faith. Sen. Obama now has an innovative policy approach on abortion. The question is whether he will have the political courage to really sell it. And if he doesn’t, what does that say about his commitment to change?

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posted August 21, 2008 at 12:34 am

Interesting article. I have couple quick thoughts:
1. By removing the moral language, now abortion is on the same moral ground as giving birth. So killing a child is the same as giving life to one.
2. In the Democratic Platform it says “In the platform hearings, Americans made it clear that it is morally and economically unacceptable that our high-schoolers… The Democratic Party clearly believes that graduation from a quality public school and the opportunity to succeed in college must be the birthright of every child–not the privilege of the few.” So while the need for education is put in moral terms, the need for birth is not.
3. At Saddleback Obama said “But let me just speak more generally about the issue of abortion because this is something obviously the country wrestles with. One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of it there is a more and ethical content to this issue. So I think that anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue, I think is not paying attention. ” But again, the moral difficulties and gravity somehow did not make it into the plank. Maybe those who wrote the section were not paying attention.
I do like the statement from Dr. Hunter. Perhaps they should put in a plank saying they should reduce the need for war, maybe that will reduce war by 50% also.

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posted August 21, 2008 at 8:25 am

The problem with the “moral” language expectation is that there are two, competing moral concerns here. Abortion is a moral problem; the state restricting or controlling a woman’s health care is a moral problem.
Would the pro-life side have been happy with moral language on abortion if there was competing language on the morality of the state controlling a woman’s health care? Obviously, the risk of Obama including moral language when talking about abortion is that it ignores over 30 years of work by party loyalists working for the morality of allowing women to make their own heath care decisions without facing the power of the state. Restrictions do raise concerns about the morality of accessing helath care.

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posted August 21, 2008 at 10:52 am

As a pro-life Democrat and Evangelical who has been almost completely disillusioned with his party for a number of years, I followed the platform battle carefully. Some observations:
1. The three Evangelical negotiators for the pro-life side were big names (Tony Campolo, Joel Hunter and Jim Wallis). You may recall that Hunter was very briefly head of the Christian Coalition. I am encouraged that fellow Evangelicals at least had a seat at the table. That is some progress.
2. I’ve read dozens of articles and blog entries debating whether the new plank represents substantial movement in the pro-life direction. Sadly, I don’t think it does. As I’ve said in posts I’ve made on other blogs, we pro-life Dems need some recognition that abortion is a tragedy and that the number of abortions should be reduced, even if Democrats generally may disagree over the extent to which abortion should be legally restricted. The plank stops short of saying that.
3. Although I am disappointed in the new plank, I found a faint glimmer of hope in Obama’s response to the abortion question during the Saddleback forum. After his appalling first sentence (the “above my pay grade” remark and the cheer for Roe v. Wade), Obama did admit that there were legitimate moral concerns about abortion and also said something like this: “if you’re consistent in your pro-life position, I can’t argue with that.” Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard a Democratic presidential candidate (since Carter) say anything good about a pro-lifer. And for me, the recognition of the need to be consistently pro-life is key. I’m not a single-issue voter.
4. So, for me what it comes down to is this: neither Obama nor McCain are pro-life candidates. McCain’s ability to actually change our nation’s direction on abortion is questionable. And on other pro-life issues (war, environment, poverty), he’s worse than Obama. Therefore, my election day struggle will be trying to decide which of these very imperfect tickets I can swallow.

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Steven Ertelt

posted August 21, 2008 at 1:15 pm

So let me get this straight. We should applaud Obama for putting symbolism over substance and trying to mislead voters abnout his extreme pro-abortion position? We should support him for saying he supports childbirth and pregnant women and doing nothing to act on those views? We should support him for putting forward a platform forcing taxpayers to fund abortions? We should support him for a platform that calls on overturning every limit on abortion nationwide?
And this is “compromise” and “pragmatism”? No thanks. I’ll take McCain and his common sense position that unlimited abortions are wrong.
Steven Ertelt, Editor

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Deacon John M. Bresnahan

posted August 21, 2008 at 8:32 pm

Where was Obama the compromiser and peacemaker in the Ill. Senate when he was doing everything possible to make sure a baby born alive after a botched abortion did not have strong protection under the law?? I know the excuses he throws around now, but I also heard him say in an interview that his big concern was to not make abortion complicated by the need to bring in a second doctor to get involved with the living child. The more I hear and see his words on this issue-the more he comes across as a moral fraud.

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posted October 12, 2008 at 10:05 pm

Barack Obama is an abortion supporter no matter what compromise he comes up with for political reasons.
The platform of the democratic party and Barack Obama surely don’t think we are naive enough to believe that you can reduce abortions by promoting them.
Reducing abortions is already in place through the pro-life movement, under the theme of “And neither do I judge thee”. There are over 3000 pregnancy support center in our country that offer women the real help that they need and the gift of the life of a child for themselves or an adoptive family. There are post-abortive support programs for women and men suffering from their abortion decisions and who have the opportunity to use their experience to help others who are faced with the same decision.
Overturning Roe v. Wade is the only answer to the democracy that has been compromised for the unborn, as they have no rights. Barack Obama has promised to only appoint Justices who support Roe.

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Jon Trott from Chicago, Illinois

posted October 29, 2008 at 2:03 pm

I don’t think many evangelicals will resonate with Tony Campolo as their representative on this topic. That may not be entirely fair, but is rooted in Dr. Campolo’s moderate support for gays (along with his wife’s more unfiltered support for gays).
But the overall argument here resonates deeply with this Evangelical. I am quite enthusiastically voting for Barack Obama, despite my decades-long opposition to Roe v Wade. The root of my argument lies in history itself. Despite the Republicans’ control of the Presidency since 1973 when Roe was written by a lifelong Republican (Harry Blackmun) under a Republican President (Richard Nixon), we have had an abysmal number of actual anti-Roe justices appointed. Two of Ronald Reagan’s, and one of George Herbert Walker Bush’s, Supreme Court appointees have *upheld* Roe v Wade when it was challenged before the Court.
In short, attempting to deal with abortion at this point by (1) electing a Republican President who will (2) appoint pro-life justices leading to (3) the repeal of Roe v Wade is a bit like trying to change a light bulb with a wrecking ball. And even if it happened, this would not result in the erasure of abortion — far from it. Either a slightly less encompassing legislative equivalent of Roe v Wade would be crafted (and likely pass) both houses of congress, or abortion would revert to the states, who would for the most part promptly pass pro-choice state laws.
I do hope Obama is aggressive in pursuing a “third” or even “middle” way in this unwinnable abortion scenario we all find ourselves in. I am willing to give him a chance, as his ideas so far are in fact new and as his Republican “pro-life” predecessor — an Evangelical Christian — has been responsible for thousands of American deaths and possibly hundreds of thousands of non-American deaths. Hardly “pro-life” in any larger sense of the word.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 1:30 pm

Obama is not only a pro-abortion choice, but also a partial birth murderer choice. To me that is not a choice at all. View the video I posted and tell me why a baby that is born even in the 9th month must die, just because it’s abortion? Where does that fit the Roe vs Wade decision that could be overturned if the fetus was proven by science to be a life? Who protects these infants? You cannot call them fetuses anymore when they are not in a woman’s body anymore, have life and it is taken away by cutting their throats or ripping their bodies to shreds. I know it’s graphic, but it’s also true. Sadly…
Did anyone think that to free a nation like Iraq would not have it’s costs? It’s sad, but those costs in the Bush administration have kept the terrorists busy with something else than killing more civilians on American soil. There is a soldier who lost his leg in Iraq on UTube, you should view it. He believes that Iraq and it’s people are better off. Lives were given, but so many more were saved. Time will view this war as necessary not short sided.

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posted April 4, 2009 at 5:16 pm

“In short, attempting to deal with abortion at this point by (1) electing a Republican President who will (2) appoint pro-life justices leading to (3) the repeal of Roe v Wade is a bit like trying to change a light bulb with a wrecking ball. And even if it happened, this would not result in the erasure of abortion — far from it. Either a slightly less encompassing legislative equivalent of Roe v Wade would be crafted (and likely pass) both houses of congress, or abortion would revert to the states, who would for the most part promptly pass pro-choice state laws.”
The problem is, the above is not true. More and more states have had success in passing restrictions on abortions and while judicial appointments to overturn Roe, have been slow, it has been much closer, plus the SCOTUS did finally recognize and defend “The Born Alive Infants Protection Act” which as precident could be used to uphold other restrictions against Roe.
The fight against abortion and for the equality of humans-in-the-womb(hitw) is a slow process that requires alot of patience, something that many who claim to have been pro-lifers, appear to have run out of, but remember that we had slavery for over a century before it was ended legally and then another before desegragation was actually enforced.
Recognition of the human equality of humans-in-the-womb will take alot of time, but will come, with vigilance and patience and by slowly, consistently pressing for restrictions on abortion and by finding ways to promote and reveal the humanity of those in the womb(ultrasound laws) which pro-choicers so loudly try to restrict or fight.

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posted April 4, 2009 at 5:26 pm

The biggest problem with calling this a “compromise” is that it still, in no way, speaks of the human-in-the-womb in human terms. It speaks of them as objects(things not persons) needing money to care for through government programs. The talk of “abortion reduction” also doesn’t give a reason as to why any such reduction should take place, unless the one on the receiving end of the abortion(the unborn child, not the mother) has human significance, which pro-choicers loudly deny.
There will be no “abortion reduction” until the humanity of the ones in the womb are spoken of and recognized and their humanity admitted and acknowledged.
Some pro-choicers may respond ” ok ok, human fetuses, are you satisfied?”, but this only uses the word “human” as an adjective(like human blood cell) and not as a noun(a human).
Until the Democratic party and pro-choicers can admit that those in the womb are HUMANS, there is no compromise.

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posted 6:00:22pm Apr. 20, 2012 | read full post »

Good Bye
Today is my last day at Beliefnet (which I co-founded in 1999). The swirling emotions: sadness, relief, love, humility, pride, anxiety. But mostly deep, deep gratitude. How many people get to come up with an idea and have rich people invest ...

posted 8:37:24am Nov. 20, 2009 | read full post »

"Steven Waldman Named To Lead Commission Effort on Future of Media In a Changing Technological Landscape" (FCC Press Release)
STEVEN WALDMAN NAMED TO LEAD COMMISSION EFFORT ON FUTURE OF MEDIA IN A CHANGING TECHNOLOGICAL LANDSCAPE FCC chairman Julius Genachowski announced today the appointment of Steven Waldman, a highly respected internet entrepreneur and journalist, ...

posted 11:46:42am Oct. 29, 2009 | read full post »

My Big News
Dear Readers, This is the most difficult (and surreal) post I've had to write. I'm leaving Beliefnet, the company I co-founded in 1999. In mid November, I'll be stepping down as President and Editor in Chief to lead a project on the future of ...

posted 1:10:11pm Oct. 28, 2009 | read full post »

"Beliefnet Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief Steps Down to Lead FCC Future of the Media Initiative" (Beliefnet Press Release)
October 28, 2009 BELIEFNET CO-FOUNDER AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF STEPS DOWN TO LEAD FCC FUTURE OF THE MEDIA INITIATIVE New York, NY - October 28, 2009 - Beliefnet, the leading online community for inspiration and faith, announced today that Steven ...

posted 1:05:43pm Oct. 28, 2009 | read full post »


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