Beliefnet
Dec. 13, 2000 (Newsroom) -- Division among the electorate and in Congress will make it more difficult for George W. Bush's incoming administration to set an agenda for religion issues on both national and international fronts, scholars and activists contend.

"The next administration will have to be able to say to the nation, 'We[Americans] are not enemies, we're diverse,'" argued Bill Merrell, vicepresident for convention relations for the Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC)executive committee. "This will help the American people see the unitybeneath the surface of diversity."

Elliott Mincberg, vice president and general counsel for People for theAmerican Way, emphasized the importance of "common ground" efforts by Bush as courts and legislatures continue to coax workable solutions to conflict over domestic religion policy. He pointed to President Bill Clinton's record as one a future administration might do well to emulate.

Clinton "set a model demonstrating that positive things can be done" inthe area of religion, Mincberg remarked, noting the issuance ofpresidential guidelines on religious expression both in public schools andin the federal workplace.

Citing among other things the outgoing president's "ability to reachacross religious lines," Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the ReligiousAction Center of Reform Judaism, argued that Clinton had proved himself"one of the finest presidents in terms of expansion of religiousprotection and freedom since James Madison."

Others, however, remain unenamored with Clinton's approach to religionissues.

"The mood or tone set by the Clinton administration," contended Merrell ofthe SBC, "implies certain kinds of speech are not tolerated if they're notsupportive" of what are considered liberal issues, like same-sex marriageand abortion. "...Speech directed at the right wing has resulted in thevilifying of religious people, and that's unacceptable.... Setting onesegment of the population against another is not honorable." The SBC does not consider itself part of the right wing, headded.

Merrell argued that Bush will need to set a high moral tonefor the nation in both speech and behavior, and promote the value of humanlife. "Moral influence accompanied by applications of such laws that areappropriate can change a place," he said.

Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis and an informaladviser to Bush on Catholic issues during the campaign, claimed that while "Clinton has been willing to admit religion[into public discourse]...it is religion...without any moral teeth. Itis all about tolerance and good feeling for diversity." In the newadministration, Hudson posited, "there must be a general reversing ofpressure to eliminate religion from the public square and an understandingthat society profits when religion--religious symbols and a religiousmessage--makes its way" into the public arena.

Arguing that efforts to "make the public square naked" of religiousexpression to protect religious minorities are "wrongheaded," Universityof Richmond law professor Azizah Al-Hibri pointed out that such an"approach doesn't appreciate the pluralistic nature of American society inwhich everybody should get to say something. We should protect minorityreligions as the majority religion makes its voice heard, rather thanmaking society so secular that even the minorities feel uncomfortable."

Al-Hibri, a Muslim, argued that the 2000 presidential election only magnified the nationaldivide over how faith should figure into U.S. policy. Americans, she said,have proved to be "on the one hand staunchly secularist and on the othermore willing to lower the wall of separation between church and state soas to include faith in the public square."

Government cooperation with religious charity organizations looks to beone of the ascendant religious liberty issues in the coming administration, observers say. At issue is the "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that allows the government to give money to religious institutions as long as the resources are not used to force individuals to participate in religious practices. Under the banner of "compassionate conservatism," Bush aggressively administered charitable choice in Texas.

Debate centers around whether government funding should go to what arecalled "pervasively sectarian" institutions and what sort of safeguardsshould be established to ensure freedom of conscience for individualsreceiving charity. The American Jewish Committee is working with otherorganizations to put together a consensus statement on the issue and todelineate the arguments on both sides.

A Republican legislative agenda on religion issues will be ofinterest with Bush in the White House and Republicans in effective control ofboth houses of Congress, posited the Religious Action Center's Saperstein.

"We'll see whether they'll try to ram through things of fundamentalconcern to key constituencies in their party," he said. For instance, thereligious right, he claimed, wants "nothing more" than to see what isknown as the Istook, or Religious Freedom, amendment (RFA) to the U.S.constitution passed.

Originally introduced in 1997, the RFA would open the door to greatermaneuverability in the area of public school prayer.

Christian Legal Society senior legal counsel Kim Colby speculated that"with margins as close as they are in the House and Senate," Istook'samendment, if introduced, would probably not get very far. "I can't see itbeing given serious attention when there are many other difficult thingsfor [Congress] to deal with. Why go into a fight you would be unlikely towin and one that would be messy?"

In the area of foreign policy, many scholars believe the Clintonadministration has done well to integrate religious freedom concerns inAmerica's dealings with other nations, especially in the wake of theInternational Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which created the U.S.Commission on International Religious Freedom and the position of religiousfreedom ambassador-at-large, among other structures within the U.S. StateDepartment meant to track and promote religious freedom around the world.

Commission chair Elliott Abrams praised the two annual reports on religious freedom released to date by the State Department as required by the 1998 act. But he said, "We have not as yet been able to integrate our desire to promote religious freedom into foreign policy." U.S. policy toward China, for instance, does not reflect religious freedom concerns at present, he claimed.

In order to expand America's promotion of religious freedom, Abramsargued, Bush's administration will need to bring to the table "a deeppersonal commitment on the part of leading officials."

Saperstein, who also serves on the commission, contended that an expansionof religion's role in foreign policy would include priorities such asraising the issue of religious freedom systematically in U.S. dealingswith other nations; developing a "comprehensive strategy to get othernations to join us;" "getting the [State Department] reportinto the hands of foreign service officers in other nations; and seekingcoalitions to deal with issues in other countries that are problematic."

University of Richmond's Al-Hibri, also founder of Karamah: Muslim WomenLawyers for Human Rights, urged the incoming administration to ensure thata multitude of voices are included in dialogue and fact-finding aboutinternational religious freedom issues and pertinent policy-makingdecisions.

She observed that the Clinton administration had reached out to theAmerican Muslim community in symbolic ways, for instance, initiating someconversation with Muslim leaders. "This is a modest beginning," sheoffered. "But an administration really concerned could follow up theseefforts more substantively, which would be good for America." As the U.S. expands its dealings with other nations over concerns aboutreligious freedom, it is important to be "as balanced in our judgments aswe can," offered Doug Johnston, president and founder of the InternationalCenter for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, D.C., even as practicesthat demand criticism or condemnation present themselves. An incomingadministration, he said, should strive to recognize any positive stepscountries may be taking. "Other countries don't like being beaten over the head, but it becomes far more palatable if we also recognize any good things they may be doing."

"While it is now accepted that religious freedom is a touchstone of U.S.foreign policy," Johnston argued, "it is incumbent upon policy makers toincorporate more fully in their deliberations religious and other culturalconcerns."

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