All posts from “Foreign Policy”

March 29, 2012

Religious Freedom Ambassador Settles into Role, Diplomacy

The former New York Baptist minister promotes international religious freedom.

Nearly a year into her stint as the State Department's point person on religious freedom, the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook has traveled to eight countries and seems to have moved beyond questions about her lack of diplomatic experience.

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"I had to certainly learn the culture of the State Department," said Johnson Cook, the Obama administration's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, in a recent interview, "but I was not foreign to the issues."

She was in Abuja, Nigeria, not long after bombs killed dozens attending Christmas Day Mass. And she's been to Assisi, Italy, where she participated in an interfaith gathering organized by Pope Benedict XVI. But she still has many countries on her to-do list, including some of the State Department's hot spots.

Her initial plans for a February visit to China, which is designated as a "country of particular concern" for its religious freedom record, were halted when China denied her visa.

"We look forward to traveling and looking at a mutually agreeable time when it works for China and it works for us," she said, not addressing criticism that the incident made her office look weak.

Continue reading Religious Freedom Ambassador Settles into Role, Diplomacy...

March 27, 2012

Global Aid Programs Take Political Back Seat

A change in leadership would likely mean a change in priorities.

Global poverty has not been the number one issue in the presidential campaign, though a change in leadership would likely impact the amount spent overseas and whether funds would go to organizations that provide abortions.

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Still, foreign aid has been part of ongoing debate in Congress over the federal budget as more than a billion people live under $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank. Under the Obama administration, spending on aid to developing countries increased by more than $4 billion. His Republican rivals take positions that would likely change how the U.S. distributes foreign aid as leading candidates have taken a range of positions on aid programs. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, for instance, is calling for a $100 million reduction in foreign aid. In a debate last October, Romney said that he would support defense-related foreign aid, but he does not support humanitarian foreign aid.

“I happen to think it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid,” Romney said.

Continue reading Global Aid Programs Take Political Back Seat ...

March 5, 2012

Obama Warns of 'Too Much Loose Talk of War' between Israel and Iran

Poll suggests evangelicals want U.S. to support Israel in the event of an attack.

President Obama met Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this morning to discuss growing concern over Iran's nuclear weapons program. With increasing talk of a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear capabilities, U.S. leaders caution against a premature military strike.

"The United States will always have Israel's back when it comes to Israel's security," Obama said as Netanyahu nodded.

Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Sunday, Obama said it was time to follow Theodore Roosevelt's axiom to “speak softly but carry a big stick.”

A slim majority of Americans said that the U.S. should remain neutral if Israel attacks Iran, according to a February poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Forty percent voiced support for Israel, while only 5 percent of suggested the U.S. should oppose military action.

Among evangelicals, nearly two-thirds said the U.S. should support Israel if it attacked Iran. Evangelical support for the U.S. backing an Israeli attack was stronger than it was among mainline Protestants and Catholics, each of whom favored neutrality over support for Israel (52 percent to 42 percent).

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Continue reading Obama Warns of 'Too Much Loose Talk of War' between Israel and Iran...

December 16, 2011

Just Before Shut Down, Congress Reauthorizes the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (Edited)

After months of uncertainty, Congress reauthorized the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Friday, just hours before it was set to shut down for good.

The House of Representatives easily passed a two-year reauthorization bill back in September that scaled back USCIRF’s budget from $4.3 million to $3 million and cut the number of unpaid commissioners from nine to five. But the reauthorization stalled in the Senate after Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) placed a secret hold on the bill.

After several temporary reauthorizations, the Senate unanimously passed a modified form of the reauthorization bill on Tuesday. Durbin added a stipulation to the bill that limits USCIRF commissioners to two two-year terms; that means seven of the nine current commissioners will have to leave the panel within 90 days. Durbin’s amendment also reportedly included a proposal to buy an unused maximum security prison in Illinois and make it a federal facility.

The modified bill was sent back to the House, where it passed by a majority voice vote. The bill reauthorizes USCIRF until September 30, 2014.

USCIRF’s effectiveness and necessity have been debated for many years. In 2002, CT featured two essays from contributors which highlighted the division: “USCIRF Is Only Cursing the Darkness” and “USCIRF’s Concern Is to Help All Religious Freedom Victims.” 

December 9, 2011

Obama, Clinton Elevate LGBT Issues in U.S. Foreign Policy

United States foreign policy will begin to include the protection and promotion of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons as part of its human rights efforts.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama directed all foreign assistance and diplomatic agencies to advance LGBT rights abroad. In a speech in Geneva later that day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

Together, Obama and Clinton made it clear that the U.S. government views the treatment of LGBT people as important as the treatment of women, children, ethnic minorities, and other peoples.

Religion, Clinton said, is not an acceptable justification for violence against LGBT persons. “Our commitments to protect the freedom of religion and to defend the dignity of LGBT people emanate from a common source. For many of us, religious belief and practice is a vital source of meaning and identity, and fundamental to who we are as people,” Clinton said. “It is because the human experience is universal that human rights are universal and cut across all religions and cultures.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told the Christian Post, "I certainly don't believe homosexuals or anyone else should be flogged or put to death for their sexual sins. However, I don't believe homosexuals should receive special treatment over and above anyone else either. Secretary Clinton's remarks were more than likely a painless way for the Obama administration to placate the homosexual community in the U.S."

Continue reading Obama, Clinton Elevate LGBT Issues in U.S. Foreign Policy...

September 21, 2011

Clock is Ticking for Religious Freedom Panel

The independent and bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom could be forced to shut its doors if the Senate does not vote by week's end to reauthorize the panel.

The commission appears to be in legislative limbo after the House voted Sept. 15 to extend the panel for an additional two years. The commission is authorized through Sept. 30, but both houses of Congress are scheduled to be in recess starting Monday (Sept. 26).

Before the House vote, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., urged fellow members to support the watchdog panel that monitors the persecution of religious minorities across the globe. But he worried that the Senate might not act in time.

"Quite frankly, I believe that some over there and this very administration would not mind seeing this commission shut its doors," said Wolf, who authored the original 1998 legislation that created the commission.

The House voted 391-21 in favor of reauthorization; a spokeswoman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kalinda Stephenson, the Republican staff director of the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said advocates for reauthorization had hoped it would occur earlier this year.

"With all the budget cuts, people don't see religious freedom as a priority," she said.

Continue reading Clock is Ticking for Religious Freedom Panel ...

September 13, 2011

State Dept. Chides Eight Countries on Religious Freedom

The State Department on Tuesday designated eight nations as the most serious violators of religious freedom, naming the same countries as the Bush administration.

The list of "Countries of Particular Concern" includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan; all but Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan also received sanctions.

While Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has issued previous reports on religious freedom, Tuesday's report represented the first time the Obama administration has published its list of the world's worst violators.

The mid-year report focused mostly on problems and progress during the second half of 2010. But it also included more recent developments, including the assassinations of prominent critics of Pakistan's blasphemy law and the bombing of a church in Egypt that killed 22 people and injured about 100 more.

"It is our core conviction that religious tolerance is one of the essential elements not only of a sustainable democracy but of a peaceful society that respects the rights and dignity of each individual," Clinton told reporters at a press briefing.

Continue reading State Dept. Chides Eight Countries on Religious Freedom...

August 24, 2011

VP Joe Biden Stirs Debate on China's One-Child Policy

Vice President Joe Biden in China last weekend prompted renewed controversy over China's one-child policy, in remarks that seemed to condone the government rule.

"Your policy has been one which I fully understand -- I’m not second-guessing -- of one child per family," Biden told a crowd Sunday at Sichuan University, the keynote speech of his four-day trip to China.

Condemnation of Biden's remarks came swiftly from human rights groups and the pro-life sector, as well as from several political leaders. Many perceived Biden's comment as a softening of the U.S. diplomatic stance toward China's policy, which mandates that most families limit themselves to only one child and prioritizes male children above female.


Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser called the remark “pandering” on the SBA List blog. “Vice President Biden should be doing much more than second guessing the policy, he should be outright condemning it,” Dannenfelser said.

Biden spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff sought to clarify Biden’s comment in a statement reported by the conservative news site The Daily Caller on Tuesday evening. “The vice president believes [China’s coercive birth limitation policies] practices are repugnant,” she said.

Biden's remarks came in response to a question about U.S. debt. Biden compared the U.S. “baby boom” to China's one-child policy in that both have created an unsustainable problem. "The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people,” Biden explained to the Chinese audience.

“He was arguing against the one-child policy to a Chinese audience,” Barkoff explained in the statement. “[Biden] also pointed out, in China, that the policy is, as a practical matter, unsustainable.”

Continue reading VP Joe Biden Stirs Debate on China's One-Child Policy ...

June 13, 2011

Want to Fire Up Conservatives? Cheer On Israel

It is no secret that some of the strongest backers of Israel are Christian conservatives in America, a trend on full display last week at the Faith and Freedom Conference. Among all the issues mentioned by speakers, few, if any, received the amount of enthusiastic support as calls to strengthen American support for Israel.

President Obama said last month that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians should begin along the 1967 borders. Presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called this “a shocking display of betrayal of our greatest and friend and ally Israel.”

“America must do what all previous presidents have done since Harry Truman and stand with Israel. I stand with Israel. … [W]e are sending a message to the world that President Obama speaks for a very tiny minority. He may the president of the United States, but he does not speak for us on the issue of Israel,” Bachmann said.

It was the only statement by the Tea Party leader that moved the conference attendees to their feet in applause.

The reception of the audience was similar for other speakers. Calls to repeal “Obamacare,” lower taxes, restrict abortion, and enshrine traditional marriage were well-received. But Israel—that was an issue that consistently received standing ovations.

GOP candidate Tim Pawlenty spoke for nearly 15 minutes on topics ranging from taxes to terrorism, but the crowd did not appear excited until he expressed his support for Israel.

"We need a President of the United States who stands shoulder to shoulder with our great friend Israel and make sure there is no daylight between the United States and Israel,” Pawlenty said, bringing people to their feet.

The support for Israel hinted at Christian Zionism, with speakers saying that Israel was granted their land by God and should exist as a Jewish state.

Continue reading Want to Fire Up Conservatives? Cheer On Israel...

May 20, 2011

Obama's Middle East Speech Nods to Bush Doctrine?

President Obama delivered quite an important speech yesterday on the Middle East and North Africa. Here's one key idea:

"It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy."

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As I heard that and later read over the entire speech, I asked myself: Is there a single sentence in the entire speech that former President Bush would not have said? I struggled to find one. This means President Obama, when it comes to the Middle East and North Africa, is restating past US policy, including the so-called "Bush Doctrine."

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, makes this association powerfully in his commentary today interjecting quotes from the speech itself:

… Barack Obama openly, unreservedly and without a trace of irony or self-reflection [is adopting] the Bush Doctrine, which made the spread of democracy the key U.S. objective in the Middle East.

"Too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people's grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills."

Continue reading Obama's Middle East Speech Nods to Bush Doctrine?...

May 18, 2011

After Bin Laden, Stay in Afghanistan?

In the immediate aftermath of Osama Bin Laden's assassination, religious leaders debated whether the the military action was just and what the right response to such an event should be. For political activists, another question emerged: What does Bin Laden's death mean for U.S. foreign policy?  Most agreed that it is "a turning point," but there is less agreement over where exactly the U.S. should turn toward at this point.

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For Sojourners president Jim Wallis, the death of Osama Bin Laden should signal the end of the war in Afghanistan, a war he said “no longer has any justification.”

“The completion of the largest and most expensive manhunt in history for Osama bin Laden must be a turning point to completely rethink our response to terrorism,” Wallis said. “The threats of terrorists are still real, but it is now clear that full-scale military action is not the most effective response.”

David P. Gushee of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good echoed Wallis' view. Gushee said there is now the “opportunity … for the United States to reconsider the questionable moves we have made in the name of the war on terror. From our perspective, this includes … the expansion rather than ending of the ten-year-old war in Afghanistan.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Bin Laden's assassination was indeed a “turning point,” but one in the war on terrorism that he said included both Afghanistan and Iraq. He compared it to the battle of the Midway in World War II that began to put the Japanese on the defensive.

"We defeated [al-Qaeda] in Iraq. And we're doing the same thing in Afghanistan now. This is not the end of al-Qaeda, not the end of the Taliban," Land said.

Breakpoint's Chuck Colson also saw this as “a major turning point in the war against terrorism.”  But he said, “the real turning point could be in how we conduct this war hereafter.”

Continue reading After Bin Laden, Stay in Afghanistan?...

May 12, 2011

Bill Would Strengthen Role of Religious Freedom Envoy

New legislation proposed by a leading congressional watchdog would push the State Department to make international religious freedom a greater priority.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., introduced a bill on Wednesday that would boost the profile of the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, require religious training for foreign service officers, and
reauthorize an independent panel that monitors restrictions placed on beliefs and practices abroad.

The bill would also require the State Department report to Congress about concrete measures it has taken toward countries that violate religious rights.

"Religious freedom, often referred to as the first freedom, is of central import to the American experiment," Wolf said on Wednesday. "As such it should feature prominently in U.S. foreign policy."

Wolf authored the 1998 bill that established the State Department's international religious freedom office, created an ambassador-at-large for the issue and founded a bipartisan commission to monitor foreign governments.

Continue reading Bill Would Strengthen Role of Religious Freedom Envoy ...

May 1, 2011

How Should Christians Respond to Osama bin Laden's Death?

President Obama announced tonight that Osama bin Laden, leader of the group responsible for the September 11 attacks, was killed during an operation in Pakistan.

“On nights like this one, we can say that justice has been done.’’ He emphasized Al Qaeda's distinctions from Islam. "The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam." Here's a transcript of the address.

It wasn't long before some Christians began tweeting about Rob Bell's ideas by wondering whether Osama bin Laden is in hell. Here's a sample of some other Christian pastors, bloggers, tweeters' reactions on Twitter along the themes of celebration/justice:

Derek Webb: don't celebrate death, celebrate justice

Jared Wilson "the LORD had made them rejoice over their enemies." (2 Chron. 20:27). #prooftextingiseasy #theologynotsomuch

Ed Stetzer: Now that bin Laden is gone, can we have our civil liberties back, send home the #TSA and restore the 4th Amendment?

Esther Fleece: What's up with Christians tweeting verses like they are fortune cookies? This is not a simple discussion.

Eugene Cho: May the world be united in pursuing peace. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Jordan Sekulow: Crank this up as you celebrate the termination of bin Laden http://t.co/N7K9X8u

Cameron Strang: I was with the president in the East Room 13 days ago with some Christian leaders. A tad less significant than what happened there tonight.

Caryn Rivadeneira: Proud to be an American. Proud of the US special forces. Glad to see justice served. Not a fan of the cheering crowds.

Abraham Piper: Osama Bin Laden is dead? I want to see the long-form death certificate.

Rachel Held Evans: Trying to keep in mind that how I respond to the death of my enemies says as much about me as it does about my enemies.

Mark Driscoll: The cheering crowds remind us that justice is glorious & comes ultimately through Jesus cross or hell. Justice wins http://ow.ly/4KUXP

Update:
Mark Tooley sent CT the following statement:

"All persons of good will can rejoice that the U.S. military has successfully ended Osama bin Laden's career of terror. Sadly, since 9-11, many church voices have insisted that Christianity mandates pacifism. Hopefully there will be greater appreciation for The Church's historic stance that God ordained the state to punish the wicked."

Justin Taylor: The Government’s Sword as an Instrument of God’s Wrath | “[A governing authority] not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” —Romans 13:4

CT did a cover story in 2002 on "Islam a religion of peace?"

April 15, 2011

Senate Confirms Johnson Cook for Religious Freedom Ambassador

The Senate has confirmed Suzan D. Johnson Cook to be ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

President Obama waited until June 2010 to send a nomination to the Senate, and then the Senate then failed to act. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) put a hold on the nomination, effectively vetoing it, according to Samuel G. Freedman of the New York Times.

The Obama administration submitted her nomination again in February. Last month, a group of faith leaders sent a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging them to emphasize religious freedom in foreign policy.

Johnson Cook, also known as "Dr. Sujay," retired in 2009 as pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Church. Last week, she compared herself to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "This will go down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest nomination," she said at a dinner held last week. "But we thank God to just be in the number."

April 6, 2011

Embattled Religious Freedom Envoy the New `Iron Lady'

The Obama administration's embattled nominee for religious freedom ambassador is comparing herself to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as she tries for a second time to land
the post.

"They called Margaret Thatcher the `iron lady,"' the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook said Tuesday in an address to a dinner of religious liberty advocates. "Change the name. It's mine now."

Cook was nominated for the post last June but her nomination stalled and expired in December. President Obama renominated her in February after critics complained the longtime vacancy reflected a low priority for the issue.

Critics, including some on Capitol Hill, have questioned whether the retired New York City pastor lacks enough direct experience to help guide policy on an issue that's at the heart of numerous international conflicts.

"This will go down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest nomination," she said. "But we thank God to just be in the number."

Cook was introduced by the legislative affairs director of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who said attendees hope she will be the next ambassador. As she did at her recent Senate confirmation hearings, Cook recounted her international travels and work after 9/11 as a New
York police chaplain.

Continue reading Embattled Religious Freedom Envoy the New `Iron Lady' ...

March 25, 2011

U.N. Passes Religious Freedom Resolution

U.S. officials praised a United Nations council for a new statement on religious freedom that sidestepped a divisive debate sponsored by Islamic countries over the "defamation of religions."

The U.N. Human Rights Council on Thursday (March 24) approved a resolution voicing concern on "emerging obstacles" to religious freedom and growing "religious intolerance, discrimination and violence."

The United States supported the resolution, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called a "significant step forward" in global efforts to combat "intolerance, discrimination and violence ... based upon religion or belief."

Annual U.N. resolutions sponsored by the Organization of the Islamic Conference against the "defamation of religions" have steadily lost support in recent years.

The issue gained greater scrutiny in Pakistan, which prohibits blasphemy against Islam, after two government officials who opposed the law were assassinated by Muslim radicals.

The independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has helped marshal opposition to the blasphemy resolutions in the U.N., said Thursday's vote should prompt Pakistan to rescind its blasphemy law.

"The resolution properly focuses on protecting individuals from discrimination or violence, instead of protecting religions from criticism," the commission said in a statement.

March 21, 2011

NAE: Reduce Debt but Protect Poor

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is calling for the federal government to reduce debt, but not on the backs of the poor. The NAE board of directors approved the resolution “Lowering the Debt, Raising the Poor” at its semiannual meeting.

The NAE said the debt is a spiritual issue that demands moral leadership. “This will require extraordinary political courage, bipartisan cooperation and shared sacrifice. Every major area of expense and revenue must be scrutinized – particularly those that have contributed the most to the deficit,” said the resolution.

Aid to the poor—particularly the poorest of the poor—is not a major contributor to the debt, said the NAE. The resolution stated that all international aid programs make up less than 2 percent of the budget, and aid aimed at alleviating poverty is around 0.6 percent.

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“The Bible encourages wise stewardship and calls nations to uphold justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable, NAE director of government affairs Galen Carey said. “Smart and cost-effective strategies to help those living in poverty are in the national interest and should be maintained and strengthened even as we make necessary adjustments elsewhere.”

Robert Zachritz, director of World Vision’s advocacy and government relations, said that foreign aid is a small investment that results in high return in terms of lives saved.

“Through programs like disaster assistance, clean water, AIDS, fighting global hunger, and malaria prevention, lives are being saved. These programs should not receive a disproportionate amount of the coming cuts,” Zachritz said.

The NAE resolution comes as the Congress is considering drastic cuts to foreign aid including a 41 percent cut to international poverty programs and 67 percent cuts to health programs. According to a March 2 letter by NAE and aid organizations including World Vision, ONE Campaign, Food for the Hungry, Alliance to End Hunger, Bread for the World, and World Relief, the cuts includes the following reductions:

 

-- U.S. food aid programs ($687 million)

-- Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance ($875 million)

-- Development assistance by ($747 million)

-- Refugee programs ($827 million)

-- Global health and childhood survival programs ($365 million)

-- Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis ($450 million)

 

While the reductions would include hundreds of millions of dollars, it remains less than 1 percent of the federal spending. These cuts have not been put in place yet, however. The Senate and House are currently negotiating the final details of the government budget.

Continue reading NAE: Reduce Debt but Protect Poor...

March 11, 2011

Faith Leaders Urge Higher Profile for Religious Freedom

In letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee, they say reported plans "would harm American interests."

A group of faith leaders sent a letter this week to the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging them to emphasize religious freedom in foreign policy.

The March 7 letter asks Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and the ranking Republican member, Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to attend the confirmation of Suzan Johnson Cook as the president's nomination for ambassador for International Religious Freedom (IRF).

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"Dr. Johnson Cook's confirmation hearing is a perfect opportunity to let the nominee and the administration know that IRF should be a high priority for the United States," according to the letter.

The letter is signed by religious leaders from a variety of faith backgrounds including Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Susan Taylor, president of the Church of Scientology, Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland - A Church Distributed, Jim Mellado, president of the Willow Creek Association, Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners and Robert Seiple, the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for IRF. (Christianity Today Media Group editor in chief David Neff also signed the letter.)

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not announced a hearing to consider Cook's nomination.

Cook was originally nominated to the position by President Obama on June 15, 2010. The letter signers said they were "disappointed by the low attendance at Dr. Johnson Cook's first confirmation hearing last year."

Her nomination expired at the end of the congressional session, due to the concerns of a senator who confidentially filed a hold-over letter following her hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The senator was widely believed to be Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

Following the start of the new congressional session, Obama re-nominated her to the position, which has remained unfilled since January 2009. Religious leaders criticized the administration for neglecting the issue of religious freedom by waiting more than a year after Obama's election to originally nominate someone to the post.

The Washington Post noted that "the policy Johnson Cook has been nominated to lead is being sidelined even before she takes the job" in favor of other policy initiatives. Others pointed out that Obama did not take advantage of the congressional recess to appoint Cook to the position.

"The utter indifference to this key office, and to IRF policy, by the White House and the State Department has been scandalous," Thomas Farr, a former diplomat and current director of the Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy program at Georgetown University, wrote for CT last month.

The letter to Kerry and Lugar urges the Senate to support the importance of both the position and its function. "With strong leadership in its IRF policy, the United States could have had a much greater effect on levels of religious violence, persecution, and terrorism than it has had to date," the letter reads.

The position of Ambassador for IRF functions as the head of the office of IRF, which is part of the State Department. The IRF office's stated mission is to monitor religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, which is does by submitting an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom to Congress and serving as principal advisor on religious freedom to the Secretary of State. The position was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

However, the letter cites reports that the administration may be planning to remove the IRF office from the ambassador's direct authority, and similarly laments reports that, "while other ambassadors at large work directly under the Secretary of State, the IRF ambassador will be several levels removed from the Secretary. . . . Both of these steps would harm American interests."

January 18, 2011

Who Fights for Religious Freedom? Obama's Ambassador Position Still Vacant

Also, Open Doors USA gives Barbara Boxer the second highest score in the Senate for sponsoring religious freedom legislation.

No one leads the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) after two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The IRF vacancy demonstrates the low priority currently placed on religious freedom even though there is nearly unanimous, bipartisan support for international religious freedom in Congress.

Obama did not send a nomination to the Senate until June 2010, nominating Suzan Johnson Cook, a pastor long on religion but short on international human rights. The Senate then failed to act. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not hold a hearing on the nomination until November and the Senate never voted on the nomination. Senator DeMint (R-SC) put a hold on the nomination, effectively vetoing it, according to Samuel G. Freedman of the New York Times. As a result, the office remains vacant for the foreseeable future.

“The Obama administration seems to have decided that other policy initiatives -- outreach to Muslim governments, obtaining China's cooperation, advancing gay rights -- would be compromised by vigorous advocacy for religious freedom,” Thomas Farr, the first director of the IRF, wrote in the Washington Post last year.

Farr said that the IRF office has been “emasculated” because the office is not treated like similar offices and no longer has the same staff reporting to it as in earlier administrations.

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Open Doors USA, an advocacy group for the religious freedom of Christians, examined congressional officials who lead the fight for international religious freedom by evaluating who sponsored legislation. Leaders come from both the right and left, Republicans and Democrats. Open Doors gave Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) the second highest score in the Senate. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) also received high marks for their advocacy work.

The new 112th Congress may be less active on religious freedom issues because of important changes in the Senate. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) was the key leader on the issue, but he left the Senate to become governor of Kansas. Sen. Kaufman (D-DE) and Sen. Bond (R-MO) are also not returning.

Continue reading Who Fights for Religious Freedom? Obama's Ambassador Position Still Vacant...

December 18, 2010

Repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Moves Forward

The Senate blocks the DREAM Act.

The Senate voted today to proceed to debate on a bill ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which clears the way to repeal the law.

In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama vowed to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military. Last week, Senate Republicans blocked the repeal while delaying a vote on the DREAM Act. Today the Senate blocked the DREAM Act, which carves out a path to legal status for foreign-born children brought to the United States illegally.

Some chaplains had voiced concerns over the repeal, saying that they could be accused of discrimination if they addressed homosexuality. Earlier this year, the Southern Baptist Convention said that a large percentage of currently serving military personnel said they would not reenlist or would end their careers early should the policy be repealed. The National Association of Evangelicals would not encourage chaplains to resign if the law was repealed.

The Washington Post provides the breakdown of votes for DADT.

Senators voted 63 to 33 go proceed to debate on the bill. Fifty-seven members of the Senate Democratic caucus and six Republicans -- Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and George Voinovich (Ohio) -- voted yes. Four senators -- Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) -- did not vote.

A final vote on the bill is expected Sunday; a simple majority is required for final passage.

The vote came amid an unusually busy Saturday for the Senate, with consideration of gays in the military, the U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty and a bill providing a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants.

The New York Times reports on how it came back to the Senate floor.

Only a week ago, the effort to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy seemed to be dead and in danger of fading for at least two years with Republicans about to take control of the House. The provision eliminating the ban was initially included in a broader Pentagon policy bill, and Republican backers of repeal had refused to join in cutting off a filibuster against the underlying bill because of objections over the ability to debate the measure.

In a last-ditch effort, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, encouraged Democratic Congressional leaders to instead pursue a vote on simply repealing the ban. The House passed the measure earlier in the week.

Politico has more details on its final passage.

The repeal, however, wouldn’t take effect immediately. Obama, Gates Mullen would have to certify to Congress that they have reviewed the Pentagon report on the impacts of repeal, that the Defense Department is prepared to implement repeal and that doing so would not harm military readiness, troop morale, and recruiting and retention.

The policy would be repealed 60 days after the president submits the document.

June 15, 2010

Obama Nominates Cook for Religious Freedom Ambassador

Obama also intends to nominate Felice D. Gaer and William J. Shaw as members to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

President Barack Obama announced today that he plans to nominate Suzan Johnson Cook for ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

Religious freedom advocates had criticized Obama for not filling the position until now.

Update: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement welcoming Johnson Cook as someone who serve as a principal advisor on religious freedom to Obama and Clinton.

Dr. Johnson Cook is an experienced religious leader with a passion for human rights and an impressive record of public service. President Obama could not have found a more fitting choice for this important position. I look forward to working with Dr. Johnson Cook, if she is confirmed, to bring greater focus to international efforts to ensure that people everywhere enjoy the global standards of religious freedom enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein floated Johnson Cook's name in January.

Meanwhile, no one is confirming the main name buzzing out there - Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, a very prominent New York City pastor with a powerful resume, including: being past president of the conference representing all historically black denominations, developing some faith-related policy for President Clinton, former chaplain of the New York City police department, faculty member at Harvard.

Missing, say religious freedom advocates, is any work related to religious freedom or foreign policy. Not to mention that Cook's office denied she had been named to the job, but then hasn't returned my calls or e-mails when I asked whether she had even been offered it.

Johnson Cook founded Wisdom Worldwide Center and owns Charisma Speakers since 2008. Before that, she was co-Partner/Owner of Jonco Productions from 1994 to 2009. She also served as a professor at the New York Theological Seminary from 1988 to 1996.

The New York Times profiled her in 2002, calling her "Billy Graham and Oprah rolled into one." Johnson Cook participated in the prayer service the day after Obama's inauguration.

Continue reading Obama Nominates Cook for Religious Freedom Ambassador...

April 30, 2010

Panel Faults Obama for Lagging on Religious Freedom

The U.S. government is not doing enough to protect religious freedoms abroad, the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said Thursday in its annual report to Congress and the White House.

"The problems are above and beyond what we saw last year, and the administration must do more," said Leonard Leo, chair of the commission, which was founded by Congress in 1998.

The commission named 13 "countries of particular concern" on religious freedom violations: Burma, North Korea, Nigeria, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The panel also named 12 countries to a second-tier "watch list" that deserve close monitoring by Washington: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela. India was the only new addition from last year.

Beyond the annual list of offenders, which has remained relatively stable in recent years, commissioners chided the Obama administration and U.S. diplomats for ignoring religion in foreign policy when so many conflicts find their roots -- or justification -- in religion.

"We're completely neglecting religious freedom in countries that tend to be Petri dishes for extremism," Leo said. "This invariably leads to trouble for us."

The commission brings attention to global "hot spots" where freedom of religion is threatened by state hostility, state-sponsored extremist ideology, or failure to protect human rights.

Commissioners said the issue of religious freedom has been, and continues to be, largely ignored. "Regrettably, this point seems to shrink year after year for the White House and State Department," Leo said.

Continue reading Panel Faults Obama for Lagging on Religious Freedom...

August 4, 2009

U.S. Suggests Softened Darfur Stance

The Obama administration may soften some sanctions against the Sudan government, the Los Angeles Times reports.

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President Obama's envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, said that the Khartoum government has shown a willingness to allow aid to be delivered to the region.

The government expelled several humanitarian groups earlier this year after an international court accused Sudan's president of war crimes in Darfur.

"We see that there is a spirit of cooperation and an attitude of wanting to help," Gration said. ... "There's ways that we can roll back these sanctions in a way that allows us to lift the restrictions we need, such that the government continues to be sanctioned and military equipment continues to be sanctioned," he said.

The new approach has sparked fierce debate among Obama's advisors and is causing consternation among some of his strongest supporters, who had expected the president to toughen U.S. policy toward a government that he had sharply criticized as untrustworthy during last year's presidential campaign.

The article states that the International Criminal Court estimates that about 135,000 people have been killed or died from disease and starvation, and more than 2.5 million people remain displaced in Darfur.

Continue reading U.S. Suggests Softened Darfur Stance...

July 24, 2009

Christians Gather to Influence Middle East Policy

More than 4,000 people attended John Hagee's Night to Honor Israel dinner in Washington D.C. earlier this week, according to Erick Stakelbeck's report for CBN news. Speakers at the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) event included Senator Joseph Lieberman, Fred Barnes, Gary Bauer, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (via satellite).

This year, CUFI delegates will ask their representatives on the hill to support Israel by respecting the government's decisions, and to support further legislative sanctions against Iran. Another topic of concern to CUFI and its pro-Israel members is America's foreign policy toward Israel undergo under the new administration. Hagee told Dan Gilgoff:

I have some concerns about President Obama's approach to peacemaking. He may believe that by securing concessions from Israel he will get leverage with which to win reciprocal concessions from the Arabs down the road. Yet I do not believe that the history of Arab-Israeli peacemaking to date supports this view.

Continue reading Christians Gather to Influence Middle East Policy...

June 19, 2009

India Again Denies Visas to USCIRF Panel

Indian government officials have denied visas to commissioners of a U.S. religious freedom watchdog panel for the second time since 2001.

Members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) were forced to cancel their plans to assess religious freedom in India. Panelists were scheduled to leave on June 12, and have been trying to obtain Indian visas for the past seven years.

Nina Shea, a commissioner, said it is troublesome that the Indian authorities are so defensive about exposing potential religious violence in the world's largest democracy.

"I believe at the root of this, they want to cover it up," she said. "They have something to hide."

Hindu organizations in India are reportedly suspicious of the panel's intentions, according to an Indian news article that was forwarded to USCIRF from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. The panel's visit to India is "an attack on our religious sovereignty," a spokesperson of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu organization, told the Navbharat Times.

Commissioners had planned to travel to Gujarat, Karnataka and Orissa -- all areas of immediate concern for religiously motivated violence directed against minorities.

Shea said commissioners will look to experts and documentation to complete their report, though the trip would have been a chance for the Indian government to participate with preventive strategies at the local and national levels.

The Indian Embassy did not return phone calls.

June 5, 2009

Obama Speech Draws Strong Reactions

Analysts and leading evangelicals are reacting pretty strongly to specific concerns about President Obama's "speech to the Muslim world" in Cairo on Thursday, including his definition of democracy, persecution by Muslims, support of Israel, and use of religion to support his goals.

National Review Online asked religious freedom activist Nina Shea, "Is there an 'Arab world' approach to religious freedom?"

She responded:

None of the Arab countries is ranked as "free" in the Center for Religious Freedom survey, though the degree of repression varies. Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are the worst, while Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, and Oman are relatively better. All restrict minorities in varying degrees, and virtually all officially sponsor anti-Semitism. And all are intolerant of and punish apostates, heretics, blasphemers, and those who "insult" Islam. This has resulted in repressing converts from and critics of Islam as well as writers, scholars, artists, journalists, democracy activists, reformers, women's rights proponents, and others who exercise the right to free speech. This has contributed to the political, intellectual, and economic stagnation of this part of the world, as observed in the U.N.'s Arab Development Report.

Freedom House issued a statement applauding Obama's commitment to democracy. However, American Values President Gary Bauer, writing for Human Events, thought that Obama's stance for universal values was too broad:

Somewhere lost in all of the hype over Obama's outreach to the world is a sense that he stands most proudly as the American President. It's time for the president's soaring rhetoric to be applied in support of this great nation and its Judeo-Christian heritage.

Bauer also criticized Obama for neglecting to mention persecution by Muslims. Prior to the speech, Bauer had hoped that Obama would address the persecution of Christians in many Muslim countries. Bauer noted Obama singled out Saudi Arabia as a good example of "interfaith dialogue" even though last March the State Department placed the country on its list of severe violators of religious freedom. Bauer was disappointed that Obama worked harder to "ingratiate himself to Muslim leaders" than to criticize their faults:

[T]he president could have said so much more. The suppression of basic human rights is a fact of life throughout much of the Islamic world, and Muslim nations make up a large percentage of the State Department's list of the world's most severe violators of religious freedom. That list includes Saudi Arabia, and its dictator, King Abdullah, whose "counsel" Obama sought earlier this week in a trip to Riyadh.

Some in mainline Protestant circles found much to like in the Obama speech.

Continue reading Obama Speech Draws Strong Reactions ...

April 22, 2009

Clinton Drilled on Abortion, Torture

The House Foreign Affairs Committee took a turn today when Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about abortion.

Smith asked why she had recently praised Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, according to Emily Belz at World.

Smith: Sanger was an unapologetic eugenicist and racist who said "the most merciful thing a family does for one of its infant members is to kill it." And said on another occasion, "eugenics is the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems."

Clinton didn't respond to the Sanger quotes at first, but later in the hearing when questioned again on the matter, she said in all humans (she used Thomas Jefferson's slave holding as an example) "there are things we admire and there are things we deplore."

Smith asked whether the administration would be promoting abortion in places like Africa, under the umbrella of "reproductive health."

Clinton: We happen to think family planning is an important part of women's health - and that reproductive health includes access to abortion?.We are now an administration that protects the rights of women including the rights to reproductive health care.

Inglis asked Clinton why she didn't condemn forced abortions on her trip to China. "They heard me say it already," she said, referring to a trip 14 years ago.

Inglis: Don't we have to speak with moral authority when we engage countries like China?
Clinton: Yes, we certainly do. It is a broad engagement that we have with large and complex countries. There is always and must be a moral dimension to our foreign policy.
Inglis: When you're in China next, I hope you'll speak to these issues.

Farah Stockman at The Boston Globe reports that Clinton was also asked about torture.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, repeatedly asked Clinton whether the administration would declassify documents that former Vice President Dick Cheney has said paint the CIA interrogators in a more heroic light and show the important information produced from the interrogations.

Clinton said she had no knowledge of such documents. "It won't surprise you that I don't consider him a particularly reliable source," she said, to some laughter.

April 21, 2009

Jesus in Cuba

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In recent days, American foreign policy, President Obama, and Cuba have been in the headlines.

But honestly, the mainstream media is too pre-occupied about cell phone markets, tourism, and foreign policy to be thinking much about Jesus in Cuba (which has one of the world's highest concentrations of evangelical house churches).

I guess that's our job. CT has done two cover stories about Cuba in the past 16 years or so. And, we have talked about the three phases for religious freedom since the Cuban Revolution:

1. Persecution of the church and the faithful flock. (a dark and dangerous time)
2. Discrimination against faithful Cubans. (no jobs for open Christians)
3. Tolerance of Christian faith to the extent it does not actively resist rule by fiat from Fidel and Raul. (don't color outside the lines)

Here's the big question:

Do Cuba's Christian leaders fear lifting the embargo?

Recently we have talked with a few Cuban church leaders or those Christian leaders doing ministry in Cuba. To tell the truth, many are quite concerned about a sudden lifting of the embargo.

Those concerns include:

* Look at what happened in the former Soviet states after 1989. The free-for-all had harmful (and beneficial) results.

* Consider how local Cuban churches might be thrown into competition with each other for the flood of new faith-based money and Christian resources coming onto the island.

* Realize that lifting the embargo would introduce much more consumerism. In reality, the failed socialist experiment in Cuba has stimulated Cuban longing for a relationship with Christ.

As much as I might want to have the embargo lifted tomorrow and the Castro regime wiped out, these kinds of sudden changes often have a dark side.

Am I wrong to think that way? What's your point of view?

March 18, 2009

Obama to Name Special Envoy for Sudan

President Obama, according an anonymous source speaking to wire services, expects to name a Special Envoy to Sudan, today, March 18. Here's one report:

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US President Barack Obama will on Wednesday name retired Air Force general Scott Gration as his special envoy to Sudan to confront what Washington sees as a "horrendous" situation in Darfur. The President "will be naming Scott Gration as special envoy to Sudan," an Obama administration official said on condition of anonymity. The announcement will come as the United States ratchets up pressure on the government of Sudan's President Omar al-Beshir following his expulsion of international aid groups from Darfur that worsened the humanitarian crisis.

CT news is following this story closely and will update this report soon. Scott Gration, of course, is a fascinating choice from my perspective. He was born in DR Congo and his parents were missionaries.

See this Wikipedia entry for details.

The situation in Sudan continues to go from bad to worse even if that seems impossible to imagine. After President Bashir pledged to kick out 13 agencies for their alleged support for the International Criminal Court, the president has now said he wishes to "Sudanize" all aid coming into the nation.

February 26, 2009

Frist, Argue May Join Obama Foreign Policy Team

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Today, there are reports that GOP Rep. Frank Wolf is pushing to have Bill Frist (left), an MD and former Senator Majority Leader, to be named as the Obama administration's special envoy on Darfur.

The Sudan Tribune reports:

There is no special diplomat for Sudan since the former envoy stepped down at the end of George Bush's term. Calls for appointment of a high-level envoy with particular deputies began just after Obama's election win in November last year. In an open letter to Obama issued today, Rep. Frank Wolf called the delay "simply unacceptable." "I've witnessed the nightmare with my own eyes," Wolf wrote of Darfur. "Every day that passes, more men are killed, more women are raped, and more children die of malnutrition. This is simply unacceptable. The time to act is now. John Prendergast, a former White House official and current activist, and Roger Winter, a former diplomat to Sudan, are top contenders, the Associated Press speculated. Activists have signaled that a top envoy with high stature in the US political circles could rally international leverage against Sudan's government, which they accuse of genocide. Wolf, the co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, today recommended former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for the post.

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Meanwhile, religious freedom advocates have been questioning who is on the short list to become the next ambassador for international religious freedom. I keep hearing word that Don Argue (right), the former head of the National Association of Evangelicals who has been very close to Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, is on the short list of potential nominees.

Continue reading Frist, Argue May Join Obama Foreign Policy Team...

January 22, 2009

Fired US Attorney Will be a Prosecutor in Guantanamo

Fired New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias will be a prosecutor with the Office of Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba when terror trials resume there, Ben Smith at Politico reports.

The move has doubly powerful symbolism: Iglesias is recently famous for being fired for refusing to compromise his political independence, but he knows Guantanamo Bay well: He was the Navy defense lawyer played by Tom Cruise in the film, "A Few Good Men," one of three who defended marines at the naval base.

Iglesias, a Naval reservist, said he'd been activated as a Judge Advocate General "prosecuting terror cases out of Guantanamo."

Iglesias is an evangelical who believes he was caught in the middle of a politicization of the Justice department. I interviewed Iglesias last summer about his book, which tells his side of the story about why he was fired by the Bush administration.

September 26, 2008

First presidential debate touches on torture

John McCain and Barack Obama argued over foreign policy and the economy during tonight's first presidential debate. You can read a transcript here and watch the first part on CNN.

Torture came up briefly towards the end. (Update: Below are full quotes from the transcript)

McCain: "And we've got to -- to make sure that we have people who are trained interrogators so that we don't ever torture a prisoner ever again."

Obama: "But because of some of the mistakes that have been made -- and I give Senator McCain great credit on the torture issue, for having identified that as something that undermines our long-term security -- because of those things, we, I think, are going to have a lot of work to do in the next administration to restore that sense that America is that shining beacon on a hill."

A recent poll released by Mercer University found that 57 percent of Southern Baptists said torture can be often or sometimes justified to gain important information from suspected terrorists. Thirty-eight percent said it was never or rarely justified.

David Gushee previously wrote a piece for CT on torture, and the magazine has a special section on the issue.

August 16, 2008

Georgia, the Christian Nation

Why does McCain keep bringing religion into the Georgia-Russia conflict?

McCain had some criticism earlier this week among some religion-and-politics bloggers when he noted that Georgia is "one of the world's first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion."

The criticism earlier focused on the church-state aspects of the comment.

"First of all, a nation cannot 'convert' to Christianity -- only individuals can choose to follow Jesus Christ," Wake Forest University's Melissa Rogers wrote on her blog. "Second, while some nations do establish an official religion, I find it disturbing that an American presidential candidate would seem to describe that as a good thing."

Steve Waldman thought the line was political, communicating:

1) I think having Christianity as an official religion is a fine idea in general
2) This is just like the Cold War when the forces of Christianity are at war with the forces of Atheism
3) I view the protection of Christians from attack worldwide as an important goal

Mark Silk just thought McCain's comment was weird.

But tonight, after McCain repeated the line, recent Eastern Orthodox convert Rod Dreher just got mad. "Total and shameless pandering to Evangelicals," he blogged. "As if Russia isn't a Christian nation. As if Russia hasn't been Christian for over a thousand years. As if Christianity had anything to do with this conflict."

Seriously, though, if you're looking for a good religion angle on the conflict, check out George Pitcher's Telegraph article on church responses.

This is cross-posted from CT's liveblog.

August 16, 2008

McCain on stem-cell research, abortion, marriage, and evil

Conservative evangelicals have raised John McCain's support of embryonic stem-cell research in opposition to his candidacy.

McCain addressed it briefly in his response to Rick Warren's "worldview questions." "For those of us in the pro-life community, this is a great struggle. … I’ve come down on the side of stem cell research, but I’m wildly optimistic that skin cell research … will make this debate an academic one."

Rick Warren: At what point is baby is entitled to human rights?
John McCain's answer: At the moment of conception. I have a 25 year pro-life record in congress, in the senate. This presidency will have pro-life policies. That’s my commitment to you.
Warren's answer: We won’t go longer on that one.

Warren: Define marriage.
McCain: A union between man and woman, between one man and one woman. The court overturned the definition of marriage. I believe they were wrong. I’m a federalist. I believe states should make that decision. That doesn’t mean that people can’t enter into legal agreements, that they don’t’ have the rights of all citizens.

When asked a question on evil, McCain said, "If I have to go to gates and hell and back, I will get Osama Bin Laden."

This is cross-posted from CT's liveblog.