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Rev. Richard Cizik On God And Global Warming
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. The evangelical base was pivotal in the election and reelection of George W. Bush, but it wasn't enough to get a McCain-Palin victory. So, in this post-election period, what influence does the evangelical community have in the Republican Party, and what will its goals be during the Obama administration? My guest, Richard Cizik, is the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. The organization represents about 45,000 churches from over 50 denominations with roughly 30 million constituents.
In 2006, Cizik was described in the L.A. Times as, quote, "a slightly younger, considerably less pugnacious and less reflexively Republican generation of conservative leaders bidding to dislodge familiar faces such as Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Richard Land," unquote. The environment and climate change have been priorities for Cizik, which has put him at odds with some older evangelical leaders and with some in the Republican Party.
Richard Cizik, welcome back to Fresh Air. I don't mean to put you on the spot here, and I realize this might be personal and you might not want to talk about it, but in interviews before the election it sounded like you might be tilting toward Obama. So, I'm going to ask you who you voted for, knowing that it's your right to not tell us. So...
Reverend RICHARD CIZIK (Chief Lobbyist, National Association of Evangelicals): Terry, let me then answer it this way. In the Virginia primary, I voted for Barack Obama.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rev. CIZIK: In other words, I would rather not say in the election general just whom it is that I did vote for, but that's an indication, but it doesn't say definitively. In other words, I don't want anybody to think, because I'm the lobbyist and chief for the National Association of Evangelicals, that because I voted one way or the other, I can't represent their concerns. So, I believe I can. I happen to think in the primary it was the best choice. People disagreed. Evangelicals did in this final election, general election, but I think all of us today believe we want this man to succeed, absolutely. If we don't think that, there's something wrong with us.
GROSS: How important is faith to you when you're voting?
Rev. CIZIK: I think it's very important, but it's not the factor, nor should it be. Though there are those who by identity, politics and culture where they do that, and that's the most important factor. I say absolutely not. Character first, of which faith is a part. Of course, it helps determine one's values, but there are other factors such as the philosophy of government - two parties, two different philosophies and lastly, the issues. So, it's possible for me to disagree, for example, with a candidate on high profile issues, and still believe that, on the basis of character or philosophy, he's the better of the two candidates. So, in this case it would be possible, as evangelicals did, to disagree with Barack Obama on same-sex marriage and abortion and, yet, vote for him. We know they did, not because of those positions he stood, but in spite of those positions.
GROSS: So, how big a split do you see now within the evangelical movement over what direction the movement should head in, and what issues should be emphasized?
Rev. CIZIK: It's hard to know, Terry, because even the younger evangelicals, those that went for Obama, they clearly are pro-life. They're conservatives, but they also - well, 32 percent of evangelicals voted for Obama, younger evangelicals, that is. That's twice the number that voted for John Kerry four years ago. And this is a big increase in states like Colorado, Indiana and North Carolina. So, the younger evangelicals are probably the future with that broader palette. And they will determine the future of this huge movement that, well, by some surveys' estimates, if you include children and the rest, a hundred million people, one-third of all Americans.
GROSS: So, in that younger group that you're describing, is gay marriage not a priority issue?
Rev. CIZIK: It's not as high, no. In fact, if you look at some figures, these younger evangelicals, they disagree quite strongly with their elders on that subject.
GROSS: Do you think that that's in part because younger people are growing up in an environment where they know gay people? There are so many gay people who are out, and once you know gay people who are out, maybe it's not so threatening.
Rev. CIZIK: Absolutely. The influence of their generational peers is clear. Four in ten young evangelicals say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian. And so, much different than their elders, younger evangelicals they, well, 52 percent favor either same-sex marriage or civil unions. But it's not just on this issue, Terry. For example, fully two-thirds of younger evangelicals say they would still vote for a candidate even if the candidate disagreed with them on the issue of abortion. And that's in spite of the fact that younger evangelicals, they are decidedly pro-life. But they also rank other issues, economic issues, the environment, these other issues are very important to them. In fact, healthcare is just as important to the younger evangelicals as is abortion. And so they have a more pluralistic outlook than older white evangelicals, and they have a decidedly different posture with respect to the role of government here and abroad.
GROSS: Do you think that the evangelical base has lost any clout within the Republican party because the Republicans lost the presidential election?
Rev. CIZIK: Oh, it's inescapable, that lost of clout. You hear it in the party's leaders, who are questioning this. They know that is the leaders of the GOP, they know that they can't win without these votes. But they can't win the rest of the voters that they need at times because of the way evangelicals have behaved within the political party.
GROSS: What do you mean by that?
Rev. CIZIK: Well, remember Dick Armey once referred to one of our leaders as a bully and a thug. Well, those are harsh words, but that was a leader of the Republican Party referring to how he was getting pressure. Well, the tactics that have been employed have all together backfired, it seems to me. Everyone knows that. And so, look, you have to have a vision. And you have to have a strategy, a strategy that works, and if your strategy isn't working, then rethink it. And so, to make its way forward, the Republican Party is going to have to, I think, come up with a vision that appeals to people, a strategy that, in fact, works. And its adherents, those who claim it as their own, have to employ tactics that don't destroy it in the meanwhile.
GROSS: I imagine you didn't agree with Sarah Palin on environmental issues. For example, her emphasis on drill, baby, drill, and also the fact that she said she wasn't sure if human behavior contributed to climate change. Now, climate change and the environment are issues you're trying to put much more toward the top of the evangelical agenda.
Rev. CIZIK: Yeah, I couldn't - you're right. I couldn't have disagreed with her more. Just a year ago, we found out from climate scientists that the melt in the Arctic had turned into a route. It was happening so fast it was as if your hair turned gray overnight. Now, I have a receding hairline, but I don't have my hair turning gray overnight. Well, that's what happened to the environment. An area the size of Colorado was disappearing every week, and the Northwest Passage was staying wide open all September for the first time in history. And so, to look at this and not see what's happening, I think is, well, it was sort of the ignorance is strength idea. Well, not. It's not strength. Look, strength is knowing what's happening to the world around us, and moreover, as a Christian, we can't claim to love the Creator and abuse the world in which we live. To do so is like claiming to be a fan of Shakespeare and then burn his plays.
GROSS: So, is there a big debate in evangelical circles now about what the future of Sarah Palin should be in the Republican Party, whether she is the future or whether she is a problem?
Rev. CIZIK: Oh, I think there certainly is a certain amount of that debate going on, but I think people are sort of content to let Alaskans decide that. Before she becomes a national candidate again, she has to run for reelection, right?
GROSS: So, you're thinking maybe Alaskans will vote her out of office thus ending her political career?
Rev. CIZIK: Maybe, we don't know. But I don't think that you can humbly walk into the future and not understand that we don't know all the answers. And if you don't have a little bit of self-awareness about that, well, I don't think you can embody the Christian values of humility and justice and walking humbly with your Lord. There was something missing there that I just didn't see, and you're sensing it here. In other words, a certain humility about it all. I like that. I look forward to seeing that demonstrated in Barack Obama's policies.
The younger evangelicals have a different attitude, in fact, even toward the use of military. I happen to be among these evangelical young people, even though by age I might not qualify, right? And the idea that, well, you can have a sort of anti-science, anti-intellectualism and walk into the world with a big stick and hope to be able to win these wars. You can't win these kinds of wars we're fighting with a big stick. We know that.
GROSS: Let me ask you, you say you really identify with the concerns and priorities of younger evangelical voters, and one of those priorities is more of an acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage. A couple of years ago when you were on our show, I asked you if you were changing your mind on that. And two years ago, you said you were still opposed to gay marriage. But now, as you identify more and more with the younger voters and their priorities, have you changed on gay marriage?
Rev. CIZIK: I'm shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think. We have this tension going on in our movement between what is church-building and what is nation-building. And I lean in this spectrum at times, maybe we should concentrate on building our values in our own movement. We have become so absorbed in the question of gay rights and the rest that we fail to understand the challenges and threats to marriage itself, heterosexual marriage. Maybe we need to reevaluate this and look at it a little differently.
I'm always looking for ways to reframe issues, give the biblical point of view a different slant, if you will, and look it - we have to. The whole world, literally, the planet, is changing around us. And if you don't change the way you think and adapt, especially to things like climate change, scientists like Bob Doppelt, he says, well, if you don't adapt and change your thinking, you may ultimately be a loser because climate change, in his mind, he is a systems analyst, has the capacity to determine the winners and losers, and your life will never be the same, growing up during, I say, the great warming. Our grandparents grew up during the Great Depression. Our parents, well, they lived in the aftermath of that and became probably, the most, well, the greediest generation and our generation, this younger one, needs to be the greenest.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Cizik, the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. We'll talk more after our break. This Fresh Air.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Cizik, the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. We're talking about the future of the evangelical movement as we head toward the Obama presidency. A little later, we'll hear from Steven Waldman, founder of the religion website, Beliefnet. Steven Waldman of Beliefnet raised this question that I want to put to you. Barack Obama supports the right to have an abortion, but he also advocates reducing the number of abortions when possible. Will you support him in abortion reduction, or do you see that as a diversion from the work of banning or restricting abortion?
Rev. CIZIK: I will support him. I will support Barack Obama in finding ways to reduce abortions, absolutely.
GROSS: Now, is that controversial within the evangelical movement?
Rev. CIZIK: For some, yes. I've already been called one of the devil's minions for taking this position, but it's an acknowledgement...
GROSS: Because it's seen as compromising?
Rev. CIZIK: Yes, it's seen as compromising. But that's, again, that winner-take-all mentality that you have to have it all. In politics, I've learned over many years, less is more. I think finding those who are in trouble, in crisis, helping them through this, and if need be, even supplying what government presently doesn't do, namely, contraception, is an answer to reducing, you see, unintended pregnancies.
GROSS: Wait, wait. I think I heard you say government supplying contraception?
Rev. CIZIK: Yes.
GROSS: That's got to be controversial among evangelicals.
Rev. CIZIK: Among some it would be, but I don't think so. We are not, as I have said previously, we're not Catholics who oppose contraception per se. And let's face it. What do you want? Do you want an unintended pregnancy that results in abortion, or do you want to meet a woman's needs in crisis, who frankly would, by better contraception avoid that choice, avoid that abortion that we all recognize as morally repugnant, at least it is to me.
GROSS: So what else is on your list of priorities now as the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals? What are you looking towards after January 20th?
Rev. CIZIK: Let me say that one of the bigger war and peace issues that I'm struggling with and attempting to find a role on is that of the threat of nuclear terrorism. A new report just came out this week saying that it's greater and realer than we ever thought before. I'm actually going to Paris to be part of the unveiling of a new movement called Global Zero, which is an attempt to understand that, whereas before the possession of nuclear weapons was a deterrent, it no longer is. In a world in which you have non-state actors who can potentially wield weapons of mass destruction, the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction becomes morally problematic in ways unheard of before, if this makes any sense. And so therefore, this movement called Global Zero supported by both John McCain and Barack Obama will come forward, I think, in the next week and months ahead to communicate a strategy to begin to address this threat of nuclear terrorism.
That's one thing I want to be a part of. I think it's very important for evangelicals. After all, most would not make any connection, but I've been with the NAE so long that I was on staff back when I actually proposed a letter to then-President Ronald Reagen which became the evil empire speech to the association back in 1983. And while few remember it, that speech, known for challenging the Soviet Union, included a line from the president advocating the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Most would not remember that. And yet, it was true. It almost became a reality at Reykjavik in conversations that president had with the president of the former Soviet Union. So, I happen to think this is one of the premier issues, along with climate change, that will impact the rest of life here on earth.
GROSS: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I think I've heard you say that you want to find and you want your group, the National Association of Evangelicals, to find some common ground with Obama and work with him. Is that going to be hard to convince a lot of your members to do?
Rev. CIZIK: Well, for those to whom all compromise is simply submitting, you see, to political correctness or whatever - for them, it's going to be very hard, but for most evangelicals, I don't think so. After all, we believe, you see, that God is alive and real, and he lifts up some and puts down others. And ultimately, we have to say God has put this man in this position. It's our responsibility to pray for him, to support him, work with him in whatever ways we can. It will require, for some, bridging outward, that's Robert Putnam's term, bridging outward to collaborate with Barack Obama, to do what is right by so many different people who need the kinds of policies he's espousing. And that will be hard, but should we do it? Yes. Will we hold him accountable when he runs against what we happen to think is right and good and proper and all the rest? We will do that, but we'll do it in a nice way. And we're not going to be, I think, objectionable in the way that some people have in the past that, as I said, led one Republican leader to call one of our numbers a bully and a thug. That's not who we are.
GROSS: Let me just ask you a pointed question. Are you waiting for some of the evangelical leaders who have opposed you on issues like your concern about the environment and climate change, are you waiting for them to retire and leave the stage? And I guess I'm thinking most specifically here about James Dobson.
Rev. CIZIK: I'm not waiting. I would want Jim Dobson to join us because this is about creation care. It's what the Bible teaches. It's godly, it is right. So I'm not waiting for him to leave the scene at all. I want him to join us. In other words, I'm always looking, Terry, for allies, not adversaries. Always allies. This is important. It's strategically important for Christians to care for this earth, just as it's important for Christians to care for the family. These are equals. They're both part of God's concern, they're both part of his heart. And so no, I'm not waiting.
GROSS: I appreciate what you're saying, but at the same time I think the odds of you winning over James Dobson on this are probably slim. So do you think what's going to change in the long runâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rev. CIZIK: With God, all things are possible.
GROSS: â¦is that he and some of the other people who opposed your work on putting environmental issues near the top of the agenda, do you think that what's going to change is that they will retire and there will be a new guard?
Rev. CIZIK: Well, inevitably that occurs. Even some of the names on the letter that opposed me back just a few years ago are gone. But that doesn't change the fact that we all will pay a price for not changing. The earth is reaping the consequences of our actions when we don't reexamine our habits of consumption, right? The poor around the world, well, they're reaping the consequences of our failing to meet our obligations. This is not something that can wait for any of us to retire. Some may be wanting me to, but the gospel paints a vision of society that is relationally and environmentally sustainable. What do I mean by that, relationally sustainable? It's a message of hope that we all get along, not just get along, but work together for a cause which is bigger than ourselves.
GROSS: Since we're in the final weeks of the Bush administration, I'd like to ask you your thoughts as that administration comes to an end. What do you think were his achievements? What are your greatest disappointments?
Rev. CIZIK: Greatest achievement, surely the effort called the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. This is felt in real ways through sub-Saharan Africa in ways that we in the West don't even understand. They love us as Americans because of what George W. Bush did on that. I think, on the other hand, this man of faith failed to understand, in my estimation, religion in the Middle East, and it led to a war that's been unnecessarily long. It may have been right to take out, as it were, Saddam Hussein, but the way this war was waged, I think, in so many ways, everyone would have to admit was ill-planned, ill-conceived and the rest. And so, look, one has to have mixed emotions about the Bush administration.
GROSS: And what are the ways that you think he has helped and/or hurt the evangelical community?
Rev. CIZIK: I suppose George W. Bush's faith was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we evangelicals took pride in the fact that this man became president who openly said that he was a person of faith, for whom even Jesus, he said, was his favorite philosopher and yet, didn't in so many ways reflect that Jesus as we would have wanted him to have, with a humility and a fashion to the rest of the world that communicated just what kind of people we are. I don't think that real picture ever came through.
GROSS: Richard Cizik, thank you so much for talking with us.
Rev. CIZIK: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Richard Cizik is the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
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After The Election: Wither The Religious Right?
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the future of the religious right as the Bush administration exits the stage and President-elect Obama begins to put his administration together. We're also going to talk about the coalition of groups that united in support of Obama but may have some conflicting goals now that he's elected. My guest is Stephen Waldman, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Web site Beliefnet, which deals with all aspects of faith, including religion and politics. He's also the author of the book "Founding Faith: Providence and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America." He's the former national editor of U.S. News & World Report. Stephen Waldman, welcome back to Fresh Air. How do you think the religious right is interpreting the loss of the Republican Party?
Mr. STEPHEN WALDMAN: (Editor-in-Chief, Beliefnet.com): Well, very defensively, and there's a big battle going on within the Republican Party right now over what the role of the religious right was. Religious conservatives point out that they were crucial to the margin that John McCain got. In fact, they turned out in record numbers this election. But others within the party are saying, it's because the religious conservatives dragged us too far to the right on social issues that we lost. So there's a certain amount of scapegoating happening against the religious right, and a certain amount of defensiveness on the religious conservatives saying, hey, we're the ones who showed up.
GROSS: Do you think that there's a split within the Republican Party among evangelicals themselves about what direction to head in?
Mr. WALDMAN: There is a split among evangelicals that is largely a generational split, that younger evangelicals have a different set of issues that they care about than older evangelicals. I should say that abortion is one issue where they agree. This is a bit of misconception sometimes, that liberal evangelicals or younger evangelicals don't care about social issues. That's not really true. They care as much about abortion as their parents do. But they are much more liberal on gay marriage and the environment and other issues and want there to be a broader agenda. And some of the more traditional evangelicals believe that it is the cultural issues that ought to remain dominant.
GROSS: So how is that split playing out? Like, who are some of the leaders of each side there?
Mr. WALDMAN: You have a debate going on among evangelical leaders that is partly about left-right issues, should they be conservative, should they have a broader agenda. And it's partially about engagement in politics in the first place. There's been this question, among some anyway, that the involvement of evangelicals in the political system hasn't helped Christianity, hasn't helped the evangelical brand, as it were. But you have others who are arguing, we can't divorce our values from our faith. We have just as much of a moral obligation as we ever have to stress issues like abortion and gay marriage. And they point to things like the passage of Proposition 8 in California as evidence that, on those issues, they're just as strong as ever. In fact, they point to that as the road map for what they should do more of.
GROSS: So, where did Sarah Palin fit in terms of the split that you're just describing?
Mr. WALDMAN: I think on balance, Sarah Palin probably hurt the ticket more than it helped because it did energize evangelical voters but alienated more moderate or independent voters. But if you look at the polls about Sarah Palin's popularity as she's fallen in all sorts of other groups and become unpopular among many Americans. That's not true among conservative evangelicals, where she is still very popular.
GROSS: A way that I could see Palin as being a divider within the evangelical community is over the issue of climate change. There is a movement, the Creation Care Movement, within the evangelical movement to emphasize climate change and what we need to do to prevent that from getting worse. Palin was saying that she wasn't even sure that human behavior was responsible for climate change.
Mr. WALDMAN: So far, the advocates of evangelicals playing greater role in climate change have not been able to deliver the real numbers at the polls. And there's definitely more conversation about it, but if you look at the evangelicals who voted for John McCain, which is still three-quarters of them, they list the environment quite low down on the list of importance. So you have this split that's quite stark in the evangelical community among the majority of evangelicals, who still have a very traditional set of views. They still emphasize abortion and gay marriage as the top issues. They still put environment much much lower down on the list. Then you have this other group of kind of moderate and progressive evangelicals and especially younger evangelicals who are more liberal on gay marriage, put a much greater emphasis on the environment and reducing poverty as an issue and, in general, want their faith to be expressed in different ways. It is a younger portion. It is outspoken, but so far, it is a distinct minority.
GROSS: I think your impressions of the significance of Proposition 8 in California, which defined marriage as one man and one woman and basically overturned the legalization of gay marriage in California. Now Proposition 8 is being contested, but in the meantime gay marriage is outlawed in California. You know, in an election where the Republicans lost, and Sarah Palin and her emphasis on faith was seen as perhaps one of the reasons why the Republicans lost, Proposition 8 won in California. So what's your interpretation of that?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, of course, religious conservatives are pointing to this exact fact to say this is not a repudiation of conservative values, it was a repudiation of John McCain and that if you look at Prop 8, it shows that many Americans share the concerns of religious conservatives on issues like gay marriage. To me, the most interesting thing about Prop 8 is that what really put it over the top was not primarily a massive turnout of evangelicals. It was that African Americans and Latinos supported Proposition 8. And that points to a very interesting fact about the Democratic Coalition. The Democratic Coalition now includes groups that are liberal on economics, liberal on foreign policy, but in some ways quite conservative on social policy, especially on gay marriage and abortion, specifically the Latino votes which shifted in the Democratic direction in a very substantial way. Latino voters tend to be more conservative on these issues. So even though Barack Obama has a very strong winning coalition, he needs to be aware that a part of how he got this winning coalition is with groups that are more conservative socially.
GROSS: So you think that those more conservative groups are going to be lobbying Obama on issues like gay marriage and abortion?
Mr. WALDMAN: That's one of the most interesting questions I think I'm going to be watching over the next few years. Clearly they are more conservative on abortion and gay marriage. But they don't necessarily put that at the very top of their agenda. I think they're still more concerned about the economy and healthcare. So Obama is fine politically-speaking to focus on those issues certainly in the short run. But what are the big booby traps that Obama might step in that would start to alienate Latinos, in particular, from supporting him? I think the first issue that's going to kind of test this potential split within the Democratic coalition is going to be abortion and abortion reduction. One of the most interesting things to me in the campaign was that Obama started stressing in the last few months what he called the abortion reduction agenda. And his surrogates, meaning religious progressives, religious, often pro-life Obama people were out in the field saying, we're pro-life, we're against abortion and we're voting for Barack Obama, because we think he supports some new ways of doing things that will actually reduce the number of abortions. On the other hand, pro-choice groups were out with their ad saying Obama is going to emphasize keeping abortion legal. So the president-elect now has the dilemma of how to balance these two different voices within the Democratic Party. That's going to be one the toughest balancing acts that President-elect Obama has to face in the next couple of years.
GROSS: I guess in some ways, I don't see why that's a hard thing to do, because it seems to me, it'd definitely keep abortion legal and at the same time help people avoid unplanned or unwanted pregnancies.
Mr. WALDMAN: A lot of the difficulty comes at the rhetorical level. During the process for writing the Democratic Party platform, the religious Democrats wanted language that said, we support keeping abortion legal but reducing the number. Pro-choice Democrats said, we don't want to say we're in favor of reducing the number of abortions because that would imply that abortion is an immoral decision, and we want it to be viewed as a value-neutral proposition, or at least something that is entirely up to the individual to decide what the morality is. So even on the question of, can we say we want to reduce the number of abortions, there is a conflict. And in classic political form, the way the conflict is resolved was the Obama people sided with the pro-choice people on that language. They did not use the language, we're going to reduce the number of abortions, in the platform. But then, once the campaign got into full swing, Biden and Obama did say it. They just said flat out these things that they didn't put in the platform, meaning they wanted to reduce the number of abortions. So the way to thread the needle on policy grounds is you keep abortion legal and then you do these other things to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. But it's very hard to just stick to the policy grounds without getting tangled up in the moral issue.
GROSS: My guest is Stephen Waldman, and he's the founder and editor-in-chief of the website Beliefnet.com. One of the things on Barack Obama's to-do list is to lift restrictions against the funding of embryonic stem cell research, restrictions that were imposed by President Bush. Do you expect a strong protest from evangelicals on that?
Mr. WALDMAN: I think the evangelicals and also the Catholic church will be very upset with that decision from President-elect Obama. And one of the things he's going to have to decide is how to time all these things. He has made a variety of different promises on abortion and life issues, some of which cut in the kind of pro-choice direction and some of which cut in the more pro-life direction. And everyone is going to be watching to see what does he do first, what does he emphasize. Is he going to try to pull this all together in a kind of big compromise that makes both people feel like they've won something? So timing is going to be really interesting here. If that's the first thing he does and if he also loosens restrictions so that family planning money overseas can go to groups that provide abortion, which is another first issue that will certainly thrill pro-choice groups and infuriate pro-life groups, and it will mean that he'll have to fairly soon thereafter show that he was serious on the abortion reduction side of his agenda.
GROSS: During the presidential campaign, there were pundits and various conservatives who were trying to make it seem like Barack Obama is or once was a Muslim. And there are still people who believe that Obama is or was a Muslim. I mean, not that there's anything wrong with being a Muslim, but it's just not true.
Mr. WALDMAN: And in a Beliefnet survey, 42 percent of McCain voters said that he is or was a Muslim, which is really a startling, large number. So one thing that just raises questions about is simply how people get their information and whether, in the kind of internet new media world, it's just becoming easier and easier for people to live in information bubbles. There's a second stream out of that which I'm now seeing, which is a different set of people arguing that Obama is not a real Christian in a different way, which is not that he's a Muslim but that because he seems to hold certain liberal theological views. For instance, he has said that he doesn't believe that the only path to heaven is through Christ, that therefore he's not a Christian and he should stop calling himself a Christian.
GROSS: In other words, he doesn't think that people who are Muslim or Jewish and condemned to eternal hell because they're not Christians, whereas some Christians do believe that anybody of any other faith or of no faith is going to hell. You just have to be a Christian.
Mr. WALDMAN: Right. He believes that other people who do good will go to heaven, and the most poignant example he gave of this was when he was confronted in a private meeting of religious groups by Reverend Franklin Graham on this question. He said, do you believe that salvation comes only through Christ? Obama said, my mother was not a Christian, and yet she was the best person, the most noble person he knows and that he has a hard time believing that she is not in heaven. Now, that is an idea that everyone can have sympathy with on a personal level, but it is an idea that contradicts a lot of basic traditional Christian theology. So you have this new argument sprouting, in the blogosphere at least, among conservatives saying Obama should stop calling himself a Christian, because he's rejected basic Christian theology. And then you have moderate or progressive Christians defending Obama saying, you're completely misinterpreting what Christianity means, and we also believe that you can gain salvation without necessarily believing in Christ. So once again, we have this political issue of, you know, how do we view Obama spilling into these ancient and quite energetic theological debates? And a lot of why people either like or dislike Obama, for some people, actually flows from their views on this theology issues.
GROSS: Since you spend so much of your life thinking and writing about religion and the role of religion in public life and in politics, I'm interested in hearing what you're hoping Obama's public expression of faith will be when he moves into the White House. Or what you're hoping it won't be.
Mr. WALDMAN: I would like to see Obama carry on in the tradition of many of the previous presidents, which is to certainly express if it's comfortable for him a sense of personal faith and even a sense of God's guidance to him or the country in the ways that other presidents have, but to keep in a vein that is broadly appealing and persuasive and welcoming to a very broad range of Americans. To me, the one missed step that Bush had in his personal expressions of faith was not so much something he said, but that at his inauguration he had Franklin Graham issue a prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Now that was a departure from the tradition which was to use religious references that were very, very inclusive. And I would assume that Obama would return to the tradition that emphasized religious language that most accepted and welcomed the broadest range of Americans. Now, that kind of approach is going to be frustrating and maybe even infuriating to nonreligious Americans who sit there wondering, why does my president have to refer to God at all? But in that case, Obama, if he does that, will be following in a pretty traditional approach to the use of religion in American life.
GROSS: Steven Waldman, thank you so much for talking with us. Always a pleasure to talk with you.
Mr. WALDMAN: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Steven Waldman is the founder and editor-in-chief of the religion website, Beliefnet.
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Posthumous Praise For '2666' Author
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Chilean-born writer, Roberto Bolano, died in 2003 almost unknown in the United States. His obscurity disappeared when his novel "The Savage Detectives" became an unexpected hit last year. A translation of his posthumously published final novel "2666" has just been published here. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says that Bolano isn't merely a great writer but one whose rich, dark vision of reality is very much of the moment.
JOHN POWERS: It's part of the rhythm of our self-absorbed American culture that we only seem able to process one foreign language writer at time. But when we do it, we do it with a vengeance. And so every three or four years, the press is suddenly filled with the discovery of some new literary genius - Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago, Michel Houellebecq - who we're all supposed to read. The current literary it boy is Roberto Bolano, the Chilean-born writer whose reputation has surged since his work first began being translated into English in 2003.
If the bad news is that this acclaim happened too late, Bolano died that same year at age 50, the good news is that he deserves it. He's clearly the greatest writer to have appeared in Latin America since the so-called boom that produced Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. And he knew it. In fact, Bolano took pride in being against magical realism. He derided his predecessors' eagerness to adopt the role of literary lions dispensing wisdom in perfectly-crafted novels. While all of Bolano's books are interesting, three of them knocked me out. "By Night In Chile" is a lacerating little novel about a literary-minded priest who backed General Pinochet's dictatorship. "The Savage Detectives" is the great Mexico City novel, a freewheeling tale about a young group of poets known as the Visceral Realists. And then there's his latest, "2666," superbly translated by Natasha Wimmer, is a magnum opus about, well, almost everything. The book is hard to describe because it's broken into five, loosely overlapping parts. It begins with four literary critics obsessed with finding a German writer named Archimboldi. Their quest takes them to Santa Teresa, an imaginary Mexican border city modeled on the real Ciudad Juarez. Like a black hole, this brutal city eventually sucks in all the book's major characters, an alienated professor, an African-American journalist who's covering a prize fight, and the novelist Archimboldi himself. What they all share is a foretaste of danger, a sense that they're tiptoeing on the razor's edge of apocalypse. I'm tempted to call Bolano the love child of David Lynch and Jorge Luis Borges. He's that visceral and erudite, but this wouldn't do justice to his ambition. "2666" aims to be nothing less than a massive epic of modernity, ranging from Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to yuppie London and the cruel Sonoran desert.
Bolano always championed messy books like "Moby Dick," and that's what he offers here, 912 pages of vivid characters, startling dream sequences and stories within stories within stories, all told in the seductive voice of one who experiences the world more intimately than we do and can capture all its nocturnal melancholy and unexpected sunbursts of beauty. Like all of Bolano's work, "2666" is obsessed with writers and writing, which is one huge reason he gets rave reviews from, you know, writers. His books celebrate those devoted to the grand existential leap of literature, both the search for meaning that is the writer's task and the brave, often foolish lives of those obsessed with work that doesn't offer you any security. Yet what makes Bolano great is that he's never blind enough to believe that literature is a religion or that it can transcend earthly existence. He never lets us forget that, beneath a writers' vaulting words, the world still exists in all its pain, struggle, inequality and violence. That's why the key section of "2666" is called "The Part About the Crimes," a chilling tour de force that chronicles the routine rape and murder of hundreds of women in Santa Teresa, a fictional version of what was and is happening in Ciudad Juarez. Bolano gives us an unforgettable portrait of an earthly hell, a dusty, sun-flayed sprawl of shacks and little factories just teeming with lost souls, gangsters, corrupt cops, media mystics, heartless bureaucrats. Most lost of all are the city's young women, who are exploited at work, sexually devoured and then literally tossed dead onto the trash heap. "No one pays attention to these killings," a character remarks at one point, "but the secret of the world is hidden in them." This is a thrillingly upsetting line, and coming across it you grasp why Bolano is idolized by so many other writers and why, in a few years time, we'll be seeing novelists doing knockoffs of his work. At a time when so many authors seem to skate along the surface of things, piling up brand names, displaying their childhood love of comic books or hailing small-town cats that saved Iowa towns, his stinging vision of life has hit our shores at just the right time. It measures perfectly with our current mood of precariousness brought on by war and economic collapse. Reading Bolano, you never feel that he's just fooling around. This was a man who was always looking for the secret of the world.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed "2666" by Roberto Bolano. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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