Mainline Churches Lose Overall on U.S. Budget
But Emerge With Clearer Voice

The assessment of the U.S. budget reflected in the following news article does not necessarily reflect the view of Seventh-day Adventists. However, we offer this story to share some perspectives on the social concerns of some faith groups. -- Editors 

BY KEVIN ECKSTROM                                                                      © 2006 Religion News Service

hen mainline Protestant leaders came to Washington D.C. last March to denounce President Bush's proposed budget as "unjust," they were received much like the Old Testament prophets they look to for inspiration.

Another lonely voice, crying out in the wilderness. By year's end, the budget they rejected as immoral had passed through Congress, although only by the narrowest of margins -- Vice President Dick Cheney was called in to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate.

And even though they lost the budget battle, activists say they have succeeded at something more important and long-lasting. They have finally been heard, they say, and have discovered a way to portray arcane budget debates into stark moral choices that test the nation's commitment to the poor.

"I think what's changed is over a period of years ... there has emerged a wide agreement that poverty is a central biblical concern, and that did not used to be the case," said the Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, the general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. "That's a gigantic shift."

The biggest win church-based activists could claim in the budget battle is a proposed $575 million cut to food stamps that was scrapped by the Senate. The final budget passed on Dec. 21 by the Senate -- awaiting a final vote in the House--contains nearly $40 billion in overall cuts, including Medicaid, student loans and child care.

On a related issue, Episcopalians claimed victory when the Senate rejected, then added, then rejected again, a plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The church opposes the plan because the Gwich'in tribe, which relies on caribou herds in the region, are overwhelmingly Episcopalians.

Still, activists were quick to claim credit where they could. "When we began this year, no one would have guessed that the vice president would be needed to break a tie on the budget," said Maureen Shea, director of the Episcopalians' Washington office. "Our advocacy made a difference."

Added the Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: "Our voices of opposition were heard, and have provided a tangible sign that the church is living out the gospel of Jesus Christ ... in our own day."

For years, Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have lobbied for social service programs to aid the poor. In the 1980s, it was the Catholic bishops who said the U.S. budget is--or should be--a moral document. But this year was the first time they came together in a concerted, coordinated effort to save those programs. The poverty exposed by Hurricane Katrina, combined with millions in tax cuts that critics argue benefit the wealthy, helped focus the debate.

Experts say it may have been the 2004 elections, which saw the emergence of "values voters" and the awakening of a moribund progressive community, that helped focus activists' attempts to paint the budget as a values issue.

"The basic concern about the poor and preventing budget cuts is not a new concern," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "They're just more vocal and active about it than they have been in a long time."

On Dec. 14, 114 activists convened by Call to Renewal, a progressive Christian anti-poverty group, were arrested outside the U.S. Capitol in a peaceful protest against the budget. Such a direct confrontation over the budget was a new strategy for activists, and it got them noticed.

"These voices were heard, and they were heard as voices that had a real religious integrity to them, and that's the first step," said Granberg-Michaelson, who attended the protest but did not get arrested.

The protest, organized by Call to Renewal founder Jim Wallis, included young and old, black and white, evangelical and liberal. Wallis said his young turks -- and many of them were young -- had taken the debate beyond traditional "liberal-conservative" lines.

But a major challenge that remains is broadening that message to other faith groups that are more galvanized by hot-button social issues like gay marriage and abortion.

Indeed, the influential Family Research Council urged a vote in support of the budget bill, and Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, called the budget boring and dismissed the debate as more "liberal social gospel."

Green, an expert on religion and politics, said church groups have succeeded in "laying down a marker" in future budget debates and even the 2006 elections, but must find a way to widen their appeal.

New Jersey Attorney General Bans
Religion as Sole Profiling Factor

 BY RICK HEPP                                                                                     © 2005 Religion News Service

New Jersey authorities cannot use "ethnicity, religious affiliation, or religious practice" as the sole factor in determining whether to investigate someone for possible terrorist activity, according to an order by state Attorney General Peter Harvey.

The written order, released Tuesday (Dec. 20), is a response to allegations raised this fall that New Jersey's Office of Counter-Terrorism targeted suspects in terrorism investigations solely because of their Muslim faith or Arab heritage.

"The citizens of New Jersey rightfully expect that all lawful and appropriate means will be used to thwart terrorists," Harvey noted. "The impermissible use of such stereotypes would ultimately undermine our counter-terrorism efforts by alienating significant segments of our society."

The directive applies to all 51,500 police officers in the state, including counter-terrorism agents, and builds upon a similar order Harvey issued in June prohibiting police from targeting suspects based solely on the color of their skin. Police, however, can still use race and religious identifiers when they are advised to "be on the lookout" for a specific suspect.

State Police initially raised questions about whether Counter-Terrorism agents were profiling Muslims after an internal audit found 140 questionable reports they had entered into a crime-fighting database known as the Statewide Intelligence Management System, or SIMS. Counter-Terrorism Director Sidney Caspersen has vigorously denied the profiling accusation and said the reports were simply incomplete.

Muslim groups voiced support for the directive. "It shows a desire to return to being a people of law ... where your actions trigger law enforcement activities, not race, religion or any of those other things about you," said Yaser ElMenshawy, chairman of the Majlis Ash-Shura of New Jersey, a council of mosques and Islamic organizations based in Newark.

Thief Takes Collection from Altar After Christmas Eve Mass

 BY DAVID SWAB AND SUE EPSTEIN                                                     © 2005 Religion News Service

The Grinch stole Christmas--at least in one Catholic church. 

Someone stole close to $8,000 in cash and checks from the collection basket at The Church of the Guardian Angels in Edison, New Jersey, just after a crowded Christmas Eve Mass on December 24, according to police and church officials.

"I don't know how someone does this and lives with their own conscience," Monsignor James Moran said. "We do have programs for the poor and needy."

The large, brown wicker basket filled with donations had been placed on the altar during the service and was left there while Moran went to the front door to greet parishioners after the standing-room-only service.

When he returned to the altar about 20 minutes later, the basket was in precisely the same spot beneath the brightly colored stained glass windows and the soaring wooden ceiling. But it held only some coins, Moran said.

Close to 900 people attended the Mass, the biggest of the year. The church depends on the collections to pay for a variety of expenses, such as maintenance bills, insurance and salaries.

Moran announced the theft to stunned parishioners at midnight Mass and yesterday, warning those who left checks to cancel them. There were audible gasps in the audience as he relayed the news. Many members have been attending since the church was founded in 1962. "I told the people God will get the person," he said.

Margaret Reilly of Edison, along with her three children, were among those attending Mass on Christmas morning. "Everybody was a little shocked," she said. "People do get robbed, but you don't expect that to happen in church or on Christmas."

Moran hopes the church will get most of the money if parishioners write new checks. But he estimated that $2,000 in cash was taken.

"Losing that big a percentage of the Christmas collection will certainly have a dire impact on our budget this year," he said.

From now on, the collection basket will be locked in a closet, he added. "I pray that the person has a change of heart and will return the money," he said. "It's disappointing our society has become like this. Some just want to live very God-less lives."

'Outdoor Bible' Built to Withstand the Elements

 BY JASON KANE                                                                                  © 2005 Religion News Service

While many believers have long believed the Christian Bible to be infallible, a publishing company has made it waterproof and tear-resistant, too.

The Outdoor Bible, the flagship product of Bardin and Marsee Publishing, consolidates the New Testament onto six waterproof trail maps designed to give spiritual guidance as Christians journey through the woods.

College friends Bobby Bardin and Michael Marsee first envisioned the product upon finding the great outdoors to be less than user-friendly to traditional Bibles. The two embarked on a three-year development process to create a lightweight plastic version capable of withstanding the elements.  "We both do a lot of backpacking and mountain biking. You get into these situations where you'd love to have God's word but you just don't bring it with you because it will get ruined," Bardin said.

Targeted to Christian youth camps, servicemen, missionaries and adventurers of every stripe, the 12.8-ounce product tucked into a burlap bag with a drawstring is said to endure water, sand, heat and general outdoor wear.

While the text of The Outdoor Bible is the New American Standard translation, a King James version is in the works, with a target launch date of 2006, Bardin said.

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