After raid, new ethical guide coming for kosher food plants

In light of the much-publicized immigration raid a few months back at a kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa, the Rabbinical Council of America has appointed a task force to produce a guide to “Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines” for industry.

The guide will apply in particular to the kosher food industry, according to the RCA, which represents Orthodox rabbis.

061213_immigration_hmed_7ahmedium.jpgAccording to a statement from the RCA, the purpose of the guide will be:

1. It will require that a condition of kosher food certification be an agreement to adhere to all relevant civil laws and regulations as formulated, monitored and enforced by existing government regulatory and enforcement agencies, in whichever country they occur. Violations of such laws will be viewed by kosher agencies with utmost seriousness.
2. It will formulate and clarify relevant principles of Jewish law and ethics governing business conduct. Companies interested in conforming to the highest standards of Jewish ethics will be encouraged to adopt these principles voluntarily wherever possible, as a matter of corporate social responsibility.

Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, president of the RCA, says: “Ethics and social responsibility are central to the Torah and the rabbinic tradition, in business no less than in the home, the synagogue and the school. We are fully aware of the realities of a competitive marketplace spread all over the globe, and the need to provide affordable kosher food. In taking this step, the RCA seeks as a practical matter to reinforce ethical values and corporate policies, while ensuring a reliable and affordable supply of food products for the kosher consumer.”

Wall Street victims turn to prayer

After 9/11, of course, downtown houses of worship were full. And they stayed pretty full for months.

Now the Wall Street crisis is apparently sending people back to the pews.

Reuters reports that several downtown churches and synagogues are seeing more worshipers.

152327.JPG“People are just sitting there, praying or crying and definitely exhausted,” said the Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones of Trinity Church Wall Street, an Episcopal church (that’s it). “There has definitely been an increase in the number of people who have come in.”

The church plans workshops like “Coping with stress in an uncertain time” and “Navigating career transitions.”

“In the past couple of days there was high anxiety and trepidation,” said the Rev. Peter Madigan at St. Peter’s Catholic Church. “The situation we are faced with today by economic standards is very much unknown, uncharted territory and faith helps us deal with those situations.”

And Rabbi Meyer Hager of Wall Street Synagogue: “I can see it on the faces of certain people who come here who are regular people — some work for AIG and other large banking houses — I can see the expression of strained concern.”

On meeting with the president of Iran…

You may have heard that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is attending a religious conference in NYC Thursday about working toward peace.

ccd38fb24aa2450984a233b9c1d7d73a.jpgThat’s him waving to reporters today at the U.N. during President Bush’s remarks.

Thursday’s meeting is being sponsored by an international group called Religions for Peace, as well as the World Council of Churches, the Mennonite Central Committee, the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), and the Quaker United Nations Office.

I got an email from Religions for Peace about Ahmadinejad’s participation, acknowledged to be controversial. The group offers this statement about its role in the event, signed by its general secretary, Dr. William F. Vendley:

“Dialogue among religious and political leaders is a valuable approach to building peace. The title of the 25 September event is “Has not One God Created Us?: The Significance of Religious Contributions to Peace.” The goal of the dialogue is to build bridges of understanding that can advance peace and to allow participants to explore the role of religious communities in dealing with global issues such as war, prejudice and poverty, while deepening mutual understanding. This dialogue is the fourth in an ongoing series of bridge-building and reconciliation encounters since 2006, a continuation of the dialogue that faith groups are developing with Iranian political, religious and academic leaders.

The positions which have been of major concern to Religions for Peace for many years are clear and unchanged. These include the following:

1) The broadly accepted recognition of the Holocaust as an historical fact and one of the greatest crimes in history.
2) Our advocacy for a nonviolent and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and our conviction that any solution to that conflict should provide peace with justice for both peoples and respect for their religions.
3) Our opposition to nuclear proliferation and our call upon all nations with nuclear weapons to work toward disarmament.
4) Our belief in human dignity and our work for human rights for all.
5) Our rejection of terrorism in all its forms.

I mention this limited catalogue of our commitments quite intentionally, as many have linked the President of Iran with positions related to these issues that vary in important ways from the positions that have long been taken by Religions for Peace. Thus, it is important to note that by co-sponsoring this event Religions for Peace is in no way directly or indirectly deviating from its deeply held positions. Indeed, this dialogue is an opportunity for participants to express their deeply held concerns in a direct and face-to-face manner.

Finally, while the event has been carefully constructed by the organizers to focus on the role of cooperation among religious leaders and politicians for peace, there remains the fact that there are severe tensions between some states and the state of Iran. These tensions are also manifest in the United Nations Security Council. In this regard, you might find of interest a 16 September 2008 International Herald Tribune column noting the exceptional unity of former US Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Warren Christopher, Henry Kissinger and James Baker that the United States should talk to Iran. My point in mentioning the above is not to highlight tensions between two states—the United States and Iran—but to note that there is considerable consensus in the political community about the wisdom and value of maintaining channels of communication among groups with highly divergent views, differences of principles and severe tensions.

Religions for Peace knows from experience that in the search for peace we are very often called to relate with those with whom we disagree on highly important issues. Religions for Peace came to this position shortly after its birth. In the first two decades of its life, Religions for Peace facilitated remarkable encounters between the religious leaders impacted by and the political leaders most associated with the Cold War. Religious leaders from the Western and Eastern bloc and the non-aligned States united in their commitments to peace and together called upon the political leaders of the Cold War bloc. They were received by Heads of State in the Moscow, Beijing and Washington. In these processes, many Religions for Peace leaders met with politicians who were deeply compromised due to the brutalities of the Cold War and the related proxy wars.

No doubt different religious leaders in Religions for Peace estimated the moral claims of the Cold War protagonists in differing ways. Nevertheless, Religions for Peace held fast to its core principles as it promoted deeply needed dialogue among the states. This example from our past suggests that we can be of some assistance today in helping to ensure that lines of communication remain open among states gripped by severe tensions, even if we have severe moral concerns regarding some of their practices.

As we maintain our core principles, Religions for Peace’s history offers grounds for hope that sincere efforts to keep channels open between conflicting parties can be helpful.

Thank you for taking the time to consider these matters with me.”

Oh, that Hitchens

I can’t help thinking that too much has been made of the so-called “new atheist” movement.

Sure, four or five authors have written best-selling books explaining their non-believing ways. But dozens of religious books (that get far less attention because there’s no novelty) are published every week.

Yes, polls show that 15% of Americans don’t identity with any religious movement. But few of them say they are atheist or even agnostic. They simply don’t like organized religion or they don’t think about it.

hitchens1.jpgStill, I couldn’t resist the opportunity yesterday to hear Christopher Hitchens debate the existence of God with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a very smart and funny Catholic theologian. I’ve read many of Hitchens’ words of the years, but had never seen him up close.

I happened to be standing near the entrance to the main room at the ritzy Pierre Hotel when Hitchens returned from the bathroom and got his face powdered by an assistant. He was ready to perform and perform he did.

He spoke fast and left little doubt that he despises religion, especially Christianity (only mentioning Islam, which he also detests, briefly). He mocked the idea that Christ offers salvation to everyone, those who deserve and those who don’t.

Albacete provided a unique foil. Rather than return fire at Hitchens, he said that he wrestles with his faith every day. He gave a nuanced and demanding reading on how complicated real faith is, baffling Hitchens at time. Hitchens wanted to take aim at particular Christian beliefs, while Albacete only talked about grappling with the impulse that is faith.

The whole thing, put on by the Templeton Foundation, nearly got derailed before it started. Host Sally Quinn of the Washington Post said during the introductions that both speakers had revealed that they would rather talk about sex than religion…

Archbishop of DC takes the tough questions on Catholic schools

No, he’s not yet a cardinal, but Washington, D.C. Archbishop Donald Wuerl is a major Catholic figure in the U.S.

And there he was Saturday, in the middle of a room full of religion journalists, shaking hands and making chit-chat. He looked perfectly at ease — and stayed that way even when he faced a few tough questions.

He came to the Religion Newswriters Association get-together to talk about Catholic schools — the threat they face and how to save them. Catholic schools are “endangered,” he said, but they work.

“We can’t walk away from Catholic schools,” he told us.

vidcap_nc8popewuerl0402.jpgWuerl’s basic point was this: Catholic schools must be saved, but the Catholic Church can’t do it alone. The wider community — and government — must help, particularly in inner cities where children need an educational alternative.

Wuerl makes many of the same arguments in a new pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Washington.

He told us about a new tuition-assistance program in the archdiocese that has raised $2 million from the community, helping to keep 445 students in Catholic schools. It’s a start, but the real need was more like $18 million.

He told us about a similar program he had started in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, supported by businesses, foundations and other faith leaders, which today keeps about 1,000 inner-city kids in Catholic schools. The vast majority of them are not Catholic.

“More and more our our neighbors recognize the unique gift that Catholic education is to the community,” he said.

Wuerl made the expected call for government support of Catholic education, always a sticky subject. “I think it is a simple question of justice,” he said.

The archbishop of Washington is a soft-spoken fellow. He’s the kind of guy you have to stay quiet to hear. But he gets his point across. He was gracious and funny and confident enough to mix it up with a bunch of newspaper people.

Asked about possible savings that might result from merging dioceses (and presumably having fewer bishops in charge of them), he said: “You get a lot of mileage out of one bishop.”

Wuerl and Mark Gray, a Catholic Church researcher at Georgetown, shared the usual reasons for why Catholic schools are failing: economics; population changes; competition, staffing.

Asked if the growing numbers of Catholic immigrants would help, Wuerl said: “They come here precisely because they don’t have the resources.”

Gray said that in some respects, Catholic families are more like everyone else: “It’s definitely a trend, not only having fewer children, but waiting longer to have children.”

Wuerl wrapped things up by talking about visiting a school and asking fourth-graders why they attend a Catholic school. One of them said “I come to this school to get an education and get a life.”

Obama’s people love values, values, values

Barack Obama’s people are still gunning for the religious vote. Votes. Voters.

His national director of religious affairs, Shaun Casey, just told us: “We are going to go out there and communicate Barack Obama’s values to people of faith.”

He said that Obama people are about to hold a series of town hall forums around the country to talk values. It’s called the Faith, Family & Values Tour. There won’t be an opening band (I think).

Casey made clear that the campaign is aiming at moderate values voters, people who are not single-issue voters (as in abortion). In Ohio, for instance, they’re talking to mainline Protestants. In Indiana, they’re going after United Methodists, not Southern Baptists.

Makes sense.

He said the campaign has a national faith outreach staff, staff in the field talking to people about values, outreach coordinators for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, and people who try to get on conservative Christian talk radio.

They also have “American values house parties” across the country in people’s homes (yeah, that’s what they’re called) to talk values, values, values.

Casey, who teaches Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, seemed super-guarded, very cautious about saying the wrong thing or being misunderstood by a giant room filled with reporters.

Asked about the Palin effect, he said “We’re just trying to go about our outreach the best we can.”

He did say that Obama has the most robust religious outreach campaign in Democratic history.

“None of this was happening before,” he said. “It’s not because of us, but because of Barack Obama. It is a new day in Democratic politics.”

Joshua DuBois, Obama’s evangelical outreach coordinator, said he’s traveling the country trying to bring young evangelicals to the Democratic side. “My experience tells me something is afoot among young, college-educated evangelicals.”

He said that Democrats want to connect their politics to their values.

“One of the secrets of this campaign is that Obama does have an army in the field,” he said.

Are Obama’s people presenting a, well, overly rosy picture here? Yeah, probably.

John Green just told us a couple of hours ago that Obama is not making inroads with evangelicals (see below).

Mark Pinsky, until recently the religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, said he has seen no sign of the Obama campaign in central Florida’s vast evangelical community.

And Florida is a key contest in this campaign, is it not?

Religious preferences shaking out for McCain, Obama

WASHINGTON — Religious group leanings in the presidential race are not all that different than they were in 2004 — despite Democratic efforts to “talk God” at every turn.

Evangelical Christians, said not to like John McCain, are lining up to support him.

But, but… we are seeing some change (maybe).

Conservative Catholics are less supportive of McCain than they were of Bush. And Latino Protestants may be switching their support from the GOP to the Dems.

But it’s too early to draw any conclusions. There appear to be many persuadable voters out there, not sold on either guy.

And — surprise! — the economy is much more of a priority to voters of all religious stripes in ’08 than in ’04.

These are some of the findings shared moments ago by John Green, the guru on how religious folks vote. They’re based on a national poll conducted over the summer (pre-Palin). Green’s people will re-interview the same people after the election.

What else? The war in Iraq is less popular with all religious groups than in ’04, despite the success of the surge. Most groups have become slightly more conservative on social issues like gay marriage (but younger people are more supportive of same-sex marriage). No real change on abortion.

But it’s all about the economy.

“This actually extends across all of the religious groups,” Green told us.

And the poll was done before Wall Street shook.

“I would be very, very surprised if the level of economic concern has not gone up,” said Green, a prof at the University of Akron and a scholar for the Pew Forum.

And how does the U.S. population look these days: 25% evangelical, 15% mainline Protestant, 18% non-Latino Catholic, 7.6% Latino Catholic, 8.6% black Protestant, 1.5% Jewish, 14.7% unaffiliated.

And how is the outgoing president faring in the polls?

“President Bush is not very popular,” Green said. “He is not very popular with any religious groups. Traditionalist evangelicals are still the most supportive of President Bush, but at much lower levels.”

During lunch, we heard a debate between two evangelical Christians over whether Christians should favor Christian candidates in elections.

Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas said that “Christians ought to prefer Christians over non-Christians as their leaders” because Christians are saved and are “uniquely favored by God.”

Jeffress said he wouldn’t want to support Mitt Romney because Romney, a Mormon, could lead people away from God.

Jay Sekulow, a leading Christian legal lobbyist in Washington (who was born Jewish in Brooklyn), said he would prefer Romney over a less conservative Christian.

“We are not electing a theologian-in-chief,” he said, noting that he disagreed with all Mormon theology.

In X we trust

WASHINGTON — 15% of U.S. adults don’t identify with any religious group. That’s 32 million people — and the numbers are growing.

Barry Kosmin, head of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, stopped by here for a program on non-believers and non-believing.

He’s been studying the “none of the abovers.” It’s based on the latest American Religious Identification Survey.

Of those who do not identify with a religious group, only 4% say they are atheists and 6% agnostics. 89% say simply they have no religion.

29% were raised with no religion, and 25% were raised Catholic.

63% are male, 42% have college degrees, and 30% are from the West.

Interestingly, 21% believe in a personal God, and 23% believe in a higher power but not a personal God.

“It’s anti-clericalist,” Kosmin said. “They have no problem with God, but a problem with the local branches.”

Paul Kurtz, long known as the pope of non-believers, joined us to explain and defend “secular humanism.”

He said that the “New Atheism” (as promoted by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc.) is too negative. Secular humanism, on the other hand, promotes ethics and altruism:

“The point I want to make is you can be moral without religion. You can be moral without belief in God.”

Kurtz said that religion — despite what the polls say — is declining in America, like it has in Europe, Japan, Australia and other regions. “I think that America is basically a secular society and committed to humanist values.”

He added: “So please, religious writers in America, don’t consider secular humanism to be negative.”

Jennifer Michael Hecht, an atheist who has studied the history of non-belief, told us that non-believers have always been around, even if they haven’t gotten much attention in history books.

“There are atheist heroes in the ancient world and in every single century after,” she said.

Hecht suggested that there can be a fine line between belief and non-belief.

“There are a lot of people who are religious who feel love and use the terms they were brought up with,” she said.

She also said that it is an “extraordinary” human practice that many people only go to houses of worships for births, deaths and other defining events — without giving much thought to, or not believing, the basic beliefs involved. “I call it drop-by-and-lie.”

Talking faith and immigration

WASHINGTON — I’m a little slow getting going here at the Religion Newswriters Association’s annual gathering. I was late getting to D.C. (traffic, getting lost). And I’ve had some technical issues this morning…

But I’m here with a few hundred other religion journalists.

We’ve just heard a really interesting, somewhat heated, presentation on the Great Immigration Debate.

J. Kevin Appleby, the immigration point man for the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference (and one of the major religious voices on the issue), laid out the main reasons for Catholic support for immigration reform: Jesus said “I was a stranger and you welcomed me;” the Catholic Church is an immigrant church; it’s a humanitarian issue; it’s a global issue, not just a U.S. issue; and “there is suffering going on that we see every day.”

His opponent was Roy Beck, a former United Methodist communications guy who is founder/CEO of NumbersUSA, a group that contends that illegal immigrants take away jobs from Americans, drive down wages and hurt the economy.

“We agree with the idea that everybody who happens to show up in a church is a person in the eyes of God,” Beck said. “Once you’ve said that, where do you go with it?”

Beck compared illegal immigrants to shoplifters, saying they are not violent, may be hurting economically, and believe they are only taking from big, rich corporations.  “But shoplifting adds up to a lot,” he said. “All consumers share the cost.”

Beck wants serious verification at workplaces of worker status.

Appleby said that the U.S. has spent $33 billion on border enforcement since 1994. “We have a disfunctional system that has a sign at the border that says ‘Keep out’ and has a sign at the workplace the says ‘Help wanted.’ ”

The U.S. Catholic bishops want to see legalization for the 12 million illegal immigrants now here.  Appleby said they should pay fines and back taxes and have to work for years before becoming eligible for green cards.

There was some talk about the rhetoric out there on the immigration issues — what’s racist and what’s not. Beck said that his group opposes immigrant bashing and said that it’s hard to be in the same camp with people like David Duke.

Everyone did agree that the presidential candidates are avoiding the immigration issue at all costs (except in Spanish language ads, where each blames the other guy). Appleby noted that the Hispanic community could play a role in deciding which way certain states go…

Religion writers, convene

I leave this morning for Washington, D.C., and the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association.

logo_dcconference08.jpgThe program, as usual, looks filled with great stuff for people like me: religion and politics, religion and immigration, religion and non-believers, religion and blogging, and on and on.

We’ll even visit a Presbyterian church where Lincoln scholars will discuss the great one’s faith.

I’ll bring my laptop and blog from the Hamilton Crowne Plaza at 14th and K.