2009: a year of change for everyone

Back in January, President-elect Barack Obama invited the Rev. Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Those on both sides of the political spectrum took notice. Conservative evangelicals, most of whom did not vote for Obama, didn’t criticize him, so much as they did Warren, for accepting the invitation. Outrage from the homosexual-activist community, most of whom did vote for Obama, criticized the invitation, because Warren had actively campaigned for traditional marriage during California’s Proposition 8 campaign.

And, of course, atheist Michael Newdow has organized a group of 11 atheist and humanist groups to file suit against the government. He wanted to prevent prayers of any kind from being offered at the presidential inauguration.

So the new year began: This new president was promising hope and change. However, while all improvement requires change, not all change is an improvement. So would the changes coming as 2009 began offer hope? Way back then, 12 months ago, ancient history to the American mind, who could know what the year would bring? What we know now is that the year was like that iconic and contentious moment on the National Mall back in January: It offered something for everyone, both to love and to hate.

Current Events as Unusual

President Barack Obama claims he wants a “post-partisan” administration, but pro-family activists say his actions drowned out his words. “The one thing Barack Obama’s nominees seem to have in common is a disrespect for human life,” said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, as the president was putting his administration in place.

The president got his first opportunity to leave a legacy with the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Despite what conservatives considered to be a spotty record that showed her tendency to legislate from the bench, nine Republicans helped to put her confirmation over the top in a 68-31 vote: Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and George Voinovich (R-Ohio).

Fighting for Life

A poll released early in 2009, conducted by Pew Research, found the support for legal abortions had dropped to its lowest level in 15 years. The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds, ironically, that President Barack Obama’s abortion advocacy could be sparking a shift to the pro-life side of the abortion debate.

The Pew poll found that 46 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in most or in all cases, and that 44 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in most or in all cases. That two-point margin in favor of abortion is the lowest margin since 1995, as Pew, and other polling firms, have been asking the same polling question of Americans across the country every year.

A Harris poll finds a plurality of Americans want all or most abortions to be illegal, and an overwhelming majority of Americans wants more abortion limits written into law. The nationwide poll showed just nine percent said that abortion should be legal for any reason, at any time, during pregnancy. It found 82 percent of Americans said abortion should be either illegal under all circumstances or limited in its legality.

Despite the growing pro-life attitude of Americans, our government continued to make abortion easier. On Jan. 23, Obama reversed the so-called Mexico City Policy. President Reagan first established the pro-life Mexico City Policy in 1984. The policy declared that American tax dollars would not fund nongovernmental organizations involved in performing or promoting abortions abroad. President Clinton reversed the policy in 1993. President Bush then reinstated it in 2001.

Obama also overturned his predecessor’s policy, and created an incentive to destroy human embryos for federally funded research. “The latest government bailout was announced as Obama will now attempt to bail out the morally bankrupt and failing industry of destructive embryonic stem-cell research,” said Carrie Gordon Earll, senior bioethics analyst for Focus on the Family Action. “Americans deserve the very best investment of our tax dollars, and embryonic stem-cell research doesn’t make the grade. After years and millions of dollars in research, no patient has been successfully treated with human embryonic stem cells.”

In another blow to family advocates, Obama announced on March 6 that he wants to overturn rules that protect health care providers’ freedom of conscience. President George W. Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services put the regulations in place in December to reinforce federal laws that protect doctors from being forced to participate in abortion and other anti-life practices.

But pro-life advocates soldiered on. At this year’s commemoration of the 36th anniversary, on Jan. 22, of the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, a grim milestone was remembered. Since the Roe v. Wade decision, more than 45 million preborn babies have been aborted.

And two defining moments occurred, both related to one man: George Tiller. Tiller, a notorious late-term abortionist, was tried on March 23, 2009 in Wichita, Kan. for performing abortions on late-term pregnancies. Tiller has been the subject of controversy for years. In 1986, his clinic was bombed. In 1991, it was blockaded for six weeks. In 1993, an abortion opponent shot him in both arms. He has been investigated twice by grand juries, which found no cause to charge him with crimes. In 2006, Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline charged Tiller with illegally performing late-term abortions. The charges were dropped because of a technicality about jurisdiction.

Notorious abortionist George Tiller was shot to death May 31, as he stood in the doorway of his church, Reformation Lutheran Church, in Wichita, Kan. Scott Roeder, a man whose family said has a history of mental problems, has been arrested for the shooting. And even though responsible pro-life activists quickly condemned the murder, everyone on both sides of the debate had to admit that the murderer Roeder accomplished what the justice system could not: following Tiller’s murder, his Wichita facility closed permanently.

Also in 2009, pro-lifers opened up a new front in the war against abortion. Signaling the growing momentum of the personhood movement, North Dakota lawmakers approved HB 1572 with a vote of 51-41. Six other states had efforts underway to protect the personhood of pre-born children. In addition, Rep. Duncan Hunter has introduced H.R. 881, the Right to Life Act, on the federal level, propelling the personhood movement forward.

The common thread among all of these efforts is the goal to fill what is becoming known as the “Blackmun Hole” in Roe v. Wade. This is what Justice Blackmun implied in the Roe v. Wade decision: If the case were established that the pre-born was a person, the argument for abortion would collapse. In Roe v. Wade, it is acknowledged that the fetus is fully human, but did not grant it the rights of “persons” until birth.

Faith-Based Fraud

Desperate economic times sometimes call for desperate economic measures. That may have been why faith-based fraud stepped into the limelight in 2009. In fact, the total amount of money that leaks out of the church and Christian philanthropy system, via waste, fraud and abuse, could top $27 billion in 2009. “That’s about six percent of the global total of $410 billion given to Christian charities,” said Bert Hickman, a research associate with the Center for the Study of Global Philanthropy at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

That’s why the ECFA and other organizations, under the umbrella of the Lausanne Movement, are attempting to quantify the leakage, and the source of the leaks, in advance of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, to be held in 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa.

The causes of these leaks are not that hard to identify. “Embezzlement or fraud accounts for a significant part of the total,” Hickman said. “But sometimes it starts out fairly innocently, with a loan to an employee that doesn’t get paid back, because it is improperly accounted for, and then forgotten or written off.”

The most prominent faith-based fraud in 2009 was the Bernard Madoff affair, in which as much as $50 billion was scammed from investors, many of them who knew Madoff because of his activism in the Jewish community. One Jewish organization hard hit was the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, which has financed the trips of hundreds of Jewish youth to Israel. It posted a stark message on its Web site: “The programs of the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation and the Robert I. Lappin 1992 Supporting Foundation are discontinued, effectively immediately. This includes Youth to Israel and Teachers to Israel. The money used to fund the programs of both foundations was invested with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, and all the assets have been frozen by the federal courts. The money needed to fund the programs of the Lappin Foundations is gone.”

Christian organizations had their fair share of fraud and mismanagement in 2009. Founded in 1994, the Georgia-based Angel Food Ministries feeds poor families. But the ministry came under scrutiny in 2009 because of allegations of sexual harassment and extravagant salaries on the part of the founders and their family members. Texas billionaire, or ex-billionaire, Allen Stanford was arrested following the collapse of his financial empire, an empire that owes much to the networking his senior officers did in the evangelical Christian community.

And in one of the strangest religious scams of the year, Harvey Dockstader, Jr., who was convicted of running an illegal pyramid scheme in Harris County (Houston), Tex., in 2008, and sentenced to two years in jail, continued to run his organization, which he calls a church, from prison.

“It’s a classic pyramid scheme,” said Valerie Turner, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Dockstader. “A pretty straightforward case.”

But this pyramid scheme has a twist. New recruits are told they are embracing a “belief system of giving.” Their payments are not fees or dues, but gifts. And like much “prosperity gospel” teaching, recruits are promised a massive “harvest” from the “seeds” they plant. The Web site declares, “You can receive $800, $2,000, $4,000, $8,000, $16,000, $32,000 and $48,000 in gifts – over and over again!”

Dockstader is not due out of prison until May 2010, and he’s expected to return to the helm of what he now calls The Elite Resurrected Church. People who contribute money are “members” of the church.

According to prosecutor Turner: “It always amazes me that people fall for these schemes, but they do.”

It’s the Economy, Sister

The economic downturn has also affected more-reputable organizations. Focus on the Family had several staff reductions in 2009, taking their staff levels below the 900 level, down from a high of almost 1500 just a few years ago. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in response to the national economic downturn, reduced its administrative staff by 35 positions, 20 full-time and 15 part-time, effective Jan. 30.

But according to Randy Alcorn, whose books on giving include The Treasure Principle and Money, Possessions, and Eternity, giving is a “powerful witness of the gospel” that he calls the “greatest form of evangelism.” Alcorn said that giving in tough economic times is particularly important for the Christian.

“For one thing, in tough times Christian charity is needed all the more,” he said. “For another, the testimony of that giving is even more profound. Giving in tough times tells the world that it is God’s providence, not a large checking account, that is the source of our sustenance and security.”

But out of economic hardship, a new movement is being born. In hundreds of U.S. cities, conservative groups held, on April 15, the tax protests known as “tea parties,” to highlight the growing tax burden on American citizens.

The tea parties were promoted by FreedomWorks, a conservative nonprofit advocacy group from Washington, led by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. At least 25,000 people attended the parties, and organizers of the movement said word was spread mainly through social-networking sites, along with exposure in the news.

ChristianityToday reported groups in attendance such as Focus on the Family Action, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the American Family Association. It said that these groups “helped promote the demonstrations.”

According to the Associated Press, the political implications of the rallies “remain to be seen.” But by the fall, tea-party candidates had won local races, and tea party-motivated activism had elected conservative Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia.

Marriage on Trial

The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled, in 2009, that a law declaring marriage to be between a man and a woman was unconstitutional, making its state the first in the Midwest to approve same-sex marriage.

Iowa’s court ruled that same-sex marriage would become legal on April 24, and the law would apply to any couple who wanted to travel to Iowa. The county attorney who defended the law said he would not seek a rehearing. The only alternative for opponents appears to be a constitutional amendment, which would be considered in 2011 at the earliest.

Iowa was not alone. Maine Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill making the state the fifth to allow same-sex marriage, The Associated Press reported. A “people’s veto” is in the works in Maine; it allows voters to place an issue on the ballot. The Maine Family Policy Council has posted a note on its Web site: “Please pray that God will intervene. He is our best hope. God has not forgotten about Maine. Even though things seem grim, He may yet be gracious toward us.”

Those prayers were answered when Maine voters overturned that law in November. Indeed, when the vote is put to the people, the people almost always side with traditional marriage. More than 30 states have put laws or amendments in place to protect marriage. Nonetheless, by year-end, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont allowed same-sex couples to marry.

And the fallout over same-sex marriage is not all political. Miss California USA, Carrie Prejean, said she knew she’d lost the Miss USA crown as soon as she spoke in favor of one-man, one-woman marriage. During the Miss USA telecast, Prejean was asked whether other states should follow Vermont’s lead in legislating same-sex marriage.

“In my family, I … believe marriage should be between a man and a woman,” she said. “No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised.”

Prejean later told NBC, “I knew at that moment, after I’d answered the question, I knew that I was not going to win, because of my answer, because I had spoken from my heart, from my beliefs, and for my God.”

Even Donald Trump, who co-owns the pageant, said her answer “probably did cost her the crown.” Prejean finished as first runner-up to Miss North Carolina.

Perez Hilton, a gay-activist blogger, was the judge who posed the question to Prejean. He called it the “worst answer in pageant history,” and called Miss California profane names. “That is not the kind of woman I want to be Miss USA,” he told MSNBC. “Miss USA should represent all Americans. And with her answer, she instantly was divisive, and alienated millions.”

However, since the event, there has been an outpouring of support for Prejean. Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, said, “The idea that defending the historic, Judeo-Christian definition of marriage makes one ineligible to win a contest, – in this case, Miss USA – is, frankly, un-American.”

Prejean said she would give the same answer again. “Bottom line is, I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman,” she told NBC. “It’s not about being politically correct. For me, it was being biblically correct. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Real Hope, Real Change

So while the year began with promises of hope and change, by year-end, changes not anticipated on Jan. 1 had been brought about by a struggling economy, off-year elections, the healthcare debate, and a war that had entered its ninth year, making it one of the longest in American history.

But had hope also been brought about? Perhaps.

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, said the U.S. is still a right-of-center country.
“The candidates that ended up doing very well,” he said, “were candidates that understood the importance of keeping a conservative coalition together.”

And facts, as the old saying goes, are stubborn things. A Planned Parenthood director resigned from a Bryan, Tex., clinic this year, after actually witnessing an abortion. “You actually see the baby on the (ultrasound) screen as it’s being killed,” Abby Johnson, 29, said. “That was very heart-wrenching for me.” Johnson resigned in early October, following pressure from her employer to “get more abortions in the door,” a local TV station reported. “I just thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.'” Johnson now volunteers at Coalition for Life, a pro-life group located just a block away from the Planned Parenthood clinic where she worked for eight years.

And by year-end, nearly a million Christians had signed the Manhattan Declaration. The document was drafted by a group of Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical Christians, to make a common statement on the sanctity of human life, marriage as the exclusive union of one man and one woman, and religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

Alliance Defense Fund President Alan Sears said, “Rarely before have so many American Christian leaders, from across the theological spectrum, come together in one accord to stand in support of religious liberty, life, marriage and the family. It’s a great privilege for me to join with Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Christians in adding my signature, as an individual, to this historic document, and I hope others will join in support of this effort.”

The declaration states, in part, “Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destruction research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality, and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.”

And, by the way, do you remember that prayer that Rick Warren was asked to offer at the inauguration? To counter criticism that he had asked a conservative evangelical to pray, Obama invited the openly homosexual bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, to pray at the inaugural opening ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial. Robinson issued a statement expressing his “great honor to be there representing the Episcopal Church, the people of New Hampshire, and all of us in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.” Conservative activist Gary Bauer said it was an example of Obama caving to the special interests that got him elected president.

Rick Warren, for his part, ignored the controversy. Following a brief prayer, “Pastor Rick,” as he likes to be called, encouraged the crowd, estimated to be 1.8 million people, to pray with him the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the words “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Dr. Anthony Bradley, a conservative African-American theologian, was on the mall that day. He said the sound of all those people praying in one voice was a “transcendent moment, no matter what your political affiliation.”

So while it’s still true that not all changes are improvements, and that some of the changes we brought on ourselves in 2009 will take us generations to pay for, perhaps with changes like these, there really is reason to hope.

Warren Cole Smith is the editor of the Evangelical Press News Service.

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