2012 candidates asked to sign religious freedom pledge

(RNS) An advocacy organization for persecuted Christians has asked the 2012 presidential candidates to sign a pledge stating they would make religious freedom a priority in the United States and overseas if they win the White House. Open Doors USA joined with religious freedom activist Tom Farr of Georgetown University to draft the pledge, which was unveiled Monday (Nov. 28). As of Wednesday, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., was the sole signatory among the candidates. “The right of religious freedom must be applied equally to all religious communities in America, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others,” reads the pledge.

One-third of shelter residents are newly homeless

WASHINGTON (RNS) Nearly one in five clients of Christian rescue missions said they were victims of physical violence within the past year, a 6 percent jump from the previous year, according to a new survey. “It’s quite possible that the uptick in physical violence … is due to a friend or family member’s feeling of desperation and helplessness accompanying their unemployment and underemployment,” said John Ashmen, president of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (AGRM). The Snapshot Survey of the homeless is conducted annually by AGRM, North America’s oldest and largest network of independent homeless shelters and rehabilitation centers. Nearly 19,000 individuals took the survey in October at 114 rescue missions; 17 percent of those surveyed were not currently homeless, but all had received services offered at the missions, such as food and medical care.

Wednesday’s Religion News Roundup: Holiday tree; mini Stonehenge; Christmas weapons

As bitter winter advances, religious communities from Portland to New York are opening their doors to Occupy protesters. How many “Christmas among the Occupiers” stories do you think we’ll see this year? Christmas, by the way, is on a Sunday this year. The vast majority of churches (91 percent) plan to hold some sort of worship service, according to Lifeway Research. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee says that anyone upset that he calls the blue spruce erected in the Statehouse a holiday tree instead of a Christmas tree should hush up and go feed the poor.

Gingrich and the Evangelicals

With the Gingrich Bubble frothing away and the Iowa caucuses just around the corner, TPM asks if the all-important evangelical voting bloc (like, half of all GOP caucus-goers) will move into Newt’s camp. The Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs has done her interviews and thinks it’s split. A mysterious group called Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government has released a letter whomping on Christian leader in government wannabe Bob Vander Plaats for allegedly supporting Gingrich. Meanwhile, Doctor Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention has written an open Dear Newt letter urging the Thrice Married One to give a big speech to persuade evangelical women that he has cured his cheatin’ heart.On the basis of 200 informal SBC focus groups, Land thinks Gingrich has an evangelical gender problem. The latest Insider Advantage Iowa poll suggests otherwise; Newt’s got three Republican women supporting him for every two Republican men.

Accused janitor says priest blackmailed, abused him

MORRISTOWN, N.J. (RNS) For four years, Jose Feliciano told a jury on Monday (Nov. 28), his rage grew. The former church janitor said his employer, the Rev. Edward Hinds, had been extorting him, forcing him into unwanted sexual contact under the threat of exposing Feliciano’s criminal past. The janitor grudgingly allowed the priest to continue touching him, he said, because to do otherwise would have meant the end of his job at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Chatham, N.J. And then, on Oct.

Charitable giving up slightly but still ailing

(RNS) Charitable giving is trickling back up as the economy heals, but it could take years to return to pre-recession levels, nonprofit leaders say. Giving totaled $291 billion in 2010, according to the 2011 annual report by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. That's up 3.8 percent from 2009 and follows two consecutive years of declines. This year shows little change. Charity Navigator, a Glen Rock, N.J., organization that evaluates nonprofits, anticipates donations will be flat during the holiday season.

Episcopal bishop cleared of `abandonment’ charge

(RNS) The Episcopal bishop of South Carolina, who has distanced his diocese from the national denomination since its sanction of openly gay bishops, has not “abandoned” the Episcopal Church, a church committee announced Monday (Nov. 28). Bishop Mark Lawrence, an outspoken conservative, has said that he wants to remain part of the Episcopal Church, even as he decries its “false gospel of indiscriminate inclusivity.” The Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire in 2004, and a lesbian priest as an assistant bishop in Los Angeles last year. In protest, the South Carolina diocese, which covers the eastern portion of the state, has declared itself “sovereign” within the national denomination, rejected the leadership of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and withdrawn from some governing committees.

Tuesday Godbytes

Good Magazine asks: why are so many lifestyle bloggers Mormon? NY Magazine is curious whether or not Jewish food can “go upscale.” Matzo balls with gold flakes, anyone? CNet reports that Sam’s Club pulled “The Brick Testament” – a picture book of Lego characters reenacting Biblical scenes – from its shelves. I guess you could say they had to lego of it!

Tuesday’s Religion News Roundup: The Last Testament; Episcopal abandonment; Western Wall

Just in time for the holidays, God has a new book out called the “The Last Testament,” as “revealed” to a Daily Show writer. The NYT calls it “pseudoquaint.” Speaking of writers, the late David Foster Wallace reportedly flirted with joining the Catholic Church near the end of his life. David Brooks has been reading about Augustine and says Republicans and Democrats remind him of the Donatists. “They were more interested in following their accepted doctrine than in looking at reality.”

Churches help Occupy movement survive crackdowns, winter

WASHINGTON (RNS) As Occupy camps nationwide deal with police crackdowns and the inevitable onset of winter temperatures, religious communities of all stripes are stepping in with offers of shelter and solidarity. Soon after police forcibly evicted the original Occupy Wall Street camp in New York’s Zuccotti Park on Nov. 15, many of the protesters began sleeping and gathering in local congregations, including Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. “The eviction … really shifts what happens here, and it really boomed the movement, because immediately there was this network in place that we’d developed of communities throughout New York that were willing to open up their doors and house the movement,” said the Rev. Michael Ellick, a pastor at Judson Memorial.

COMMENTARY: All I want for Christmas

(RNS) After noticing that Lexus wants me to give a $50,000 sedan to my wife this Christmas, I joined my family in the annual “Ehrich Christmas Wish List,” an online spreadsheet maintained by my youngest son. I knew I had to list something, so I thought hard. Had to be affordable — no Apple MacBook Air this year, no luxury sedans. Had to be reasonably enjoyable to buy and to watch me open. A few things came to mind, such as coffee capsules for my new office espresso machine.

Religious Freedom Pledge-a-thon

Over at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner smacks the creators of a new “Pledge for Religion Freedom”–or is it the “International Religious Freedom Pledge”?–for declining to talk about Islamophobia. What I’ve got are some problems with the pledge itself.Presidential candidates are being asked to pledge to “protect religious freedom in full for all Americans” and as well as to “advance international religious freedom as part of American foreign
policy.” The authors are Thomas Farr, the first director of the State Department Office of Religious Freedom, and Carl Moeller, president and CEO or Open Doors, an organization dedicated to helping persecuted Christians around the world. Their concern with freedom of religion abroad is understandable, as is the greater commitment they’d like to see from the State Department. One can debate how much of a priority international religious freedom ought to be for the U.S., and the extent to which the cause has served as a cover for protecting Christian missionizing.

Anti-Mormon bias persistent in presidential politics

(RNS) On June 27, 1844, vigilantes cornered a man who claimed to receive messages from God and gunned him down in an Illinois jail after his arrest. At the time of his death, Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was an announced candidate for president of the United States. Today, 167 years later, as two of Smith's adherents eye the nation's highest office, religious discrimination remains an obstacle for Mormon political candidates for president and a vexation for church members. Two Republican contenders — former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman of Utah — have sought to downplay the prejudice in presidential politics. But a potential problem is hard to ignore: More than 1 in 5 Americans say they would not vote for a Mormon — a figure that has changed only slightly since the question was first asked in 1967, according to Gallup polls.

Pope: Others should be held to same abuse ‘standards’

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI told bishops from New York state that “all other institutions” in society should be held to the same “exacting standards” as the Roman Catholic Church in preventing and reporting sex abuse. Benedict spoke on Saturday (Nov. 26), one day before New York’s Syracuse University announced that it had fired its associate men’s basketball coach, Bernie Fine, over charges that he had sexually abused young boys. Speaking to a delegation led by New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, the pope praised the bishops’ “honest efforts” at protecting children against sex abuse, and dealing “appropriately and transparently with allegations as they arise.” “It is my hope that the church’s conscientious efforts to confront this reality will help the broader community” to understand and respond to sex abuse, Benedict said.