Religion-based tactics fire up Hawaii's election season -- causing concern for some but fueling moral claims by others
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 12, 2010
" ... no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." -- Article Six of the United States Constitution
"Neither Mufi Hannemann nor Neil Abercrombie is righteous and a vote for either ... is succumbing to fear and advancing unrighteousness!" -- Jonah Kaauwai, chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party
Even in these angry times, Jonah Kaauwai's e-mail to the apostles was startling.
In a fire-and-brimstone message posted on the website of the Hawaii Christian Coalition last month, the chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party seemed to be declaring that the faith-based right was hitting the campaign trail hard this year -- and taking no prisoners.
After dismissing Democrats Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann, Kaauwai donned the armor of righteousness.
"Too often, we as the Body of Christ are reacting to crisis like HB444," he wrote. "We need to fearlessly, like David did Goliath, run towards the unrighteous enemy. ...
..." ... With more than 400,000 Christians in the State of Hawaii, WE are responsible no matter what the outcome of (Lt. Gov. James 'Duke' Aiona's) race because we have been given the POWER and the AUTHORITY in the NAME OF JESUS!!!!"
In a state in which faith-based political activism has played a relatively limited role, Kaauwai's call to arms was roundly criticized. But it also revealed a tug-of-war for the conservative Christian vote -- and triggered a small wave of religious-political fervor.
Just days later, a group partly headed by Hannemann supporter Kenneth Wong and calling itself Island Values began distributing flyers and running a spot on Christian radio stations in which former state legislator Dennis Arakaki describes Hannemann and Aiona as strong advocates of Christian values. Abercrombie is unacceptable, partly because he "declares no religious affiliation," Arakaki tells listeners.
Meanwhile, in the Democratic primary for the 33rd House District (Halawa, Aiea, Pearlridge), outgoing City Councilman Gary Okino has framed his race against incumbent Blake Oshiro as a moral choice. Okino is a staunch opponent of civil unions; Oshiro is the gay sponsor of House Bill 444.
Okino, who supports candidates exemplifying "God's values," has even endorsed Republicans such as Cam Cavasso over U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, and U.S. Rep. Charles Djou over state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa based on their positions on abortion and civil unions. He says Democrats are moving to expel him over his stands.
Neal Milner, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, says that while faith-based political activism in the islands is up this year, "if you compare the role of social conservatives on the mainland, it has still been relatively limited here."
When it comes to religion and politics in Hawaii, Milner says, the decision by Gov. John Burns in 1970 to let abortion become the law without his signature stands as "the model for how these things should work."
Burns, a Catholic, famously told reporters that although he believed abortion was murder, an elected governor could not "let his private political and religious convictions unduly influence his judgment as governor of all the people."
"There has always been religious discourse in American politics," Milner says. "It was important in Vietnam. It was important to the civil rights movement.
"But there has always been a line -- an imaginary line that doesn't get crossed -- and that is how much you emphasize the rightness of what you believe in comparison to what your opponent believes. It can become dangerous when you move into the framework of 'I'm on the side of God and you're not.'
"Once you start to demonize -- once it becomes good versus evil -- and once you start taking that conversation public, then you've crossed the line."
In the debate over religion's place in politics, Milner says, so much hinges on a speaker's audience and intention.
Milner says Kaauwai's rhetoric "is perfectly comfortable language for many in the conservative faith-based community. But whether it means the same thing to them -- when you're essentially calling someone a creature of the devil -- as it does to those outside the community is another thing."
The blowback suggests Kaauwai's language was so inflammatory to those looking in that it ended up killing both message and messenger as well as inflicting collateral damage to Aiona, who was compelled to disavow what he called "divisive" practices.
Had Kaauwai simply said Republicans believed Hannemann's forces were using deceptive tactics to convince conservative Christians to vote for him in the primary, there wouldn't have been reason for his photo to end up on MSNBC's "Countdown," slow-fading to black while a pipe organ sounded sinister chords and liberal pundit Keith Olbermann declared him the "Worst Person in the World" for Sept. 1.
Kaauwai did not respond to a Star-Advertiser request for an interview. Instead, Erin Kealoha, the Hawaii GOP's communications director, forwarded a statement in which Kaauwai says his letter was never meant for publication.
"Upon reflection," the statement says, "I can see that some of my words carry implications which I did not intend."
The statement then segues into an argument for a closed primary and ends with the following: "Hawaii needs candidates chosen by voters based on the battle of ideas rather than the enforced loyalties of the old-boy system."
The Rev. John Heidel, president of the Interfaith Alliance Hawaii, says that's not the message his group is hearing.
Heidel says religion should have a role in informing government but shouldn't try to manipulate it.
"People should have the freedom of believing according to their own conscience as well as to be protected from being forced to believe in a certain way," he says. "We wouldn't be interested in changing (conservative groups' political) opinions, but we would encourage more civil discourse as the answer."
In a letter responding to a Star-Advertiser editorial about religion in politics, Arakaki says he sees no difference between the Island Values radio spot and a commercial taken out by a labor union urging members to vote for a candidate favorable to its causes. (See edited letter below.)
"Christian values are shared values and have been the foundation of our Constitution, laws and tradition," Arakaki writes. "If people want to uphold and protect those values, should they be regarded as divisive or 'narrow minded'? Not in my mind or heart!"
To Okino, good government starts and ends with morality.
"As a Christian, I strongly believe that we need a moral base in government that's unchanging -- and that's the standard set by God in the Bible," he says. "Religion -- Christianity -- has to have an integral part in government because government creates laws and laws create the environment that guides the country.
"I believe the Founding Fathers made laws that were based in Christian morality. We have to keep those standards. They have to be unchanging. Otherwise, we end up legalizing things that are illegal and doing things that are immoral."
Heidel sees a slippery slope if religious litmus tests and definitions of morality are allowed to influence policymaking.
He thinks there is a "real danger" that Hawaii could descend into the kind of political and religious rancor he sees on the mainland.
"Look at the mood of America," Heidel says. "Just look at the number of people who believe (President) Obama is a Muslim and who are afraid of that, as if they should have any reason to."
Milner thinks the balance in the islands will be fine in the long run, even if some local politicians are now beginning to see they can tap into religion to reap short-term gains.
"I don't think this is going to change politics in Hawaii as we know it," he says. "It isn't like social conservatives have been able to mobilize more people or that they've become more powerful. And it's not like what you see in a number of states on the mainland where there's just naked intolerance.
"That said, I do think there's potential for more of this sort of stuff going on in the next couple of weeks."