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The race begins

and other news briefs

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

And the Republican 2012 presidential candidates are off-with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty first out of the gate. Pawlenty, who led a Democratic-leaning state for two terms, announced March 21 that he has established a formal exploratory committee for a White House run. "We, the people of the United States, will take back our government," Pawlenty said in a music-infused announcement video posted on Facebook.

In the two-minute message, Pawlenty, 50, referenced the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. He also discussed his own hardscrabble beginnings: His mom died of cancer when he was a teenager, his dad drove a truck, and Pawlenty paid his way through college by working in a grocery. A pro-life Christian, Pawlenty fought tax increases while governor. He pledged to give Americans "the freedom to work hard and get ahead without government getting in the way."

The formation of an exploratory committee enables Pawlenty to raise money and hire staff, and is part of his effort to boost his name recognition in what will be a crowded GOP field. The first Republican presidential debate is May 2, while the first votes will be cast in 10 months.

Diplomatic decision

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Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, President Obama's nominee to be the next ambassador to China, said at a recent House hearing that he would "consider" worshipping at a house church when he takes up his post in Beijing. Locke is likely to win Senate confirmation easily. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., pressed him about the issue, and when Locke said his personal religious practice was "not something for the American people," Wolf slammed his hand on the table, according to Agence France-Presse, and said, "It is for the American people. . . . It's to stand with the dissidents who are being persecuted, who are being hauled away, and the American embassy in China ought to be an island of freedom. . . . [I]f you don't publicly identify with the persecuted in China, then more people will be persecuted." Locke parried, "We very much support, as a government, greater religious freedom, including the house churches, and we encourage people to attend those house churches, and all forms of worship within China." Former President George W. Bush stirred similar criticisms on his 2008 trip to China, when he attended one of the official state churches. Chinese house churches expressed disappointment in "Brother Bush."

Resolution reform

The United Nations' Human Rights Council in March set aside an annual resolution that supports restrictive blasphemy laws in Islamic states. Following the recent assassination of a Christian Pakistani minister who worked to repeal blasphemy laws, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has proposed a much softer resolution that no longer excoriates the "defamation" of religion and no longer focuses on protecting the Islamic religion especially. Lindsay Vessey, advocacy director for Open Doors USA, said Shahbaz Bhatti's murder certainly made it more difficult to justify an anti-defamation resolution but added that the resolution has been losing support in the General Assembly for several years. Last year, a number of OIC member states told her they considered not introducing the resolution at all in 2010. The new resolution still contains potentially troubling language about criminalizing "incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief," but Vessey said, "It's a real victory that there is this compromise text, even if we don't agree with it 100 percent."

Faithful givers

A common complaint leveled at evangelical Christians, according to David French, is that they're obsessed with gays and abortion. "The criticism is so common that it's often internalized and adopted by the church itself," he writes. So French, director of the Alliance Defense Fund ("a card-­carrying member of the professional religious right"), decided to crunch some numbers-and found there's no comparison between what Christians give to cause-oriented organizations like his and what they give to anti-poverty groups like World Vision. We fight culture wars, he said, but our charitable obsession is "serving our fellow man."

Abortion offensives

The sweeping Republican gains last November are bringing about new abortion laws across the country. South Dakota's Republican governor signed a bill on March 23 that requires a three-day waiting period for abortions, the longest in the country. Idaho's legislature is in the process of passing a bill that would make abortions after 20 weeks illegal except to save the life of the mother-the bill has passed the state Senate and is expected to pass the state House soon, and gain the Republican governor's signature. And in Kansas, a focal point in the nation's abortion debate, the legislature passed two bills, one that requires consent from both parents for abortions performed on minors, and another that prohibits abortions after 21 weeks except to prevent substantial or permanent physical harm to the mother. New Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is expected to sign the bills. Idaho and Kansas join Nebraska, which last year passed a measure to restrict abortion after 20 weeks, the point at which research indicates an unborn child can feel pain. More than a dozen other states are considering similar measures, prompted by citations of fetal pain by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. "He's been cueing us," said Kathy Ostrowski, legislative and research director of Kansans for Life. "We're willing to go to court. In Nebraska they haven't yet filed suit [against the fetal pain bill]. You know why? They can read the same court decisions we do."

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