As Sen. Dan Inouye cast his absentee ballot at Honolulu Hale on Tuesday — the senator’s 86th birthday — he was asked by a reporter about the role of religion in government and politics.

Inouye responded that he supports the constitutional separation of church and state and that he felt similarly when it comes to religion being used in a divisive manner in politics.

The remarks from Hawaii’s senior senator, confirmed by a spokesman, came in response to a question triggered by recent events putting religion at the center of the race for governor.

They include:

Christian groups like Hawaii Family Forum, the Hawaii Catholic Conference and the Hawaii Christian Coalition continue to be directly involved in local elections, as they have for well over a decade.

Another Christian player has recently emerged, seeking to have a similar role on the political stage. Transformation Hawaii sees itself as a model for “taking the power and presence of God daily to the marketplace in order to reclaim it for Christ. Not just leading it to salvation, but repossessing for God its three key components: business, education and government.”

While religion has surfaced most prominently in the governor’s race, it is also a factor in other races.

Historically, Hawaii elections have not been totally God-free. But in a state that prides itself on diversity and tolerance — religious as well as ethnic — faith has clearly emerged as a wedge issue.

Hawaii has always been a spiritual place, beginning with the belief system of Native Hawaiians and continuing with the arrival of New England missionaries in the 1820s and the conversion of the Hawaiian monarchy to Christianity that followed.

The Roman Catholic church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have long been part of island society, and many Asian immigrants brought with them their Buddhist beliefs.

Statistics from the state’s 2000 Databook, the most recent the state has available, show that there are 351,000 Christians in the state (28.9 percent), 110,000 Buddhists (9 percent), 10,000 Jews (0.8 percent), 100,000 (10 percent) who fall under the “other” category — followers of the Hawaiian religion, Islam, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism and Shintoism — and 650,000 (or 51.1 percent) that are unaffiliated, including atheists and agnostics.

The largest denominations are Catholics (240,813) and Mormons (68,128).

A 2009 Gallup Poll survey reported that Christians totaled 60.6 percent of Hawaii’s population (37.8 Protestant and 22.8 percent Roman Catholic) followed by Mormons (3.3 percent), Jews (0.7 percent) and agnostic or atheist (21 percent).

In the last two decades, evangelical New Hope churches have sprouted in the islands and today number 24. Wayne Cordeiro, identified as the founding pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, claims more than 14,500 followers in weekend attendance, more than 3,000 attending via the Internet.

Eight of the top 10 private schools in Hawaii are religiously affiliated, including Kamehameha Schools (Protestant) and Iolani School (Episcopal).

The Rise of the Religious Right

While the impact was far less dramatic, Hawaii was not immune to the influence of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Pat Robertson and other Christian conservatives who played a key role in American politics beginning in the 1980s.

Mitch Kahle, president of the group Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, says that influence continued with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” in the 1990s. While not a religious doctrine, Kahle argues that the “Contract” and the 1994 takeover by Republicans of Congress fueled local get-out-the-vote drives.

The most significant example was passage in 1998 of a constitutional amendment that allowed the Legislature to limit marriage to one man and one woman.

Kahle says a similar tide is apparent this year.

“It sure feels like there is an increase in religion in politics,” he told Civil Beat. “Maybe it’s the ‘Obama is a Muslim’ issue, that people think he wasn’t born here. There’s a ‘Burn the Quran’ on Sept. 11 this year, and that really stirs up emotions.”

Other observers agree there has been a change in the political tenor.

Addressing the Kaauwai letter, MidWeek columnist Bob Jones wrote Sept. 8, “Religion’s always out there and part of our social fabric, but in politics it usually has been held at arm’s length…But Hannemann cracked open the door on this one when he said he prayed before he made city decisions and encouraged his cabinet members to do likewise.”

Hannemann is Mormon. The Mormon Times reported in May that Hannemann told the newspaper in an interview that he bases his leadership on Mormon principles. Hannemann is also running paid ads on Facebook that state, “A fiscal conservative, a man of faith, Mufi is the candidate who shares our values. Vote Mufi in the primary election!”

Jones also noted that the influence of Robertson led to the formation of the Hawaii Christian Coalition in the late 1980s, though its local impact was limited.

“The upshot was that by 1993 the GOP lost more legislative seats than it started out with,” wrote Jones. “GOP lawmakers Ann Kobayashi and Donna Ikeda defected to the Democrats.”

But, by 2002, Hawaii elected its first Republican governor, Linda Lingle, in 40 years.

While Lingle is Jewish, her running mate, Duke Aiona, is a Catholic who frequently speaks of the importance of his faith in his life, most recently in a Sept. 9 Honolulu Star-Advertiser profile.

Aiona says he would not use his personal views when it comes to making decisions as governor. But he is never very far removed from his faith and has raised questions about why others aren’t as devout.

For example, Aiona commented on the fact that Abercrombie is an Episcopalian, according to the Star-Advertiser.

“How come somebody didn’t probe and say, ‘So how much of a factor is that in your life?” Aiona asked. “Do you live it? Do you practice it? Do you believe in God?'”

Governor Candidates Respond

In spite of his strong faith, Jonah Kaauwai’s call for supporting “righteous” candidates forced the lieutenant governor to distance himself from his own party’s chairman.

“While faith is a central part of my life, I’m running for Governor to serve all the people of Hawai’i — regardless of their religion,” Aiona said in an Aug. 30 press release. “The goal of our grassroots campaign is to connect with every citizen in every community of this great state, and Chairman Ka’auwai’s personal comments are seen by many as divisive.”

Hannemann attempted a similar distancing from the Islands Values ads.

In his Sept. 3 press release, Hannemann said, “It has come to my attention that there is a flyer circulating in the community which takes issue with Neil Abercrombie. The piece paints a harsh picture of his congressional voting record on issues of faith and religion. Legitimate issues deserve full and thorough discussion and evaluation, and the tenor and tone of this flyer do not encourage that. I have asked that any and all supporters of our campaign who receive this material do not distribute it.”

Hannemann has had little else to say publicly on the issue.

By contrast, in his detailed Sept. 5 press release on the Island Values matter, Abercrombie posted a video on his campaign website stating, “Their flier and radio ads are phase two of the Mufi Hannemann negative campaign, less than two weeks before the primary election — that’s what negative campaigns do.”

Abercrombie continued: “You may recall the first phase attacked where I was born, who I married, and where I went to school. I said then, this is not what a Governor does — it is not what the people of Hawaii want. This time he is using religion to attempt to divide us, to attack my integrity and character. I will repeat: this is not what a Governor does. This is not what someone running for Governor should be doing.”

Abercrombie’s response also included a link to the Associated Press article that connected Ken Wong with Hannemann, a link to the organizational report identifying Wong as the Island Values treasurer, a link to the Hannemann campaign committee website that listed Wong as a member (his name has since been removed), a reproduction of the flier in question, and made claims the Abercrombie campaign says show that Hannemann campaign advisor Keith Rollman used his now-defunct Atomic Monkey blog to smear Abercrombie as an “anti-Christian.”

David Shapiro of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser said Hannemann’s press release distancing himself from the Island Values ads demonstrated “hit and run” negative campaign tactics, and pointed to the Associated Press article on Wong.

“It is ironic for supporters of a political candidate to make claims of superior godliness with tactics that are anything but,” wrote Shapiro.

In his scripture-laden letter, Kaauwai identified Wong as the Hannemann operative who was trying to persuade Christian Republicans to vote for Hannemann in the primary rather than Aiona.

In the Wake of Civil Unions

The Island Values ad and flier can be traced directly to the fight over Hawaii civil unions.

The radio ad is voiced by Dennis Arakaki, who until this summer was executive director of Hawaii Family Forum.

“In the battle of HB444, we learned the importance of electing people with our traditional Christian values,” Arakaki said. “Christians can make a difference now by voting in the Democratic primary. Please pull a Democratic ballot and vote for the acceptable candidate, Mufi Hannemann.”

Kaauwai makes reference to House Bill 444, the now-vetoed civil unions bill, in his letter as well.

“Too often, we as the Body of Christ are reacting to crisis like HB444. We need to fearlessly, like David did Goliath, run towards the unrighteous enemy,” he wrote. “Duke Aiona’s Campaign for Governor is the Body of Christ’s opportunity to operate in the AUTHORITY and to be proactive.”

Kaauwai also asked Christian Republicans residing in House District 33 to vote for Democrat Gary Okino. The term-limited City Councilman is facing incumbent Blake Oshiro — chief sponsor of HB 444.

According to recent news reports, Okino has encouraged voters to support candidates that demonstrate “God’s values” and “closeness to God.”

Okino, Hannemann and Aiona are against civil unions. Oshiro, who is gay, and Abercrombie support them.

The Kaauwai “righteous” letter continues to be picked up nationally.

On Sept. 9, the liberal website posted an article headlined, “Christian Right’s Plot To Take Over Hawaii.”

“The religious right’s scheme to take the governorship of Hawaii hangs by a thread,” wrote author B. E. Wilson.

All the talk of religion and politics inspired local blogger Ian Lind to muse Thursday, “What would happen if Jesus were to miraculously reappear and run for public office? He’s got a record familiar to most voters which should be a plus. And if Jesus isn’t safe from attack, who is?”

Lind added, “But I think the masters of the attack ad would have a field day. A record, no matter how good, is a perfect target.”

The Transformation of Hawaii

The group that led the charge against civil unions was Hawaii Family Forum. The executive director who replaced Arakaki this summer is Allen Cardines, Jr., a pastor at Hope Chapel in Nanakuli.

On Sept. 8, Cardines asked supporters to be sure to vote in the elections.

“Hawaii’s children and their families face many adversities such as profanity, pornography, physician assisted suicide, systemic poverty, drugs, despair, and domestic violence,” he wrote. “These adversities will continue to erode the foundation of Hawaii’s families until something is done.”

Calling the elections an historic opportunity to transform the way Hawaii politics works,” Cardines wrote, “Do not remain neutral. Do not sit idly by. Do not let others speak for you.”

The forum’s iVOTE movement has succeeded in registering sizable number of church goers to vote, Francis Oda, the forum’s founder and chairman, told Civil Beat in an Aug. 21 article.

Interest in its primary Survey of Candidates is greater this year than previous elections, largely due to the civil unions issue, according to Walter Yoshimitsu, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Church in Hawaii.

Danny de Gracia II, who is affiliated with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that promotes “individual liberty, the free market and limited accountable government” — posted an article Sept. 8 that noted most Democrats chose not to answer the survey’s questions. The questions primarily focus on values issues important to social-conservatives.

“If the Democrats are really for ohana – that is, if they really care about you and your family’s future – why is it that this year, the majority of Hawaii Democrat candidates refused to participate in the Hawaii Family Forum/Hawaii Catholic Conference survey which asked candidates their position on key issues such as physician assisted suicide, religious conscience exemptions, marriage and even abortion,” wrote Gracia.

The Cardines and Gracia articles were posted on the websites of Hawaii Reporter. Hawaii Reporter is aligned with Hawaii Free Press, whose editor, Andrew Walden — an unabashed Aiona supporter — on Sept. 5 posted an article that strongly disputed Abercrombie’s claim to be an Episcopalian.

Meanwhile, the Hawaii Christian Coalition, remains politically active.

“Join us as we continue to organize and mobilize Christians across denominational lines with a unified pro-family voice that is having a powerful impact on our government,” coalition chairman Garret Hashimoto states on the group’s website. “By joining with us you won’t just sway one vote — you will impact Hawaii forever!”

The coalition’s website lists how state House representatives voted on HB 444. The site also includes a page where Hashimoto shares his candidate recommendations that include Aiona.

Another group, Transformation Hawaii, is the local chapter of the Minneapolis-baed International Transformation Network, whose members “are involved in developing transformational models within their spheres of influence to make the world a better place by seeing the will of God done on earth as it is done in heaven already.”

Transformation Hawaii’s leaders include Oda, pastor  of New Life Church Honolulu and the founder and chairman of Hawaii Family Forum; and Allen Cardines, Jr., the forum’s new executive director.

While Transformation Hawaii’s website suggests it is more about spiritual and community transformation than political, other evidence shows a different bent.

For example, a program for the 19th Annual International Institute on Nation Transformation, held last November at the Hilton Hawaii Village in Waikiki, included this passage about Transformation Hawaii:

“Transformation Hawai’i has adopted; prayer evangelism as a lifestyle to take the presence and the power of God into every societal sphere of influence at the personal, corporate and marketplace levels to impact the following key entry points to the islands.”

Those entry points include “government/political,” “labor/unions” and “media/communication.”

The brochure, which is available at Transformation Hawaii, features endorsements from Aiona (identified as lieutenant governor) and Father Marc Alexander, Vicar General of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu.

A Transformation Hawaii book titled “Catch the Waveof Transformation” includes a chapter by Aiona titled “Praying at the Government Gate” and a chapter by Okino titled “Bringing God to City Hall,” according to the book’s table of contents.

Heading Toward Theocracy?

Ed Silvoso, founder and president of Harvest Evangelism — which is affiliated with International Transformational Network — writes in a forward to “Catch the Wave,” “Transformation Hawaii, in the ultimate analysis, is not about Hawaii. It is about the world. It is a prototype, rapidly turning into a sustainable model of how a nation can be discipled, not just by simply leading people to the Lord — as vital as that first step is — but by bringing salvation to the heart of a nation, the marketplace, and particularly to its key components: business, education and government.”

That agenda concerns Mitch Kahle of the Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church.

“They want theocracy and won’t be satisfied with anything less,” he says of Transformation Hawaii.

Francis Oda calls Kahle’s characterization “absurd” and “naive.”

“I mean, who in their right mind thinks the U.S. will become a theocracy?” Oda told Civil Beat.

Oda says the more appropriate characterization of Transformation of Hawaii’s mission is “to help the community and assist in many ways — doing something positive and constructive. That is our attitude.”

He pointed to raising funds to provide roofing at the state’s Halawa Correctional Facility and for school supplies.

Oda did acknowledge, however, that Transformation Hawaii’s 12 “so-called gates” — “areas of society that need help” — include business, education, the military and government.

“The idea is to help administer these gates and help those who are helping society instead of just standing on the side and criticizing,” he explained.

After the Primary

There is still just over a week to go before the Sept. 18 primary, and God and politics may well surface again. It seems certain it will crop up before the Nov. 2 general.

Come Sept. 19., the race for governor will likely feature a religious conservative, Duke Aiona, against either a candidate who shares many of the same moral views as him — Aiona and Mufi Hannemann identically answered the Hawaii Family Forum’s survey — or Neil Abercrombie, who did not respond to the survey and who doesn’t make an issue out of religion.

Should Abercrombie prevail over Hannemann in the primary, his stance on civil unions, for example, will almost certainly remain a divisive campaign issue. Should Hannemann win, there may be more accusations like Jonah Kaauwai’s that the Catholic Aiona is the better candidate for Christian voters as compared with the Mormon Hannemann.

Either way, it seems Hawaii could end up hearing a lot more about the G-word — God — this fall than the five E’s — the economy, education, energy, the elderly and the environment.

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