With God on Our Side

Originally posted Wednesday, October 27, 2004:

I don’t agree with many things said by Patrick J. Buchanan; but twelve years ago, as Americans prepared to elect Bill Clinton as President, this most conservative of American observers made an observation that was exactly right. “As polarized as we have ever been,” he wrote, “we Americans are locked in a cultural war for the soul of our country.” It was true then, and it may be even truer as we turn the corner and head into this election week.

The President makes no apologies for his born-again Christian beliefs, and social conservatives claim God on their side as they do battle with the forces of secular society.

I believe that people of faith have every right to bring their faith into the marketplace of civic ideas. I’m one of them. And yet, few trends terrify me more than the idea of involving religion in government.

We have seen in the past twenty years the harm done to emerging and progressive societies by ayatollahs and mullahs. Some triumphal Christians suggest that these excesses are unique to Muslim fundamentalism; nothing could be further from the truth. At the heart of these excesses are clearly identifiable habits of mind: the tendency to view life in absolutes; the assumption of infallible wisdom that comes from on high; the refusal to seek common ground; and the damning of opposition as heretical, immoral, or godless.

Religion is the subtext of our nation’s political life. America’s religious right is fond of saying that America was founded as a Christian country. Actually, we’re a good deal more conflicted than that. Clearly, most of our early settlers were Christian, as were the countries from which they came. Many of them came to this country in search of religious freedom, and then, once established in their respective colonies, started denying it to anyone who didn’t share their precise set of religious convictions. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the first amendment leads off the Bill of Rights by guaranteeing freedom of religion; nor should we be surprised that states and cities all over the country enacted blue laws that limit what can be done on the Sabbath.

Buchanan despaired of every reaching any common ground in the Cultural War; but in a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks point out that there is still a center in American politics. I’m trying to find it. Here are some thoughts.

First, seek humility and avoid arrogance. Catholics last week heard Luke’s story of the pharisee who prays a self-congratulatory prayer thanking God that he is not like other men. The religious right are the Pharisees of our time.

Second, use honest language and avoid distortion. Nobody favors abortion itself. If a candidate’s position is that all human life is sacred, that the death penalty should be abolished, that the nation should wage war only in self-defense, and that abortion is homicide, then that candidate can claim to be pro-life. Neither of the candidates for President is pro-life. Neither the religious right nor the Bush campaign is pro-life; they’re simply against abortion rights. It’s correct to say that Kerry’s campaign favors abortion rights; it’s inflammatory to charge that it favors abortion itself.

Third, use religious authority responsibly. Isaiah (40:13) asks, “Who has known the mind of God?” Eleven of America’s 400 Catholic bishops believe they do, and have stated that they would deny Communion to Catholics who support Kerry’s candidacy. They make a mockery of our religion and the dignity of their position. Regrettably, the secular press has exaggerated that minority position so that it sounds like a groundswell.

Fourth, don’t claim exclusive use of labels. I’m tired of Christians who appropriate that label only for their own interpretation of Christianity. And within Catholicism, we have our own faction that does the same thing with the label “Catholic.” If you want a religious label that you control, start your own church.

Fifth, respect differences. The fact that you think Harry Potter is satanic doesn’t mean you have the right to prevent other children from reading it. The fact that you want your children to believe that babies come from Wal-Mart doesn’t mean you have the right to deny comprehensive sex education to the children of others.

Sixth, get the facts straight. As I noted in a previous blog, public education in America started in a Puritan colony as a way to make sure than children could read the Bible and be protected from“that old deluder, Satan.” It has evolved into a nonsectarian educational system in which children can pray but not be compelled to pray and can study religious texts in literature classes but not in science classes. Some of them pray pretty regularly, but they do so on their own initiative and not because the school directs them to. The same Bill of Rights that keeps public schools from leading prayer bars them from preventing it. Yet I see all sorts of articles saying that “children can’t pray in public schools.”

I can’t support President Bush because he, and the people around him, have succeeded in turning faith into a political vice. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their beliefs; what I oppose is their excesses. The broad middle of American belief needs to reject the religious right, and one way to do that is by electing John Kerry.

Regime Change Begins at Home

Originally posted Friday, October 22, 2004:

In some fields you can identify clear experts with strong records of success. Like him or not, Bill Gates knows software. Warren Buffett knows investing. Alan Greenspan knows money. Steven Hawking knows, well, a lot. Unlike these examples, nobody really has much of a track record with national security in the past few years. Nobody has been able to pacify the Middle East, halt nuclear proliferation, or bring religious extremists into the modern world.
I’ve already stated that I believe that this campaign has overemphasized national security to the exclusion of other issues. But there’s no denying that national security is an important issue; so since, judging by results, national security is Amateur Hour, I might as well have a turn.

I. The wartime President

In the wake of 9/11, I agreed with the President that the terrorist act on the United States was an act of war. Since that time, we have seen civil rights curtailed by the administration’s use of wartime powers. But is this wartime? Article I, section 8, paragraph 11 of the Constitution says that only the Congress has the power to declare war, and Congress hasn’t done that yet. The War Powers Act of 1973 authorized the President to introduce the military into hostilities in “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” and that clearly was the case, but a declaration of war would have been worthwhile. The President should have sought it; Congress should have insisted on it.

Because this is not a war but an “introduction of armed forces into hostilities,” I find it hard to give the administration what it seems to want: an understanding that 9/11 excuses everything. If the closest parallel to 9/11 was Pearl Harbor, then the closest parallel to George W. Bush as a wartime President was Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR’s supporters used the argument that you don’t “change horses in midstream,” but he himself tried to pass off the Democratic Presidential nomination to someone else. And both in peace and in war, both in his lifetime and after, he was viciously attacked by his enemies, who typically referred to him simply as “That Man.”

Judging from their rhetoric, the Bush administration clearly believes that it should get the benefit of the doubt on all its actions, reelection in a walk, and the right to condemn critics as disloyal. (The code for this is contained in a current Bush campaign ad that says, “After September 11th, the world changed.”) If we really believe as a nation that wartime requires special rules, we should amend the Constitution to suspend Presidential elections during declared wars. Until that time–and until we have a declaration of war–the people who question the administration are patriots.

II. Respected abroad

The Kerry-Edwards campaign calls for the United States to treat foreign nations with respect. That’s easily characterized as weakness or waffling, but it just makes sense. Obviously we can’t let foreign countries dictate our foreign policy: George Washington said as much, and every President since has known it. But the Bush policy seems calculated to lose allies. If elected, Kerry may not get allies to join us in Iraq, but he might at least soften the hatred observed by many Americans as they travel around the world today. Given an American government that doesn’t insult them at every turn, foreign governments might just decide that they want to find ways to work with us.

III. Flip-flop, or just wrong?

The Bush campaign likes to find inconsistent Kerry quotes and use them against him. For some time, with its usual flair for dramatic campaign tactics, the campaign dispatched demonstrators waving flip-flops to Kerry speeches. That’s a pretty effective bit of ridicule, but it denies reality.

I’ve held some elected positions; my votes on issues changed all the time, depending on the exact language and the circumstances of proposals being considered. To simplify a candidate’s record distorts the truth. But what if Kerry’s votes have actually been inconsistent? Isn’t that better than being wrong?

Consider what almost no one questions seriously. Faced with a truly horrendous national crisis, the Bush administration selected the most extreme intelligence assessments available and overreacted to them. Outside the administration there was almost unanimous agreement that invading Iraq would make a dangerous situation more dangerous, that the peace would be harder to win than the war, and that the invaders needed to invest the resources necessary to plan the peace. The Bush administration jumped into war.

There is a major Washington industry of helping Presidents to make decisions; presidents don’t always have people around them to tell them when they’re wrong. Good leaders seek out divergent opinions: it makes decision-making harder, but better.

I’m willing to concede that John Kerry has trouble making up his mind on complicated issues; most of us do. President Bush’s problem is that he doesn’t.

Kerry’s decision-making may have frustrated people; the President’s has gotten them killed.

Politics and Religion

Originally posted Wednesday, October 20, 2004:You have perhaps noticed that we are in the election season. Most observers agree that this has been a tough campaign; most expect the election to be close. Political organizations of all political persuasions have worked to register voters, and some signs point to increased voter participation this year. Political signs, buttons, bumper stickers, and other displays of affiliation are sprouting up everywhere. Citizen participation is what the American political system is all about, and we should all be proud and pleased to see it happen. Unfortunately, many signs indicate that our nation is bitterly divided; and after next month’s re-enactment of this most fundamentally American tradition, we are likely to find ourselves more bitterly divided than ever. Experts anticipate that election results will be contested in several states. Republicans accuse Democrats of fraudulently packing voter rolls, and Democrats claim that Republicans are trying to disenfranchise opposing voters. Even disaffected partisans who profess reservations about their parties’ candidates believe, and are prepared to repeat, virtually any accusation about the opposite party’s candidate. There are real differences between the parties and the candidates, and what I am saying isn’t meant to minimize those. The stakes are indeed high: I tend to agree with those who argue that this year’s election is the most important in my lifetime. And yet, despite the importance of this election, our political discourse seems to be calculated to produce more heat than light. One of the key reasons for this division is the “echo chamber” effect: people on each side talk among themselves, but neither side talks with the other. On both the right and the left, members of the political class talk among themselves, changing no minds but hardening their own attitudes toward their opponents. (Alert: serious elitist reference coming. Avert your eyes.) One thing enabling this phenomenon is that many thoughtful people take seriously the idea that it’s impolite to talk about politics and religion. When you do hear casual conversation about either, it tends to be remarkably uninformed, because the very people who could add something valuable to the conversation are too well-mannered to join in. I’ve been as guilty of this as anybody. So, for the next few days, I’m going to change my ways. I’ve decided that what America (at least that portion of it that I know) needs is some of my political observations, and so I’m going to share some thoughts. Unlike most of the wienies we read on the Internet, I’ll sign my work. This may offend a few relatives, but family members tolerate each other’s rantings; it may upset a few friends, but most of my friends already know that a certain amount of didacticism is part of my charm. Feel free to use the “reply” button–although chances are that in the weeks ahead, I’ll fall behind in reading replies. Whether you like or hate what I have to say, remember that the beauty of the Internet lies in judicious application of the “forward” button and the “delete” key. You’ll figure out what to do.