Category Archives: Politics
When asked to rank the greatest occupants of the White House, Americans consistently place John F. Kennedy among the top five, if not the top two or three, presidents in American history. Professional historians, on the other hand, while recognizing Kennedy’s popularity, generally judge him to have been an above average president at best, but by no means comparable to the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Why the gap in evaluation? In part it’s because historians recognize that while Jack Kennedy masterfully communicated to the public the image of a healthy, youthful, and brilliant family man, husband of the glamorous Jackie Kennedy, father of two, and master of foreign affairs, the reality was quite different.
To be sure, Kennedy masterfully handled the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to a catastrophic nuclear exchange, resisting the war-mongering of the Joint Chiefs while nevertheless convincing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that if the Russians did not withdraw their missiles from Cuba there would indeed be war. He exploited the capital earned from that successful showdown by engineering the first ever nuclear weapons agreement with the Soviet Union, a nuclear test ban that made future detente a genuine possibility. And had he not been assassinated fifty years ago in 1963, he almost certainly would have avoided the escalation of the Vietnam War that occurred under his successor Lyndon Johnson.
Photo: Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna, 1961
On the other hand, the president who founded the Peace Corps and launched the project that eventually put a man on the moon was in no small part responsible for the escalation of Cold War tensions in the first place. His scandalous botching of the invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco significantly reduced America’s moral image in Latin America and in the broader world, giving the Soviet Union moral cover for its own aggressive subversion in third world countries and pushing Fidel Castro’s new regime into the open arms of the Russians. His sending of nearly 17,000 “advisers” to Vietnam set the stage for Johnson’s escalation of that war, and his encouragement of the South Vietnamese generals in their coup against South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem made him partially responsible for the brutal assassination of Diem only a few weeks before his own death from an assassin.
On the domestic front Kennedy was full of great ideas but he successfully enacted none of them. The first genuinely Keynesian president, he introduced the idea later associated with Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party that cutting taxes would actually increase revenue by bolstering the economy. He advocated health insurance for the elderly, federal funding for education, and a cabinet position for housing. He was much more encouraging of the civil rights movement than Eisenhower had been, eventually using his executive authority to ban discrimination in federal housing and calling for a civil rights law to protect African American voting rights.
On the other hand, Kennedy’s leadership on civil rights was nearly as indecisive, calculated, and cautious as had been that of Eisenhower before him, and Kennedy failed to persuade the Democratic controlled Congress to pass even one of his major initiatives. All of them would be enacted during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, the “Master of the Senate”, in 1964-1966 (though in part due to Johnson’s success in exploiting grief over Kennedy’s death). In fact, at Kennedy’s funeral the famous French general and statesman Charles De Gaulle apparently declared that while Kennedy was America’s mask, Johnson was the country’s real face.
Photo: Marilyn Monroe, only the most famous object of Kennedy’s obsessive womanizing, aborted what was probably Jack’s child, shortly before her death.
In his masterful biography of Kennedy Robert Dallek demonstrates just how successfully Kennedy worked to foster an image of health, morality, and honesty to cover a reality that was quite different. Throughout his life Kennedy’s body was wracked with near-debilitating ailments, pains, and degenerative diseases that were successfully kept from public view. Had he run for office a few decades later, he would never have been deemed eligible, let alone elected. The husband of Jackie Kennedy was an obsessive philanderer and womanizer, once declaring to the British Prime Minister that if he went without a woman for three days he got a headache. Not only did his womanizing get him tied up with the mafia, but it led to a near scandal when Kennedy became sexually involved with a young woman invited to nude pool parties at the White House, a woman suspected of being an East German spy. With help from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover Kennedy quashed a potential Senate investigation, while Attorney General Robert Kennedy had the young woman deported and paid off.
The deception, which was not unique to Kennedy’s administration but which was uniquely mastered by the man to whom the press was so friendly, extended to Kennedy’s handling of Vietnam. In contrast to presidents like Woodrow Wilson and FDR, Kennedy sought to minimize public awareness of U.S. involvement in a foreign war, fearing that democratic deliberation on the conflict would tie his presidential hands. He and Bobby Kennedy worked hard to arm twist the press into providing coverage cooperative to the administration’s aims, an abuse of the free press that helped to make it so cynical of later American presidential leadership and its handling of the Vietnam War.
Photo: Kennedy with his wife Jackie and daughter Caroline
Americans still love the Kennedys, especially the one who occupied the White House for those three years, deceptively described by Jackie Kennedy as the recreation of King Arthur’s Camelot. Yet the immorality and the idealism, the tragedies and the achievements highlight the age-old complexities of politics as it has always been conducted under the sun. God steers nations according to his mysterious will, using fallible instruments for his own purposes. In the final analysis, the country was probably in better shape when a rifle shot took the life of Jack Kennedy than it would be following the work of at least the next four occupants of that high office. Things aren’t always as they seem, and events rarely follow the course we might expect. That won’t change in the coming years.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt transformed the American presidency because he connected with the ordinary American. While the presidents preceding him – especially Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover – tended to emphasize the things that government could not do, along with the necessary virtue of patience, FDR approached the Great Depression with a determination to make changes that would actually help people – right away. He was not only the president who spoke directly to the people in his famous fireside chats; he also presided over the most productive Hundred Days (the first three months after a president’s inauguration) in the history of Congress.
There are all sorts of things that can be said in evaluation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The President’s policy was hardly Keynsian (he was motivated more by the simple desire to put people to work than to stimulate the economy) and yet it expanded the reach of the federal government in breathtaking ways. FDR’s approach to the Constitution was cavalier and destructive of the nation’s legal (and ultimately cultural and political) infrastructure, though he was prevented from achieving his worst designs relative to the Supreme Court (about which I hope to write more next week). Economically it was World War II that ended the Great Depression, not the New Deal, and yet the New Deal may well have saved America from revolution. Many of FDR’s policies are widely supported even by conservatives today. Others were thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court already during the 1930s.
But one thing that made FDR a great president – as his admirer, consistent supporter, and eventually conscious emulator Ronald Reagan appreciated – was that he knew how to speak to and represent ordinary, hard-working Americans without pandering to base desires. For instance, in November 1935 Roosevelt spoke at a homecoming rally at Georgia Tech in Atlanta:
I realize that gentlemen in well-warmed and well-stocked clubs will discourse on the expenses of Government and the suffering that they are going through because their Government is spending money on work relief. Some of these same gentlemen tell me that a dole would be more economical than work relief. That is true. But the men who tell me that have, unfortunately, too little contact with the true America to realize that … most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, which in this case is honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral degradation. I propose to build that barrier high and keep it high.
Note how FDR – like the recent Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – criticized dependency on the federal government. But notice also how – profoundly unlike Romney – he did it in a way that was perceived as respectful and helpful to the people who were most in need.
Or take Roosevelt’s speech at the 1936 Democratic convention, only a few months before the greatest landslide election in American history (until Johnson’s even greater victory in 1964):
Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for. For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution….
Governments can err. Presidents do make mistakes. But the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
Americans didn’t vote for FDR by massive margins because they wanted handouts. They – especially southern Evangelicals (black and white alike) – voted for FDR by massive margins because they knew he would stand for them against the sorts of people who were not terribly concerned about their welfare. While they, like most contemporary Americans, may not have understood the ins and outs of economics or fiscal policy, they could appreciate the significance of having a president willing to err on the side of compassion.
Conservatives need to learn how to communicate this way. To be sure, American voters are much more sensitive today about the dangers of a government that is too “warm-hearted,” living in a “spirit of charity” that results in its own destruction. They are not looking for another New Deal (and they did not – in general – like Obamacare). But they still need political leaders who care about them and who know how to communicate that concern. A conservatism that fails to meet this need forfeits the right to govern, especially in a time as economically uncertain as the present day.
In a thoughtful blog post at the Gospel Coalition (HT: Darryl Hart) Justin Taylor describes the appropriate Christian attitude towards culture and politics in terms of the two kingdoms doctrine:
We are dual citizens, responsible and active members of both God’s spiritual kingdom and earthly kingdom. And if we seek to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength—and to love our neighbor as ourselves—then we should care to some degree about politics and elections and the role of government in our land.
Taylor reminds his readers of the way in which the two kingdoms tension runs throughout the Scriptural record.
The apostle Paul once warned that “no soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits” (2 Tim. 2:4), and he insisted that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). This sounds like a single citizenship with only a heavenly zip code.
However, the same apostle Paul also declared that he was “a citizen of no obscure city” (that is, Tarsus) and avoided torture by appealing to his Roman citizenship, which gave him certain rights and prevented certain actions from the Roman authorities (Acts 21:39; 22:25-29). Paul knew that his fundamental identity was “hidden with God in Christ” and that he was to set his mind on “things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-3), but he also knew that he had earthly obligations and rights and that they were not insignificant.
Or, we can ask: Which city should we care about?
And so the paradox goes.
Taylor helpfully points out that ultimately evangelism is more important than politics, the spiritual kingdom more important than the earthly. But he notes that most Christians do and should care about both. In fact, Darryl Hart’s fair quibbles about priorities aside, I find that Taylor may overemphasize the call on Christians to evangelize. Taylor writes, “If you have to choose between evangelism and politics, choose evangelism. Saving an eternal soul is more important than fixing a temporal need.” I think it would be better for Taylor to put the Christian call to evangelism in the context of vocation. For some Christians politics is a calling of God, and they ought to do their best to remain faithful in that vocation, mindful that their politics should be an occasion for others to ask them for a reason for the hope that is within them.
I think Taylor gets the formulation quite right in his closing paragraph. If only in the sense that his very concept of the secular is shaped by his understanding of the gospel and of the word of God, even Darryl should agree with this statement:
There are more important things in life than politics. It’s easy to become an idolatry. But it’s also easy to be too apathetic. As the Lord leads, let us commit to letting our politics be shaped by the gospel and informed by the word of God as we prayerfully work to become informed and to fulfill our roles, seeking the good of the city even as we wait for the city to come.
I just finished reading Peter Leithart‘s Defending Constantine, a book in which Leithart synthesizes the work of modern scholarship to present a thorough-going critique of John Howard Yoder’s popular narrative in which the fall of the church into heresy comes with the “Constantinian turn.” A Mennonite theologian, Yoder inspired what many have come to describe as the emergence of a neo-Anabaptist tradition within the academy and the broader church. And of course, not only did Yoder reject the idea of Christendom, but he was a pacifist.
Leithart’s book makes a predominantly historical argument, although he is forthright about his theological and polemical concerns, and particularly towards the end of the book he shifts to the work of straight-up theology. The first few chapters are an excellent introduction to the Roman Empire of Constantine’s day, as well as to the basic narrative of Constantine’s life and the controversies surrounding it. Leithart offers a persuasive case that Constantine was a genuine Christian believer who sought to place his life and rule at the service of Christ and his church, not a cynical politician who simply used Christianity and manipulated the church for his own imperial purposes.
One important contribution of Leithart is to put the reign of Constantine back into perspective. Whatever one might think of the “Constantinian turn” Constantine should be credited for liberating the church from persecution and making its existence legal. He should be praised for eliminating the gladiatorial games and outlawing violent sacrifice. He should be recognized as the one who began the process of conforming Roman law to a higher standard of justice (what Leithart calls “the evangelization of law”) even if his own record on that account was somewhat mixed.
To be sure, Leithart does not hesitate to criticize Constantine from time to time. Constantine did little to challenge the oppressive social dynamic of his day in which the lower classes were easily manipulated and mistreated by the upper classes. He used military force in an unsuccessful attempt to end the Donatist controversy, confiscating the Donatists’ property, closing their churches, imprisoning bishops, and even allowing some to be tortured and executed. And as interpreted by church historians like Constantine’s contemporary Eusebius, his Christianization of the empire led many to link their hopes for the church and for Christ’s kingdom too closely with Rome.
But Leithart insists that in the case of Constantine the good contributions outweigh the bad. While there may have been a Constantinian “moment” of excess and eschatological utopia, the moment did not last long and was certainly repudiated by Augustine in his City of God (despite Yoder’s conflation of Augustine with Eusebius). The only reason Constantine’s reign seems like such a fall to Yoder, Leithart suggests, is that Yoder exaggerates the pacifism and anti-statism of the church leading up to Constantine, and he caricatures the Christendom that followed him.
On the point of pacifism Leithart rejects the claim that the early church was ever universally pacifist. He suggests that not only were concerns of theologians like Origen and Tertullian about military service closely tied with concerns about pagan Roman religion, but that these sources themselves suggest awareness of a “divergence in Christian opinion and practice” (263). Leithart’s case is somewhat more persuasive and based on the evidence than was suggested in George Kalantzis’s recent lecture at the Candler School of Theology. And he helpfully demonstrates how even those early Christian theologians who are claimed to have been pacifist differ in their emphasis from contemporary neo-Anabaptist pacifists. For instance, the early church fathers spoke highly of Rome and prayed for the success of the Roman legions in war. What’s more, unlike contemporary neo-Anabaptists “No church father, at least, ever made the distinction between police work and warfare as a way of justifying Christian military service” (266). And tellingly, “there was, quite strikingly, no controversy over war and pacifism at the time of Constantine’s conversion” (272).
What about Constantine’s legacy? Not only did Constantine not conflate the church with the empire, but if anything he weakened the empire by uniting Christians, including those outside the empire, in subservience to an allegiance higher than that of Rome. Constantine’s patronage of the church in the form of wealth and the empowerment of bishops’ courts drastically increased the church’s independence and prestige at the expense of Rome.
In short, the conversion of the empire did not bond empire and church inseparably together. It had, as we would expect and Yoder would want, the opposite effect. It loosened the bonds that many Romans felt to the empire, even as it strengthened their bonds to another city, another kingdom, one that spilled far over the limits of the empire. Baptized Rome found that it could join with baptized barbaria, wince Jesus had broken down the dividing wall. (292)
In all of these areas Leithart’s book is a worthwhile contribution, and it should encourage Protestant theologians to take the legacy of Christendom and the middle ages more seriously. Leithart helpfully asks the question, What should the church do if an emperor or empire actually embraces its message about Jesus Christ and seeks to serve and “kiss the Son” (Psalm 2)?
That said, I do not find Leithart’s own answer to this question, (too) briefly outlined in the last chapter of the book, entirely satisfactory. His defense of the occasional use of force by Christians ignores Romans 13 and appears to be more of an apology for the right of self-defense than of anything like that offered by a theologian like Augustine or John Calvin. He describes the government’s use of the sword as a matter of loving discipline rather than in Paul’s terms of the exercise of vengeance and of God’s wrath. And he explains Jesus’ command to ‘Turn the other cheek’ with an exegetical interpretation that is obscure and is rejected by most New Testament scholars.
Leithart is right to say that in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount magistrates should “not do alms or pray or fast or do any other good things to be seen by others, especially by others with cameras – a rule that would revolutionize modern politics” (338). He is right to note that the church should inform a ruler that he or she will be judged based on “what she had done for the homeless, the weak, the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry” (339). But on what basis does Leithart suggest the church should urge a person with the vocation of civil magistrate “not to lose sleep over budget shortfalls or stock market declines, and exhort them instead to store up treasure in heaven by acts of mercy and justice”? (339)
Most troubling of all, in my view, is Leithart’s criticism (or dismissal) of the modern democratic state. He claims that the state “will not kiss the Son as the King of a different city” and that “Democratic states more or less peacefully marginalize the church.” He even goes so far as to argue that “because the modern state refuses to welcome the church as city, as model city, as teacher and judge, the modern state reasserts its status as the restored sacrificial state” (340). The modern state, like Rome, needs to be willing to be baptized and so listen to the teaching of Jesus rather than to devote itself to violence in subservience to its highest god – the nation itself. Such a baptism would initiate “a new beginning” (the beginning of what?) and avoid what is otherwise inevitable – an apocalypse (doesn’t John teach us that the apocalypse is certain?) (341-342).
I beg to differ. Part of Leithart’s problem here, it seems to me, is his conflation of rulers and magistrates, who can indeed kiss the Son (as, for instance, virtually every American president has claimed to do), with the impersonal, bureaucratic, pluralistic state, which cannot. Yet underlying even this claim is the question of how a magistrate is to kiss the Son in the first place. Is it really by giving the church material wealth so that the church can use government dollars to build churches and care for the poor, as Leithart seems to suggest?
Leithart’s claim that modern democracies marginalize the church also baffles me. Churches are not required to pay taxes in this country, are not forced to conform to national and state policies against discrimination, and are given numerous freedoms and exceptions not awarded to other organizations. Many, if not most, American politicians, probably regularly attend church or study religious teaching in order to learn from that “model city, as teacher and judge.”
Finally, I find bizarre Leithart’s claim that the modern nation has reasserted its status as the restored sacrificial state, the state devoted to violence and bloodshed in rejection of the teachings of our Lord. The democratic states of modern Europe have been disarming at an alarming pace, and the United States requires its armed forces to operate according to standards of just war more strict than possibly any army in the history of the world. America does not act as if it considers itself to be god, but “under God” is committed to a doctrine of rights and freedoms grounded in the existence of a Creator. Even if there are traces of an ideology of sacrifice in American rhetoric, Leithart’s claim is at best a massive exaggeration.
But of course, the emphasis of Leithart’s book is not on his own constructive political theology. And I highly commend Defending Constantine for its careful historical analysis, and for its asking some excellent questions. Although it seeks to defend a man who ruled 1,700 years ago this book helps move the conversation forward, not backward.
As I sat down today to write the second part of my discussion of the theology of property in the Christian tradition I was sidetracked by the highly relevant story of Mitt Romney’s comments regarding the 47% of Americans who pay no income taxes, who are dependent on the federal government, who vote for Obama, and about whom Mitt Romney does not care. As Romney put it in the most horrifying part of the statement:
And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax… my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives….
What? As numerous commentators all over the Internet have already pointed out, many of these people are the Republican Party’s staunchest supporters and the most likely people to vote for Mitt Romney. Most of them are either the elderly or young couples with children who benefit from the Republican tax cuts and tax credits of the past two decades. Many of the rest of them are the unemployed who are so disillusioned with how the economy has performed under Obama’s watch. And while it is true that they pay no income tax, they do pay all sorts of other federal, state, and local taxes. Most of them are and always have been very hard workers, and they have taken no less responsibility or care for their lives than have the 53% who are better off financially.
These were stupid, destructive comments, and Romney has nothing to gain and everything to lose by them.
I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives …
This comment is at the level of Barack Obama’s declaration a while back that the people who vote Republican are those who “cling to their guns and religion.” It conveys an arrogant, derisive, and woefully ignorant attitude toward many of the people who make up middle America. It is not the kind of language you want to hear from someone seeking to be elected President of the United States.
Let me be clear. I actually believe in many of the policies Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan stand for. I think most of you know who I am voting for. I believe taxes should be low, dependence on government should be reduced, and government regulation should be minimized so that a free economy can do its job of creating wealth for hard working Americans.
But we have no hope of enacting these policies if we run around shouting out rhetoric about the lazy poor, or claiming that government has no right to tax me in order to ensure that the needs of the poor are met.
That’s why I’m so disappointed with Romney’s comments, and that’s why I write posts chastising conservatives for their views of the poor and of government’s responsibility regarding the poor. Because it’s not enough, if you want to lead a country, to throw out rhetoric that feeds resentment but fails to provide a vision for your country that is both just and balanced. Conservatives can criticize socialism and class warfare all they want, but if they run to the opposite extreme, abandoning any responsibility for the poor and waging a class war of their own, in my opinion, they forfeit their right to claim leadership of the country.
This is a bit dated now, but in her remarks at the opening plenary of the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue on Thursday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton skillfully represented, I believe, the proper response of the United States to the recent embassy attacks in the Middle East and the video that sparked them.
Clinton navigates numerous thorny issues of politics and religion here, successfully avoiding offense while offering a political assessment of religion and violence that is substantive and meaningful. It’s worth reading this whole excerpt (all italics are added by me):
I also want to take a moment to address the video circulating on the Internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries. Let me state very clearly – and I hope it is obvious – that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. And as you know, we are home to people of all religions, many of whom came to this country seeking the right to exercise their own religion, including, of course, millions of Muslims. And we have the greatest respect for people of faith.
To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage. But as I said yesterday, there is no justification, none at all, for responding to this video with violence. We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms, and we greatly appreciate that many Muslims in the United States and around the world have spoken out on this issue.
Violence, we believe, has no place in religion and is no way to honor religion. Islam, like other religions, respects the fundamental dignity of human beings, and it is a violation of that fundamental dignity to wage attacks on innocents. As long as there are those who are willing to shed blood and take innocent life in the name of religion, the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace. It is especially wrong for violence to be directed against diplomatic missions. These are places whose very purpose is peaceful: to promote better understanding across countries and cultures. All governments have a responsibility to protect those spaces and people, because to attack an embassy is to attack the idea that we can work together to build understanding and a better future.
Now, I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day. Now, I would note that in today’s world with today’s technologies, that is impossible. But even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.
There are, of course, different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression, but there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable. We all – whether we are leaders in government, leaders in civil society or religious leaders – must draw the line at violence. And any responsible leader should be standing up now and drawing that line.
Now I understand that some Christians would take issue with a description of Islam as a “great” religion, as well as with the claim that Islam “respects the fundamental dignity of human beings.” But there is no question that any charitable description of the world’s second greatest faith would be able to affirm these points. Remember, this is a political statement, an assessment of the proper balance between freedom of speech, human security, and religious liberty. It’s basic message, brilliantly put, is that the United States is committed to all three.
Of course, level headed leaders in the Middle East, including the Islamist leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, share Clinton’s desire to reduce the tension. On Friday Khairat El-Shater, the Deputy President of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood wrote in the New York Times,
Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.
In a new democratic Egypt, Egyptians earned the right to voice their anger over such issues, and they expect their government to uphold and protect their right to do so. However, they should do so peacefully and within the bounds of the law.
The breach of the United States Embassy premises by Egyptian protesters is illegal under international law. The failure of the protecting police force has to be investigated.
We are relieved that no embassy staff in Cairo were harmed. Egypt is going through a state of revolutionary fluidity, and public anger needs to be dealt with responsibly and with caution. Our condolences to the American people for the loss of their ambassador and three members of the embassy staff in Libya.
We hope that the relationships that both Americans and Egyptians worked to build in the past couple of months can sustain the turbulence of this week’s events. Our nations have much to learn from each other as we embark on building the new Egypt.
Right he is. But who will the average Muslim on the street believe? And what about those prominent leaders who are willing to denounce the film that started all this but will not denounce the violence that has followed it? For all concerned, I hope the leaders who understand what’s at stake here – and manage to keep cool heads about it all – are able to win the day.
In its recent article on abortion politics in the United States The Economist offers the following set of maps in order to demonstrate the momentum of the pro-life cause in America.
It’s a powerful comparison, and it is one that is supported by the details. As the article notes,
According to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights advocacy group, in 2011 state legislatures enacted 92 provisions restricting access to abortion services—nearly three times the previous record of 34, in 2005. That trend has continued this year. The proposed restrictions take a variety of forms. Six states have enacted laws allocating funding for services designed to discourage women from having abortions. Three states have banned all abortions after 20 weeks. Four states have banned the health exchanges to be created under Obamacare from financing abortions. Three states have banned doctors from prescribing abortifacient medicine remotely, as is often done in rural areas; such prescriptions now account for roughly one in five non-hospital abortions in America. Last year, Virginia enacted a law requiring abortion clinics to meet the same building, parking and record-keeping requirements as hospitals.
The renovation costs imposed by that law may drive many of the state’s 20 or so abortion clinics out of business. Not only may Mississippi soon outlaw abortion, in effect, but Tennessee’s admitting-rights’ law forced a clinic to close in August. A three-judge panel has upheld the decision by the state of Texas to end state funding for Planned Parenthood because it performs abortions (not in Texas, but elsewhere in the country) and advocates abortion rights
Of course, many of these gains are very incremental, and some of them face court challenges. The Democratic Party is more committed to abortion-on-demand than ever before, and in certain left-leaning states it is unlikely that abortion will ever be restricted in a meaningful way.
But the overall trend is clear, and at least on the state level, the Republican Party is delivering results to its pro-life constituency. Rather than be discouraged about the direction in which America is headed, those concerned about the tragic injustice of abortion should be heartened.
Joel Kotkin is a shrewd commentator on politics and economics, a pragmatist who is disillusioned with Barack Obama but not by any means an ideological conservative. He has the following to say on the ability of the Democratic Party to win the allegiance of minorities while not helping them. But he points out that the Republican Party has thrown needless roadblocks in the way of minority groups who might consider supporting the more conservative party.
Here’s Kotkin’s take:
Minorities, in fact, have done far worse under this administration than virtually any in recent history, including that of the hapless George W. Bush. In 2012, African-American unemployment stands at the highest level in decades; 12 percent of the nation’s population, blacks account for 21 percent of the nation’s jobless. The picture is particularly dire Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where black unemploymentis nearly 20%, and Detroit, where’s it’s over 25 percent.
Latinos, the other major part of the Party’s “downstairs” coalition, have also fared badly under Obama. This is true even among the aspiring working- and middle-class. Overall, the gap in net worth of minority households compared to whites is greater today than in 2005. White households lost 16% in recent years, but African-Americans dropped 53% and Latinos a staggering 66% of their pre-crash wealth.
So how does the Democratic Party, in Chicago and elsewhere, maintain its support among these groups? Needlessly exclusionary Republican policies play a role, scaring off potential minority voters, particularly immigrants and their offspring. Obama also has used his own biography to appeal personally to these groups, most understandably African-Americans, as a way to divert them from his economic shortcomings. And well-timed election-year conversions on key social issues like gay marriage and amnesty for young undocumented immigrants have helped him outmaneuver the hopelessly clueless GOP.
The point is not that the Republicans should pander to minorities in the way they accuse the Democrats of doing. The point is that they should stop doing things that needlessly alienate such voters, and should start doing the hard work of demonstrating – actually demonstrating – how their own political approach might help them.
Comparing Islamism to Protestantism – The trajectory of reformation, pluralism, democracy, and public influence
Yesterday I highlighted some of the changes in the Arab world that are leading to the democratization and secularization of politics. What is particularly striking about the phenomena is that it is not the growing acceptance of western values or of liberal theory that is driving the change. Rather, it is the development of competing and evolving forms of Islamic practice, including Islamic fundamentalism.
The great example is Egypt. Despite the surge in influence of conservative Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, Egypt has not followed the path of the Iranian Revolution three decades ago. Rather, various Islamic groups are competing with one another, and with the military and other parties and movements, to shape an evolving quasi-democratic state. In the process, Islamist leaders are more concerned about pandering to popular values concerning, say gender and sexuality, than they are to imposing their own revolutionary agendas. In short, religion and democracy are allies here, not enemies.
It is still unclear where all of this will lead, but what are particularly striking are the various points of analogy with the western, particularly the Protestant, experience of modernity.
To be sure, Christian political theology has always been more conducive of the separation of church and politics than has Islam. There is something about the proclamation of a kingdom that is not of this world that creates the concept of secularity, the idea that certain institutions and practices are limited in their significance to this world. The state is one of those institutions, and politics involves such practices.
But the fact is, the West did not immediately pursue the way of democracy. Although Christian political theorists and theologians articulated theories of self-government, of representation, of rights, and of the separation of powers long before the Enlightenment arrived, these developments took place within the context of serfdom, monarchy, and empire, and only eventually of small scale aristocratic republics. They never questioned the establishment of religion or considered how government might recognize religious pluralism because there was little need to do so.
It was the various social, political, and religious developments that came with and followed the Reformation that changed all of this. All of a sudden nations like the Netherlands found themselves bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants, while countries like England found their populations fracturing into a multitude of Protestant sects and eventually denominations, groups that defined themselves according to belief and commitment rather than cultural or ethnic identity. In fact, it was the religious pluralism that became so dominant in the American colonies, particularly in the middle colonies, that gave rise to the separation of church and state, and to the largest scale experiment in democratic governance the world has ever known.
And yet something profoundly unexpected to many religious zealots then took place. In precisely the country where church and state were separated, religion thrived, and in the continent where governments refused to give up the establishment of religion, Christianity withered. During the Second Great Awakening it was the most evangelical and democratic forms of Christianity that won the allegiance of the masses. And it was in the context of both exponentially multiplying religious pluralism and of widespread cultural and political influence – what historians have called the Benevolent Empire – that Protestantism experienced its disestablishment from political power.
The pattern was arguably repeated in the 20th Century. The Mainline denominations that were so culturally and politically prominent gradually declined in number as their theological moorings collapsed. On the other hand, the Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups most isolated from political power and most faithful to their conservative creeds thrived. By the end of the century it was these groups, not the Mainline denominations, that represented mainstream Christianity, and it was these groups that had the most moral, social, and political influence in the country. Even more interestingly, the political significance of these groups (i.e., the rise of the Christian Right) appeared only in the context of the increasing secularization of government and the growing pluralism of the country.
What is the connection with the Islamic experience? Note some of Olivier Roy’s conclusions once again:
Fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society… In such a context, any endeavor to restore traditional norms through laws and regulations will fail. After all, you cannot change a society by decree. [Think of the impact of the Reformation on the understanding of the church, and the gradual shift away from the coercion of the true religion in Protestant countries.]
The growing de facto autonomy of the religious arena from political and ideological control does not mean that secularism is necessarily gaining ground in terms of culture and society. Yet certainly a new form of political secularism is emerging… What is at stake is the reformulation of religion’s place in the public sphere. There is broad agreement that constitutions should announce the ‘Muslim’ identity of society and the state. Yet there is similar agreement on the proposition that shari’a is not an autonomous and complete system of law that can replace ‘secular’ law. Instead, shari’a is becoming a loose and somewhat hazily defined ‘reference point’…. [Think of the growing recognition among Protestants that the Torah could not directly be applied to modern civil law, and a willingness to wrestle with the complexity of applying biblical law to modern societies.]
The recasting of religious norms into ‘values’ helps also to promote an interfaith coalition of religious conservatives that could unite around some specific causes: opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance. It is interesting to see how, in Western Europe, secular populists stress the continent’s Christian identity, while many Muslim conservatives try to forge an alliance with believers of other faiths to defend shared values. In doing so, many of them tend to adopt Protestant evangelical concerns, fighting abortion and Darwinism even though these issues have never been prominent in traditional Islamic debates. In this sense, the modern neofundamentalists are trying to recast Islam into a Western-compatible kind of religious conservatism. [Here the comparison to conservative Christianity in America - in both its Catholic and Evangelical forms - is obvious.]
It’s all very fascinating. Note again the points of analogy:
1) It is in the context of the revival and reformation of religion that a new emphasis is placed on individual faith and commitment. The group of disciples is distinguished from the cultural or ethnic people group.
2) The inevitable result is religious pluralism, the competition between various religious sects or denominations.
3) Religious pluralism makes it impossible for any one religious group to dominate the cultural or ethnic people group theocratically. Politics must necessarily be secularized and democratized.
4) It is by appealing to broadly accepted religious values, or by translating religious commitments into more widely accepted moral commitments, that religious groups maintain their political and cultural influence.
5) Groups that refuse to play according to the democratic game, or to accept the secularization of politics, are marginalized.