Monday, December 10, 2012, 12:15 PM
The estimable R.R. Reno’s wit is as dry as his martinis, so it is hard for me to know how seriously he meant the proposal in his “On the Square” essay “Martinis and Taxes” today, for a federal wealth tax. His friend, however, led him astray by invoking the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment as an obstacle to such a tax. Not so; there is no such thing as a tax, otherwise valid, that runs afoul of the clause that says that a taking of private property for public use must be compensated–else we would find that the government is disabled entirely from undertaking any kind of taxation (hmm, wait a minute . . .)
No, the very real problem with a wealth tax is that it would have to be “apportioned” geographically by state, according to the latest census. That’s because it is a “direct” tax on a person’s property, not on the transactions in which he engages, as is the case of the income tax. And this apportionment requirement creates a real nightmare, as I explained at NRO‘s Bench Memos last month when the idea of a wealth tax appeared in a New York Times op-ed. The apportionment requirement may be idiotic, and its historical origins obscure, but it’s very real, and there is no way a wealth tax could be made to work without backfiring.
Thursday, December 6, 2012, 4:45 PM
I am happy to be on the steering committee for an ambitious new undertaking at the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, on “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.” The inaugural symposium of the project, led by Georgetown’s Timothy Shah and the University of Oklahoma’s Allen Hertzke, will take place on the Georgetown campus next Friday, December 14. For more information on the symposium, to which all are welcome, and which features FT‘s Robert Louis Wilken among others, see this link.
Thursday, December 6, 2012, 10:30 AM
Thanks to the “First Links” below, I see that Ross Douthat answered some of the critics of his “More Babies, Please” column before I got around to writing about it yesterday. But it would be really instructive to read Sarah Sentilles’ “Do Not Have Sex with this Man” at Religion Dispatches, and then turn to the three-part series by Helen Alvaré that concluded today at Public Discourse. Helen, whom I am proud to call my friend, displays the straightforward convictions and clear thinking that make moral courage look easy, and she dispatches, with laser precision, the argument that the alliance between Planned Parenthood and the Obama administration, in pushing the contraceptive mentality in public policy, is really in the best interests of women. Here are links to part one, part two, and part three of her series. Read them and consider whether cries of “misogyny” from the left should be given any credence at all.
Wednesday, December 5, 2012, 3:21 PM
The other day Ross Douthat of the New York Times wrote a column entitled “More Babies, Please,” remarking on the news that America’s birthrate has gone into decline since the beginning of the “Great Recession.” It was full of his characteristic thoughtfulness about social trends and their consequences for public policy. Of course, therefore, it was greeted on the far left as a declaration of war on every achievement of human progress in the last millennium.
Have a gander at this piece, “Do Not Have Sex with this Man,” by Sarah Sentilles at Religion Dispatches. It did not seem to me that Douthat, a married man, was auditioning for sexual relations with anyone in particular. And other than a passing reference to “our famous religiosity” as one contributing factor in America’s healthier-than-the-rest-of-the-West birthrate, Douthat did not say a word about religion in his column. So why is it taken up at Religion Dispatches, or for that matter aggregated at RealClearReligion, where I found it? You’ll have to read to the end of Sentilles’ cri de coeur to find out. It’s because elephants are endangered by what God said to Noah in Genesis 9, or something like that. (This piece, by the way, is par for the course at Religion Dispatches, which often seems to need “Anti-” at the beginning of its name.)
For Sentilles, Douthat’s “racism and misogyny are in high relief” when he argues that it is not altogether a good thing that our birthrate should fall below replacement level. Really? But that’s the spirit of the piece. There is not one sentence in Sentilles’ essay that is written in good faith, as an attempt to understand Douthat’s argument and reply to it in kind. And the saddest part is that she simply must personalize the issue, as though Ross Douthat were making some kind of attack on her, when exactly the reverse is true. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or pray.
Thursday, November 29, 2012, 2:54 PM
I will be dating myself in this post, I’m sure, and I’ll also be poaching on the territory of rock ‘n’ roll expert Carl Scott over at Postmodern Conservative. But like a lot of people, I guess, I find that while my musical taste has not stood entirely still with the passage of time, I continue to be drawn to musicians whose work I loved long ago, even though many are now in their 60s. (Hey, my dad still loves the Benny Goodman music of his youth, and who can blame him?) Van Morrison, for instance, is still writing and recording, and his latest, Born to Sing: No Plan B, is surprisingly good (though “Open the Door to Your Heart” is getting way too much airplay). And the great American songwriter John Hiatt is touring on a new album, Mystic Pinball, that is one of his best in a long time. I saw Hiatt play Princeton last month, and he was in fine form.
When I was in college in the late 1970s, a second (or third or fourth?) “British invasion” hit American shores, not only with raucous acts like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, but also less self-destructive artists like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, and Dave Edmunds. One of my favorites, who seemed like the Brits’ answer to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for a moment or two, was Graham Parker and the Rumour. With albums like Howlin’ Wind, Heat Treatment, Stick to Me, and Squeezing Out Sparks, Parker seemed poised to launch a long-haul star career. It wasn’t to be. In the 1980s he had his biggest (but still not very big) hits, even recording a duet with Springsteen on The Up Escalator, but a lot of the fire seemed to be going out of his music at the same time.
Parker resurfaced now and then in the 1990s and 2000s with a few listenable albums, but his material got more and more spotty over time, even while he still showed real songwriting talent. One temptation to which he succumbed now and then was the angry-politics song–always a mistake for a guy who was militantly atheist and woefully ill-informed–and it usually also meant a sacrifice of musical quality when this demon possessed him. But I was usually able to shrug off these fits of ill temper if the rest of an album was passably good. Conservative rock fans have long had to cope with stupid left-wing opinions sprinkled into the songs of artists they like.
Nothing, however, quite prepared me for the assault on common decency on Three Chords Good, Parker’s new reunion album with the Rumour, the band he split with in the early 1980s. When I got to the song “Arlington’s Busy,” a silly screed about the American war in Afghanistan (a shallow effort even if one agrees with him), I shrugged, as of old. But the next song was “Coathangers,” and that did it for me. A revolting celebration of the abortion license, “Coathangers” has such timeless lyrics as this (I quote some of the less contemptible lines):
The ancients are coming by camel or limousine / to criminalize your body and call it obscene / working their way through the ranks right up / to the highest court / cos getting knocked up by your daddy that’s all your fault.
Yeah, it’s that bad–as is the refrain “come on girls, get your coathangers.”
What is particularly disheartening is that back in the late 1970s, on Squeezing Out Sparks, the song that gave the album its title (a reference to snuffing out the unborn) was “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” one of the most sensitive songs ever penned about the tragedy of abortion. Writing in the ambivalent, anguished voice of a young man whose girlfriend is aborting their baby, Parker sang:
Did they tear it out with talons of steel / and give you a shot, so that you wouldn’t feel? / and washed it away as if it wasn’t real? / It’s just a mistake I won’t have to face / Don’t give it a name, don’t give it a place / Don’t give it a chance, it’s lucky in a way . . .
When John J. Miller of National Review
was compiling his “50 greatest conservative rock songs
” several years ago, I nominated Parker’s “You Can’t Be Too Strong.” Miller placed it at number 30, saying that “although it’s not explicitly pro-life, this tune describes the horror of abortion with bracing honesty.” Exactly right.
But “Coathangers” shows that age doesn’t always bring wisdom. Sometimes age brings bitterness, blinkered ideological fury, and hardheartedness. Also, really bad music. That’s the last Graham Parker album I buy.
Tuesday, November 13, 2012, 1:12 PM
In the spring of 1858, after an epic fight in the U.S. Congress, Kansas was denied entry into the Union as a new state. (It was eventually admitted in January 1861.) It’s a complicated story, unknown to most Americans today. But for some reason I have thought of this episode several times since last week’s election.
The shortest version of the story is this. As a territory caught up in the struggle over slavery, Kansas was at the center of national politics for the second half of the 1850s. In 1857, a pro-slavery state constitution popularly known as the “Lecompton constitution” (for the town of its origin) was sent to Washington as an application for Kansas statehood. But the Lecompton constitution, the product of many electoral frauds, was not a genuine expression of the will of the territory’s people, and so Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, breaking with most of his fellow Democrats including Pres. James Buchanan, fought alongside Republicans in Congress to defeat the acceptance of it. For his great exertions, Douglas was lionized by anti-slavery journalists like Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, who wanted to install the Illinois Democrat at the head of a grand new coalition, absorbing the fledgling Republican Party, that could face down the pro-slavery South.
But as Lincoln and other Republicans knew, Douglas did not care a fig about opposing slavery, and that any grand coalition he led would reflect his views, not theirs. His opposition to the Lecompton constitution was purely procedural: that it hadn’t accurately expressed the people’s will. For years both before and after the Lecompton fight, Douglas consistently treated the slavery issue as having no moral weight whatsoever. It should simply be settled on whatever terms suited the interests of people in each state or territory. What Lincoln referred to as Douglas’s “don’t care” policy on slavery was in fact a profound betrayal of the Declaration of Independence, and would most likely lead over the long haul to the spread of slavery rather than its inhibition, and to its perpetuation rather than its end. So the “Lecompton moment” for Lincoln and the Republicans was a critical one, when they had to reject Douglas and what he stood for, even as many anti-slavery voters felt some gratitude toward him. Thus Lincoln set out to destroy Douglas’s credibility with the friends of freedom in the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign, an objective he achieved even though he lost the election itself. The soul of the Republican Party, and with it the soul of the country, was at stake.
We have our own kind of Lecompton moment upon us in the struggle over same-sex marriage. The editors of the Wall Street Journal are playing the role of Greeley, writing on Friday in “Democracy and Gay Marriage” that the courts should stay out of the question of same-sex marriage, that “Americans don’t need or want court orders. They’ve shown themselves more than capable of changing their views and the laws on gay marriage the democratic way.” The Journal’s editors appear to be quite content with the defeats (more…)
Wednesday, October 31, 2012, 3:37 PM
If you are a regular reader of Public Discourse (and if you’re not, you should be!), you will already have seen my two latest contributions there. Yesterday, in “Mark Regnerus and the Storm Over the New Family Structures Study,” I described the furor that erupted back in June when Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, published the first high-quality, random-sample research of the outcomes of parenting for the children of those who have same-sex relationships. Today, in “Vindicating Mark Regnerus,” I describe the response he himself has now given in a second article in the journal (Social Science Research) in which his original article appeared.
Regnerus’s research exploded the “no differences” thesis to which advocates of same-sex marriage have clung–that is, the thesis that children do just as well being raised by parents in such relationships as they do being raised by their own biological, married parents who stay together for the long haul. Furious at his dissent from their unwarranted “consensus,” Regnerus’s critics lashed out at him with everything from reasonable (but misplaced) criticisms of his research to vicious attacks on him as a person.
One of the more temperate critics of Regnerus has been David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, the country’s most famous opponent-of-same-sex marriage-turned-activist-for-same-sex-marriage. At the FamilyScholars.org blog, Blankenhorn rushed to comment yesterday, after the first of my two installments went up, that I had not addressed what he regarded as the most important criticisms of Regnerus’s work. But that was the burden of the second installment, which went online this morning, so he was going off a bit half-cocked.
Today Blankenhorn comments again, but still manages to miss the forest because he is intent on finding one tree in which only he is interested. He complains that Regnerus was wrong to describe the parenting of children by persons who have same-sex relationships as a “family structure,” as in the title of the New Family Structures Study. But this is to get hung up on a question of description rather than a dispute over the very important phenomena Regnerus has uncovered. What if the name of the study were the “New Family Experiences Study,” or the “New Family Relationships Study”? Then Blankenhorn’s point collapses.
As I explain in my article today, one of Regnerus’s most crucial discoveries is that “family instability is the characteristic experience of those whose parents have same-sex relationships.” That is saying something very important about “family structure,” is it not?
Still, we may thank David Blankenhorn for a couple of things. In his first post yesterday, he conceded a point made by Regnerus, and by Loren Marks of LSU in another important article back in June–namely, that “previous studies of this topic have been deeply flawed.” Saying so will not endear Blankenhorn to his new allies, but it is true and honest of him to say so.
Secondly, to his repeated complaint that Regnerus was not really looking at “family structure” when he examined the messy social reality of unstable families headed by parents in same-sex relationships, we might say: Amen, brother, what these kids lack, and what they need, and what these experiences are not giving them, is–family structure.
P.S. Blankenhorn admits not having read the new articles in Social Science Research on which I comment in my two Public Discourse essays. He really should. Unfortunately, for nonsubscribers they’re behind an expensive paywall; to read the whole 40-page section of the journal that I discuss would cost over $250. But anyone who works or studies at a subscriber institution can get behind that wall for free, here, if one goes through one’s institutional library portal.
P.P.S. Readers may now follow me on Twitter @MatthewJFranck.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012, 11:02 AM
I have, as my title indicates, a perspective somewhat different from the one James Rogers offers today in his On the Square article, “Why Christians Should Oppose Factions.” My disagreement with Rogers may not be as large as the contrast between our titles, because I think that buried deep in his essay is a recognition that Madison’s political science depends for its success on the presence of many factions in American politics. Rogers notes, for instance, that for Madison,
representation allows for a larger, national jurisdiction that in turn reduces the effects of faction. Majority coalitions composed of minority factions are less stable than a single majority faction.
All true, but this “reduces the effects of faction” only by proliferating their number. This is why majorities cannot be formed “naturally,” as it were, by the reflexive impulse of a “single majority faction” based on easy agreement among its members, and must instead be created “artificially,” through the reflective deliberations of people who hold varying views and competing interests, and figure out how to accommodate one another by talking their way into the creation of a majority coalition.
It is also true, as Rogers points out, that our two big political parties are not themselves “factions” by Madison’s definition. They are instead the unstable, shifting, competitive efforts to build that majority coalition that can win elections and pass legislation. But does it follow that “political parties are not necessarily factious”? Of that I’m not so sure, either. Factions are the material of which our parties are made. The motives of each faction are typically fairly low and self-interested. If they learn how to rise a little higher in their glimpse of the common good, that’s a benefit of the partisan coalition-building itself.
But I guess the basic difference between Rogers’ reading of Federalist No. 10 and my own is that he puts such emphasis on Madison’s definition that a faction “pursues a goal or interest that is adverse to the rights of another group or is adverse to the general welfare,” and appears to read that as meaning that factions and their members are actively and knowingly hostile to the common good. (I welcome correction if it turns out I am over-reading Rogers!) I see Madison instead as viewing human nature as ineluctably drawn toward self-interested behavior, compounded by a very common propensity to confuse one’s self-interest with the public interest. We love what is our own, and we love the good, and we love love love it when the two are one and the same. Hence we are predisposed to think they are. (Politicians who pander to factions, of course, play to this propensity in people’s view of their own dearest interests. Witness President Obama last night reaching for the votes of teachers and parents by insisting that the common good is bound up with reducing class sizes in schools. Yes, if little Jimmy only has eleven classmates in third grade, Iran will give up its nuclear ambitions!)
There is much that is right and true in Rogers’ essay, and I think these are mostly differences of emphasis regarding Madison’s profoundly subtle political science. But I will note in closing that Rogers’ call for Christians to fight the spirit of faction is fairly anti-Madisonian. The author of Federalist No. 10 counted on religious diversity–perhaps a scandal among Christians–as one of the main supports of religious liberty. It was, in short, a good thing that there was a “multiplicity of sects,” such that no single sect was able to oppress the others. From a Christian point of view, the reuniting of the Body of Christ in sweet harmony is a great desideratum. This side of the Kingdom of God, however, it might be altogether a good thing that we have such a proliferation of religious views. Or so thought one of our deepest-thinking founders. Perhaps in this Madison showed himself not such a good Christian. But that is another conversation.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012, 10:46 AM
After about 30 years of teaching college students, I’ve learned a lot of the tricks for prompting discussion among students–not that I have always been successful. One is to argue vigorously that two like cases are unlike, or that two unlike cases are alike, and see if the students rise to the challenge of telling you that you’re wrong.
But one must remember that this is an argumentative ruse, a playing of devil’s advocate. Woe to the teacher who mashes together two different things as just alike, and starts believing it because it sounded so darn clever.
This, I think, is the fate that has befallen Michael Peppard, an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University. Unfortunately, his embarrassment has been published in the pages of the New York Times. Peppard argues that, in the position that he enunciated on abortion in last week’s vice-presidential debate, Paul Ryan revealed that “along with Mr. Biden, he has joined the ranks of dissenting Catholic politicians, those who preserve a distance between nonnegotiable Catholic moral teaching and civil law.”
“Paul Ryan, Catholic Dissident” (that’s the headline on the piece) on abortion? How so? Because, as Professor Peppard points out, Ryan stated the position of the Republican ticket as being in favor of prohibiting all abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of a mother. The Catholic Church makes no such exceptions, therefore Ryan is a dissenter from Church teaching–just like Biden! Perhaps there should be a “wafer watch,” Peppard remarks, to see if Ryan is refused the Eucharist on this basis, as some have said Biden should be.
Peppard is right about the exceptionless Catholic position on abortion. But to equate Ryan’s case with Biden’s is absurdity. Ryan favors prohibiting roughly 99% of the abortions that now take place in this country. Biden favors prohibiting none of them. The vice president made it crystal clear that preserving Roe v. Wade is more important to him than what his Church teaches–which of course is not “de fide doctrine” as Biden falsely claimed, but the conclusion of reason and science about what justice requires, as Ryan rightly said.
Ryan’s public policy position is analogous to the one Abraham Lincoln took on slavery–to oppose the institution as much as public opinion will allow, and hope to pull public opinion to where you want to lead it. Lincoln held slavery to be a great evil in all cases, everywhere it existed, but his stated position in the 1860 election was only to oppose its spread westward into the territories–and to put the evil on a course to its “ultimate extinction.” He knew a more radical position would only disable him politically. By the same token, many Americans are squeamish about prohibiting abortion in a tiny number of extreme cases presenting the most heartrending difficulties. But our situation now is that hundreds of thousands of abortions occur each year having nothing to do with those extreme situations. If we can stop the vast majority, it can await another day for us to tackle the delicate cases of rape, incest, and danger to women’s lives.
Professor Peppard’s reasoning would have us reject Lincoln along with Stephen Douglas because neither man is John Brown. The argument refutes itself. As Frederick Douglass was to say in celebrating Lincoln’s memory in 1876, “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
Professor Peppard also thinks he has identified another deviation from Catholic teaching in Rep. Ryan’s position:
Mr. Ryan also criticized Roe v. Wade, and he is right that a democratic process would have been better for abortion law in our country. But handing abortion law over to the voters is no more of a Catholic position than is having it decided by the Supreme Court.
Come again? The Catholic position is that persons in authority have a responsibility to do the right thing with that authority. Ryan’s view, that the abortion question should be returned to the democratic processes of elections and legislation, is inseparable from his view of what policy those processes should produce, if responsible actors conform their actions to justice. But the first order of business is to remove the question from the grip of an institution that usurped the right to decide it nearly 40 years ago, and to get the matter back where it belongs.
This piece is a sad failure as an attempt to assimilate Ryan’s case to Biden’s. About Biden, Professor Peppard can only bring himself to say that his position in the debate was “a wishy-washy mélange of moral intuitions,” when in truth it was a coldly cynical betrayal of all moral reasoning, and of the faith in which Biden was reared. If we are to believe that Biden’s moral intuition includes even the feeble “wrong for me personally” view of abortion, we might like to know whether he has ever spoken at fundraisers for crisis pregnancy centers, ever uttered a word in public to persuade his fellow Catholics and fellow citizens to choose life over death, ever spoken at Catholic schools about living chastely and respecting life. There are no recorded instances of Biden’s ever having done any of these things.
We could all do more to promote respect for the sanctity of life. Paul Ryan has done a lot. Joe Biden has spent decades in public life assiduously doing the opposite.
Sunday, October 14, 2012, 4:37 PM
Last week, at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Angela McCaskill, was placed on administrative leave after it came to light that she had signed a petition at her church to put Question 6 on the ballot in her home state of Maryland. Question 6 is the initiative launched by the defenders of marriage, which, if it passes on November 6, will reverse the Maryland legislature’s recent enactment of a not-yet-in-force same-sex marriage law. [See update below.] The gay newspaper Washington Blade had acquired the list of signatures on the petition and published it, and an anonymous faculty member at Gallaudet had denounced McCaskill to her superiors, in true Stasi fashion. In a statement full of self-righteous wind and moral cowardice, Gallaudet’s President T. Alan Hurwitz said:
I want to inform the community that I have placed Dr. Angela McCaskill on paid administrative leave effective immediately. It recently came to my attention that Dr. McCaskill has participated in a legislative initiative that some feel is inappropriate for an individual serving as Chief Diversity Officer; however, other individuals feel differently. I will use the extended time while she is on administrative leave to determine the appropriate next steps taking into consideration the duties of this position at the university. In the meantime an interim Chief Diversity Officer will be announced in the near future
Note that preciously arm’s-length characterization of what “some feel is inappropriate” political opinion on the part of someone responsible for “diversity.” Oh yes, “other individuals feel differently,” but we know whose feelings are privileged in situations like this.
To their credit, the editors of the Washington Post chide Mr. Hurwitz in an editorial today. (Whenever I read something this sensible in an unsigned Post editorial, I guess it must have been written by Charles Lane, whose arrival on the editorial board vastly improved its tone, lifting it above the level of the reflexive drivel at the New York Times.) Noting Dr. McCaskill’s record at Gallaudet as never showing the slightest anti-gay animus (quite the contrary, in fact), the Post‘s editors go on to make this telling point: “Proponents of same-sex marriage must persuade citizens who may have good-faith reservations. The surest way to repel voters—and to vitiate the marriage movement’s broader goals and values—would be to say, or even seem to say, ‘agree with us or else.’” They note that Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley, who opposes Question 6, has called for McCaskill to have her job back, as have other opponents of the marriage-defending referendum.
But in Hurwitz’s rush to judge McCaskill, and to threaten her career, we see the main thrust of the movement for same-sex marriage. “Agree with us or else” is actually a central goal of that movement’s agenda, as advocate John Corvino admitted in his recent book with Maggie Gallagher, Debating Same-Sex Marriage (which I reviewed at Public Discourse). Once same-sex marriage is in place, the new moral norm of society is that dissent from the proposition that men can marry men and women can marry women is a self-declaration of one’s bigotry, of one’s status as a “hater” and an enemy of justice. It is to be equated with racist opposition to interracial marriage, and the only space to be made for the age-old understanding of marriage–for now anyway–is that no churches or clergy will be forced to solemnize same-sex unions.
It’s understandable that “agree with us or else” is not the message that same-sex marriage advocates want to send before a referendum on which their hopes are pinned. But it is assuredly the message that will be delivered good and hard afterward if they are victorious.
UPDATE: I thank Jesse, writer of the first comment below, for correcting me about the form of the Maryland ballot question. Although the defenders of traditional marriage petitioned for the popular referendum in order to overturn the Maryland same-sex marriage law, the form of the question is to ask voters whether they approve of the law, not whether they wish to reverse it. Hence a “No” vote defends the natural and historic understanding of marriage, while a “Yes” vote would redefine marriage to include same-sex couples.
Saturday, October 13, 2012, 8:57 PM
When did the New Yorker become a magazine written by and for people who are deeply ignorant but imagine they are terribly bright? I can remember, as a boy in the 1970s, reading the magazine occasionally and thinking it was very clever. Yes, I mostly admired the cartoons, and yes, I was, well, just a boy, and pretty ignorant myself. But the magazine seemed to me to be somehow both breezy and smart, with an appearance of learning and culture lightly tossed about its writers’ shoulders like a comfortable old sweater.
But as a number of people on Twitter have pointed out, this blog post at the New Yorker’s site, by Adam Gopnik, is one of the dumbest things published anywhere in a very long time. Gopnik manages to get absolutely everything wrong on which he thinks of commenting. He thinks, following “the Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan” (the adjective is gratuitous and misleading, but that’s why Gopnik used it) that there is a “necessary distinction between politics and religion, between state and church,” as though the two pairs of counterparts were simply interchangeable. He thinks that John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Houston speech expressed the classical American understanding of the proper relationship between “faith and public service,” and so he thinks Paul Ryan’s remark in the vice presidential debate that “our faith informs us in everything we do” is a remark worthy of an Iranian mullah. He thinks that one’s conscience is active only in one’s “chapel” and must not be carried into the public square.
But Gopnik is only warming up. Next he ventures into embryology and the metaphysics of the human person, and only proves himself a complete fool. (more…)
Monday, October 1, 2012, 3:53 PM
I’m resurfacing after a couple of months of submersion in the work of the Witherspoon Institute, including our summer seminars, preparation for the American Political Science Association (canceled due to Hurricane Isaac!), and some September weeks on tour to various colleges and other venues to speak on the subject of religious liberty. I spoke last month at Hillsdale College in Michigan, Neumann University in Aston, Pennsylvania, Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. My thanks to all my gracious hosts.
Hillsdale has published a slightly abridged version of my lecture, “Individual, Community, and State: How to Think About Religious Freedom,” as the September issue of Imprimis. You can see it online here, or download a PDF here. Imprimis is free (in print!) on request, by the way, if you give Hillsdale your address here.
Monday, July 23, 2012, 4:25 PM
The highly successful Atlanta-based restaurant chain Chick-fil-A has been much in the news these days, because president and chief operating officer Dan Cathy (whose father founded the family-owned business) apparently came out in opposition to same-sex marriage. Or did he?
Terry Mattingly of the indispensable GetReligion site, which tracks all sorts of journalistic coverage of religion, first called attention to the manufacturing of a misleading story here. In an interview with a writer for the Baptist Press, Cathy was asked about the company’s “support of the traditional family.” His response was, “Well, guilty as charged.” And he went on to talk about the company’s commitment “to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families,” because many of the individual restaurants are family-run operations, and because the Cathy family and their company believe, as Christians, in family-friendly policies. (Their Christian faith and their desire to support families account for the restaurant chain’s being closed on Sundays, for instance, a decision by which the company forgoes many millions in annual revenue.)
At no point in the Baptist Press article did Dan Cathy say a word about the issue of same-sex marriage. (more…)
Saturday, July 21, 2012, 3:53 PM
Yesterday I blogged here about an ABC report of a same-sex “wedding” at a military base in New Jersey. The story didn’t seem quite right to me, since there is no such thing as same-sex marriage in New Jersey–only civil unions–and we usually mean to say someone got married when we say a “wedding” took place (and that the couple are “newlyweds,” as ABC’s report had it). New Jersey marriage law governs any military base in the state, so the event’s taking place on federal property, with a Navy chaplain officiating, can’t make any difference. But the truth did wink at the reader from this story when it referred to the couple’s “civil union” in just one place. It bears pointing out that a civil union requires no ceremony, and no ceremony can solemnize one. It’s a registered relationship, a contract with signatures. Did the couple sign the contract that day, at the “wedding” that wasn’t a wedding? Or earlier? Or later? The two things–the relationship and the ceremony–have nothing to do with one another.
Did the ABC reporter who used “wedding” really know better? It seems she did, but it was a whole lot more story to suggest that an actual marriage had taken place.
And the impulse to make this event into more than it was appears to be pretty widespread. (more…)
Saturday, July 21, 2012, 3:07 PM
Every observer of the American political scene could predict that in the hours after yesterday senseless massacre in Aurora, Colorado, two topics would surface. Some would call attention to the failures in our approach to mental illness in recent decades–the assumption being that only a kind of madness, not garden-variety evil intent, could produce such an action as the slaughter and wounding of scores of innocents in a movie theater. Others–far more numerous in the ranks of liberal mainstream journalists–would renew the call for “gun control” of various kinds focusing on the murderous means available to the shooter to attain his end. And so it proved, as a glance at the morning papers and prominent news sites and television shows will bear out.
But the first commentator I know of who openly turned to the question of the political advantage that might be gained out of the Aurora shootings was Nate Cohn of The New Republic. Less than a full day passed before he posted “Taking On Assault Weapons Could Be a Political Winner for Obama” at TNR. This is the kind of thing that makes ordinary, decent people hear the phrase “writer for a political magazine” and think “bottom-feeder.” Nice work, Nate.
Friday, July 20, 2012, 4:10 PM
Last week I blogged here about a group of former catechists in northern Virginia whom I dubbed the “Arlington Five,” who had been written up in a front-page Washington Post story for their refusal to continue teaching Sunday school if they were to be required by the bishop of Arlington to make a public profession of faith. I also wrote about it at greater length on the Post‘s own “On Faith” page.
Leave it to Frank Beckwith (writing at The Catholic Thing) to have absolutely the best commentary yet written on this little contretemps. I won’t attempt to summarize his fine argument, but I will note that Frank has been, in the several years I have known him, consistently, persistently insistent that theology be considered a body of knowledge, not just a collection of just-so stories religious folk tell one another. Do go and read his TCT column.
I will add a postscript to the story from my own experience blogging about it for the Post. About 24 hours after my blog post went online there, an editor contacted me to give me a heads-up that they would be adding an “editor’s note” that reads as follows: (more…)
Friday, July 20, 2012, 1:27 PM
Courtesy of the aggregator RealClearReligion, I chanced upon this story at the ABC News website by Erin McLaughlin, titled “First Military Base Same-Sex Wedding Held.” It concerns a male couple, one of them an Air Force noncom, the other a civilian, who were “married” by a Lutheran Navy chaplain (no, there’s no such thing as the Lutheran Navy, you know what I mean) at a military base now called by the cumbersome name Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
I put “married” in quotation marks, not because I want to call into question the idea of a same-sex couple being married, although that is truly impossible in the nature of things, no matter what the law says. No, I use the quotation marks this time because the “wedding” (complete with “newlyweds” elsewhere in the story) is said to have taken place in the state of New Jersey, where I sit while typing this. The state of New Jersey has not established same-sex marriage in its laws. The most it has done–and this is more than it should–is create “civil unions” for same-sex partners.
Whatever else Navy chaplain Kay Reeb may have done, she surely did not present the couple with a valid New Jersey marriage license at the conclusion of the ceremony. The fact that the event took place on a military base changes nothing, for military bases within a state are, in these matters, governed by local state law. And the Defense of Marriage Act, whose spirit if not its letter would be broken by any same-sex ceremony of “marriage” occurring under federal auspices, would seem to get in the way anyhow, even in the wake of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” (This is a matter with great collisions on the horizon in the military chaplaincies, to the detriment of religious freedom for many chaplains and troops, no matter what happens to DOMA, but especially if it falls.)
Certainly the chaplain could not have pretended to marry the couple under, say, the laws of New York, while standing in New Jersey. So, since it is not possible that a non-New Jersey “wedding” took place inside New Jersey, what exactly happened? Almost certainly, a “wedding” that was not a wedding–since it did not result in a marriage even under any locally-in-force positive law. Perhaps liberal journalists are weary with calling such an event a “same-sex civil union commitment ceremony,” and want to anticipate a yet-unwon cultural victory simply by declaring it. Or perhaps this ABC reporter just didn’t know better, and willingly called the event what its participants wanted her to call it, and what they earnestly want it to have been, even though it was not.
Or is it I am who missing something I should know better? As I say, a head-scratcher.
UPDATE: I should have read the ABC report a third time before posting. Just once, in McLaughlin’s story, the phrase “their civil union” appears in a reference to the couple’s legal relationship, presumably as it stands after the “wedding” and not before. This is the only time in the story that the truth peeks through, that no wedding as that word is ordinarily understood took place at all.
Friday, July 13, 2012, 10:35 AM
On the front page of yesterday’s Washington Post (and already online the night before) appeared a story about five–count ‘em, five–catechists in the Catholic diocese of Arlington, Virginia who will no longer be catechists in the next school year because they declined to make a “Profession of Faith” prescribed by Bishop Paul Loverde. There are, according to the story itself, some 5,000 teachers in the diocese, counting parochial school teachers as well as volunteer Sunday school catechists. Why this story of a few dissenters was even a story–or if a story, not one to be buried on page 5 of Metro rather than featured on page 1 of the A section (and highlighted on the paper’s website)–makes for an interesting story itself.
The Post‘s “On Faith” page editors kindly gave me some space to comment on the story. Also worth reading are:
Almost as interesting as the story itself, and the story about why it’s a story, are the comments on the story at the Post’s website, both under the original article and (far fewer) under my commentary on the “On Faith” page.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012, 11:54 AM
Is the “individual mandate” in the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”) a penalty, or a tax? Over at NRO‘s Bench Memos, I’ve been offering a defense of Chief Justice Roberts’ decision to read it as an exercise of the taxing power, not of the commerce power–a decision he made in the name of judicial restraint, since he himself said that the commerce-power reading of the statute was the most “straightforward” and natural. (See all my most recent posts since June 29 here.) Meanwhile, at Public Discourse, Joel Alicea and Carson Holloway have published essays that situate Roberts’ decision in the conservative tradition of judicial restraint. (See also Ed Whelan’s judicious response to Alicea.) Even if one remains unpersuaded by Roberts’ reasoning, it’s hard to claim with any degree of confidence that the chief justice was behaving “politically” either in some noble “statesmanlike” sense or in a lower “running scared from the Democrats” sense, both of which have been widely mooted in commentary on Roberts. The reasons he gave in his opinion are good enough to be the only reasons he needed.
One thing is quite sure, however. Unintentionally, I’m certain, Chief Justice Roberts threw a monkey wrench into the gears of the presidential campaigns. And I have to say the Obama side has reacted more adroitly. (more…)
Monday, May 14, 2012, 3:07 PM
The Washington Post runs a weekly feature in its Sunday “Outlook” section, examining “Five Myths About” something new each week. Of course the whole point about such a feature is to have a guest writer debunk some notions that are widely believed to be true but aren’t. Therefore it isn’t surprising if someone says of an attempted debunking, “but that isn’t a myth at all–it’s true!” The weekly feature is also fairly space-constrained, so the guest debunker has to give a concentrated dose of truth if he is going to get his argument across. Either that, or he has to choose some easy targets, with the obvious risk that he will appear to have chosen straw men in which no one really does believe.
Jonathan Rauch cannot be accused of picking straw men, in his contribution from the latest “Outlook,” titled “Five Myths About Same-Sex Marriage.” But he has not delivered on the concentrated dose of the truth that this demanding format requires. Four out of his five “myths” are plainly true, completely true, unassailably true, and all Rauch accomplishes is to run aground on the hard shoals of the truth. Only one of his myths, the last one, is in any way a “myth” at all. (It’s also the one that relatively few people believe, as well.) Let’s take them each in turn.
1. Rauch’s first “myth” is that “letting gay couples get married redefines marriage.” He accepts as a “true premise” the proposition that “with few exceptions, marriage has always been about uniting the two sexes and linking mother and father to children.” But he calls it a “false conclusion” to say that changing this means that “marriage ceases to be marriage.” Why is that false? Because, Rauch says, “marriage multitasks.” It’s an institution that does lots of other things, and has various “social benefits” for those brought within its boundaries.
This is true but not exactly on point. Marriage has historically been about many things–about legitimacy of offspring, and inheritance, and the acquisition and transmission of property, and the alliances of families, and even about international relations in the case of royalty. (more…)
Monday, April 30, 2012, 10:32 PM
Over at Public Discourse (published by the Witherspoon Institute, where I work), you can already see tomorrow morning’s article, the first of a three-part series by Greg Forster, titled “Evangelicals and Politics: The Hundred Years’ War.” I think it’s very thought-provoking, and I look forward to the remaining installments.
I find much less thought-provoking Greg’s post just below, in which he accuses me of being “inquisitorial” and just all-around unfair to Richard Grenell (the correct spelling of his name), recently named foreign-policy spokesman to the Romney campaign. Fortunately, all the evidence of the unwisdom of this appointment is contained in the NRO Corner posts to which Greg links, and in the links therein. I particularly commend to readers’ attention the links to Jonathan Capehart at the Washington Post, and to Grenell himself at the Washington Blade. Readers, it’s your call whether I engaged in an unjust “personal diatribe,” or whether I have dealt the defense of marriage a setback here.
Thursday, April 26, 2012, 10:34 AM
The South Bend Tribune reports that 131 faculty of the University of Notre Dame have signed a letter calling on Fr. John Jenkins, the president of the university, to “issue a statement” that will “definitively distance Notre Dame” from remarks made in a homily by Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross who sits on the Notre Dame Board of Fellows. And these faculty want Jenky either to “renounce” the remarks in his homily or resign from the board.
What is the grievous offense of Bishop Jenky? According to the faculty signatories, “he described President Obama as ‘seem(ing) intent on following a similar path’ to Hitler and Stalin.” It would indeed be an outrage if, as the faculty intimate, the bishop were suggesting that President Obama is “intent on” genocide, murdering millions, etc.
But what did Jenky actually say in his April 14 homily? Its full text is here. Let’s quote enough to get the full flavor of this strong meat:
Remember that in past history other governments have tried to force Christians to huddle and hide only within the confines of their churches like the first disciples locked up in the Upper Room.
In the late 19th century, Bismarck waged his “Kulturkampf,” a Culture War, against the Roman Catholic Church, closing down every Catholic school and hospital, convent and monastery in Imperial Germany.
Clemenceau, nicknamed “the priest eater,” tried the same thing in France in the first decade of the 20th Century.
Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services, and health care.
In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama – with his radical, pro abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path.
So it turns out that the “similar path” Obama “seems intent on following,” according to Bishop Jenky, is one that Bismarck, Clemenceau–and Hitler and Stalin “at their better moments”–charted already. That is, the bending of churches and religious institutions to the political authority, and the occupation of an increasing proportion of civic space by the state, shouldering aside the churches.
The reductio ad Hitlerum is a real problem in modern political rhetoric. But in its classic form it is the unwarranted conclusion that a small tyranny portends real totalitarianism, genocide–the whole package of the Third Reich. Jenky is not guilty of that here, not remotely. He has an argument about parallels between Obama and past assailants of the Church. Those assailants include Hitler and Stalin even “at their better moments,” when their tyrannies were just beginning.
If the upset faculty of Notre Dame want to counter his argument with a better one, let them try. Instead they engage in ritual denunciation, bullying, and a petulant tantrum meant to mau-mau Father Jenkins and the bishop. They should go back to school. Better teachers than these would not accept their letter as representing a responsible contribution to public or academic debate.
Monday, April 23, 2012, 2:18 PM
My morning reading has settled into some habitual grooves, and for a reliably thoughtful one or two articles a day, I go to FT’s “On the Square,” to Public Discourse, and to The Catholic Thing, where one of the regulars is Brad Miner. Today Mr. Miner (we’ve never met so I won’t call him “Brad”) has one of his characteristically sound commentaries, but seems to me to hit one false note with respect to language. He writes:
Is there one person who may be said to have certainly “seen” (understood) the true identity of Jesus Christ while he lived? Mary or Joseph perhaps? One may be tempted to read the Incarnation back into the exclamations of Simeon and Anna, yet Luke (2:23) states quite clearly of those prophecies that Mary and Joseph “were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning [Jesus].” Wondering isn’t proof positive that they were not fully aware of the divinity of Jesus, but it’s suggestive.
The verse Miner wants is Luke 2:33, not 2:23, but that’s neither here nor there. What I am wondering about is what he means by “wondering.” Nowadays we’re prone to say things like, “I wonder why he did that,” indicating a certain curiosity, a desire to know, an indication that we are ignorant about or baffled or mystified by something we want to think through and understand better. I just used it that way a couple sentences ago. Is that what Miner means? That when Luke tells us Joseph and Mary were “wondering,” he means (or might mean) that they were puzzled, or trying to figure out who Jesus was?
If this is the way Miner reads the passage, then he may have fallen prey to the sort of change over time in a word’s use that C.S. Lewis cautions us about in Studies in Words. I do not know what Luke’s Greek was here (and some reader is bound to tell us in the comments), but my RSV gives the verse this way: “And his father and mother marveled at what was said about him.” “Marveled” does a better job of conveying what “wondered” once meant–that one takes in an experience as awe-inspiring, deeply significant, and so on.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives this first definition for the verb “to wonder”: “To feel or be affected with wonder; to be struck with surprise or astonishment, to marvel.” Perhaps Miner is reaching for the “surprise or astonishment” here–feelings frequently accompanied by a sense that something passes one’s understanding. But to be amazed and astonished–to marvel and be awestruck, even to sense something present is beyond your ken–is perfectly consistent with Mary and Joseph’s full knowledge of who their little boy was. That they were in the presence of the divine second Person of the Trinity must have been a daily source of wonder and amazement to them. They lived with a miracle, the greatest of all miracles.
Theirs was, in truth, a wonderful life–an adjective we do not employ to indicate our bafflement about something. The usually perspicacious Mr. Miner seems to me to have put one foot wrong here, in an otherwise excellent column.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012, 11:18 AM
This may fall into the category of blogging-when-provoked (always risky), or it may come down to a matter of de gustibus non est disputandum. But the wild overhyping on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather wouldn’t provoke me if those doing the hyping didn’t use such unwarranted superlatives. Our own Matthew Cantirino calls The Godfather and its immediate sequel “the greatest ensemble of American films ever produced.” John Podhoretz, long on record about this matter, gives it another go at the Weekly Standard, calling The Godfather “the best motion picture made up to that time” (1972), and maybe since then too, and “arguably the great American work of popular art,” a statement that seems to sweep even beyond the genre of film (Mark Twain, call your office). At least Cantirino makes a case for the seriousness of the films as a work of tragedy. Podhoretz just seems utterly smitten by a film that caught him by the heart in his youth.
I don’t want to go on at length about The Godfather‘s defects (the lugubrious score, the ponderous directing, the leaden acting). In many respects the movie succeeds despite them. But please. The real test is whether one wants to see the picture again and again. And in the case of Coppola’s “great” film, I just don’t. The art of the motion picture–complete with sound– came into its own in the 1930s and 1940s. And dipping quickly and without much close attention into my own collection, here are 100 movies–just from those two decades–that I’d rather watch before seeing The Godfather ever again:
1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
2. Animal Crackers (1930)
3. Little Caesar (1931) (more…)
Tuesday, February 21, 2012, 4:17 PM
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Sorry if that sounds like the beginning of a shaggy dog story. In the study of political communication, one of the most fruitful concepts employed by scholars in the last two decades has been “framing theory,” which concerns the way in which a story, a person, a decision, an institution–even a question–is “framed,” so that we are not only led to consider something worthy of our attention (known as agenda-setting), and not only led to view it in a certain light or think of it when prompted (priming), but are subtly lured into thinking through an issue in a certain way. As a picture is framed, so that a boundary is set around it, or as a window is placed in a wall, to include a view of some things but exclude a view of others, so framing of political subjects leads us to say that an issue concerns this and not that. (For the foregoing I thank my wife the communication scholar, who does not own any distortions on my part.)
So why this brief excursion about framing theory? Well, the notion has been around long enough for it to become second nature even for journalists themselves–the “framers” par excellence–to employ it. Thus we have Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal today, writing an article titled “On Contraception, Framing of the Debate Is Key.” Here’s the gist:
If the issue [of the HHS mandate] is defined as a question of birth control in the weeks and months ahead, the Obama administration and Democrats will have the upper hand. If Republicans succeed in defining the issue as a question of religious liberty, the balance will shift in their direction. (more…)
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