Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Keith Ellison on religion and politics

We wait with bated breath for something more than these airy generalities from Keith Ellison, who, as you surely know, is our first Muslim Congressman.

Surely if hard questions can be posed to Mitt Romney and if deep suspicions about theocracy can be raised every time a conservative Christian speaks, we’re entitled to know exactly how Ellison’s faith informs his politics.

What, for example, does he mean by this:

"You can’t back down. You can’t chicken out. You can’t be afraid. You got to have faith in Allah, and you’ve got to stand up and be a real Muslim."

Or how about this:

Ellison, speaking at the annual convention of the Muslim American Society and the Islamic Circle of North America, said that Muslims can help teach America about justice and equal protection.

"Muslims, you’re up to bat right now," he said. "How do you know that you were not brought right here to this place to learn how to make this world better?"

And then there’s this, from a speech to an interfaith group:

Ellison added that religion should be something that unites, rather than divides.

"Many people see their religion as an identity thing, much in the same way Crips or Bloods might say, ’I’m this, this is the set I’m rolling with,’ " Ellison said, referring to the infamous street gangs.

"They’ve never actually tried to explore how religion should connect us, they’re into how religion divides us. ... They haven’t really explored ... how my faith connects me to you."

Many of the practical positions he has taken seem to be those of a garden-variety liberal Democrat, but he should be pressed to show how those positions flow from what he says is his faith.

If he can make a plausible argument, perhaps we should applaud him and encourage to speak out, not just to his fellow Americans, but to Muslims all over the world, demonstrating to them how they can make their peace with liberal pluralism.

In other words, he, no more than anyone else, should simply be given a free pass, claiming, as he does, that his faith informs his politics. And he should be pressed on the passages from the Koran that are hard for non-Muslims and liberals to swallow. And he should be pressed to take a stand anytime any Muslim anywhere makes any sort of bloodcurdling statement. Let Ellison condemn them, quite publicly.

This is an opportunity for someone who calls on others to "stand up and be a real Muslim," which presumably means he’ll do so himself.

Ford’s "Realism"

Here Christopher Hitchens goes after President Ford’s record on foreign policy. It’s not true that this evidence is sufficent to label Ford’s administration a mercifully short national nightmare, but it does show that his rather glaring weakness was deferring too readily and coldly to established power. Hitchens’ point is that the man who first abandoned the Kurds and East Timor and snubbed Solzhenitsyn may not be the most reliable guide for our policy in the Middle East today. He was a Ford, not a Lincoln or a Reagan.

More Mormonism

At the risk of further inflaming at least on NLT commenter, let me call attention to Richard John Neuhaus’ response to Jacob Weisberg’s piece of anti-religious bigotry, which is directed at Romney and at anyone who isn’t essentially a religious modernist, agnostic, or atheist.

For fear of misleading someone into thinking that I agree with everything I quote, I won’t give you anything from Weisberg’s piece, but I will offer this bit from Neuhaus (reminding everyone that Neuhaus is not Knippenberg, nor Knippenberg, Neuhaus):

First, what would people think of someone who abandoned the religion of his forebears in order to advance his political career? (Mr. Romney is apparently having difficulties enough in explaining some of his political changes.) Second, do we really want to exclude from high office millions of citizens born into a religion whose tenets strike most Americans as bizarre, especially when there is no evidence that those peculiar tenets would have a bearing on their public actions? Third, candidates should be judged on the basis of their character, competence, and public positions. That one was born a Mormon is not evidence of a character flaw. That one remains a Mormon may be evidence of theological naiveté or indifference. But we are not electing the nation’s theologian. And, it should be noted, there are very intelligent Mormons who are doing serious intellectual work to move their tradition toward a closer approximation of Christian orthodoxy, which is a welcome development.

I will also note that Weisberg reminds us that other Mormons have sought the presidency, including Orrin Hatch, Morris Udall, and Romney pere. I can’t recall there being much discussion of the candidate’s Mormonism in any of those cases, though I have to confess that in 1968 I wasn’t old enough to pay close attention to politics. It’s worth noting that there’s a fairly wide range of political opinion--all of it comfortably part of the mainstream--in that modern list.

Lieberman on Iraq

The conclusion:

In Iraq today we have a responsibility to do what is strategically and morally right for our nation over the long term -- not what appears easier in the short term. The daily scenes of death and destruction are heartbreaking and infuriating. But there is no better strategic and moral alternative for America than standing with the moderate Iraqis until the country is stable and they can take over their security. Rather than engaging in hand-wringing, carping or calls for withdrawal, we must summon the vision, will and courage to take the difficult and decisive steps needed for success and, yes, victory in Iraq. That will greatly advance the cause of moderation and freedom throughout the Middle East and protect our security at home.

Read the whole thing.


Goldberg on certainty

This Jonah Goldberg column reminds me that there’s nothing new under the sun. I remember the 1970s when the French nouvelle philosophes discovered the Gulag. Turned out that absolutism led to totalitarianism led to the Gulag; ergo absolute certainty was bad. Now it’s absolutism leads to jihad which leads to theocracy, as imagined by Margaret Atwood. Next thing you know, Andrew Sullivan will be wearing a leisure suit.

Jeffrey Hart revisited

About a year ago, I wrote a bunch of stuff in response to a piece Jeffrey Hart published in the WSJ. Power Line’s Scott Johnson calls our attention to James Panero’s profile of Hart, written for the Dartmouth alumni magazine. Hart is still hard at work waging intellectual war against the Bush Administration.

But this chunk says something about Hart’s conservatism:

“Like the Whig gentry who were the Founders, I loathe populism,” Hart explains. “Most especially in the form of populist religion, i.e., the current pestiferous bible-banging evangelicals, whom I regard as organized ignorance, a menace to public health, to science, to medicine, to serious Western religion, to intellect and indeed to sanity. Evangelicalism, driven by emotion, and not creedal, is thoroughly erratic and by its nature cannot be conservative. My conservatism is aristocratic in spirit, anti-populist and rooted in the Northeast. It is Burke brought up to date. A ‘social conservative’ in my view is not a moral authoritarian Evangelical who wants to push people around, but an American gentleman, conservative in a social sense. He has gone to a good school, maybe shops at J. Press, maybe plays tennis or golf, and drinks either Bombay or Beefeater martinis, or maybe Dewar’s on the rocks, or both."

Other things in the article suggest to me that Hart is closer to Andrew Sullivan in spirit than to anyone else.

In any event, Hart’s recitation of the ways in which his judgments about issues like abortion and stem cell research are supported by public opinion point to a kind of conservatism that evolves, not one that stands athwart history shouting "stop!" (a bad paraphrase, I know). It’s also not at all clear to me how this "aristocratic" conservatism is anything other than a matter of style, or how it relates to any form of religion. (He clearly doesn’t like evangelicalism because of what he calls its lack of creed, but that obviously paints with too broad a brush. Indeed, the non-creedal character of some evangelicals would surely help them "evolve" in a way of which Hart would likely approve. And a genuinely "conservative" religion is creedal, but, as such, wouldn’t simply give in to public opinion in the way that Hart seems to.

Surge or no surge in Iraq?

Another commander-in-chief speaks.

Prisons, penitentiaries, and reformatories

Acton’s Jordan J. Ballor takes up the question of the role of religion in the restorative or rehabilitative side of criminal justice, suggesting that the view that rehabilitation is purely a state responsibility owes something (too much, I think) to Jeremy Bentham.

My most recent post touching on this subject--a flashpoint in the current debate over the faith-based initiative--is here. In that post, you can find a link to the page at the Becket Fund’s site with all the briefs written in support of PFM’s appeal. If you want to see the opposing briefs, go here. This case has attracted a lot of attention, and I’m slowly working my way through the briefs on both sides.

Update: Here, courtesy of MOJ’s Rob Vischer, is one account of a conference call on the PFM/InnerChange case.

Romney’s Mormonism

Damon Linker, who spent a couple of years teaching at BYU in one of his past lives, tells us what he thinks we need to know about Mormonism and suggests some questions we should pose to Mitt Romney:

Does he believe, for example, that we are living through the "latter days" of human history, just prior to the second coming of Christ? And does he think that, when the Lord returns, he will rule over the world from the territory of the United States? Does Romney believe that the president of the Mormon Church is a genuine prophet of God? If so, how would he respond to a command from this prophet on matters of public policy? And, if his faith would require him to follow this hypothetical command, would it not be accurate to say that, under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would truly be in charge of the country--with its leadership having final say on matters of right and wrong?

Would he have us pose the same questions to, say, Harry Reid? I don’t know, but I do know that we should learn a good good deal about Mormonism in the next few months, beginning with the speech Romney promised to make after the holidays.

Hat tip:
The Friar.

Update: For more, go here, here, and here. One way of stating Linker’s issue is this: while Mormons take positions that are currently part of what might be called the mainstream, we can’t on the basis of that record predict that they’ll continue to do so. It all depends upon future revelations, which can’t be extrapolated from their situation-specific predecessors. Faithful Mormons, in other words, are less predictable than others. Even if Romney sounds attractive today (and I doubt that Linker shares that view), who knows what tomorrow holds in store, if he’s faithful?

As I said, I expect to learn a lot from this, and will likely turn to Russell Arben Fox, a Mormon political theorist who seems rather to like Linker, for some stimulation. If NLT readers have other interesting and authoritative resources to suggest, please either send me an email or put them in the comments.

Dark Matter

Nothing new under the sun? Well, the Hot Stove League always has something for baseball fans to warm themselves upon. I don’t know what new Japanese video games might have shown up for Christmas, but supposedly the Land of the Rising Sun has given us the first new baseball pitch in three decades, since the advent of the split-fingered fastball (and even that arguably was just a forkball thrown harder). The Boston Red Sox’s recently-signed import, Daisuke Matsuzaka, is said to possess something called the “gyroball,” described in this Washington Post article. The pitch supposedly was invented on a supercomputer by a Japanese physicist named Ryutaro Himeno, with the help of a baseball trainer named Kazushi Tezuka. The gyroball was designed to behave unlike any other pitch – with either an exaggerated drop or an exaggerated side-to-side motion – owing to its peculiar spin, which is more like the spiral of a football than the backspin of a fastball or the topspin of a curve.

Bunk, says Bobby Valentine, the former Major League manager now with the Chiba Lotte Mariners, whose team has faced Matsuzaka. "No such pitch." Robert Kemp Adair, professor emeritus at Yale and the dean of baseball physicists – yes, there are such creatures – agrees. Another former manager, Buck Martinez, believes it is a screwball. Others say it is really a change-up or a variation on the cut fastball.

Ah, only 50 days until pitchers and catchers report.

Can the Supreme Court Say That Our Law Must Be Colorblind?

It’s impossible to agree with all the details of this constitutionally confused article. But it’s true enough that the Court has never said that the Constitution is colorblind and that all racial distinctions in our law are unconstitutional, and in BROWN it passed up a perfect opportunity to do so. The author’s case, in a way, would be even stronger if he realized that the Court didn’t really reverse PLESSY in BROWN. For one thing: PLESSY concerned transportation, and the psychological argument of BROWN applies only to the function of primary and secondary education. (The effect of segregation on the heart and mind of the train passenger has no effect on whether or not the train gets into the station on time.) But the author’s distinction between remedial and stigmatizing racial classifications doesn’t appear in BROWN either. There’s no reason not to read BROWN to say that all educational classifications based solely on race are equally stigmatizing or psychologically damaging.
BROWN aside, I’m undecided on whether or not a Court decision declaring all racial distinctions in the law unconstitutional would be unreasonable judicial activism.

Strange New Respect for Candidate Duncan Hunter?

THE WASHINGTON POST speculates that he’s in a position to be 2008’s Dennis Kucinich.

William & Mary’s cross to bury

I posted something about the issue of the presence or the absence of the cross in the Wren Chapel, discussed somewhat tendentiously in this Inside Higher Ed piece, over at the underutilized Knippenblog. If college presidents respond to pressure in this way, is it any wonder that students are hard to educate about religion? (To be clear for those who don’t know me: when university authorities "sensitively" respond to pressure from one group, they shouldn’t be surprised if others join the party. This isn’t inclusive, but ultimately insulating. What’s more, to the extent that liberal education involves inducting students into a tradition of conversation, university authorities simply encourage everyone to find his or her own conversation stopper.)

Iraq strategy

Here’s an argument for a long (18 months) and large (30,000 troops) surge in Iraq. Makes sense to me.

Noted military expert (and soon to be presidential candidate) Joe Biden doesn’t like the idea:

Biden contended that such a move "will not have any positive effect, except extremely temporarily."

This is especially true, if, as Harry Reid argues, 18 to 24 months is too long. Democrats, in other words, might be willing to support an ineffective military response to violence in Baghdad, but not a potentially effective one.

This WaTi article notes how many commanders-in-chief there are on Biden’s panel.

President Gerald Ford

I was seized by insomnia, turned on the TV, and found out that Gerald Ford had died. He was the only president never to have won a nationwide election, and the only one to have been stuck with the unpopular and singularly questionable task of pardoning his predecessor. He didn’t move the country with his rhetorical gifts or striking personal principles. Although his vetoes were often overriden by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, he still showed us how to govern well or well enough without being able to draw upon the popular dimensions of the modern presidency. He was a decent, dignified, and undemagogic leader, and he was blessed with a very long and happy life.

Deceptive frogs and honest women

Carl Zimmer summarizes a recently published study in The American Naturalist. It seems that some frogs are dishonest croakers: Some small males lower their voices to make themselves sound bigger and so (sometimes) intimidate frogs that would beat them in a fair fight. Although honesty generally rules, there is plenty of room for the Machiavellians (even among shrikes and crustaceans). And I note in passing (and without comment) the emphasis on the males of the species doing the lying. Honest, the article is worth reading. Also note that it ends with one of the scientists exploring human deception with his mathematical model. This includes an examination of how terrorist organizations communicate to their sleeper cells. In the same issue of The New York Times, Elaine Sciolino considers the political scene in France, with focus on the candidacy of Socialist Segolene Royal for the presidency. Some think that this mother of fours thinks she is perfect, some say she is seducing the country, some even say she is a siren. And the NYT says that she is more "gamine" than Margaret Thatcher and this has added to her allure, and there is "potency" in her approach. And then there are those who say she should be more modest, and shouldn’t use her sex as both a weapon and a shield. And note how she characterizes her expected opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy (the current interior minister): "a survival-of-the-fittest Darwinian male who admires the American model of competition and social mobility." The article does mention that not all mothers like her. And Sarkozy is not quoted in the story.

It’s a wonderful movie

Here, courtesy of Get Religion, is a nice piece revisiting It’s a Wonderful Life. Is George Bailey, among other things, the developer who builds over cemetaries (first noted for me by Patrick Deneen), the quintessential American Christian?

The Methane! The Methane! (With Apologies to Joseph Conrad)

The Democrats haven’t even picked up their committee chair gavels yet, but already they are providing high class entertainment, as this interview with John Dingell, aka, The Congressman from General Motors, makes clear.

My favorite bit is this about global warming:

New Zealand, which has relatively little industry, is an enormous emitter of CO2. They’ve got a bunch of sheep over there that do it. The methane. The methane."

UPDATE: Apparently this was an editing or transcription error, since it has been changed from the original version I saw. It seems as though his interviewer said "The methane" as a corrective question (since sheep don’t emit CO2), which he repeated. Weird.

But there are other gems in this piece, such as this: "You know, before you start making a bunch of wise-ass comments, you better know what you’re talking about. And right now I don’t."

Democrats getting religion...or not?

Howard Friedman calls our attention to this NYT article on Democratic consultant Mara Vanderslice, whose recent campaign work I’ve discussed here. The article notes that her candidates did about 10% better than other Democrats with traditionally religious voters, but also notes that many of those clients didn’t exactly have tough rows to hoe, either in proving their religious bona fides or in dealing with tough challenges. Let’s see how her approach works in a year that isn’t toxic for Republicans.

Nonetheless, this is worth remembering:

“People want to know are you on your knees?” Ms. Vanderslice said. “Are you responsible to something that is bigger than yourself?”

Shouldn’t she be saying someone, or is she just describing "what works" with voters?

The politics of crime and punishment

Chris Suellentrop has a very nice piece on the politics of crime and punishment in last Sunday’s NYT Magazine. Ranging from a discussion of largely secular scholarship on what works in preventing or deterring crime (unsurprisingly, swift and certain seems more important than harsh when it comes to punishment) to a consideration of moves on the religious right, largely prompted by Chuck Colson, to reconsider prison reform, Suellentrop paints an interesting picture in which faith-based efforts at rehbilitation play a large part. This has been one of the President’s signature issues, and also marks the career of Sam Brownback (unfortunately for him, the most Bush-like of the current crop of Republican con[or is it pre?]tenders).

Suellentrop spends some time discussing the Second Chance Act, which almost passed in the last Congress and may well go forward in the next. The question: will the prominent role of faith-based groups in prisoner rehabilitation and reentry be explicitly acknowledged in the legislation? Barack Obama, one of the Act’s co-sponsors, could show himself to be more than a garden-variety liberal with some leadership here.

I wish I could be more hopeful, but this litigation, about which I wrote here (and about which I’m likely to write again, once I make my way through all the appellate briefs on both sides), has the usual suspects, as usual, lining up on different sides. I wish that folks on the Left would spend as much effort on providing secular alternatives to religious programs as they do challenging them in court.