Category: Political Culture

decPerhaps the most enduring legacy of the Declaration of Independence is that it sought to overturn the long abuses and powers of tyrants. It revealed the truth of self-government and that power is inherent in the people. In the second introduction of the document, Jefferson declared:

…That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Jefferson, always the philosopher, reminds the reader that governments are instituted to protect the natural rights of man, to preserve their freedom above all else. Government is not intended to serve the bureaucracy, rulers, or an elite class.
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The Liberty Bell in PhiladelphiaRegarding the Hobby Lobby decision and the Supreme Court, I believe the National Review editors summed it up best: “That this increase in freedom makes some people so very upset tells us more about them than about the Court’s ruling.”

I address this rapid politicization and misunderstanding of religious liberty and natural rights in today’s Acton commentary. The vitriolic reaction to the ruling is obviously not a good sign for religious liberty and we’re almost certainly going to continue down the path of losing rights of conscience and free expression. Obviously, I hope I’m wrong. But I wanted to step back and take a more comprehensive look at where we are now.

One point I make in the piece is that our federal lawmakers no longer hold a consensus to protect religious liberty, as they did with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Back then, there was overwhelming unification and bipartisanship to protect and strengthen religious liberty, that is a thing of the past and it has been swallowed up by partisan politics. Our collective partisan politics is becoming bigger than our once common understanding of natural rights.

Another point I stress is that there is an obvious difference on the very meaning of religious liberty that cuts through our country. This is well known to those who pay attention to these issues. Many saw the Hobby Lobby ruling not as a ruling in favor of the rights of conscience and liberty, but only a temporary setback in divorcing religion from public human affairs.

The Supreme Court ruling is being politicized in a myriad of vicious ways and that by itself is a bad sign for religious liberty. It will be a tough task going forward to educate people on the necessity of a vibrant understanding of religious liberty and natural rights that promotes the common good.

Supreme_CourtSupreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority (5-4) opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The decision was decided in large part because it aligns with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that passed the U.S. Senate 97-3 and was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. The law is intended to prevent burdens to a person’s free exercise of religion. At the time, it had wide ranging bipartisan support and was introduced in the House by current U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

That four justices voted against the decision speaks to the current ideological divide at the court and in the nation of a once non-controversial understanding of religious liberty.

Some significant lines from Alito’s majority decision are below:

As applied to closely held corporations, the HHS regulations imposing the contraceptive mandate violate RFRA.

Religious employers, such as churches, are exempt from this contraceptive mandate. HHS has also effectively exempted religious nonprofit organizations with religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services. Under this accommodation, the insurance issuer must exclude contraceptive coverage from the employer’s plan and provide plan participants with separate payments for contraceptive services without imposing any cost sharing requirements on the employer, its insurance plan, or its employee beneficiaries.

…the court held that HHS had not proved that the mandate was the “least restrictive means” of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

RFRA’s text shows that Congress designed the statute to provide very broad protection for religious liberty…

Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.

HHS has also provided no evidence that the purported problem of determining the sincerity of an asserted religious belief moved Congress to exclude for-profit corporations from RFRA’s protection.

Government could, e.g., assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives to women unable to obtain coverage due to their employers’ religious objections. Or it could extend the accommodation that HHS has already established for religious nonprofit organizations to non-profit employers with religious objections to the contraceptive mandate.

coolidgebAs we read about the increase of scandal, mismanagement, and corruption within our federal agencies, it is essential once again to revisit the words of Calvin Coolidge. Recent actions at the IRS, Veterans Administration, and the ATF gunwalking scandal all point to systemic problems that come from an entrenched bureaucracy. As more and more of the responsibilities of civil society is passed over to centralized powers in Washington, federal agencies have exploded with power and control, leading to greater opportunities for abuse. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, a favorite stump speech line of former presidential candidate George Wallace was, “When I get to Washington, I am going to throw the briefcases of the pointy headed intellectuals into the Potomac.” Wallace was of course speaking about the entrenched bureaucracy in the nation’s capital.

Bureaucracy of some form is necessary under government. But we live in an era where constitutional constraints are eschewed and the bureaucratic machine is becoming more politicized. “Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government, inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power,” declared Lord Acton. Bureaucracy, by its nature, is problematic to the notion of self-government.

Bureaucracy is a threat to liberty and it’s not accountable to the people, that is the main point Coolidge is reminding Americans in the excerpt from a speech he gave as president at the College of William & Mary in 1926:

No method of procedure has ever been devised by which liberty could be divorced from local self-government. No plan of centralization has ever been adopted which did not result in bureaucracy, tyranny, inflexibility, reaction, and decline. Of all forms of government, those administered by bureaus are about the least satisfactory to an enlightened and progressive people. Being irresponsible they become autocratic, and being autocratic they resist all development. Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy. It is the one element in our institutions that sets up the pretense of having authority over everybody and being responsible to nobody.

shutterstock_119092402-580x331In his latest column, David Brooks examines the limits of data and “objective knowledge” in guiding or directing our imaginations when it comes to solving social problems.

Using teenage pregnancy as an example, he notes that although it may be of some use to get a sense on the general drivers of certain phenomena, such information is, in the end, “insufficient for anyone seeking deep understanding”:

Unlike minnows, human beings don’t exist just as members of groups. We all know people whose lives are breathtakingly unpredictable: a Mormon leader who came out of the closet and became a gay dad; an investment banker who became a nun; a child with a wandering anthropologist mom who became president.

We all slip into the general patterns of psychology and sociology sometimes, but we aren’t captured by them. People live and get pregnant one by one, and each life and each pregnancy has its own unlikely story. To move the next rung up the ladder of understanding you have to dive into the tangle of individual lives. You have to enter the realm of fiction, biography and journalism.

For the solution, he points to Augustine:

[Augustine] came to believe that it take selfless love to truly know another person. Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad. Love impels you not just to observe, but to seek union — to think as another thinks and feel as another feels. (more…)

Remember the “Ban Bossy” campaign? Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook created the “Ban Bossy” campaign, recruiting a horde of celebrities, in order to make sure that girls didn’t feel put out by being called bossy in the 4th grade and thus ruining their entire lives. (“Being labeled something matters,” says actress Jennifer Garner in the Ban Bossy campaign video. So does developing a thick skin.)

Now, however, Christian Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute is here to tell the truth: the research that the “Ban Bossy” campaign relies on is wrong. Skewed. Misinterpreted.

We don’t need to ban bossy for our girls. We need to teach them to read and interpret scholarly materials.

Acton Institute President and Cofounder Rev. Robert A. Sirico spoke with Neil Cavuto this afternoon on Fox News Channel, discussing recent polling data indicating that our culture’s skepticism toward political leaders has grown once again. You can check out the interview below.

university-of-michigan_logo_0Over the past 20 years or so the University of Michigan has been repeatedly attacked for being “racist” because the university is doing exactly what Dr. Martin Luther King wanted. The university is treating prospective and current students according to their characters and not their color. This explains why the university rejected to admit Detroit native Brooke Kimbrough, an academically mediocre student.

Kimbrough is appealing the decision, however, claiming that she should be accepted because the university needs “diversity.” What Ms. Kimbrough fails to understand is that the University is successfully diverse with the students and faculty that it already has without lowering their standards. U of M does not need her.

This story demonstrates the hubris of radicalized entitlement. Ms. Kimbrough is making a desert claim on the basis of her skin color instead of her performance. The irony, of course, is that this type of attitude is exactly what the Civil Rights Movement fought to undo in American society. Kimbrough’s radicalized sense of entitlement is an attempt to manipulate and pervert a system of fair treatment when her qualifications do not meet the standard. It’s an embarrassment to Dr. King’s vision.
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The Sword of Damocles - artist Wencelas Hollar

The Sword of Damocles – artist Wencelas Hollar

Like the proverbial sword of Damocles, the Obamacare deadline looms. Today is the last day to sign up…sort of. I’ll explain that momentarily.

First, let’s look at the proverb mentioned above, lest there be any misunderstanding. As classics scholar Daniel Mendelsohn says, there is often confusion as to exactly what this allusion means.

The real point of the story is very clearly a moral parable. It’s not just, oh, something terrible is going to happen, but it’s about realizing that what looks like an enviable life, a life of wealth, a life of power, a life of luxury is, in fact, fraught with anxiety, terror and possibly death.

I cannot think of a more apt description of what is facing the Obama administration regarding health care. In the U.S. today, almost 49 million people are uninsured. The plan was, of course, to get all those folks insured under Obamacare. Yet, less than 2 percent of those eligible have enrolled. And today is the deadline to enroll. Sort of. You can start the enrollment process today, and the government will give you until next week to complete the process. Unless they extend the deadline again. Despite the “hard and fast” date of March 31, it has become clear to the White House that this simply isn’t going to work. (more…)

Forgotten FaithToday at Ethika Politika, I review Fr. Philip LeMasters’ recent book The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights from Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity.

With regards to the book’s last chapter, “Constantine and the Culture Wars,” I write,

… LeMasters does a good job in acknowledging the line between principles of faith and morality on the one hand, and prudential judgments that may not be as clear-cut on the other. He does not give the impression of advocating any specific political program; indeed, he explicitly disavows such a project:

Religious groups that are strongly identified with politics risk becoming so entangled in debates shaped by interest groups that their distinctive witness is obscured. To give the impression of being merely a political party at prayer is a good way to make people think that the church has little to say to the world that the world does not already know on its own terms.

He does not use this as an excuse, however, to disengage from political life.  He only highlights that in applying the teachings of the Church to our present, political context, we ought not to expect any concrete embodiment of our ideals, and we should be wary of any person or group that makes such a claim.

This is a point, I believe, worth dwelling on. (more…)