The first presidential election I remember was the Ronald Reagan – Walter Mondale race in 1984. My kindergarten class in the Philadelphia suburbs held a mock vote that Reagan overwhelmingly won. It of course reflected the way our parents were voting. I can remember at the age of five, John Glenn was one of the Democrat candidates seeking the nomination and I knew he was a famous astronaut. The truth is, I’ve always been fascinated by presidential elections and Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms by Ed Rollins and Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater by John Brady are two political books that deeply influenced my thought. Both books remain relevant and offer valuable lessons today.
Frank Hill, who directs The Institute for the Public Trust, has a solid post discussing Robert Kennedy, self-government, and tomorrow’s election. Hill quotes Lord Acton in his essay as well. He cites Kennedy’s “Day of Affirmation Address” in South Africa in 1966. It was a striking address, touching on the universal truths recognized by the West. Below is a great line from Kennedy’s speech that day:
At the heart of that Western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society.
Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign are probably the two campaigns that offer the most mystique and magic for liberals and conservatives. One campaign ended with a tragic assassination and the other left conservative activists heartbroken by a narrow defeat. Both candidates were treated to adoring fans and followers and shook up the political landscape. While they represented different ends of the political spectrum, they were both visionary presidential campaigns. Those two campaigns caused a lot of young people to get excited not just about politics or power but deeper ideas about government and the human person.
Tomorrow is a big election. We’ve rightfully placed a heavy emphasis on the limits of politics here at the Acton Institute. Politics will not solve the deeper issues and problems facing this nation. The topic was the overarching theme of Rev. Robert Sirico’s 2012 Annual Dinner address. Jordan Ballor and I hosted an Acton on Tap addressing that very question in 2010. But elections and politics are important and serve a purpose. There are clear philosophical differences between the candidates and the peaceful transition of power reflects well on the foundations of our country.
At Acton we’ve always tried to raise the discourse and talk about higher truths. In a country that now faces crippling debt, moral chaos, and threats to religious freedom, we would be wise to draw upon some words James Madison used to close a letter he penned to a friend in 1774. Madison, concerned about persecuted Baptists in Virginia wrote, “So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty and Conscience to revive among us.” I would think most of our readers would agree and wish that much would be so.
Over at The Claremont Institute, Hadley Arkes considers whether religious freedom is a “natural right.” His exploration of the question is lengthy and complex and, as with everything Prof. Arkes writes, worthy of serious consideration. Here is his conclusion:
It may be jarring in some quarters to say it, but it is eminently reasonable to be a theist, and quite as reasonable to understand that not everything done in the name of religion and theism is reasonable and defensible. What else explains the refusal of the law to allow a religious exemption from laws on homicide or theft or evading the laws on child labor or paying social security taxes? But the deeper truth reveals itself when we recognize that the Catholic church has been making natural law arguments in the public arena even as the bishops invoke religious freedom. The bishops invoke the claims of religion, but the uncomfortable truth is that the Church and its allies among Protestants and Jews have become the main sanctuaries for preserving the tradition of moral truths in a society in which the currents of relativism have eroded the academy, the media, and the professions. The Church and the religious stand contra mundum today, and appear so much at odds with the world, not because they, more than others, exalt “beliefs,” but because they have become the last redoubt for the insistent claims of reason. Among our major institutions they have become the main force in declaring publicly the understanding of those moral truths and natural rights that underlay this constitutional order from the beginning.
Without that underlying moral understanding and the doctrines of natural law, it would be impossible to explain a regime in which a system of law is built upon a body of first principles forming a fundamental law (or a “constitution”). Without that accompanying faith it would be hard to explain why we seem to think that human beings, wherever we find them, will have an equal claim to our sympathy and respect; that they are made in the image of something higher; that they are creatures of reason who deserve to be ruled with the rendering reasons for the laws imposed on them. Without all of that, it becomes harder to explain why we can accord to them the standing of “bearers of rights” flowing to them by nature. In short, then, without the moral understanding sustained now mainly by the religious, it would be hard to take seriously the notion that there are natural rights that command our respect because they are grounded in truths about “the human person.” That is the case for religion as a natural right, and the measure of our desperation is that, in the current state of our public life, the bishops find the gravest test of their preparation and learning as they try to explain the matter to their own public in a post-literate age.
(Via: Mirror of Justice)
Current lawsuits against the HHS contraceptive mandate may undermine religious liberty in the long run, says Vincent Phillip Munoz. Not all religious objectors to the mandate are likely to be exempted even if the lawsuits are successful, and judges violate the core meaning of religious liberty when they assess plaintiffs’ religious character:
The religious liberty lawsuits ask for exemptions from the HHS mandate for those religious believers who find compliance conscientiously impossible. Exemptions would seem to be reasonable, and politically feasible, and they are probably legally required. Protecting religious liberty through court-granted exemptions, however, entails three “costs,” outlays that are frequently overlooked. Whether these expenditures are worth it and what alternative strategies ought to be adopted are, in part, prudential questions that can only be answered intelligently if a full and forthright evaluation of the exemption approach to religious liberty is undertaken.
In today’s essay I consider the first two costs; namely the implausibility of getting religious exemptions for all conscientious objectors to the mandate, and the overreach of judicial authority involved in religious liberty cases. In tomorrow’s essay, I will discuss how religious liberty litigation can undermine long-term arguments for upholding our first freedom, and explore what can be done to prevent the downside of litigation.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tackles the topic of religious liberty with his most recent column, “Defining Religious Liberty Down.” In it, Douthat highlights the public nature of the Bill of Rights’ guarantee of the “free exercise of religion”:
It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair. Most religious communities conceive of themselves as peoples or families, and the requirements of most faiths extend well beyond attendance at a sabbath service — encompassing charity and activism, education and missionary efforts, and other “exercises” that any guarantee of religious freedom must protect.
Many would say that the religious liberty squabbles of today–the HHS mandate debate and last week’s Chick-fil-A fracas, for example–reflect a contemporary confusion about what is actually protected by the Bill of Rights’ “free exercise of religion.” Instead, Douthat posits that the conflict is a result of a present tension between religious values and the modern idea of freedom. This, Douthat argues, is really at the heart of the religious liberty debate.
The question is not whether “the free exercise of religion” allows the government to mandate contraception purchase or regulate businesses according to their values. The question is whether certain religious beliefs of today run so contradictory to the public zeitgeist that, like 15th century Aztec sacrifice rituals, they violate the common good and cannot merit public protection. Those who answer the latter question with a “yes” should quit the emaciated definitions of religious liberty and move on with the debate:
It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.
It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.
If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.
There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.
Last week’s Wall Street Journal features a column from Michael Meyerson detailing the religious perspective of the Declaration of Independence. With questions of religious liberty occupying a sizable space in the public square, the article is especially timely. According to Meyerson, the Declaration’s brilliance lies in the “theologically bilingual” language of the Framers. Phrases like “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” employ what he calls a nondenominational inclusivism, a show of rhetoric that neither endorses nor rejects any particular religious ideology. The underlying implication of this statement, which captures the broader thrust of Meyerson’s article, is that the Framers recognized religion’s intrinsic value in a democratic state. He goes on to argue that the Framers’ understood religious expression as not only permissible, but desirable, for a budding nation. This is especially evident in two oft-forgotten but explicitly religious passages of the Declaration. First, the Framers’ acknowledged their own “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.” They also professed a “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” Such phraseology, Meyerson argues, testifies to the value that the Framers’–among them some staunch supporters of church-state separation–placed on religious freedom:
Even Jefferson and Madison, often described as believing in a total separation of religion and government, continued the practice of using inclusive religious language. Jefferson urged in his first inaugural, “May that infinite power, which rules the destinies of the universe, lead our councils to what is best,” while Madison stated that, “my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed . . . in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations.”
The Framers didn’t see such nondenominational language as divisive. They believed it was possible—in fact desirable—to have a public expression of religion that is devout, as long as it recognizes and affirms the variety of belief systems that exist in our pluralistic nation.
Similar sentiments are found in the writings of Michael Novak, an American Catholic philosopher and lecturer at 2012’s Acton University. Novak’x 2001 book, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, even addresses many of the same themes as Meyerson’s article. To listen to Novak’s Acton University Lecture’s click here. For a copy of On Two Wings, click here.
On Catholic World Report, Carl E. Olson interviews Rev. Joseph F. Naumann, the Archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, about the HHS mandate, the Ryan budget, and what the Supreme Court ruling means for the religious freedom fight.
“There are always some people who feel that the Church is becoming partisan and political in this,” Archbishop Naumann said, referring to a collective response to the HHS mandate covering provision of contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization services that includes more than 40 lawsuits and the current, ongoing Fortnight for Freedom developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“But we try to point out to them that we didn’t pick the time, nor did we pick the fight,” he added. “We’re not trying to advance any agenda other than to protect what has been there. We either have to be silent and acquiesce to the mandate, or we have to make our voices heard at this point.”
Naumann has been an important figure in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as a member of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities and the Committee on Marriage and Family Life.
“Part of my concern, which I expressed at the bishops’ meeting (earlier this month in Atlanta) is that people – who have good intentions and motivations – have too often looked to massive government programs to help the poor,” he said, “yet we have a history now of almost 50 years with these programs and we don’t have fewer poor and we don’t have more people empowered. But we do have a weaker family life and weaker public morality. And so we have to look at it and ask, ‘Are these really the best ways to go about addressing the problem?’”
Read “We didn’t pick the time, nor did we pick the fight,” an interview with Archbishop Naumann by Carl E. Olson in Catholic World Report.
Need a logical defense of religious freedom? Look no further than First Things‘ “On the Square” web exclusive, where future University of St. Thomas assistant philosophy professor Tomas Bogardus tackles a proposed restriction of an idea long taken for granted in free countries. Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, recently published an article, “The Use and Abuse of Religious Freedom,” which proposes to limit “the legitimate defense of religious freedom to rejecting proposals that stop people from practicing their religion.”
Singer’s article addresses some global examples. Recently, the Dutch parliament began reviewing legislation that would mandate the stunning of livestock before slaughter. This of course violates the customs of Judaism and Islam, both of which require practitioners to eat meat only from animals that were conscious when killed. To dissenting Jews and Muslims, Singer’s solution is simple: Don’t eat meat. He says, “When people are prohibited from practicing their religion—for example, by laws that bar worshiping in certain ways—there can be no doubt that their freedom of religion has been violated. But prohibiting the ritual slaughter of animals does not stop Jews or Muslims from practicing their religion.” Singer then transposes this approach to the HHS mandate: Because no Catholic teaching requires Catholics to establish and run hospitals, the state can order Catholics to provide employees with health care packages that cover birth control medications. If Catholics don’t like that, they can close the doors to their hospitals without damage to their doctrinal standards.
Bogardus’ response is well-reasoned and relevant:
One catches a glimpse of Singer’s utopia, full of vegetarian Muslims and Jews and Christians who employ no one. And all under compulsion of the state. His argument for this utopia has three steps. One: if a policy does not compel religionists to violate a teaching of their religion, then the policy is not an improper infringement on the practice of their religion. Two: if a policy does not unduly infringe upon the practice of a religion, it is not a violation of religious freedom. Three: since e.g. the Obama Administration’s mandate does not require Catholics to violate any Catholic dogma, Singer concludes that the mandate doesn’t violate Catholics’ religious freedom. Q.E.D., as philosophers are said to say.
So much for the argument. What shall we say in response? At least this: Singer’s argument succeeds only if every step is true. Yet the first two steps of Singer’s argument cannot both be true, since together they lead to absurd conclusions. Isn’t it possible, after all, for a policy to violate someone’s religious freedom even without compelling her to transgress any teaching of her religion?
He goes on to address both hypothetical and actual situations that, under the lens of Singer’s microscope, prove problematic. The full column is relevant, insightful and absolutely worth a read as issues of religious freedom become more pressing in our present context.
Recently, a Christian student group at Vanderbilt University has been told by the school’s administration that it will lose its recognized status on campus unless the group removes its requirement that its leaders have a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ.” Administrators at the school had previously ruled that religious organizations must now allow any Vanderbilt student to be a candidate for a leadership office, regardless of religious beliefs or sexual orientation. For example, a Christian student group would be forced to allow the candidacy of an atheist and Jewish groups would be forced to allow Wiccans to be considered for the group’s leader.
The irony, says John Murray, is that the very freedom Vanderbilt administrators have to deprive students of their freedom of religious association derives from a 19th-century Supreme Court case that led to the proliferation of Christian colleges such as Vanderbilt: