dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

Inviting anarchism

Now on the website, our editors on the strategy of the Republican majority in Congress.

Initially, the House Republicans’ refusal to pass a continuing-funding resolution to keep the government open was tied to the unreasonable demand that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) be repealed, defunded, or delayed. … Recognizing that the ACA cannot be stopped, Speaker John Boehner has shifted his position and now wants the president and the Democrats to negotiate a budget bill that includes significant spending cuts before he will allow a vote on the continuing resolution. But earlier this year the Democrats already agreed to cut $70 billion from the budget without increasing revenues, only to have the House reject the bill. Understandably, the president and the Democrats are now determined that the government be reopened before they negotiate a final budget. If he were to capitulate to the House’s demands, the president argues, every future budget could be held hostage by a radical and unrepresentative minority in Congress, and the constitutional system would grind to a halt. If democracy is to work, a minority cannot nullify the legislative will of the majority.

Even worse, Tea Party Republicans are also refusing to extend the nation’s debt ceiling unless the president and the Democrats comply with their demands. This is an invitation to anarchism. If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling by October 17, widespread economic damage is almost certain. Whether they are Democrats, Republicans, or Independents, the vast majority of Americans are shocked and outraged that some in Congress are endangering the economic well-being and security of the nation, if not the world, in pursuit of their narrow ideological agenda….

“Americans,” Andrew Bacevich writes [in his book Breach of Trust], have “abandoned collective obligation in favor of personal choice.”… It is hard not to see this dynamic at work in the current political crisis. The Tea Party scoffs at the notion that “collective obligation” or “sacred civic responsibilities”—to provide health-care insurance to those who cannot afford it, for instance—might even exist. Rather, the movement upholds as sacred the right to be left alone.

Read the whole thing here

Just posted: Dionne on Cruz, Boehner & the shutdown

Now on the website: At the end of Day 1 of the government shutdown,  E. J. Dionne Jr. writes on the real goal of the right wing: 

Can anyone now doubt who is responsible for Washington’s dysfunction? The Republican right still does not accept the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency. This is why much of the government shut down.

The issue here is not that Congress failed to reach a “compromise.” The Democrats already have compromised, lopping about $70 billion off their budget proposal, to the dismay of many liberals. That was meaningless to a tea party crowd that seems to care not a whit about the deficit, despite its fulsome talk. It will be satisfied only if Congress denies health care coverage to about 25 million Americans, which is what “repealing Obamacare” really means.

It needs to be said over and over as long as this stupid and artificial crisis brewed by the tea party continues: Financing the government in a normal way and avoiding a shutdown should not be seen as a “concession.” Making sure the government pays its debt is not a “concession.” It’s what we expect from a well-functioning constitutional system. It’s what we expect from decent stewards of our great experiment. The extremists who have taken over the House do not believe in a normal, constitutional system. They believe only in power.

Liberty shut down

"Who's affected by the government shutdown?" "What does it mean for you?"

Those are the stories media outlets have ready to go today. There will be lots of worthy accounts. Already I got a text message from my best friend -- an Iraq veteran and cancer researcher in both the Public Health Service and the National Institutes of Health. "Not bad traffic today. LOL." Sometimes one has to laugh in the face of idiocy.

The NIH already suffered under sequestration, as Francis Collins tried valiantly to continue the world's leading medical research facilities despite across-the-board cuts. Also affected today will be the Center for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and several other "common good" entities, the kind of organizations disrespected by the roughly 30 Republicans who shutdown the government last night.

As GOP insider Byron York noted yesterday, the Republicans overall did not want this.

"Analysts say the Congressional GOP doesn't understand strategy," the Republican said. "I'm like, 'Congressional GOP' my ass! It's 30 idiots who can't get us to 217."

This morning I'm wondering whom those 30 Republicans have in mind, when they think about the effects of a shutdown.

Do they ponder the Republican business-owner in Arizona, the one who has been trying to expand her workforce and do right by her employees, trying not to hire undocumented immigrants but also not to racially profile potential hires? Do they think of her, when she finds out that "E-verify" is not going to work this week?

Read more

What would Russell Kirk say during Shutdown Week?

Here we are: Government Shutdown Week, a new biannual tradition. If you're just tuning in, the House Republicans are holding the global economy hostage unless President Obama repudiates the Affordable Care Act, his administration's signature domestic policy achievement.

That law was passed by Congress, signed by the president, and upheld by the Supreme Court. Its passage was not a surprise to anyone paying attention, having been preceded by very open debate going back decades. Its basic principles were developed by a conservative think tank, a similar plan was tried at the state level by a Republican governor of a large state, and its details were debated repeatedly in the Democratic primaries of 2008. It was debated so much during those debates that most viewers were bored. Everyone watching knew that a Democratic president would seek health care reform. Most people thought it would be more left-wing than the final product. Far from being "pushed through" or "rammed through" or whatever other tyrannical metaphor one might choose, the road to the Affordable Care Act was in reality a model of procedural governance in a modern democracy.

A small band of Republicans now will shutdown the government because they are mad that they lost. But they are pitching it as a prophetic action to call attention to the federal government's spending problem. The problem with that analysis of the spending problem is that deficits have been going down under Obama (handy charts here). A further problem is that not raising the debt ceiling will have no effect on any of the issues that they want to address. It won't change the prior commitments Congress has made, in terms of expenses or revenues.

Read more

Short Takes on Obamacare

The Affordable Care Act is more popular among Republicans than Obamacare, by a 22% to 14% margin, and among the general population, 39% to 34%, according to a Fox News poll.

According to Pew, of the 53% of Americans surveyed who disapprove of the ACA, 27% want Congress to make it work as well as possible, while 23% want Congress to “do what they can to make it fail.” Among the Tea Party, 64% want their representatives to work actively at making it fail. “The Tea Party wing of the GOP is dead set on sabotaging Obamacare above all else,” writes Kevin Drum at Mother Jones.

Jonathan Chait looks at that effort, and gives details on the status of reforms:

Health-care inflation since 2011 has fallen to its lowest level in half a century. The Congressional Budget Office estimates of Obamacare’s costs, widely derided at the time of its passage as too optimistic, have thus far proven too pessimistic. The agency has already cut $600 billion off the expected ten-year spending total for Medicare and Medicaid. If the reforms continue to bear fruit, costs will come in even lower.

And health experts increasingly expect the reforms will bear fruit. “The ongoing slowdown in the health-care growth rate defies historical post-recession patterns and is likely to be sustained,” concluded Price­Waterhouse-Coopers in June. “It appears that the reforms will stick and health-care exchanges and other policies will bring competitive pressure to markets,” says Randall Ellis, a professor of health-care economics. “Although the proof for this point of view is not yet definitive,” reports the Health Affairs blog, “the depth and breadth of change suggest that significant transformation in the nation’s delivery system is under way.” Among health-care wonks, this is no longer a controversial assertion: The evidence thus far suggests Obamacare’s cost reforms are a staggering success.

The Wall St. Journal says the defunding drive is a political loser:

Mr. Obama is never, ever going to unwind his signature legacy project of national health care. Ideology aside, it would end his Presidency politically. And if Republicans insist that any spending bill must defund ObamaCare, then a showdown is inevitable that shuts down much of the government. Republicans will claim that Democrats are the ones shutting it down to preserve ObamaCare. Voters may see it differently given the media's liberal sympathies and because the repeal-or-bust crowd provoked the confrontation. …

We've often supported backbenchers who want to push GOP leaders in a better policy direction, most recently on the farm bill. But it's something else entirely to sabotage any plan with a chance of succeeding and pretend to have "leverage" that exists only in the world of townhall applause lines and fundraising letters.

The Congressional Budget Office warns of unsustainable debt levels by 2023, due mainly to the rising costs of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. In response to the report, Paul Ryan, leader of the House Budget Committee, suggests eliminating Obamacare.

New issue, new stories on the website

Our September 27 issue is now live. Here are some of the stories we’re highlighting.

Paul Moses, in “Here to Stay,” looks at how Latinos are changing the country and the church.

[Long] term, it’s unclear how Latino voters will respond as their incomes rise—and as they are assimilated into American culture. Will they follow the path of other once-impoverished immigrant communities, such as Italians? Another open question is how many Latino Catholics in this country will remain Catholic. Young Latinos are not immune to the effects of secularism. Nor will they be unaffected by Protestant efforts to win them over—a trend across Latin America.

What is clear, as the Pew Research Hispanic Center predicted in 2007, is that “Latinos will bring about important changes in the nation’s largest religious institution.” Like politicians, Catholic bishops are learning that they can’t succeed if Latino Catholics don’t share their priorities. The bishops’ campaign against the Obama administration’s contraception-coverage mandate may have helped Mitt Romney take 59 percent of the white Catholic vote, but the Latino-Catholic vote overrode it to deliver the overall Catholic vote to Obama. The bishops’ new, more activist approach to seeking citizenship for undocumented immigrants—urging priests to give homilies on the subject, targeting members of Congress with phone calls, parish pilgrimages, and Masses dedicated to immigration reform—seems to reflect an awareness of the 2012 election’s demographic lesson. This new approach is similar to the one often taken to abortion or same-sex marriage. In June, when Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter to all parishes of the Archdiocese of New York asking Catholics to support the bishops on “two important issues,” immigration reform and abortion, he mentioned immigration first.

Andrew J. Bacevich and R. Scott Appleby debate the current state of the peace movement, and whether it’s capable of exerting influence on U.S. policy [subscription]. “For Dorothy Day,” Bacevich writes,

The unfolding of salvation history may have provided an appropriate context in which to situate the Catholic Worker movement (or Christianity as a whole). In that context, the timetable may be unknown, but the outcome is predetermined. The Good News ultimately culminates in good news. Hence Day’s counsel of patience.

For the peace movement, however, it’s what happens in the meantime that counts. Whatever may await humanity at the end of time, afflictions endured in the here-and-now matter a great deal. Peace activists cannot state with confidence that history will ultimately yield a happy verdict. The persistence of large-scale political violence suggests grimmer possibilities.

Appleby:

Andrew Bacevich’s essay is confused—theologically, conceptually, and factually. As a result, it delivers half-truths, not least regarding “the peace movement.” Let’s begin with the theological. Dorothy Day is not our only option for gauging the impact of peacebuilding. Indeed, Bacevich’s version of Day is not even a recognizable theological option. Contra Bacevich, Kingdom of God theology—what he refers to as “salvation history”—hardly ignores “afflictions endured in the here-and-now”; nor does it postpone the pursuit of justice and the repair of the earth until “the end of time.” The reason Day and her followers concentrated on the works of mercy, prophetic witness, and solidarity with the victims of structural, cultural, and physical violence is that such actions constitute participation in God’s redemptive presence now, here, on this earth. Living as the poor and among the homeless, eschewing all forms of violence, railing against militarism—these were not futile acts or hollow metaphors but primary symbols, fully participating in the reality to which they refer.

Also in the new issue, Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon on the grim and largely untold real history of Poland’s wartime suffering, Celia Wren on the PBS series “The Hollow Crown,” and Mary Frances Coady on her sojourn through the Jordan desert.

And, E. J. Dionne Jr. writes on the repercussions of last week’s vote in Colorado that saw proponents of recently passed gun laws recalled from office – this more or less the same time as Iowa passes a law allowing the blind to carry weapons in public, as new data reveals the effect of gun violence on women, and as authorities continue to investigate the latest mass shooting: eleven reported killed today at the Washington, D.C., naval yard.

Income inequality isn't going away

A few months ago, there was some good discussion on the blog about the persistently large gap in income inequality. And though the Occupy movement no longer garners headlines, the problem of income inequality remains a core moral issue for many Americans. It is widely thought that Bill de Blasio's focus on the topic has aided his rise in the New York City mayoral race. Andrew Sullivan's influential blog continues its coverage of the data, which shows that just since 2009, top 1% income has grown by 31.4% and everyone else's has been basically flat. Our own E. J. Dionne continues to cover the politics of inequality, and the U.S.C.C.B. has not shied away from it in its advocacy.

Last time we talked about it on this blog, we focused on ratios of CEO-to-worker pay in a given year, and David Cloutier followed up with a longer analysis at Catholic Moral Theology. But the problem is about more than a given year -- it's about the long-term trend from the late 1970's to the present. Timothy Noah has called this period The Great Divergence, in a multifaceted analysis of the possible causes of the growing gap. To my mind, the long-term story offers a compelling moral problem for our time, and one without an easy solution.

A quick way to capture the "great divergence" is this summary of the Economic Policy Institute's report from last year, about which Jena McGregor at the Washington Post wrote:

Average CEO compensation, according to EPI’s calculations, rose 726.7 percent between the years of 1978 and 2011 — more than double the percentage increase in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Meanwhile, pay for the average private-sector nonsupervisory worker rose a startlingly meager 5.7 percent. ...

My guess is that it’s this inequality that really erodes worker satisfaction and guts employee morale far more than the discrepancy between the top and bottom in any one year’s pay.

I think she's right. Everyone expects annual ratios of 20-to-1 or even 200-to-1 in our form of capitalism. But the fact that purchasing power has not trickled down in the long run -- over my whole lifetime -- is what drains energy and optimism.

One feature of Pope Francis's pontificate has been a renewed emphasis on moral issues that had been thought of as peripheral for many Catholics. He has expanded the core of what counts as a central moral issue. But it's worth remembering that his predecessor had strong words on growing inequality, such as those quoted in the U.S.C.C.B.'s letter from Labor Day:

The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone. . . . Through the systemic increase of social inequality . . . not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of "social capital" . . . indispensable for any form of civil coexistence. (Caritas in Veritate no. 32)

Evangelical leader Jim Wallis is famous for saying, "The federal budget is a moral document." I agree. But every budget is a moral document -- from that of Wal-Mart down to that of each family's breakfast table. In a democracy, the problem of income inequality is everyone's problem. And it's not going away.

New issue, now live

Our September 13 issue is now live on the website. 

Some of the highlights:

Leslie Woodcock Tentler writes on Detroit:

Those of us who have watched Detroit’s long dying tend to think in terms of the physical city—the abandonment of buildings, their subsequent decay and finally, if the city does its job of demolition, the rubble-strewn lot. For a very long time, I found love in the ruins (to borrow from Walker Percy). Life has hung on stubbornly in Detroit, in such unexpected forms as the flourishing Hungarian bakery, now gone, that I stumbled upon in a decaying working-class enclave close to the city’s western border. (The proprietor had provided each of the often-married Gabor sisters with wedding cakes, which presumably helped his bottom line.) St. Cecilia’s Church, with its apse mural of a black Christ, provided refuge to the Tentler family when it seemed that nearly every Catholic in our nominal home parish worshipped at the shrine of Ronald Reagan. Those memorable Cecilia’s Sundays, suffused with incense and gospel music, probably kept my children in the fold. The Detroit Institute of Arts, a refuge of another sort since my adolescence, still delights with its dazzling collection and especially its famed Rivera murals, paid for with a second generation of Ford money. Flower Day at the city’s sprawling Eastern Market, a plant-buying orgy for gardeners throughout the region, provided—and indeed continues to provide—a pageant of interracial good fellowship.

One can still find love in the ruins of Detroit, but it’s harder now. So much of the city has disappeared that recent visits have left me disoriented. (I tend to navigate by landmarks, an astonishing number of which are gone.) A new generation of urban pioneers now hoists the banner of optimism—“say nice things about Detroit!”—while I alternate between rage and despair. Yes, there are signs of life there, some of them new, like the city’s flourishing arts scene. But the decay is so vast and the human suffering so appalling that optimism seems not just delusional—an old Detroit problem—but almost obscene.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels on the Catholic church as a "lazy monopoly" (subscription required):

Some would argue that the Catholic Church, claiming a monopoly on truth as well as salvation, has no course correction to make. That has been the stand of recent popes and their episcopal appointees, who have rescinded or tinkered with Vatican II reforms and ruled out further change. Complaints have gone unheard, while conforming members have been embraced. And many have left.

Parents and friends of former Catholics now singing in a Baptist choir, serving on the vestry of an Episcopal parish, or meditating in a Buddhist monastery may be relieved that they’re still praying, still believing in something. Perhaps even the “lazy monopolists” consider that these sheep are not lost, simply misplaced. But what of the “nones,” those who abandon religion altogether or just drift away from it. We seem strangely indifferent to their exit. If 12 million people stopped brushing their teeth, we’d all take notice.

Also, Gabriel Said Reynolds on why Syrian Christians continue to support Assad and Richard Alleva on the film Fruitvale Station. See the full table of contents here

Now on our homepage

Two new stories now featured on our homepage.

First, the editors on reading the mission statement of Matt Malone, SJ, editor of America, about the challenges facing his magazine and the Catholic media at large. A pressing concern of Malone’s is

what he perceives to be the destructive influence of secular political ideology on Catholic unity. “We view ideology as largely inimical to Christian discipleship,” he writes, arguing that “our secular, civic discourse...is a mortal threat to the ecclesiastical discourse.” In an effort to combat this “factionalism,” America will no longer allow writers to use the terms “liberal,” “conservative,” or “moderate” “when referring to our fellow Catholics in an ecclesiastical context.” That editorial experiment will bear watching.

Factionalism can indeed be a threat to the church (or to the country), but honest disagreement is not always destructive of ecclesial communion; in fact, it is often constitutive of it. As John Courtney Murray, SJ, once wrote, “disagreement is a rare achievement, and most of what is called disagreement is simply confusion.” Paul took on Peter in the most direct way on the question of whether the promises of Christ could be extended to the uncircumcised. The church as we know it would not exist but for that bit of factionalism. The number of such disagreements throughout the church’s history is hard to exaggerate. In fact, church unity is more often threatened when not enough room is made for the airing and resolution of honest disagreement. Nor does it do any good to pretend that the contemporary church is actually a community of harmony and virtue simply because ideally it should be. American Catholics belong to the church, but also to many other communities and organizations. They cannot, and should not, leave those attachments behind at the church door, nor should they regard their political commitments as peripheral to their Christian witness. Quite the contrary. For example, while America’s mission statement confesses a “bias” for the “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” it asserts that the poor have no “special parties to speak for them.” Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that all parties speak for the poor equally, or equally well.

Read the whole thing here.

Also featured now, E. J. Dionne Jr. and the position President Obama finds himself in on Syria:

[I]f Obama wanted to shift our foreign policy away from the Middle East, the Middle East had other ideas. Even before the latest reports that Syria’s government had used chemical weapons against its own people, the military’s takeover in Egypt, following abuses by the Muslim Brotherhood government, blew up the administration’s hopes for a gradual movement there toward more democratic rule.

Now, the president’s own unambiguous red line against the regime’s use of chemical weapons and his statements declaring that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad should be ousted leave him little choice but to take military action. This is the conclusion Obama has drawn, however uneasy he has been about intervening in the Syrian civil war. He no longer has the option of standing aside.

The result is an agonizing set of questions and potential contradictions. Can military strikes of any kind be the sort of “narrow” or -- and this has always been a strange word for war -- “surgical” intervention that does not drag the United States deeply into the conflict? Yet if the strikes are limited enough so as not to endanger Assad’s regime, is the Syrian leader then in a position to pronounce his survival a form of victory against the United States and its allies? Does Obama really want to get the U.S. involved, however tangentially, in a new Middle Eastern war without a debate in Congress and some explicit form of congressional approval?

Read it all here.

Now on our homepage: Joseph Bottum on the case for same-sex marriage

Just posted to the homepage, Joseph Bottum’s essay “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.”

Bottum, former chief editor of First Things, writes: “We are now at the point where, I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.” He goes on:

For that matter, plenty of practical concerns suggest that the bishops should cease to fight the passage of such laws. Campaigns against same-sex marriage are hurting the church, offering the opportunity to make Catholicism a byword for repression in a generation that, even among young Catholics, just doesn’t think that same-sex activity is worth fighting about. There’s a reasonable case to be made that the struggle against abortion is slowly winning, but the fight against public acceptance of same-sex behavior has been utterly lost.

I find these practical considerations compelling, just as I think most ordinary Catholics do.

Read the whole essay here. And after that, see Mark Oppenheimer’s latest Beliefs column in the New York Times. An excerpt:

In the past couple of years, conservative opposition to same-sex marriage has clearly started to erode. Prominent Republicans like Senators Rob Portman and Lisa Murkowski and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have come out in support of gay marriage. Even David Blankenhorn, the expert witness in the Proposition 8 trial in California and a Democrat, announced that he had changed his mind.

They are, for the most part, moderate conservatives using secular, democratic arguments. None come from the Christian right. Among religious conservatives, opposition to same-sex marriage has remained essentially unquestioned.

Which is why “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” an essay by Joseph Bottum, published Friday on the Web site of Commonweal magazine, is something new in this debate.

Indeed.

Featured on the homepage

Three stories now featured on our home page.

George Scialabba writes on Leszek Kolakowski and the essays collected in Is God Happy?

[Kolakowski was not] solely or even primarily a political critic; he was a philosopher and a historian of philosophy. He wrote books on seventeenth-century philosophy, Bergson, Husserl, and positivism, among many others, including several on the philosophy of religion, such as The Presence of Myth, God Owes Us Nothing, Religion: If There Is No God…, and the middle section of Is God Happy?

The Enlightenment plays the same role in Kolakowski’s philosophical writings as Marxism does in his political writings. It’s where modernity went astray, where virtue took a wrong turn. Marxism distorted the quest for equality and social justice into utopian dogmatism; the Enlightenment distorted the promise of science and the rejection of superstition into relativistic rationalism. And just as Kolakowski’s positive political beliefs were hard to pin down (the closest he came was in an essay called “How To Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”), so were his positive religious beliefs. For a long time he styled himself an “inconsistent atheist,” but near the end of his life he resolved the inconsistency by returning to the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the philosophical equivalent of “conservative-liberal-socialist” is “skeptical traditionalist.” At any rate, that’s a good description of Kolakowski’s religious/philosophical stance until his (re-) conversion. He was not (at least in his writing) a God-haunted man so much as a scourge of secularism; not so much avid to penetrate the mysteries as keen to debunk their debunkers. He does not have much comfort for afflicted believers, but he rejoices in afflicting comfortable unbelievers.

Nicholas Clifford looks at the "historical amnesia" of Catholic leaders on religious liberty:

The greater question implicitly raised by [Archbishop William] Lori, but never answered, has to do with the Catholic Church’s recent conversion to a view of religious freedom as a “fundamental right.” When and why did it happen? Here, Lori’s historical account carries us back no farther than Dignitatis humanae forty-eight years ago. Again he’s perfectly accurate when he says that “successive popes have reaffirmed the church’s commitment to this principle,” and though he rather surprisingly ignores John XXIII’s role in planting seeds, he cites John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I, in support of religious freedom. Yet isn’t this a bit like saying that ever since the Voting Rights Act—also of 1965—successive U.S. presidents have upheld the ideal of racial equality? Case closed, in short; and there’s no longer any need to delve into America’s murky past from 1789 to 1964, and to have to explain the difficult contradictions that crop up.

Or is there? And if, since 1965, “successive” popes have upheld religious freedom, what can we say about “predecessive” popes, those who earlier presided over the governance of the church and its teachings for almost two millennia? Should we simply ignore them?

Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. writes about Chris Christie, his debate phobia, and how his pragmatic persona plays against his aims to burnish his conservative record (for more on that last part, see this piece about the governor's veto of a sniper-rifle ban that he proposed himself) . 

Robert N. Bellah, in writing

Now on the website, a special package of Commonweal articles from sociologist of religion Robert N. Bellah, who died at the end of July. Bellah was a contributor to the magazine since the early 1980s, writing on such subjects as the changing nature of the relationship between religion and power; American economic competitiveness and the pastoral letter Economic Justice for All; and the implications of "the Bush doctrine." You can find it here.

Weekend readings: Simone Campbell, David Brooks, Queen Elizabeth

Some items worth catching up on, before (or over) the weekend.

Sister Simone Campbell testified before the House Budget Committee this week, at a hearing that opened with Paul Ryan declaring that in America, “If you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead.” When Campbell's turn to speak came, she talked about the effectiveness of federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) in improving the lives of America’s most vulnerable (watch the video below), noting that charity goes only so far. “Everyone has a right to eat, and therefore there is a governmental responsibility to ensure everyone’s capacity to eat.

Read more

The editors on same-sex marriage

Now on our website, Commonweal's editors on same-sex marriage after recent rulings from the Supreme Court.

Commonweal has expressed skepticism and urged caution regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage, while at the same time defending the rights and dignity of homosexual persons both in society and in the church. In the aftermath of the chaos and destruction, both personal and social, wrought by the so-called sexual revolution, the rush to change the fundamental heterosexual basis of marriage seemed imprudent. With the institution of marriage already in crisis, such an unprecedented social experiment appeared to pose risks—especially to the already precarious place of children within modern marriage—that were all but impossible to measure. ... Advocates cast same-sex marriage as the extension of basic rights to a once excluded group, but it is likely also a reflection of—and a further step toward—an essentially privatized and libertarian moral culture. ...

[I]t is no secret that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been among the most outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage. The conference’s advocacy, which has often cast the debate in hyperbolic terms, has persuaded few and offended many. With typical alarm, the bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage issued a statement calling the Court’s decisions “a tragic day for marriage and our nation,” and a “profound injustice to the American people.” The statement went on to use variations on the phrase “the truth of marriage” seven times in two brief paragraphs, as though mere incantation were a substitute for persuasion. ... Surely, whatever its legitimate reservations about the legalization of same-sex marriage, it is time for the church to begin to come to terms with this challenging new cultural and pastoral reality, a reality that calls for far more than overwrought predictions of moral decline and social calamity.

Read the whole thing here. Read previous stories on the court and same-sex marriage here, here, and here.

New stories on the homepage

Two new stories on the Commonweal homepage today.

With “The First Encyclical of Francis?” William L. Portier wraps up our look at Lumen fidei (previous takes from Robin Darling Young here and Dennis O’Brien here). From Portier’s piece:

Much here is as familiarly engaging as Benedict’s talks at Wednesday audiences. Clearly Chapters 2 and 3 represent a big chunk of the first draft of the encyclical on faith that Benedict was working on when he resigned.  And yet there are traces of that inclusively compassionate voice we have come to know over the past months as that of Pope Francis. It appears in the last paragraphs of the introduction which speak of Pope Benedict in the third person. Along with a quote from Dominus Iesus, resonances of it can also be heard in the second chapter’s last two paragraphs. Here is an example: “The more Christians immerse themselves in the circle of Christ’s light, the more capable they become of understanding and accompanying the path of every man and woman.” And another: “Anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by his help, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk toward the fullness of love.”  If these are not the ipsissima verba of Francis, they surely represent his ipsissima intentio. 

Read the whole thing here

In “The Painful Paradoxes of Race,” E. J. Dionne Jr. writes of his interview with Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and candidate for the state’s open Senate seat.

My interview with Booker didn’t start with the Zimmerman trial. Instead, the practically-minded mayor spoke enthusiastically about a program he had established in cooperation with the libertarian-conservative Manhattan Institute to help men released from prison become better fathers. “The right intervention,” he said, “can create radically different outcomes.”

Booker knows about crime. He described his experience of holding a young man who had just been shot, trying and failing to keep him from dying in his arms. He returned home disconsolate and washed off the young man’s blood.

His account, and Obama’s later words, put the lie to outrageous claims by right-wing talk jocks and provocateurs that those upset by the outcome in the Zimmerman trial are willfully ignoring the affliction of crime committed by African Americans against each other. On the contrary: African American leaders, particularly mayors such as Booker, were struggling to stem violence in their own communities long before it became a convenient topic for those trying to sweep aside the profound problems raised by the Martin case.

Read the whole thing here.

On the homepage: Justice Kennedy & DOMA

Just posted on the homepage, Michael J. Perry examines the reasoning of the Supreme Court's majority opinion holding the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional:

In my judgment, the Court made the right decision in Windsor, but the majority was much less clear than it should have been about why DOMA’s exclusion of same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. Kennedy’s opinion for the majority should not have put any weight on the alleged “animus” of those opposed to same-sex marriage. “Hate your neighbor or come along with us,” was how Justice Antonin Scalia characterized Kennedy’s reasoning. Scalia’s indignation was understandable. Kennedy’s suggestion that DOMA was based on the view that gays and lesbians are inferior human beings is tendentious in the extreme, and demeaning to all those who for a host of non-bigoted reasons uphold the traditional understanding of marriage as an essentially heterosexual institution. ...

I accept the bishops’ argument regarding the nonreligious nature of their opposition to same-sex marriage. The burden for the bishops, however, is the high bar set by the Constitution’s protection of religious and moral freedom—often called freedom of conscience. ...

Admittedly, it is not always obvious when a particular nonreligious moral belief is a minority moral belief. In answering that question, it is helpful to keep in mind what the celebrated American Jesuit John Courtney Murray wrote to Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing in the mid-1960s about laws decriminalizing access to contraception. “T]he practice [contraception], undertaken in the interests of ‘responsible parenthood,’ has received official sanction by many religious groups within the community,” Murray noted. “It is difficult to see how the state can forbid, as contrary to public morality, a practice that numerous religious leaders approve as morally right. The stand taken by these religious groups may be lamentable from the Catholic moral point of view. But it is decisive from the point of view of law and jurisprudence.”

Read the whole thing here

Morning reads: Bulger, Spitzer, Bishops on VRA

Somewhat overshadowed by events was the release of a statement from the USCCB on the Supreme Court decision overturning Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity, said:

The recent Supreme Court decision necessitates that Congress act swiftly to assure that the right to vote be protected and afforded to all eligible citizens. We urge policymakers to quickly come together to reaffirm the bipartisan consensus that has long supported the Voting Rights Act and to move forward new legislation that assures modern and effective protections for all voters so that they may exercise their right and moral obligation to participate in political life.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Health Association says today that the current combination of exemptions and accommodations within the HHS’s contraception mandate are sufficient.

Campaign-ish notes: Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor of Texas (I didn’t know either), won’t run for that office again, but is reflecting and, yes, praying, about his plans for the future. 

Read more

New stories on the homepage

Three new stories on the homepage today, including a piece by the editors on the actions of Eric Snowden and their implications for privacy and national security:

It is axiomatic that fighting clandestine terrorist groups requires clandestine methods. Sources and allies must be protected; in preemptive actions the element of surprise must be preserved. Secrets about ongoing investigations cannot be compromised without jeopardizing counterterrorism efforts. It is harder to justify keeping such details secret after the fact. Judgments about the trade-offs between privacy and safety cannot be made unless the American people know what the government has done in our name. Even if everything the government does to combat terrorism is technically legal, not everything legal is prudent, wise, or morally justified.

As a nation, we rely on a system of checks and balances to prevent an excessive concentration of state power. Those checks and balances are strained to the breaking point during times of war, and especially during a war as ill-defined and open-ended as the fight against terrorism. Congress is notoriously pusillanimous when it comes to national-security issues. The courts, meanwhile, are loath to intervene, preferring to leave the conduct of “war” to the other two branches. The executive rarely passes up an opportunity to expand its war-making powers. The result is the steady accumulation of influence by the nation’s security agencies. As political philosopher and former Clinton administration official William A. Galston recently observed, “It may be true that as currently staffed and administered, the new institutions of surveillance do not threaten our liberties. It is also true that in the wrong hands, they would make it much easier to do so.”

Also, E. J. Dionne Jr. comments on the political activism of the Supreme Court’s conservative wing in light of this week’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act:

Whenever conservatives on the court have had the opportunity to tilt the playing field toward their own side, they have done so. And in other recent cases, the court has weakened the capacity of Americans to take on corporate power. The conservative majority seems determined to bring us back to the Gilded Age of the 1890s.

The voting rights decision should be seen as following a pattern set by the rulings in Bush v. Gore in 2000 and Citizens United in 2010.

Bush v. Gore had the effect of installing the conservatives’ choice in the White House and allowed him to influence the court’s subsequent direction with his appointments of Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Citizens United swept aside a tradition going back to the Progressive Era -- and to the Founders’ deep concern over political corruption -- by vastly increasing the power of corporate and monied interests in the electoral sphere.

Tuesday’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling will make it far more difficult for African-Americans to challenge unfair electoral and districting practices. For many states, it will be a Magna Carta to make voting more difficult if they wish to.

The Constitution, through the 14th and 15th Amendments, gives Congress a strong mandate to offer federal redress against discriminatory and regressive actions by state and local governments. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her scalding but very precise dissent, “a governing political coalition has an incentive to prevent changes in the existing balance of voting power.”

Finally, Eve Tushnet writes on the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Frances Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites:

This is an opera of questions. The questions are spiritual and psychological rather than historical. Dialogues isn’t especially interested in the French Revolution as such…. [F]or the most part you could set Dialogues in the Roman Empire under Diocletian and its central concerns would be the same. What does it mean to die well? Are there bad ways to be a martyr for Christ? If you die for God, does that cancel out all your prior weakness and irresolution? And conversely, if you die in fear and anguish, is that the final verdict on your life despite all the courage you showed in better days?

IRS looked right, left, and in between

What’s to be made of the news that the IRS didn’t limit its screening of organizations applying for not-for-profit status to right-wing groups? For one thing, it may take some of the starch out of contentions by Peggy Noonan and others that the Obama administration specifically targeted political opponents or is now blighted by something worse than a mere “cancer on the presidency.” That the IRS also had on its list of watchwords such terms as “progressive” and “occupy”—and that pro-Obamacare advocacy groups were also swept up in the net—doesn’t quite hint at the vast left-wing conspiracy some seemed to be longing for.

On the other hand, that the IRS’s screening effort was apparently much broader than originally thought only adds fuel to the furor over government intrusiveness. Will tea party patriots now find common ground with ACA advocates? Or open-source software groups and proponents of electronic healthcare data exchange with those whose applications included the words “occupied territory advocacy” and "medical marijuana"? They were also singled out for secondary evaluation.

Congressional Democrats want to know why initial reports suggested that only right-wing groups were targeted, which (falsely, it would appear) imputed political motives to the IRS’s activities. Other groups want to know why there was a screening protocol at all—no matter how narrow, broad, prejudicial, nonpartisan, or as focused on software developers it was. Yes, “was”: On Monday, acting IRS commissioner Daniel I. Werfel formally ordered an immediate end to the screening effort.

Scalia: Chief Judicial Activist?

Antonin Scalia, just a few days ago:

In a speech to lawyers gathered June 21 in Asheville, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia decried judicial activism.

That was to the North Carolina Bar Association on Friday.  But today, Scalia and his colleagues struck down a law enacted by a 98-0 vote in the usually fractious Senate. Commonweal's editors predicted this "clear judicial activism" in their March 5 editorial. Now perhaps Commonweal's own legal experts can weigh in: Is Shelby County v. Holder the most "activist" Supreme Court decision of all time?

Let's see what the Senate's leader was saying about the Voting Rights Act all the way back in 2006:

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called the vote a major success. "The Voting Rights Act has worked," he said. "We need to build upon that progress by extending expiring provisions."

Indeed, the Voting Rights Act has, on the whole, worked -- a fact demonstrated clearly by the ruling itself. Has it worked so well that it is no longer needed? This is unthinkable, as demonstrated by the long litany of abuses in Ginsburg's dissent, many of them from the 2000's. This is not even to mention more recent attempts to suppress voter turnout, as discussed in this 2012 Commonweal editorial.

Recall that during oral arguments, Scalia referred to the Voting Rights Act as the "perpetuation of racial entitlement." That inaccurate and offensive remark was likely to be forgotten over time, but with today's ruling, it will probably become the most memorable and quoted line of Scalia's career. 

In the previous words of Commonweal's editors:

Scalia’s offhand reference to the “perpetuation of racial entitlement” was another startling reminder of why the VRA is necessary. The federal government goes to great lengths to ensure equal representation not as a generous gift to racial minorities, but because the right of all to vote and be counted is fundamental to our political system.

A right, not a gift.