Friday, January 27, 2012

Bishops Defend Freedom of Conscience

I need a bumper sticker that says "I support my bishops." Media criticisms of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops notwithstanding, they have delivered a cogent defense of conscience in the face of the Obama administration's recent attempt to stamp it out.

At stake is whether or not the Church must provide contraception at no cost to the employees of its various institutions. The Church does not ask that it be permitted to impose its morality on its employees or anyone else. The Church asks only that it not be compelled to participate in the commission of acts which its conscience cannot tolerate.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the USCCB, delivered a clear defense of the Church's freedom of conscience in the Wall Street Journal:
Religious freedom is the lifeblood of the American people, the cornerstone of American government. When the Founding Fathers determined that the innate rights of men and women should be enshrined in our Constitution, they so esteemed religious liberty that they made it the first freedom in the Bill of Rights.

In particular, the Founding Fathers fiercely defended the right of conscience. George Washington himself declared: "The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be extensively accommodated to them." James Madison, a key defender of religious freedom and author of the First Amendment, said: "Conscience is the most sacred of all property."

Scarcely two weeks ago, in its Hosanna-Tabor decision upholding the right of churches to make ministerial hiring decisions, the Supreme Court unanimously and enthusiastically reaffirmed these longstanding and foundational principles of religious freedom. The court made clear that they include the right of religious institutions to control their internal affairs.

Yet the Obama administration has veered in the opposite direction. It has refused to exempt religious institutions that serve the common good—including Catholic schools, charities and hospitals—from its sweeping new health-care mandate that requires employers to purchase contraception, including abortion-producing drugs, and sterilization coverage for their employees.

Last August, when the administration first proposed this nationwide mandate for contraception and sterilization coverage, it also proposed a "religious employer" exemption. But this was so narrow that it would apply only to religious organizations engaged primarily in serving people of the same religion. As Catholic Charities USA's president, the Rev. Larry Snyder, notes, even Jesus and His disciples would not qualify for the exemption in that case, because they were committed to serve those of other faiths.

Since then, hundreds of religious institutions, and hundreds of thousands of individual citizens, have raised their voices in principled opposition to this requirement that religious institutions and individuals violate their own basic moral teaching in their health plans. Certainly many of these good people and groups were Catholic, but many were Americans of other faiths, or no faith at all, who recognize that their beliefs could be next on the block. They also recognize that the cleverest way for the government to erode the broader principle of religious freedom is to target unpopular beliefs first.

Now we have learned that those loud and strong appeals were ignored. On Friday, the administration reaffirmed the mandate, and offered only a one-year delay in enforcement in some cases—as if we might suddenly be more willing to violate our consciences 12 months from now. As a result, all but a few employers will be forced to purchase coverage for contraception, abortion drugs and sterilization services even when they seriously object to them. All who share the cost of health plans that include such services will be forced to pay for them as well. Surely it violates freedom of religion to force religious ministries and citizens to buy health coverage to which they object as a matter of conscience and religious principle.

The rule forces insurance companies to provide these services without a co-pay, suggesting they are "free"—but it is naïve to believe that. There is no free lunch, and you can be sure there's no free abortion, sterilization or contraception. There will be a source of funding: you.

Coercing religious ministries and citizens to pay directly for actions that violate their teaching is an unprecedented incursion into freedom of conscience. Organizations fear that this unjust rule will force them to take one horn or the other of an unacceptable dilemma: Stop serving people of all faiths in their ministries—so that they will fall under the narrow exemption—or stop providing health-care coverage to their own employees.

The Catholic Church defends religious liberty, including freedom of conscience, for everyone. The Amish do not carry health insurance. The government respects their principles. Christian Scientists want to heal by prayer alone, and the new health-care reform law respects that. Quakers and others object to killing even in wartime, and the government respects that principle for conscientious objectors. By its decision, the Obama administration has failed to show the same respect for the consciences of Catholics and others who object to treating pregnancy as a disease.

This latest erosion of our first freedom should make all Americans pause. When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead.

A number of other bishops - including Bishop Conley of Denver, Bishops Vann and Farrell of Ft. Worth and Dallas, Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix, and Bishop Loverde of Arlington - have reechoed Archbishop Dolan's appraisal.

The bishops are urging Catholics - and, indeed, all Americans concerned about the freedom of conscience, to write to their congressmen asking them to support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179, S. 1467). While you're at it, contact the president and implore him to reverse this decision.  (And don't mark this down as a "health care" concern, because it is not; for your subject, choose "civil rights."  Because that is what is at stake.)

And then say some prayers. Not least for our bishops, who bear a tremendous burden in their work as shepherds.

For Washington's comments on conscience, see his Letter to the Quakers. For the full text of Madison's comments, click here.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

How I'll Be Voting - An Update

In August of last year I sketched out some issues I thought key for this presidential election.  With South Carolina's Republicans voting yesterday, it seems like a good time to take stock.

For the sake of discussion, I'll assume a three way race between President Obama, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.  This ignores the other Republican challengers and third party candidates.  A third party vote can be a powerful message, and may even be necessary in the present climate, but we'll leave that topic for another day.

One more caveat: I've drawn heavily on candidate's own official policy statements.  A fuller consideration would include their campaign statements, policy history, and analysts' predictions of future actions.  One could write a dissertation on many of these questions.  I mean only to start a discussion, not give the final word.

So how do the candidates stack up?

Debt.  Will they balance the budget?  That may require raising taxes, cutting spending, or both.  That may mean reforming the procurement process or passing a balanced budget amendment.  The specifics can vary, but we need to see a plan.
  • Romney is calling for a program of "cut, cap, and balance."  He wants to reduce spending, capping government expenditures at 20% of GDP, and then pass a balanced budget amendment.  He acknowledges that entitlement reforms will have to be part of the picture.  He argues that "we have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in."  To do so is a cruel burden on our children and grandchildren.  If one wants to be cautious, however, we might note that Romney has criticized the president's stimulus spending as adding to the debt, but - from what I can gather - Romney is more concerned about the spending part of that equation than the debt.  His basic plan is to cut taxes to revitalize the economy, thereby raising revenue.  The Laffer Curve sometimes looks like that, and it might work, but it might not.  I worry that he may not be willing (1) to cut expenditures as deeply as he wants to cut taxes, and (2) to raise taxes to avoid Greek-style debt.
  • Gingrich states that balancing the budget is one of his goals and has put forward a white paper on entitlement reform.  The budget is, however, 7th of his 9 economic priorities.  Moreover, he proposes to balance it by "growing the economy" (through tax cuts and deregulation) and "controlling spending".  Newt's first economic priority is to "stop the 2013 tax increases."  While I'm no fan of taxes, this maniacal emphasis on cutting them seems unlikely to lead to a balanced budget.  Yes, economic growth is part of the long-term solution to the debt, and low taxes are part of that equation, but they are not the whole story.  Nevertheless, Newt gets points for his real work during the 1990s to balance the federal budget.  Past performance is no guarantee of the future - balancing the budget in the boom years of the '90s was certainly easier than in today's economic climate - but it counts for something.
  • Obama's position page on the economy does not mention the national debt, our credit rating, or the problem of the deficit.  Instead, he discusses jobs, the auto industry, Hispanic families and women.  I don't mean to be cynical, but this is a naked appeal to some pretty specific interest groups, without consideration of the big picture.  Given the way the national debt has ballooned under President Obama, he offers little on this issue.  The one thing that can be said for the president is this: much of the debt that has accumulated during his years in office came from two wars he inherited, one of which he has ended, the other of which he is drawing to a close.  This will lead to substantial savings, though it hardly amounts to a concerted deficit plan. 
  • Winner?  I think Romney edges Gingrich out on this one, but all three candidates could focus more clearly on the debt.
Tax Code.  Put simply, ours is too large and too complicated.  It's a drag on the economy, a distortion of market forces, an invitation to corruption, and a revenue sieve.
  • Romney advocates tinkering with the tax system, but hardly the overhaul it needs.  This may be politic, but it's not leadership.  His stated long-term goal is to "pursue a fairer, flatter, simpler tax structure," but his articulated policy details all pertain to modest tax cuts, not closing loopholes and shortening the tax code.
  • Gingrich advocates an "optional flat tax of 15% that would allow Americans the freedom to choose to file their taxes on a postcard."  This is good.  The problem is that it's optional.  Individuals and companies will still have an incentive to lobby for special exceptions.
  • Obama only appears interested in closing loopholes if they're advantageous to Wall Street.  His own campaign website promises special tax incentives for clean energy technologies and small businesses.  I'm not opposed to either, but the president is doing nothing to fundamentally reform the tax code.
  • Winner?  A Romney-Gingrich tie.  Both seem to have the right idea, but insufficient plans to execute at this time.
Immigration.  We need to secure our borders, reform the system for legal entry, and address the problem of the large illegal population currently living in the States.
  • Romney hardly has an immigration plan.  He vows to "explore with Mexico, in his first 100 days, the need for enhanced military-to-military training cooperation and intelligence sharing to combat drug cartels and criminal gangs. Mitt Romney will complete a border fence protecting our southern frontier from infiltration by illegal immigrants, trans-national criminal networks, and terrorists."  So he's serious about securing the border.  But we need more.  I see little interest in immigration reform, and on the touchy issue of the present illegal population, he has taken a hardline stance that either ignores the size of the problem or implies a police state. 
  • Gingrich hits the nail on the head, directly addressing the issue - unlike Romney's comments, buried in his foreign policy positions - and calling for all three elements of a solution.  He might not get his way, or particular elements of his policies might not work, but this is the best I've seen of the mainstream candidates.
  • Obama certainly styles himself a friend of the Hispanic community, but his website makes no mention of the immigration issue.  That may be because he's set the record for deportations.  This powerful stick has not been accompanied by the carrot of comprehensive immigration reform or a push therefore.
  • Winner?  Gingrich unambiguously comes out ahead.
Education.  We're looking for school choice, open enrollment, more charter schools and vouchers, and a willingness to fight the NEA.
  • Romney is a firm supporter of school choice.  Excellent.
  • Gingrich also supports school choice (though a few details differ).
  • Obama has made education a major element of his campaign.  However, his education policy page primarily trumpets the spending of money.  Considering the NEA's massive contributions to the Democratic Party, don't expect the president to rock the boat.
  • Winner?  Another Romney-Gingrich tie.  The biggest unknown here is how far either one could get on actual reform before Washington chokes it off.
Marriage.   Late, and somewhat reluctantly, I have found myself placing this issue in the top tier.  I tire of the culture wars, but I have become ever more convinced of the centrality and importance - not to mention sanctity - of the institution of marriage.  Attempts to foist so-called same-sex marriages on the nation are ultimately a violation of conscience for those who cannot support them.
  • Romney's tangled history of positions on abortion call into question his adherence to the moral positions of his Mormon faith.  Nevertheless, the fact that he comes from a church famed for its strong families, and the fact the he remains married to his first wife, are good signs.  However, Romney was once known as a supporter of same-sex marriage.  He now opposes it, and explains that he was "firmly in support" of protecting gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons (GLBT) from discrimination, but he always opposed same-sex marriage.  If that's an accurate representation of his views and policies over the years then I think he's right on target.  But this may simply be waffling.
  • Gingrich has a tumultuous personal history of failed marriages.  That's troubling, though (1) I do believe in conversion and (2) nothing says a personally flawed leader cannot produce good policies for the nation, though I would be skeptical of such an outcome.  Nevertheless, he has come out strongly against same-sex marriages.  I do worry, however, that his position on this matter risks alienating moderate voters by sounding hateful; this is a difficult issue and any candidate should tread with care.
  • Obama has positioned himself as a champion of the GLBT community.  He has highlighted his opposition to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, though this is one of the least controversial issues in the field of GLBT rights.  The president has carefully avoided using the M word with regard to same-sex relationships, but he trumpets his support for "lesbian widow Edith Windsor in her suit
    against DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act]."
  • Winner?  Gingrich, by a nose.  His personal life notwithstanding, he's probably the most likely to sign pro-marriage legislation.
 A couple final notes on two important issues that didn't make the short list.  In the realm of foreign policy, I find President Obama to have been fairly impressive.  He brought the hunt for Osama bin Laden to a conclusion, brought the troops home from Iraq, and toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi without putting American boots on the ground and while making our European partners take the lead.  That's a fairly impressive record, one I would be surprised if either Republican could surpass.

As I've argued before, the right to life - particularly the life of the unborn - is terribly important in a general sense, but is largely out of the hands of the president.  The one exception is the appointment of Supreme Court justices.  President Obama's appointments have been in favor of abortion; given Romney's checkered history of positions, I worry he might appoint the next David Souter.  Gingrich is the only candidate of the three I feel confident would appoint an anti-abortion justice.

What do you think?  Please, share your thoughts in the comment field!

Today's image of the 2008 Democratic National Convention comes via Reuters.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Review of Joseph Roth's Letters in the Wall Street Journal

This weekend's Wall Street Journal features a review of a new English translation of a selection of Joseph Roth's letters. The review does a good job of conveying how tenuous Roth's hold on life and reality sometimes was. For example, the review mentions that Roth asked for money from Stefan Zweig for several years in the 1930's but would then berate him for interfering in his writing. But unfortunately (from my point of view), it concentrates on the purely political aspect of Roth's writing. While there is no doubt that politics meant a great deal to Roth, and that much of his oeuvre is concerned with politics in one way or another, the elegiac quality of his greatest works points to something more important than politics.

Anyone whose interest is piqued by the review may want to read three earlier posts about Roth (parts 1, 2, and 3). Maybe someday I'll finally get around to writing something about The Radetzky March as I've been planning for some time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Foreign Samurai

Samurai have an iconic Japanese identity. There have, however, been a handful of foreign samurai across the centuries.

The first, and probably best known, was William Adams (1564–1620), an English sailor. He was the first Englishman to visit Japan and became an adviser to Tokugawa Ieyasu, then a local lord, but later shogun (military ruler of Japan). Adams built Japan's first western-style ships; helped establish trade with New Spain, the Dutch East India Company, and English East India Company; and fostered Japanese trade with Southeast Asia (in vessels such as that pictured left). Adams was ultimately presented two swords, the signs of a samurai's office, for his service. In addition, he was given the Japanese name Miura Anjin (三浦按針) and the title of hatamoto (bannerman).

If this story sounds vaguely familiar, you may have heard it before. James Clavell's novel Shōgun and its hero, John Blackthorne, made famous by the miniseries of the same name, are loosely based on the life of William Adams.

One of Adams' sailing companions, Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn (1560 – 1623), also became an adviser to the shogun. He too was granted the two swords of a samurai and the title hatamoto.

More than two centuries later, Jules Brunet, a French army officer, arrived in Japan as part of Napoleon III's efforts to help modernize the shogun's army. When the emperor's supporters overthrew the shogun and Japan erupted into civil war, Brunet chose to stay and fight alongside the shogun's forces. He was present at the creation of the Republic of Ezo, serving as second in command of its army, and fighting in the Battles of Toba-Fushimi and Hakodate. Although not a samurai in any proper sense, Brunet certainly cast his lot with a Japanese cause, defending it on the field of battle.

Again, if this story sounds familiar, you may have seen it before; Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, is inspired, in part, by Brunet's life.

At the same time Eugène Collache, a French sailor, deserted his ship while in Japan and joined the shogun's forces, then fighting a rearguard action on the island of Hokkaidō. Collache was given the task of fortifying the mountain chain which protected their position, and he later fought in the Battle of Miyako Bay, in which he commanded one of three vessels that launched a surprise attack against the imperial navy. During the battle his ship was wrecked, and Collache was captured and imprisoned. He was eventually released back to France. Throughout his time with the shogun's faction, Collache always wore his samurai dress (pictured right).

Are these men mere historical curiosities, examples of cultural eclecticism? Perhaps. But they also strike me as interesting examples of the interconnectedness of the world, proof that broad national categories don't always make sense.