Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Friends And Foes of Christmas

The Most Unnecessary Holy War

Perennial politician Jerry "Grinch" Falwell, is always clever at reducing the church to a political base for his own advancement. This year, Falwell has called for a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign." Next we can expect a video game called "Battlefield Christmas"? Christian writer James Watkins rightly notes that Falwell is "launching a holy war" (in Arabic that translates "jihad") for a season when certain angels proclaimed "peace on earth."

To give Falwell his due, there is a kernel of truth at the heart of this misbegotten nonsense. Falwell calls on people of faith to oppose various attempts to "intimidate school and government officials by spreading misinformation about Christmas. Celebrating Christmas is constitutional!” Indeed it is. (If you want details, check out What's Your Problem? It's Christmas! ). That is so well established under existing Supreme Court decisions, one wonders why it provokes any controversy.

In fact, we should be more specific about who has what constitutional right to celebrate Christmas. Individuals and families have an unchallenged right to celebrate Christmas any way they choose. That is called free speech, free expression, free exercise of religion. Neither congress nor any state may pass a law to prohibit any of the above. Neither may the courts. If several families want to get together for a communal celebration, that is called freedom of association. The only limitation is, none of us can break a law, by committing murder, robbery, trespass, assault, or creating a public nuisance (like blaring carols over a sound system at 80 decibels in a residential neighborhood), in the name of celebrating Christmas.

Churches have an undoubted right to celebrate Christmas also. This is called freedom of religion, freedom of speech, free expression, freedom of association. This right includes putting up Christmas displays on church property, which may be visible for hundreds of yards, or even for miles. The fact that some atheist may be offended is legally irrelevant.

Businesses have a right to observe or not observe any holiday. That is basically the right to advertise your wares in whatever language you choose. There are some grinches of the anti-religious variety who consider it inappropriate for a business to observe a religious holiday. These grinches are entitled to their opinion, but it has no legal force at all. "Establishment of religion" is indeed prohibited by the First Amendment, but "Establishment" is something done by government, not by private businesses. The law insists that a commercial enterprise must serve all customers, without regard to religion, but it doesn't regulate what a business puts up in its windows for which holidays.

Falwell apparently wants Christians to target businesses that do not celebrate Christmas. That is his constitutional right, as a matter of free speech, and the right of any individual who chooses to follow him, (as distinct from those who choose to follow Him). Reportedly, Target Stores prohibits employees from wishing customers "Merry Christmas." That is silly. It may be good for business, it may be bad for business, it may have no impact on business. But it is Target's choice. If enough customers turn away from Target at Falwell's call, Target may revise their policy. I don't shop at Target, so I won't have any impact either way. Target is denied by law the authority to require employees to say "Merry Christmas," if an employee has religious objections to doing so.

Most Americans have enough sense and courtesy to be pleased when a member of any faith greets any other person in the name of a holiday. If the well-wisher is Jewish, "Happy Hannukah" is a compliment, whether expressed to a fellow Jew or to anyone else. Out of the mouth of a Christian, "Merry Christmas" is as good as "have a nice day," whether the person who hears the greeting is a Christian, a Buddhist, an atheist, or a pagan. And yes, Christians should accept "Happy Solstice" as a greeting of good will, and reply "Merry Christmas." Its not competitive, it is from the heart, of the person speaking.

There isn't much room left in the law for nuisance litigation about this stuff by self-righteous grinches. Check out the Freedom From Religion Foundation's web page Other Court Challenges. You will find that these enemies of religious freedom, implacable foes of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, have abandoned any attempt to file cases in the courts of Wisconsin, the state where FFRF headquarters are located. Why? Because some years ago, they lost a case over the display of a manger scene in a public park in the city of Waunakee. (Awwwwww...) They have also lost their Ten Commandments litigation, since the last time the web site was updated.

There are two key cases decided many years ago by the Supreme Court of the United States, which clear the way for federal, state and local governments to join in and recognize that large numbers of Americans are indeed celebrating Christmas. One case is Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668. The Supreme Court allowed a city-sponsored downtown display that included a manger scene, Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, and a banner reading "Season's Greetings," in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. This is not an "Establishment of religion" by the city. The other is Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573. The court ruled that a manger scene sponsored by a religious organization in the main front stairway of the county building is unacceptable, because it amounts to the county expressing preference for a specific religion, and a specific denomination, over all others. But the Pittsburgh city display of a tree, a menorah, and a star, was perfectly acceptable, and most likely could have included a manger scene also.

Since this is all so well established, why is it that Falwell finds it necessary to whip up a holy war? Maybe his empire just needed a good controversy for a fundraising letter? Spiritually, Falwell has made Our Father's House into a den of thieves. Constitutionally, he presses for the church to embrace the profane hands of the civil magistrate, which James Madison called "an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation."

Churches in the Denver, Colorado area showed a better way last year. The city and local businesses were sponsoring a very secular tinselly Christmas parade. A number of churches simply exercised their undoubted constitutional right to walk peacefully downtown singing Christmas carols, offering free hot chocolate, and passing out calendars of holiday worship services to anyone who wanted one. That is sharing the love of Jesus, expressing peace on earth, good will toward men, with an open invitation to salvation. It requires no campaign, no fundraising letters, no friends or foes, just Christians doing what Christians do. All well, no Fall.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

George Bush's Paper Tiger

Murtha and Hastert are both correct
about the war in Iraq

As reported in the New York Times, "Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a Vietnam combat veteran who voted for the Iraq war, said that after more than two years of combat, American forces had united a disparate array of insurgents in a seemingly endless cycle of violence that was impeding Iraq's progress toward stability and self-governance." He called for a withdrawal of American troops in six months.

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, a Republican, called this "a policy of cut and run." Both are correct. This should bring us to an understanding of why George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in the first place was so terribly wrong.

There are two times to fight a war. One is when the nation's survival is at stake, and there are only two choices: win or perish. The last war where that was the clear-cut situation facing the United States of America was World War II. Our parents and grandparents (for younger readers, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents) acted like it. Blackouts, civil defense, rationing of gasoline and meat and sugar, victory gardens, scrap metal drives, liberty bonds, saving fat from cooking meats to be turned in for making ammunition... Not so with Iraq. Has anyone given up one cup of latte for the war effort this year?

The other time to fight a war is when a nation sees something to gain by going to war, and has the power to win. That may or may not be a moral choice, but what is going to stop us? Morality depends on what is to be gained, and the nature of the enemy. Hitler thought he had an invincible military machine, that is why he went to war. He was wrong. Moral or immoral, no anti-war movement has ever prevented such a war. It is too easy to go along, and enjoy the ride. Win the war, and drink your latte too.

A majority of Americans believed that in Iraq, we faced one of these two situations. Frankly, most Americans, and most of the Bush administration, leaned heavily on the second possibility: hey, we can run right over anything Iraq can put in the field, so why not do it? Colin Powell knew better; that is why he isn't in the Bush cabinet any more. He warned the little boy in the White House that once we took out Hussein's armies and government, we would be responsible for everything that happened in Iraq. George didn't want to hear it. He never had a plan for what to do next. It must have made his head hurt to try to think about it.

The truth is, nothing going on in Iraq inspires Americans to make any and every necessary sacrifice to win. There are many forces in Iraq that are willing to make any sacrifice to win. That is why we are not winning against them. Most of them are pretty nasty characters, but they are willing to do whatever it takes to win. We are not. Some of those Iraqis are currently allied with us, some are fighting against us, none of them particularly respect us. Any sane, rational, well-informed leadership should have understood that before going into Iraq in the first place.

There was no such thing as "the Iraqi people" waiting for us to liberate them from Saddam Hussein. There were several factions of religious Shia Muslims, several factions of religious Sunni Muslims, some secular-minded men and women (who all have loyalties to clans that as a whole are either Shia or Sunni). There were Christian minorities, Jewish minorities, two competing armies of Kurds. Most of these groups were represented by open or clandestine political parties, many of them ready to bring armies or militias into existence once Hussein's government was knocked over by the U.S. Not exactly a foundation for a pluralistic democracy to flourish within six months to a year.

We could have, possibly, flat-out conquered Iraq, if we put sufficient resources and effort into it. We conquered Germany. We didn't go in to "liberate the people of Germany from Adolf Hitler." They were the enemy. We conquered their land, we established our armed forces as THE source of law and order. We called the shots. Nothing moved on any large scale unless we said so. We set up military occupation zones. THEN we picked those we wanted, and established them as the nucleus of a new, more or less democratic, German government. They set up elections that elected the government we appointed.

In Iraq, we went in "to liberate the people of Iraq." So, we had to deal with whichever Iraqi politicians and would-be politicians came out of the woodwork to say "Here we are to represent the people of Iraq." Our legacy may be an Islamic Republic. It might be Shia, aligned with Iran. It might be Sunni, aligned with al-Qaeda, or hostile to al-Qaeda. Whatever we leave behind, whenever we leave, it will not be a free, happy, prosperous, democratic nation. We are already being undermined by our own Iraqi allies. Aside from wanting our troops to die for them, they would like us to get out of their way as soon as possible.

The best thing for the United States about a Shia-led Islamic Republic is that bin Laden and Zarkawi despise the Shia, as heretics to Islam. They love each other the way the Spanish Inquisition loved Dutch Protestants, or the way Sir Francis Drake loved the Spanish Armada. Under Shia rule, Iraq will not be open to use by al-Qaeda as its base, but it won't remain close to U.S. policy either. That is about what we had to deal with when Hussein al-Takriti was running Iraq. Back where we started from, with over 2000 dead.

Murtha is correct: our armed forces have done everything that has been asked of them, that could be asked of them. Our soldiers are doing their job superbly, but our nation is not willing to make real sacrifices to back them up. Oh, there are many Americans collecting videos and DVDs for the troops, putting together care packages, sending emails to encourage them. All very good. But how many people have volunteered to give up half of their tax cuts, to buy the troops armor? Yellow ribbons don't stop explosives.

When American forces started moving into Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh said that as American soldiers came home dead, American mothers would want to know why. He knew that there was nothing going on in Vietnam which would pose a serious threat to Aberdeen, South Dakota. It took some time for most Americans to recognize that. As with the Iraq war today, civilians didn't have to share the sacrifices being made by the troops on the front lines. In the end, we weren't willing to make any real sacrifices to win.

The Republican leadership correctly says that we may suffer some losses in the war against al Qaeda if we pull out of Iraq. But they cannot inspire themselves, much less their constituents, to actually commit to do what it would take to win. It would require money – but we won't raise taxes to pay the bill. It would take a mobilization of troops – but we can't get that many volunteers, and we won't support a draft. It would take industrial output and massive overtime – but we depend for our industrial goods on China, Korea, and other nations that cannot be mobilized for our war effort as American industry was mobilized for World War II.

All of this should have been considered before we went into Iraq at all. If we had never invaded, Iraq would not be the free-fire zone for al-Qaeda that it has become. Saddam Hussein was brutal, ruthless, self-centered. So are most of the likely future leaders of Iraq, those we have brought to power. Saddam Hussein was a mortal enemy of Osama bin-Laden, who called his regime socialists and apostates. Now, Iraq is wide open for al-Qaeda, because we took Hussein out, and we cannot keep al-Qaeda out.

We should not have gone into Iraq unless we were either prepared to conquer the country, which would not have come cheap, or we had reliable allies to fight for, who could govern the country successfully. We didn't have any allies worth fighting for, but our president sold us on a cheap and easy war. There used to be an argument that "I opposed going in, but now that we are there, we have to finish the job. It would be even worse if we pulled out." It is becoming clear that we can never "finish the job," no matter how long we stay, and the longer we delay, the worse it will become.

And so, the Bush administration have shown themselves to be that classic Maoist cliche, a paper tiger. Rep. Murtha is more than correct to say of Vice-President Cheney, of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, "I like guys who've never been there that criticize us who've been there. I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and send people to war and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done." Murtha knows from personal experience what it takes to fight a war, what it takes out of the men and women on the front lines, and what it takes to win. Nobody in the Bush administration has a clue.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Intelligent Voters in Dover

The scientific content of so-called "Intelligent Design" could be easily set forth in a two-page mimeographed insert. The alarmed response of many credible scientists to simple mention of a controversy, however silly, has undermined the objectivity of scientific theory. Pat Robertson has stabbed the Discovery Institute in the back, by announcing that rejection of "Intelligent Design" curriculum is rejection of God. Articles issued by Associated Press and Knight-Ridder News Services show they have no clue what is really going on.

But the voters of Dover, Pennsylvania showed genuine intelligence. By all reports, the dominant mood that defeated eight incumbents for re-election to the local school board was "Don't we have much more important and pressing business to deal with? Please get this nonsense out of our face."

The pending federal court decision, on which so many have wasted so much time and money, about so little, may be moot before it is decided. Several incoming school board members have announced that they oppose spending taxpayers' money on any appeal, no matter how the court rules. Science classes will continue to teach sound science. And it appears that the existence of competing theories will not be hidden from students either.

The controversy exposed the usual collection of misconceptions. A local barber is quoted in the New York Times as saying "I just don't think we got here by some big bang." The so-called "Big Bang" is a well-established theory of astronomy, having nothing to do with whether life on earth emerged from a long process of evolution, or a rapid process of creation, with or without an intelligent designer motivating either process. For those who uphold the authority of Holy Scripture, it is entirely consistent with Genesis 1:3. The emergence, or creation, or accidental beginning, of life on earth, happened long after the explosion of light that began the universe we know.

Television tycoon Pat Robertson has considerably less authority to speak for God than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has to speak for George W. Bush, but Robertson runs his mouth on behalf of the Creator several times a week anyway. Never before has anyone subordinated an omnipotent deity to the will of a few thousand humans. Robertson assured "the good people of Dover" that they had just "voted God out of your city." God may be surprised to learn that He is less omnipresent than most of us learned in Sunday School.

The more significant result of Robertson's remarks is to undermine the Discovery Institute's claim that "Intelligent Design" is not a religious teaching at all, but a valid scientific theory. No doubt the institute will disassociate itself from Robertson's remarks. "Intelligent Design" does not even name the designer, merely teaching that there must have been one. So whatever the good people of Dover rejected, it was not God. There may be an intelligent designer, who may in fact be God, as millions of scientists who are practicing Christians (but not necessarily Christian Scientists) have always believed. And don't forget the millions of scientists who are Muslims and Jews. The odd thing about intelligent design is: not one commonly accepted scientific theory needs to be set aside in order to accept that simple, but unprovable, premise.

Which is what makes the entire "Intelligent Design" movement so silly. If it is science, it doesn't add anything new. It just adds some speculative commentary on the existing data. If it is a Trojan horse for Young Earth Creation mythology, then it is not science. The truth seems to be so muddled that everyone who opens their mouth on the subject gives the Design a new meaning. That in turn makes it impossible to teach it coherently in the science classroom.

This does not mean that voters endorsed evolution, as the initial AP/Knight Ridder coverage would have it. This election was not a "victory for Darwin's theory." Voters appear to have been more concerned with letting science teachers do their jobs than with lining up for or against any theory. Truth doesn't change because of a vote, no matter who wins the election. What is true is true. What can be verified by experiment can be verified by experiment. What cannot be proven by scientific method cannot be proven by scientific method. Darwin may be correct, or he may be way off base, but that didn't change because of a school board election.

The common sense of the voters and new school board members in Dover is a breath of fresh air in an old and stale debate. Most of the incoming board members support teaching Intelligent Design in elective classes on philosophy, humanities, comparative religion or history, to help students develop critical thinking skills. They simply don't intend to mandate reference to it in science classes. Different members refer to ID as "a matter of the heart and soul," as a "faith based concept," and point out that it cannot be tested, proved, or disproved by existing scientific methods. The lawsuit on the subject "has already taken too much time from the district's primary business of educating students."

Not only has reason prevailed, but reason has prevailed with due respect for the spiritual needs and values of the community and the people who live in it. It has prevailed through the democratic process, without waiting for a mandate from a federal judge. The voters of Dover have broken the myths of "red" and "blue" states, of science "vs." faith, of any political party having a monopoly on either one.

Science classes will teach science, not wishful thinking. Science includes knowledge that can be tested by experiment and verified by measurable results, about how the world works. And to God be the glory – of course science cannot prove that, but to those who believe, no proof is needed. To this outcome a patriotic American, respectful of the values that emerged from the American Revolution, can only say: Amen, brothers and sisters, Amen.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Alito: Will Justice Be Served?

George Will vs. Himself on the role of the Supreme Court of the United States

George Will is a thorough student of history and government. He has a keen eye for the foundation of any issue, and a sharp intellect. In his widely syndicated Op-Ed columns, he generally cuts through prevailing political rhetoric, to identify fundamental questions of principle. Then, if it is convenient, he meanders off into meaningless muddle, determined to discredit whoever may be in the way of the outcome he desires from a political debate. He totally loses sight of the principles he first enunciated.

So it is with his initial response to the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court of the United States.

There are demagogues abroad in our nation, so fervently determined to get their personal preferences written into law, that they forget there is a constitution which defines (and limits) the powers of our governments. Not so George Will. He never insinuates that the primary criterion for a justice of the Supreme Court is "will this candidate vote to approve what I want?" There are self-styled conservatives who have forgotten that we have a government of limited powers. All they want is a compliant set of justices who will give the legislature a free ticket to do anything it chooses, so long as they command a legislative majority. George Will does not stoop so low.

Will recognizes that "Our nation properly takes its political bearings, always, from the Constitution, properly construed on the basis of deep immersion in the intellectual ferment of the founding era that produced it. That is why our democracy inescapably functions under some degree of judicial supervision." This man has clearly read The Federalist Papers, both Hamilton's contributions and Madison's, as well as those by John Jay. No doubt he is also familiar with Chief Justice Marshall's reminder that "it is a constitution we are expounding."

Will asserts that "The nation has long needed a serious debate about the proper nature of that supervision." The question he proposes we should debate is, "Should the Constitution be treated as so much plastic, so changeable that it enables justices to reach whatever social outcomes – "results" – they would consider desirable? If so, in what sense does the Constitution still constitute the nation?" Will expresses conviction that the Alito nomination will generate that debate.

But Will is drawn off the high road of principle, to chase a will 'o the wisp into a bog of political name-calling. What he most fervently desires is for our discredited, incompetent and deservedly unpopular president to use this nomination as leverage "to challenge his Democratic critics." Accordingly, Will asserts that these critics have only two arguments to make against Alito's confirmation, both of them "intellectually disreputable." Indeed, the arguments Will offers to put in the mouths of senate democrats ARE intellectually disreputable. Anyone critical of Alito's record, Democrat, Republican or independent, would do well to refrain from using them.

Instead, let us hope that there are women and men serving in the United States Senate who will put Judge Alito to the test of the very questions George Will poses. The debate he eloquently defines should not be aborted by the fait accompli he seeks.

Would Judge Alito treat the Constitution as so much plastic, so changeable that it enables him to reach whatever results he considers desirable? Judge Alito wrote a dissenting opinion in 1991, to uphold the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania statute requiring a married woman to notify her husband before getting an abortion. Was there a sound constitutional basis to his dissent? Or did he treat the Constitution as so much plastic, to enable him to reach the social outcome he preferred? The result he arrived at is not what the senate should examine. The caterwauling of pro-abortion and anti-abortion lobbyists should be a mere annoyance to the confirmation process. How he arrived at that result, how he construed the constitution, whether he was simply overriding the plain meaning of the supreme law of the land to advance his own agenda, is of critical importance.

What has Judge Alito recognized as the proper nature for judicial supervision of legislative acts? Would he agree with Alexander Hamilton that "The complete independence of the courts is peculiarly essential in a limited constitution" by which Hamilton understood "one which contains certain specified exceptions to legislative authority"? (Never mind that shabby subterfuge, "a living constitution," this is a limited constitution we are expounding). Can limitations of this kind be preserved in any other way than through courts of justice "whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the constitution void"? Is there any way to reserve the rights and privileges of the people in any practical sense without this judicial supervision?

We have, today, many voices raised by state and federal legislators, asserting that courts are usurping distinctly legislative functions. In light of Madison's assertion that "no man may be a judge of his own cause," and that this applies still more to an entire body of men, how has Judge Alito, in his lengthy judicial career, distinguished between usurpation of legislative functions, and declaring legislative acts that are contrary to the constitution void?

Let us not neglect to inquire about constitutional issues of vital concern to millions of working families across the nation, a large portion of them Evangelical Christians, a good part of the rest Christians of the Roman Catholic faith. What is Judge Alito's record on questions that have come before the federal courts concerning the competing interests of employers and employees, of corporate distributors and individual consumers? How does he ground his decisions on such questions? Has he found a clear and unmistakable command in the Constitution, to which he is merely an obedient servant? Or does he twist the broad language of that document, to arrive at a result that pleases him?

Certainly both judges and legislators are capable of making mistakes, and have each been wrong at times. These are important questions, which should be presented to Judge Alito in a manner that provides the nation with the debate that Will succinctly poses. The answers to these questions do not fall neatly into "conservative" and "liberal" stereotypes.

For example, many congressional "liberals" have a knee-jerk addiction to broad federal regulatory powers. Even the devastation wreaked by George W. Bush exercising such powers has not cured this predilection. One of Chief Justice Rehnquist's contributions, during his term on the court, was to lead the way in decisions curbing congressional use of the power to regulate interstate commerce, which has increasingly been used as a free ride to regulate anything and everything.

However, the specific cases brought before the court nullified federal laws which banned guns from the vicinity of schools, and would have allowed federal civil suits by rape victims against alleged perpetrators. Perhaps a future decision would strike down the absurdity of applying a depression-era law regulating agricultural commodities, to justify federal prosecution of a woman for "interstate trafficking in pornography" over poor judgment in taking family photos with a throwaway camera (manufactured in another state). But note well, that state laws providing lengthy prison terms for carrying guns near schools, and for rape, were left entirely intact. The court simply found that these did not fall under the enumerated powers delegated to the federal level of government by the Constitution.

At least two Supreme Court decisions of the past fifteen years have pitted a gay rights agenda on the one hand against liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights on the other. The better known was Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. A less well known, but equally important case, was John J. Hurley and South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian And Bisexual Group Of Boston. In both cases, the court refused to define a private organization's free association and free speech as a "public accomodation" that anyone could crash at will or by law.

Rehnquist and Scalia joined both majorities, Stevens and Souter dissenting on the Boy Scout case, while Souter wrote the opinion of the court on the Boston case. On the other hand, when the general right to privacy of all citizens coincided with the preferred outcome of two homosexual plaintiffs, Lawrence v. Texas was decided in a manner that made advocates of unfettered legislative discretion howl.

Indeed, let us have the debate on the proper nature of judicial supervision. Does existing judicial precedent intrude on proper legislative functions? Or does it protect the rights of the people from legislative tyranny? Are the critics of "judicial activism" seeking to protect the people from sweeping judicial mandates? Or are they seeking the "freedom" to impose restrictions on the people? Does the Constitution immunize commercial businesses from regulation intended to protect employees and consumers? Communists have always charged that it does. Does Judge Alito agree? Is a mutli-billion dollar corporation a “person” in the eyes of the Constitution, equal to any other person?

Let us have no argument for some kind of "balancing act" as to the supposedly "conservative" or "liberal" bias of the Supreme Court. Will pre-emptively criticizes that subterfuge, and it has no place in the confirmation process. Let us have specific examples of how, and when, the constitution has been treated as mere plastic. Let us have Judge Alito's forthright analysis of such examples. Let the senate provide the American people with an open and detailed factual debate, examined through the lens of time-honored legal standards. And then, let each senator consider carefully whether this is a man who can be entrusted to expound this constitution, as a constitution, accurately and honestly. Because it is the senate, and the senate alone, that must consent to the nomination.