Monday, December 17, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Religion in Politics

We often want one thing and pray for another, not telling the truth even to the gods. -- Seneca

Don't React. Check.
This week's cautionary tale begins with Pope Benedict's New Year message, which is already available at the Vatican web site.

Recent popes have a well-deserved reputation for being conservative on social issues like abortion, gay rights, and gender equality. But it's less well known that they've been quite liberal on economic, environmental, and military issues. (In 2005 I wrote this article analyzing the radical economic viewpoint of John Paul II, a subject I hope to return to. Short version: God created the Earth for everybody, not just for the people who own everything.)

So it was something of a shock -- a pleasant shock for anti-environmentalists and an unpleasant shock for the rest of us -- to find this headline in London's newspaper The Daily Mail: The Pope condemns climate-change prophets of doom.
Pope Benedict XVI has launched a surprise attack on climate change prophets of doom, warning them that any solutions to global warming must be based on firm evidence and not on dubious ideology. The leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics suggested that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering.
In America, conservative bloggers jumped on the news and crowed about their high-profile new ally in the battle over global warming. At the Pirate's Cove blog, for example, Jebediah Murphy proclaims "The Pope Now a Climate Change Denier" and predicts "all them liberal climahysterics (also known as climahypocrites) are really going to hate the Pope and religion even more."

Right on cue, Pirate's Cove commenter Madmatt attacks the Pope: "This is a nazi, who is pro child molestor, and believes in an invisible man in the sky." If you're a devout Catholic reading this discussion -- or any of the others like it happening on other blogs -- you're undoubtedly offended by this. The popular frame about politics and religion -- religious people are conservative, liberals are against religion -- has been supported.

Except ... the whole discussion is based on nonsense. The Pope's message is about "the human family" as a metaphor for world peace. Of the 15 numbered paragraphs, only 7 and 8 are about the environment, and they express only the most unobjectionable principles. (That's what a good religious patriarch does: re-assert timeless truths and let the secular leaders fight over how they apply to the issue at hand.) Taken out of the conservative-spin context of the Daily Mail article, the parts they quote are pretty innocuous:
It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.
This is only against the global-warming activists if you imagine (as the Daily Mail reporter clearly does) that the Pope is wagging his finger directly under their noses when he denounces "ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions." But nothing in the Pope's message indicates this. In fact, you can just as easily (more easily, I think) imagine the Pope wagging his finger under President Bush's nose when he says:
It is essential ... to choose the path of dialogue rather than the path of unilateral decisions.
So here's the moral of my story: When the media tells you that somebody said something surprising, don't react, check. Your first response shouldn't be: "How can he say that!" It should be: "Did he really say that?" Often the answer will be No.

Conservatives Rediscover Frankenstein's Monster
This week conservative pundits have been trying to re-assert the natural order in the Republican Party.

The GOP is basically a pyramid: Neocons and plutocrats are the narrow peak, and evangelicals are the broad base. Evangelicals are supposed to stuff envelopes and make phone calls and turn enough working class voters against their own economic interests to get neocons and plutocrats into positions of power. In return, neocons and plutocrats offer a lot of symbolic gestures: mainly futile proposals of constitutional amendments to outlaw abortion or reinstate prayer in public schools. And judges, of course. Republicans appoint pro-business and pro-executive-power judges who also happen to be pro-life. Pro-life is like chrome bumpers or tailfins: It keeps the yahoos happy without interfering with the way the car runs.

That's been the deal ever since Ronald Reagan, and it works fine as long as everyone remembers his place in the pyramid. This year it has broken down, and that's why the Huckabee phenomenon was so predictable. The Republicans were supposed to unite around an evangelically credible plutocrat like George Allen or Bill Frist. But those guys self-destructed early, leaving candidates like Giuliani and Romney, who have cobbled together conservative social-issue platforms that directly contradict their records.

That doesn't fly among evangelicals, who look for authenticity, not a checklist of issues. Ronald Reagan was a good enough actor to fake authenticity, and W has been content to express his authentic evangelical sentiments while letting Cheney run the government. So everyone has been happy. But Giuliani and Romney don't have evangelical authenticity and can't fake it. So when a real evangelical like Mike Huckabee started looking like a credible candidate, the base of the pyramid revolted. "We've been loyal to the Party," the evangelicals are saying. "Why can't one of us be at the top?"

Leadership castes tend to come unglued when the plebians start believing their lip service. It's hard to tell them: "All that stuff we've been saying about respecting you: You were supposed to take it in, not take it seriously." But that's been the underlying message this week. In "An Overdose of Public Piety" Charles Krauthammer denounced Romney's attempt to pander to the evangelicals:

Romney has been faulted for not throwing at least one bone of acknowledgment to nonbelievers in his big religion speech last week. But he couldn't, because the theme of the speech was that there is something special about having your values drawn from religious faith. Indeed, faith is politically indispensable. "Freedom requires religion," Romney declared, "just as religion requires freedom." But this is nonsense

National Review's pundit Lowry was wistful about the notion that evangelicals had "matured" away from social issues and into a proper neocon focus on the war on terror. (How demeaning is that?) And he cautions evangelical Republicans against "Huckacide":
The GOP’s social conservatism inarguably has been an enormous benefit to the party throughout the past 30 years, winning over conservative Democrats and lower-income voters who otherwise might not find the Republican limited-government message appealing. That said, nominating a Southern Baptist pastor running on his religiosity would be rather overdoing it.
David Frum also worries about "overdoing it":
Conservatives have drawn strength from populism. But you can overdo any good thing -- and I am beginning to think that on this one, we've zoomed the car into the red zone. ... How exactly is it elitist to expect a candidate for president to be immune to obvious flim-flam? Or to submit his ideas to criticism--and change them if they cannot stand up? And yet it also has to be admitted: Many of us on the conservative side have fed this monster.
Frum used to write speeches for President Bush, who of course is famous for submitting his ideas to criticism and changing them if they can't stand up.

Off -the-reservation conservative Andrew Sullivan reads Krauthammer and Lowry and asks:
Where, one wonders, have they been for the past decade? They have long pooh-poohed those of us who have been warning about this for a long time, while cozying up to Christianists for cynical or instrumental reasons. But now they want to draw the line. Alas, it's too late, I think, for Charles to urge an openness toward atheism or non-religion in a party remade on explicitly religious grounds by Bush and Rove.
And Sullivan, to his credit, states the religion-politics relationship exactly right:
It may well be that support for a piece of social policy emerges from religious reasons. But in a secular society, it is vital that when making the argument for your position in public, you do not deploy arguments that depend on or invoke religiously-revealed truths. The essential civic discipline in a pluralist democracy is to translate your religious convictions into moral arguments - arguments that can persuade and engage people of all faiths or none.
Massive Cave-in in Congress
Remember a month or so ago, when the Democrats in Congress were going to dig in their heels against the worst excesses of the Bush administration? "The days of free lunch are over," Charles Schumer asserted. And Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi pledged there would be no Iraq funding bill this year without a withdrawal timetable.

Never mind.
In a string of setbacks last week, Democratic leaders in Congress yielded to Bush and his GOP allies on Iraqi war funding, tax and health policies, energy policy and spending decisions affecting billions of dollars throughout the government.
Also never mind about FISA. Reid's maneuvering in the Senate has all but guaranteed that Congress will pass a bill giving President Bush everything he wants, including amnesty for the phone companies that broke the law in order to cooperate with the government's law-breaking -- which we now learn started with a transition report the NSA wrote for the incoming Bush people in December, 2000, way before 9/11. (Glenn Greenwald does 'apoplectic' better than I do, so I'll leave the FISA issue to him.)

I guess giving-in is the spirit of Christmas. And Georgie has been such a good boy this year. Or something.

I'd love to be able to give you a better explanation. (And if you can explain it to me, please do.) Is it cowardice? Corruption? Some misguided notion of strategy? I'm totally at a loss.

Short Notes
Time lists the top ten editorial cartoons of the year. My favorite is #10.

The LA Times reports that Iraqi policewomen have been ordered to give up their weapons. Armed women -- it's just not proper. The article raises two questions: What is the life expectancy of an unarmed Iraqi policeperson, male or female? And without policewomen, who's going to search females to make sure they don't have bombs under those burkas?

TPM-TV reviews the high moments of saber-rattling before the National Intelligence Estimate said that Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program.

Paul Krugman reads the latest economic reports so that you don't have to. He lifts the following statistics from a Congressional Budget Office report on taxes: During the opening years of the "Bush boom" (2003-2005 -- the most recent years for which the report has figures), the top 1% saw a 43.5% increase in their income. The bottom 20% got an increase of 2%. I'm hoping that this subject will be discussed by the ghosts who are scheduled to visit President Bush next Monday night.

Google has a plan to compete with Wikipedia. Rather than a community writing/editing process, articles will be written by individuals. Presumably the good articles will float to the top via some kind of community rating process.

After telling voters during his 2006 Senate campaign that he wanted to "elect a Democratic president in 2008," Joe Lieberman has endorsed John McCain. You've got to wonder how many votes Lieberman would have gotten if he'd told Connecticut the truth: That he would support an escalation of the war in Iraq and he'd endorse a Republican for president.

Being a member of the Senate Intelligence Commitee, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has been able to read the secret memos that elucidate the Bush administration's interpretation of the president's constitutional powers. He boils them down to this:
1. “I don’t have to follow my own rules, and I don’t have to tell you when I’m breaking them.”

2. “I get to determine what my own powers are.”

3. “The Department of Justice doesn’t tell me what the law is, I tell the Department of Justice what the law is.”

Maybe I should have gone with this quote instead:
When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. – Charles S. Peirce


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