Michael Bérubé, blogging at TPM, points out Barack Obama's failure to adhere to proper liturgical form in last nights debate in response to Tim Russert's vacuous "Lewis Farrakahn" question:
There is, in fact, a proper form for denouncing and rejecting Farrakhan; it is called renouncing Farrakhan. Impartial moderator Tim Russert was quite right to press Obama on this, and Hillary Clinton was quite right to suggest that Obama didn't execute his part properly tonight. For the record, this is how it's done:
Famously tough but fair questioner: Abrenuntiatis farrakhanae? [Do you renounce Farrakhan?]
Liberal black officeseeker: Abrenuntio.
Famously tough but fair questioner: Et omnibus operibus eius? [And all his works?]
Liberal black officeseeker: Abrenuntio.
Famously tough but fair questioner: Et omnibus pompis eius? [And all his pomps?]
Liberal black officeseeker: Abrenuntio.
Michael is quite correct that Obama's lapse on this score is disconcerting, although I should point out that, since the reforms of Washington II, it is now permissible to perform the liturgy in the vernacular though some of course consider this unforgivably laxist.
Michael also points out in comments the distinction between the liturgical requirements leveled against Obama and Clinton:
as Hillary didn't take the title of her book, It Takes A Village, from a sermon by your third cousin who went with Farrakhan to meet with Qaddafi, I think she's in the clear. Because it's the taking the title of your book from a sermon by someone who went with Farrakhan to meet with Qaddafi that really suggests you need to reassure Jewish voters about your beliefs.
Amy Sullivan has a new book out about religion and politics. It's called The Party Faithful, and she just did an interview with Salon.com about it a few days ago (which you can read here).
While I would generally not label myself an "evangelical" Christian, for all the baggage that term carries, I am largely in agreement with Amy on the need for Democrats to find a genuine way to court the evangelical vote. And no doubt it's true that the abortion issue is a huge hurddle to overcome in that effort.
Kevin Drum, linking to the interview, calls attention to this point, and some of the backlash that it has gotten (there is, it seems, an entire subculture of the internet dedicated solely to hating Amy Sullivan!):
Well, I don't like the [pro-choice] label. I guess the reason I wrote about abortion the way I did in the book is because I have serious moral concerns about abortion, but I don't believe that it should be illegal. And that puts me in the vast majority of Americans. But unfortunately, there's no label for us.
Kevin's interpretation of what Amy is getting at here, and througout her book, is exactly right:
about 60% of the evangelical community is politically conservative and won't ever vote for a Democrat. But the other 40% will, and those 40% are worth trying to appeal to. And one way to appeal to them is to acknowledge their moral qualms about abortion even if you don't happen to share them yourself.
As a bonus, Kevin then goes onto note that this is precisely the approach that Barack Obama has taken, as in the following:
I think that the American people struggle with two principles: There's the principle that a fetus is not just an appendage, it's potential life. I think people recognize that there's a moral element to that. They also believe that women should have some control over their bodies and themselves and there is a privacy element to making those decisions.
I don't think people take the issue lightly. A lot of people have arrived in the view that I've arrived at, which is that there is a moral implication to these issues, but that the women involved are in the best position to make that determination. And I don't think they make it lightly.
The problem, of course, is that this has been the Democratic orthodoxy for at least 15 years, but it doesn't get any play. Some of Amy's critics rightly point out that, by framing the discussion of the Democrats and religion in terms of the Democrats' shortcomings, particularly on this issue, she often fails to accent as strongly as she should just what the mainstream of the Democratic party has actually been advocating. Since 1992, most Democrats have advocated the "Safe, Legal, and Rare" doctrine on abortion. Obama's comments are a further elaboration on what that principle means.
The concern then, it seems to me, is not that the Democrats have to change some fundamental part of their identity on this issue, but that they have to draw attention to what their position actually is, rather than how its characterized by their opponents.
The big problem, then, for Democrats is the same one we face on every front, namely, how to avoid our traditional battle formation of a circular firing squad.
The Pentagon is projecting that when the United States troop buildup in Iraq ends in July there will be about 8,000 more troops on the ground than when it began in January 2007, a senior general said Monday.
Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that by July the troop total was likely to be 140,000. There were 132,000 troops there when President Bush approved orders to send five more Army brigades to Iraq to improve security and avert civil war.
....Asked if the total would be below 132,000 by the time President Bush leaves office next January, General Ham said, "It would be premature to say that."
Looks like McCain's thirst for perpetual war is going along swimmingly!
Look, it doesn't take much research to discover what Obama's achievements are, and to compare them to Hilary Clinton's. Hilzoy is absolutely correct that someone like Chris Matthews ought to have this information at his disposal. The only reason he saw fit to pile on that poor sap from Texas was so he could play "Hardball!"™
If, after doing a side-by-side comparison, you think that Hilary's record stacks up better, that's fine. But to pretend that Obama doesn't have a great deal of significant legislative and political experience under his belt is simply ludicrous. Matt is right when he writes:
I think it stands up perfectly well to Hillary Clinton's record (unless you accept the view that she deserves credit for everything Bill Clinton did that you like, but didn't agree with any of the stuff you don't like) or John McCain's.
For all of her vaunted experience, Hilary Clinton has been a Senator all of four years longer than Obama, and had no experience as an elected official before that (and no, being first lady doesn't count, particularly when her one major initiative was an overwhelming failure).
Since she's been a Senator, she's done a fine job passing through the kind of legislation you would expect from the junior Senator of a Democratic state under a Republican-led Congress. But she doesn't perform significantly better than Obama.
As for McCain, given his long tenure in the Senate, you'd expect to find a longer paper trail of legislative accomplishments, but for his length of service, it's pretty thin, though it does include some significant successes, like McCain-Feingold.
The great shame right now, of course, is that, given the opportunity to put his most deeply held principles in action, he voted AGAINST the ban on waterboarding, and has urged the president to veto the bill when it comes before him. That's the kind of shame that ought to stick to you a lot more than flubbing an appearance opposite Chris Matthews.
After the truly humiliating moment last night on MSNBC, when an Obama surrogate was massacred by Chris Matthews for not being able to name any of Barack's accomplishments in the Sentate, I thought it might be worthwhile to do some research on the topic myself. So, here's a partial list from one of Obama's supporters of some of his accomplishments (Here I'm including only what he's accomplished in the U.S. Senate, but the original poster also lists a number of accomplishments from his time in the Illinois Senate:
In his first two years in the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama was back in his familiar role as member of the minority party. Republicans tightly controlled the U.S. Senate, and it was very difficult for any Democratic Senator to get a bill passed. During that time, Senator Obama sponsored 152 bills and resolutions, and cosponsored 427 more.
Senator Obama thus far has two bills which became law, that have his name on them. The Lugar-Obama bill which I've already discussed, expands efforts to destroy WMDs (e.g. in the former Soviet states). And the Coburn-Obama Transparency Act. The Transparency Act created a website managed by OMB for ensuring transparency of funds allocated to government agencies. It tracks all federal spending, and allows Google-type searches based on agency, types of funding, etc.
One of his first bills after being elected to the U.S. Senate was a proposal to increased Pell Grants, thereby fulfilling a campaign promise. Unfortunately, in the tightly controlled Republican Senate, this bill didn't make it out of committee.
Perhaps his most impressive accomplishment in the U.S. Senate happened on January 18, 2007. That is when the Senate passed a major ethics/lobbying reform bill. (Senator Obama had voted against a prior ethics reform bill that he said wasn't tough enough.) Newspapers give Senators Obama and Russ Feingold significant credit for insisting that this latest ethics bill included tough measures. Obama risked some political capital to get this bill passed. The bill bans gifts/meals from lobbyists; puts an end to subsidized corporate jets; requires full disclosure of earmarks (who are the earmarks for, and for what purpose); places restrictions on retiring members of Congress going immediately into lobbying; requires lobbyists to disclose bundling of contributions to Congress, candidates or committees. This was a HUGE victory for Senator Obama. It still needs to be reconciled with a House version of the bill, and then signed by the president.
Senator Democratic leader Harry Reid has designated Barack Obama as the Democrats' point man on ethics, citing three reasons for his selection: whenever Obama walks into a room, everyone stops talking and listens to what he has to say; Obama is known for having unquestionable ethics and integrity; Obama's expertise on ethics and campaign reform while in Springfield made him a leading expert on those same issues in the U.S. Senate. This last point can't be emphasized enough. The fact that Obama mastered, and led the fight, on so many complex political issues in eight years in Springfield gave him a huge head start in addressing the same complex issues at the federal level.
Senator Obama has also sponsored the Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007. It would cap troops at January 10, 2007 levels, begin withdrawal by May 1, 2007, and call for complete withdrawal of combat brigades by March 31 of 2008. Withdrawal would be postponed if Iraq meets certain benchmarks. This is consistent with the Iraq Study Group. (Solely from memory, I believe this study group was chaired by Lee Hamilton and James Baker III.) Bill Richardson wants complete withdrawal by end of 2007. Hillary Clinton has called for a phased withdrawal of troops starting in 90 days. John Edwards 40,000-50,000 troops withdrawn immediately, and the remainder withdrawn within 12-18 months.
Senator Obama also has experience and judgment on foreign policy. He is on the senate committees for foreign relations; homeland security; veterans affairs; health, education, labor and pensions. He studied political science with an emphasis on international relations and Columbia. And he's gone on three major trips overseas as part of an official Senate delegation, meeting with U.S. generals, and/or foreign leaders. He and Senator Lugar travelled to the former Soviet states to inspect the destruction of WMDs; he traveled to Iraq and met with U.S. generals, and also toured Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, Palestinian territories (he told Palestinian Authority President MahMoud Abbas that US would never recognize Hamas leaders until they renounced mission to eliminate Israel.); he visited various African countries, including Kenya (his father's homeland), and publicly took an AIDS test to show people in Africa that it was ok and even socially responsible to have an AIDS test.
He has backed various plans for lessening reliance on Middle East oil. He has offered the big three domestic automakers a deal: the federal government pays 10% of health care costs of their retired employees, if the automakers will commit to building more fuel efficient cars. He has also called for increased fuel efficiency standards (3 percent every year for 15 years). He's encouraged use of ethnanol as an alternative fuel.
It's worth noting, as the article quoted above does, that during most of his tenure both in Springfield and Washington, he was in the minority party, which in itself stymied his ability to pass legislation. But in both cases, he still managed to work in a bi-partisan way to get legislation through the process. That all by itself is a pretty remarkable accomplishment. It might be good if some of the talking heads they send out to support him had this information in front of them.
Via a recent article in The American Prospect, a discussion on the political values of superhero comics. Julian Sanchez notes that, depsite the overtly liberal themes of recent comic series like Marvel's Civil War, there are some conservative subtexts that are inescapable when dealing with super powered heroes and villains.
The "Civil War" storyline may provide the clearest illustration of this. The Superhero Registration Act is a straightforward analogue of the USA PATRIOT Act; the rhetoric of its opponents could have been cribbed from an ACLU brief. But under scrutiny, their civil libertarian arguments turn out to hold very little water in the fictional context. The "liberty" the act infringes is the right of well-meaning masked vigilantes, many wielding incredible destructive power, to operate unaccountably, outside the law -- a right no sane society recognizes. In one uneasy scene, an anti-registration hero points out that the law would subject heroes to lawsuits filed by those they apprehend. In another, registered hero Wonder Man is forced to wait several whole minutes for approval before barging into a warehouse full of armed spies from Atlantis. Protests about the law's threat to privacy ring a bit hollow coming from heroes accustomed to breaking into buildings, reading minds, or peering through walls without bothering to obtain search warrants. Captain America bristles at the thought of "Washington … telling us who the supervillains are," but his insistence that heroes must be "above" politics amounts to the claim that messy democratic deliberation can only hamper the good guys' efforts to protect America. The putative dissident suddenly sounds suspiciously like Director of National Intelligence Mitch McConnell defending warrantless spying.
The problem of modern terrorism -- how to deal with small groups of individuals who can wreak the kind of destruction that once required an army -- is familiar territory for comics, as is the idea that heroes often inadvertently create their own worst enemies. Yet attempts to directly address the problem of blowback from military action exhibit the same sort of ambiguity. In the second volume of Marvel's Ultimates (2004–2007) -- a reimagined version of the classic Avengers superteam -- the heroes are being used to carry out covert military missions abroad. Their foreign interventions prompt governments hostile to the U.S. to send their own superteam ("persons of mass destruction" wryly dubbed "The Liberators") to invade Washington. After the inevitable victory, The Ultimates decide they must operate independently of the U.S. government, but the lesson remains that "the world needs looking after," presumably by the same mostly American heroes.
Of course, despite some lip service to Allen Moore's The Watchmen, Sanchez doesn't examine the more subversive takes on Superhero comics, which not only reject the neo-Con strongman argument, but also the softer liberal arguments about power and responsibility balanced with freedom.
The most overt example of this is Moore's V for Vendetta which is explicitly anarchist and pro-terrorist,
glorifying Guy Fawkes as an embodiment of freedom over against institutional tyranny. V for Vendetta was Moore's reaction to Thatcherite Great Britian, and the movie adaptation was a clear response to the Bush/Blaire "War on Terror"/War on Truth. But a terrorist hero is a tough sell in a post-9/11 world, however intriguing the dramtic premise might be.
On the other hand, John Ridley's The American Way takes a different approach, imagining a group of costumed super heroes being co-opted by the American government in order to promote the "Big Lie" of an genuinely free America. Things come to a head
over the issue of Civil Rights, when the Southern branch of the group breaks off in order to support segregation. (Ridley, by the way, is also responsible for the absolutely hilarious "Undercover Brother."
What these comics share is a surface acceptance of certain super hero comic tropes, but rather than falling into the trap of framing conservative arguments in the trappings of liberal rhetoric, they call the rhetoric itself into question. The super heroes, far from being morally superior, are in material ways morally inferior, but without the contraints necessary on their power to present its abuse.
This, of course, is precisely what Sanchez is objecting to in series like Civil War. Why then ignore the more boldly subversive attempts to read politics into the genre, like Ridley's and Moore's.
Over the past week, James Hutchins at UCCTruths and PastorDan at Street Prophets had planned to have a debate about the role of religion in politics, which was in part stymied by PastorDan not feeling well, and partly by difference between them about what the debate was actually about. James had wanted to talk particularly about the role of the UCC in political discussions, whereas Dan wanted to talk more generally about Christians in politics.
I had hoped to follow the ongoing conversation and offer color commentary here, but my own business combined with my own laziness to prevent that. However, since there are some issues still outstanding from the James/Dan "blogologue," I'll jump in to give my two cents.
Although James refrained from taking a "victory lap" in the issue, he did drop a small gloat into his final post on the topic, noting that PastorDan's reluctance to talk about the UCC's political involvement in particular was understandable, since it was "not defensible."
Now, I'm not particularly interested in defending the particulars of the UCC's public stance either, not because I don't think it's defensible (fairly few things are truly "not defensible," if you care enough to try to defend them), but because I don't think we can begin to look at the particulars of how denominational offices take on political positions until we have a better sense of what principles ought to govern the positions they take.
In theory, of course, the UCC's national offices are given direction by the General Synod, though in actuality particular policy stands are often taken independently of Synod resolutions (this has to do with a, well, unique, understanding of what "local church autonomy" means when applied to some denominational agencies).
Part of the larger problem has to do with the "non-creedal" nature of the UCC. As a denomination, we don't have a set of overarching "principles" that govern our discourse. Rather, since each individual, church, association, conference, and agency can develop very different theological and social understandings of Christian responsibility, no one viewpoint can be said to be normative for the whole denomination.
What this means is that often we are a denomination of politics without principles. Now, I don't mean that in a purely negative sense. Rather, lacking widely acknowledged theological foundations, we have a great deal of flexibility in how we respond to social issues (there was the story that got repeated several times in my UCC polity class at Andover Newton about the Synod where we sent a delegation to participate in a United Farm Workers strike), but it also means that why we should choose to take this particular stand rather than that one is often far from clear. James and others like to point to our support for Puerto Rican idependance activists who were convicted of terrorism as an example of a stand that doesn't make sense, others point to the Synod resolution boycotting companies that do business with the Israeli army. The issue in both cases is not only whether we should take those stands (though there are certainly many in the UCC who think we shouldn't), but on what grounds we choose to make those stands. The closest we tend to get are generalities about the centrality of justice to our mission (which I affirm), but lacking any particulars about the content of justice.
This has been on my mind for the last few days, because on Thursday I had a meeting with the Peace and Justice guy for the Archdiocese of Chicago. At the end of our meeting, I brought up the effort at Resurrection Health Care to organize a union. Some of the organizers had been trying for some time to get the Archdiocese to take a stand on behalf of their right to organize, and I was curious as to what he would say. His response, which I think was perfectly reasonable, was that it is not the job of the archdiocese or of the Cardinal to take particular stands on particular issues in the way the organizers wanted them to. Instead, the job of the diocese was to articulate general principles of Catholic teaching and encourage individuals to engage in the process of discernment themselves.
Now, as I say, I think this is a perfectly reasonable stand to take, and I appreciated the candor with which he spoke to me. But it also occurred to me that the issue was not nearly that simple. If, instead of labor organizing, the issue was instead whether RHC should offer abortion services, I strongly suspect that the Cardinal would not limit himself to articulate general principles and then keeping his distance. Rather, given the Catholic Churches emphatic stand on the topic of abortion, I'd bet that the Archdiocese would push the hospital very hard not to do so.* So, given the Church's affirmative stance on unions, why the difference?
I suspect that the answer to this has to do with what the Church sees as the gravity of the topic. Abortion is immoral in Catholic teaching in a way that being anti-union is, apparently, not. And if the church is going to take a public stand on an issue, it wants to be sure to keep its powder dry for the really big issues.
Now, I think this would be a worthwhile stance for the UCC to adopt. As a denomination, we should speak in terms of general principle most of the time, and only get specific rarely and in the gravest of situations (Civil Rights, Apartheid, genocide in Darfur). The problem, of course, is twofold: First, every situation that we could possibly speak on is grave to someone, and second, in the absence of agreement on a set of general principles, what kind of guidance could we give?
So, we find ourselves in an upside down situation: Lacking principles, we only speak to specific cases, but without any sense of what guides our choices in any given case. Often, in my estimation, we make the right choices. Often, of course, we don't. James in several of his posts on this topic referred to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, who was rightly suspicious of the ability of institutions to act in a reliably moral way. Since all institutions are affected by collective egoism and self-interest, none can transcend themselves to take the larger good into account. We are all flawed and fallible creatures, and our fallibility is multiplied, not divided, by collective action.
So we should always proceed with a large dose of humility when we venture into the the political complexities of the world as a denomination. Rather than speak self-righteously from within our own finite sphere of certainty, we should be clear on the limits of our own understanding, and seek to become a forum for the discussion of general principles of social action, choosing those of most pressing concern, and that fit most clearly without our self-understanding as a denomination.
How do we do that? Good question. It's worth some further reflection, and I'll try to come back to the issue at a later time. Meanwhile, I'm going to let James know about this post and see what he has to say. Comments welcome.
*A complicating factor here is that the Archdiocese has no direct authority over the hospital, any more than it has direct authority over DePaul University. In fact, when the faculty of DePaul decided to inaugurate a Queer Studies major, I'm sure that didn't go down well at the Archdiocese, but they really didn't have any power to stop it. So in the end, if the hospital were determined to do so, the Archdiocese probably couldn't stop them. But of course, they wouldn't, since it would be contrary to their Catholic identity, thus leading to the question: If that's the case with abortion, why not with labor unions?
Apparently the Straight-Talk Express has gone crashing into a Jersey barrier somewhere West of Torture Town.
As we all know, John McCain, owing to his own experiences as a POW in Vietnam, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the use of torture by the United States against detainees. In fact, he argued forcefully last fall that only those interrogation techniques authorized by the U.S. Army field manual should be used by other agencies, particularly the CIA. This would prevent, particularly, the use of waterboarding by representatives of the United States.
However, when a bill came before Congress this week which would have done exactly that, McCain voted against it! This decision came, notably, right on the heels of his endorsement by Congressional Republican leaders. Apparently integrity will get you only so far in this business.
The real tragedy of this is that nobody could look upon McCain's opposition to torture as anything but a sincere expression of moral principle. It wasn't popular with his base, he stood in opposition to many in his own party, and it cost him, yet he continually stood up against the use of torture, until, of course, it became a question of getting the support of key Republicans going into the general election. This is a moral lapse of catastrophic proportions. And alas for any sense of integrity McCain might still have had, since it has now burned up and blown away on the wind.
Two related stories: Joe Lieberman, noted McCainiac, is now on the record as pro-torture:
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman reluctantly acknowledged Thursday that he does not believe waterboarding is torture, but believes the interrogation technique should be available only under the most extreme circumstances.
Lieberman was one of 45 senators who voted Wednesday in opposition to a bill that would limit the CIA to the 19 interrogation techniques outlined in the Army field manual. That manual prohibits waterboarding, a method where detainees typically are strapped to a bench and have water poured into their mouth and nose making them feel as if they will drown.
Not torture. Sure. But only to be used under the most extreme circumstances? And why is that, if it's not torture? Presumably extremity is precisely the reason people resort to torture in the first place.
And finally, this piece of good news: Apparently we have NOT, I repeat NOT inherited the technique of waterboarding from the Spanish Inquisition. Nosiree. Our form of waterboard is of the sort practiced by the Khmer Rouge!
Yesterday Justice Department Official Steven Bradbury rallied to the defense of the CIA's use of waterboarding, arguing that the technique used by the CIA was nothing at all like the "water torture" used by the Spanish Inquisition. "The only thing in common is the use of water," he argued.
But as Marty Lederman, a veteran of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, writes, in distancing the CIA's technique from that used by the Spanish Inquisition and the Japanese in World War II, Bradbury made it plain that the technique he was describing was closer to "the sort popularized by the French in Algeria, and by the Khmer Rouge. This technique involves placing a cloth or plastic wrap over or in the person's mouth, and pouring or dripping water onto the person's head." He quotes Darius Rajali, author of Torture and Democracy, as saying that this technique was "invented by the Dutch in the East Indies in the 16th century, as a form of torture for English traders."