Whipping Up Religious Frenzy

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” The words are Thomas Jefferson’s in a letter he wrote in 1813 to Baron Von Humboldt. The sentiments are not unusual for the Sage of Monticello.

Here’s another from our third President: “The preachers dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight.” And he wasn’t alone, of course, among the Founding Fathers to disdain priests and churches. “Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion?” queried our second President, John Adams.

And yet, according to Glenn Beck in a Washington Post opinion piece we should all be Catholic now “because the state is telling the Catholic Church to violate its principles and teachings” by trying to force church-run institutions to pay for birth control and morning-after pills.

The compromise offered by the White House whereby insurance providers take on the employers’ cost for these services is dismissed as “sin by proxy” by Beck – and by Catholic bishops. “The state has no right to say how much religion any American can practice. It’s our right, and it is the first one our Founding Fathers protected,” Beck argues.

In their Salem-like efforts to whip up a revivalist frenzy against President Barack Obama, Beck and other religious conservatives make much of the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” But they misread that amendment and abuse it.

The amendment doesn’t give the right of the church – any church – to create a parallel society that ignores general welfare; and the intent of the amendment was to protect thought and the expression of opinion – that is why the First Amendment deals not just with religion but with the press, too, and freedom of speech and assembly.

Notice that word Beck uses, “practice”. It isn’t there in the First Amendment and for good reason. Practice may well impact non-church members or involve behavior that offends or undermines the general welfare. It was the practice of Beck’s church, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, to engage in polygamous marriage. Does Beck believe that if the current Mormon president has a sudden revelation and reverses the church’s ban on polygamy, that Congress and law-enforcement agencies then should turn a blind eye and not enforce laws against bigamy against Mormons?

“This isn’t a fight over abortion or birth control,” writes Beck. “This is about whether the state can force someone to pay to have their religious beliefs violated.” The logical conclusion of that argument would mark the end of secular governance and would make hogwash of the Founding Father’s principle of separation of church and state. Suddenly we would have the anarchy of lots of parallel religious societies observing their own laws, following their own practices and claiming they don’t have to do anything, pay for anything that offends their religious beliefs.

It would be the end of the United States of America.

It is the kind of medieval argument mounted in Europe currently by Muslim fanatics who disdain pluralism, diversity and the whole basis of enlightened liberal governance and who want to impose Sharia law, if not for everyone at least for believers or within a defined geography.

In the UK last year residents of some London boroughs were horrified to be confronted with posters daubed on bus stops and street lamps declaring, “You are entering a Sharia-controlled zone – Islamic rules enforced,” and announcing a ban on gambling, music, alcohol, and smoking.

The preacher behind the campaign, Anjem Choudary,  said he wanted to “put the seeds down for an Islamic Emirate.” And here we have Beck wanting to turn the United States into an anarchy of theocracies.

South Carolina Is Not France

What a predicament evangelical Protestant Christians in South Carolina will face this weekend! They will make up an overwhelming voting bloc in the GOP primary on Saturday — up to about 60 per cent of the Republican electorate, and how they vote will decide not only this primary but, I suspect, the eventual Republican nominee.

Now that Texas governor Rick Perry has ended what must rank as one of the most disastrous GOP primary campaigns in recent U.S. politics, those evangelicals are going to have to pick between a Yankee Mormon, a thrice-married Roman Catholic convert who apparently lobbied his second wife to accept an open marriage, and another Catholic from a northern state.

This isn’t the best state for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. In 2008, he came in a poor fourth. Many evangelicals in the state consider Mormonism a non-Christian cult and his moderate Republicanism is also something to be held against him. Four years ago, he didn’t win a single county.

Unsurprisingly, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has surged in recent polls in South Carolina. Various analysts say this will be a close race between the two. Gingrich campaign advisers I have talked to remain confident and are over the moon with the Perry endorsement.

And in the ads they are running in the state they are doing everything to play up all the “moderate” positions Romney has adopted in the past – from his onetime support of abortion rights to immigration reform. Privately, they say that Gingrich’s repentance for his infidelities will play well and they suggest that Romney’s Mormonism will continue to harm him – not that they will pay that card openly.

But times might have changed and it may be that Gingrich’s past is more of a liability than Romney’s Mormonism.

First, South Carolina’s evangelicals have had four years to mull over his Mormonism – the shock value has diminished this time.

Second, conservative radio host Glenn Beck has helped to neutralize the disapproval of Mormonism among the evangelicals in the state. He chose the Palmetto State in 2009 to kick off his nine-city book tour marketing “Arguing With Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government,” and he now counts evangelical Protestants in that state among his most fervent loyalists.

Even an evangelical authority such as Gary Weier, executive vice-president of the Greenville-based Bob Jones University, believes Mormonism has become a non-issue. “He may have certain values but he is not seeking the office of the presidency to convert the nation to Mormonism,” he told the Financial Times.

And the polls suggest that Romney is doing much better among the evangelicals than he did in 2008. In fact, evangelicals are closely divided, with a Time/CNN/ORC South Carolina survey giving Rick Santorum 20 percent, Gingrich 23 percent and Romney himself a respectable 26 percent – a tremendous improvement on his showing four years ago when he garnered just 11 percent of the evangelical vote.

When it comes to the remaining 40 percent of likely primary voters in the Palmetto State, Romney is charging away, leading Gingrich 47 percent to 22 percent.

Gingrich’s supporters – and a media keen to keep the race from becoming dull in its inevitability – are playing up the Perry withdrawal and the Texas governor’s endorsement of Gingrich, arguing that Romney will not be able to benefit from his divide-the-conservative-vote and-conquer strategy of the past. But this is not a straight race between the former Massachusetts governor and the former House Speaker — Santorum is still in the race and even stronger than a week ago buoyed as he is by the announcement that he might after all have beaten Romney in Iowa.

Divide and conquer still stands.

Another factor seemingly working in Romney’s favor is that this year economics is trumping religion. Most primary voters in the state – as with voters everywhere – are looking for someone who can turn the economy around. Maybe Romney can, maybe he can’t, but most surveys show a majority of GOP primary voters believe he is the best candidate to do so.

Obviously, tonight’s debate could be crucial – neither Romney nor Gingrich can afford a major slip-up. But Gingrich has the bigger challenge. That’s because he goes into the debate with today’s background of attacks from his former wife, Marianne, who has claimed that he wanted an open marriage.

That disclosure will be aired immediately following the debate on ABC in which Marianne will say that Gingrich wanted to continue his six-year affair and proposed maintaining their marriage and keeping a congressional aide, who is now his third wife, as a mistress. While the allegation is not entirely new, the timing of it now is deeply damaging – especially on the eve of a primary vote in the Bible belt.

Gingrich supporters – including now Rick Perry – are emphasizing that their candidate may not be perfect and that he is a man who has learned from his past mistakes. But South Carolina is not France, and, I suspect, that Marianne’s revenge outweighs Romney’s Mormonism.

 

We Are Trapped

Charles Krauthammer offers some hard cautions to the “conservative counter-revolutionaries” determined to continue “their containment of the Obama experiment.” While applauding their efforts to contain Obama, saluting them as “remarkable”, and sympathizing with their goal to rollback government, he argues that it “is simply not achievable until conservatives receive a mandate to govern from the White House.”

“Under our constitutional system, you cannot govern from one house alone. Today’s resurgent conservatism, with its fidelity to constitutionalism, should be particularly attuned to this constraint, imposed as it is by a system of deliberately separated — and mutually limiting — powers.”

Back off, then, is his counsel. And take this to electorate in November 2012.

Sound advice. But Krauthammer like too many American conservatives likes to place this battle as the latest in the long-running struggle between “social-democratic versus limited-government” visions. And that is their mistake and also the drawback to left Democrats who fall into the same line of thinking.

Despite what ideologues on either side of this increasingly stark and distorting confrontation like to make out, it is possible to blend both visions. It is what most American voters would like to see. It comes through loud and clear in opinion polls the past few years. When majorities say that they think government is too big on the one hand but don’t want to see massive entitlement reform on the other, they are trying to communicate their belief in a “third way” to a deaf political class locked in ideological prisons and tribal caucuses.

That is why the pendulum swings back and forth between the parties in elections with such regularity. It is the electorate’s way – or at least independents and non-tribal Republicans and Democrats – of showing dissatisfaction with either competing vision. And they don’t believe they are being contradictory by wanting a blend of social democracy and limited government.

And there is nothing wrong with the blend – either in practical terms or intellectual ones. For most classical liberals – as distinct from liberals – it makes perfect sense. Read John Stuart Mill, for example, or even Adam Smith, who despite being hijacked by libertarians, saw a large role for government. Those conservatives who like to cite FA Hayek should remember, if they ever knew in the first place, that he accepted that there are legitimate grounds for government to supply health care without people having to shriek “Marxism.”

And in practical terms combining social democratic and limited government visions has not proven impossible for, say, the likes of Margaret Thatcher, another classical liberal.

But you won’t hear from the left of the Democratic Party or the right of the GOP anything like this. Mention social democracy and the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of this world morph it all into “socialism.” Mutter the words “limited government” and MoveOn.org and Rachel Maddow react with equal intellectual-distorting horror.

In practical terms, too, both militant sides are blind to their lack of consistency with their visions.

On the right, we have all of this talk about “limited government” and how we can’t afford things but conservatives continue with massive corporate welfare. Cut Social Security and Medicare – those programs Americans have contributed to and are relying on – we can’t afford those, but let’s not cut tax loopholes for the rich or stem the flow of taxpayers’ money to successful agri-business or other corporations. The GOP likes to see itself as the friend of small business but has turned its back on serious health care reform. Health-care costs cripple small business.

On the left, we have lip service paid to enterprise, small business and the American entrepreneur. But little restraint when it comes to over-regulation. And where is the recognition that corporate tax does need to come down for America to be globally competitive?

We are trapped.

 

Birthright Citizenship – To Hell with the Constitution!

So now we have a second Republican Senator calling for the “revoking” of birthright citizenship in the U.S.– in other words another GOP luminary who wants to copy progressive places such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, countries that deny citizenship — and even birth certificates — to tens of thousands of children born to foreign workers, rendering them stateless and vulnerable and at risk of a life of official non-existence.

That was the policy Germany followed until 1999, when German law was modified finally to recognize the principle of jus soli (“the right of soil”), replacing the blood connection principle that German citizenship required previously.

Before the modification, children of foreign-born workers in Germany also were rendered stateless – the law hit particularly hard the children born to hundreds of thousands of immigrant Turkish workers and did nothing to assist in integration or the calming of roiled race relations in post-War Germany. Of course, the German neo-Nazi and Aryan fantasists opposed vociferously the change in the law.

Is this German experience what Senators Jon Kyl and Lindsey Graham want to repeat in the U.S.? And are they really content to follow the examples of the Kuwaitis and the Saudis?

I doubt the GOP lawmakers who are pushing for the amending/changing of the 14th amendment – nor for that matter Fox talk-show host Glenn Beck and conservative columnist George Will – are even aware of who they are aligning with overseas when it comes to citizenship rights. American Exceptionalism for them seems to be more of a matter of ignoring the rest of the World and not learning from the mistakes of others. Just bury your head in the sand and look like an oaf.

According to Will, a writer who normally thinks the Constitution should be untouchable, the 14th amendment would never have been passed “If those who wrote and ratified the 14th Amendment had imagined laws restricting immigration — and had anticipated huge waves of illegal immigration.” He added in a column published last March: “Is it reasonable to presume they would have wanted to provide the reward of citizenship to the children of the violators of those laws? Surely not.”

It is odd for Will to apply “common sense” when it comes to the interpretation of the Constitution – it isn’t something he cites when arguing about gun rights, for example. But his history is a tad off: there was mass immigration in the 1860s when the amendment was written and adopted and there was tremendous nativist opposition to the new wave of immigration. So it isn’t at all clear that Will’s presumption is, in fact, at all reasonable.

He rests much of his argument on the writings of Professor Lino Graglia of the University of Texas law school, who maintains that an 1884 Supreme Court decision about children born to Native American parents established that “no one can become a citizen of a nation without its consent.” Well, that is pretty obvious — and the 14th amendment grants birthright citizenship.

But in a law review article, Graglia argues: “This would clearly settle the question of birthright citizenship for children of illegal aliens. There cannot be a more total or forceful denial of consent to a person’s citizenship than to make the source of that person’s presence in the nation illegal.”

And so Will concludes triumphantly: “There is no constitutional impediment to Congress ending the granting of birthright citizenship to those whose presence here is not only without the government’s consent but in violation of its law.”

But there is a big problem with that jump. While the mother may have been in the U.S. illegally – the child has not, unless that is we are going to start demanding passports and visas for babies carried in the womb!

Jesuitical argumentation aside, most sensible nations grant birthright citizenship and they do so because they believe that the idea that a child may be rendered stateless otherwise an appalling idea. But, of course, what is more important in the birthright citizenship debate prompted by some on the American right has more to do with electoral and internal GOP politics than anything else.

The Tea Party and Glenn Beck say jump and the conservatives within the Party ask “how high?” And the more they press on this anti-immigrant front they become the darlings of the far right reaches of America but the further they kick away from the centre – and as the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater would always tell you, the centre is where you win elections.

Bloggers as Journalists

Are bloggers journalists? Is blogging and journalism synonymous? A majority of bloggers may think so. A survey released this week by PR Week and PR Newswire found that 52 percent of bloggers questioned consider themselves just that – journalists. That’s a jump apparently from a 2009 survey when only a third of believed that what they did was journalism.

Another interesting fact in the survey – I am grateful to www.TechCrunch.com for highlighting it – suggests that bloggers are far more open to using other blogs and social media sites for research purposes: 91% of bloggers and 68% of online reporters “always” or “sometimes” use blogs for research. Not so with print journalists: only 35% of newspaper and 38% of magazine journalists surveyed use blogs or social networks when researching. It should, I believe, be second nature by now for print reporters to be keeping close tabs on blogs and online sites – and for them to use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook for research and self and institutional -marketing.

PRNewswire argues that the study shows media convergence is happening quicker now. I draw different conclusions. The survey results suggest to me that most bloggers don’t understand the distinction between most blogging and most journalism, and that practitioners in the traditional print media still are not exploiting media convergence and the online World enough either to break stories or market them or to gather information. It is as though we are still dealing with two different, partially uncomprehending cultures. Whether that is partly a result of age differences between bloggers and print journalists, I have no idea. But there are plenty of examples of old journalists who have embraced the online World to great advantage, both for themselves and for their reporting.

Whatever the reason for the traditional print media’s failure to embrace media convergence it potentially has alarming consequences in terms of audiences and revenue streams. Whether the traditional media like it or not they have to make their peace with the Internet, mobile phone and wireless technology and media convergence and to find ways to transition more intelligently whereby they have a Web-first attitude. If they don’t they will become as irrelevant as land phone lines or as cable delivery is fast becoming.

Writing for the Web doesn’t diminish the writing or the journalism per se. I began my journalism on newspapers back in media pre-history. For my first job in the 1980s at the weekly Tribune newspaper off the Gray’s Inn Road in London I had to write on a typewriter (you remember those things) and the typewriters were nicknamed after the great and good who had gone before and, according to legend, had used those actual machines – George Orwell, Michael Foot and Nye Bevan. The only computer in the office – a monstrous early desk-top – sat on the desk of the then editor, Nigel Williamson, who with great pride would show it off but who, from what I could see, hardly touched the thing and understood it little. It was a relic before its time!

My second job was towards the final years of “Fleet Street” and one of my Saturday evening duties at the Sunday Telegraph every fourth or fifth week would be to assist the night news editor to change copy “on the stone”, i.e. direct the printworkers to change the hot metal pieces during breaks in the edition runs so stories could be updated or corrected.

All has changed. Of course, a lot of the romanticism has been lost – there is nothing quite like grabbing a paper off the print-works with your byline on the front-page and there was something glorious about the crescendo clatter of typewriters as the first-edition deadline loomed. With the romanticism, a sub-culture has disappeared that involved a lot of drinking but had as a spin-off off-the-job training as old hacks shared with younger ones the “tricks of the trade” – and those tricks went beyond just learning how to get your expenses accepted.

But a lot of good has come from the brave new World of media: more information and from a variety of sources with different class, gender, cultural and racial points of view; greater dissemination of information; computer-assisted investigative journalism, etc. There is more immediacy – both a good and bad thing. Journalism is more three-dimensional in all kinds of ways and deeply exciting for it.

One of the resistances to blogging by some of the more traditional-minded journalists has to do, though, less with Luddite sentiments and more to do with the poor quality of the writing and thinking and reporting on offer in the blogs. When it comes to politics and news and current affairs, too many bloggers believe that what they should be doing is what they see the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hanity or Glen Beck on the right and Keith Obermann and Rachel Maddow on the left do every night – namely, rant. And that is not journalism and not even high-quality opinion journalism.

Blogging can be journalism when being done by a trained journalist or by an amateur who has trained themselves. And for both the end-goal is journalism. What do I mean by that? For it to be journalism, surely, there are certain standards and approaches to be followed? Facts and views have to be gathered, people have to be interviewed off or on the record and that can’t all be done just by online research. Those standards may be relaxed when it comes to opinion journalism, but even then there are certain rules of fairness and accuracy to be observed. Above all, actual knowledge can come in useful – the best of journalism is digging out the truth, as much as it can be known, throwing light on complex problems, explaining process, bearing witness to conflict and loss and terror and tragedy.

Of course, by those standards a lot of what passes for journalism in many newspapers and print magazines and on television is not that – it is entertainment. There is, of course, little difference between a news-room full of journalists re-writing wire copy the whole time and a blogger bashing way at the keyboard in his sitting room.

And that leads on to a point that was touched on above but needs to be stressed – most bloggers when it comes to politics, news and current affairs are not news-gathering. They are commenting on facts – and often half-truths — that others have gathered and twisted them to fit in to their ideological perspective or party affiliation. That can be fun but it is not journalism.