April 15, 2014

The Spirited Debate About the Role of Government and Religious Liberty Will Continue Well into the Future

According to the pundits, the Republican Party is destined to increase its majority in the House of Representatives and seize control of the Senate in this year’s congressional elections.  In an ironic contrast, many of the same pundits predict that Hillary Clinton will sweep into the White House in two years.

My own prognostications, for what little they are worth, are that (1) Republicans have at best a 50-50 chance of gaining a majority in the Senate this year and (2) Hillary Clinton (assuming she runs) has a much better than 50-50 chance of winning the presidential election in 2016.  While Republicans will gain seats in the Senate this year, jumping up by six more seats (the number necessary to obtain a majority) in a single election cycle remains a daunting task.  And while Hillary Clinton’s current sky-high popularity will inevitably fall back down to earth once she becomes an actual candidate who must appeal to real voters, Republican prospects have not yet demonstrated that they could carry a national electorate.

But whatever the outcome of the 2014 and 2016 elections, don’t pay attention to those commentators who will portend that whichever party prevails will then become dominant while the other party fades into obscurity.  Someone always seems to be asserting that this or that political debate is over, which invariably proves to be wishful thinking by the side that has won a temporary victory.  If Republicans hold the House (as they will), there will be those who proclaim that Democrats are doomed to perpetual minority status in the House.  Don't believe them.  As a counter-example, James Carville insisted last Sunday on This Week that, if they lose the presidency to Hillary Clinton in 2016, the Republican Party will become “extinct.”  Nonsense.

Consider the lesson of fairly recent political history.  In January of 1989, Republicans had won their third presidential election in a row (and had won five of the last six presidential elections.)  And Republican victories in each of these presidential elections had been by large margins, frequently landslides.  (By contrast, and despite the media hype of a big victory, President Obama’s re-election in 2012 with only 51 percent of the vote was one of the lowest margins of re-election for a president in American history.)  So in 1989, did the Democratic Party become “extinct”?  Was it irrelevant that Democrats continued to hold a majority in Congress?  Moreover, in 1989, Democrats controlled 29 state legislatures (with another 12 split between the parties), and 29 governors were Democrats.  And one of those Democratic governors went on to win two terms in the White House.

Suppose that Democrats do win a third presidential election in 2016 and suppose further that the Democratic candidate wins by a larger popular vote margin than the thin Obama-re-election.  At that point, Republicans likely will remain in control of at least one house of Congress and remain robust in statehouses throughout the country.  Today, for example, Republicans control 27 state legislatures and split another 6, while having 29 governorships.  Not exactly chopped liver.

More importantly, whoever wins the 2014 and 2016 elections, key issues about the size and role of government that divide the political parties will remain highly relevant, as they always have been in American politics.  To be sure, specific issues that dominate today's political debates -- such as whether to repeal or reform Obamacare and even the rise of same-sex marriage -- may fade.  But the central questions of whether we as a people want a bigger government and, important to the readers of this blog, whether big government can be reconciled with religious liberty are not going away.

The Democratic message, especially in the Era of Obama, has been that bigger government is good for you and that Democratic politicans are better trusted to manage that bigger government.  It worked to win two presidential elections.  But how well does that message resonate today and into the future?

Even if Obamacare remains in effect in some form (although probably with major revisions), the disruption caused to so many people by the intervention of the government into health care (even as some people undoubtedly are helped by new insurance options), the blatantly false guarantee that people could keep their insurance (and keep their doctors), and the shockingly incompetent roll-out of the program will taint new “progressive” initiatives for some time to come.  And the promise that new era Democratic politicians, like President Obama and his cabinet and staff, were smarter and more talented and thus could skillfully manage broad new governmental interventions into this or that aspect of the economy has proven false (and always seemed invested with considerable hubris).  The problem is not that Democrats have done any worse than Republicans in running the government, but that anyone could presume to be able to manage such a bloated federal government spinning off new bureaucracies and regulations right and left.

If Hillary Clinton (or another Democrat) is elected president in 2016, she will find, as her husband prematurely predicted, that the “era of Big Government is over.”  To be sure, any Democratic president, having control of the Executive Branch, will be able to extend the regulatory reach of government to some extent.  But any major new governmental proposal will be haunted by the failures of Obamacare.

Of course, nothing is permanent in politics.  The damage done to progressive plans by Obamacare is not permanent.  But the next administration will be greatly constrained in initiatives by this sobering episode -- and likely will have to act in a bipartisan manner to achieve anything.

Moreover, and of special concern to those of us on the Mirror of Justice, the Obama Administration has unwisely cast the question of larger government as being in direct conflict with religious liberty.  Whether bigger government is understood as new programs (such as Obamacare with its various mandates) or as the expansion of law into more private sector settings (such as new anti-discrimination laws that override traditional religious resistance to participating with expansion of contraception, sexual licentiousness, abortion, and same-sex marriage), bigger government is increasingly seen by people of faith as a threat to religious liberty.  Indeed, one need only read the law professor blogs to confirm that religious liberty is increasingly discounted as a value by many on the liberal side (but encouragingly not by all).

To the chagrin of many progressives of faith that I know, the Obama Administration has heightened the perception that liberal government comes at the expense of religious liberty by taking rather extreme positions on these issues, including before the Supreme Court:

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the Obama Administration insisted that the First Amendment provided no protection to religious organizations in choosing their own ministers, a position rejected by a unanimous Supreme Court that characterized this argument as extreme.

In the contraception/abortifacient mandate cases, the Obama Administration has argued that people of faith engaged in a for-profit corporation should be barred from even asserting a religious liberty claim.  In the pending Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties cases, the Court may or may not hold that a religious liberty accommodation to the mandate should be recognized.  But it appears from the oral argument that a substantial majority of the justices will reject the Obama Administration's position that a family-owned or small corporation may not even raise a religious liberty claim.

Here too, especially if the religious claimants lose in the pending cases, there are those who will argue that these were the last-gasp efforts of people of traditional faith to influence law and politics.  But those who suggest that the culture wars are over tend to be saying that social conservatives should unilaterally surrender while social liberals aggressively press their points forward.  That's not going to happen.  People of faith who also take their faith seriously into account in making political decisions will continue to account for about one-third of the electorate for the foreseeable future.  One-third does not necessarily translate into an electoral majority (as the presidential election of 2012 well demonstrated).  But it does mean that a critical mass of voters will need increasingly little persuasion to be disaffected from those who promise more government and more law, which religious believers will more and more fear as introducing yet more conflict between law and faith.

Again, none of this predicts a rising Republican majority -- or its opposite.  And the landscape is changing in many ways -- as it always does.  Still, we are likely to see a continuing see-saw between conservative and liberal leaders in government.  In sum, we will continue to have a spirited political debate about issues that truly matter.  Any pundit who suggests otherwise is not paying attention.

Posted by Greg Sisk on April 15, 2014 at 09:43 PM in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

March 07, 2014

The Korean Peninsula Today and the Moral Justifications for the Cold War

It has become fashionable in some precincts to disparage America’s concerted and persistent opposition to the geopolitical aspirations and Marxist ideology of the Soviet Union (and later communist China) during the four decades following World War II.

Today, the Cold War is remembered by some as a regrettable period of belligerence by the United States, which depended too much on military force and neglected diplomacy and accommodation as tools of foreign policy.  These detractors sometimes portray both sides in the Cold War struggle as morally equivalent, arguing that neither deserved to be characterized as heroes or villains.  They dismiss the Cold War as an ancient and melodramatic morality play, having little or no moral implications or continuing political significance.

The events of the past couple of weeks remind us that the Cold War may have grown colder after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it never truly ended.  More importantly, we are reminded again of the noble sacrifices made by tens of thousands of Americans and countless others to secure the blessings of liberty and economic opportunity for hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

The invasion of Ukraine last week with masked soldiers and the effective annexation of Crimea bring to the fore once again the nationalist agenda of Russia.  Russian expansionist ambitions have always been with us, though interwoven during the Cold War with the ideological conflict.

Less than a year-and-a-half ago, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney claimed during a debate that Russia posed the greatest geopolitical threat.  President Barack Obama mocked Romney by saying, “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” (video here).  Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that Romney’s comment was “somewhat dated to be looking backwards instead of being realistic” (video here).

No one is laughing today.  Indeed, in a rather stunning about-face, Hillary Clinton now compares Russian President Putin’s occupation of the Crimea with Nazi Fuhrer Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and Romania in the 1930s (here).  And no one doubts that Russia will continue to act aggressively, in Ukraine and Georgia and perhaps elsewhere in eastern Europe, when it finds doing so in its interests.

An even more powerful rejoinder to those pundits who denigrate the moral salience of America’s stalwart stand against communism may be found in the release last week by the United Nations of a report on human rights violations in North Korea.  The report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a sobering reminder of what was at stake in the Cold War.

As reported by CNN (here), the commission’s report offers “a stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse of even the weakest of North Koreans.”  Murder, torture (of men, women, and children), jailing and slavery for entire families, and mass starvation are widespread in North Korea, keeping an entire nation in submission to the whims of a totalitarian regime that monitors every aspect of human life.  As a sadly typical story of cruelty in that communist abyss, one witness described the beating by prison guards of a starving woman who had just given birth, ending with her being forced to drown the baby.  The full report is available here (and is horrifying, but should be compulsory, reading).

The UN report also describes the targeted persecution, torture, and murder of Christians (here).  The North Korean regime regards Christianity as a “particularly serious threat” because “it ideologically challenges the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the State realm.”

The UN commission finds that North Korea maintains a brutally repressive regime “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”  This portrait of North Korea is a rebuke to the entire world (and especially to China as North Korea’s sole remaining patron), as these atrocities to continue and worsen under the arbitrary rule of Kim Jong Un.  As Michael Kirby, the chairman of the UN commission concluded, “We cannot say that we didn’t know.  Now we do know.”

What horrors the UN report depicts could well have been the fate of every person living on the Korean peninsula.  By the summer of 1950, the communists from the north had conquered 90 percent of the Korean peninsula, including the most populous city of Seoul.  Later that year, the daring amphibious landing at Inchon by allied troops (most of them American Marines), led by General Douglas MacArthur, and then stubborn resistance over three more years, turned abject defeat into a fragile and incomplete victory that preserved the independence of South Korea.

Today, some seventy-five million people live on the Korean peninsula.  A third of them — those living above the 38th parallel — struggle pathetically for survival in what is effectively a nationwide prison camp.  ISS038-E-038300_lrgHunger, fear, arbitrary jailing, torture, and persecution are the daily plight of millions. 

The people of North Korea live in darkness, both figuratively and literally.  Accompanying this post is a night-side photograph taken from the International Space Station just two months ago — the bright lights to the top demark China and those toward the bottom right are from South Korea, while the dark area in between (that could be mistaken for open ocean) depicts an impoverished and lightless North Korea. 

But two-thirds of the Korean people — the fifty million who live in South Korea — participate in a successful democratic government, enjoy a standard of living that rivals that of those of us living in the developed economies of the West, and are free to worship according to their conscience.  Don’t tell these millions in South Korea, who escaped the fate of their brothers and sisters to the north, that the painful struggle against communism during the Cold War was not “good versus evil.”

More than 36,000 American soldiers gave their lives during the Korean conflict, perhaps the hottest spot during the Cold War.  Theirs was a noble sacrifice that we must never forget or diminish by misunderstanding. Their sacrifice truly counted for something then and even more today.  We give thanks for the freedom and prosperity enjoyed in the south — secured by the bravery of men fighting for a just cause.  And we grieve for the horror and slavery endured by those in the north, mindful of what could have been the tragic outcome for all — if faith had faltered, if resolve had weakened, and if the war had been lost.

Posted by Greg Sisk on March 7, 2014 at 03:49 PM in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

March 02, 2014

On the Pain of Discrimination and the Role of Law and Government (Part Two)

Following on my earlier messages to the ReligionLaw list about the nature and pain of discrimination and the necessarily limited role of law in a free society, I attempted in this final message (which I set out below for Mirror of Justice) to sketch out some points of general agreement and narrow in on the remaining points of disagreement.


While I wouldn’t suggest that consensus has been reached on all points [among posters to the ReligionLaw list], I thought I heard increasing agreement on some basic points:

First, when the law declares that basic provision of goods and services may not be denied on the basis of certain classifications, the general application of such a law meets with general approval among members of the list.  Thus, to use a couple of generic examples offered now by more than one member of the list, the grocer should not discriminate on race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation in selling groceries and the baker should not bar anyone at the door based on such identity from entering to buy baked goods.  To permit the grocer or baker to pick and choose who to serve based on essential identity would be discrimination at its most invidious, the harm experienced by the person who was the subject of such discrimination would be at its most egregious, and the claim of an intrusion into liberty interests at its lowest ebb.

Second, and by contrast, people appear to agree that when a person suffers a hostile reaction to advocacy, even on the most discriminatory of bases, or when a person restricts the goods and services that will be offered to anyone on the basis of that person's personal identity, then law should not intervene.  Discrimination in direction or in effect by itself cannot be the basis for unleashing the coercive power of law.  Thus, as previously discussed, a pair of Christian evangelists who are the subject of discriminatory taunts on the street should receive no legal redress.  And the Jewish baker who closes the shop early on Fridays because the Sabbath is beginning should not be forced to do otherwise.

Into this second category where the law should not intrude, then, presumably would fall such additional examples as the operator of a Jewish deli or a Muslim halal grocery who chooses not to stock pork chops or bacon for religious reasons; the owner of a gay and lesbian bookstore who chooses not to place books about religious “reparative” ministries on bookshelves because he disagrees with that message; or the obstetrician who refuses to perform abortions on philosophical or religious grounds.

Now, and here I return to the point where consensus has not been reached, I would submit that some of the same or similar characteristics or principles that define this second category of free choice also encompass the case that has been highlighted of the wedding photographer who declines to photograph a ceremony with which she disagrees. Similarly, an attorney may choose to represent only plaintiffs who allege they are victims of sexual abuse and simply refuse to represent defendants who are accused of sexual abuse. An advertising agency may refuse to work up a promotional campaign for a Republican politician.  A public relations firm may refuse to take on a Catholic archdiocese seeking to counter negative publicity related to priest sexual abuse.  A psychologist may specialize in counseling women who have suffered abuse, while choosing not to accept male clients.  A couples therapist may focus on gay couples, while not choosing not to work with straight couples.

Now each of these examples could be described as involving “discrimination.”  But we have also used another term to describe these choices:  Freedom.

What I would argue distinguishes these business choices from the general prohibition on discrimination in goods and services is that the service or good provided is inextricably intertwined with a message or perspective that the provider may or may not wish to endorse.  In these examples, the services are being devoted directly or nearly so to the promotion of a message, which thus implicates freedom of thought at its most critical.  Moreover, because of the personal nature of these kinds of services, the service-provider necessarily must identify with the client, becoming a partner with the client in directly advancing the client’s goals.  The connection between the provider of goods or services here is anything but collateral to the message, ceremony, position, etc.

To use the law to require the service-provider of this distinctive nature to become involuntarily tethered to a viewpoint that he or she does not endorse is simply not compatible with fundamental liberty principles.  That we may not agree with those choices, or even find one or another choice repugnant, cannot be the measure of our response, if freedom is have any purchase.  Here at least, we should say that the law may proceed no further.

Posted by Greg Sisk on March 2, 2014 at 02:27 PM in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

March 01, 2014

On the Pain of Discrimination and the Role of Law and Government (Part One)

I’ve been encouraged to post to the Mirror of Justice some more of my posts to the ReligionLaw list, this time in the ongoing debate among legal scholars about the proper balance (if any) between enforcing statutes prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation (and other bases) and protecting religious liberty.  Some have argued that the law is properly used to protect everyone against the pain of discrimination, even when goods and services remain readily available from others and thus there is no concrete harm being addressed, and further that no religious liberty exemptions should be permitted.  Below is the beginning of my response:


In reading several messages poignantly describing the pain of suffering discrimination, I was reminded of something that I observed on the streets of a major American city to which I was traveling.  On a major downtown pedestrian thoroughfare, two young people, looking to be in their early twenties, were handing out flyers and trying to engage passers-by in conversation.  Their t-shirts, leaflets, and spoken words readily identified them as evangelical Christians preaching the Gospel.  Their persistence in the face of a rather disdainful audience, as well as the tone and message, confirmed that they were speaking from the heart and acting in furtherance of what they understood to be a genuine calling to share good news with others.

The response was anything but receptive; indeed, it was, no two ways around it, frequently hostile and, yes, bigoted.  While most of those walking by simply ignored the two or gave them a cold stare as they passed, several made derogatory remarks, laughed or jeered loudly, or even told them to “[epithet deleted] off.”  No one physically accosted the two, and the comments did not provoke any violence, so I don’t think it could be called disorderly conduct.  But the targeted response was despicable in manner.

The two evangelists never responded in kind, instead saying “God bless you” or “Jesus loves you” to each person.  But it was plain that the hostile treatment left its psychological mark.  The young woman, who I am guessing was the veteran at street ministry, seemed less impacted.  But the young man was shaken, as I could tell from his mannerisms, what looked to be tears in his eyes, and the quaver that appeared in his voice after he received a particularly vituperative comment.

Now what these two evangelical Christians experienced was plainly “discrimination.”  And it was blatant and invidious discrimination.  The remarks were not merely negative and disrespectful, but many were hateful and cruel.  And the basis for the discrimination plainly was their religious identity and message.  In the words of more than one poster to this list over the past day, these two were suffering an injury to their dignity, the pain of rejection, and the shame of stigma based on their identity.

Despite the undeniable fact that these two were the victims of discriminatory treatment and that they plainly felt the sting of that discrimination, I am guessing that all or most on this list will agree with me that it would be inappropriate to use the power of government to prevent such unfortunate behavior in the future or to pass a law that would compel those who pass by to treat evangelists with respect.  And I think that choice to refrain from use of government and law is correct for at least two reasons.

First, a legally binding directive to treat evangelists – or for that matter others who present a message – with respect, or instead a government regulation that induces such respect at the cost of some type of sanction or withheld benefit, would be difficult to separate from an improper government endorsement of the message at issue.  At the very least, legal action would put the heavy thumb of the government on the side of refraining from expressing opposition or indifference to a value-laden message.

But, second, it simply is not the proper role of government to enforce standards of courtesy or to wield legal power (as contrasted with appropriate exercise of persuasion) to shape human interactions.  I definitely assert a moral right to be treated with dignity, but I do not have a legal right in a free society to demand that other private citizens extend such courtesy to me or even refrain from being discourteous.  (By statute, of course, I do have the right to object to even private discrimination on certain grounds when it denies me the necessary tools for educational and economic opportunity.  That’s something on which I’ll comment more later – but this post is already too long.  My specific point here is that the real pain of discrimination alone, unaccompanied by something concrete like an economic deprivation, is like other failures in human behavior that are not properly the subject of government and where the imprudent use of law often transgresses the fundamental rights of some while attempting to address the grievances of others.)

Instead, it belongs to all of us, with personal commitment, through investment of time and talents, by telling our stories, and in how we live our lives, to enhance human dignity.  We should resist the temptation to delegate that responsibility to government, through its use of power or its imposition of laws and liabilities.  In a free society, we do not empower the government to shape our souls.  That remains our job as the people.

Posted by Greg Sisk on March 1, 2014 at 10:15 AM in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

February 20, 2014

On the Religion Law list of legal scholars, as you might imagine, considerable attention has been given in recent days to the contraception mandate cases pending before various courts.  During those discussions, I posted a message designed to challenge that largely skeptical audience to entertain the possibility that women and men of intelligence and good faith could reasonably depart from the conventional wisdom in academia that artificial contraception is essential to human progress and gender equality.  With that in mind, I suggested that a counter-cultural community grounded in such values should be, not just grudgingly tolerated, but liberally allowed the breathing room to thrive in a diverse and free society.

Because I received so many encouraging private messages, from across the political spectrum and from those on both sides of the contraception debate, I am setting out that message below:

Following up on yesterday’s conversation, let me approach the question of Catholic resistance to the contraception mandate as a plea for something more than grudging tolerance of different opinion but rather a request for a more “liberal” acceptance of a community with an alternative view of the good life.  At the outset, I emphasize that my primary purpose here is not to persuade you that this alternative view is better.  I am not even arguing today that those who advocate for ready and cost-free access to artificial contraception should refrain from advancing that policy preference through political means.  My aim of the moment is much more modest, which is to contend that in a free and diverse society, public policy should leave ample breathing room for a community with a counter-cultural understanding on these important questions.

I appreciate that contraception is widely viewed throughout the academy as an unalloyed positive social good, even a “revolutionary” and necessary step for women’s equality.  Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to describe the pro-contraception position as the privileged narrative in the academy.  The contrary view is seldom heard in the halls of the typical law school and not much respected on the irregular occasion that it is voiced.  Those who resist the use of artificial contraception are regarded at best as being quaint or in need of consciousness-raising and are seen at worst as retrograde believers in a subservient role for women as incessant baby-makers.  Through this post, I want to challenge this group of open-minded scholars to entertain the possibility that women and men of sound mind and good heart, many of “feminist” inclinations, can reasonably and even joyfully embrace an alternative worldview that embraces sexuality as a gift but excludes artificial contraception.

The perspective that I sketch here, inartfully, is that shared with me by many friends, colleagues, and former students—Catholic women who accept the Church’s teaching on sexuality and contraception, not as a rigid doctrinal imposition, but as a gift.  And these are successful professional women, who have satisfying careers as lawyers or law professors, which they have integrated with fulfilling personal and family lives.  For on-line examples of these voices, although I do not know these women personally, I suggest these links: http://catholicmoraltheology.com/catholics-contraception-and-feminisms/ and http://www.integratedcatholiclife.org/2012/07/lorraine-murray-catholic-womans-journey-with-contraception

For the orthodox Catholic women that I have known in professional settings, they have not experienced the ready availability of artificial contraception as liberating.  Rather, they have seen the assumption that all women use (or should use) artificial contraception as serving to fuel the hyper-sexualized environment on college campuses, leading to the familiar “hook-up” culture and its devaluation of human sexuality and degradation of women.  Rather than seeing contraception as enhancing equality, these women have seen the presumption of contraceptive use as encouraging men to behave irresponsibly and to treat women as sexual conquests.  In sum, by resisting the contraception narrative, these women have set a different path for romantic relationships.  They believe they have achieved healthier relationships with men.

When these professional women marry, they engage in discourse and planning with their husbands about children, a dialogue that cannot be avoided because contraception is not used to make it possible to avoid the question.  Contrary to the absurd suggestion that women who do not use artificial contraception typically have ten to twenty children, these women know that family planning and artificial contraception are not synonymous, and they insist that modern women have not lost all capacity for self-control.  While they may choose to have larger families than the norm in some circles, the professional Catholic women that I know who joyfully follow Church teaching have families with children ranging in number from a single child to about half a dozen, with most in the two or three range.

Now let us suppose that a particular Catholic community—a Catholic university, let us say—wishes to build an oasis in which young men and women have an alternative to the contraception culture that dominates most of society.  This university builds single-sex dormitories and adopts what we’ll label “parietals” that call for person of the opposite sex to leave a student’s dorm room after a certain time each night.  Every student admitted to the university (and every faculty or staff member employed by the university) is well aware of the Church’s teaching and of the university’s considered policies in accordance with that teaching.

Knowing that their students are real people and not angels, the Catholic university leadership understands that not all young men and women on campus will succeed in living what they believe is a healthier and more satisfying lifestyle.  But a critical mass of students (and faculty and staff) will so succeed within a supportive environment, quite different from that which prevails at most universities.  And not wanting to be oppressive, university leaders certainly will not invade the privacy of students (which itself would be a violation of human dignity) by searching their rooms to ensure that no one brings artificial contraception on campus.  But the university will in no wise facilitate or encourage artificial contraception.

For these reasons, as a faithful witness to the community and as an encouragement to students to live faithfully, this Catholic university will not permit artificial contraception to be dispensed on campus and will not associate itself in any way with those who market or distribute such artificial contraception.  Not wanting to give any scandal or tarnish in any way the Church’s message about the sacred beauty of human sexuality, the university refuses to cooperate or be complicit with distribution of artificial contraception.

Now shouldn’t a genuinely “liberal” and free society not merely tolerate but leave ample breathing room for a community that adopts an alternative view of what it means to thrive as human beings?  Shouldn’t we strive for a public policy respectful of diversity that does not suffocate these countercultural views by all-embracing mandates?  Shouldn’t we be alarmed by a governmental orthodoxy that cannot allow this community to march to a different drummer?

Posted by Greg Sisk on February 20, 2014 at 08:20 PM in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

January 18, 2014

Want to Fight "Income Inequality"? Then Fight the Breakdown of the Family

In the Wall Street Journal, Ari Fleischer writes:

If President Obama wants to reduce income inequality, he should focus less on redistributing income and more on fighting a major cause of modern poverty: the breakdown of the family. . . . According to Census Bureau information analyzed by the Beverly LaHaye Institute, among families headed by two married parents in 2012, just 7.5% lived in poverty. By contrast, when families are headed by a single mother the poverty level jumps to 33.9%.

You can read the rest of the column here.

Posted by Greg Sisk on January 18, 2014 at 12:00 PM in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

January 15, 2014

Long-Term Unemployment Benefits as the Paradigm of the "Safety-Net"

Those on the conservative side of our Mirror of Justice family, me included, frequently explain that our skepticism about state-centric proposals does not mean that we lack compassion for the unfortunate.  To the contrary, we conclude that Catholic values are better advanced — not always, but often — by relying on inspired private initiatives and making room for communities and charities to work, not weighed down by government bureaucracy administered from Washington, D.C.  Still, we insist, that doesn’t mean we think there is no role for government.  We do believe in a safety net after all.  Really. 11-5-13bud-f10

If so, then the current debate in Congress about extension of long-term unemployment benefits should be an easy case for us.  If ever there were a case for preserving the “safety net,” this is one. 

We’re not talking about permanent welfare type benefits given to those who shirk work and enjoy living free and easy on the dole.  The very fact that these individuals are receiving unemployment benefits means that they were employed.  They had established themselves as working Americans and then had that taken away from them, through no fault of their own.

Nor can continuation of those benefits legitimately be criticized as fostering dependency and discouraging a return to the work-force.  No one who has earned a living wage will be satisfied for any length of time by the small weekly supplement provided through long-term unemployment benefits, always less than half of prior wages and typically about $300 per week.  As Michael Strain, a conservative economist, pointedly observes:  “A large share of the long-term unemployed are people with relatively high earnings potential and personal responsibilities that extend beyond themselves.  It is hard to imagine an educated worker in her prime working years with a kid at home having allowed a $300-a-week check to stand between her and a strenuous job search for over half a year.”

Even with such benefits being continued, savings accounts will dwindle, mortgage payments will be missed, plans for assisting children with college expenses will be put on hold, and plans for retirement will go out the window.  At best, long-term unemployment benefits slow down the economic decline and ease the impact.  But the beneficiaries retain every incentive to return to full-time work.

Michael Strain points out yet another reason for allowing unemployment benefits to continue somewhat long:  “If the benefits allow people to be more selective with which jobs they take, and they end up with a better match, that will increase their productivity, their contributions to the economy are higher in the long run, the likelihood that they'll quit or get fired later is smaller.”

Without long-term unemployment benefits, our neighbors who still cannot find work in this weak economy risk damage to family economic security from which they may never recover — a legacy of displacement and impoverishment that will be passed down to the next generation.  When the house is lost to foreclosure, not because of foolish real estate purchases but the tragedy of a lost job, that family may never again be able to accumulate savings for a down payment or obtain the credit to buy a house.  When children are forced to drop out of college because parents’ have emptied all savings to keep a roof over their head and put food on the table, their first steps into adult life lead to disappointment and discouragement.  Long-term unemployment benefits provide a way to help ease that interruption of work and safeguard the American dream despite temporary setbacks.

Moreover, Republicans, so often incompetent in recent years in political messaging, have yet another reason to support long-term unemployment benefits.  The very need to continue these benefits sends the message yet again about the failure of the Obama Administration on the economy.  Now entering its sixth year in office, the Obama Administration continues to have a dismal record in restoring jobs to this economy.  Indeed, President Obama has a history of promoting job-killing measures, from the Obamacare mandates to employers to the ramp up in environmental regulations. 

A month ago, the job numbers were reported widely to be encouraging, although most commentators overlooked the fact that nearly half of those new jobs were in government and thus not adding to the productivity of the economy.  And now this month, the job numbers are forthrightly discouraging.  And more so than after earlier recessions, the numbers facing long-term unemployment are staggering.  That is why we need to continue long-term unemployment benefits. 

This should be the Republican message, which would have more power (and more persuasive value) if accompanied by the sensible step of extending long-term unemployment benefits.  Instead, failing as a matter of principle as well as political strategy, Republicans in Congress have missed the chance to do the right thing here and to get political credit for it.

Posted by Greg Sisk on January 15, 2014 at 05:11 PM in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

December 20, 2013

Pope Francis . . . and Paul Ryan?

McKay Coppins on Buzzfeed writes an article that begins with:  "How a backstage prayer in Cleveland and a new leader in the Vatican set the budget-slashing congressman on a mission to help the poor. 'My bet is that he’s on Pope Francis’ team.'”

Here’s a sample:

But those closest to him say Ryan’s new mission is the result of a genuine spiritual epiphany — sparked, in part, by the prayer in Cleveland [at a meeting with advocates for the poor], and sustained by the emergence of a new pope who has lit the world on fire with bold indictments of the “culture of prosperity” and a challenge to reach out the weak and disadvantaged.

“What I love about the pope is he is triggering the exact kind of dialogue we ought to be having,” Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this week, adding, “People need to get involved in their communities to make a difference, to fix problems soul to soul.”

Posted by Greg Sisk on December 20, 2013 at 05:29 PM in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

November 11, 2013

The Typhoon in the Philippines

Typhoon-haiyan-131108-456The newspapers and television news report that the death toll in the Philippines from the strongest typhoon in recorded history could climb to 10,000 (or higher).  I am reminded of the cynical but sadly often true observation:  When one person close to you dies, it is a tragedy.  When 10,000 people die in a distant land, it is a statistic.  Even for us as Catholics who cherish the unique value and dignity of each individual, we can find it difficult to get our minds around loss of life at a large scale, and we struggle to feel an emotional connection with the victims of disasters occurring in exotic places.

When I spent a summer teaching in Rome in the Summer of 2007, I regularly watched “BBC World News” in the mornings and evenings, as it was one of two English-language stations available on our cable network (the other being, interestingly enough, “Al Jazeera Sports”).  That was the summer of the 1-35 bridge collapse in the Twin Cities, which of course was a story of particular interest to those of us from the University of St. Thomas.  But I remember being struck one morning when the BBC anchor announced, “Ten thousand people have died in Turkey as the heat wave continues.  But, first, we go to our person on the scene at the bridge collapse in Minnesota.”  (And, yes, the BBC indeed had a reporter — complete with BBC British accent — at the scene of the bridge collapse for live reports every half hour.)  Ten thousand dead in Turkey.  But the priority news story for the BBC was the bridge collapse in Minnesota at which thirteen lost their lives.

Now we can ridicule or disparage the BBC’s choice to highlight one story over the other, or we might attribute the choice to the race for ratings.  But I think there is another way to understand that seemingly odd contrast.  For those of us in the western developed world, we can more easily relate to the calamity of a collapsing highway bridge, plunging dozens of cars into the river — that is, we can imagine such a thing happening to us.  We have more difficulty imagining ever being in a situation without easy access to cooling and clean water where scorching temperatures would cost thousands of lives.

Because our empathy and sympathy grows out of relationships, we naturally will have more for those with whom we are in relationship — or at least those with whom we identify in common experience and thus can envision a form of relationship.  The Gospel of John reminds us that "God so loved the World," but it is so hard to love "the World" until we develop relationships within the Body of Christ.

The same is true for most of us in America when we see the images of destruction left by a typhoon on the other side of the globe.  We pause to be shocked and sincerely express pity, but we lack the imagination to be deeply moved (for any length of time) by what we see.  And I must confess that I have often been counted in that number — wanting to care and meaning to care, but lacking the connectedness to have the concern of relationship.  While I want to do the right thing and lift up others in prayer and contribute to disaster relief, it may be hard to think with the mind of Christ about persons so far removed from me and my situation.

For me, not anymore.  Or at least not today.  My brother, Dan, was in a small city on the Filipino island of Biliran, which was directly in the path of Typhoon Haiyan.  You’ve all seen the horrifying images of death and devastation coming out of Tacloban on the island of Leyte.  The provincial capital of Naval on Biliran, where my brother was staying with his expecting fiancé, is just 50 miles to the west of Tacloban.  We know Dan and Dayline were in Naval when the storm struck.  We have not heard anything more from him in the few days since, nor has the State Department or the American embassy in Manila been able to offer us any word of his situation.

We prayerfully assume that they are both well and simply unable to get word out with electricity and communications down and likely to remain down for days or weeks more.  We pray that they are able to persevere and find food and water as they wait for rescue and restoration.  And in praying for my brother, whom I know, I can better envision the lives and plight of those around him in the wake of the typhoon.

Catholic Relief Services is working with its partners to provide shelter and water to the tens of thousands in need in the Philippines.  Please consider giving today: http://emergencies.crs.org/typhoon-haiyan-help-philippines-survive-and-recover/

Posted by Greg Sisk on November 11, 2013 at 03:55 PM in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

November 06, 2013

Harry Hutchison: Responding to "How not to do Social Justice"

Mirror of Justice friend Harry Hutchison, professor at George Mason Law School, offers this response and supplement to my post yesterday (here):

Well said but it is important to remember the lead role played by American citizens in the potential crackup of Obamacare. In what follows, I must confess that my analysis is far from original. In any case I think two things are worth noting given the problems emerging with respect to the Affordable Health Care Act.

 First, Americans were only too willing to avoid the warnings offered by many analysts which suggested that the Affordable Health Care Act, representing the promise of Progressivism, would promise more than it could possibly deliver. Second, it is important to remember what Patrick J. Deneen has said about Tocqueville and the individualist roots of Progressivism which may explain why Americans were only too willing to believe, the often unbelievable promises of the law itself.

Deneen suggests that although the major figures of Progressivism would directly attack classical liberalism, a lucid understanding of Tocqueville’s analysis supports the conclusion that Progressivism arose not in spite of classical liberalism but because of its inherent and supreme emphasis upon, and cultivation of individualism. Whereas the idea of the individual is at least as old as Christianity, individualism within the context of Progressivism represents a new experience of self that arises with the diminution of a strong connection to a familial, social, religious, generational and cultural setting wherein change occurs relatively slowly consistent with a hierarchical (aristocratic?) society. With the onset of notions of highly individuated equality, Americans have (perhaps) experienced a new conception of the self—a self that emerges, unfettered by historical ties, as individuals are now defined by their membership in something larger—humanity itself. Liberated from embedded ties that ground us in quotidian reality, individuals crave unity—unity that is found within the pursuit of the ideal.

Liberated from membership in mediating groups, individuals seek forms of protection from the uncertainty that arises from the vagaries of human life. Thus understood the acclaimed conflict between individualism and the collective represents a false dichotomy because in reality unmediated individualism reinforces the state. The State grows on what it gives the individual (presumably affordable health care on demand at low costs) while diminishing the role of competing local institutions such as the church or family. The individual is seen as desperately alone and her only source of support is the State. If we are all, as individuals profoundly weak, alone and isolated, the State is obligated to support us in our autonomy and isolation as a fundamental requirement that is the fulfillment of a democratic commitment to individuality and equality. The Affordable Health Care Act was sold to individuals who were only too willing to believe the promise that this law would ultimately free them and us from the need to depend on our communities, churches, employers and other mediating institutions. Instead, it would free us to pursue our fulfillment (whatever that means) knowing that the existence of a “right” to healthcare would help us achieve the unachievable, the illusion of autonomy.  Other casualties emerge include a pre-commitment to truth.

Harry Hutchison

George Mason School of Law

Posted by Greg Sisk on November 6, 2013 at 12:39 PM in Sisk, Greg | Permalink