Once You Pop…

July 22, 2009

It’s almost impossible to stop. Executive power is funny like that:

President Barack Obama has irked close allies in Congress by declaring he has the right to ignore legislation on constitutional grounds after having criticized George W. Bush for doing the same.

Four senior House Democrats on Tuesday said they were “surprised” and “chagrined” by Obama’s declaration in June that he doesn’t have to comply with provisions in a war spending bill that puts conditions on aid provided to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In a signing statement accompanying the $106 billion bill, Obama said he wouldn’t allow the legislation to interfere with his authority as president to conduct foreign policy and negotiate with other governments.

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Its rare that waking up first thing with a caffeine-induced headache can be a good thing, but today, thankfully, I get to spend my drowsy hours pouring over Obama’s latest…  I imagine there will be a good amount of discussion of this in the next few hours/days, but I just thought I’d point out something intriguing going on here at the get go. Early on he throws out this gem:

Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

Later on, he expands on this point:

Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

And further still:

I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

I hadn’t really appreciated how much there is to be gained, from an American perspective, from criticizing the secular bigotry of European (particularly French) approaches to Islam, but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. Given that much of Obama’s audience’s direct acquaintance with Western religious norms comes via Europe, America’s comparatively rigorous protections for religious expression in the public sphere are likely less well understood than our more obvious Christian culture. Making those protections a central to how we represent ourselves, both on our own and relative to Europe, could play very well in the Middle East, provided its paired with policies that emphasize respect for Islam and a diplomatic recognition that Islam is a rightful part of the Middle East’s political inheritance.  Whether Obama (or anyone, for that matter) can succeed at that broader project, I am doubtful, but its nonetheless an interesting undercurrent to what seemed an overall solid performance.

Via NeoMugwump, Obama seems to have an interesting anti-Republican strategy in play:

Between high-profile conversions from the Northeast to the Midwest to the Rocky Mountain West — not to mention Obama’s warm relations with the nation’s two most prominent moderate Republican governors, California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida’s Charlie Crist — it’s beginning to look like a strategy that isolates conservatives, reinforces the impression that the GOP is defined by the borders of the Deep South and all the while underscores Obama’s stated goal of working across party lines.

“Boxing the Republicans into a South-dominated party is very good strategy, because the more you reduce the Republican Party, the more conservative and reactionary it will become, and thus less attractive to moderates,” said Tom Schaller, a University of Maryland-Baltimore County professor and the author of “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South.” “The Midwest and the Northeast are the places where there are still remnants of old-line Rockefeller Republicans. And these are the places where the Democrats will build durable majorities.”

Here’s an interesting thought experiment. Lets assume Obama’s strategy works, and the Republicans are relegated to the South, alienate everyone whose skin color is darker than snow or whose ideas are contrary to those of their favorite entertainers. Suppose they lose all their support in the Northeast and cease to be players in the Midwest. Suppose further that they shed considerable chunks of what was once safe territory (i.e. Virginia) to shifting demographics. Suppose they are crippled internally and unable to reform, bound to a fanatical base and a cowardly leadership. Suppose that the decline in their popularity does not bottom out in the near future. At what point in this process do we declare the GOP, for all intensive purposes, no longer a major party in American Politics? When 20% of the electorate self-identifies as Republican? 15%?  We call a party fringe in Europe when it gets those kinds of poll numbers, as Le Pen did back in 2002. Ditto in local politics, as those of us who lived through the Ventura administration would be hardpressed to forget.  Why should it be any different for the GOP? And what would it mean if it did?

Just a passing thought I suppose. But not a completely implausible one, given those latest poll numbers. Interesting times indeed.

There’s a great amount to be said about Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, and I’m sure plenty of others will be chiming in in the next few hours. I was hoping for more details about what direction he’ll be steering federal abortion policies, but a graduation address is not and should not be a stump speech. So putting that aside, this nugget really stood out to me:

In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. Stand as a lighthouse. 

But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds.

So far as I can know, this is the first time anyone has used Tillichian theology to support a Rawlsian understanding of public reason.  On the whole, I’m not buying it. There is no straight line between doubt and a universalized discourse; doubt has a background too, and in the case of Catholic faith its not one that necessarily defaults to secular reasoning.  (Not incidentally, this is the same stone that tripped Cuomo 23 years ago at the same institution.)

Still, there’s much to be said of using the example of works as a starting place for discussion, and as a moral guidepost, and Obama’s emphasis on it in his own life reflects an understanding of that fact.   Contra Rawls (and Obama), its not the universals we’re going to agree on, its the particulars, and if we want to put together a viable religious culture in this country we would do well to keep our focus on them.