How We Can Choose A Constitutional President In A Celebrity Age

Corbin and Parks150x150By David Corbin and Matt Parks
Published at on October 20, 2014

Note: This is part of a series of essays examining the prospects for electing a republican president in 2016 and ultimately reining in the modern imperial presidency through the lens of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist essays on the executive branch.

For the many admirers of 2008 “hope and change,” the Obama presidency has regrettably, six seasons in, read nothing like an Aaron Sorkin script (think “The American President”): Progressive idealism meets the challenges of national leadership head on, and, even though the president struggles to achieve political success in an imperfect world, our admiration for the person in the office softens our cynicism.

Then again, life in the Oval Office these days probably feels more like a “West Wing” episode and Dinesh D’Souza documentary folded into one, with fears of the further spread of Ebola in West Africa and throughout the world, an economy still on the skids, troublesome midterm elections, staff defections and ex-staff criticism, and the dangerous growth of the Islamic State, never mind people forgetting to lock the front door.

There is no way to write happy endings out of these troubles, despite the best efforts of the president’s speech writers. From the beginning, the Obama administration has doggedly attempted to live in a postmodern world, constructed or reconstructed by the president’s words, which, in imitation of the Divine Creation, are supposed to summon new realities into being.

Human affairs, however, follows a different logic, which is not the formulaic plot line of a Emmy-winning drama series. This rhetorical presidency has failed, in progressively obvious and dramatic ways, as unimpressed realities confront blurred thinking and unreal words. Support for President Obama’s signature domestic programs, the stimulus package and Obamacare, never high, has degraded over time as promised results were not achieved amidst serial instances of administrative high-handedness and incompetence.

Confidence in the president as commander-in-chief likewise continues to reach new lows as despots are simply undeterred by hearing they live in the wrong century or sit on the wrong side of history. Ebola need not become a serious threat—but is it any wonder many Americans expect that it will anyway, when we are asked to place our hope in careful-applied “protocols” by those unable to construct workable websites, responsibly schedule appointments at veterans’ hospitals, or perform other seemingly mundane administrative tasks? Six years into this administration, will anyone rest easy simply because the president says he’s hugged and kissed nurses who treated Ebola patients? Can anyone be satisfied with sizzle when there’s still no sign of the steak?

A Short History of Presidential Rhetoric

At least some elements of the rhetorical presidency are long-established on American soil. As we noted in our essay last week, almost 200 years ago President Andrew Jackson broke new ground in a number of important areas, not the least of which was his use of impassioned rhetoric to separate political friends and enemies.

Yet Alexis de Tocqueville notes, in “Democracy in America,” the much more modest political agenda behind the passion in President Jackson’s speeches:

Far from wanting to extend federal power, the current president represents, on the contrary, the party that wants to restrict that power to the clearest and most precise terms of the Constitution . . . . [F]ar from presenting himself as the champion of centralization, General Jackson is the agent of provincial jealousies; it is (if I can express myself so) decentralizing passions that brought him to sovereign power. He maintains himself and prospers by flattering these passions daily. General Jackson is the slave of the majority: he follows it in its wishes, its desires, its half-uncovered instincts, or rather he divines it and runs to place himself at its head.

Jackson, the agent of national prerogative and, simultaneously, slave to and master over public opinion, nevertheless sought to govern within the boundaries of the Constitution. In the century that followed, the president as public-spirited cowboy, political messiah, social engineer, and great communicator, unmoored from the Constitution and placed on rhetorical overdrive, became essential elements of the Progressive alternative to the founders’ republican presidency.

Republican Progressive Teddy Roosevelt embraced the “bully pulpit” (his term) as the fundamental tool of the presidency. So did his Democratic Progressive rival Woodrow Wilson, his buttoned-up engineering alter ego, Herbert Hoover, and his distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. At times, normalcy returned, encouraged by policy (Warring Harding), personality (Calvin Coolidge), and political necessity (Dwight Eisenhower). But almost every president since has been expected to be a rhetorical conjurer whatever other merits he may possess. Moreover, self-aggrandizing efforts to grow one’s celebrity and a willingness to set aside constitutional republican prescriptions have almost always gone hand-in hand in the last century.

Try Persuasion Instead of Manipulation

The point is not to idealize a presidency of competent technocrats who let their crisp implementation of well-chosen “protocols” do their talking. Abraham Lincoln, the greatest orator in American political history, wasn’t just the first Republican president, but a model republican long before he was president. But that was because he didn’t speak from a bully pulpit, alternating the cadences of the popular revivalist with those of the fiery prophet. Instead, he thought well enough of his audience to try to persuade them, over and over again working out the consequences of common principles and ideas, defined with fairness but precision in his most important speeches.

Consider, for example, the preface to one of Lincoln’s greatest speeches, his 1854 address at Peoria:

I do not rise to speak now, if I can stipulate with the audience to meet me here at half-past six or at seven o’clock. It is now several minutes past five, and Judge [and Senator Stephen] Douglas has spoken over three hours. If you hear me at all, I wish you to hear me through. It will take me as long as it has taken him. That will carry us beyond eight o’clock at night. Now, every one of you who can remain that long can just as well get his supper, meet me at seven, and remain an hour or two later. The Judge has already informed you that he is to have an hour to reply to me. I doubt not but you have been a little surprised to learn that I have consented to give one of his high reputation and known ability this advantage of me. Indeed, my consenting to it, though reluctant, was not wholly unselfish, for I suspected, if it were understood that the Judge was entirely done, you Democrats would leave and not hear me; but by giving him the close, I felt confident you would stay for the fun of hearing him skin me.

In his typically self-deprecating and good-humored way, Lincoln only partially disguised his real hope: to win some of Douglas’s Democratic partisans to his cause (after a good supper had put them in the mood for four more hours of speeches). He assumed here and throughout his political career that, if right, he could win many to his cause, since he was, at his best, pointing them to policies and principles grounded in a reality accessible to and, at least in part, experienced by all. His model was not the magician, but the geometer, hoping, like Euclid, to work out the consequences of given (political) first principles.

What Makes a President Different from a Monarch

All this fits very well with the model of the presidency outlined by the exceptionally clear-headed Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 69. There, responding to anti-federalist claims that the American executive would quickly become a New World imitation of the British monarchy, Hamilton labored to show just how constrained the president was by the other legs of the republican stool: the people, the Constitution, and the coordinate branches of the federal government.

While the king could make war and peace at his pleasure, the president, although commander-in-chief, required congressional authorization to do the same. While the king possessed an absolute veto, the president would have only a qualified one. Most fundamentally, while the king held perpetual, hereditary, unaccountable office, the president would be elected for a fixed term and subject to impeachment and removal if he betrayed the Constitution. The president is required “from time to time [to] give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”—measures that become law only if he can persuade Congress to adopt them.

Such an executive role was enough for many who served in the office for a century. But such a role no longer satisfies the ambitions of most would-be presidents in our day, Democrats and Republicans alike.

President Obama

President Obama

President Obama has, more than once, acknowledged with apparent lament that he does not possess imperial power. Although his actions, at times, have suggested otherwise, the wise constitutional constraints the founders imposed, if followed, require that presidents stick closer to both justice and reality than we can expect from any democratized president of the people or monarchized president by proclamation.

The lesson in all of this as we look to 2016 is that if we wish to have a more modest government, we need to elect a more modest man. It goes without saying such an individual will be ambitious and desire public acclaim. But it’s more likely that an individual content to live within the boundaries that the Constitution and nature prescribe will gratify his ambition by playing the part of a leader of a republic, not a life-imitating-art sympathetic idealist, or a famous-for-being-famous hardened and cynical luminary. In other words, celebrities, pundits, and politicians—Left, center, and Right—who view, hew, and sometimes pursue the presidency as the lead part in a drama, reality television show, or documentary film will continue to give us a less republican political reality.

David Corbin and Matt Parks

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011).

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America’s Glory and Supreme Love

If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Abraham Lincoln

declaration-of-independence-being-writtenHaving a day off is always a welcome opportunity to slow down and reflect on God’s goodness and blessings.  Today, in particular, I am reflecting on the freedom that we as individuals have enjoyed because our Founding Fathers declared and enshrined the universal rights of all humankind in the Declaration of Independence.

Today, unlike any other day, is when we as a people should consider the foundation of the “Truths” upon which our liberty is grounded.  Thomas Jefferson penned these words in The Declaration of Independence:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

This simple, yet profound, paragraph, captured the spirit and heart of the American Revolution and removed the universal rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” from the hands of tyrants and governments by acknowledging them as “unalienable rights,” granted by God, not the State.

This philosophical argument for the God given “unalienable Rights” of man, became the basis for the U.S. Constitution and the founding of the first Constitutional Republic in human history.

This July 4, 2013, these universal rights, and the underlying freedoms that we have enjoyed, are being overshadowed by a darkness, which is empowered by an ignorance and intolerance for anyone who would claim that there is such a thing as ultimate truth.  This darkness is leading to a crisis, a crisis which threatens to destroy what we as American’s love most, Freedom.

A Free Peoples SuicideOs Guinness, author of, “A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future,” writes: “Let me introduce the claim that American’s deepest crisis is the crisis of sustainable freedom by setting out a number of simple points that have converged to make is urgent.”  Guinness then describes for us what he calls “America’s Glory and Supreme Love.”

I am going to quote this passage, in its entirety, since it captures, in a beautiful and profound manner, what is so amazing about the American experiment and how the blessings of freedom and freedom itself is on the brink of death.  Guinness writes:

First, sustainable freedom is urgent for America because freedom is, and will always be, the issue of all issues for America.  In today’s world, it is customary to assess nations in terms of the size of their population, the strength of their economy, the power and reach of their armed forces, the state of their information technology, the prestige of their research universities and son on.  But there is a deeper classical way to see things: it was once understood that every nation has it own special character, its own animating principle, and can be understood and assessed only in that light.

Augustine of Hippo argued that the best way to define a people is by their “loved thing held in common,” or what it is they love supremely.  A people can be judged as better or worse according to what they love, and their nation can be assessed as healthy or unhealthy according to the condition of what they love.  Freedom is unquestionably what Americans love supremely, and love of freedom is what makes Americans the people they are.  Thus the present crisis of sustainable freedom raises questions about the health of the American republic that must be taken seriously.

Freedom is so central and precious to Americans that it might seem odd, and even outrageous, for an outsider to challenge Americans over their freedom.  But this book is not a sour foreign attack on American freedom.  I am a long-time admirer of the American experiment and of the place of freedom in America.  Unquestionably freedom is, and will always be, America’s animating principle and chief glory, her most important idea and her greatest strength.

But unless sustained, freedom could also prove to be America’s idol – something trusted ultimately that cannot bear ultimate weight.  Assessing the condition of freedom is therefore central to the promise and peril of America in the advanced modern world, just as it was to the success of the American Revolution.

For one thing, freedom is the special glory of America, the chief boast of Americans and the central reason for the importance of America for the democratic project, for the modern world and for humanity.  From its very beginning, the United States was blessed with a sturdy birthright of freedom.   It was born in freedom, it has expanded in freedom, I has resolved its great conflicts in a “new birth of freedom,” it has won its spurs as a world power in defending freedom, and it now stands as the global colossus of freedom offering its gift to the world and announcing that, as freedom spreads, it will herald an era of peace between freedom-loving nations on earth.

Due largely to America, freedom is at the very heart and soul of the modern world, especially in its Western forms.  In all the world’s free-thought, free-speech, free-choice, free-vote, free-market, societies, freedom is today’s highest virtue, its grandest possibility, its last absolute, its most potent myth and – with the power of love limited to the private world – its only self-evident public truth.  How else are modern people to be themselves other that to be free?

Freedom as the dream of every-expanding emancipation, every-multiplying liberation movements and ever-deepening fulfillment is being pushed from ahead by the promise of unrestrained choice and unhindered creativity leading to unlimited possibilities (“infinite in all directions,” as the futurist cheerleaders say).  Unfettered freedom could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the modern world, dissipating into license, triviality, corruption and a grand undermining of all authority, but for the moment the world is still both thrilled and enthralled by the great Age of Freedom.  It is the Western world’s most stunning success, and the United States is its proudest exemplar.

No self-respecting American will ever be opposed to freedom any more than to love.  And it is incontestable that, in American history, whoever represents “the party of freedom” – sometimes the Democrats, as under Franklin Roosevelt, and sometime the Republicans, as under Ronald Regan – has always prevailed over any who appear to be standing in its way.

Let’s commit to giving thanks to God for blessing us with the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and lets commit to defending these rights from extinction – as those who have benefitted most from freedom and to ensure its place, once again, as, “the special glory of America, the chief boast of Americans and the central reason for the importance of America for the democratic project, for the modern world and for humanity…”

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Keystone XL and Natural Gas Provide Energy Trade Opportunities

Posted at The Foundry by Nicolas Loris May 7, 2013 at 4:30 pm

In June 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama said, “If we continue to let our trade policy be dictated by special interests, then American workers will continue to be undermined, and public support for robust trade will continue to erode.” That’s exactly what’s happening with respect to energy trade. Special interests want to block the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and block opportunities to export natural gas.

Representative Lee Terry (R–NE) has introduced the Northern Route Approval Act, which would approve the Keystone XL pipeline by deeming the State Department’s first environmental review as satisfying all requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R–VA) announced that the House will vote on the bill this month.

The act is important for several other reasons. Even if President Obama grants Keystone XL the presidential permit, environmental activists adamantly opposed to the project will almost certainly bring legal challenges to delay or prevent the pipeline’s construction. Terry’s bipartisan bill, which has 36 co-sponsors, would limit these challenges by creating a 60-day deadline for filing a claim.

In addition, the act would ensure that the environmental review satisfies all requirements of the Endangered Species Act, which has been an important tool for environmental activists unjustifiably stopping economic activity. In addition to dragging its feet on Keystone, the Administration is also needlessly delaying energy export opportunities.

With the glut of natural gas and low gas prices in the United States, energy producers are seeking to liquefy and ship domestic natural gas to foreign markets. Special interest groups such as chemical companies are trying to keep natural gas in the states.

Exporting natural gas would provide a huge boon to the U.S. economy since it would expand market opportunities for American companies, and new market access would spur more domestic development.
Two former Democratic Senators—Byron Dorgan (ND) and Bennett Johnston (LA)—testified today before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power about the broad economic benefits of exporting natural gas, emphasizing that the U.S. should avoid restrictions on energy exports. (These thoughts are elaborated on in a Heritage Foundation paper, “U.S. Natural Gas Exports: Lift Restrictions and Empower the States.”)

But the Department of Energy (DOE) has delayed decisions on export licenses. Not only does an export applicant have to obtain approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but the DOE must determine if the project is in the public’s interest if the importing country does not have a free trade agreement with the U.S.

There is no question that the economic benefits from exporting natural gas are overwhelmingly positive. A DOE-commissioned study reinforced that by concluding, “Across the scenarios, U.S. economic welfare consistently increases as the volume of natural gas exports increased. This includes scenarios in which there are unlimited exports.”

So why is the DOE involved in the permit authorization process at all? U.S. producers should be allowed to export natural gas to any country they see fit, subject to the same restrictions that govern other trade. This would direct natural gas to its highest valued use. Congress should lift restrictions on natural gas recipient countries and prohibit any federal agency from determining natural gas exports based on public interest.

President Obama of 2013 should listen to 2008 candidate Obama. We shouldn’t have our trade policy dictated by special interests. Allowing access to energy imports and exports would make Americans far better off.

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Health Care Conscience Rights Act

Victims of the Obama Administration’s assault on religious freedom speak out at Rep. Black’s press conference in support of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act. Speakers included:

• Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo, RN – New York State nurse who filed suit after her freedom to serve patients according to her conscience was violated.

• Susan Elliott, PhD, Director and Professor at Biola University Nursing Department.
• Christine Ketterhagen, Co-Owner/Board Member of Hercules Industries, Inc.; Andy Newland, President of Hercules Industries; Bill Newland, Chairman of the Board of Hercules Industries.

• Sister Jane Marie Klein, OSF, Chairperson of the Board of Franciscan Alliance, Inc. (in Mishawaka, IN). Franciscan Alliance is a co-plaintiff with the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.


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Federal Spending Without & With Sequester Cuts

Posted by Veronique de Rugy | Nov 07, 2011

VerodeRugyThis week, Mercatus Center Senior Research Fellow Veronique de Rugy uses data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to examine the estimated growth in spending without and with a potential Budget Control Act (BCA) sequester. As the chart and the accompanying data show, the purported spending “cuts” arising from the sequester are merely reductions in the overall growth of spending, not actual cuts that would address and relieve the United States’ debt problems.

The sequester is an automatic budget enforcement mechanism triggered when the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction fails to enact legislation to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the sequestration period. Instead of simply passing appropriated funds to the agencies, the U.S. Treasury “sequesters” the difference between the cap set in the BCA and the amount appropriated.

Changes in spending from sequestration result in new budget projections below the CBO’s baseline projection of spending based on current law. The federal government would spend $3.62 trillion in the first year with sequestration versus the $3.69 trillion projected by CBO. By 2021, the government would spend $5.26 trillion versus the $5.41 trillion projected. Overall, without a sequester, federal spending would increase $1.7 trillion (blue line). With a sequester, federal spending would increase by $1.6 trillion (red line).

A further breakdown of the percentage of budget programs reveals that sequestration provides relatively small reductions in spending rates across the board. With sequestration, defense increases 18% (vs. 20%); nondefense discretionary increases 12% (vs. 14%); Medicare roughly increases at the same rate; and net interest increases 136% (vs. 152%).

While the sequester projections are nominal spending increases, most budget plans count them as cuts. Referring to decreases in the rate of growth of spending as “cuts” influences public perceptions about the budget. When the public hears “cut,” it thinks that spending has been significantly reduced below current levels, not that spending has increased. Thus, calling a reduced growth rate of projected spending a “cut” leads to confusion, a growing deficit, and an ever-larger burden for future generations.

Veronique de Rugy talks about the feasibility of sequestration and historical spending reductions atNational Review Online’s The Corner.

At The Washington Post, opinion writer George Will uses this chart to examine spending increases with and without  the budget sequester.

TABLE: Annual and Cumulative Spending Increase.




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Student Loans: Another Federal Debacle

Posted on The Freeman

FEEEven if you aren’t considering going back to school, you’re about to pick up the tab for a college education. The same cast of characters that brought you the housing crisis, a post office hemorrhaging billions, and a school system that gets more expensive as it gets worse has now brought us a student loan crisis.
A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says the value of student loans outstanding is now close to $1 trillion, making it the largest and fastest-growing share of non-mortgage consumer borrowing. Unlike other forms of consumer debt, which have fallen, total student loans have grown by 75 percent since 2007.
The federal government has pushed relentlessly to expand access to college by cutting out the private sector in loan programs and by altering repayment terms for borrowers via executive order. It bears an eerie resemblance to the obsession with homeownership that got us into our current straits.
Like potential homeowners, students have been encouraged to borrow with impunity. It continues to intensify: The Department of Education lent $133 billion in 2010 and $157 billion in 2011. Late payment trends are also following a similar pattern to the subprime mortgage crisis. With new programs geared toward “income based” repayment plans and forbearance timetables, it is increasingly likely that the federal government and thus the taxpayer will eventually be on the hook for tens of billions of dollars of loans that will never be repaid.
This phenomenon has real social consequences. With two-thirds of college graduates possessing student loan debt of at least $25,000 and 53 percent of recent college graduates either unemployed or acutely underemployed, unproductive economic dislocations—putting off the purchase of a home or delaying marriage, for example—are rampant.
This misguided policy approach has produced more than a student loan bubble that could damage the economy. It has also triggered an inflationary spiral in tuition costs and provided college bureaucracies with incentives to become bloated and inefficient. As one critical report recently stated, “In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate—executives would lose their jobs.”
The billions of dollars sloshing around the system have triggered the classic definition of inflation: Too much money is chasing too few goods. It has also lent further credence to Milton Friedman’s claim that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. Since 2000, tuition at public, four-year colleges has risen by an inflation-adjusted 72 percent, and over the past 25 years, it has increased at an annual rate 6 percentage points higher than the cost of living. When prices rise, government loans increase to effectively subsidize the difference, allowing colleges to continue increasing tuition, thus completing the cycle.
One beneficiary is online education. While it will never completely replace the college campus, current economic realities make it a legitimate alternative. It provides an avenue of highly individualized instruction at a fraction of the cost of the traditional model.
Overspending on higher education has reached a tipping point. Just as aggressive government intervention in the housing market led to a variety of economic distortions and ultimately cost the taxpayers billions, the student loan problem is destined for similar results unless substantial reforms are implemented.
The government must exit the lending arena and be replaced by an active and innovative private market with legitimate underwriting standards. A variety of arrangements would be possible in this environment, including contractual agreements between businesses and students that revolve around the future employment and cash flows of the borrower.
Before we can get to that point, however, it is essential that we grasp as a nation how unproductive and costly it is when federal authorities try to dictate outcomes by aggressively intervening in the marketplace.
We must return to first principles and continuously ask ourselves what the proper role of government is in a free society.
Jay Bowen is a FEE trustee and president of Bowen, Hanes & Co. Inc., an Atlanta investment counseling firm. A version of this piece was originally published Jan. 11, 2013, in Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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Obama ‘freedom to worship’ assaults First Amendment

Freedom of religion not just for private expression
By Jonathan Imbody
Op-ed in The Washington Times Monday, January 28, 2013

BillofRightsPresident Obama marked Religious Freedom Day earlier this month by framing religious liberty as “the freedom to worship as we choose.” If the president had not been restricting and attacking religious freedom so egregiously, he might merit a pass for using “freedom to worship” as poor shorthand for religious liberty.

The First Amendment of our Constitution actually reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion in America extends well beyond the freedom to worship. It includes the freedom to live out our conscientiously held beliefs.

Worship at its core is essentially a private and personal process, a communion between God and an individual. No government could restrict such worship, any more than it could monitor and censor every citizen’s thoughts and prayers. Even forbidding individuals to worship together in public, which coercive communist governments like China’s have done, cannot actually prevent individuals from worshiping God in private. So a law that merely protected the freedom to worship would hardly be worth heralding in a presidential proclamation.

The free exercise of religion under the American Constitution, by contrast, includes the freedom to openly express, follow and live out our faith — not just in private but also in the public square — without government coercion, censorship or any other form of restriction.

The concept of religious liberty held by the Constitution’s framers included not merely the freedom to worship, but also the free exercise of conscience — carrying out one’s moral beliefs with conviction and action.

As Thomas Jefferson asserted, “[O]ur rules can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God.”

James Madison expressed this understanding in his original amendment to the Constitution: “The civil rights of none, shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.”

To be fair, Mr. Obama’s statement eventually included a more expansive acknowledgement of religious freedom: “Because of the protections guaranteed by our Constitution, each of us has the right to practice our faith openly and as we choose.”

Yet the record will show that the president’s gilded rhetoric belies tarnished policies. The prioritization of the president’s first statement — that religious freedom means simply freedom to worship — in fact parallels his policies. Those policies often violate not only the general principles of the First Amendment, but also the more specific Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which provides that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” and must take “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The Obama administration has taken several actions to restrict or outright violate religious liberty. They have gutted the only federal conscience regulation protecting the conscience rights of American health care professionals.

Officials issued a coercive contraception and sterilization mandate that imposes the president’s abortion ideology on all employers, exempting virtually only places of worship. The thousands of faith-based charities that actually exercise their faith and conscience beyond the four walls of their churches now face millions of dollars in fines by the Obama administration.

The administration has argued before the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC against a religious institution in an attempt to restrict faith-based organizations’ hiring rights. In a unanimous decision, even Mr. Obama’s own appointees to the court rejected the administration’s radical arguments to restrict religious liberty.

The Obama administration failed for months to aggressively advocate on behalf of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen imprisoned, tortured and now on trial, facing possible execution by the Iranian government, for simply living out and speaking about his Christian faith.

The first American Congress enshrined religious liberty pre-eminently in the Bill of Rights. Many of those leaders and their fellow patriots who ratified the First Amendment had risked everything they owned and their very lives to win those freedoms. They also recognized that threatening one group’s freedoms, by either restricting or establishing a faith, threatens the freedoms of everyone.

Unless we act swiftly to guard against current assaults on religious liberty — by reversing the administration’s coercive policies through the courts, by passing conscience-protecting laws in Congress and by re-educating the culture on religious liberty — our First Amendment freedoms will become an empty proclamation.

Jonathan Imbody is vice president for government relations at the Christian Medical Association.

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Unalienable Rights: The Right to Life

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…


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Whither Kuwait: Illiberal Democracy or Enlightened Autocracy?

Posted at Foundation for Economic Education: JANUARY 15, 2013 by DOUG BANDOW
KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT—The touchstone for American foreign policy today is support for democracy. Yet democracy sometimes has only a tenuous relationship with liberty. In fact, unconstrained democracy can threaten a free society. This tension is evident in Kuwait, a small Persian Gulf nation in which people are demanding greater democracy.
Kuwait was freed from British “protection” a half century ago. Since then Kuwaitis have established the region’s freest country: The elected parliament has real power and the independent media asks embarrassing questions. Moreover, non-Muslims are free to practice their faiths.
However, in December Kuwait held its second National Assembly election this year. The Emir unilaterally changed the voting system, triggering protests and a campaign boycott. A broad coalition ranging from liberal to Islamist is pressuring the government to change course—and eventually create an elected prime minister.
Khaled al-Fadhala, a student organizer, told the Financial Times, “The youth want change. Whoever will bring that change, the youth want. I don’t care if they’re Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood, Shia . . . as long as they win in a democratic election.”
Better to win in a democratic election than not. However, winning an election is no guarantee of support for freedom, as is evident throughout the Middle East.
For instance, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was an authoritarian who found favor in Washington because he generally backed U.S. policy. Unfortunately, this association did wonders—all bad—for America’s reputation in the Middle East.
Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Islamic Brotherhood, was elected president after Mubarak’s fall. Morsi has claimed the right to exercise near-dictatorial powers. The proposed constitution enshrines authority rather than liberty. And violent attacks on Coptic Christians have risen. Egypt is more democratic than before, but could end up less free.
Fears are rising that Kuwait might be traveling down the same road. Kuwait is not Egypt: The former is far more democratic, free, and prosperous. Kuwait’s political community is smaller and more united. Most Kuwaitis realize that they have a huge stake in social stability.
Indeed, even opposition activists emphasize their support for Kuwait’s Emir. For instance, Musallam Al-Barrak, a long-time parliamentarian who now is calling for sustained protests, told me when I visited in December that “there is a big difference between the Arab Spring and Kuwaiti movements. The Arab Spring was against the ruling system.” Not so in Kuwait. Protestors want an elected government, but “that never means we are against the government or the ruling system.”
However, an elected rather than appointed government would sharply curtail the Emir’s powers. And, ironically, that might not be good for liberty.
The parliament elected in 2009 fell into disrepute, leading to elections in February, which I also observed. The opposition took two-thirds of the seats. And a majority of MPs were Islamists.
In general these men were moderate in temperament and fully integrated into Kuwaiti society. Nor did they bear Americans any ill will. For instance, I interviewed Dr. Naser al-Sane, a former MP active with the international Islamic Brotherhood. Dr. al-Sane had met with U.S. congressmen and his son attended college in America.
Nevertheless, liberty is not high on their list of national priorities. A religious bloc quickly formed, leading to talk about imposing a dress code on women. The group also called for making Sharia the source of all law, executing blasphemers, and closing down Christian churches. Only the Emir’s “no”—for instance, the government explained that the constitution protected freedom of religion—prevented these measures from becoming law.
This is a society in which liberal Kuwaitis choose Western dress and tell you which brand of alcohol they prefer. They also freely share their doubts about the monarchy. One younger Kuwaiti complained to me that “I am not sure that monarchy is the best system for Kuwait. The royal family now believes the country, property, and people belong to them.”
Indeed, the driving force behind the continuing protests that are challenging Kuwait’s government is the young. Al-Barrak and other long-serving MPs provide the public face of opposition. But al-Barrak called the youth “the heart of the movement.” My friend Shafeeq Ghabra, a political scientist at Kuwait University, estimates that 60 percent of Kuwait’s population is under 26, and 70 percent is under 29. Everyone I spoke with said young people were spontaneously pressing for change out of personal conviction—they were under no one’s control. “The youth are saying that this is their movement,” explained Ghabra.
That’s exciting. But it brings to mind Khaled al-Fadhala’s comment. Is all that matters that officials are democratically elected? Or should one elect people who will use their authority to protect the liberty of those doing the electing?
As yet there is no Kuwaiti Mohamed Morsi in the wings, ready to exercise dictatorial authority in the name of democracy. Nevertheless, seemingly reasonable people already said they were ready to kill blasphemers and destroy churches. One wonders if this is the world that young Kuwaitis hope to construct.
The ultimate objective in Kuwait, as in America, should be to create a free and tolerant society. Democracy is an important means to that end. But it is critical to limit State power before deciding who gets to exercise that authority.
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The Mundane Morality of Les Misérables

Posted on January 9, 2013 by Jordan Ballor at Acton Institute

Les MisérablesThe release of the film Les Misérables is a remarkable achievement, not only for its ambitious cinematic scope but also for its inspired cast and stunning dramatic and musical performances. A key driver of the ongoing popularity of the musical play over the better part of the last three decades is the source material’s deep moral and spiritual seriousness. The narrative focuses in large part on the transformation of Jean Valjean, who after nineteen years of hard labor as a violent criminal is released on parole to see “what this new world” might bring. The dynamics of sin and salvation, despair and hope, rigid legalism and the grace of the gospel, resonate with audiences, who are all able to find in this story something of themselves and their own experiences. This narrative is an exercise of the moral imagination at its finest.

There are a number of critical transitions in the plot that push the action in intriguing directions. One episode in particular is worthy of closer examination, since it illustrates what might be called the mundane morality of Les Misérables. We find that the obligations of the moral order fall equally upon all human beings; we are all, regardless of our wealth, power, or fame, moral agents responsible for our actions before God and toward others.

After his parole, Valjean faces a life dogged by his past, having been branded a violent criminal, unable to find work. As a laborer puts it, “You broke the law. It’s there for people to see. Why should you get the same as honest men like me?” Driven by the need to start over, Valjean eventually breaks his parole, and begins a new life under an assumed name, Monsieur Madeleine. Inspired by the loving example set by the bishop of Digne, whose charity made Valjean’s transformation possible, Valjean rises to prominence in Montreuil-sur-Mer, eventually becoming mayor of the town and the owner of a manufacturing enterprise.

It is at this point that Valjean’s past resurfaces, as Inspector Javert, who passionately pursues the outlaw Valjean, becomes suspicious of Monsieur Madeleine’s resemblance to the convict. His doubts are seemingly groundless, however, as another man has been rearrested as Valjean and is facing trial for his parole violation. When Valjean hears that someone else stands accused in his place, he faces a moral dilemma that functions as one of the critical turning points in the tale.

ValjeanAs Valjean puts it, “That stranger he has found, this man could be my chance!” All Valjean need do is “stay silent” and his past will be buried forever. But if he speaks up to correct the case of mistaken identity, the new life he has built will be destroyed and he will be forced to face the penalty for breaking his parole. There are in fact good reasons beyond mere self-preservation for Valjean to allow “this innocent who bears my face” to go “to judgment in my place.”

After all, thinks Valjean, he is in a position of some authority and responsibility now as mayor and business owner. “I am the master of hundreds of workers. They all look to me,” he thinks, “How can I abandon them? How would they live if I am not free?” Clearly Valjean’s choice will have consequences that affect others, including his workers as well as the suffering Fantine and the soon-to-be-orphaned Cosette.

Valjean is not mistaken to consider such effects, as his obligations towards others are indeed morally relevant. The dynamics of our social responsibilities are reflected in the Christian doctrine of vocation, which sees each one of us as uniquely situated by God in a complex network of relationships with varied moral significance. As Gustaf Wingren summarized the Lutheran teaching, vocation amounts to a place of responsibility before God and toward others. “In the earthly realm man always stands in relatione, always bound to another,” writes Wingren, “From this it is clear that every Christian occupies a multitude of offices at the same time, not just one: the same man is, for instance, father of his children, husband of his wife, master of his servants, and the office-holder in the town hall.”

CrowlandJackmanIt is in the varied complexity of these relationships, however, that the danger of self-justification arises. It is far too easy for us to over-emphasize the uniqueness of our responsibilities and our relationships to the extent that we minimize our objective and universal moral obligations. After all, if I am the only one who is placed as “master of hundreds of workers” and mayoral “office-holder in the town hall,” as in Valjean’s case, perhaps the fundamental moral obligation to not allow another to be unjustly punished for crimes he has not committed does not apply. Or in the case of business executives, perhaps their responsibility toward the well-being of their family, their shareholders, and their employees warrants some illicit or otherwise ethically dubious practices. Or in the case of politicians, perhaps the responsibility to their constituents means that the basic tenets of honesty and fair-dealing no longer apply.

It is precisely at this point that the mundane morality of Les Misérables shines through, as Valjean’s moral breakthrough recognizes his responsibility to come clean and “right this wrong” of mistaken identity. It is tempting to think sometimes that the basic rules of morality do not apply to us, that we are somehow above or beyond the law. But the reality is that there is no special morality for those who exercise greater responsibilities, whether in familial, economic, ecclesiastical, or political contexts. It is true that there is often in such cases greater moral complexity, but there is no dispensation for those in places of authority from mundane moral obligations. Valjean’s recognition of this fact represents one of the powerful insights of Les Misérables, and it is a lesson that ought to be recalled ever anew, especially by those tempted by the exercise of great power and authority to excuse themselves from the mundane obligations of the moral order.


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