Republican leaders on church-state separation

Politicians and individual voters change their views over time. Seeking consistency in any party is certain to be a confusing search even from year to year, much less over a few decades. For example, in the 1930s there was great resistance to social legislation like social security by Republicans and conservative Democrats. It was widely seen as socialism and the “Sovietizing” of America, strongly opposed by the American Bar Association and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. Yet by late 1954 Republican President Eisenhower said, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

Citing Eisenhower is only to illustrate that sweeping changes in views about governmental matters occur in the natural order of things. I’m not making a point that they are either good or bad. Rather than political issues like those Eisenhower mentioned, the changes over time can be viewed with respect to any topic in the Constitution (for example, attitudes and practices toward bearing arms). With respect to the interaction of religion and government, we can trace changes or stability as the years progress. Because we are currently in a Republican administration, I have chosen to sample Republican attitudes for the period the GOP has been in existence. Interestingly, I found attitudes expressed by a sampling of party leaders since Lincoln to be remarkably stable on the church-state matter.

As would be expected with any subject, however, the actual, fine-tuned interpretation of what church-state means is not as stable. Despite the similar wording through decades, questions still exist about whether religious liberty is only for Christians, whether “voluntary” prayer for minors in public schools can really be voluntary, whether there are exceptions to religious freedom (e.g., Mormon polygamy, Jewish circumcision, child care licensing), and whether the religion of a state employee is grounds for refusing to honor a proper citizen request. It is no surprise that slight variations since the 18th century call for further refinement, particularly since the whole idea of church-state separation was unique to begin with, so that interpretation problems had not had long to rise to attention. Separation had not been established in law until the 1st Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1791. In most other countries, of course, there was hardly any attempt to disentangle religion and politics at all.

One of the specifics Americans had to learn was that the singular word religion, while useful, can overlook the fact that critical differences separate one religion from another. In fact, in some cases, the only similarity between two religions might simply be belief in a supernatural god or gods and nothing else. Further, religious freedom must be construed as freedom from other religions even of the same denominational name. As I have pointed out in previous posts, religions very rarely have little to fear from atheists, but a great deal to fear from other religions.

An early example of that occurred with the Danbury Baptist Association (church) in Connecticut. Religious freedom of the Danbury Baptists had been under the thumb of majority Christian churches in league with the Connecticut Legislature. In answer to their fears, Thomas Jefferson provided comforting assurance in 1801 that the new federal Constitution would protect Danbury Baptists from such religious oppression. In so doing so, he used the analogy of a wall separating church and state, giving rise to the term still used. That wall guarantees religious freedom from any government that threatens it, even if the government is acting in concert with members of the same or similar faith.

In the present context, the Trump administration identifies far more with fundamentalist Christian religion than other branches of Christian belief. Those “others” differ not only from fundamentalist Christians, but from each other. They are not necessarily pleased with President Trump’s camaraderie with one religion above all others, for he thereby immerses government in various religions’ passionate theological arguments with themselves. That is not only a blatant violation of the church-state barrier, but illustrates the Founders’ good sense to keep religion and government separate. Previous administrations had not completely avoided such an error, but none in a long time has done it in so wholesale a manner.

The advent of Christian Nationalism (I’ll have more on that in a future post) along with the Trump administration’s courting of fundamentalist leaders, has raised the stakes concerning the mixing of government and religion. While many (though not all) fundamentalist Christians seek greater involvement, others are more worried that having a favored religion can’t help but pit one version of religious faith against others, a phenomenon already underway. The demands on government are sufficiently complex that its choosing to engage with so fraught a subject as religion would be unnecessarily taking on the riding of yet another tiger.

There is much more to be said about these matters, but in this post I want only to underscore how leaders in the Republican party have considered the matter of church-state separation since the party began 165 years ago. In the quotes listed below, Republican leaders from the beginning have been remarkably (though not totally) consistent in their support of strong church-state separation.

The party, growing out of anti-slavery Whigs, was founded in March 1854. By 1860 the party had fielded and won the presidency with Midwest lawyer Abraham Lincoln. As one would expect—especially with the Civil War and Reconstruction—the Republican party dealt with changes due to time and various shifts in the political environment. To illustrate the level of consistency, you’ll find quotations in the relatively random list below of Republican leaders—mostly presidents—from 1862 to 2016.

I will treat the 2016 candidacy and administration of Donald Trump separately, likely in a future post on Christian Nationalism. I have not sought to focus on either strong or weak attitudes toward church-state separation. I do not propose that the historically random Republican quotes prove anything in any concrete way. For me they are best seen as educational and perhaps entertaining.

Comments of Republican Leaders 1864 – 2016

“My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.” And “The United States government must not undertake to run the Churches. When an individual, in the Church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest he must be checked.” President Abraham Lincoln, 1862.

“The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community.” Congressman (later President) James A. Garfield, 1874.

“I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation.” And “Leave the matter of religion [religious teaching] to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contribution. Keep the church and state forever separated.” President Ulysses S. Grant, 1875.

“We all agree that neither the Government nor political parties ought to interfere with religious sects. It is equally true that religious sects ought not to interfere with the Government or with political parties. We believe that the cause of good government and the cause of religion suffer by all such interference.” President Rutherford B. Hayes (while Governor of Ohio), 1875.

“There is nothing so despicable as a secret society that is based upon religious prejudice and that will attempt to defeat a man because of his religious beliefs. Such a society is like a cockroach—it thrives in the dark. So do those who combine for such an end.” President William Howard Taft, 1914.

“I hold that in this country there must be complete severance of Church and State; that public moneys shall not be used for the purpose of advancing any particular creed; and therefore that the public schools shall be non-sectarian and no public moneys appropriated for sectarian schools.” President Theodore Roosevelt, 1915.

“In the experiences of a year of the Presidency, there has come to me no other such unwelcome impression as the manifest religious intolerance which exists among many of our citizens. I hold it to be a menace to the very liberties we boast and cherish.” President Warren Harding, 1922.

“The fundamental precept of liberty is toleration. We cannot permit any inquisition either from within or without the law or apply any religious test to the holding of office. The mind of America must be forever free.” President Calvin Coolidge, 1925.

“I come of Quaker stock. My ancestors were persecuted for their beliefs. Here they sought and found religious freedom. By blood and conviction, I stand for religious tolerance both in act and in spirit.” President Herbert Hoover, 1928.

“And I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are.” President Dwight Eisenhower, 1957.

“As you know, the separation of church and state is not subject to discussion or alteration. Under our Constitution no church or religion can be supported by the U.S. Government. We maintain freedom of religion so that an American can either worship in the church of his choice or choose to go to no church at all.” President Richard Nixon, 1960.

“I believe that prayer in public schools should be voluntary. It is difficult for me to see how religious exercises can be a requirement in public schools, given our Constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. I feel that the highly desirable goal of religious education must be principally the responsibility of church and home.” President Gerald R. Ford, 1976.

“We establish no religion in this country. We command no worship. We mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are and must remain separate.” President Ronald Reagan, 1984.

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater, 1994.

“I’m mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to or not. You’re equally an American if you choose to worship an almighty and if you choose not to.” President George W. Bush, 2004.

“What we end up with is the first example of the criminalization of a Christian for believing the traditional definition of marriage.” Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee, 2015.

My Thanks to Ed Buckner

Many thanks for the assistance of my valued friend, Ed Buckner, past president of American Atheists, Inc. It was his idea to match historical quotations with a roster of Republican speakers and writers, with an emphasis on presidents. Ed assembled these data into a clever game for persons who have an interest in what Thomas Jefferson in 1802 called a “wall of separation between church and state. ”From his list I selected almost all the quotes cited in this post. Ed graciously made his game and the information he’d collected for it available for my use.

 

Posted in Church and state, Politics | 3 Comments

America and its gun culture

Here we go again . . . last weekend of American right-wing terrorists misusing a fictional constitutional right to wreak deadly havoc on people just going peacefully about their lives. Yes, here we go again; a criminal and narcissistic President trying to impersonate decency. We have no more reason to believe his “act nice” remarks as we have had for any of the unceasing stream of lies and mean-spirited histrionics he emits.

Only days before, the National Rifle Association had held its convention of 5,000 or so enthusiasts in a Dallas arena. (For the president’s protection, the arena had been declared a gun free zone.) The governor of Texas, Gregg Abbott announced his solution to gun violence: religion and the Second Amendment! He argued that “The answer to gun violence is not to take guns away” from Americans, but “to strengthen the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.” Yes, you heard that right, he said “The problem isn’t guns, it’s hearts without God [italics mine, JC].”

Inspirational! Who knew? The solution is more guns and more religion, a ridiculous prescription anywhere else on earth. To my knowledge, no one questioned whether religion includes liberal Episcopalians, Jews, or even—God forbid—Muslims. Donald Trump, ever the logician, added “If we’re going to outlaw guns, like so many people want to do—Democrats—then we are going to have to outlaw immediately all vans and all trucks,” since they can be used to kill. By the way, what exactly does it mean to “strengthen” the Second Amendment?

Putting a finer touch on the “more guns” part of Abbott’s remedy, Trump added, “We want highly trained teachers to carry concealed weapons.” Why? Because, he said, “When [killers] know there are guns inside, they’re not going in.” OK, Trump’s conviction that would-be killers would be deterred is worth study (see below); it does seem to make sense. Further, as could have been expected, Trump and Pence moved on to the bigger issue, finding a way to connect mass killing to crazed immigrants.

When such remedies are so confidently touted by Abbott, Trump, the NRA, and your next door neighbor, it would be useful to ask what remarkable wisdom led to their certainty. Maybe more stringent background checks are not a good answer after all. Maybe guns on college campuses would make everyone safer. Maybe requiring all private homes to have a gun would help. Maybe good guys should be required to carry guns. Maybe enforced fundamentalist church attendance would cure the problem. Maybe tighter restrictions on rate of fire or magazine capacity is all we need. Possibly getting the president to refrain from malicious rants would help, after all such rants did have an effect in Germany in the 1930s; they worked even on regular folks. And we can link them to courage and patriotism as Trump bravely did in Dallas, saying, “We will never give up our freedom [ostensibly to carry military weapons into shopping centers; JC]. We will live free and die free!” If you can’t hear the muskets and see the galloping horses, you’re just not a patriot.

However, regardless of how all opinions about firearms are advocated by either Republicans or Democrats, we really don’t know much. “In the area of what works to prevent shootings, we know almost nothing,” said Mark Rosenberg, who supervised the CDC’s gun research efforts in the early1990s. How would Donald Trump know? How would your favorite pundit know? How would the most dedicated, honest observer know? I can guarantee you that I don’t know either. Even if the NRA and arms manufacturers knew, they are hardly disinterested so their findings and opinions are suspect. Consequently, we are all a bunch of amateurs stumbling in the dark about what has proven to be a life-or-death quandary.

But there are ways to discover relevant facts in the matter of reducing gun violence. To use them, we’d have to understand that a vote of senators and representatives in Congress won’t do it. In fact, a perfectly run referendum of citizens cannot settle it. Opinions do not matter, not Trump’s, not the NRA’s. Nobody’s opinions matter about, e.g., magazine size, firing rate, or similar factors help; they serve only to clutter a legitimate search for truth. That is what we have now, our options solidified because each faction has already decided that its opinions are the facts.

We need facts first. Only then do opinions matter, for the second question is what to do with the facts we’ve discovered. The NRA has less interest in facts than in pleasing gun manufacturers. Many Republican elected officials have less interest in facts than in pleasing the NRA. Pity, for research using the scientific method when applied to tough quandaries has yielded countless breakthroughs in understanding otherwise unsolvable mysteries for almost three centuries. (Careful though, all research, even honest research, is not constructed with the scientific method’s rigor.) We are a nation that has frequently put scientific research to work to enlighten teaching methods, rocketry, power production, drug efficacy, and a host of issues in all fields of endeavor.

Why, then, can true scientific research not be applied to the use of our deadly devices? Fact is, it can if we do not choose to stay in the dark. We have done, and continue to do, just that, throwing up our hands with inane statements about gun control like that of Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s “You can’t regulate evil.” Or we blame mental illness. (A pundit recently observed that Republicans rarely concern themselves with mental illness except to bring it up as the reason for mass murders.) The real stopper, however, is the belief that Americans have an absolute constitutional right to have and carry firearms. Statements by the NRA, elected officials, and uninformed citizens expose an assumption that this right applies to any size or any lethality of firearm.

But according to the Supreme Court, there is no such right (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008) as discussed in The lethal cost of playing with guns,” my post of March 4, 2018. Of course, we somehow know the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to howitzers and surface-to-air missiles, but the Court’s interpretation clarified more than that about which individuals, which rights, and which arms, thereby establishing a “floor” under individuals’ rights to “keep and bear Arms.” Whenever gun rights are brought up, Americans should carefully inspect what is being said. You will find inferences that such rights apply in such a generalized way that an uninformed listener could reasonably conclude that guns of all sorts are available to anyone. Hence I found Governor Abbott’s prescription to “strengthen” the Second Amendment strange; do we not mean to enforce all parts of the Constitution.

It is permissible for lawmakers at state or federal levels to impose whatever gun restrictions they wish as long as Court-determined minimum rights are protected. As expressed in the Court’s decision, rights guaranteed are “not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. Moreover, in United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, the Court held that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”

So how might legislatures and Congress go about establishing what leads certain perpetrators to violence against certain persons in certain settings with certain guns? What are the characteristics of those persons and their experiences, and what are the characteristics of weapons themselves and current efforts to control them? The former leads toward psychological considerations, mental illness, and so forth. The latter leads toward mechanical distinctions in gun manufacture, sale, characteristics, and disposition, as well as various control methods. Here arises a great problem in finding a reasonable solution, a problem created inside the walls of the Capitol itself.

Consider Jay Dickey. Dickey was a Republican congressman from Arkansas who crusaded in the mid-1990s to stop the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from funding gun violence research. Every year the Congress reauthorized what came to be known as the Dickey Amendment. However, Dickey (now deceased) later changed his mind after multiple waves of mass shooting. NRA had not changed its mind, however, and still accused the CDC of promoting gun control. So in 1996, the Republican-majority Congress threatened to strip funding from CDC if it continued research into firearm injuries and deaths. (In such matters, the chilling effect on others can depress research nationwide beyond the researchers directly affected.) Gun control research in 1996 came to a standstill.

It is not that in 2019, there is no firearms research going on, though likely not nearly enough to match the importance and apparently growing incidence of gun violence. One example is the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, a multi-disciplinary program of research and policy development. Another example is the National Institute of Justice (an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice) in its funding of gun-related studies 1993 to 1999 then 2009 to 2012, though it resumed in 2013.

Further, in 2013 the prestigious National Academies, Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine, became home to the “Committee on Priorities for a Public Health Research Agenda to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence.” The multi-disciplinary research products would be comprehensive and extensive, not capable of being concluded quickly, even if adequately funded. It is important to understand that although the formidable and professional task of prescribing research goals (not research results) is a time-consuming activity, for naught unless there are sufficient appropriations.

Unfortunately, I could not complete a more extensive look into the ostensibly broader research that might have been funded. I did find that Congress, while not continuing to prohibit CDC research, achieved the same effect by passing federal budgets in which such research went unfunded. More-or-less, that amounts to “you don’t have to refrain from researching firearm matters, we just won’t give you any money to do it.” I cannot judge whether that was due to political oversight or to a budgetary “intentional accident,” though my own direct experience in the ways of Congress would not find deceit out of the question.

Meanwhile, the NRA has stated its position is that “tax dollars should not be used to take sides in a policy debate.” That is ludicrous. Tax dollars are regularly used to pay for policy debate or facts useful to enlighten that debate. What must be avoided are claims that unbiased facts are not needed and that preconceived notions of either Republicans or Democrats constitute facts.

 

An excerpt as an addendum

A preparatory statement of the Priorities for a Public Health Research Agenda

to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence

Fatal and nonfatal firearm violence1 poses a serious threat to the safety and welfare of the American public. Although violent crime rates have declined in recent years, the U.S. rate of firearm-related deaths is the highest among industrialized countries. In 2010, incidents in the United States involving firearms injured or killed more than 105,000 individuals; there were twice as many nonfatal firearm-related injuries (73,505) than deaths. Nonfatal violence often has significant physical and psychological impacts, including psychological outcomes for those in proximity to individuals who are injured or die from gun violence. The recent, highly publicized, tragic mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and Tucson, Arizona, have sharpened the public’s interest in protecting our children and communities from the effects of firearm violence.

In January 2013, [the president] issued 23 executive orders directing federal agencies to improve knowledge of the causes of firearm violence, the interventions that might prevent it, and strategies to minimize its public health burden. One of these executive orders noted that “in addition to being a law enforcement challenge, firearm violence is also a serious public health issue that affects thousands of individuals, families, and communities across the Nation,” and directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with other relevant federal agencies, to immediately begin identifying the most pressing firearm-related violence research problems.

The CDC and the CDC Foundation2 requested that the Institute of Medicine (IOM), in collaboration with the National Research Council (NRC), convene a committee of experts to develop a potential research agenda focusing on the public health aspects of firearm-related violence—its causes, approaches to interventions that could prevent it, and strategies to minimize its health burden. In accordance with the CDC’s charge, the committee did not focus on public health surveillance and potentially related behavioral/mental health issues, as these will be addressed separately. The research program envisioned by the committee, which is designed to produce impacts in 3-5 years, focuses on

  • the characteristics of firearm violence,
  • risk and protective factors,
  • interventions and strategies,
  • gun safety technology, and
  • the influence of video games and other media.

The committee identified potential research topics by conducting a survey of previous relevant research, considering input received during the workshop, and using its expert judgment. The committee was not asked to consider funding for the research agenda, and in addition to the CDC, it is likely that other agencies and private foundations will also implement the research agenda. Consequently, the committee identified a full range of high-priority topics that could be explored with significant progress made in 3-5 years. Research on these topics will improve current knowledge of the causes of firearm violence, the interventions that prevent firearm violence, and strategies to minimize the public health burden of firearm violence. To allow the research community flexibility in designing the research protocols, the report does not specify the methodologies that should be used to address the research topics.

The evidence generated by implementing a public health research agenda can enable the development of sound policies that support both the rights and the responsibilities central to gun ownership in the United States. In the absence of this research, policy makers will be left to debate controversial policies without scientifically sound evidence about their potential effects.

 

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America after Trump

“The rule of law will survive those who violate it,

but will not survive those who fail to defend it.” [No citation]

Millions of Americans have given President Donald Trump a chance, though wondering whether his bizarre behavior is evidence of stupidity, mental illness, or simple indecency and malice. Now two years since his election, this president has proven to be the most damaging to America in our history. Solving the riddle of Trump matters little at this stage, but saving the republic from the demise he brings is crucial.

Americans have endured bad times, including ones we are not proud of. Generally, however, we’ve not had to worry about survival of our great experiment in democracy. We have maintained much of the government philosophy of the Enlightenment that we introduced to the world. Our history covered the Civil War, Japanese internment, mistreatment of Native Americans, and dishonest politicians. Not even access to presidential authority enables Trump acting alone to destroy what America has—albeit irregularly—tried to be. The danger comes from the electorate’s blindness to his menace and from his sycophants’ self-interested protection of his treachery.

To observe the former, one only need watch one of Trump’s many personal “Nürnberg Rallies” (“Lock her up!” “Send her back!”) or the toadying of Fox News minions, happy to call his lies reality and to furnish him further deceptions. (Americans have died to protect this country from similar anti-democratic, fact-free biases to be found in Trump’s rants, his rallies’ crazed displays, and unremitting untrustworthiness. Trump’s despotic intentions, contempt for the rule of law, and brazen fabrications took us step by step into a new normal that once would have been called unAmerican. Racism is only one example, but it is of note that last week large numbers of Americans who must’ve been sleeping through news reports finally noticed the president’s stark racism. It had been obvious for years in Trump’s pre-political as well his as political life.

To observe the latter, consider the maudlin, cloying loyalty pledges of even high government officials, the fawning Republican “fellow travelers” who eagerly massaged the ego of the world’s most powerful man, and most of all Republicans in Congressional seats who, to avoid offending Trump, willingly countenance encroaching authoritarianism though each had sworn to defend the Constitution. (Republicans’ distaste of servitude to Trump seems to come alive as they retire!) Senators McConnell and Graham, e.g., eagerly champion Trumpian duplicity and betrayal despite having mouthed great principles a couple of years earlier. Again, using racism as but one example, Republican explanations last week for why racist comments and actions are not, in fact, racist have been startlingly creative, but there is no honorable excuse. Coddling a president’s childishly weak ego, discomfort with facts, and political vengeance are ethical failures of the legislative branch. What can be said of the cowardice of elected senators who not only allow but promote a president who exemplifies l’etat c’est moi (though he likely doesn’t understand it) and that trashes the sacred creed that “no one is above the law.” Our president surely is.

Meanwhile, the world goes on without our leadership. How can America be a force for worldwide democracy and planetary climate care while we tangle ourselves in ridiculous squabbles and tin-horn dictatorship behavior? Is it really acceptable to Americans that we not only fail to lead but make things worse? How can we bring the world the moral leadership we once did when we pamper a president who is a stranger to moral leadership of any sort, whose extraordinary level of narcissism has already sacrificed much of America’s place in the world, and who has ill-treated countries that have been our best friends on earth?

Make America Great Again does not have to oppose Help the World Be Great Again, in fact, for a major power it may well be a necessary component. And though we’ve never completed either aim, each has been important to us in the past and could be again. But it cannot be while handicapped with a president who brings out the worst in us, whose meanness of spirit has no room for dedication to the rule of law, civic morality, country above party, science, or facts.

We were once proud of our aspiration for America as a moral force in the world, as expressed in the words of pilgrim John Winthrop’s (later President Ronald Reagan’s) phrase “shining city upon on a hill.” But to pursue either a “more perfect union” for ourselves or to breathe substance and fairness into our leadership for the world is—until we’ve reversed our sad decline—merely poppycock wrapped in the delusion that leadership consists of economic and military might dressed up in win-lose arrogance and strongman bluffs.

America can have—and indeed has had—bigger hopes, purer motivation, and a larger heart. While these characteristics are immensely worth recapturing and preserving, it will require difficult political restructuring, not business-as-usual partisan politics. We will need commitment to building a responsible conservative party (replacing the failed Republican Party) and sufficient discipline in the Democratic Party to avoid its taking advantage of the interim fluidity. It is not entirely clear that either is possible. That’s what is to be proven. The Founders may have had the easier task.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

My schedule this summer, including foreign travel in June, has led to reduced production. Foreign travel in June and later impediments may continue to impede my previous pace.

This post is the 203rd in this blog since I began it in April 2013. Various topics have included atheism, secular humanism, religious liberty, science, ethics, morality, gun control, and sex. Of the 203, the 27 posts listed below are concerned with Donald Trump:

“America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016. “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016. “Please, Mr. President Elect,” Nov. 15, 2016. “What does a proto despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016. “Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017. “Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017. “Congratulations, Trump voters,” Mar. 6, 2017. “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017. “Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017. “Our republic…if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017. “Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017. “Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017. “Aiding and abetting injury to America,” Jan. 6, 2018. “A disgraceful leader implicates all,” June 19, 2018. “Trusting our leaker-in-chief in Russia,” June 22, 2018. “Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve,” July 18, 2018. “Trump is NOT America’s problem,” Sep 10, 2018. “Enemies of the people,” Nov. 1, 2018. “Risking America,” Jan. 3, 2019. “The great wall of Cyrus,” Jan. 10, 2019. “A plea to my United States Senator,” Jan 26, 2019. “That wall between us,” Feb. 7, 2019. “Political philosophy, political behavior,” Mar. 18, 2019. “Mueller and beyond,” Mar. 25th, 2019. “The shaming of America,” Apr. 18, 2019.  “Republicans light just one little candle,” Apr. 21, 2019. “America’s risk of autocracy,” May 27, 2019.

 

 

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America’s risk of autocracy

America’s worrisome step by step slide toward authoritarianism continues with each news cycle. Trump’s paranoia and mendacity are reasons, as is Americans’ vulnerability to any frog-in-heating-water gradualism. There is plenty of blame to go around, as my reading the entire Mueller Report confirmed. Trump’s employees protect him, lie for him, and ludicrously “testify” for him, but they are adults. Each top level appointment, as a hopeful mini-Trump, mouths lies and preposterous arguments to cover for him. Republicans—at least those in the Senate—prostrate themselves for his approval. And voters by the millions choose blithely to risk the republic, neither noticing nor caring.

From my teens, to military service, through decades of working for improvements at the board level in the country’s companies and institutions, I’ve considered myself a patriotic citizen. That includes recognizing that our nation needs many improvements, which is simply realism in calling for more work to be done. Changes must continue, even while differing about what is to be done. That is not a stain on democracy or patriotism, but a sign of it. To be sure, it is crucial that we distinguish among various paths toward a “more perfect union,” guarding against changes that make us less democratic, less humane, less valuing of competence, and less courageous in honoring truth and truthfulness. We need not suppose that our Founders’ product was perfect, only that it is a precious gift to be honored, not squandered.

From the end of the 18th century to yesterday’s news, America has done enough of each to call for both celebration and shame. Unparalleled economic and military power have given us cover to shout our achievements to the point of pomposity, while on our dark side espousing racial mistreatment, devising gerrymandering to defeat democratic elections, and adding the prefix crony to our potent capitalism. For over two centuries, we have both built on and wasted the inheritance handed us from the Age of Enlightenment.

Much of the electorate has come not only to accept Donald Trump, despite his characterological dishonesty and proto-despot qualities, along with his challenged intellect and narcissism-driven ambition. Almost all Republican Senators are ready, even happy to do his bidding, often in opposition to political positions they’ve vehemently held for years. It is no secret that his actions and plans are nakedly for his personal benefit and only secondarily for the nation’s. Trump has been consistent about that since he arrived on the scene with one surprise after another that violated hard-won norms.

Now we are confronted with the precursors of what history may well later define as a massive deterioration in the American story. The president expresses and pursues undisguised authoritarian characteristics: Organs of government are increasingly adjusted to the president’s egotistic version of reality. The rule of law shows signs of deterioration. The Constitutionally prescribed function and potency of the Congress have declined. The free press has been under constant attack and is squelched further daily. For news and opinion, an increasing proportion of the electorate has been drawn to White House tweets and to the president’s “captive” television company. The frequency and boldness of White House pronouncements overflow with audacity.

Going on, the central bank’s independence is under attack, thereby to enable Trump’s boasts of presidential performance. The country can scarcely brag as it once proudly did that it is a “nation of laws not of men.” More and more, voices contrary to the president’s are silenced, even those publishing scientific findings. Compared to most of the past, America’s international behavior is shameful. His word means little or nothing, for his norm is lying, not honesty. The country’s face to the world leans increasingly toward despots and away from liberal democracies that once expected and still deserve our waning leadership. This is not just a president with different policies from his predecessors—that would be merely the ebb and flow of honest political discourse—but one whose lack of character and his disrespect for American civic values and norms differs not just in degree, but in kind.

Of America’s 45 presidents, some have been not so bright, some have been not so honest. Some have been poor students of the art of governing. They have differed in extreme ways, often taking the country through great political struggles, ones in which you and I have had some hand during our adult lives. As implied above, I’m not speaking here of mere political differences like health care, immigration, military budgets, national debt, and the host of policy choices about normal, ongoing political issues. I am speaking of the Constitutionality, excellence, and fairness of America as a moral force as well as an economic and military one.

Among the 45, there’s been no shortage of flaws, faults, and extensive political strife in our 203 years. Our country has undergone depressions, wars both internal and international, issues of suffrage, and boundaries of liberty. Presidents’ records are a mixture of helping and harming that painful and costly process. Some have brought out the worst in us, some the best. Most disliked Constitutional constraints, fought with the press, and exhausted themselves dealing with Congress. Each wished to alter these aspects of government, but they were duty-bound not only to respect, but to obey the Constitution. They faithfully did so with almost no system-devastating exceptions, including even Richard Nixon.

Normally, American patriots who’ve been entrusted with the presidency would almost certainly take care that the Constitution is as strong when they leave as when they arrived. It is an obligation that exceeds partisan victories that this be so. Because an enduring, Constitutionally sound America is of grave consequence, not just marginal. No risk of losing it can responsibly be tolerated. The calculus to guide us is that overkill in our concern is acceptable; even if it risks being criticized as exaggeration. Underkill, on the other hand, risks too much even to contemplate. A small degree of this kind of damage to America is not the sort easily turned around after once lost in even partial devastation. In fact, there is some possibility that restoring it to former health and strength would be impossible.

It is my sincere and careful judgment that not one of our 45 presidents since April 30, 1789 has been so great a threat to the nature, excellence, civic morality, and fairness of the republic as Donald Trump. Even escaping so thorough a debacle as I’ve intimated, there is still the lesser risk that Donald Trump—with the aid of his party and approaching half the electorate—will leave America indefinitely harsh, base, and dishonorable.

 

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Vehicle versus destination

In January 2017 the Trump White House bizarrely declared the largest inauguration crowd in history. Americans got accustomed to the new president’s lies, occasionally finding them amusing—rather like a misbehaving child of an appallingly indulgent parent getting near your crystal. It is frightening to consider a hollow man like him near your secrets, your Constitution, or your wealth. Trump had even claimed he could shoot someone on New York’s 5th Avenue and suffer no loss of supporters. We still don’t know how that would come out in real life. But after 16 months of Trump’s presidency, it’s reasonably certain that he could get away with just about any crime on the floor of the United States Senate.

The Senate majority and its chosen Leader McConnell respect their oaths of office, to be sure, though those oaths have become “to protect and defend Donald Trump,” not the Constitution. Of course, it’s customary for senators and representatives of each party to support most wishes of a same-party president. Given a Constitution constructed in a time of virtually no political parties, elected officials over two millennia have developed procedures and traditions to function in what is largely a four-way division, namely House/Democrat, House/Republican, Senate/Democrat, and Senate/Republican, for the Constitution had countenanced only a two-way legislative division: House and Senate.

It is hard for any group to be as diligent and precise as an individual. (Your city council, school board, or association board frequently exemplify how competent individuals can be incompetent as a group.) Our federal executive branch—headed by an individual—can quickly decide and mobilize while the legislative branch is still arguing over rules of debate. Thus, the Senate and House are composed of more authoritative “moving parts,” requiring them to maintain a strong allegiance to a centralizing authority while simultaneously promoting rich, wide-ranging debate. That “centralizing authority”—the point from which all functions must be derived and to which all parts must owe allegiance—is the Constitution . . . . largely Article 1 and relevant amendments.

Senators and House Members each individually owe that same allegiance. Fidelity to their political parties, their specific religions, their personal aggrandizements, or other interests—if in any way weakening or interfering with that loyalty—is a failure of duty, an unlawful violation of their oaths. So it is that neither partisanship nor individual dissent is not bad. But fulfillment of the body’s Constitutional role must be sufficiently paramount to outweigh both party concerns and individuals’ idiosyncrasies. Failure of the House or Senate to understand, plan for, and perform successfully on its Constitutional role is to imbalance the checks-and-balance architecture and to invite intrusion of the executive branch into the legislative, whether due to intent or simply filling gaps thereby left unaddressed.

If at that time the president is inclined to expand his or her influence or ignore Congressional decisions, the stage is set for severe damage to the Constitutional arrangement, a grievous harm for which both Legislative and Executive Branches are morally and legalistically culpable.

These factors are the case at this time: A president who wants prerogatives not given him Constitutionally or in law, thereby failing to take care that the law be faithfully executed. A Senate that willingly bends to the president’s every whim, thereby failing to protect the role charged to it by the Constitution. An electorate that, in substantial part, naïvely believes it has no role to play in this charade of civic responsibility, for example, to understand our Constitution and to vote thoughtfully. Elected officials and voters who fail to distinguish between (a) normal, ongoing political issues and (b) protections or threats to the rule of law and other components of American Constitutional government.

This last item will be addressed in my next post—for misidentifying the critical difference is, to a great extent, what turns healthy political struggles (about matters like budget, health care, and immigration) into dysfunctional arguments that threaten to weaken or even dismantle the healthy system within which these more conventional political arguments can safely exist, no matter how vehemently they are pursued.

 

[My schedule led unexpectedly to fewer posts in recent months. Due to impending foreign travel in June, that schedule interference will likely continue through the next few months.]

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Republicans light just one little candle

Appearing this week on FoxNews is a 54 second video clip by Republicans for the Rule of Law (https://www.ruleoflawrepublicans.com/). It offers a long overdue sign that maybe, just maybe organized Republican voices will finally argue against valuing party over country with regard to the Trump Administration. In a message signed by 191 House (and former House) Republicans for full release of the Mueller Report, ostensibly without the curious interpretive work of Bill Barr, who as it turned out, met no high bar.

There have been a few lights of truth lately showing through the heavily biased FoxNews, but in general those who get their “news” totally from FoxNews are not accustomed to meaningful, strong Republican truth-telling. Using the Trumpian tactic of blaming others for one’s own shortcomings, FoxNews championed fake news before it helped popularize the term as applied to anything that didn’t agree with or support Trump. That is understandable, of course, for FoxNews has been a faithful arm of the White House.

For a blogger who has decried the shame of Republicans for acting like Trump’s lap dogs, I find the video ad to be an encouraging development. There have been previous Republicans with enough integrity to stand against The Donald, for example, Max Boot, George Will, and Bret Stephens. But this is a group effort, and that’s important. It’s as if a substantial number of Republicans finally decided decency is not determined by party, though party might be determined by decency. To their credit, they’ve argued that “President Trump lied to the American people, including his supporters, and encouraged others to cover for him. It was wrong when the Clintons lied and it’s wrong when Trump lies.“

Granted, it is shameful that this statement is remarkable at all. And admittedly, the choice of words to feign equivalence between the volume, frequency, and gravity of Trump’s lies compared to those that can be “the Clintons’” even at a stretch is disingenuous. However, I am so impressed by the elevating message as a whole that I’m happy to overlook that. Maybe I’ll just focus on another phrase of theirs, one for which I’ve no reservation:

“Republicans stood up for the Rule of Law then.

We should stand up for the Rule of Law now.”

 

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The shaming of America

“People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” said President Nixon when a rot less than today’s was upon the presidency. Then, unlike now, the president’s own party was not complacent in his crimes, but (eventually) chose to protect the republic rather than the rot. Nixon was a crook, though he was not judged guilty by a court. Donald J. Trump, too, is an unindicted crook.

It takes a stupefying degree of willful ignorance for one out of three Americans to tolerate, even praise Donald Trump’s sociopathic presidency and his weak, corruptible Senate. Politicians of the late 1700s wisely vested important roles in the House and Senate, in part to save the country from an authoritarian executive. Since a majority of the senate now—beyond being just policy allies of the president—have become his slavish devotees, that protection has all but disappeared. Only the Democratic wins in the 2018 mid-term election saved the country from having an entirely sycophantic, weak Congress.

I have made the case that it is never smart to believe anything Trump says; he lies even to his allies. He is as uninformed and unethical as any president ever to demean the White House. His choice of personnel has been abysmal (remember when he was going to have the best people?), often incompetent or criminal. (Just a week ago, he proudly announced, “I even thought of Ivanka for the World Bank. She would’ve been great at that because she’s very good with numbers.”)

Turnover among Secretaries of federal Departments has been enough by itself to brand Trump an unqualified manager, as does his focusing on bits and pieces rather than the big view and long term. He evaluates persons based on whether they admire him sufficiently, then “manages” them on the same basis, seemingly at no time like a competent manager. And, with only a few exceptions, he then blames them for his mistakes. The bully pulpit since his election has lost any pretense of “pulpit,” yet has clearly become more “bully.”

This post is not meant to be a list of major, damaging characteristics of Trump and his appointees. Observers who’ve not been blind to his reprehensible behavior already know. Those who remain blind to the effects of his psychotic narcissism are determined not to see, whether due to partisanship, obliviousness, or personal gain. In a future post, I wish to take up subjects demonstrating his appalling amateurism about critical principles of management, his “day trader” decision-making unhinged from strategic thought, his focus on himself and inability to render non-personal judgements, his opposition to the rule of law, his near total inattention to the significant Russian attack on the 2016 election, his inhumane treatment of immigrants seeking asylum, his disgraceful treatment of global warming, and so on—all caused, then further complicated by his reckless personality….all demonstrating that our president is a fool.

Now comes the Mueller Report or, perhaps more accurately, the William Barr Report on the Mueller Report. Bill Barr had become Attorney General (AG) because the Trump White House was attracted to his legal position. He argued that the president cannot be guilty of obstruction of justice because, as head magistrate of the land, he is technically in charge of what at any time is the definition of obstruction. It may be that we, not even Congress, will never see the Mueller Report because it would be too embarrassing to Trump. So far, Trump is determined never to let Americans see that report, though true to his character (or lack of it) he continues to say he wants them to see it.

Barr has testified to Congress and is today scheduled to release his own redacted report of what the Mueller report reveals. Days ago, as if an afterthought, he said to a Congressional committee that he believes the Obama Administration was “spying” on the Trump campaign in 2016, admitting though that he has no evidence. Note that the Department of Justice (DoJ) has a rule against revealing the names of persons who might have been guilty of a crime, but with insufficient evidence to obtain a conviction. A prosecutorial decision not to indict therefore protects potentially innocent persons (since no court will have found them guilty).

I find that rationale convincing; it is only fair. It is ironic, however, that it was FBI violation of that rule that gave Trump the presidency to begin with. Hillary Clinton was not indicted for the email debacle, but FBI Director James Comey chastised her openly for, in his word, “carelessness.” Clinton deserved the protection of that rule as much as Trump apparently does, but she didn’t get it. Similarly, the AG’s stated opinion that the Obama Administration “spied” amounts to a charge against Obama or the FBI during his presidency without evidence and certainly with no indictment.

Americans have long been very supportive of the FBI and DoJ, but these institutions along with a number of others might be on their way toward increasing loss of respect along with other functions of government in what would be just one more instance of Rick Wilson’s recent book, Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever.

I cannot think of a better ending for this post.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

 

The post (essay) above is the 198th I’ve written in this blog since I began it in April 2013. The various topics have covered atheism, secular humanism, religious liberty, science, ethics, morality, gun control, and sex. Of those, the 25 listed below are concerned with Donald Trump:

 “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016.

“October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016.

“Please, Mr. President Elect,” Nov. 15, 2016.

“What does a proto despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016.

“Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017.

“Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017.

“Congratulations, Trump voters,” Mar. 6, 2017.

“You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017.

“Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017.

“Our republic…if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017.

“Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017.

“Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017.

“Aiding and abetting injury to America,” Jan. 6, 2018.

“A disgraceful leader implicates all,” June 19, 2018.

“Trusting our leaker-in-chief in Russia,” June 22, 2018.

“Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve,” July 18, 2018.

“Trump is NOT America’s problem,” Sep 10, 2018.

“Enemies of the people,” Nov. 1, 2018.

“Risking America,” Jan. 3, 2019.

“The great wall of Cyrus,” Jan. 10, 2019.

A plea to my United States Senator,” Jan 26, 2019.

That wall between us,” Feb. 7, 2019.

Political philosophy, political behavior,” Mar. 18, 2019.

Mueller and beyond,” Mar. 25th, 2019.

“The shaming of America, Apr. 18, 2019.

 

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