“Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?”

That’s the Washington Post headline of an interesting and somewhat disturbing Thanksgiving Day piece by Lisa Miller. The column follows with pronouncements from African-American theologians and academicians who focus on “justice,” and Jesus as a class warrior, and this provocative gem from Obery Hendricks, a Bible professor at Union Theological Seminary: political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

Miller first cites James Cone of the Union Theological Seminary, who authored Black Theology and Black Power (1969) with inspiration from Malcolm X, and who in turn inspired Rev. Jeremiah Wright — conspicuously without supplying anything Cone said or thought (so let me): “Whether the American system is beyond redemption we will have to wait and see. But we can be certain that black patience has run out, and unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable.” [Black Theology and Black Power, p.143.]

Now there’s a plan, and certainly an answer to (someone’s) prayer: marry the left to ninja super-liberal class-warfare Jesus, hint at civil war, and for good measure, call some conservative Christians not really Christians at all. That should trigger a gush of electoral success.

This shallow pastiche of Black Liberation Theology, coupled with the suggestion that it offers political guidance to the 21st century left, misunderstands religion and politics at many levels.

First, the sweeping use of “black church” should give pause — as though “black church” means something ideologically uniform (or uniform in any other way for that matter), as opposed to churches attended predominantly by African-Americans. This is precisely the religious and political stereotype of African-Americans to which so many African-Americans and others deeply objected when Rev. Jeremiah Wright was portrayed as typical of the “black church.”

There is a political contingent on the right and a political contingent on the left who want very much, for separate reasons, to pigeon-hole the “black church” as angry black-Jesus-warriors against “oppression” and “rich people.” And that’s simply not the reality of the range of black churches in America.

The right contingent and the left contingent are equally vapid, using African-Americans as a uniform political symbol — at a moment in history when African-Americans are emerging in mainstream American perception as diverse in the same ways as Americans are diverse (thanks in no small measure to the emergence of credible black conservatives who successfully weather the storm of opprobrium from disgusted liberals and their own communities).

Second, the facile equation of historical African-American oppression with the modern grievances of the left should give pause. The horrible history of slavery, racism, lynching, ghettoism and oppression in America confers upon African-Americans a unique narrative. Similarly, the Holocaust — the genocidal slaughter, ghettoism, and oppression of mid-20th-century Europe and elsewhere — confers upon Jews a unique narrative. African-Americans and Jews are understandably resistant to lots of piggy-backing on these narratives — particularly when the piggy-backing comes from loud political groups that suffered nothing even remotely approaching slavery or genocide.

Even the African-Americans and Jews who are themselves part of loud political groups advocating for some modern notion of “justice,” I would surmise, privately wince at specious conscriptions of their narratives. Thus, for example, have many African-Americans (and others) chafed at the blithe comparison of the modern gay rights movement to the 1960s civil rights movement. Gays “may want to cast their fight in civil-rights terms, and a lot of people are buying it. But not the faith community and especially not the black community,” says Bishop Harry Jackson, whose Hope Christian Church has a flock of 3,000 in the Washington, D.C. area.

And there’s no better example than the deep blue state of Maryland, controlled by a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, and poised in early 2011 to become the sixth state to sanction gay marriage. The measure passed the Maryland Senate 25 to 21, and moved on to the House of Delegates, traditionally even more liberal on social policy. And there it floundered. A significant factor was the vocal opposition of African-American pastors — that “black church” that Lisa Miller sees as a wellspring of solace, validation and justice narration for the modern left.

My point is not to plunge into the complicated and on-going politics of gay marriage in Maryland (Maryland will likely approve gay marriage, and with support from some African-American pastors, and my support as well) — but more narrowly to highlight the error of marrying “the black church” to any current liberal “justice” agenda.

Third, any marriage of religious doctrine, left or right, to current political disputes should give pause. It is perfectly appropriate for people of faith — or even cynical admirers of the political possibilities of faith — to ask, “what would Jesus do?” in the grip of a personal moral choice. It is not appropriate to ask “how would Jesus vote?” on the stimulus package, bank bail-outs, auto industry bailouts and labor union windfalls, deficit reduction measures, and tax policy.

The historical Jesus didn’t take a single “political” position (in the sense we are discussing) except arguably the brilliant and much-debated answer to Pharisees seeking to trap him on tax obligations: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). And they were amazed and went away (Matthew 22:22).

To be sure, Jesus was a radical Jew — but his radicalism was religious and personal, not political or statist. Indeed, the notion that Jesus was some sort of justice warrior on behalf of the poor and downtrodden — and that government welfare programs are therefore “what Jesus would want” — precisely misunderstands the difference between the religious and the political, and between the personal and the public/governmental. Jesus felt enormous compassion for the poor and the oppressed, and acted personally on that compassion — as, it is fair to say, he would urge all of us to do. But he never advocated a power-structure program or any governmental redistribution initiative — not because he opposed or supported such statist programs, but because they were utterly irrelevant to his religious and personal message.

Do politics to your heart’s content, he might have said, but first do right in your personal life. Jesus had nothing to say about our politics — and much to say about how we treat other actual human beings in our life and whether we thereby honor God.

And thus we come full circle to Black Liberation Theology — its deep resonance in the 1960s and its inaptness as an “answer” for liberals in the 2010s.

When Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her bus seat solely because she was black, that was an immediate and deeply personal offense, a direct and shameful disrespect. African-Americans and their allies very naturally put Jesus on their side against such steady personal mistreatment. Using power arbitrarily to humiliate a human being would send Jesus into orbit — and law and politics conspired at the time to institutionalize precisely that repetitious personal humiliation.

Black Liberation Theology was one (among several) responses to that repetitious personal humiliation — and black theologian Cone’s threat of a “protracted civil war” — in the context I have now described — against that repetitious humiliation was a fair and angry response to human beings horribly misbehaving — directly and personally — toward other human beings. Indeed, Black Liberation Theology at the time was an honest conditional, a noble plea to white America to do the right thing — with “right” cast in sincerely Christian terms — or else. And “or else” simply meant the last resort of a people directly oppressed and personally humiliated several times a day.

The mistake, the disconnect between 1960s Black Liberation Theology and Lisa Miller’s wistful and overreaching resurrection of Black Liberation Theology fifty years later, is precisely captured in Obery Hendricks’ insistence that political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

That insistence isn’t tethered to any defensible solidarity with Jesus. Jesus did not make, and would not have made, any pronouncements about “government programs” — much less the religious credentials of those who debate the merits of “government programs.” Government programs have nothing whatever to do with the personal righteousness with which Jesus passionately concerned himself.

“Government programs” operate in the political realm, and their merits are fairly debated in political terms — chief among such terms being the extent and duration of public assistance, whether the assistance includes a work incentive (or disincentive), and whether the assistance encourages the superfluity of fathers and the disintegration of families. Take whichever position you wish, but do not invoke Jesus — from the left or the right.

Our politics are pointed and sullied enough without misappropriating the Gospels and excommunicating Christians of different political orientations.



On Occupyosity and Making Real versus Illusory Differences

I got sucked into Occupyosity by a Facebook friend’s posting of a particularly obnoxious article entitled, “What Exactly Is It that Occupy Critics Don’t Get About Civil Disobedience?” To read the article is to reminisce fondly about those days when we were 14 and 15 and 20 and absolutely certain, so abundantly clear in our early mushy work-in-progress brains, that we grasped the core truth, and that our doddering misdirected contemptibly careful and uncommitted elders didn’t even have rudimentary sense, much less our vision!

Mmmm, yes. It was a feeling so fine I would wish it for everyone, momentarily. “Getting it.” That’s the fascinating power trope of youth speaking to entrenchment — all manner of entrenchment, politicians pursuing naked self-interest, parents stuck in their eye-rolling, pathology-perpetuating ways, bosses being intractably stupid — oppressors all! And the poor Masses, swooning to the insidious fiddles of nefarious Power Elites — oh my the pitiable Masses, those dim-witted enablers of oppression who let this vast stupidity avalanche over their own interests, well, they’re almost as bad as the oppressors. They almost forgivably just don’t get it. Like we do. Mmmm, yes…

Back when I Got It, I was liberal, supremely confident, and certain my Dark Foes lacked the basic synapse that connected thinking and Compassion. And by Compassion, I meant, you know, Caring Deeply about a set of politically significant Abstractions. And by thinking, I meant that thing I did in abundance that set me apart from the dunderheads who couldn’t see the abject stupidity of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. I was teaching in Kenya during Reagan’s reelection campaign, and swaggeringly bet my possessions with a transient American tourist that America would never reelect that buffoon.

Which is to say, I was a wincingly ridiculous liberal — and I know that none of my liberal readers here is that kind of liberal (except for the three in my sidebar survey who say they are so extremely liberal they almost come full circle to fascist, unless they were kidding). Do not feel obliged to defend yourselves. But I do see a bit of my old self in Occupyosity. But just a bit, as I will explain.

First I hasten to add, I see intermittently much to admire in Occupyosity. I see individuals dedicated to mediating conflict. I see individuals articulately decrying their comrades’ anti-Semitic outbursts and other hate rants. I see surges of sincerity, genuine appeals to economic fairness and focus on jobs. I see capable fundraisers (a war chest of several hundred thousand dollars). I see individuals focused on cleanliness and spontaneous sanitation departments. I see individuals focused on feeding — their own and the surrounding homeless. I see individuals dedicated to literacy, and even a “people’s library.”

I admire each of the foregoing individuals, and would have much to learn from them in riveting individual conversation. I just wonder why they’re not simply doing what they do so well — why these talented individuals aren’t very busy raising money, cleansing and ordering, feeding, and teaching in their own communities — and making a measurable difference they cannot possibly make as simpleton trespassers? Why are they finally doing what they do well in consort with a rag-tag aggregation of petty (and occasionally felonious) criminality and political vapidness?

Bias and serious personal deficit alert: I don’t do groups. I love professional football but will never, ever, actually go to a stadium and endure my species behaving that way. I like it slickly mediated on television, thank you — and even then, the crowd noise vexes me. I believe, with faux-mathematical precision, that people gathered in numbers greater than seven behave exponentially more mindlessly and recklessly with each additional person. I believe, with faux-sociological precision that groups, over individuals, are inclined in predictable relation to their numbers to the greatest atrocities — including the atrocity of embracing massive injustice, which they would never do as individuals — for the sake of silly solidarity with their makeshift identity-pumping group.

“Mob,” the very word, makes me shiver. From the Latin mobile vulgus, meaning vulgar hand-held devices and the spectacularly brazen rudeness committed millions of times a day by owners of these diabolical grace-suckers… oh wait, another subject, I digress. Mobile vulgus, the “gathered transient commoners,” the “mob,” as our language, with its gift for Anglo-Saxon grunts, shortened the Latin phrase. Which makes me scurry to Edmund Burke for solace, for a measure of relief against the Jacobin fury and orgy of self-righteous slaughter. Mindless anger and literal carnage acquire lethal force in numbers. Genocide — the ultimate human horror — germinates and cannot gather force without mobile vulgus.

Human beings are wonderful, ever less so in the aggregate.

Now you know my visceral suspicion of Occupiosity. As it was my visceral suspicion of the Tea Party. Collections, both, of interesting people, squandering their charm in service to their comforting mobs. But then I saw very little of the contempt for common manners in Tea Party gatherings. Quite the contrary. More like PTA gatherings writ large. A very few bad actors to be sure, but by and large well-mannered people, roughly organizing around a coherent grievance about our over-reaching government, who never broke a single ordinance. And then I saw the fury and orgy of leftist contempt for them, the vicious bile and ridicule heaped upon them, and I actually felt sympathy for a group I didn’t particularly like.

I still don’t like the Tea Party and I don’t like Occupiosity, such is my abiding distaste for determined gatherings of too like-minded people. But I am struck by the astounding hypocrisy of people who celebrate Occupiosity while slamming the Tea Party — these twin burps of challenging times. Like, to come full circle, the Seattle-based lad who authored “What Exactly Is It that Occupy Critics Don’t Get About Civil Disobedience?” The Tea Party — or “teabaggers,” as he offensively prefers, waved “their trademark poorly-spelled signs,” and got more media attention than his favored labor-union-driven rally about health care. And then Occupiosity got just as much media attention, simply because the Occupiers committed “civil disobedience” (that is, they “shut down a goddam bridge”), and he’s pissed, whereupon he defends, in Saul Alinsky style, the attention-getting prowess of “shutting down a goddam bridge,” and bludgeons the people who might wish the Occupiers would simply behave a little better.

What exactly is it the lad doesn’t get about “civil disobedience,” as that hallowed term is now commonly understood in our political parlance? Gandhi and Martin Luther King promoted deliberate, non-violent disobedience and violation of manifestly unjust laws, and did so with stupendous honor and self-sacrifice. I am a conservative today with enormous respect for some of the liberals of yesteryear, what they did and how they did it, and how much we owe our modern civil polity to their steadfast courage against entrenched injustice.

But I have little patience for people piggy-backing willy-nilly on that legacy who fundamentally misunderstand it. Occupiosity isn’t protesting any particular unjust law the way Rosa Parks so courageously did. I’ve yet to hear about any specific law the Occupiers are challenging. They’re just protesting “economic injustice,” or “corporate greed,” or “capitalism.” And in the service of that vastly vague objection, some of their numbers are breaking the law — even with substantial latitude to do their thing.

To be sure, police have run the gamut from responding well to badly. Let it be a given that when you “occupy” places that aren’t yours, when you “shut down a goddam bridge,” you tend to invite a bit of push-back, even conflict. When you disrupt neighborhoods, the neighbors can get testy. So instead of critical inquiry into what the Occupiers want, we get a media frenzy of dramatic sub-plots involving rapes, murders, and pepper spray. None of this gets us beyond the level of shallow spectacle. None of this gets us beyond a juvenile celebration of “idealism” and its discontents (or, for the older wistful spectators of the spectacle, a Big Chill-like nostalgia — and by the way, my pseudo-sociological conclusion regarding groups larger than seven comes, entirely arbitrarily, from the seven old friends in The Big Chill).

And I keep coming back to those conversations in my head with the Occupiers, the conversations that remain imagined because of my admittedly idiosyncratic distaste for large gatherings. Okay, if you’re not sure what you specifically want, how about doing what you do so well in your own community? How about making a small but real and meaningful difference instead of wasting your time and abundant community resources thinking you’re making some media-lusty and empty “big” difference by simply Occupying?

On Culture Wars and Gay Christian Sinners

Fellow blogger John Barron has an excellent post over at Sifting Reality defending Christians with respect to homosexuality — or more specifically, Christian obsession with homosexuality, given the in-your-face ubiquity of homosexual and homosexual-accepting culture, coupled with the demonization of Christians as intolerant bigots for viewing homosexuality as a sin.

He’s right. It’s a trap of demonization and counter-demonization. And he’s also right that homosexuality is unique among the “sexual sins” (adultery, promiscuity, incest, pedophilia, etc.) in demanding not merely non-criminality, but full acceptance — which takes, for many Christians, offensive forms of open homosexual displays.

I made something like this point, though not as effectively as John, back in July, when I explored whether libertarians should support gay marriage:

Part of the conservative discomfort with the gay political and cultural agenda in America is its selective outrage, its contempt for tradition, its relatively mild reaction to how horribly gays are treated in countries currently favored by the Left (as opposed to Israel, for example, where gays enjoy by far the most civil, political and cultural rights of any nation in the Middle East), its sometimes in-your-face promotion of gay sex (no different, in conservative estimation, than in-your-face promotion of heterosexual sex and hyper-sexualization of women), and its demonization of ordinary Americans for vague discomfort with gay culture.

My answer, by the way, was yes, libertarians should support gay marriage, but not necessarily the entire gay-rights agenda:

It is a libertarian imperative to support gay marriage as a political (not judicial) proposition because marriage is a government-sanctioned institution and the government has no legitimate interest in the genders of the spouses-to-be. It is not a libertarian imperative to support the gay rights agenda across the board, and it is the prerogative of any libertarian to be troubled by, and object to, some aspects of the gay rights agenda.

As it is the prerogative of any libertarian to support every aspect of the gay rights agenda, as I generally do, because I personally believe in a culture of equal respect and stature among gays, trans-gendered, and straights. But that’s a political proposition, and it must be won politically, without recourse to heavy-handed [judicial] absolutes.

Which takes me back to John Barron’s defense of Christian obsession with homosexuality.

I say the following respectfully, as most of my family and many of my friends are Christians. Christians started this fight by freighting homosexuality with the heavily denunciatory baggage of “sin” (never mind “abomination” and such).

And they often did so in a way that cast doubt upon even the possibility of a “gay Christian.” In other words, total war. To be sure, some congregations nervously accepted homosexuals as sinners like all the rest of us, even though they actively choose a daily lifestyle that is supposedly sinful. (“Hi, my name is x, and I love Jesus, but I’ll be actively and deliberately sinning for the rest of my life.”) But that’s not an actual comfort to a gay person.

Homosexuality is an orientation — which science and history view as natural for a minority, and in the language of religion, “the way God made them.” For gay people, it’s as bizarre to insist that they “resist these impulses” and become something else as to insist that healthy chocolate lovers resist that impulse and become rigorous chocolate-avoiders. It cannot be right, in the Christian tradition, to condemn so many people to active pursuit of sinfulness, simply because of who they already are.

It’s impossible, therefore, to parse “sin” in the same way as, for example, adultery. Adulterers are not making a choice about who they are. They’re making a choice about what they will do, very consistent with who they are (heterosexuals). Adulterers can nevertheless come to church, and take solace in the fact that we’re all sinners, we all do bad acts. And we’re good Christians because we do so many other proper Christian things. Homosexuals cannot come into the same church and take any solace in the fact that we’re all sinners, because they’re not simply guilty of a sinful act, or acts, but guilty, according to much Christian dogma, of actively choosing “sin” every day of their lives because of who they are. That’s no way to live.

Who hurts people more? The adulterer or the homosexual? I don’t have the statistics, but if the strife and collateral damage of torn marriages is any indication, adultery hurts vastly more people than homosexuality. Is “who hurts people more” a fair question? Fair question, as concerns whether it is possible to reach conciliation between gays and Christians. Depends on your taste for absolutes.

We posit the adulterer as the one who commits a sin, desires not to do so again, does so again, desires not to do so again, does so again, and so forth — but always remains within the grace of God, and always capable of choosing not to commit an obvious and calamitous and injurious sin again, and therefore happily within the embracing and forgiving rubric of the church.

But our conservative churches view the homosexual as different, as heavily freighted with categorically unforgivable sin from the get-go. There is no presumption of grace, you’re-only-as-bad-as-your-next-act, much less a steady embrace of their Christianity. Homosexuals simply choose sin, whether or not they ever hurt another human being for the rest of their lives, and they’re accordingly the worst sinners, the sinners who permanently choose and love sin. Even the worst adulterers are forgiven because they don’t “permanently” choose sin. It’s not something they “are,” just something they do, sometimes repeatedly. But being homosexual is a permanent sin, an “abomination.”

It cannot be a surprise that gay culture reacted strongly to this characterization. It cannot be a surprise that secular gay culture, in particular, declared war on this Christian hostility. It cannot be a surprise that where gay culture is predominant, it would include a heavy dollop of sometimes disgusting and vicious anti-Christian sentiment. And it cannot be a surprise that we’re witnessing the current horrible nastiness of gays against Christians and Christians against gays.

At the root of the hostility is the definition of “sin.” That single short word commands legions of warriors on both sides. If homosexuality is angrily and categorically viewed as “sin,” regardless of its consequences, then there will be very few gay Christians, and the historically and successfully inclusive quality of Christianity will most oddly stop just short of homosexuals.

On Liberals, Conservatives, Political Theater, and Civility

Political theater is a constant re-education in the non-sinister motives of our elected decision-makers. We have to see a conservative doing something liberal, or a liberal doing something conservative, to ratchet back from our conviction that the other side is sinister.

As a political people, we typically take three steps:

  1. Identify as conservative or liberal.
  2. Embrace the respective narratives, which reinforce the goodness and soundness of our chosen sensibility and condemn the badness and unsoundness of the other narrative.
  3. Gravitate to news and opinion sources that reinforce #2.

The fascinating threshold question is what makes someone presumptively conservative or liberal, because so much turns on that decision. Is a conservative a liberal who has been mugged? A liberal a conservative who has been arrested? Is it life experience, parenting, peer group, or thoughtful examination that yields “conservative” and “liberal”?

To be sure, we all imagine our politics the product of thoughtful preference for sound thinking. Who among us says, “I’m a conservative, but liberals might be right” or “I’m a liberal, but conservatives are really persuasive”? At our very best, we say, “I’m a conservative, and liberals, bless their hearts, want to do the right thing” or “I’m a liberal, and conservatives occasionally make some good points.”

Wherever our threshold sensibility choice came from, we’re deliberately “liberal” or “conservative” because that choice supplies a reliable framework — a matrix (yes, see movie) — for every consideration of current events, for the perpetual reinforcements of our correct choice.

Logically, we would gravitate back and forth between conservative and liberal because the narratives would trade off objective soundness. But we never do. We commit to a team and we’re steadfast thereafter with the Talking Points, whether or not they’re sound.

In effect, we join clubs and promise loyalty. We’re a social people that way. Nothing logically dictates that we be steadfastly “conservative” or “liberal.” We do so because we’re joiners, because we want to be part of a consistent narrative — a story of goodness — and welcome the abundant “expertise” our sensibility high priests supply to our story.

Because let’s face it, we don’t have a clue how to solve the massive domestic and foreign policy problems our nation confronts. Not only do we lack the expertise, we have fairly sound reason to suspect that the experts lack the expertise. Experts, and I do love this American formulation, have been defined as people who avoid all the small errors and sweep on to the grand fallacy.

We’re left with a choice between tedious case-by-case examination of the merits of frankly boring, technical details, or grateful embrace of a narrative that Explains It All. And who doesn’t prefer a good story over wallowing in technical stuff?

And that is the pathology of politics. But the pathology takes a darker turn. Having embraced our chosen narrative, the next project is too often to ascribe the worst motives to the competing narrative. “Liars!” we scream. “Horrible people who hate people!” we scream. “Vested interests!” we love to scream.

We don’t know this anymore than we know how to actually solve the massive domestic and foreign policy problems our nation confronts. But we’re certain the other side must be horrible people who hate people because our Google Reader and RSS feed club with all those Talking Points says so, persuasively. And if we can take them down, oh yeah, then we’re just a little closer to somewhat well-informed, we think.

This joiner mentality, coupled with our left and right paranoid style of American politics, yields a halting and disturbing debate. Sometimes we talk with each other, but more often we do narrative food fights. Silliness, perpetuated by cynical people with high profiles and ordinary people without time enough to determine whether it’s worth standing against the silliness.

And so I come full circle. Political theater is a constant re-education in the non-sinister motives of our elected decision-makers.

Horrible motives were attributed to many Bush policies that the Obama administration has fully embraced. An anti-war candidate thoroughly into his administration still has all the same wars going, still has Guantanamo, and has launched another war in Libya without even bothering to consult or obtain the consent of Congress — steps that would triggered apoplectic rage on the left if done by a Republican. But where’s the virulent anti-war movement of the Bush years? It’s basically gone. What survives of it are a few independent ideologues.

And that’s because liberals can do some things conservatives cannot, and conservatives can do some things liberals cannot. Nixon could go to China. A liberal couldn’t have. Domestically, Nixon could propose a liberal negative income tax to reform entitlements. A liberal couldn’t have. Likud prime minister Menachim Begin could negotiate with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and return the entire Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a peace agreement. A Labor party prime minister could not have done so. Bill Clinton could target Sister Souljah’s hate speech. A conservative doing it would have been massacred as racist. Labour PM Tony Blair could eloquently make the case for cleaning out the Mesopotamian cesspool. A Tory would have been vociferously condemned as a warmonger.

Why do we do this to each other? Why do we ascribe base and foul motives to conservatives doing conservative things and liberals doing liberal things?

We’re certain the other side is sinister, until our side forthrightly does it. And that is what educates us in motives. We may or may not embrace the merits of our standard-bearer’s troubling position — but we’re less likely to conclude (unless we really do wear the tinfoil hats) that the position itself is evidence of deception, venality, and hatred of people. Okay — then it probably wasn’t deception, venality and hatred of people when it came from the other side.

All of which is simply to say, however it is each of us came to be conservative or liberal, let’s at least start with acknowledging that the other side came to be so sincerely. And that is particularly and profoundly the case as to all of us ordinary people. I know professional liberals I suspect of bad faith. I do not know any ordinary liberal, and I know many, whom I suspect of bad faith.

The 21st-century explosion of citizen dialogue opens into a beautiful opportunity for civility. Professional conservatives and professional liberals are fair game, fine, but as between us, the peeps of diverse sensibilities, we keep it real and respectful. We teach America how to talk, always modest and always mindful that we might have been swallowing the Talking Points of the other side with a life-experience twitch here or there.

On Conservative Cannibalism

A friendly fellow blogger has suggested that I am not a true conservative, primarily because I support the right of women to get legal abortions and the right of gays to marry. Now this is a fascinating discussion.

Definitions always matter — and sometimes they have enormous consequences. Not that I personally mind never being invited to true believer parties. I know I am conservative and I know why. And I’m tremendous at entertaining myself.

When I was counsel to Senator Peter Fitzgerald, as conservative a senator as it is possible to elect in the blue state of Illinois (when he retired, Barack Obama won his seat), I was tasked with drafting and promoting his Mutual Fund Reform Act at the height of the mutual fund scandal in 2004. Senator Fitzgerald felt passionately about this issue. He believed more balanced and less conflicted governance, and more careful oversight, of mutual funds — the retirement nest egg, the college fund, the buffer against hard times of tens of millions of Americans who didn’t generally understand financial markets — was a perfectly appropriate project for the federal government.

This was obviously not ideological conservatism. This was not knee-jerk opposition to “government.” This was grounded conservatism. This was commitment to ensuring fair private markets. This is why there is a Securities and Exchange Commission (which ultimately promulgated, by regulation, most of the provisions of the Mutual Fund Reform Act, and thereby protected millions of Americans against what had been easy predations).

The bill never came up for a vote but it attracted bipartisan support. Five Republicans, including John McCain, and seven Democrats co-sponsored the bill. When I spoke with a particular chief of staff for a conservative Republican senator, and pointed to the Republicans supporting the bill, he asked dismissively, “what Republicans?”

I didn’t have a response because I was speechless, not a common experience for me at the time. I had always been vaguely aware of ideological gradients and litmus tests. I had simply dismissed them as frankly silly. In my view, Republicans generally (but not always) did better than Democrats as legislators, regulators, judges and executives, and therefore making the Republican Party as big a tent as possible so that more Republicans could get elected and appointed was obvious. That there could be a serious contrary notion, that ideological purity truly commanded any serious attention, boggled my mind. At the time.

“Ideological purity” disgusts me. Actually, both words independently disgust me, and their combination is an abomination.

Both the left and the right do it. Committed leftists routinely harangue manifest liberals for being insufficiently liberal, and committed right-wingers routinely harangue manifest conservatives for being insufficiently conservative. And both groups should be committed. At the same institution. In the same room. Until they acquire mental health.

Actual governance is never ideology, and certainly never purity. It is a painstaking project of consensus. Conservatives are properly conservative, and liberals are properly liberals, because they view policy proposals through a certain lens, and question, with facts, whether the policy proposal in fact achieves its desired ends, or produces negative unintended consequences. Actual governance dwells in the details.

With obvious conspicuous exceptions, liberals are more pragmatic than conservatives. There is such a thing, for example, as “RINO” (Republicans in Name Only), but no such thing as “DINO.” There can be Republicans at the highest level of governance questioning the right of other elected Republicans to claim the status of “Republican” — but Democrats would never dream of such an absurdity.

And this is why, despite a daunting advantage of self-identified conservatives in this country (including 25% in the Democratic Party), conservatives struggle electorally. They eat themselves. Better to be pure, better to be ideological paragons, than acquire the instruments of governance. And that is absurd.

I have defended the Tea Party, and conservatives generally, against cynical charges of racism, and I have defended the Tea Party against ridiculous comparisons to historically extreme right-wing movements in America — both fantasies of the left intended to discredit conservatism generally.

But I have also criticized the Tea Party for promoting ideological purity over conservatism itself, for taking a giddy and naive pleasure in taking down establishment conservatives because they were allegedly not conservative enough (whereupon Democrats won). This is how conservatism dies in America.

If I am not conservative, then conservatism is dying. If I, and so many like me, am not acknowledged as conservative, then conservatism defines itself into a very bleak box, and, despite its numbers, becomes an ironic historical footnote.

I am confident this will not happen. I am confident that conservatism includes (simply includes, not “is defined by”) people who do not believe government has any business forbidding a woman’s right to abortion or a person’s choice of gender in marriage. Mind you, being conservative, I believe these issues should be determined by legislatures, not courts. I oppose judicial fiat of both abortion and gay marriage rights, and I support legislative initiatives to achieve either.

And so I still think of myself as conservative. And I think it important that people like me aren’t eaten. For the sake of conservatism.

Obama’s Osama Killing Puts America’s Racial Narratives on Display

Singer Sheryl Crow, she reminds us, has met four presidents — and President Obama is “one of the most conscious people” she’s “ever met” — comparable to Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King (about whom she “knows a lot”). “He [President Obama] walks the walk.” This political and spiritual canonization, oddly, because Obama killed Osama.

This is fascinating — but first, here are her thoughts in full — speaking on the “Gayle King Show” on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network — when asked about her reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden, because they are illuminating in several directions.

“It’s fascinating times that we’re living in. I mean, the first thing I thought was, I think, I felt the same way everyone else did, mixed emotions about the fact that we killed someone. And I think in our spirits, we know that killing is not right. In this particular instance, we have such an association with this person for having dealt us such a heinous blow. So, you know, mixed emotions of finally justice has been served and, secondly, we’ve just killed somebody, so there’s not a celebratory mood that goes along with that, I don’t think.

“But really for me, and listening to the speech, watching Obama speak about it [last Sunday night], it’s just fascinating that we have a black man, who has Muslim ties with his father, even though he’s a Christian, it’s amazing how far our country has come, that that’s the man who took down Osama bin Laden.

“It makes you feel very patriotic, I mean, I’ve become very philosophical about it, and I do think that, um, if it were any other president, I might feel different about it. But, he’s one of the most conscious people I’ve ever met, and I’ve met four presidents now. And I know a lot about Robert Kennedy and the words that he spoke and a lot about Martin Luther King and the words that he spoke, and they always spoke in terms of consciousness and enlightenment. And he walks the walk.”

I wouldn’t ordinarily pick a pop singer as the vehicle for exploring America’s racial narratives (or any other matter of consequence — except for Rebecca Black, who rocks). But in this case, Sheryl speaks so sincerely and taps a vein that I believe representative, that it makes sense to spin off Sheryl.

First, her initial premise is sound. High-five, Osama is dead, okay maybe not the high-five. A person is dead, shot in the head by American forces. I get that checked reaction, and respect it. I also get and fully understand why the momentous event was celebratory in several circles — but our better natures can both understand and regret what is necessary in warfare.

Second, “a black man … with Muslim ties” “took down Osama bin Laden”? Really? We can talk that way now? About what “a black man .. with Muslim ties” does (as long as it’s praising what a black man with Muslim ties does)? On the one hand, a substantial percentage of Americans on the left are convinced that another substantial percentage of Americans on the right are sunk in the darkest, most bilious racism, and blindly opposed to Barack Obama because he is black — but it’s “amazing how far our country has come” because a black man with Muslim ties killed Osama bin Laden?

There’s a touch of confusion here. I won’t call it a double-standard (yet), but shouldn’t it be vaguely troubling that, according to a common narrative on the left, Americans must be racist for opposing President Obama — even without ever mentioning his race — but we can mention, indeed applaud, his race, and his Muslim ties, if we’re praising him?

Third, the sincerity kicker from Sheryl is this: she feels “patriotic” because President Obama killed someone, but doubts she would feel the same way had it been any other president. (And she’s known four.) That’s one of the most honest statements from the left I’ve heard in a long time. That’s why I think it makes sense to take a more careful look at what Sheryl said.

There is a vitriol in leftist rhetoric, a very nearly religious condemnation of the gravest evil and venality, when a conservative does or espouses precisely the same thing that a “black man with Muslim ties” does and espouses. For prosecuting the war in Afghanistan (which President Obama continues to prosecute), for prosecuting the war in Iraq (which President Obama continues to prosecute), for keeping open the Guantanamo prison (which President Obama continues to hold open), for “enhanced interrogation techniques” (which Obama’s CIA Director, Leon Panetta, admitted contributed to intelligence that led directly to Osama bin Laden’s killing) — for all of these things the left reviled President Bush as Hitler incarnate.

Indeed, but for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Guantanamo prison — but for the Bush presidency’s concerted war on terrorism — the locating and killing of Osama bin Laden would not have been possible.

Am I nursing a grievance that President Bush does not get more credit for killing Osama bin Laden? Good heavens no. Quite the contrary. God bless America, President Barack Obama, the Navy SEALS, and the operation that brought straightforward justice to a mass murderer — who wanted to murder more.

But when the policies are so eerily similar, how does one go from Hitler Bush — to Saint Obama with “consciousness and enlightenment” who “walks the walk”? How does the left — generally troubled by killing — go from demonizing and Hitlerizing a decent man who sought to kill Osama bin Laden to beatifying another decent man who sought to kill — and did kill — Osama bin Laden?

Honestly, now I’m open-ended. Is this the programmatic Loyalty we were warned about in the Fifties? Or is it because President Obama is a “black man with Muslim ties,” and not incidentally, a liberal?

If the latter, then let’s open our eyes about our racial narrative. The vast majority of Americans have no problem with the fact that President Obama is black. Similarly, evidently, the rabid conservative voters in the straw poll about who won the first Republican presidential debate have no problem with the fact that Herman Cain is black.

The left gets to talk freely about “a black man,” even to say the simple fact that the president is black is a reason for a kind of “patriotism” that was virulent protest five years ago — and that’s fine. I applaud. The right can never mention “a black man,” and that’s fine. America can freely talk about the great things “a black man” does. Meanwhile, conservatives talk about some of the terrible things a liberal president has done. We do not say, and would never imagine saying, President Obama is doing some terrible liberal things and by the way he is a “black man with Muslim ties.” We just really dislike some of the liberal policies.

I happily concede the more luxurious space in the public square to the left — the ability to talk freely about “a black man with Muslim ties” (!) — if the left will stop calling conservatives racists.

Arizona On My Mind… Or, Immigration, Abortion, Gun Rights, Gun Violence, Birtherism, Religious Liberty, and Labor Union Controversies Concentrated in One State

I have a course curriculum in mind called Fractures in American Politics: Arizona 2010-2011. How does Arizona telescope so many national tensions at once, and in such interesting ways? Immigration, abortion, gun rights, gun violence, Birtherism, religious liberties, labor unions, even tax policy — Governor Jan Brewer just signed a business tax hike, backed by the business community for fear of potentially stiffer tax burdens without it.

It’s too easy to dismiss Arizona’s surge of national profile controversies as the cranky legislative gush of a very conservative state. Those who take this tack betray simplistic ideological “gotcha’ politics” at its worst — as MSNBC commentator Donnie Deutsch and Al Sharpton illustrated back on Martin Luther King Day, when they accused Arizona, utterly falsely, of refusing to recognize MLK Day, and bizarrely, questioning whether Arizona should secede from the union.

That facile dismissal of Arizona, because it is a conservative state, also gave rise at the beginning of 2011 to some truly shameful behavior in the teeth of a tragedy. On Saturday, January 8th, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in Tucson, killing six, and wounding many others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Az). Tucson Sheriff Dupnik immediately blamed the toxic political environment in Arizona. Multiple Democrats denounced the fierce political atmosphere in Rep. Giffords’ district. Paul Krugman, the same day, linked the tragedy to Republicans, the Tea Party, and “scary” opposition to health care reform. The “odds are,” he wrote, “this was political,” and “violent acts are what happen when you create a climate of hate.” Yet he still writes for the New York Times.

Loughner, as it develops, wasn’t Republican, conservative, Tea Party, or even particularly political. We are a better nation, I believe, because we endured that toxic blame-game nonsense and learned some valuable lessons.

Something peculiarly conservative is going on in Arizona — but it’s not simple. Governor Brewer is no liberal — she signed and celebrated S.B. 1070, the controversial Arizona immigration law now winding its way toward the Supreme Court. She also signed late last month the strange but fascinating abortion law that criminalizes abortion when the decision is based upon the race or gender of the fetus or the parent.

Yet Governor Brewer has vetoed three bills recently that some might characterize as core red-meat conservative enactments:

  • Most recently, she vetoed H.B. 2177, the “Birther bill,” which would have required presidential (and other) candidates to prove their citizenship before appearing on Arizona ballots. On CNN, she ups the ante and says the Birther issue is leading America “down the path of destruction.” She also explains that vesting that much power in a potentially partisan state official “could lead to arbitrary or politically motivated decisions.”
  • The same day — though vastly overshadowed (and I shake my head in dismay) by the Birther veto — she vetoed S.B. 1467, a gun rights bill which would have permitted concealed weapons on college campuses. Her veto letter pointedly criticizes the bill for being “poorly written,” and creating potentially dangerous ambiguities (including the possibility of application to K-12 educational institutions).
  • A week earlier, she vetoed S.B. 1288, an absolute religious exemption bill, which would have affirmed the right to government appointment or government-controlled license without regard to religious belief — but would also have affirmed that a person’s exercise of religious belief cannot be unprofessional conduct and cannot be the basis of denying, suspending, or revoking a professional or occupational license. Her veto letter noted that the “bill could protect conduct that harms the public but cannot be readily addressed if a person claims that the conduct is based on religious beliefs.”

Now that is a remarkable — and admirable — veto record for a week. Arizona gives us, I believe, a most interesting glimpse into the fight for the soul of conservatism. Count me among Governor Brewer’s supporters.

The rush to convert partisan talking points into legislation — whether from the right or the left — demands a sober assessment from mature party elders, the people schooled in the mischief that happens when sound-bites are hastily written into law. Governor Brewer has proven herself one of those mature party elders.

With these three vetoes, Governor Brewer sends this critical message to conservatives: Birtherism is nonsense, get beyond it, expanding gun rights is laudable, but not with careless legislation that conservatives would come to regret, and religious liberty is a sacred American tradition, but not a juggernaut that protects any conduct in the name of religion. Conservatives need to get precisely that sober.

As Paul Krugman illustrated, liberals love the symbolic value of Arizona. The Obama administration has made a frankly shrewd sport of attacking Arizona, beginning with its decision to forego “post-racial” (whatever that might have meant in the early days of promise) immigration policy, and instead file a duplicative lawsuit against Arizona’s S.B. 1070, the immigration law that mirrored federal immigration law, and added state enforcement capabilities.

Not a syllable in S.B. 1070 enacted any provision that was inconsistent with, or not already part of, federal immigration law. Yet there were wild protests and organized boycotts of Arizona for — what? passing a state law fully consistent with federal law that essentially called the federal government to task for abject failure to enforce existing federal immigration law?

Governor Brewer rightly signed that bill, if only to highlight the federal government’s failure. A federal district court let S.B. 1070 stand, but enjoined its most controversial provisions, and the Ninth Circuit recently affirmed in a 2-1 decision (Judge Carlos Bea dissenting).

More recently, the National Labor Relations Board confirmed its intention to sue Arizona and South Dakota over constitutional amendments requiring secret ballots to establish a union. Back in January, when the NLRB first started saber-rattling about suing Arizona, South Dakota, South Carolina, and Utah over this issue, I cautioned that the NLRB position was probably technically correct.

Federal law probably does protect an employer’s theoretical — never-actually-exercised — right to recognize a union even in the absence of a secret ballot. But is this theoretical, never-actually-exercised right really worth a federal government lawsuit? And if so, why sue only Arizona and South Dakota?

The NLRB says it declines to sue South Carolina and Utah “to conserve limited federal and state agency resources and taxpayer funds.” NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland said the agency “doesn’t have enough staff to handle four lawsuits at the same time.”

Pure unadulterated nonsense. If conserving “limited” resources were truly a motivation, the federal government wouldn’t commence any lawsuits to enforce an abstract right that no one exercises. This is about handing Arizona a loss, because Arizona matters in the political calculation of 2012, and how conservatives are viewed nationwide.

That is what Arizona has bizarrely become, a microcosm of some conservative passions and a political target for some cynical liberals. Thankfully, Governor Brewer has stepped up to say, we’re not so simple.