Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Keep Religious Beliefs Out of State Laws

Politics and religion make a dangerous brew. For centuries, political rulers and religious leaders created state-enforced religions, ranging from Aztec high priests to African tribal chiefs to European kings. The gradual shift toward democracy since the French and American revolutions at the end of the 18th century has been accompanied by the slow demise of state religions. More liberty has inevitably meant more freedom from states enforcing the beliefs of one religious denomination.

American revolutionaries led that change. Although most of them believed in a supreme being, they also believed that the state should not enforce any particular religious beliefs on Americans. Thus the First Amendment to our Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ....”

But separating Christianity from the American state has been a constant struggle. The First Amendment restricted only the federal government until the Supreme Court decided in 1947 to also apply it to the states.
In that decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another.” Liberals tend to interpret the establishment clause as creating a high barrier, a “wall of separation between Church and State” in Thomas Jefferson’s words. Conservatives have argued that the state can encourage general religious belief, such as by allowing prayer in schools, but they agree that the beliefs of a particular denomination must not be favored.

The danger of using the state to enforce narrow religious ideas was apparent last week in the rally against same-sex marriage in Springfield. The demonstration was conceived as a religious event, organized by the Illinois Family Institute, which calls itself a “ministry” that “promotes and defends Biblical truths”. The IFI’s website listed 16 sites for participants to find buses to Springfield, including 11 churches and one religious school. More than half of the scheduled six hours were designated as prayer rally and prayer walk.

Opponents of same-sex marriage are no longer able to count on broad popular hatred of homosexuals. The traditional claims that gay people are sick and evil are no longer persuasive, as more Americans realize they know, work alongside of, and may even be related to homosexual men and women. That didn’t stop Jim Finnegan, a board member of IFI, from describing gays as “deviant” and “disease-filled”.

But such language will not win any votes. At the Springfield rally, and at other similar events across the country, opponents of gay marriage have been reduced to one argument. The organizers displayed a large cross in front of the Capitol with the words “God Abhors Civil Unions”. Bishop Larry Trotter of a Chicago Baptist church said that same-sex marriage is “against the will, plan and the word of God.”

Like all such claims to know what God likes and doesn’t like, they really mean “I Want to Enforce My Beliefs on You”. That’s exactly what Bishop Thomas Paprocki did within the entire Springfield diocese. He barred anyone wearing a symbol supportive of gay marriage from attending Catholic Mass. Paprocki said that anyone who prays for same-sex marriage would be asked to leave the Springfield Cathedral.

Monsignor Carl Kemme of Springfield called marriage “God’s design, not man’s”. But he’s wrong. In the US, marriage is a state institution. No religious intervention is necessary to get married and then to enjoy the significant benefits of being officially recognized by all public entities as a couple.

There is no agreement among religious Americans about what God thinks of civil unions or same-sex marriage. While some religious leaders proclaimed in Springfield that God stood behind their beliefs, others have proclaimed the same thing for their opposite beliefs. Many major Protestant denominations support same-sex marriage, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the US, as well as Unitarians, United Church of Christ, and the Quakers. Some denominations are divided about homosexuality and gay marriage, like the United Methodist Church. Although official Methodist doctrine does not allow same-sex marriage, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert officiated on Saturday at a gay wedding in Alabama.

Bishop Paprocki’s own spiritual leader, Pope Francis, appears to be moving the Catholic Church away from its harshly critical stance toward homosexuality. In an interview last month, the Pope said, “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge....We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.... it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Most Catholics in America who attend weekly Mass support legalizing same-sex marriage, including about two-thirds of those aged 18-64.

The opponents of same-sex marriage wish to do what our Constitution forbids: have their minority religious beliefs be state law. Governments which enforce one interpretation of religious doctrine are inherently undemocratic. Those who advocate other beliefs are not only excluded from worship, but become enemies of the state. The law of the land must be for everyone.

Steve Hochstadt
Los Angeles, CA
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 29, 2013

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Is the Crisis Over?

As a national sigh of relief greeted the end of the government shutdown, and the narrow averting of a national default, the question lingers: is the crisis over? Or will we go through the same political brinksmanship in a few months, when the debt ceiling is reached again in February? The answer lies within the Republican Party.

The compromise which ended the shutdown depended on Democratic votes. Every Democratic Senator and Representative voted for the bill to avert a default. But most congressional Republicans voted against it. Although a majority of Republican senators voted for it, 28 to 18, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly against it, 144 to 87. Nothing had changed among Republican ranks during the shutdown, except that Speaker John Boehner finally allowed such a bill to come to a vote at all, during which, as had been predicted from the beginning, enough Republicans voted yes for it to pass. Despite the billions in damage to our economy that the shutdown caused and the unanimous warnings from economists across the world that a government default would create much worse damage, Republican politicians did not budge.

Many Republicans in Washington not only sought the shutdown and default, but they now want to make that position a defining characteristic of true Republicanism. John Boehner said on WLW radio in Ohio, “We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win”. Veteran Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, and national business groups, like the US Chamber of Commerce, argue that the shutdown strategy was a failure. McConnell said, “It was not a smart play. It had no chance of success.” Scott Reed, political strategist for the Chamber, agreed: “The need is now more than ever to elect people who understand the free market and not silliness.”

But the leaders of that “silly” effort are now seeking to purge the GOP of anyone who voted to reopen the government. Tea Party conservatives are gunning for their fellow Republicans, planning primary challenges in 2014.

The ideological splits within the Republican Party align with geographical differences. Five of the six House Republicans from Illinois voted to end the shutdown, while all 24 Texas Republicans voted no. More generally, House Republicans from below the Mason-Dixon line, from North Carolina across to Texas, voted for default by 75 to 17. Republicans from the rest of the country voted 70 to 69 to end the shutdown.

The conservative plan to attack all Republicans who showed any signs of moderation may continue the geographical narrowing of the national party. There are no longer any Republicans in the House from New England. Half of the New Jersey House delegation is Republican, but that might shift in 2014. Twice as many New Jersey voters blamed the Republicans in Congress for the shutdown as blamed Democrats. In Virginia, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s run for governor against Democrat Terry McAuliffe has been damaged by popular anger at the shutdown, where a majority of voters blames Republicans for the disruption.

Across the nation, voters hold Republicans responsible for the shutdown, a judgment they have earned by their votes and words. Mitch McConnell, leader of Senate Republicans, says it won’t happen again: “Shutting down the government, in my view, is not conservative policy.” No, it isn’t, it’s not policy at all.

The government shutdown demonstrates the bankruptcy of Tea Party politics. Tea Party politicians have pursued only destructive policy ideas. Their economic plans don’t get further than shutting down public programs. They offer no coherent foreign policy to deal with a complex and unpredictable world. They appeal to angry and ignorant voters by making them angrier and more ignorant. Many of the darlings of the Tea Party, like Sharron Angle, Michele Bachmann, and Ted Cruz, are themselves remarkably ignorant, are consistent public liars, and don’t care. Now they have vowed to destroy their own party, as their public approval ratings drop, even among Republicans.

But mainstream Republicans, like McConnell and Boehner, created their own monster. By demonizing government, they successfully angered their own supporters. By calling global warming a hoax, they tarnished science and urged their voters to make up their own facts. By pretending the Affordable Care Act was some socialist plot, instead of a Heritage Foundation idea supported by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, they encouraged conservatives across America to look towards the most radical and simplistic political ideas. Now their Frankenstein has turned against them. Ted Cruz’s hometown newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, regrets its 2012 endorsement of him. Too late.

We may not have another shutdown soon, but we will continue to have political crises, until the Republican Party decides again to participate in governing, recognizes that compromise is necessary in a two-party system, and stops pretending that Obama is a socialist and Democratic politics are treasonous.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 22, 2013

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Aaron Schock, You’re Costing Us Money!

Our government has been shut down for two weeks. Here is what that means for our pocketbooks.

Some Head Start programs have shut down or lost teachers. That means that children whose parents would normally be working have to be taken care of. Workers stay home or spend extra money on baby sitters. That costs money for those parents, who mainly don’t have much money. It also costs businesses that employ them. Thanks, Aaron.

Alex Thevenin lost about $80,000 last week because of your vote. His family-owned Arizona Raft Adventures, a white-water rafting business in the Grand Canyon, and other similar small businesses, lost bookings in the final weeks of their season.

The Small Business Association says it will not be processing loans during the shutdown. Rep. Shock, your website says that “providing the incentives and benefits for small business” is one of your principles. Why isn’t that principle more important than shutting down the government?

Blood drives have been cancelled. Clinical trials for cancer patients at the National Institute of Health have been cancelled.

Although our military personnel will be paid during the shutdown, many services important to them will not be operational: Reserve training has been cancelled across the country; the Veterans Administration announced cutoff of some services and benefits; all subsidized grocery stores on military bases have been closed. By last week, defense contractor Lockheed Martin had sent home 2400 civilian workers in 27 states because of the shutdown. One Army officer said, “A week won’t make a significant difference. Two weeks and you might start to see readiness issues.” Now it’s two weeks.

Of course, the shutdown costs us all money as taxpayers, because of the daily work which is not getting done. Although some Republicans have been saying that are saving money by shutting the government down, they all voted to give all furloughed government workers back pay when the shutdown is over, negating all of those savings.

Bloomberg News compared the costs of the shutdown, which they estimated at over $2 billion, to the costs of the disastrous September floods in Colorado. But that’s just costs to the government. The wider costs to the national economy could reach $55 billion after three weeks, estimates an analyst from Moody’s Analytics.That’s equal to the total cost of the disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

Organizations of American businesses have been pleading with the Republican extremists in Congress to stop their games. An October 1 survey by the National Association of Government Contractors found that nearly one-third of its 925 members were delaying hiring; more than half predicted a negative effect on their business. These are people who preferred Herman Cain to Barack Obama for President last year. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that the shutdown costs the travel industry $152 million per day.

Representative Schock, on your website, you ask “How can I help?” On your Issues page, there is nothing about the shutdown. But on September 29, you voted for House Resolution 59, which continued government operations only if the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act were suspended. Twelve Republicans voted against that measure, which was an attempt to blackmail the Senate and the President into suspending an existing law. Why weren’t you among them?

I think the answer is that you’re afraid. You’re afraid that you’ll lose your position as Deputy Republican Whip. You’re afraid that somebody to the right of you will challenge you in 2014. Tea partiers are already trying to find a primary opponent. You’re afraid that you’ll lose your nice job as a Congressman, with its $174,000 a year salary. But you’re not afraid about the jobs of your constituents. You’re not afraid of sinking Illinois further into debt.

Caterpillar, Inc., the biggest employer in Peoria, was already laying off blue-collar workers before the shutdown in Peoria and Decatur. Are you helping them by your vote?

CNN has identified 200 Democrats and 18 Republicans who say they would vote for a “clean continuing resolution”, which would fund the government without demanding changes to Obamacare. They asked every member of the House, and keep asking, creating an updated list of those who would end this economic and personal disaster. But your name isn’t on their list – you say you won’t vote to end the shutdown. None of the six Illinois Republicans in the House would vote to end the shutdown.

Is your career more important than the national economy? Your home town paper, the Peoria Journal Star, who endorsed you in 2010 and 2012, came out for a clean resolution. You don’t even have the excuse that you are acting on principle. In August, you criticized Republicans who favored a government shutdown for “beating their chests”. Big words, but when it comes to voting, your constituents’ welfare disappears.

The time to lead is now.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 15, 2013