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Which First Amendment?

The Obama administration ruled on a policy. And as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, the conservative talk-shows are lit up with (feigned?) outrage over what is being construed as a Constitutional travesty. The past few years have shown us that there is perhaps nothing the President can do without drawing fire. Tell kids to work hard and stay in school? Indoctrination!  Stoop down to shake the hand of a shorter king? Treason! Order Dijon mustard on a sandwich? Too French. Go home to see family for Christmas? Waste of taxpayer money.

Despite all the crying wolf (and deer and bird and caterpillar), I can at least see where the Religious Right are coming from this time. Secretary Sebelius of the Department of Health & Human Resources has clarified that all employers receiving federal money must comply with the mandate in a duly passed law that employees be provided with insurance that covers women’s health services and products, including birth control pills. Contraception control of any kind is prohibited by the Catholic Church, so naturally they are claiming discrimination.  There is an exception carved out for strictly religious organizations, such as individual churches, but not to large institutions like hospitals and colleges, both of which benefit substantially from federal money in the form of Medicare or Student Loans and grants.

When an organization has long gotten its way, it is understandable that it will feel slighted when asked to change. In response to the requirement, Catholic Church officials essentially making two arguments: First, they are claiming that this has never been the case in the past. Second and more interestingly, they are claiming that this is not only discrimination, but a violation of the First Amendment to the (U.S.) Constitution. The first point is easily dismissed. Argumentum ad antiquitam (Appeal to Tradition) is a logical fallacy. Defending a policy simply because it has always been the policy is a logical fallacy. Despite the sentimental appeal of such arguments, they are not a reasonable justification for passing laws or ignoring mandates. The second, I think, derives from a misunderstanding of the First Amendment.

Anyone with strong religious convictions likes to think that the First Amendment is primarily about free speech and freedom to practice religion. And most of us are grateful for that part. There is simply nothing quite like the U.S. protection of speech and religion anywhere else in the world. A person really can say almost anything, no matter how vile, discriminatory, critical, or just plain weird through any number of media and be protected on the federal level. Persons can also practice any religion, whether it be one of the “big five” of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism, or one for a few or one practitioners, or, my favorite, no religion at all. Simply put, the government cannot prevent anyone from practicing his or her own religion. This is the argument on which the Catholic position lies.

But there is another part of the Amendment; one that prohibits establishment of a state religion, which has been determined to also extend to favoring one religion or another. This is the part where the Catholic argument fails. Indeed, the government cannot prevent anyone from going to Mass, praying the Rosary, writing religious songs, or even attempting to convert others. The government also must allow Muslims to build mosques and pray as freely as Christians do, and accommodate religious attire to the maximum extent possible. Sometimes this goes so far as to allowing Sikhs to carry ceremonial daggers into places where weapons would otherwise be prohibited.

These actions all have something in common—they are positive expresses of faith, by individuals or groups. The protections of religious actions follow necessarily from the freedom of speech. However, a religious policy designed to prevent legal behavior or established rights for religious and only religious reasons, cannot be protected without running afoul of the First Amendment. Catholic Hospitals and Universities employ people of all faiths and genders—people who are guaranteed to have the same options for healthcare as anyone else. The argument against the Administration is legally and logically backwards. Discrimination lies in telling non-Catholics that they must give up rights that the Church does not acknowledge. One cannot expect to use taxpayer money to pay the bills on one hand while working against the larger citizenry on the other.

I think the Administration has a winning argument based on a whole, rather than selective reading of the Constitution. That does not mean it has a winning political argument. Already, there is talk of finding a compromise or amending the policy so as not to offend conservatives. It is an election year after all.

What do you think? Who is discriminating against whom here? Does the Catholic Church have a winning argument from a Constitutional, rather than political point of view? Should the President stick by a sound policy or would it be better to simply pick another hill to die on?

Golf vs. Gulf

Though I have tried to swear the stuff off for good, I cannot help but to take the occasional swig of AM Talk Radio. And, like nicotine, I know it is actually a poison, not good for me or anyone else. Nonetheless, against my better judgment I tuned in for the Rush Limbaugh program on my way to class on Thursday. The show had a guest-host by the name of Mark Belling, who used his awesome psychic ability and insight into the lives of Al and Tipper Gore to let America know what really went wrong in the marriage. You see, Tipper knows the truth about Global Warming. Eventually, she could not hold it in and she finally told old Al what a crock his books, film and life’s work really are. Belling’s evidence? Tipper’s crusade against vulgar music lyrics! It should be plainly obvious operation to one supposedly liberal stronghold in the music industry should be expected to feed into another—that of environmental science and climatology. If only Sherlock Holmes had such powers of deduction!

After class, I decided to take a measured dose of Sean Hannity, figuring 15 minutes ought to do it. It turns out the show is mostly additives. Of the 15-mintue block, 6 minutes were the not the program, but the top of the hour local and national news, another 30 seconds or so was the theme song that contains the line “let the right be wrong” without a hint of irony, and 4 and another 4 and a half minutes was spent on commercials, two of which claimed to be able to reduce my credit card debt by half (bookended by pleads about personal responsibility by the host, also without irony). No phone calls were taken, so that leaves a five minute monologue. About half of that was spent on the Sestak controversy, in which the White House is accused of asking a potential senate candidate to consider dropping out of a race in order to avoid a costly primary. This controversy is somewhat legitimate, especially if Sestak was offered anything of value, but it strikes more me as a tempest in a teapot, as evidence of quid pro quo has been less than forthcoming. For the time being, the Administration maintains that Sestak was asked to participate in a voluntary advisory role rather than engage in what the DNC may consider a waste of party time and resources in a Primary. That seems more like the type of conversation that happens in every organization, everywhere, all the time, as a means of accomplishing anything or allocating scarce resources, so it hardly screams “SCANDAL,” but time will tell. When your only narrative is that the DNC=bad and you have three hours to fill, finding fault in such minutia is pretty much standard operating procedure.

It was Hannity’s other topic du jour that, judging on the number or the rehearsal and repletion of the lines accompanying passionate paralanguage, is where Hannity senses the biggest opening in Obama’s defenses. Namely, that “Obama says that he is worried about the Gulf, but he is playing more golf than Tiger Woods.” This gulf v. golf meme was repeated ad nauseam in an astonishingly short time span, as the one thing that really proves that Obama is aloof and unconcerned. It is not hard to point out that Obama has seen to it that 17,500 National Guard Troops assisting with the cleanup, not to mention 1900 ships from the Navy, Coast Guard and private industry, and top engineers from around the world consulting on the matter. But hey, why let facts get in the way? I cannot help but think that even Hannity fans have to wonder in amazement at the inherent contradiction of at once claiming that the government in general and Obama in particular is incompetent and that we would all be better off with as little intervention as possible while also castigating the president for failing to spend more time at the Gulf Coast? More time to do what, exactly? Obama’s background is in law, not engineering. His security, press and support entourage would certainly get in the way. If he goes and sets up camp in New Orleans, he will be criticized for engaging in a photo op instead of worrying about the economy and the wars.

Sure, the Gulf spill is a crisis, a big one at that, but it is not one that benefits from meddling by people who lack the expertise to solve it. Nor does it do much good for Obama or anybody else to stop living his life until the leak is stopped. If Hannity is like most of us, at some point in his life he has had a friend, family member or colleague who suffered from prolonged illness. Perhaps the person was slowly dying or required round the clock medical supervision, novel cures and experimental treatment. And no doubt Hannity did what any good friend would do, which is offer moral (and possibly financial) support while ensuring that the people with the sufficient skills and expertise were doing everything possible to relieve suffering and find a cure. He would be there physically at first and visit regularly, particularly if anything took a turn for the worse. What he or no one else would do is put life completely on hold for months on end, hanging around the hospital, hounding doctors and demanding impossible results. He did not stop going to work, spending time with his family or engaging in any leisure activity whatsoever. Such behavior would not be an indication of concern or empathy so much as obsession bordering on personality disorder.

Look, I know that Hannity and a lot of people are less than thrilled with Obama’s election. But disagreements over his policies should not translate to universal criticism of every single action or inaction. Like his predecessors, Obama is president 24×7. He is never off of the job. He is president on the golf course and in the oval office, at home in Chicago and abroad on an official visit. He is entitled to have guests, be they personal friends or sports teams, supporters or celebrities. I had a chance to spend a week with a CEO of a multinational firm, ostensibly for a week of leisure activities. I found that nobody with that level of responsibility is ever far from the job. The phone never stops ringing, and the problems never stop cropping up. If Hannity thinks someone should completely put life on hold to deal with the crisis, he should volunteer to try it himself. Take action, even if it is just something menial, like cleaning birds. Get off the air, refrain from all leisure and relationship and stay in Louisiana until the leak stops completely, likely in August. Don’t go home to your wife. Don’t go to a movie or visit a friend. Focus 100% of your waking energy on doing something, anything, to show that you really are concerned. Pester the Coast Guard and BP for answers if you like.

I think it goes without saying that Hannity knows this. He just can’t help himself. He knows damn well that Obama’s presence or absence 10 miles from the spill in LA does no more good than his presence 1100 miles away in DC. The problem is the equivalent of a cancerous growth 5000 feet under the ocean’s surface. It needs the equivalent of a doctor, not an executive. For a Christian, Hannity sure can’t follow the Golden Rule very well. I can’t imagine he would appreciate being criticized for every date with his wife, every game of golf, every dinner with a friend, or every day off work. So which is it, Sean? Do you want the government to intervene or not? Is Obama sufficiently competent that his action would be helpful or would it just be an empty gesture if he showed up? I know you want to have it both ways, but it is simply impossible for Obama to be wrong in every conceivable instance. There is nothing patriotic about outrage. There is nothing constructive in knee-jerk criticism. If you are confident that you know a better way to handle the spill, please, enlighten us. It’s not like you don’t have four hours a day to explain your plan. By my reckoning, Obama has never spent that much time giving press conferences and speeches in a week. If you have a plan, I will tune in anxiously to hear it. If not, try playing a round of golf or two. It might help you relax.


Memorial Day

When news broke that President Obama was planning to spend Memorial Day weekend in Chicago with his family rather than remain in Washington, DC and participate in the traditional wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, I braced myself for the inevitable deluge of pot shots from pundits, bloggers and Facebook friends who would make Obama’s location into a statement about patriotism and support of the troops, past and present. Anticipating that many would falsely report that Obama is the first President to be elsewhere on Memorial Day, I at first pointed out that it is actually quite common for a president to be elsewhere. The most recent “misses” were G.W. Bush in 2002, G.H.W. Bush in 1992, 1991, 1990, and 1989 (all four years!) and before that, Reagan in 1988, 1987, 1983 and 1981. Since Clinton was present at Arlington for all eight years, 9 out of the last 10 so-called “misses” of the Arlington ceremony by presidents were under Republican watch, including a span of six consecutive years under Reagan and G.H.W. Bush. If presence at Arlington on Memorial Day is to be our measuring stick for patriotism, the Republicans are in deep trouble. Of course, this is hardly fair, as there are a number of reasons that a president may not be present. Reagan was still recuperating from having been shot in 1981, and was out of the country for others. While G.H.W. spent three of his Memorial Day weekends vacationing with family in Maine, where he celebrated the holiday at the local VFW, G.W. Bush spent his “missed” year at Normandy, a location with equally strong ties to the holiday as Arlington.

But is not just the point? None of these men missed the holiday. All of them participated in some way, seeing to it that a top administration official, usually either the Vice President or Secretary of Defense was present to participate in the traditional wreath laying at Arlington, while most presidents participated in a ceremony elsewhere. President Obama did not miss Arlington, he chose to honor those buried at Lincoln National Cemetery, while Vice President Biden likewise honored those at Arlington. It is not as if Arlington National Cemetery is the only national cemetery; it is not even the largest. It is its proximity to Washington, along with Tomb of the Unknowns, that gives Arlington its place of prominence. Nonetheless, there are 146 such national cemeteries in this country, each worthy of the any President’s attention. Do the pundits really intend to imply otherwise? Is Lincoln National Cemetery somehow less dignified than Arlington? I’m sure some families and descendents of those buried at Lincoln would take issue with the logical end to this line of reasoning. I for one would be honored if the president or any high-ranking official chose to participate in a ceremony at West Virginia National Cemetery, where my grandfather was buried. In fact, I propose a new tradition—perhaps instead of focusing solely on Arlington, more high-ranking administration officials should see to it that as many national cemeteries are so honored on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day as is feasible. It would only take 18-19 officials, each covering a different cemetery on each Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day to cover all 150 locations each four year term. That seems to be keeping with the spirit of these holidays at least as much as a perpetual presence at one or a handful of places. I have little doubt, though, that even a gesture as noble as this one would be dismissed as political posturing and photo ops by certain pundits, especially if the first administration to implement the change were perceived to be liberal.

Which begs the question, do enough of us really take time to remember what Memorial Day is about? It is easy to lambast the pundits (who have made themselves the farthest thing from patriots in choosing to politicize a solemn ceremony and an ostensibly solemn holiday), but what of the rest of us? Is this a day of honor and remembrance, or a day of cookouts and an unofficial beginning of Summer? I have consumed my share of hot dogs on the last Monday in May, but not once have I visited a cemetery or been present for a ceremony of any kind. Veteran’s Day, likewise, is often a day to catch up on school work. I do generally make it to the Veteran’s Plaza in town then, but only because it is a good place to view the parade. I do not think that I am particularly lazy, irreverent or lacking in patriotism, but I do think that we in the United States have forgotten to how to mourn. December 7th is no longer a “date which will live in infamy.” Poll people at random about the significance December 7th and many will state that it is one of the last days to use Super Saver Shipping at Amazon for Christmas. The only reason we remember 9-11 is because the attacks are called by their date. If it were just the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, people would be probably searching for the date already. Many churches celebrate Palm Sunday and Easter, skipping right over Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Nobody seems to acknowledge the dark times anymore, even when they are quintessential elements of their Faith. Unlike Narnia, in the United States it is always Christmas and never Winter. I do not think it makes much complete people or a complete society. Maybe we should start the summer with fewer hotdogs and more tears. If we spend Monday in darkness, we may find that the sun shines all the more brightly on Tuesday.