"As a nation we have chosen...to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. "That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case."
The Westboro church believes that any misfortune America suffers is divine punishment for the nation's failure to follow the sect's doctrine, which condemns gays, Catholics, Jews and others. The tiny church, whose membership largely consists of the founder's family, pickets military funerals to get attention for its message.
This majority opinion stretches the First Amendment until it squeaks at the edges, to get it to cover hate-mongering and homophobia because those attitudes are associated with a presumed theological critique of national affairs. Eight of the nine justices concurred in the majority opinion, though Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a separate opinion partially modifying his concurrence. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, in a separate opinion that pointed out relevant issues that had not been considered by the court.
Immunizing Westboro from tort action means that the plaintiff, Albert Snyder, cannot sue in civil court for damages related to Westboro's picketing at the 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. An earlier Pennsylvania court decision that slapped Westboro with a $10.9 million judgment for the Snyder funeral protest was overturned on appeal before the case arrived at the Supreme Court.
Social conservative NYT columnist Ross Douthat admits that he's uncomfortable discussing gay marriage in public because he opposes it for no good reason:
The question came from Christopher Glazek, a fact-checker at The New Yorker,
who wanted to know whether Mr. Douthat and Mr. Salam believed that
former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, who has apologized on behalf of his
party for the Southern Strategy, should also apologize for the
Republican party's gay politics.
At first Mr. Douthat seemed unable to get a sentence out without
interrupting himself and starting over. Then he explained: "I am
someone opposed to gay marriage who is deeply uncomfortable arguing the
issue in public."
Mr. Douthat indicated that he opposes gay marriage because of his
religious beliefs, but that he does not like debating the issue in
those terms. At one point he said that, sometimes, he feels like he
should either change his mind, or simply resolve never to address the
question in public. [NY Obs]
It's understandable that Douthat doesn't like debating the issue in terms of his religious beliefs. Because he always loses to the opponent who says: "Who cares about your religion, Ross? We're talking about the criteria for civil marriage, here."
Ross said he doesn't even bother with the standard secular argument against gay marriage because nobody ever takes takes it seriously:
He added: "The secular arguments against gay marriage, when they aren't
just based on bigotry or custom, tend to be abstract in ways that don't
find purchase in American political discourse. I say, ‘Institutional
support for reproduction,' you say, ‘I love my boyfriend and I want to
marry him.' Who wins that debate? You win that debate." [NY Obs]
Ross says the notion doesn't "get traction" because it's too "abstract." Notice how the pundit speak absolves him from coming right out and saying that this argument is bunk. He says he doesn't make the case because nobody will listen, not because it's a crazy idea.
Actually, nobody takes the marriage/reproduction argument seriously because any undergraduate can debunk it. It's not abstract at all. Even Ross thinks that sterile opposite-sex couples should be allowed to get married and I'm sure he's aware that some same-sex couples raise children. So, the question is why straight childless couples have more rights than their gay counterparts. If reproductive support is so important, we have a moral obligation to support the children of gay and straight families equally by letting their parents get married.
It's obvious why Ross is uncomfortable talking about gay marriage in public. He wants the state to impose his religion on other people, but he doesn't want to look like a theocrat in front of the liberal cultural elite.
Dave Weigel of the Washington Independent and Adele Stan of AlterNet report that the media were barred from the Media Courage award ceremony at the Values Voter summit this weekend. Only Fox News was allowed to film inside the auditorium where Fox News host Bill O'Reilly was being feted (or fetid, depending on your perspective).
I see that while I was away celebrating Christmas, Pope Benedict decided, as Time put it, to take "a subtle swipe at those who might undergo sex-change operations or otherwise attempt to alter their God-given gender." Here's what he said:
"What is necessary is a kind of ecology of man, understood in the correct sense. When the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman and asks that this order of creation be respected, it is not the result of an outdated metaphysic. It is a question here of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation, the devaluation of which leads to the self-destruction of man and therefore to the destruction of the same work of God. That which is often expressed and understood by the term "gender", results finally in the self-emancipation of man from creation and from the Creator. Man wishes to act alone and to dispose ever and exclusively of that alone which concerns him. But in this way he is living contrary to the truth, he is living contrary to the Spirit Creator. The tropical forests are deserving, yes, of our protection, but man merits no less than the creature, in which there is written a message which does not mean a contradiction of our liberty, but its condition. The great Scholastic theologians have characterised matrimony, the life-long bond between man and woman, as a sacrament of creation, instituted by the Creator himself and which Christ -- without modifying the message of creation -- has incorporated into the history of his covenant with mankind. This forms part of the message that the Church must recover the witness in favour of the Spirit Creator present in nature in its entirety and in a particular way in the nature of man, created in the image of God. Beginning from this perspective, it would be beneficial to read again the Encyclical Humanae Vitae: the intention of Pope Paul VI was to defend love against sexuality as a consumer entity, the future as opposed to the exclusive pretext of the present, and the nature of man against its manipulation."
The Pope might have based his remarks on revelation alone, presenting them as one of those things -- like baptism -- that aren't supposed to make sense to unbelievers. In that case, I would have found them distasteful, but I wouldn't have questioned his argument. However, he's presenting his claims as something he learns by "listening to the language of creation". And that's just wrong.
It is not true that the natural world teaches us that marriage is between a man and a woman -- it doesn't have teachings on the subject of either human or divine institutions, and it surely does not teach us that homosexuality is unknown in nature. (The Pope is reputedly very smart and intellectually curious; did he somehow miss the stories about gay penguins, fruit flies, bonobos, and even, topically enough, black swans?) Lots of fishchange sex, as did this ex-hen. There are male animals who act like females, and vice versa.
More to the point: so what? Lots of things that we find immoral are widespread in nature. Spiders eat their mates, for instance, but that doesn't imply that it's OK for us. Lots of things we think are just fine are unknown in animals -- number theory, for instance, or blogging. If you want to argue about what we learn when we "listen to the language of creation", you need to explain how we distinguish it from, say, the language of prejudice. Does the fact that the purpose of eating seems to be nourishment imply that it is immoral to drink diet soda? Does the fact that we 'naturally' get around using our legs imply that we were wrong to invent the bicycle, or, for that matter, the wheelchair? Does the fact that we are born vulnerable to a whole host of diseases mean that we should not develop vaccines and cures?
Personally, I think that the idea of defining what's "natural" for human beings is generally confused. What's natural is often contrasted to what's cultural, but human beings are social animals. If anything is natural for human beings, it is being raised by other human beings, and learning things from them: if we tried to find out what's 'natural' for human beings by dropping an infant into an unpopulated wilderness, we'd have to conclude that what comes naturally to us is starvation.
Likewise, human beings are generally curious and ingenious. When we invent things that are not found in nature, are we doing something unnatural, or using our natural capacity for problem-solving? If we decided to abjure every attempt to innovate on the grounds that it was unnatural, would there be anything natural about that decision? I don't think so.
That said, I'm sure there must be some discussion in which there would be a point to making claims about what's natural to humans and what's not; and in which it would be interesting to try to listen to the voice of creation. But, as I said, one would need to be very careful not to confuse it with the voice of bigotry or prejudice.
One sign that someone is not so much as trying to listen to the voice of creation is getting obviously relevant facts about nature wrong, say by asserting that animals do not form homosexual relationships or change sex. Another is making claims about what's natural without any apparent awareness that someone might find his life unnatural -- say, if he had taken a vow of celibacy, and lectured other people about the unnaturalness of their sexual lives without any trace of irony.
And one sign that someone might be motivated by something other than his Christian duty would be if he preached about the unnaturalness and sinfulness of a group of people who have suffered a great deal of persecution without taking care to warn his followers that whatever Christ thought about being transgender, He surely frowned on cruelty and injustice, and that violence against people who are gay, bisexual, or transgender is flatly wrong.
Since my spectrum post didn't get many comments, you've forced me to talk about Rick Warren. And while I'm not exactly a fan of this guy, I don't think inviting him to give the invocation is a big deal. Ready to comment now? I thought so.
On one level, no one should be surprised by this move. Obama consistently reached out to evangelicals throughout the campaign. He also quite deliberately avoided hot button cultural issues that galvanize these voters. The invitation to Warren is consistent with a long pattern of outreach. That said, the mere fact that he's reached out in the past doesn't necessarily mean that this particular invite is a good idea.
Obviously, Prop 8 complicates things. If the wounds of Prop 8 weren't so raw, I think the invite would be a no-brainer good idea. But as Ed Kilgore astutely observes, Prop 8 has radicalized progressives. It's a little bit like the backlash that followed the Fugitive Slave Act. It was one thing to know that slavery existed in some faraway land. But the FSA forced people who were already free to be captured and sent back to slavery. Seeing freemen seized on the streets of Boston radicalized the North in a new kind of way (I have an old old post on this). Perhaps the analogy is strained -- but I think something similar has happened with Prop 8. California reached in and destroyed existing marriages -- and now, something has changed.
And I don't mean to discount that anger at all. It's well-deserved, and Rick Warren deserves plenty of blame. But all that said, it's important not to let blinding anger obscure the larger long-term political benefits of Obama's outreach. Nixon famously said you can't ignore a billion people. That logic applies here too. More on that below.
One last point on the Christian Right. In Orin Kerr’s admittedly insightful post, he views the culture wars through a “political process” lens. That is, he argues that social conservatives’ preferred constitutional positions (e.g., abortion, school prayer, gay rights) simply preserve the political process. Liberal positions, by contrast, remove those issues from the ballot box. It’s an interesting argument, but I think there are better ways of conceptualizing these debates.
Before I get to that, I think Kerr is correct in so far as he’s explaining why conservatives care more about court decisions. But to the extent he’s implicitly criticizing the liberal positions (which I think he is), it’s important not to adopt an overly narrow view of the “political process.” Yes, banning school prayer removes the issue from the ballot box. But you could also argue that the political process gave us the First Amendment, which prohibited these types of actions. Thus, it’s not enough for conservatives to cite the ballot box – they also have to justify why their conception of the constitutional right allows a given issue to be decided by the ballot box.
But back to the main point, I think it’s equally valid to conceptualize these fights in terms of allocation of decision-making power. In other words, who gets to decide? The government? Or the individual?
The social conservatives’ positions tend to empower government over individuals. If they got their way, the public would be forced to submit to the government’s decision-making. The more liberal position, by contrast, allocates power to individuals – no one is forced to do anything. (Admittedly, this is not really a constitutional argument – just an additional explanation for why the Christian Right tends to scare people).
Take, for instance, the granddaddy issue of them all – abortion. The Christian Right position would require every single person in a given jurisdiction to give birth. (Yes, some would argue that it’s simply about letting the states decide – but still, they prefer this position because many states, and virtually the entire South, would ban abortion). Thus, the decision-making power here would belong to the government. Individuals would no longer be free to decide.
The pro-choice position, by contrast, ensures that individuals – not the government – will ultimately make these private decisions. Individuals remain free to have, or not have, abortions as they and their God see fit. And everyone remains free to persuade their fellow citizens of the values of bringing all pregnancies to term. But in the end, the individual – and not the state – would make the final call.
This pattern repeats itself across a number of issues. For example, gay marriage doesn’t require anyone to do anything. It merely allows consenting gay adults to be married. Gay marriage bans, by contrast, grant that decision-making power to the state.
Similarly, rights to contraception don’t require anyone to do anything – the ultimate decision remains with the individual. Contraception bans, by contrast, allocate the decision-making power to the government.
Same deal with school prayer. Banning school prayer in public classes doesn’t prevent anyone from praying privately at the school. But allowing public prayer, by contrast, would force non-Christians to sit through prayer sessions in a publicly funded school. Again, the decision to participate in prayer would be made by the state, not the individual.
The larger point is that these examples illustrate why many people fear social conservatives – simply put, many of the latter’s preferred positions would use the state to intrude on people’s lives and dictate very private and personal decisions to them.
Kathleen Parker’s column has stirred up a lot of debate about what exactly is so “oogedy-boogedy” about the “Christian Right.” (Jonah Goldberg thinks not much; Kevin Drum disagrees). It’s true that many liberals and secularish conservatives are a bit freaked out by that particular wing of the party – but why exactly?
It’s certainly not because of religion alone. And it’s not simply because liberals strongly disagree with social conservatives’ political views. I mean, I happen to think that strong versions of economic libertarianism are pretty silly – if not downright pernicious (though I do consider myself a hard core social libertarian). But I don’t have the visceral loathing toward economic libertarians that I have toward, say, James Dobson or Sarah Palin. Why is that?
Personally, I think the oogedy-boogedyness stems from fear – on some level, liberals are simply afraid of social conservatives. Fairly or no, liberals perceive them as a direct and credible threat to their own personal liberties.
Interestingly, this same fear is precisely why social conservatives loathe liberals – on some level, they are afraid of us. Orin Kerr had a very insightful post on this issue a few months back. His question was simple – why do conservatives care so much about the courts? In particular, why do average conservatives obsess about courts more than average liberals do?
His answer was that conservatives tend to perceive courts as direct threats to their personal lives. He writes:
For conservatives — especially social conservatives, and especially religious conservatives — the question has been whether the courts will allow their views, not whether the courts will mandate them.
For liberals, by contrast, the question has merely been whether the court will mandate their preferred views on “hot button” cultural issues such as abortion and school prayer. I’d quibble with parts of his post, but I think he’s right at least in terms of perceptions. Conservatives hate courts because they view them as direct and tangible attacks on their liberties. That’s the same reason why social conservatives hate liberals.
I think a similar dynamic, however, exists with liberal perceptions of social conservatives.
As I’ve already written, I don’t think Obama’s comments are a big deal. In fact, a combination of Feiler Faster and Annie Oakley seem to be shifting the news cycle as we speak. But that said, Obama’s comments do show a bit of ignorance with respect to religion in small towns. To me, religion — at least in these communities — simply can’t be reduced to economics. But that’s what Obama was doing, however charitably you parse his words.
I’m speaking mostly from experience here — I grew up in a working class, factory-and-farms town in rural Kentucky. Take away the unions and the ability to buy alcohol in stores (we never repealed Prohibition)*, and I suspect my town is a lot like these little Pennsylvania towns.
From my perspective, Obama’s arguments — much like Thomas Frank’s — betray a cultural ignorance of how religion works in these communities. For one, these small towns lack the type of class consciousness necessary to “drive” them to religion. As David Brooks has noted in earlier works, everyone in these communities thinks they’re at least middle class. People simply don’t conceive of themselves as “economically distressed,” even if they are.
One reason they don’t is that small towns don’t experience the types of massive income disparities that cities face. The “rich” kid in my school was the doctor’s son who wore a Polo shirt to the crappy public school. But that “rich” kid still went to school with the “poor” kids, quite unlike the situation in most urban areas (e.g., Sidwell vs. Southeast DC public schools). Thus, while people here are struggling as to the rest of the country, their struggles are less obvious as compared to people in their own community.
In reality, religion in these communities is a social and cultural phenomenon, not an economic one. If anything, churchgoers — at least in my town — tended to have relatively higher incomes (church membership lends social respectability and can be a sign of status).
Going to church is just something you do — it’s a tradition carved deeply into the fabric of these societies. If everyone suddenly became rich, they would all still be in their pews on Sunday morning. They may be bored, drowsy, and waiting for the football game, but they would be in the pews nonetheless.
Personally, I’ve found that the most rabid nutcase religious types tend to come from megachurches in the exurbs, which are hardly Dickensian London. It’s difficult to explain, but rural communities have a lot more complexity than people think.
The bottom line is that it’s not so much that people like Obama are being intentionally elitist, it’s that their unfamiliarity with the landscape leads them to make rather grossly ignorant statements without even realizing that they’re ignorant. I suspect the inhabitants of Sadr City experience similar sentiments every 30 minutes or so.
*In case you're wondering where high school kids get beer, the answer is . . . bootleggers. Or so I've heard.
"As Malaysia's space program prepares to send the country's first astronaut to the space station next year, it is confronting some of the standard first-astronaut questions: what scientific research to pursue, which local delicacy to bring aboard, and who among the eager candidates should go. It is also tackling some more unusual quandaries, such as when to conduct the five daily Islamic prayers on an orbiting ship where a day lasts only 90 minutes.
In April the Malaysian national space agency held a two-day conference, Islam and Life in Space, to address these issues. One of the star attractions was a computer program called Muslims in Space, which calculates when spacefaring Muslims should pray and, using spherical trigonometry, discerns the direction of the Ka'aba, the holy shrine in Mecca that Muslims face during prayer. To settle the timing question, the software divides the space station's 90-minute "days" into the same five periods used for prayer in conventional, ground-based Islam. The program then links these periods to standard Greenwich time, so the astronauts can pray at both the correct Earth time and the correct time of day that they perceive on the space station."
In other news, the administration is pushing for mandatory minimum sentences on "nearly all" federal crimes. No word yet on whether they plan to include a special exemption for Scooter Libby. Oregon's governor ordered the state's flags flown at half-mast in honor of Flag Day. And who knew there was an ice cream flavor called 'Staten Island Landfill'?
Update: Forgot to add: the last two stories via Governing magazine's 13th Floor, which is a great blog if you happen to be interested in state and municipal government.