That was an incredibly moving scene in Paris yesterday, the largest civilian mobilization in French history, which is quite a history. We must hope that the humanist (an important word to which we’ll return) solidarity on display there can be sustained. To see so many people from so many religions and non-religions and so many different countries all saying the same thing is an all-too-rare sight in this petulant world.
But a little part of me wondered from time to time if we all really are saying the same thing. Let us suppose that Charlie Hebdo had published a cover showing Jesus and Mary Magdalene and a couple of the disciples besides absorbed in a sexually adventuresome tangle, and a couple of deranged militant Christians had gone in there and mowed the staff down. Or let’s imagine it was Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob similarly depicted, or Moses, and a couple of Jewish religious fundamentalists had committed the slaughter. How would, and should, our reactions be the same, and how would and should they be different?
This is where certain lines and distinctions can be drawn. Everyone left to right would criticize mass murder. We’re all against that. The Christian and Jewish identity organizations would all denounce them. Abe Foxman would put out a reassuring statement. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League…well, actually, based on his dubious response to this tragedy, it would be a little harder to predict how much sleep Donohue might lose over the murder of Christian blasphemers.
But by and large, that’s the easy part. Now come the harder parts. Would we be chanting Je Suis Charlie in ideological unison the way we are now? I think we most certainly would not be. Would conservative Catholics, even those not out there on Donohue’s unique wavelength, link arms with liberals and secularists to defend the right of a blasphemer of Jesus? Would Benjamin Netanyahu, in my Jewish hypothetical, have made a special pilgrimage to Paris to express his solidarity with the dead who had so defamed his faith? I think never in a million years (and by the way, remember that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas did do precisely this by attending Sunday’s March).
I think it’s pretty obvious they would not be nearly so enthusiastic about the sanctity of Charlie Hebdo’s rights to make satire in these cases. I, for my own part, would be, as would (I think) most of my friends. Then there’s a contingent to my left (yes, conservative readers, there is a contingent to my left, and they’d be delighted to fill you in on my numerous apostasies and on mainstream liberalism’s pusillanimity more generally) that would respond to the inevitable “they got what was coming to them” nudge-and-wink rhetoric from conservatives by opposing all that even more vociferously.
Each of these three tendencies is distinct, and each is protesting in this case against, or in behalf of, somewhat different things. All oppose murder and support free speech in vague terms, but after that they diverge. The theological-conservative tendency says Je Suis Charlie chiefly out of its revulsion at Islam and fear about its power—fear that it can strike us anywhere anytime. For them, a slaughter by an extremist Christian or Jew would not be qualitatively even the same kind of crime, because this crime to them is absolutely emblematic of a religion whose inherent qualities provoke this fanaticism, and which terrifies them.
On the…I’m grasping for an adjective here; multicultural is too tread-worn. So let’s just say on the left, there is condemnation of the killings, of course, and defense of Hebdo’s rights. But the greater preoccupation on the left is to preempt and counter the theo-conservatives and to search high and low for evidence of racism on the part of others—including Charlie Hebdo itself, for some of the cartoons that we know about, the one about the Nigerian girls most notably, but even some of the anti-Islam ones. Fear of power comes into play on the left also, but in a very different way than on the right. People on the left, who will tend to see Muslims as victims of Western power objectives and think Christians and Jews have plenty enough power to fend for themselves, will be more likely to see Muslims in general (though not mass murderers) as victims.
Both of these positions are relativist in almost exactly the same way. They’re mirror images of each other of course, but for both, how to respond to this atrocity is chiefly about which set of actors threatens their world view—Muslims (for the right) or the mostly Christian and somewhat Jewish capitalist power structure (for the left).
But the response should be about humanist values and nothing else. This isn’t about power relationships or who’s offended and who’s not. It’s certainly not about racism, either Charlie Hebdo’s or the right’s, and it isn’t even about free speech per se. It’s about the specific right to commit blasphemy, especially through satire, an activity that, as Jeffrey Goldberg noted a few days ago, is “directly responsible for modernity.” Obviously it’s not the only precondition of modernity, but it’s up there.
The Christian and Judaic systems do have more modernity than Islam has right now, there’s no doubt about that. This is the smidgen of a point the right has, although 1) I hate to cede that point to “the right,” because it is a fundamentally liberal point that liberals should be willing to make, i.e. that the Muslim world needs more liberalism, and 2) the right embeds it in so much paranoid and bilious upholstery that it gets buried and alienates many who might otherwise agree. But I do wonder what would happen to an American publication that published a blasphemous drawing of Jesus and friends of the sort I described above.
The editors probably wouldn’t end up dead. But note that I feel comfortable only saying “probably,” not “definitely.” Without question they’d get death threats, hundreds or thousands of them, and they’d need police protection, and they’d lose advertisers and sponsors and maybe be forced out of business and not be able to find decent new jobs. None of those things is painful death, so that’s a difference and an important one. But it’s not as clean a distinction as merely defending the right to commit religious offense, period. That’s what modernity is, and we could use a little more of it ourselves.
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, January 12, 2015
“GOP Having Trouble Threading The Needle On Crazy”: When You Court Crazy Long Enough, It’s Hard To Put It Back In The Box
A fight brewing in Virginia’s highly competitive 10th congressional district shows just how tough it’s becoming for conservative Catholic candidates to move to the center to woo moderates when they’re beholden to a base that’s now as unhinged on contraception as it is on abortion.
Three-term state delegate Barbara Comstock is vying in a crowded Republican primary field to replace retiring Congressman Frank Wolf in a purplish district that stretches from the moderate suburbs of Fairfax Country to the still bright red reaches of rural Virginia.
The candidacy of the former Bush administration official was off to a strong start, with the backing of numerous GOP insiders, including fellow conservative Catholic Rick Santorum, and the state’s business community. But despite a solid anti-abortion record she’s coming under fire from the influential LifeSiteNews for joining in a request last year to the Department of Health and Human Services to make oral contraceptives available over-the-counter.
Now it should be noted that this wasn’t due to a sudden fit of moderation but of political calculation. It came one month after Bobby Jindal penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed saying that the Republican Party should “take contraception out of the political arena”—and by inference diffuse the “war on women”—by pushing for the Pill to be made available without a prescription. “I believe that we have been stupid to let the Democrats demagogue the contraceptives issue and pretend, during debates about health care insurance, that Republicans are somehow against birth control,” he wrote.
According to Jindal, it was the perfect solution. Women could get all the birth control they wanted and employers with religious objections to contraception wouldn’t be “forced by government health-care edicts to purchase it for others.” The only problem was, as women’s health advocates were quick to point out, women would have to pay for something they would otherwise get for free under their insurance and Jindal’s nifty little work-around did nothing to address access to expensive, long-acting forms of birth control, which would still require a prescription.
Motivation aside, the request won Comstock praise from conservative columnist Mona Charen in the National Review, who called her the model for fighting the “war on women” meme. “It’s hard to paint her as someone who wants to keep women barefoot and pregnant when she advocates making birth-control pills easier to obtain,” she wrote.
But Comstock’s political ploy may have backfired. LifeSiteNews lambasted Comstock as a Catholic for promoting access to birth control, rehashing every conservative canard about oral contraceptives, from discredited claims that they cause breast cancer to everyone’s favorite far-right myth that the Pill is actually an abortifacient.
And disgraced former Bush “Catholic advisor” Deal Hudson joined in the fray with a column for Catholic Online in which he took Comstock to task for being insufficiently Catholic for voting against a measure to strip abortion coverage out of the state’s insurance exchange, which she claims was a procedural maneuver to register her opposition to ObamaCare.
The push back induced Austin Ruse of the truly wingnut Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute to call for an intraparty cease-fire on contraception in Crisis magazine, where he warned that fighting birth control was futile and asked, “Is Contraception the Hill We Want to Die On?”
Even someone as far right as Ruse, who’s no stranger to crazy, grasps that attacking Comstock on birth control will destroy her ability to court moderates, but it just goes to show that when you court crazy for long enough, it’s hard to put it back in the box.
By: Patricia Miller, Religion Dispatches, February 20, 2014
“Expanding Conservative Religious Fanaticism”: The Contraception Mandate Cases Aren’t Really About Contraception
Earlier today, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear not one, but two challenges to the Obama administration’s contraception mandate; they’ll be heard together in an action-packed hour of oral arguments sometime in the spring. Both cases deal with conservatives’ ever-growing penchant for anthropomorphizing corporations—this time, the justices will decide whether companies can be exempted from the mandate to provide birth control at no cost to employees because of the owners’ religious beliefs.
Oddly enough, neither of the business owners involved are Catholic, even though the first objections to the contraception mandate were raised by Catholic leaders, who didn’t want religiously affiliated hospitals and schools to provide birth control, which the Catholic hierarchy considers taboo. One case—Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, documented extensively for the Prospect by Sarah Posner earlier this summer—deals with an arts-and-crafts chain owned by evangelical Christians. The other—Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius—hones in on a smaller, Mennonite-owned cabinet door manufacturer.
Neither of the plaintiffs’ arguments mention doctrinal objections to contraception. That’s because Protestants, unlike Catholics, don’t believe that birth control is immoral. In fact, the denominations’ divergent views on the two issues created a kind of intra-Christian culture war throughout much of the twentieth century. Haunted, in part, by neo-Malthusian fears about the world’s rapid descent into overpopulation, the Church of England officially moderated its stance on contraception in 1930. Over the course of the following decade, most American Protestant denominations followed suit. The Mennonite Church does not have an official stance on birth control.
In the 1970s, the “Masters and Johnson of Christianity,” Ed and Gaye Wheat, published Intended for Pleasure, a bestselling Christian sex manual with a chapter on “planning and achieving parenthood,” with extensive information about artificial contraceptive methods. Alfred Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observed in 2006 that although the “birth control revolution…let loose a firestorm of sexual promiscuity,” it also “offered thoughtful and careful couples an opportunity to enjoy the joys and fulfillments of the marital act without remaining at all times equally open to pregnancy.” A Guttmacher Institute report released in 2011 revealed that three-quarters of Protestant American women were using some form of artificial birth control.
When evangelical Christians decided to throw in their lot alongside the Catholic hospitals and schools seeking an exemption from the contraceptive mandate, their argument was, to put it mildly, a stretch. When Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts school in Illinois, asked the Obama administration for an emergency injunction against the contraception mandate last year, it emerged that the college was not eligible because it had “inadvertently” been including emergency contraception in its student health plan.
It should also be noted that neither of the cases that will appear before the Supreme Court are founded on sound science; both allege that emergency contraception—and, in the Hobby Lobby case, the IUD—is a form of abortion. This relies on the notion that pregnancy begins when the egg is fertilized—not, as the medical community contends, when a fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall. This means that regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, the facts of the case will be based on junk science, not theology. The Catholic Church, whether you agree with it or not, has consistently maintained that birth control is a fundamental evil. Protestant attempts to overturn the contraception mandate aren’t about theological objections to birth control—they’re an effort to dramatically expand religious freedom rights for conservative Christians.
By: Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, The American Prospect, November 26, 2013
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) announced on Monday that it has hired Kim Daniels as spokeswoman for the USCCB president, currently Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York. Daniels, the USCCB announcement explains, is “an attorney whose practice has focused on religious liberty matters,” and she “brings to the USCCB her experience as director of Catholic Voices USA, an organization of lay Catholics that works to bring the positive message of the Church across a broad range of issues to the public square.”
The bishops left a few things off her résumé, says Grant Gallicho at Commonweal. Notably, the announcement “does not mention two of Daniels’s previous employers: Sarah Palin and the Thomas More Law Center,” a conservative legal organization at which Daniels fought for the right of pharmacists to refuse to dispense the morning-after pill. She spent nine years, from 2000 to 2009, at the Thomas More Law Center, established in 1998 by its president, Richard Thompson. Thompson and his center increasingly tend to “make news by making provocative comments about Islam.”
The more eyebrow-raising job is Daniels’ work as a paid adviser to Palin and her political group, SarahPAC. Daniels signed up to work with Palin after doing some legal work for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, at a time when “the former Alaska governor tried to remodel herself” after McCain’s loss, says David Gibson at Religion News Service. Daniels was described as “Palin’s personal domestic policy czar,” and that association leaves an open question for the bishops about “whether Daniels will deflect controversies or become a lightning rod herself,” says Gibson.
Palin has continued to alienate herself from all but her most loyal fans on the movement’s right flank, and it is not clear where Daniels’ relationship with Palin stands today. [RNS]
Yes, Daniels worked for Palin, says Kathryn Jean Lopez at Patheos, but “I wouldn’t read too much into the political significance of this as a bishops’ conference matter.” As Daniels has explained it, she “felt a call to work with this most prominent pro-life mother who was giving voice to issues close to her heart in the public square.”
Her heart belongs to her family and the church, and her work with Palin was an outgrowth of that…. One of the key questions the church is confronted with today is: How do we teach and share the Gospel effectively?…. How Catholics in the pews hear and what they hear plays a major role in that. But the media in all its mainstream and social forms is where most people’s views of the church is formed. How do we engage there clearly, as Christians, lovingly and responsively? Kim has been devoting her time to just that question as a director of the Catholic Voices USA project. So I really can’t think of a better person to be joining Cardinal Dolan and the bishops’ conference in that effort to address that question. [Patheos]
What role Daniels will fill remains an open question, however. Her position is a new one, separate from the USCCB’s official press office. “Kim Daniels is not in the Communications Department,” Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the USCCB’s longtime spokeswoman, tells Religion News Service. “As head of the USCCB Office for Media Relations I speak to the media in that capacity.” That makes this “new territory for everyone,” says RNS‘s Gibson.
Daniels’ hiring also looks like an effort to satisfy Dolan’s goal of finding an “attractive, articulate, intelligent” laywoman to help recast the hierarchy’s image… because, as he put it, “In the public square, I hate to tell you, the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over.” Yet Daniels, a mother of six, will also have to be credible, which means she would need to have a clear mandate. [RNS]
Whether Daniels has that mandate isn’t clear, since not all the bishops are comfortable with one spokeswoman speaking for all of them. Will she be the public face of Dolan’s policies, or a rival to Walsh’s media shop, or a behind-the-scenes policy shaper? We’ll find out. But there’s also “a final wrinkle,” Gibson says: “Dolan’s three-year term as USCCB president ends in November, and a new president may want to use Daniels in a different capacity, or not at all.”
By: Peter Weber, The Week, April 30, 2013
I have a nasty head cold, and it’s sort of surprising that I was even able to stay up to watch the vice-presidential debate, so I’ll just have a couple of quick takeaways here.
Because both candidates are Catholic, it was widely expected they’d be asked questions relating to abortion and the contraception mandate. On the latter, Paul Ryan predictably portrayed it as an “assault on religious liberty” and Joe Biden pointed out that no Catholic institution is actually being required to provide, refer for, or pay for contraception. It wasn’t the most elaborate discussion of the constitutional questions there, but it was pretty standard fare.
Moderator Martha Raddatz, who, incidentally, was otherwise really, really good, asked both candidates to discuss their views, as Catholics, on abortion from a “personal” perspective. It was intended for some tension, of course, given their opposing political views. And Ryan was prepared to talk about Bean. Everyone who has had a child since the invention of the ultrasound has seen their own Bean. Does that make Ryan’s public policy position on abortion more legitimate than someone who rejoices over their own Bean and still thinks abortion should be legal?
Biden pointed out that he personally agrees with the Church on abortion but doesn’t want to impose his religious beliefs on others. Which is, of course, the heart of the answer to both the abortion and contraception questions. Raddatz gave both men the chance to discuss their faith. Ryan pointed out that faith informs everything he does; Biden took pains to highlight that as important as his faith is to him, he wouldn’t use it to force others to adhere to his beliefs. And as it happens, most Catholic voters don’t really rate abortion and contraception at the top of their list of concerns.
As the other Sarah discussed earlier today, Catholic doctrine has a lot to say about issues unrelated to reproductive matters. Biden took a probably little noticed dig at Ryan when he pointed out that the Republican’s economic policy proposals are at odds with Catholic social justice teaching. Raddatz could have asked about how quite a number of Catholic theologians have something to say about that. Of course it seems preposterous that we would mix up religious doctrine with economic policy, doesn’t it? But somehow men must opine about their personal religious beliefs about women’s bodies.
By: Sarah Posner, Religion Dispatches, October 11, 2012