As the 2014 mid-term elections grind inexorably towards us, the concept of “nullification” has started to pop up with surprising frequency. As used in political circles, the term refers to the supposed ability of a state to nullify, or void, any federal law it finds too onerous or politically unacceptable. Most recently, Iowa’s Republican candidate for the US Senate, Joni Ernst, caused a stir by apparently advocating nullification to attendees of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
“Bottom line is, as a US senator, why should we be passing laws that the states are considering nullifying?” Ernst asked. “I mean, that’s bottom line, is our legislators at the federal level should not be passing those laws.”
As any sports fan will tell you, even the best umpires and referees sometimes blow a call. Every Red Sox fan over the age of 40 remembers the name Larry Barnett and can tell you how his inexplicable failure to call Ed Armbrister for interference helped cost the Sox the '75 series. But hey, blown calls are part of the game. Regrettably, as in sports, so too in punditry.
There are few members of the media that I admire more than Jon Stewart. For the past 15 years, he has nearly single-handedly waged war against the forces of ignorance and stupidity that have all but overwhelmed the so-called mainstream media, Washington, and much of American society. Even better, he was kind enough to invite me on his show in August 2006 to discuss my third book, The Decency Wars: The Campaign to Cleanse American. For a struggling and (still) largely unknown writer, that's the equivalent of a Papal benediction; even five years later, it's usually the first thing that people mention when they introduce me to a lecture audience.
As a smart, passionate, and unabashedly scatological moral arbiter of American society, Stewart calls 'em like he sees 'em, and to this resident of the People's Republic of Burlington (VT), his accuracy is pretty impressive. But during his show on August 4, 2011, he made a mistake of Joycean proportions. In a segment labeled Culture War Update, Stewart lambasted the American Atheists organization for filing a lawsuit to prevent the installation of a cross-shaped fragment of steel beams at the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. Here's the beginning of his diatribe:
"[A]theists, why do you give s**t? That cross is an artifact. It was found at Ground Zero. It has come to mean something to people who view it as a symbol of comfort. If it really bothers you, why not just think of it as a metal t-shaped thingy? Or purely in architectural terms: it's not a cross, it's a crossbeam. Don't think of it as an ode to Jesus, the Christian savior; think of it as an homage to Jesus, the Canaanite with the relatively unsuccessful carpentry business. But you know what, that's fine, that's fine. That's our system. You can file lawsuits. Just because there's a lawsuit doesn't mean that it will be successful. Everyone's entitled to their day in court. It's not like the atheists are being total dicks about it. [Segue to Fox News clip featuring an inflammatory quote from American Atheists president David Silverman.]"
Any one who has watched Stewart regularly over the years knows that he feels particularly strongly about issues surrounding the events of 9/11. He has been heroic in his advocacy for medical coverage and compensation for the city's first responders, and I couldn't agree more. To paraphrase one his more poignant lines, I don't care if a first responder spends the rest of his or her days sipping asbestos martinis while sitting unsunscreened on frayed vinyl chloride beach chairs downwind from a nuclear plant, all the while using copies of Silent Spring to put a nice dark char on their hormone-laden t-bone steaks -- if they get sick, they deserve full medical coverage regardless of the cause.
I'm not an atheist (I'm actually more of an agnostic tree-hugging polytheist with a fondness for Yiddish), but having studied these issues in depth for my book The Court and the Cross, I think I can answer Stewart's fundamental question.
Atheists give a s**t because in matters of religion (or race, gender, national origin, creed, etc.), our government is not supposed to take sides or express a preference.
The very first clause of the First Amendment makes this perfectly clear: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, OR prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." There were no professional sports teams kicking around in the late 18th-century, but the Founding Fathers implicitly understood this basic premise: the arbiters of society -- whether referees, umpires, judges, or even bureaucrats -- are supposed to neutral and even-handed.
Stewart seems to be arguing that the atheists should simply figure out a way to ignore the seventeen-foot-high, multi-ton cross, much in the same way that the Supreme Court has ordered them to ignore the use of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, "In God We Trust" on our currency, or the daily benediction that (somewhat futilely) opens Congress each day.
I'm closer to the absolutist end of the First Amendment spectrum than not, but I don't have much of an issue with a little benign deism in American political life. When I was chair of the Burlington School Board, I cheerfully led the Board and attendees in the Pledge of Allegiance. And every Fourth of July, I re-read Jefferson's magnificent Declaration of Independence, including the optimistic phrase "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence." Just as the rebels did then, we need all the help we can get right now.
The Supreme Court's tolerance for the use of "God" in the pledge and on currency stems in part from the fact that the word is open to interpretation. When we pledge that we are "one Nation, under God," each of us can can insert our own working definition of "God." (Atheists are SOL because of the historical practice argument -- since our nation has invoked a higher power in one form or another for two centuries, the Court says, it's part of the fabric of our lives.)
As Stewart's own comments make clear, however, a cross is not a benign symbol of a inchoate national Deism opposed by only the most cantankerous First Amendment absolutists. His own description of the so-called "artifact" underscores the precise problem that atheists and most other non-Christians have with the installation of crosses on government property. It's not just a t-shaped metal thingy, and it's not merely a crossbeam (after all, it's not as if a "+" sign, or an "x" would generate as much enthusiasm). Regardless of whether one views the cross as a enduring symbol of one man's martyrdom on behalf of a sinful humanity, or merely as a homage to the world's most-quoted rabbi, it is still intended to represent Jesus Christ, the central figure of one religion.
By its very nature, the installation of a cross at the Ground Zero memorial is an exclusionary act, one that implicitly suggests that the sacrifices of some victims deserve more recognition than those of others. Nearly 150 years ago, when President Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he closed his remarks by noting that the sacrifices made there were to insure that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." He did not say "of Christians, by Christians, for Christians."
If the Ground Zero memorial is truly intended to honor all of the individuals who died on that tragic day, then it should reflect our highest ideals -- equality, fairness, liberty, and justice for all. The Supreme Court has made it clear (and I agree) that our government does not have to be faithless, but it can't favor one faith over all others. Let's find a new, non-governmental home for the cross, and let each visitor to Ground Zero bring their own personal beliefs to honor the dead and find increased devotion to the task of making this a more just and tolerant nation.
Few addresses have gained so much notoriety so quickly as 133 C Street SE in Washington, D.C. The slim brick townhouse, nestled on a quiet street behind the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, was recently outed as an enclave of fundamentalist Washington insiders by Jeff Sharlet, author of The
Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, and a contributing editor to Harper's and Rolling Stone. (Editor's note: Sharlet is also co-editor, with Peter Manseau, ofBeliever Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith.) With typical Christian duality, C Street has reportedly been a place for some members of Congress both to hold assignations with non-spousal partners and to seek refuge from them.
Last month, I stayed half a block from 133 C Street while in Washington doing research for a book. It was like bumping into Dennis Kucinich in a DC bookstore (which also happened during my visit); buildings, like people, can take on a weird sense of familiarity when you've seen them repeatedly on television or the Internet. As I walked or jogged past the townhouse each morning, it occurred to me that C Street is neatly located at the intersection of my last two books, The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right's Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court and American
Privacy: The Four-Hundred-Year History of Our Most Contested Right. The recent spotlight shining through the curtained windows of C Street begs an important question: can we defend a pluralistic democracy from religious zealots without critically wounding core American values, such as freedom of religion and the right to privacy? Not coincidentally, that's a question that has become particularly pressing since 9/11.
Photo of the C Street house that is home to "The Family," taken by the author.
So just how far into C Street should the media (or governmental) spotlight shine? The answer lies in a bit of constitutional topology.
In its various decisions on privacy, the Supreme Court has ruled that there is a zone of privacy that surrounds each of us, a zone limned in large part by the rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution. For private individuals, that zone of privacy is a portable sphere that surrounds us and protects us, to varying degrees, from unreasonable governmental interference. But for elected officials, like the Congressional denizens of C Street, the zone of privacy is more like a toroid, or doughnut, hanging around their midsection.
Four and a half years ago, during the halftime show for the 2004 Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson set off a heated national debate about televised decency when Timberlake pulled off part of Jackson's bustier and revealed her right breast.
The global exposure of Jackson's breast was remarkably brief -- roughly half a second -- but more than long enough to send the nation's moral watchdogs into orbit. The following morning, Federal Communications Chairman Michael Powell (the son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell) made the rounds of the morning television talk shows and promised a swift and thorough governmental investigation. The Timberlake/Jackson "flash dance" proved to be a political boon for many in Washington: the controversy enabled Chairman Powell to divert attention from his failed and much-criticized efforts to promote media consolidation, and the FCC's new-found willingness to punish indecency was a boost for President Bush's re-election campaign. Much more detail on the political fall-out of the half-time show is available in the opening chapter of my 2006 book, The Decency Wars: The Campaign to Cleanse American Culture (Prometheus Books 2006).
It is no secret that the evangelical wing of the Republican Party has some strong reservations about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain. The "agents of intolerance" charge that McCain leveled at Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell during the 2000 primary, for instance, has not been forgotten. Nor were evangelicals pleased when McCain so quickly disavowed two prominent evangelical preachers, the Rev. John Hagee and the Rev. Rod Parsley, for making controversial statements about Islam, Hitler, and the Holocaust.
The coolness of evangelical voters towards Senator McCain is so pronounced that his opponent, presumptive Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama, senses a rare political opportunity. Despite some profound policy differences, the Obama campaign believes that it can make some inroads in the evangelical community. Senator Obama has a lot of room for growth: a recent Calvin College poll gave Senator McCain a 57%-25% edge among evangelicals.
Two separate initiatives are under way to help Senator Obama narrow the evangelical gap. A couple of weeks ago, David Brody of the Christian Broadcast Network (home of Pat Robertson's The 700 Club) announced that the Obama campaign was planning to launch a grassroots initiative dubbed "The Joshua Generation" to target young evangelicals and Catholics. The phrase hearkens back to the Bible's Book of Joshua, in which the Lord spoke to Joshua and said "Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel."
A little background is useful in understanding the implications of the Williams decision. It is fair to say that the United States is unparalleled among the nations of the world in its tolerance of speech. From the instant it is uttered, virtually all speech is presumed to be protected by the First Amendment. That presumption can be overcome, but only if a prosecutor or plaintiff can prove that the speech falls into one the recognized exceptions to the First Amendment: libel or slander, for instance, or obscenity.
There is only category of speech that does not enjoy the presumption of First Amendment protection: child pornography, which has traditionally been defined as sexually explicit visual depictions of individuals under the age of 18. If a prosecutor can prove that the subject of a sexually explicit photograph, for instance, is under the age of 18 then, regardless of how artistic or socially significant the photo may be, it is still "obscene" and not protected by the First Amendment.
The Religious Right has successfully spent the last thirty years putting the fear of God into Republican presidential candidates. Those who deviate from the evangelical political liturgy are threatened with the special purgatory of corporate golf games and Viagra ads reserved for unsuccessful Republican nominees. And of all the hymns aspirants are required to memorize, none is more sacred than "A Mighty Fortress Are Strict Constructionists."
If there was one candidate who gave the impression that he could carve his own path to the nomination, it was Senator John McCain. The Senator, after all, is a bona fide war hero whose military service and survival of years of imprisonment is eloquent testimony to his personal courage. Eight years ago, when contesting the nomination with George W. Bush, Senator McCain spoke and acted like a candidate confident he could prevail without kneeling at the altar of religious or political extremism.
But McCain is 71 years old now, and is showing all the symptoms of Stage III Potomac Fever, a highly contagious disease that typically infects Senators, Governors, and the odd (occasionally VERY odd) billionaire or Ohio Congressman. Stage I is that moment when someone looks in the mirror and says "I could be President!" In Stage II, the trappings of power or wealth lead to a slow ossification of creativity and political idealism. But Stage III is the saddest development: outright petrification, marked largely by the grinding fear that the White House might be slipping away.
This past Sunday, April 20, was the 88th birthday of Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the United States Supreme Court. Stevens, who was appointed in 1975 by President Gerald Ford (on the recommendation, incidentally, of Ford's chief of staff, Dick Cheney), has become one of the stalwarts of the Court's liberal wing. At the time of his appointment, a number of Senators expressed concern about his health—just a few years before his nomination, Stevens had open-heart surgery. But only one justice has served at an older age than Stevens—the "Yankee from Olympus," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who retired not long after turning 90.
It is disconcerting to note that every one of the Court's more liberal members is eligible for Social Security: Stevens (88), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (75), Anthony M. Kennedy (72), and David Souter (68). Only one conservative justice, Antonin Scalia (72), and the more moderate Stephen Breyer (70) are in the same club. Chief Justice Roberts (51) and Justices Clarence Thomas (60) and Samuel Alito (58) are all significantly younger.
The unusually strong correlation between age and ideology on the Supreme Court has gotten remarkably little attention, particularly in the increasingly-vapid presidential debates. It is a sad commentary that the mainstream media is increasingly comic, and our comedians are increasingly the primary source of serious news.
It's been a busy couple of weeks for the Ten Commandments. The big news, of course, was the death of actor Charlton Heston, best known for his leadership of the National Rifle Association and his 1956 portrayal of Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's epic film, The Ten Commandments.
Attracting somewhat less attention was the announcement by the United States Supreme Court a few days before Heston's death that it had decided to review the ruling in the case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, a long-running legal battle over the public display of the Ten Commandments in a city located 45 minutes south of Salt Lake City. But the two events, surprisingly, are not unrelated.
Forty or so years ago, a U.S. Senator from Vermont by the name of
George Aiken wisely advised both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon that the United States should simply declare victory in Vietnam and bring its troops home. Unfortunately, neither listened to him. His advice,
sadly, is still relevant. When President George W. Bush landed on the USS
Abraham Lincoln in 2003 and declared "Mission Accomplished," he only
got it half right; he overlooked the bit about bringing the troops home.
And then there's Bill O'Reilly, the bombastic host of Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor," and
a cultural warrior who finally seems to have taken Aiken's advice to heart. In
the December 13 episode of his show, O'Reilly announced that Fox News had won
the so-called "war on Christmas." Well, that is a relief. The only
question is whether O'Reilly will follow all of Aiken's advice and call home
the Fox troops scouring the countryside for the last signs of the
far left secular progressive community is furious, furious, I tell you about
losing the war on Christmas…. [A]ll over the country, the sights and signs of
Christmas are on display. Few department stores are telling employees not to
say a 'Merry Christmas.' And the Taliban-like oppression of the holiday has
largely ceased, but the SPs are not happy about that."
Last week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney traveled to
College Station, Texas, to deliver a major address on faith to an
audience at the George H.W. Bush presidential library. Given the fact
that the speech was so clearly an attempt to emulate President John F.
Kennedy's famous speech on faith forty-seven years ago, it's a little
surprising that Romney didn't deliver the speech at the Kennedy
Library in Boston instead. But context is everything, and the backdrop
of the Boston skyline would not have been reassuring to Romney's true
audience—Christian evangelical voters who have grave reservations
about electing a Mormon (and former Massachusetts governor)—as
It is not likely, however, that Romney's speech will resonate as
deeply into history as Kennedy's has. That's not entirely Romney's
fault, of course: Kennedy was a particularly charismatic speaker, and
no candidate since, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, has
had such eloquent speechwriters. But Romney and his campaign are
certainly responsible for his speech's two main failings: its timing,
and its content.
Romney enjoyed little of the drama surrounding Kennedy's speech to
Greater Houston Ministerial Association (GHMA) on September 12, 1960.
The hotly-contested election between Kennedy and the Republican
nominee, Vice-President Richard Nixon, was less than two months away.
Kennedy was vying to become the nation's first Catholic president, and
had endured months of insult, including repeated charges that the
Kennedy White House would be subject to the orders of the Pope.
Kennedy's stirring affirmation of his independence and America's
commitment to religious freedom were a stern reminder to the nation's
Protestant majority in general and the GHMA in particular that no one
in this country should be the target of religious intolerance. And
unlike Romney, who chose a safe venue for his oration, Kennedy strode
onto a stage in front of some his most skeptical critics.