Commentary Magazine


Topic: Declaration of Independence

A Good Night for Conservative Principles

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had perhaps his best debate last night in Jacksonville. He was, for the most part, forceful and in command. He damaged his main rival, Newt Gingrich, on answers ranging from immigration to Gingrich’s investment portfolio. And Romney was particularly strong at turning the tables on the attacks on his wealth, saying this:

And I know that there may be some who try to make a deal of that [Romney’s wealth and investments], as you have publicly. But look, I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who have been successful and try and, by innuendo, suggest there’s something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments. Speaker, you’ve indicated that somehow I don’t earn that money. I have earned the money that I have. I didn’t inherit it. I take risks. I make investments. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America. I’m proud of being successful. I’m proud of being in the free enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I’m not going to run from that. I’m proud of the taxes I pay. My taxes, plus my charitable contributions, this year, 2011, will be about 40 percent. So, look, let’s put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money, and let’s get Republicans to say, you know what? What you’ve accomplished in your life shouldn’t be seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America.

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Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had perhaps his best debate last night in Jacksonville. He was, for the most part, forceful and in command. He damaged his main rival, Newt Gingrich, on answers ranging from immigration to Gingrich’s investment portfolio. And Romney was particularly strong at turning the tables on the attacks on his wealth, saying this:

And I know that there may be some who try to make a deal of that [Romney’s wealth and investments], as you have publicly. But look, I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who have been successful and try and, by innuendo, suggest there’s something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments. Speaker, you’ve indicated that somehow I don’t earn that money. I have earned the money that I have. I didn’t inherit it. I take risks. I make investments. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America. I’m proud of being successful. I’m proud of being in the free enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I’m not going to run from that. I’m proud of the taxes I pay. My taxes, plus my charitable contributions, this year, 2011, will be about 40 percent. So, look, let’s put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money, and let’s get Republicans to say, you know what? What you’ve accomplished in your life shouldn’t be seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America.

This answer reframes the issue of Romney’s success, away from a defensive, apologetic stance to a confident, assertive one. It also helped that Romney was right on the substance. It is quite important to push back against the mindset that assumes success and excellence are things for which one ought to apologize. I understand that many modern-day liberals believe people who are wealthy are by definition of a suspect class (unless, say, their wealth comes via Hollywood). The task of the rest of us is to shatter that myth, which is not only wrong but can also be pernicious. Governor Romney, I think, did a very good job explaining why achievement in business is, in fact, impressive (it’s often the result of hard work, persistence, creativity and drive) and an asset to America. This is a theme Romney needs to continue to build on. Rather than accept the premise of the attack, he decided to shred it.

The best answer of the night in terms of political philosophy, however, belongs to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (who was excellent in the debate from beginning to end). When the candidates were asked by a Jacksonville resident what role religious beliefs would play in decisions they might make as president, Santorum said this:

Faith is a very, very important part of my life, but it’s a very, very important part of this country. The foundational documents of our country — everybody talks about the Constitution, very, very important. But the Constitution is the “how” of America. It’s the operator’s manual. The “why” of America, who we are as a people, is in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” The Constitution is there to do one thing: protect God-given rights. That’s what makes America different than every other country in the world. No other country in the world has its rights — rights based in God-given rights, not government-given rights. And so when you say, well, faith has nothing to do with it, faith has everything to do with it. If rights come… (applause) if our president believes that rights come to us from the state, everything government gives you, it can take away. The role of the government is to protect rights that cannot be taken away. And so the answer to that question is, I believe in faith and reason and approaching the problems of this country but understand where those rights come from, who we are as Americans and the foundational principles by which we have changed the world.

This is a wonderful articulation of America’s founding principle and a nice corrective to those conservatives who tend to focus only on the Constitution at the expense of the document (the Declaration of Independence) that dealt a crushing philosophical blow to tyranny and despotism.

In our time, it’s common for people to argue that religion is a source of political intolerance, and of course it can be. But it can also be a source of political tolerance precisely because it provides a firm grounding for human rights and a belief in human dignity. What Rick Santorum did last night was give voice to what Lincoln called our “ancient faith.”

There have been a lot of complaints made about the number of debates we’ve had in the GOP primary, and it’s certainly true that not all of them have been edifying affairs. But last night was an encouraging one for those of us who care about conservatism, if only because on several occasions we saw candidates for president dilate on important political principles.

 

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Martin Luther King Jr.

On this holiday honoring his birth, it is worth reminding ourselves why Martin Luther King Jr. deserves the place he holds in the American imagination.

Dr. King was — with Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln — our nation’s most effective advocate for the American ideal. How he became so is itself a fascinating story.

King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 with a degree in sociology. He was unhappy with his major, however, complaining about the “apathetic fallacy of statistics.” While at Morehouse, King decided to change his field of study. He entered Crozer Theological Seminary, where he absorbed the writings of political philosophers “from Plato and Aristotle,” King wrote, “down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill and Locke.”

In a beautiful tribute to King, delivered at Spellman College in 1986, then secretary of education William Bennett explained why King turned to the liberal arts. In Bennett’s words:

Martin Luther King turned to the greatest philosophers because he needed to know the answers to certain questions. What is justice? What should be loved? What deserves to be defended? What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? What is man? These questions are not simply intellectual diversions, but have engaged thoughtful human beings in all places and in all ages. As a result of the ways in which these questions have been answered, civilizations have emerged, nations have developed, wars have been fought, and people have lived contentedly or miserably. And as a result of the way in which Martin Luther King eventually answered these questions, Jim Crow was destroyed and American history was transformed.

In combating segregation, King could easily have gone in a different direction than he did (nonviolent civil disobedience). There were, after all, many competing philosophies within the black community about which way to go: Booker T. Washington’s gradualism, Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, Malcolm X’s appeal to black nationalism, A. Philip Randolph’s direct-action campaigns, the NAACP’s legal strategy, and W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth” approach among them.

Dr. King’s liberal-arts education helps explain why he chose the path he did. And so, too, did his Christian faith.

While Malcolm X declared that nonviolence was the “philosophy of the fool,” in a sermon in 1956, King argued the opposite:

Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Read More

On this holiday honoring his birth, it is worth reminding ourselves why Martin Luther King Jr. deserves the place he holds in the American imagination.

Dr. King was — with Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln — our nation’s most effective advocate for the American ideal. How he became so is itself a fascinating story.

King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 with a degree in sociology. He was unhappy with his major, however, complaining about the “apathetic fallacy of statistics.” While at Morehouse, King decided to change his field of study. He entered Crozer Theological Seminary, where he absorbed the writings of political philosophers “from Plato and Aristotle,” King wrote, “down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill and Locke.”

In a beautiful tribute to King, delivered at Spellman College in 1986, then secretary of education William Bennett explained why King turned to the liberal arts. In Bennett’s words:

Martin Luther King turned to the greatest philosophers because he needed to know the answers to certain questions. What is justice? What should be loved? What deserves to be defended? What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? What is man? These questions are not simply intellectual diversions, but have engaged thoughtful human beings in all places and in all ages. As a result of the ways in which these questions have been answered, civilizations have emerged, nations have developed, wars have been fought, and people have lived contentedly or miserably. And as a result of the way in which Martin Luther King eventually answered these questions, Jim Crow was destroyed and American history was transformed.

In combating segregation, King could easily have gone in a different direction than he did (nonviolent civil disobedience). There were, after all, many competing philosophies within the black community about which way to go: Booker T. Washington’s gradualism, Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, Malcolm X’s appeal to black nationalism, A. Philip Randolph’s direct-action campaigns, the NAACP’s legal strategy, and W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth” approach among them.

Dr. King’s liberal-arts education helps explain why he chose the path he did. And so, too, did his Christian faith.

While Malcolm X declared that nonviolence was the “philosophy of the fool,” in a sermon in 1956, King argued the opposite:

Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.

King went on to say this:

In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. With this attitude you will be able to keep your struggle on high Christian standards.

King concluded his sermon this way:

I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.

I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. Over the centuries men have sought to discover the highest good. This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy. This has been one of the big questions of Greek philosophy. The Epicureans and the Stoics sought to answer it; Plato and Aristotle sought to answer it. What is the summum bonum of life? I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As John says, “God is love.” He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.

One of the things we learn from Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, then, is that he saw great injustice and sought to confront it within the American tradition and his Christian faith rather than outside them. In that sense, King was very much like Lincoln, who consistently urged Americans to return to the truths of the Declaration of Independence and “take courage to renew the battle which [the founding] fathers began, so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land.”

We celebrate Dr. King’s birth because he was among the greatest men America ever produced, his words among the most powerful and evocative ever written. They changed the trajectory of American history for the better, and only a handful of others can make the same claim.

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Two Big Losers: Obama and Gerrymandering

The president took it on the chin big time last night, but so did the odious, uniquely American practice of gerrymandering. It is named for Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who first altered district lines for political advantage when he was governor of Massachusetts. (His name is pronounced with a hard G — as in get – but the eponymous practice is not.)

But last night in both California and Florida, propositions passed that abolish the practice. Florida’s amendment leaves the task of redistricting to the legislature but requires that

Legislative districts or districting plans should not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or linguistic minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as possible, and, when feasible, must make use of existing city, county, and geographical boundaries. It needed a 60-percent vote to become part of the state constitution and it got 62.54 percent.

In California, the power to redistrict state legislative lines was taken away from the legislature two years ago and given to a nonpartisan commission. Yesterday, Proposition 20 passed, taking away the power to redistrict congressional lines as well. A competing proposition, No. 27, would have abolished the commission and returned redistricting to the legislature. It went down in flames.

How bad was the gerrymandering in California? After the spectacular gerrymander following the 2000 census, there have been 692 Congressional and state legislative elections in California. Only five — o.7 percent — resulted in a change of party. It will be fascinating to see what the turnover is in 2012.

This makes four states — the other two are Iowa and Arizona — that have gotten rid of gerrymandering. Only 46 to go.

The president took it on the chin big time last night, but so did the odious, uniquely American practice of gerrymandering. It is named for Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who first altered district lines for political advantage when he was governor of Massachusetts. (His name is pronounced with a hard G — as in get – but the eponymous practice is not.)

But last night in both California and Florida, propositions passed that abolish the practice. Florida’s amendment leaves the task of redistricting to the legislature but requires that

Legislative districts or districting plans should not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or linguistic minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as possible, and, when feasible, must make use of existing city, county, and geographical boundaries. It needed a 60-percent vote to become part of the state constitution and it got 62.54 percent.

In California, the power to redistrict state legislative lines was taken away from the legislature two years ago and given to a nonpartisan commission. Yesterday, Proposition 20 passed, taking away the power to redistrict congressional lines as well. A competing proposition, No. 27, would have abolished the commission and returned redistricting to the legislature. It went down in flames.

How bad was the gerrymandering in California? After the spectacular gerrymander following the 2000 census, there have been 692 Congressional and state legislative elections in California. Only five — o.7 percent — resulted in a change of party. It will be fascinating to see what the turnover is in 2012.

This makes four states — the other two are Iowa and Arizona — that have gotten rid of gerrymandering. Only 46 to go.

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Some Historical Perspective on Negative Campaigning

Every election, it seems, political commentators and reporters suggest that the most recent election we’re in is “the nastiest, most negative election season of all time.” You have to be largely clueless about American history to argue such things — as this short video by Reason.tv highlights. The truth is that angry, fractious elections and political bickering have characterized American politics since the country’s founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” One pamphlet circulated by Greeley’s supporters called the Grant Administration the “crowning point of governmental wickedness” and accused Grant of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism….”

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions.” Accusations of Blaine’s corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols. Heated exchanges are endemic to politics and what we are seeing today, while often not edifying, is not outside the norm of American history.

Like most people, I wish our debates were less trivial, more spirited, and more serious and contained fewer ad hominem attacks. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters, such as what the proper role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” is how Theodore Roosevelt put it. We should therefore hope for serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas’s advocacy for “popular sovereignty” was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence — which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of “negative” campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so high. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. But we should also bring to it a sense of history.

Every election, it seems, political commentators and reporters suggest that the most recent election we’re in is “the nastiest, most negative election season of all time.” You have to be largely clueless about American history to argue such things — as this short video by Reason.tv highlights. The truth is that angry, fractious elections and political bickering have characterized American politics since the country’s founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” One pamphlet circulated by Greeley’s supporters called the Grant Administration the “crowning point of governmental wickedness” and accused Grant of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism….”

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions.” Accusations of Blaine’s corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols. Heated exchanges are endemic to politics and what we are seeing today, while often not edifying, is not outside the norm of American history.

Like most people, I wish our debates were less trivial, more spirited, and more serious and contained fewer ad hominem attacks. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters, such as what the proper role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” is how Theodore Roosevelt put it. We should therefore hope for serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas’s advocacy for “popular sovereignty” was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence — which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of “negative” campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so high. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. But we should also bring to it a sense of history.

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Can a Sacred Text Be Secular as Well?

The debate over the Ten Commandments is firing up again. Writing for the New York Times’s website earlier this week, veteran legal commentator Linda Greenhouse warns of “the continuing effort by state and local governments to post the Ten Commandments in public places,” as well as an upcoming attempt to overturn the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling of 2005 that barred the posting of the Ten Commandments before two Kentucky courthouses.

At the heart of these new legal efforts is a caviat written into Justice Souter’s 2005 decision that seems to open the door for such displays if they are intended for a secular purpose — a sentence that many people, Ms. Greenhouse writes, wrongfully took “as a green light for gaming the system.” The Court, Souter wrote, did not “have occasion here to hold that a sacred text can never be integrated constitutionally into a governmental display on the subject of law, or American history.” The problem is not in the Ten Commandments themselves, we learn, but in the real intentions behind putting them on display — whether they be “secular” or “sectarian.”

Like many Americans, Ms. Greenhouse bristles at such a loophole, mainly because of how hard it is for her to imagine the Bible representing anything other than religion. “The prospect of watching lawyers and justices engage in still more contorted efforts to attach supposedly secular meaning to obviously sectarian objects and texts,” she writes, “is not a pleasant one.”

But is this fair? Can’t the Ten Commandments — indeed, the Bible as a whole, with its thousand pages of ancient stories, speeches, poems, proverbs, laws, and histories — have secular meaning? Read More

The debate over the Ten Commandments is firing up again. Writing for the New York Times’s website earlier this week, veteran legal commentator Linda Greenhouse warns of “the continuing effort by state and local governments to post the Ten Commandments in public places,” as well as an upcoming attempt to overturn the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling of 2005 that barred the posting of the Ten Commandments before two Kentucky courthouses.

At the heart of these new legal efforts is a caviat written into Justice Souter’s 2005 decision that seems to open the door for such displays if they are intended for a secular purpose — a sentence that many people, Ms. Greenhouse writes, wrongfully took “as a green light for gaming the system.” The Court, Souter wrote, did not “have occasion here to hold that a sacred text can never be integrated constitutionally into a governmental display on the subject of law, or American history.” The problem is not in the Ten Commandments themselves, we learn, but in the real intentions behind putting them on display — whether they be “secular” or “sectarian.”

Like many Americans, Ms. Greenhouse bristles at such a loophole, mainly because of how hard it is for her to imagine the Bible representing anything other than religion. “The prospect of watching lawyers and justices engage in still more contorted efforts to attach supposedly secular meaning to obviously sectarian objects and texts,” she writes, “is not a pleasant one.”

But is this fair? Can’t the Ten Commandments — indeed, the Bible as a whole, with its thousand pages of ancient stories, speeches, poems, proverbs, laws, and histories — have secular meaning?

For nearly two decades I’ve lived in Israel, where the Bible is seen very differently. A country founded on an ultra-secular socialism refused to cut itself off from the Jewish people’s ancient textual heritage. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, himself fully secular, held Bible-study groups in his home and encouraged Israelis to read the Bible at every opportunity, without promoting any form of religious worship or observance. Today every Jewish IDF soldier gets a copy of the Bible upon completing basic training; and every Jewish high-schooler is required to study the Bible as a central part of the curriculum. Biblical idioms and allusions are found throughout secular culture, from music to literature to film. And when a nonobservant student took third place in this year’s national Bible quiz, his mother — Sarah Netanyahu, wife of the prime minister — proclaimed it as a lesson for all secular Israelis: that the Bible belonged to them no less than to the religious.

Could such an attitude gain traction in America? Many will be quick to point out that Israel doesn’t have a separation of church and state — the result of which is that an inflexible ultra-Orthodox minority continues to foster deep resentment, much of it justified, among the secular majority because of the rabbinic monopolization of marriage and divorce, burial, and conversions.

But this argument fails when looking at the role of the Bible in Israeli life, for the simple reason that, unlike Ms. Greenhouse, most Israelis don’t see the Bible as an “obviously sectarian” text all. They see it, rather, as a national treasure, a basis of identity, a rich collection of ancient writings that is of interest not so much because of its authority as much as for its wisdom and testament to a unique cultural heritage. In other words, they see it as a secular text — much as Americans view the Federalist Papers or the Declaration of Independence.

Ms. Greenhouse, of course, is far from alone among Americans in seeing the Bible as having “obviously sectarian” symbolism and nothing else — an attitude that effectively grants exclusive ownership of the Bible to the religious establishment. But there is another secular America, one that longs for fresh readings of our ancient texts without either the axiomatic assumption or the explicit repudiation of faith. Bestselling authors like Bruce Feiler, Karen Armstrong, and Jack Miles have succeeded precisely because they meet a growing demand for sympathetic yet non-faith-based readings of the Bible. Far from being a legal loophole, Justice Souter’s words suggest an acute longing that many Americans share for an approach to sacred texts that on the one hand protects our modern sensibilities — especially our right to a self-defined spirituality — while giving us access to something we suspect may possess far more cultural wisdom than we have been led to believe, something that lies at the core of Western identity, something that continues to resonate regardless of our faith.

The Bible is not just a sacred text. It’s also a major pillar of our civilization — no less so than the works of ancient Greece, Enlightenment Europe, or the American Founders. Biblical stories and figures were invoked in every successful progressive movement in American history, from the Revolution to Emancipation to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement. To presumptively dismiss public presentation of the Bible’s most famous encapsulation, the Ten Commandments, as “sectarian” is to cut ourselves off from this great fountainhead of wisdom, history, and self-understanding that we desperately need in our constant search to understand what the experiment of modern democratic life is really all about.

My new book, The Ten Commandments, takes this ball and runs with it. It hits bookstores next week.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Now anti-Israel venom is even featured on sports talk. ESPN’s Kevin Blackistone (with an assist from Israel-hater Desmond Tutu) calls for a sports boycott of Israel: “In the wake of widespread international condemnation of Israel’s botched commando raid last week that killed nine people on a humanitarian aid flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip — where Palestinians live under what Nobel-prize winning South African Bishop Desmond Tutu … once said is Israel’s apartheid-like thumb — could it not be time for sport to illuminate Israel’s deadly occupation of Palestinians?” (h/t New Ledger)

Now, as Cliff May reminds us, Jew-hatred is quite fashionable elsewhere: “The fever of anti-Israelism seems to be rising too fast to be reduced by the cold compress of truth. Jew-hatred is increasingly acceptable, even fashionable, not just in the Middle East but in Europe and in some of America’s finer salons — and journals and blogs. And now, apparently, interest in a ‘final solution’ — to borrow Hitler’s apt phrase — is emerging as well. Helen Thomas’s sudden retirement is unlikely to significantly slow that trend. The quaint idea that, having learned the lessons of the Holocaust, civilized people would ‘never again’ tolerate genocide has become a cruel joke — one repeated in Cambodia, Kurdistan, Rwanda, the Balkans, Darfur, and beyond. Radical anti-Semites of the 20th century had a goal: the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Radical anti-Semites of the 21st century also have a goal: the extermination of the Middle East’s Jewish state.”

Now Obama’s ineffectiveness is so apparent that Joe Biden has become the administration’s principal spokesman.

Now the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers come with a warning label. A small publishing company slaps this on a volume of the documents: “This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work.” Any such parent needs a warning label.

Now Rand Paul is annoying libertarians. But good to know he thinks “there are times when we have to go in and prevent, at times, people that are organizing to attack us.”

Now we have the quintessential un-Obama : “[Chris]Christie has already put the state on a tough new fiscal regimen and set it on course toward being solvent once again. Refusing to raise taxes, he’s challenged the entrenched, vested interests and has dared to take on the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s powerful teachers union. And now he’s out to enact a constitutional amendment creating a 2.5 percent cap on property tax increases. Through it all, he seems remarkably willing to take the flak that’s inevitably come his way. At town meetings across the state he tells crowds: ‘I think I know why you elected me. I know you didn’t elect me for my matinee idol looks or my charm. So, I’m trying to do what you elected me to do.'”

Now all those “Harry Reid bounces back” headlines will have to be rewritten: “Sharron Angle, following her come-from-behind Republican Primary win Tuesday, has bounced to an 11-point lead over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada’s closely-watched U.S. Senate race.”

Now, if we only had a president who believed this: “It’s not just that the Israelis are being held to a different — and immeasurably higher — standard than the rest of humanity. Israel is now being judged in the absence of any objective standard whatsoever. As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week, it seems that Israel is now ‘guilty until proven guilty.’ Sadly, it is no surprise to see angry mobs on the streets of Tehran or London calling for Jewish blood. It seems that we now must accustom ourselves to similar scenes playing out in Istanbul as well. Yet what is far more troubling is that we are now hearing these critiques being echoed right here in the United States.”

Now anti-Israel venom is even featured on sports talk. ESPN’s Kevin Blackistone (with an assist from Israel-hater Desmond Tutu) calls for a sports boycott of Israel: “In the wake of widespread international condemnation of Israel’s botched commando raid last week that killed nine people on a humanitarian aid flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip — where Palestinians live under what Nobel-prize winning South African Bishop Desmond Tutu … once said is Israel’s apartheid-like thumb — could it not be time for sport to illuminate Israel’s deadly occupation of Palestinians?” (h/t New Ledger)

Now, as Cliff May reminds us, Jew-hatred is quite fashionable elsewhere: “The fever of anti-Israelism seems to be rising too fast to be reduced by the cold compress of truth. Jew-hatred is increasingly acceptable, even fashionable, not just in the Middle East but in Europe and in some of America’s finer salons — and journals and blogs. And now, apparently, interest in a ‘final solution’ — to borrow Hitler’s apt phrase — is emerging as well. Helen Thomas’s sudden retirement is unlikely to significantly slow that trend. The quaint idea that, having learned the lessons of the Holocaust, civilized people would ‘never again’ tolerate genocide has become a cruel joke — one repeated in Cambodia, Kurdistan, Rwanda, the Balkans, Darfur, and beyond. Radical anti-Semites of the 20th century had a goal: the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Radical anti-Semites of the 21st century also have a goal: the extermination of the Middle East’s Jewish state.”

Now Obama’s ineffectiveness is so apparent that Joe Biden has become the administration’s principal spokesman.

Now the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers come with a warning label. A small publishing company slaps this on a volume of the documents: “This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work.” Any such parent needs a warning label.

Now Rand Paul is annoying libertarians. But good to know he thinks “there are times when we have to go in and prevent, at times, people that are organizing to attack us.”

Now we have the quintessential un-Obama : “[Chris]Christie has already put the state on a tough new fiscal regimen and set it on course toward being solvent once again. Refusing to raise taxes, he’s challenged the entrenched, vested interests and has dared to take on the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s powerful teachers union. And now he’s out to enact a constitutional amendment creating a 2.5 percent cap on property tax increases. Through it all, he seems remarkably willing to take the flak that’s inevitably come his way. At town meetings across the state he tells crowds: ‘I think I know why you elected me. I know you didn’t elect me for my matinee idol looks or my charm. So, I’m trying to do what you elected me to do.'”

Now all those “Harry Reid bounces back” headlines will have to be rewritten: “Sharron Angle, following her come-from-behind Republican Primary win Tuesday, has bounced to an 11-point lead over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada’s closely-watched U.S. Senate race.”

Now, if we only had a president who believed this: “It’s not just that the Israelis are being held to a different — and immeasurably higher — standard than the rest of humanity. Israel is now being judged in the absence of any objective standard whatsoever. As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week, it seems that Israel is now ‘guilty until proven guilty.’ Sadly, it is no surprise to see angry mobs on the streets of Tehran or London calling for Jewish blood. It seems that we now must accustom ourselves to similar scenes playing out in Istanbul as well. Yet what is far more troubling is that we are now hearing these critiques being echoed right here in the United States.”

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Chabon Swings at Israel — and Hits Peter Beinart!

Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.

Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.

Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.

But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.

Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”

Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.

If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).

The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.

Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.

Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.

Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.

But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.

Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”

Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.

If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).

The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.

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There Could Have Been Two Independence Days

Today is the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which commemorates something as close to a miracle as we are ever likely to see — the re-creation of an ancient state in the Land in which it stood 2,000 years before, the resurrection of an ancient language to provide for common discourse, the ingathering of millions of exiles who had no other place to live, the creation of a democracy that extended citizenship not only to Jews but also to Arabs in the midst of an Arab war to destroy the state, the safeguarding of all holy places of all religions and the provision of free access to them, the creation and maintenance of a free and vibrant civil society while under continuous terrorist attack and multiple genocidal wars, and the growth of the nation from a third-world economy into one of the most technologically advanced in the world. It is no exaggeration to say, in the words of Hillel Halkin, that “for all its shortcomings and mistakes, Israel is and will always be one of the most glorious historical adventures in the history of mankind.”

But didn’t this new state cause the creation of a new group of refugees, whose own plight remains unresolved 62 years later? The short answer is “no,” but the longer answer is one that many have forgotten or in some cases may not have been permitted to know. The Jewish Press excerpts on its front page Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban’s November 17, 1958, speech to the General Assembly’s Special Political Committee (worth reading in its entirety), which began as follows:

The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab states against Israel in 1947 and 1948. … If there had been no war against Israel, with its consequent harvest of bloodshed, misery, panic and flight, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today.

Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged. …

“This will be a war of extermination,” declared the secretary-general of the Arab League speaking for the governments of six Arab states, “it will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.”

The assault began on the last day of November 1947. From then until the expiration of the British Mandate in May 1948 the Arab states, in concert with Palestine Arab leaders, plunged the land into turmoil and chaos. On the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, supported by contingents from Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, crossed their frontiers and marched against Israel.

The tragedy of the Palestinians is that they could have been celebrating today the 62nd anniversary of their own state as well. But 62 years ago, they rejected a two-state solution and commenced the first of multiple wars to extinguish the other one. They have rejected multiple offers of a state since then. Six decades after their first war, they are left without a state but with the refugees created by their attempt to destroy the Jewish one. It is a nakba, but it is not one that Israel caused.

Today is the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which commemorates something as close to a miracle as we are ever likely to see — the re-creation of an ancient state in the Land in which it stood 2,000 years before, the resurrection of an ancient language to provide for common discourse, the ingathering of millions of exiles who had no other place to live, the creation of a democracy that extended citizenship not only to Jews but also to Arabs in the midst of an Arab war to destroy the state, the safeguarding of all holy places of all religions and the provision of free access to them, the creation and maintenance of a free and vibrant civil society while under continuous terrorist attack and multiple genocidal wars, and the growth of the nation from a third-world economy into one of the most technologically advanced in the world. It is no exaggeration to say, in the words of Hillel Halkin, that “for all its shortcomings and mistakes, Israel is and will always be one of the most glorious historical adventures in the history of mankind.”

But didn’t this new state cause the creation of a new group of refugees, whose own plight remains unresolved 62 years later? The short answer is “no,” but the longer answer is one that many have forgotten or in some cases may not have been permitted to know. The Jewish Press excerpts on its front page Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban’s November 17, 1958, speech to the General Assembly’s Special Political Committee (worth reading in its entirety), which began as follows:

The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab states against Israel in 1947 and 1948. … If there had been no war against Israel, with its consequent harvest of bloodshed, misery, panic and flight, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today.

Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged. …

“This will be a war of extermination,” declared the secretary-general of the Arab League speaking for the governments of six Arab states, “it will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.”

The assault began on the last day of November 1947. From then until the expiration of the British Mandate in May 1948 the Arab states, in concert with Palestine Arab leaders, plunged the land into turmoil and chaos. On the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, supported by contingents from Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, crossed their frontiers and marched against Israel.

The tragedy of the Palestinians is that they could have been celebrating today the 62nd anniversary of their own state as well. But 62 years ago, they rejected a two-state solution and commenced the first of multiple wars to extinguish the other one. They have rejected multiple offers of a state since then. Six decades after their first war, they are left without a state but with the refugees created by their attempt to destroy the Jewish one. It is a nakba, but it is not one that Israel caused.

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Dionne, Confused

The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne, Jr. wrote a deeply confused column today. I had several thoughts on it.

1. Dionne’s column quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarks in 1968, referring to Vietnam as a “senseless, unjust war” and saying, “We are criminals in that war.” Dionne then writes that he doesn’t cite King in order to justify “Wright’s damnation of America.” But of course he implicitly does. Dionne’s whole point in saying that “Right-wing commentators would use the material to argue that King was anti-American and to discredit his call for racial and class justice” and “King certainly angered a lot of people at the time” was to imply that Wright and King are comparable. Hence the title of Dionne’s column: “Another Angry Black Preacher.”

2. Does Dionne think “right-wing commentators” are wrong to use Wright’s comments to discredit him? Dionne seems to think they are-even as Dionne himself lacerates Wright for his “lunatic and pernicious theories.” Perhaps Dionne thinks it’s only appropriate for liberals to criticize Wright.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. did have harsh things to say about America-and one can disagree profoundly with his words. But one key difference between King and Wright is that King, while he was a harsh critic of certain policies (like Vietnam and segregation), believed in the promise of America and its capacity for redemption and improvement. He tried to call it to its better self. Wright, from everything we can tell, presents a fundamental indictment of America. As I pointed out in a previous post, the thrust of King’s teachings was that America was falling short of its promise — but that America, perhaps alone in the world, was the place where the promissory note could be fulfilled.

And of course King did not believe in crazy conspiracy theories (for example, that America is responsible for AIDS and wants to use it to promote genocide). Nor did King ever ask God to “damn” America. Nor did he seem to delight in the injuries we suffered. In addition, King urged us not to drink from “the cup of bitterness and hatred.” Does Dionne believe the same can be said of that “other angry black preacher”?

4. Dionne insists he didn’t cite King “to justify Wright’s damnation of America or his lunatic and pernicious theories but to suggest that Obama’s pastor and his church are not as far outside the African American mainstream as many would suggest.” Dionne later writes that he “loathes the anti-American things Wright said.” What Dionne is arguing, then, is that lunatic and pernicious theories and loathsome anti-Americanism is near the African-American mainstream. Pace Dionne, I desperately hope that is not the case. But if it is, and if black liberation theology as embodied by Wright is as prevalent as Dionne suggests, then I hope Dionne, a leading liberal voice, will give up the argument that Wright is “operating within a long tradition of African American outrage.” The difference is that most of the tradition of African American outrage was justified and noble; Wright’s outrage is (to use Dionne’s words) “lunatic,” “pernicious,” and something we should “loathe.”

5. Dionne writes, “I would ask my conservative friends who praise King so lavishly to search their conscience and wonder if they would have stood up for him in 1968.” I would in turn ask my liberal friends who praise King so lavishly to search their conscience and wonder if they would have stood up for King in, say, 1963, when King argued for a color-blind society in law as well as attitudes (many contemporary liberals obsess on race and support racial quotas and preferences). I would also ask my liberal friends who praise King so lavishly if they would have stood up for King when he made explicit appeals to God’s law and natural law and tied morality to the Scriptures (many contemporary liberals are deeply secular and have utter contempt for those who link morality to religion). And I would ask my liberal friends who praise King so lavishly today if they would have stood up for King when he anchored his case for the American dream in an appeal to America’s common culture and common values and in King’s appeal to our founding principles and the Declaration of Independence (many contemporary liberals have embraced multiculturalism and have deep animus for “dead white men”).

In a desperate attempt to defend Barack Obama, intelligent liberals like E.J. Dionne, Jr. have to deal with the matter of Jeremiah Wright. It’s not an easy task — and in his attempt to both castigate Wright and tie him to Martin Luther King, Jr., Dionne demonstrates just how difficult their undertaking is. Wright and Obama have badly hurt themselves in this whole episode — and those who are attempting to come to their aid are as well.

The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne, Jr. wrote a deeply confused column today. I had several thoughts on it.

1. Dionne’s column quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarks in 1968, referring to Vietnam as a “senseless, unjust war” and saying, “We are criminals in that war.” Dionne then writes that he doesn’t cite King in order to justify “Wright’s damnation of America.” But of course he implicitly does. Dionne’s whole point in saying that “Right-wing commentators would use the material to argue that King was anti-American and to discredit his call for racial and class justice” and “King certainly angered a lot of people at the time” was to imply that Wright and King are comparable. Hence the title of Dionne’s column: “Another Angry Black Preacher.”

2. Does Dionne think “right-wing commentators” are wrong to use Wright’s comments to discredit him? Dionne seems to think they are-even as Dionne himself lacerates Wright for his “lunatic and pernicious theories.” Perhaps Dionne thinks it’s only appropriate for liberals to criticize Wright.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. did have harsh things to say about America-and one can disagree profoundly with his words. But one key difference between King and Wright is that King, while he was a harsh critic of certain policies (like Vietnam and segregation), believed in the promise of America and its capacity for redemption and improvement. He tried to call it to its better self. Wright, from everything we can tell, presents a fundamental indictment of America. As I pointed out in a previous post, the thrust of King’s teachings was that America was falling short of its promise — but that America, perhaps alone in the world, was the place where the promissory note could be fulfilled.

And of course King did not believe in crazy conspiracy theories (for example, that America is responsible for AIDS and wants to use it to promote genocide). Nor did King ever ask God to “damn” America. Nor did he seem to delight in the injuries we suffered. In addition, King urged us not to drink from “the cup of bitterness and hatred.” Does Dionne believe the same can be said of that “other angry black preacher”?

4. Dionne insists he didn’t cite King “to justify Wright’s damnation of America or his lunatic and pernicious theories but to suggest that Obama’s pastor and his church are not as far outside the African American mainstream as many would suggest.” Dionne later writes that he “loathes the anti-American things Wright said.” What Dionne is arguing, then, is that lunatic and pernicious theories and loathsome anti-Americanism is near the African-American mainstream. Pace Dionne, I desperately hope that is not the case. But if it is, and if black liberation theology as embodied by Wright is as prevalent as Dionne suggests, then I hope Dionne, a leading liberal voice, will give up the argument that Wright is “operating within a long tradition of African American outrage.” The difference is that most of the tradition of African American outrage was justified and noble; Wright’s outrage is (to use Dionne’s words) “lunatic,” “pernicious,” and something we should “loathe.”

5. Dionne writes, “I would ask my conservative friends who praise King so lavishly to search their conscience and wonder if they would have stood up for him in 1968.” I would in turn ask my liberal friends who praise King so lavishly to search their conscience and wonder if they would have stood up for King in, say, 1963, when King argued for a color-blind society in law as well as attitudes (many contemporary liberals obsess on race and support racial quotas and preferences). I would also ask my liberal friends who praise King so lavishly if they would have stood up for King when he made explicit appeals to God’s law and natural law and tied morality to the Scriptures (many contemporary liberals are deeply secular and have utter contempt for those who link morality to religion). And I would ask my liberal friends who praise King so lavishly today if they would have stood up for King when he anchored his case for the American dream in an appeal to America’s common culture and common values and in King’s appeal to our founding principles and the Declaration of Independence (many contemporary liberals have embraced multiculturalism and have deep animus for “dead white men”).

In a desperate attempt to defend Barack Obama, intelligent liberals like E.J. Dionne, Jr. have to deal with the matter of Jeremiah Wright. It’s not an easy task — and in his attempt to both castigate Wright and tie him to Martin Luther King, Jr., Dionne demonstrates just how difficult their undertaking is. Wright and Obama have badly hurt themselves in this whole episode — and those who are attempting to come to their aid are as well.

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Leave King out of It

In a statement on Sunday, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago defended the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, saying

nearly three weeks before the 40th commemorative anniversary of the murder of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s character is being assassinated in the public sphere because he has preached a social gospel on behalf of oppressed women, children and men in America and around the globe . . . It is an indictment of Dr. Wright’s ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15- or 30-second sound bite.

I’m all in favor of seeing Dr. Wright’s “ministerial legacy” presented in more than a 30-second sound bite. More rather than less scrutiny on what Wright has said and done over the years is certainly welcome. I for one am eager to see Dr. Wright’s oeuvre. Whether that puts Reverend Wright in a better or worse light remains to be seen.

Beyond that, the comparison to Dr. King is not a good one for Reverend Wright. Dr. King, after all, spoke about the “magnificent words” of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, describing them as a “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King spoke about the Emancipation Proclamation as a “momentous decree [that] came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.” And King said, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

The thrust of Dr. King’s teaching was that America was falling short of its promise, which it most surely was. But King understood that America, perhaps alone among nations, was the place where the promissory note could be fulfilled.

Reverend Wright is preaching a different message and a different social gospel than did King. Both speak about the liberation of the poor and the dispossessed. But King did not hate America and did not pray for its damnation. He did not celebrate in its wounds. He did not wish it harm. He did not propagate nutty conspiracy theories. And he did not drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred. It appears Reverend Wright does. That is why Barack Obama has a problem with his pastor-and why the comparison to Dr. King can only hurt both men.

In a statement on Sunday, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago defended the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, saying

nearly three weeks before the 40th commemorative anniversary of the murder of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s character is being assassinated in the public sphere because he has preached a social gospel on behalf of oppressed women, children and men in America and around the globe . . . It is an indictment of Dr. Wright’s ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15- or 30-second sound bite.

I’m all in favor of seeing Dr. Wright’s “ministerial legacy” presented in more than a 30-second sound bite. More rather than less scrutiny on what Wright has said and done over the years is certainly welcome. I for one am eager to see Dr. Wright’s oeuvre. Whether that puts Reverend Wright in a better or worse light remains to be seen.

Beyond that, the comparison to Dr. King is not a good one for Reverend Wright. Dr. King, after all, spoke about the “magnificent words” of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, describing them as a “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King spoke about the Emancipation Proclamation as a “momentous decree [that] came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.” And King said, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

The thrust of Dr. King’s teaching was that America was falling short of its promise, which it most surely was. But King understood that America, perhaps alone among nations, was the place where the promissory note could be fulfilled.

Reverend Wright is preaching a different message and a different social gospel than did King. Both speak about the liberation of the poor and the dispossessed. But King did not hate America and did not pray for its damnation. He did not celebrate in its wounds. He did not wish it harm. He did not propagate nutty conspiracy theories. And he did not drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred. It appears Reverend Wright does. That is why Barack Obama has a problem with his pastor-and why the comparison to Dr. King can only hurt both men.

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