Posts Tagged ‘President’

A Religious Liberty Failure

Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

It is often difficult to know what to make of this very strange Administration. Every day seems to bring a new self-generated controversy and it is often difficult to discern what is going on and why.

Sometimes, though, it is very clear what has happened — or more accurately, what has not happened. The case in point is the alleged religious liberty executive order issued last week to great fanfare. It was a splendid photo op, with the President surrounded by Catholic prelates, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and other religious leaders. The President spoke wonderful words about how committed our government is to defending religious liberty. There were smiles all around and much applause.

The problem is that the executive order is virtually useless, it accomplishes nothing, it misses an opportunity to implement important reforms, and it delivers nothing more than vague promises of possible future actions at undefined times.

The order contains six paragraphs. The first contains hortatory language about the importance of religious liberty, which is virtually indistinguishable from proclamations issued by the prior Administration. The last two paragraphs deal with legal procedure that has no particular importance. The middle three paragraphs is where the substance is supposed to be, but isn’t.

Paragraph 2 purports to grant legal protection to the free speech of religious non-profits and churchs that are incorporated under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It directs the Treasury Department not to enforce a legal provision known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits those organizations from engaging in partisan political activity such as open endorsement of candidates. Opinions differ about the Johnson Amendment. I happen to think it’s a good idea but many others disagree. The problem is, though, that the government has virtually never enforced that provision and the President can’t do anything to change the law itself — it can only be repealed by an act of Congress. Future administrations could easily begin enforcing the rule at any time — which would be particularly dangerous for any organization that foolishly relies on this executive order and begins engaging in partisan politics.

So this part of the executive order is actually completely devoid of any real content. It’s merely a promise not to do something that isn’t being done, without preventing it from being done in the future. Hold your applause.

Paragraph 3 is a particularly frustrating diappointment to those of us who have been battling over religious liberty the past few years, especially over the HHS contraception and abortion mandate. That is the cause of voluminous litigation that culminated in a directive from the Supreme Court that the government find some way to accommodate the religious liberty concerns of religious non-profits who object to the mandate. This executive order directs the relevant agencies to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections”.

“Consider”? That’s all? Remember, you can’t overturn statutes or regulations with a mere executive order, so the HHS mandate and its offensive non-exemption continues to be the law of the land. But the President, with the stroke of a pen or even with a mere oral order, could easily have directed the Justice Department to immediately settle all the litigation by granting the religious non-profits the same full exemption that is enjoyed by churches, and further directing the relevant agencies to develop regulations that would formalize that settlement into law. That would have resolved the HHS mandate controversy completely and it would have established a strong precedent for further conscience protection laws and regulations.

This is a tragic missed opportunity, and it directly calls into question the Administration’s competence and/or its sincerity about protecting religious freedom. It is a complete and absolute failure to follow through on explicit campaign promises — somehave even called it a betrayal.

Paragraph 4 is hardly worth mentioning. It directs the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections”. This won’t come any time soon, since virtually no sub-cabinet Justice Department officials have been confirmed by the Senate and there isn’t even a nominee for the head of the crucial Civil Rights Division. And in any event, “guidance” does not have the same force of law as regulations or statutes, it does not have to be accepted by the courts and it can be overturned at any time by this or any future Administration. So this is another post-dated check for something that may be delivered someday by someone. Yawn.

This much bally-hooed executive order is a major failure. It provides no actual protection for religious freedom. It does nothing to change the law. It does nothing to reverse the hostility of the prior Administration towards those with traditional religious beliefs. It does nothing to protect religious contractors from discrimination by government agencies that disapprove of their beliefs. It is such a non-starter that even the ACLU has decided that it’s not worth challenging in court.

Many people, particularly religious conservatives, supported the President because they rightly feared the consequences for religious liberty if Hillary Clinton had been elected. But the President’s executive order uttely fails to deliver on expectations for imporoved protection of religious liberty. All we can hope is that the Administration will eventually get its act together, appoint good people to crucial executive positions, and implement concrete reforms to statutes and regulations that will give genuine and lasting protection to people and organizations of faith. Meanwhile, despite all the fanfare in the Rose Garden, the very real threats to religious freedom remain.

The American Monarch Wages War

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

One of the most important stories in Anglo-American constitutional history has been the struggle over the extent of what is called the “royal prerogative”. That’s the term for the inherent power of the monarch in such areas as foreign affairs, warfare, law-making, etc.

The history of England is in many respects the history of the gradual restriction of the unlimited power of the king and the imposition of conditions and limitations that established a separation of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. One of the central elements of the royal prerogative was the power to make war without the approval of Parliament. Even to this day, the monarch of Great Britain has the sole authority to declare war, without the consent of the legislature.

That history is essential to understanding the foundation of the United States. If you were to read the Declaration of Independence, and focus on the “long train of abuses” in that document, you’ll understand that the misuse of royal prerogative was at the heart of the grievances that led to the Revolution. One of the driving principles in the Declaration, and later in the Constitution, was the need to limit the royal prerogative and to limit the power of the executive with checks and balances.

Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution gives to Congress the sole authority to declare war, to raise armies and navies and to regulare them. Article Two, Section Two designates the President as the Commander in Cheif of the military, which ensured civilian control of the military, but did not give him unlimited power to make war or take other actions purely at his discretion. That principle has been upheld by the Supreme Court, for instance in the Youngstown Steel case, which overturned President Truman’s seizure of steel mills during the Korean War. It has always been understood, however, that in emergency situations, the President can act to defend America against attack, even without first getting Congressional approval. That same section has also been understood to give the President very broad powers to conduct the foreign policy of the United States, including making treaties.

Add to this is that the United States has signed onto the United Nations Charter, which is thus part of the “supreme law of the land”  according to Article Six of the Constitution. That Charter permits nations to act in self-defense against an armed attack (Article 51) but specifically forbids “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (Article 2). Under the Charter, and thus under American law, the authority to used armed forces against another state is reserved to the Security Council (Chapter VII).

Over the course of our history, presidents have greatly expanded their powers over war-making. Our nation has engaged in many conflicts on Presidential decision alone, without specific Congressional approval. From time to time, Congress has tried unsuccessfully to restrain that power. In recent years, Congress has completely abdicated its authority over declaring war. With a few exceptions (e.g., the Iraq War), the United States has consistently ignored the United Nations Charter when deciding to engage in armed conflicts.

Why does this matter to Catholics? It has always been an element of Catholic social teaching that nations may engage in warfare under very limited conditions. This has generally been known as the “just war” doctrine, and can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2309. An essential element of that doctrine is that the decision to engage in war must be made according to the laws of the nation and international law by the competent legal authorites.

Those requirements have been consistently flouted by our militarized government. We have now come to a place where the President has no accountability to anyone — not Congress, the Supreme Court, or the Constitution. And so we are engaged in on-going wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and now Syria, all of which are being waged without any regard to the Constitutional limits on presidential authority.

It is as if we never separated from Great Britain. In effect, we have a monarch with unlimited royal prerogative to wage wars on other nations. These decisions are too important to leave morality out of the calculus. As Catholics, we must bring moral principles into the debate.

Real Presidential Leadership

Sunday, February 21st, 2016

As the Presidential primary season unfolds, we keep on hearing various
candidates talk about “leadership”.  The question is, what does that mean?
February 22 is an auspicious occasion to reflect on the meaning of true leadership in our American republic — Washington’s Birthday.

George Washington is a hero of mine.  I believe he was the greatest American
who has ever lived, and one of the greatest men who has ever lived.  He was the
dominant figure at the most important time in our history, when our nation was
being formed, and his impact on our history is incalculable.  He was indeed, as
the title of one of his biographies calls him, the “indispensible man”.

In our modern time, we tend to emphasize in our “leaders” the importance of
government experience or business acumen (when we’re not looking for
iconoclastic bluster).  While Washington possessed many managerial gifts, his
excellence as a leader were based on something far more important — they
stemmed directly from the quality of his character.  There are several attributes
of his character that are worth highlighting, because I believe that they would be
the perfect template for the virtues we need in our modern-day leaders.

Humility — Despite being the most admired and accomplished public figure of
his time, Washington never reveled in his status or stooped to bragging or self-
aggrandizement.  Instead, at every point in his career, as he was being asked to
assume greater and greater responsibilities, he took care to speak of his sense of
unworthiness and his fear of disappointing those who were entrusting him with
new duties.  One can see this in his statement on accepting his commission as
leader of the Continental Army, his resignation of that commission after
successfully prosecuting the war, his First Inaugural Address, and so on.  It is a
consistent theme of his public life — his humility in accepting the duties that his
nation demanded of him, even while he willingly accepted the task.

Self-Sacrifice — Washington always put his nation ahead of his own interests.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, he nurtured a strong desire to return to his
beloved home.  He repeatedly quoted the Bible to describe this desire:  ” they
shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make
them afraid” (Micah 4:4).  Yet, amazingly, his devotion to duty was such that he
visited his estate only once in the eight years of the war, and only near the end,
when the campaign came to Virginia.  He tried to retire from public life after the
war, only to be called back to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional
Convention, and again to serve as President.  Love for his nation, and a keen
sense of duty, were always his motivating force, never egotism or ambition.

Tolerance — In an age of religious intolerance, Washington was noteworthy for
his liberality.  During the war he forbade his soldiers from holding “Guy Fawkes”
events, out of fear that they would offend his Catholic allies, the French.  As
President, he wrote one of the most important statements of religious liberty in
our history, his justly famous Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport,
Rhode Island.  He spoke of how the government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to
persecution no assistance”, and promised protection to those of all faiths who
live as good citizens.  It is inconceivable that Washington would show any
degree of animosity or hostility to members of any faith who sought, like him, to
be good Americans.

Respect for Rule of Law — Washington always respected his role as a servant of
the people, within the proper role assigned to him by the law.  Throughout the
Revolution, he defered to an incompetent Congress, not out of respect for their
abilities, but out of reverence for the rule of law in a republic.  His character
alone was enought to allay the fears of many Americans, who were concerned
that the office of President under the new Constitution could become a crypto-
king.  His devotion to the law can be best seen in his response to the incipient mutiny of his officers at the end of the war.  Congress had refused to pay the officers, and there was a movement afoot to petition Washington to lead the army to Philadelphia to compel Congress to act.  He reacted to this by immediately squelching the rebellion, saying that the conspiracy “has something so shocking in it that humanity revolts at the idea”, and calling upon the officers  to look with the “utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country”.  By force of his force of character alone, Washington ended the threat to turn America into a military dictatorship, and thereby preserved our freedom.

Piety — While there has been much debate about Washington’s religion, there is
no question that he was a sincere and devout believer in God, and that he relied
on divine providence in all his work.  At every significant moment of his public
career, he invoked the assistance of God.  For example, in his First Inaugural
Address, he spoke eloquently of his prayer for divine protection of America,
speaking of “my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the
Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids
can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the
liberties and happiness of the People of the United States”.  His faith was not a
mere political posture, but a deeply held conviction that God’s benevolent hand
was responsible for the welfare of the American nation.

Nobility — The greatest demonstration of Washington’s nobility of character was
not in the way he exercised power, but how he surrendered it.  Indeed, in some
ways the most important day of American history was December 23, 1783, when
Washington resigned his commission to Congress at the end of the war.  Rather
than seizing power, as many victorious military leaders had done in the past,
Washington willingly and respectfully turned over the authority that had been
given to him.  When hearing that Washington might surrender his office, the
baffled King George said that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the
world!”  But so he did, and so he was, and his last words to Congress are worth quoting:

“I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.  Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”

It may seem impossible that anyone in our debased modern age could measure
up to Washington’s patriotic virtues.  But there is a reason that the President can
look out and see the Washington Monument from the Oval Office, and that Congress can likewise see it down the Mall. It is upon the virtue of our leaders that the health of our nation depends.  A republic cannot survive if it elects leaders who lack virtue.

Washington’s virtues are the same that we should expect — no, require — from
every one of our Presidents.  We cannot afford to demand anything less.

What He Really Means

Friday, August 5th, 2011

In May 2009, the President went to Notre Dame University to receive an honorary degree, and to address the graduating class.  Many of us believed that this was a profoundly scandalous invitation by the administration of the University, which purports to be Catholic.

In response, we were tutted and shushed by those who, like the gullible priest who heads the University, thought that it would be the beginning of a “dialogue” between the pro-abortion President and the pro-life community, particularly with the Church.

Indeed, on that day, the President said this:

When we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe—that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground….  Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science but also in clear ethics as well as respect for the quality of life.

Two years later, we have yet another demonstration of what it means when the President speaks about issues of life and death.  It means this — his words have the exact opposite meaning from what he says, and  you can always expect that he will do everything in his power to advance the Culture of Death.

Earlier this week, the President’s Secretary of Health and Human Services announced that, pursuant to the health care “reform” law, all health insurance plans in the United States would be required to cover — free of charge to the insured person — all forms of contraceptives, under the rubric of “preventive care”.

This includes hormonal contraceptives, which corrupt women by treating their healthy fertility as if it were diseased.  It includes “intrauterine devices” which are early mechanisms of abortion.  It includes “ella”, a “morning after pill” that is acknowledged by its own manufacturer to work as an abortion pill.  And it writes into law a powerful anti-life message, which teaches people that a new human life is an enemy to be poisoned at its earliest stages — to be “prevented”, and not welcomed.

For those individuals who object to this?  Nothing.  No chance of opting out.  No “choice”, to use a favored word of the President’s.

For those religious institutions that object to this?  Nothing — just an “exemption” that is so transparently phony that it is an insult.

This has been yet another important lesson.  When the President speaks, it’s important that we translate his words into plain English.  By “common ground”, he means “I will compel you to agree with me or face the consequences”.  By “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion”, he means “ignore their concerns and force them to pay for abortions and abortifacient contraceptives”.  By “draft a sensible conscience clause” he means “enact a fig leaf of a provision that everyone will know to be bogus”.  And by “grounded in clear ethics as well as respect for the quality of life” he means “pushing policies that advance the culture of death and the agenda of those who worship it, regardless of the cost in human lives or souls”.

And by “dialogue”, he really means “force you to surrender your beliefs and buy into the killing of children and the degradation of women”.