Obama starts his reelection campaign

President Obama formally threw his hat back into the ring, announcing that he will run for re-election.

He’s got a lot of weaknesses and vulnerabilities, what with the economy, his new war in Libya, a reputation as indecisive, and a number of unpopular policies.  And yet, say Democrats, who can the Republicans put against him who would not be even less popular?  He at least, they say, comes across as presidential, unlike most of his Republican rivals.  The power of the incumbency is great, and things may get better by the next election.

What do you think?


NationalJournal.com – Obama Announces Reelection Bid – Monday, April 4, 2011.

Why We Need Jane Austen

My colleague Mark Mitchell on why Jane Austen still resonates with young people today and what they can learn from her:

Reading Pride and Prejudice with a group of bright and interested students has been a delight. Austen can charm students in 2011 and, given the multitude of voices and volumes competing for their attention, this is no small feat. But what, exactly, is it that makes Austen such a good teacher today? The question, itself, suggests that Austen is more than a good read, more than an escapist literary drug, more than a comedy of manners.

I want to suggest that Austen provides something for which young people—even the jaded ones—secretly long. While the world she depicts is in many ways foreign to us, it is only just different enough to bring our own pathologies into clearer relief. In short, Austen reminds us of the largely forgotten categories of the lady and the gentlemen. It is her genius to make us aspire to these roles even in a world where such notions are strange and often ridiculed. . . .

Austen’s gentlemen (I’m thinking especially of Darcy here) understand the call of duty; they are committed to family, reputation, propriety, and self-control. To be sure, Darcy takes himself quite seriously, but aren’t these pursuits serious by nature? To neglect one’s duty, to be careless of one’s family and reputation, to ignore the bounds of propriety and to indulge the appetites without restraint are not the actions of a gentleman. They represent, conversely, the behavior of a boor. Or, perhaps equally fitting, they are the actions of a male who has no sense of what it means to be a man. Such characters may be Guys or Peter Pans but they are not men and surely not gentlemen.

Austen’s ladies are likewise conscious of their place in society and understand that the bounds of propriety must be observed. And while it is no doubt a gain that women today are not threatened with ruin if they don’t marry, we should not overlook the social benefits latent in a society that makes marriage the ideal. The ideal lady in Austen’s world (and here I’m thinking of Elizabeth) is strong-minded and clearly the equal of any man. She is quick witted, self-confident, and an independent thinker who will not bow and scrape before a social superior such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh nor will she accede to marry any man she does not both love and respect. Like a gentleman, a lady is constrained by social limits that direct behavior even as those limits make interaction between the sexes intelligible.

via Why We Need Jane Austen or How to be a Gentleman with Examples Good and Bad | Front Porch Republic.

Banning abortion after 20 weeks

Fifteen states are considering banning abortions after five months of pregnancy.  Nebraska and Kansas have passed it, and Iowa may be next:

The Iowa Senate will consider a bill that bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, following approval of the measure by the state House Thursday night, lawmakers said Friday.

State Rep. Mary Ann Hanusa, a Republican, said the bill is a priority because a Nebraska doctor has said he plans to open a clinic in Council Bluffs, Iowa where he would perform so-called “late term” abortions.

“There is a substantial and growing body of medical and scientific evidence that unborn babies at 20 weeks can feel intense pain when they are aborted,” Hanusa said during debate Thursday. “At 20 weeks, unborn children have pain receptors throughout their body and nerves link these to the brain.”

Iowa is one of 15 states considering a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, citing fetal pain research. The bills are modeled after a Nebraska law passed last year. A Kansas 20-week ban has already passed the state’s legislature, and Gov. Sam Brownback is expected to sign it.

via Iowa House bans abortion after 20th week of pregnancy | Reuters.


Protocol for disposing of old Bibles

This is apparently the traditional way:

You don’t burn them. You never, ever burn them.  An unwanted holy book, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or any other scripture, can be disposed of humanely and appropriately, but not burned.  A holy book is afforded the same respect as a human being in every religious tradition in the world — except, apparently, the one practiced by one pastor in Florida.  You bury them.

via Jon M. Sweeney: How to Properly Dispose of Unwanted Holy Books.

The bad theology of a pro-Christian decision

Earlier we blogged about the European Court of Human Rights ruling that Italian public schools could have crucifixes on their walls. Stanley Fish looks more closely at the decision and finds, as often happens in the United States too, that rulings that are seemingly in favor of Christianity actually end up eviscerating religion.

The question at issue was whether an Italian law requiring the placing of crucifixes in public classrooms violates a clause of the European Convention On Human Rights that recognizes “the right of parents to ensure … education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” Reversing the judgment of a lower chamber, the Grand Chamber by a vote of 15-2 answered no, it doesn’t.

Why not? First, because the crucifix is really not a religious symbol. (Who knew?) This counterintuitive conclusion is supported by three arguments, one plausible but flawed; one bizarre; and one beside the point.

The plausible but flawed argument is that in the long history of Italy, the crucifix has become a “historical and cultural” symbol that now possesses an “identity-linked” rather than an exclusively religious value. Furthermore, in its “identity-linking” guise, the crucifix stands for “the liberty and freedom of every person, the declaration of the right of man, and ultimately the modern secular state.”

That’s a little fast and claims too much. It may be the case that over the centuries the crucifix has become allied with secular values in the sense that the religion it represents no longer sets itself against them; but that doesn’t mean that the crucifix, especially when installed by law in state-administered classrooms, is no longer a Christian symbol and the bearer of a distinctly Christian message (salvation is by Christ and through the Church) non-believers might find uncomfortable and pressuring.

The Grand Chamber majority, however, takes care of that point in a way that is truly breathtaking. On top of declaring that the crucifix is not, or is not exclusively, a Christian symbol, it explains, in the course of rehearsing the holding of the Administrative Court, that Christianity is not really a religion (this is the bizarre argument), if by religion is meant a set of doctrinal tenets that the religionist is required to believe in and hearken to. To be sure, the majority acknowledges, that is the way religion is usually understood: “The logical mechanism of exclusion of the unbeliever is inherent in any religious conviction.” But not in Christianity, said to be the “sole exception” because at the heart of it is the idea of charity, glossed as “respect for one’s fellow human beings.”

This respect or tolerance overrides any specifically religious doctrine, however central or basic. “In Christianity even the faith in an omniscient god is secondary in relation to charity” (again, who knew?); and because this is so, Christianity can not properly be understood as excluding anyone from its protection or its precincts. Therefore, the crucifix (the chain of reasoning is reaching its destination) is everyone’s symbol, says “welcome” to everyone, for it is “the universal sign of the acceptance of and respect for every human being as such.” Therefore, having crucifixes in the classroom is perfectly O.K. and should distress no one: “… beyond its religious meaning, the crucifix symbolized the principles and values which formed the foundation of democracy and western civilization, and…its presence in classrooms was justifiable on that account.”

What we have here is a union of bad argument and bad theology. As a Christian virtue, charity presupposes the God it is said by the majority to transcend. God commands us to love him and love our neighbors for his sake; it is as fallible creatures and not as free-standing liberal individuals that we are the recipients and givers of charity. Respect for one’s fellow human beings as an abstract thing has nothing to do with it; belief in the power and benevolence of a savior who paid the price of man’s sins has everything to do with it. The situation with respect to salvation of those who do not acknowledge and depend upon this benevolence, who are not born again, has always been a matter of debate in Christian theology and remains so today. Generous though it may be in many respects, Christianity is hard-edged at its doctrinal center and that center is what the crucifix speaks.

No it doesn’t, says the majority in another argument, the beside-the-point one. It is a theoretical argument: as a symbol, the crucifix “may have various meanings and serve various purposes” and “could be interpreted differently from one person to another.” Yes, but the general availability of symbols to interpretation says nothing about the interpretation a particular symbol is likely to receive in a particular situation. The question is not what can a crucifix possibly mean in all the settings the world might offer, but what does it in mean in this setting, hanging on the wall of every classroom with a state imprimatur? What is a non-Christian student likely to think — “Aha, a symbol of pluralism and universal acceptance” or “I get it; this is a Catholic space and I’m here on sufferance?” Courts are supposed to apply legal principles to disputed matters of fact, not bypass the dispute (and the law) by invoking a theory of language.


The erosion of limited government & individual sovereignty

George Wills reports on a free speech case in St. Louis:

[Jim] Roos responded [to repeated efforts by the local government to seize his property] by painting on the side of one of his buildings a large mural — a slash through a red circle containing the words “End Eminent Domain Abuse.” The government that had provoked him declared his sign “illegal” and demanded that he seek a permit for it. He did. Then the government denied the permit.

The St. Louis sign code puts the burden on the citizen to justify his or her speech rather than on the government to justify limiting speech. And the code exempts certain kinds of signs from requiring permits. These include works of art, flags of nations, states or cities, and symbols or crests of religious, fraternal or professional organizations. And, of course, the government exempted political signs. So the exempted categories are defined by the signs’ content.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm defending Roos, notes that signs may be the oldest form of mass communication — Gutenberg made advertising posters — and they remain an inexpensive means of communicating with fellow citizens. St. Louis says that it regulates signs for “aesthetic” reasons and to promote traffic safety, but it admits that it has no guidelines for the bureaucrats exercising aesthetic discretion and no empirical evidence connecting signs with traffic risks. And why would Roos’s mural be less aesthetic and more distracting to drivers than, say, a sign — exempted from any permit requirement — urging the election of the kind of city officials who enjoy censoring Roos?

St. Louis is not the problem; government is. Many people go into it because they enjoy bossing people around. Surely this is why a court had to overturn a decision by the government of Glendale, Ohio, when it threatened a man with fines and jail because he put a “for sale” sign in his car parked in front of his house. The city said that people might be distracted by the sign and walk into traffic.

St. Louis Alderman Phyllis Young is distressed that Roos’s speech might escape government control: “If this sign is allowed to remain, then anyone with property along any thoroughfare can paint signs indicating the opinion or current matter relevant to the owner to influence passersby with no control by any City agency. The precedent should not be allowed.”

The alderman’s horror of uncontrolled speech is an example of what Elizabeth Price Foley, law professor at Florida International University, calls “an ineluctable byproduct of disregarding the morality of American law.” In her book “Liberty for All” (2006, Yale), she says that the growing exercise of legislative power “in the name of majoritarian whims” has eroded America’s “twin foundational presumptions” — limited government and residual individual sovereignty.

via In St. Louis, a protest sign meets government arrogance – The Washington Post.

Can you think of other examples of the erosion of these “twin foundational presumptions”? Is there the possibility that we might have too much individual sovereignty and that our government is too limited? Or are there lines that need to be drawn?