Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category


Accessible to All

In Politics on June 30, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

In comments here, Hitch argues the following:

Secular does not mean without religion everywhere, secular just means that religion does not define/influence/interfere/be intertwined with government.

Tulse makes a similar argument here (Comment #8):

No atheist cares about the community that religion offers, we care about the truth claims it makes. If religious folks want to get together for bingo and have potlucks and visit each other in the hospital, that’s just dandy. The problem arises when they demand changes to school curriculum or abortion laws or marriage laws based on their theological position. The problem in Western society with religion is not its community aspects, it is the interference in public culture based on beliefs.

These comments reflect a common misconception about how religious belief can properly impact public policy.  I don’t want religion to co-opt the state in any way.  I don’t want the state to interfere with how I express my faith and I don’t want any church to interfere with the proper running of government.  I think the First Amendment is clear about that.

Yet my faith reflects who I am, most fundamentally, as a human being.  I simply cannot and do not want to divorce that reality from my thinking at any point.  I think my Christianity makes me better.  It informs my thoughts and thinking at every level (I hope).  Moreover, only some form of thought censorship could enforce a desire to keep faith from influencing public policy, and that would violate the First Amendment.

President Obama’s statement on the issues and questions surrounding church and state as well as religion and politics within his Call to Renewal speech during the 2008 campaign expresses the key point nicely:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

It doesn’t matter whether my view of murder (or the hunger problem, or slavery, or any other potential policy issue) is predicated upon religious conviction, some other conviction(s), or a combination thereof or whether that view impacts public policy.  There is nothing inherently wrong with faith influencing the state, which influence might be good, bad or indifferent.  We have examples from all sides throughout our history.  What matters is if I can adequately justify it in terms everyone can understand and that are accessible to all.  If I can, religious influence needn’t be merely acceptable, it can be a tremendous benefit.



Lincoln and the Will of God

In Christianity & Atheism,Politics on June 20, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

Nearly everyone (and every cause) in American life seeks to claim Lincoln as his/her/its own. This truth is particularly applicable as it pertains to matters of religion. Lincoln is claimed to be everything from a devout and orthodox Christian to an atheist, and pretty much everything in between. In Lincoln and the Will of God, Andrew Ferguson outlines the difficulties, ambiguities and even the inconsistencies of Lincoln’s thought in this area and concludes from that uncertainty that it’s impossible for anyone to claim Lincoln’s support in matters of religion (or irreligion).

“The uncertainty has made Lincoln our common property, whoever we are, from Robert Ingersoll to Cardinal Mundelein to Nettie Maynard. It may be indeed that Lincoln’s is the only kind of religious expression that will travel in a free country like ours. His religion has lasted a century and a half and has appealed to believers of all kinds, and to skeptics too, exactly because of its generality. Yet it still means something definable and concrete: The country, Lincoln believed, is the carrier of a precious cargo, a proposition that is the timeless human truth, and the survival of this principle will always be of providential importance. We assent to Lincoln’s creed, wide open as it is, when we think of ourselves as Americans.”


The Arizona Immigration Mess

In Politics on June 18, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

I woke up this morning to news that the federal government has decided to file suit over Arizona’s controversial immigration law — this according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (the interview in which she made this statement is available here).  Although President Obama has called the law “misguided” and potentially discriminatory, to this point he and Attorney General Eric Holder had maintained that the Justice Department was in the process of deciding whether or not to file suit.  More specifically, Secretary Clinton said that “President Obama has spoken out against the law because he thinks that the federal government should be determining immigration policy.”

The Arizona law, which is set to go into effect in July, would require immigrants in the state to carry documents verifying their immigration status and would require police officers to question a person about his or her immigration status during a “lawful stop” if there is “reasonable suspicion” that person may be in the country illegally.  Holder had indicated that he believes “the law is an unfortunate one that will be subject to potential abuse” and said that the Justice Department is “considering a court challenge.”  Yesterday, the Justice Department was still saying that the law is under review.

As one who lives in one of the four border states forced to deal with illegal immigration most directly, I have mixed feelings about the law.  On the one hand, I fully agree with the President that the law is wrong-headed and dangerous (and Arizona may next be going after so-called “anchor babies“).  I also agree that the federal government should be making immigration policy.

Just please do it!

A reasonable case can be made for both strict and loose borders.  But whatever the ultimate decision, a substantive policy needs to be put into place and enforced.  I fully understand Arizona’s frustration on account of its ongoing obligation to deal with and pay for, at huge cost, the feds’ failure to do the job. 

Immigration is a federal problem.  It should be dealt with at the federal level.  But it isn’t.  It’s momumentally unfair for state budgets — especially in these difficult times — to be forced to pay for the negligence and malfeasance of the federal government in this area.  It has gone on for decades.  That’s far, far too long.


“The Picture Was Made for the Apple”

In Politics on June 17, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

Secularists often seem embarrassed by the Declaration of Independence, what with its references to at least some sort of divine providence and natural law. They seem to want to ignore it as any sort of governing document and rely solely upon the Constitution, which makes no direct mention of God. As atheist apologist Austin Cline opines (typically):

The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to make a moral case for dissolving the legal ties between the colonies and Great Britain; once that goal was achieved, the official role of the Declaration was finished.

George Athan Billias, Jacob and Frances Hiatt Professor of History at Clark University summarizes here why, in his view, arguments like Cline’s fail. I don’t wish to re-hash the argument. However, it is interesting to note that the Declaration has often served as crucial bedrock support for the growth of freedom in America. For example, much of the debate over Missouri’s admission to the United States centered upon the tension between the two documents. At issue was the applicability of the Declaration’s principle of equality to practical political questions regarding Congressional power and the extension of slavery to new states. Of course, this dispute was not definitively resolved, as evidenced by the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision.

Abraham Lincoln’s views on this subject are particularly noteworthy. A manuscript fragment of Lincoln’s thoughts, written (most likely) in the early days of the Civil War, addresses the question in words that play with a figure from Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” To Lincoln, the image illuminates the distinction between the picture and the frame. In his reading, the Constitution is the frame that contains the golden ideal — that all men are created equal — advanced by the Declaration.

“The assertion of that principle, at that time [of the Revolution], was the word, ‘ fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple — not the apple for the picture.” (These words are cited and discussed here). This concept appears again in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, wherein he rhetorically asks whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can endure.

Accordingly, those who would advance a republic built entirely upon secular grounds argue against Lincoln, seeing the Constitutional picture frame as being designed to conceal or destroy the golden apple of the Declaration and the equality it upholds for all.


Can We Do Better?

In Politics on June 16, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

“‘Can we do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Abraham Lincoln
Second State of the Union Address


We live in difficult and troubled times. Our economic and political systems are undergoing tremendous stress. Meanwhile, I am sick and tired of “business as usual” in politics and in life. Spin sucks. With respect to the major American political parties — a pox on both their houses.

What follows is a short summary of what I think are the four pillars of a new way of dealing with American public policy issues and concerns, even though the ideas are far from new. Neither party supports these ideas in any effective, practical way. Conventional wisdom all but demands that these objectives be honored only in the breach.

I disagree.

I don’t know what the catalyst might be for bringing these issues to the fore. Whether a current party can be re-imagined and re-energized I do not know. What I do know is that we can do better.

1. First Principals Matter (not just in the breach)

The grand American experiment has ever been about “certain inalienable rights” — “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — and the constitutional protection, preservation and promulgation of those rights in order to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty….” Yet these rights are seldom examined positively. We tend to recite them only when we claim that these rights — our rights — have somehow been violated. Instead, let us re-affirm our commitment to seeing public policy as the natural, intended and affirmative outpouring of these rights “to ourselves and our Posterity.”

2. TINSTAAFL (There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch)

Virtually every politician tries to tell us that we can get something for nothing. Democrats tell us we’re entitled to grand new government programs while Republicans tell us we’re entitled to ever more and greater tax cuts. Neither party is willing to get governmental revenue and expenditures in line.

Despite previous attempts (and a recent revival of the idea by President Obama), no meaningful (which is to say, successful) pay-as-you-go program has ever been effective at the federal level. But it is simply and conclusively unconscionable to keep writing checks that can’t be cashed and leaving future generations to make good on our promises and make things right.

(a) Results Trump Ideology

We live in an era when public policy is always seen through a lens of ideology. Those days must end. We cannot afford an ideology (Left, Right or otherwise) that isn’t backed up by policies that work — clearly and demonstrably. As Lincoln so eloquently put it, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”

(b) Results Trump Politics

We also live in an era wherein the political implications (or presumed political implications) of every decision are weighed and are presumed dispositive. Those days must end. Political leaders, aided by the opposition and a vigilent press, must hold themselves accountable and reject policies that don’t do what they were intended to do in a cost-effective way. That accountability comes with grave political risk and we must eschew the temptation to offer purported bureaucratic “solutions” to this disease. But we can surely do better.

4. Question Every Policy (certainty is a huge risk)

President Clinton asserted that human knowledge doubles every five years. Whether or not that claim is strictly true, the extent of human knowledge is growing at a prodigious rate. Yet it is also true that factual knowledge is different from and less than understanding and truth. Indeed, we are extremely limited in what we can really know. If both science and religion teach us nothing else, they teach us that our grasp on truth is necessarily provisional. Our minds are fallible. We err. We are prone to delusion. Accordingly, we need to question every policy, re-evaluate every principal, test and temper every new initiative. Perhaps the greatest risk to the America we love and hold dear is the easy certainty so often on display in the public square.

“Can we do better?”

Lincoln’s words resonate as strongly today as the day he spoke them over a century ago. These four pillars provide a good starting place for a discussion seeking to answer the question in the affirmative. These purported pillars may well be incomplete or even inadequate. They may even be wrong. But we can do better. We must do better — starting right now.


Government Red Tape (Illustrated)

In Politics on June 16, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

Click on the image to enlarge it. It is from Princeton University.


Evidence-Based Politics

In Politics on June 14, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged:

House Leaders John Boehner and Steny Hoyer on "This Week"

House Leaders John Boehner and Steny Hoyer appeared on the ABC Sunday morning talk show ‘This Week” today and, not surprisingly,  talked about BP and the oil spill.  I was struck not so much by what either one said, but rather by my reaction.  Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I couldn’t help but think — indeed, I was and am utterly convinced — that if the parties’ positions were reversed, they would each be saying exactly what the other said.

We need a third party in this country and we need it now.  Most importantly, we need a new way of looking at things and doing things.  I suggest the following starting points.

1. Principles, not ideology.  When I hear politicians like Boehner and Hoyer speak, what they say is utterly predictable because it is driven by ideology.  I’d much prefer that those in power be guided by various principles (such as limited government), but that the principles be subject to the facts on the ground.  We shouldn’t be opposed to a bit of experimentation and, when something works (irrepective of our principled expectations), we should be grateful and move on to the next problem.

2.  Evidence-Based Policy.  Instead of taking policy positions and making policy decisions based upon ideological predisposition, how about basing them upon actual evidence?  Before we go about spending huge sums of money, let’s make sure the proposed plan is likely to work based upon real-live facts.  What a concept, no?

3. Government, not Politics.  Nearly everyone is sick of politics.  Democrats don’t want to criticize the President because it will hurt “their side.”  Republicans won’t compromise for the good of the country because it will hurt them politically.  Everyone is seemingly focused upon politics.  How about some focus on good government instead?

I heard a wonderful story today about a local DMV office.  For most of us, the DMV tends to be Exhibit A for why government runs poorly.  It’s as if being rude and unresponsive is a requirement for working there.  However, I was told of a recent visit filled with good service and helpful solicitations by everyone involved.  It was such a shock that management was summoned.

“What is your primary role as the manager in charge of this DMV office.”

“To manage this office on a moment-by-moment basis to make sure the needs of consumers are met as efficiently and as effectively as possible.”

To accomplish this mission, the manager had cross-trained  all his personnel to do all the jobs so, even during peak times, consumers got served promptly.  What a concept — a governmental agency looking out for the citizenry, figuring out what works and putting people’s needs first.

That guy needs to run for office.