The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, February 16, 2012

In Civil Loneliness

Religion and the U.S. Government Have Long Coexisted But Not Always Harmoniously

A recent decision by the Obama Administration to include religious healthcare providers in an existing Department of Health and Human Services mandate has resulted in a firestorm of protest. The mandate states employers must provide women employees with health insurance that covers contraceptives at no cost.

The American Catholic Bishops, social conservatives, and most of the Republican Presidential candidates have all accused the President of declaring “war on religion.” They call the mandate illegal and Unconstitutional, claiming it violates religious freedom as guaranteed by the First Amendment. They say the issue is not about contraception but the intrusion of federal government into freedom of religious expression.
Religion and the U.S. government have
long coexisted but not always harmoniously

A review of history suggests Obama’s mandate is both legal and Constitutional. It may well be a war on a religious principle/practice but history also vindicates this so long as it is not a war against a specific religion(s) in order to promote other religion(s).

The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Its literal interpretation prohibits the establishment of a national religion by Congress. A more general interpretation prohibits preference for one religion over another by the U.S. government. However, the Supreme Court has never interpreted it to prohibit civil authorities from exercising control over practices effecting society just because some people see those behaviors as part of their religious beliefs.

Anyone who thinks U.S. history is free from government intrusions into religious freedom is unfamiliar with the story of Utah’s admission to Statehood. This example seems particularly germane since Mitt Romney, a practicing Mormon, is one of the Obama Administration’s critics on the matter of contraception.

Utah was designated an official U.S. territory in 1850, with Mormon leader Brigham Young appointed its first territorial governor. A few years later, the Church’s position on “plural marriage” (i.e. polygamy) became widely known. Public reaction was strongly negative.

Aversion to polygamy had some roots in lurid stories regarding women coerced or tricked into plural marriage, the marriage of girls as young as ten to much older men, and even incestuous marriages. Some documentation suggests instances of these charges actually occurred. Other documentation reflects a carefully regulated system overall.

However, the bulk of objections centered on such marriages as disrespectful and even abusive to many of the women who participated in them, even if they did so for reasons of duty. They were compelled to submit to religious law even though it violated their personal principles/feelings. The Mormon historian Todd Compton documents the sufferings of these women in his book In Sacred Loneliness.

Another objection arose because the Mormon men most likely to practice polygamy were older, wealthier, and often in high Church positions. Their tendency to marry younger women reduced the number of eligible females and left more young Mormon men bachelors. This underscores the fundamental importance of marriage to society as a means of creating stable families over that of procreation.

By 1856, President James Buchannan replaced Young with a
non-Mormon governor and dispatched twenty-five hundred federal troops to Utah to ensure his authority. Mormons resisted this fiercely, resulting into the so-called Utah War.

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which forbade plural marriage in all U.S. territories. President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law but told the Mormons he did not intend to enforce it. Tensions slumbered for many years until 1879, when the Supreme Court upheld the Morrill law in the case of Reynolds v. United States. Then, in 1882, a Mormon Church leader was denied a seat in the House of Representatives as Utah’s territorial representative because he was an active polygamist.

Congress responded to outrage by Mormons over this slight with the Edmunds Act. This draconian law raised polygamy to a felony, punishable by a $500 fine and five years in prison. Mormon polygamists earned a status similar to modern day enemy non-combatants. The law forbade them to vote or hold office. It provided for punishment without due process – forcing wives to testify against husbands and witnesses to appear in court without subpoenas. The law revoked rights not only for practicing polygamy but also for failure to swear an oath renouncing it.

When even this failed to budge Church leaders, Congress responded with the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act. This law dis-incorporated the Mormon Church, confiscated its properties, and even threatened seizure of its temples. This caused a variety of Mormon elders – including one George Romney, a distant relative of Mitt – to sue the federal government for overstepping its bounds and impinging on their religious expression.

In 1890, the Supreme Court ruled in LDS Church v. United States to affirm Edmunds-Tucker by a six-to-three majority. Even the dissenters, led by Chief Justice Melville Fuller, agreed that declaring polygamy illegal was Constitutional. As regards the First Amendment, Justice Joseph Bradley had this to say about the rights of the government to act over religious objections in his blistering majority opinion –

One pretense for the [Mormon Church’s] obstinate course is that their belief in the practice of polygamy, or in the right to indulge in it, is a religious belief, and therefore under the protection of the Constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. This is altogether a sophistical plea.

No doubt, the Thugs of India imagined that their belief in the right of assassination was a religious belief but their thinking so did not make it so. The practice of suttee by the Hindu widows may have sprung from a supposed religious conviction. The offering of human sacrifices by our own ancestors in Britain was no doubt sanctioned by an equally conscientious impulse. But no one, on that account, would hesitate to brand these practices, now, as crimes against society, and obnoxious to condemnation and punishment by the civil authority.

The state has a perfect right to prohibit polygamy, and all other open offenses against the enlightened sentiment of Mankind, notwithstanding the pretense of religious conviction by which they may be advocated and practiced.

Later that year, Mormon Church president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto banning plural marriage. The Church insisted the ban resulted from divine revelation in a dream on Woodruff’s part. However, it seems clear the U.S. government saw an objectionable practice occurring in one of its territories and used ever harsher and more intrusive means to force its abolishment, despite its religious nature.

Nineteenth Century Mormon policies regarding polygamy have obvious similarities with present-day Catholic polices regarding contraception. In both cases, they were/are intensely unpopular with many Americans outside their respective faiths. In both cases, a majority of these religions’ actual adherents did/do not follow the official policy – best estimates are that no more than twenty-five percent of Mormons engaged in plural marriage and most modern U.S. Catholic women say they have used/use contraceptives.

There is one big difference, however. Traditional Christianity, the majority religion in this nation, did not approve of polygamy. It was in rapport with the U.S. government on abolishing the practice. In the case of contraception, it is a traditional Christian sect’s principles that are discordant with civil authorities.

As Sarah Jaffe notes at AlterNet, “When white evangelicals and Catholics claim that Obama’s declaring a war on religion, they mean on their religion.” Apparently, this is less about religious freedom and more about contraception than those objecting to the mandate care to admit, perhaps even to themselves. Yet the legal principle remains the same and is perfectly Constitutional. As Justice Bradley voiced so long ago, a law that is objectionable to a religion is permissible so long as its primary intent is not attacking that specific religion but promoting the common welfare.

The Supreme Court has reinforced this doctrine as recently as 1990. In Oregon v. Smith, Justice Scalia, a Catholic, states in his majority opinion, “The right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).”

In the case of polygamy, the common welfare was the decent treatment of women within the institution of marriage. When announcing the earlier mandate for employer-provided contraception, DHHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explained, “Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women. This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage.”

Religion and the U.S. government have long coexisted along lines of mutual respect. However, that coexistence has not always been harmonious and while the government has deferred to religious liberty in many situations, there are others when it has used the full force of its authority to oblige compliance.

Critics of the new mandate certainly may continue to argue that contraception is immoral. However, this is not the current law of the land nor perceived as benefiting the common welfare. In a twist on the Mormon women of polygamous unions, this law's critics are doomed to suffer in civil loneliness until they can change perceptions. Their legal argument that the First Amendment protects them from complying with any laws they deem immoral has no practical, historical basis.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Insanely Great

It Is “Equal Opportunity” These Days Because Almost No One Has Any

Despite his deserved reputation for moderation, New York Times columnist David Brooks is still a conservative at heart. As a result, he has despaired lately of President Obama’s move toward populism as well as the lack of traditional values and work ethic in American society. However, his fairness also causes him to do some serious self-contemplation from time to time. The story of Madelyn “Maddie” Parlier, featured in an article written by Adam Davidson, co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, in the current issue of The Atlantic, moved Brooks to just such introspection.

Parlier is a twenty-two year old woman who labors as an unskilled worker in the “clean room” of Standard Motor Products’ fuel-injector assembly line in Greenville South Carolina. Parlier grew up in the area. Her father abandoned their family when she was young, ultimately dying drunk in a car wreck that he caused.
Madelyn “Maddie” Parlier in the
“clean room” at Standard Motor Products

Parlier grew up poor but principled. She was a good student and a regular churchgoer who did not drink, do drugs, or have run-ins with the law. By her senior year in high school, she already was taking a few classes at a nearby technical college, with plans to earn a four-year college degree after graduation. Unfortunately, she also met a boy her senior year and got pregnant.

Parlier kept her baby and graduated from high school with honors but the father of her child soon left her. As a single mother, she could not afford daycare while she attended classes and her remaining family members were all too old, sick, busy, and/or poor to give her much help. She got a temp job at Standard Motor Products washing walls. Her work ethic so impressed plant supervisors that the company offered her a job.

Parlier makes about $13 per hour in a non-union shop. She works hard and does a good job. She would love to advance to a skilled position, which would enable her to earn enough money to own her own home, travel somewhere nice on vacation, and save for her child to go to college. Sadly, the knowledge gap between unskilled and skilled workers is so great that Parlier needs schooling or training to bridge it. Standard cannot cost-justify extensive training for someone who might not succeed and school is already inaccessible to Parlier for reasons already mentioned.

Parlier does not have a bad attitude and is not looking for a handout. She freely admits her own bad choices as a teen helped place her where she is today. She does not whine about bad breaks that were beyond her control, such as the loss of her father. In spite of this, she is unable to realize her American Dream and break out of the working poor into middle class affluence.

As Davidson concludes, “Maddie represents a large population – people who, for whatever reason, are not going to be able to leave the workforce long enough to get the skills they need.” Brooks concurs, “A good attitude and hustle have taken Parlier as far as they can.”

Even worse, Parlier’s situation demonstrates how disadvantaged households tend to pass on a negative legacy to future generations. Brooks writes, “Across America, millions of mothers can’t rise because they don’t have adequate support systems as they try to improve their skills. Tens of millions of children have poor life chances because they grow up in disorganized environments that make it hard to acquire the social, organizational and educational skills they will need to become productive workers.”

Brooks goes on to rue that neither Republicans nor Democrats have policies to help Parlier. He condemns liberal populism for “having shifted [Democratic] emphasis from lifting up the poor to pounding down the rich.” But he also finds fault with conservative populists as Pollyannaish. “Most of the Republican candidates talk as if all that is needed is more capitalism. But lighter regulation and lower taxes won’t, on their own, help the Maddie Parliers of the world get the skills they need to compete.”

In fact, some conservatives seem ready to argue that Parlier does not have a problem so much as she is part of the problem, as her wages are ten times those of unskilled workers in China. However, in the same issue of The Atlantic, financial editor Jordan Weissmann debunks low wages as the sole or even primary reason for China’s competitiveness. “China's labor advantage goes well beyond the low-skill workers . . . The country also excels at educating middle-skill ‘industrial engineers’.”

Chinese universities graduate roughly six hundred thousand engineers a year, versus only seventy thousand in the United States. Yet as Weissmann points out, their education is akin to a two year degree from a community college. This gives them exactly the skills necessary to work in high-tech production lines.

Brooks posits that “successful training programs like Job Corps” will be required in order for the U.S. to achieve something similar and regain our global competitiveness. Alas, many on the far right condemn such government intervention as socialism, not to mention also unaffordable at a time of massive deficits. Moreover, Davidson shrewdly observes that such programs “suffer from all the ills in our education system; opportunities go disproportionately to those who already have initiative, intelligence, and – not least – family support.”

Tweaking educational/training policies as well as how to pay for them may be necessary but at least these are attempts at real solutions to a complicated problem. It may feel comforting to say that anyone can do anything in this land of plenty if they just try hard enough but bootstraps only pull up so far. I agree that America should not guarantee equal outcomes for all but we must face the fact our country is increasingly unable to provide equal opportunity either. What is more, the average to which most can aspire is slipping into the less-than-rosy standards of bygone days.

A retreat into the past is exactly what some think is the solution. This makes Brooks sigh in another recent column, “I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return.” I find his self-honesty interesting because I once issued a similar diagnosis about the Tea Party, although, in my case, I saw age rather than race as the key demographic (i.e. substitute “an older America” for “white America”).

Fear that America’s best days may be (nearly) past was a potent and prominent theme from Republican Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana when he delivered the Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address last week. “When President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true . . . In our economic stagnation and indebtedness, we are only a short distance behind Greece, Spain, and other European countries now facing economic catastrophe.” Daniels warns America is ready to “drift, quarreling and paralyzed, over a Niagara of debt.”

Daniels also evoked the late Steve Jobs of Apple as a capitalist hero, proclaiming he had “created more [jobs] than all those stimulus dollars the President borrowed and blew.” I wrote last time how Jobs once blew off an Obama query on how to bring back Apple factory jobs from oversea. Yet he also made it clear at that time he did not share Daniels’s doom and gloom outlook. “I'm not worried about the country's long-term future. This country is insanely great. What I'm worried about is that we don't talk enough about solutions.”

Part of the reason we do not talk enough about solutions is that we too often ignore problems standing right in front of us, like Maddie Parlier, preferring to look at them though the rose colored glasses of our personal wishes and political ideologies. To continue doing so by the justification that America is “still the greatest country on Earth” ignores that we are increasingly becoming a kind of insanely great and not in the good way meant by Jobs.