Tag Archives: Bill of Rights

Are We Americans?

I recently participated in a session of “Cocktail Judaism”—an activity sponsored by Indianapolis congregation Beth El Zedeck for members interested in exploring current issues in the context of Jewish values. The environment is informal; congregants meet at a local restaurant on a weekday evening, and various “experts” are invited to lead the discussion.

On this particular evening, I shared the microphone with my more knowledgeable cousin, Jeff Smulyan, CEO of Emmis Communication. We were asked to facilitate a discussion revolving around a question posed by Rabbi Dennis Sasso: What does it mean to be an American, and how will the answer to that question matter to the 2020 election?

I argued that–at the very least—being American requires understanding, supporting and protecting two essential elements of our country’s version of liberal democracy–majority rule and its libertarian brake, aka the Bill of Rights.

In order to protect the legitimacy of U.S. government, we need to address the escalating assaults on majority rule: Gerrymandering (the practice whereby legislators choose their voters, rather than the other way around); the growth of vote suppression tactics (everything from voter ID laws to the spread of disinformation); the disproportionate influence of rural voters thanks to the operation of the Electoral College; the current (mis)use of the filibuster, which now requires a Senate supermajority to pass anything; and the enormous influence of money in politics, especially in the wake of Citizens United.

In order to protect individual liberty– i.e., the constraints on majority rule required by the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment–we need to reinvigorate and protect the libertarian principle that animated the nation’s Founders: the right of all people to live as they see fit, so long as they do not thereby harm the person or property of others, and so long as they are willing to grant an equal liberty to others. That “live and let live” principle doesn’t just  require us to limit government over-reach; it requires that we combat racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia…all of the “isms” that deprive some citizens of equal civic status and that deny them the full expression of their individual liberties.

Understanding and protecting both majority rule and individual rights requires an informed citizenry–and an all-out assault on civic ignorance and apathy.

In response to a question from Jeff, participants indicated their concerns about a wide range of issues: gun control, the environment, health care, reproductive rights, the Supreme Court…an important litany with which we’re all familiar. These are all, admittedly, absolutely critical issues.

That said, I’ve become increasingly convinced that 2020 is about America’s structural and systemic distortions—that our first order of business must be to confront the misuses of power that make fair and productive political debate about substantive issues impossible. These failures of American governance need to be addressed before any of the policymakers we elect will be able to discuss, let alone pass, rational, evidence-based policies.

You can’t drive a car if it’s lost its wheels, and you can’t govern if your institutions have lost their legitimacy.

Unless the systems are fair, no minority of any sort–political, religious, racial, economic–is safe.

America’s Constitution was all about checks and balances and the rule of law. Until we eliminate systemic corruption and return our government to those foundational operating  principles, we aren’t Americans—we’re just an assortment of contending constituencies who happen to occupy the same nation-state.

The Enemy Of My Enemy…

E.J. Dionne had an interesting column in the Washington Post a few days ago.

He was analyzing the relationship that has recently been uncovered between Russia and the American Right–not just the NRA (fascinating as THAT is) but also the Evangelical Christian community. There’s been a lot of focus on that community’s support of Trump, but very little commentary on its seemingly bizarre relationship with Russian operatives.

In truth, there is nothing illogical about the ideological collusion that is shaking our political system. If the old Soviet Union was the linchpin of the Communist International, Putin’s Russia is creating a new Reactionary International built around nationalism, a critique of modernity and a disdain for liberal democracy. Its central mission includes wrecking the Western alliance and the European Union by undermining a shared commitment to democratic values.

I think that one key to the referenced “disdain” for liberal democracy is resistance to the “liberal” part–not to liberal politics as we understand that term today (although the Right opposes that liberalism too), but resentment of the 18th Century liberal restraints on what the majority can vote to have government require of everyone else. In other words, the limits on majoritarianism imposed by the Bill of Rights. But I digress.

Dionne notes that Putin’s affinity toward the far right makes sense, because his power rests on a nationalism rooted in Russian traditionalism.

And the right in both Europe and the United States has responded. Long before Russia’s efforts to elect Trump in the 2016 election became a major public issue, Putin was currying favor with the American gun lobby, Christian conservatives and Republican politicians.

In a prescient March 2017 article in Time magazine, Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias detailed Russia’s “new alliances with leading U.S. evangelicals, lawmakers and powerful interest groups like the NRA.”

I thought the most telling paragraph in the column was Dionne’s explanation of the Evangelical/Russia bond.

Evangelical Christians, they noted, found common ground with Putin, a strong foe of LGBTQ rights, on the basis of “Moscow’s nationalist and ultraconservative push — led by the Russian Orthodox Church — to make the post-Soviet nation a bulwark of Christianity amid the increasing secularization of the West.”

There’s an old saying to the effect that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I have never understood fundamentalist Christians’ seething hatred for the gay community–as many pastors have noted, the one (incessantly recited) bible passage about a man lying with another man is vastly outnumbered by the biblical admonitions they cheerfully ignore about feeding the poor and helping the widow and orphan, etc.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that these Evangelicals use the Bible the way a drunk uses a street lamp–for support rather than illumination.

Be that as it may, evidently all Putin had to do too woo Evangelicals was discriminate against the people they’d love to oppress if only that pesky Bill of Rights and old-fashioned American notions about civil equality didn’t get in their way…

The deepening ties between the Russian government and elements of the right should give pause to all conservatives whose first commitment is to democratic life. The willingness of traditionalists and gun fanatics to cultivate ties with a Russian dictator speaks of a profound alienation among many on the right from core Western values — the very values that most conservatives extol.

Of course, the people who support Trump and are willing to get in bed with Putin (and I mean that in the most heterosexual possible way!) aren’t genuine conservatives. They have no discernible political philosophy–just a deep-seated resentment for people unlike themselves, and a well-founded fear that the dominance they once enjoyed is rapidly evaporating.


Getting It Backward

In a recent article about the experiences of gay Supreme Court clerks, I came across the following paragraphs:

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, has authored some of the most caustic dissents against gay legal rights. In his dissent in Lawrence v Texas, Scalia said the majority had “signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda … directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct.”

Asked last month in an interview about his dissents in past gay-rights cases, voiced from the bench as well as in his written opinions, Scalia said he was merely reading the Constitution, which he says does not cover a right to same-sex relations: “Where does it come from?” he said. “This is a trendy view of the current society elite. It’s not right to impose it on everybody else. It’s a democratic question. If you want to permit homosexual sodomy, then pass a law.”

This betrays a profound misreading of the Constitution and our most basic approach to the role of government–a misreading that Scalia himself would scorn in a different context.

One of the very few things the Tea Party folks get right is their insistence that rights precede government. Their formulation is that rights are “god-given”–I won’t go that far, but I agree with the Founders that humans have rights simply by virtue of being human, that we are born with “inalienable” rights. The Bill of Rights is a list of actions that government is forbidden to take—actions that would violate those antecedent rights.

The language in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments–amendments that Scalia the “textualist” rarely mentions–is pretty explicit on the point, providing that failure to “enumerate” a right in the preceding Amendments is not to be taken as evidence that the right was not protected. That language was included in order to calm the fears of folks like Alexander Hamilton, who argued that the government of delegated powers that the Founders had created had been given no power to infringe fundamental liberties, and worried that a written Bill of Rights would inevitably omit some important ones.

The Constitution doesn’t explicitly protect a right to have children, or a right to travel, or any number of other rights the Court has had no difficulty recognizing as protected. We would rightly consider it absurd if a Justice of the Supreme Court said something like “If you want to allow people to have children, pass a law.” A majority of the Court–unlike Scalia–understands that we don’t comb through the Constitution to find out whether government, in its infinite wisdom, has conferred a particular right on We the People.We look to the Constitution to see whether government has been given the right to interfere with a particular liberty.

And I don’t find anywhere in the Constitutional history or text where government is given the power to decide who has human rights.

Thank You for Proving My Point….

It seems that each new day brings new evidence that too many Americans haven’t the foggiest idea what’s in the U.S. Constitution or what its provisions mean.

Exhibit #1: the large cross erected on public property in Dugger, Indiana. The huge cross with “Jesus Saves” prominently printed on it has been challenged by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The town fathers–evidently recognizing a loser when they see one–agreed to move it rather than spending tax dollars on expensive and hopeless litigation. But residents are up in arms. My favorite quote came from the fellow who said people who were offended could just look elsewhere.

How much do you want to wager that he’d feel differently if the symbol on public property praised Satan? or Allah? or Karl Marx?

This is a recurring battle. As the courts routinely point out, the rules are pretty clear: government cannot sponsor or endorse religion. Government cannot sponsor or endorse atheism, either. Government must stay neutral when it comes to the expression of political or religious beliefs. Allowing a religious symbol on public property is an impermissible endorsement of that religion–exactly the sort of favoritism the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment forbids.

This sort of conflict is easy enough to resolve. Move the cross to private property. People will still see it.  Folks who reject this relatively simple fix are really giving away the game–no matter what they claim, they don’t just want people to see their message. They want government to endorse their message. They want special status and recognition for their religious beliefs.

Exhibit #2. Micah Clark. Again.

The AFA has its panties in a bunch–as usual–because the Indiana Chamber of Commerce is considering opposing the mis-named “Marriage Protection Amendment.”

Why oh why would the Chamber “want to see marriage unraveled and destabilized” in Indiana? Micah wants to know. Here’s a clue, Micah–that “destabilization” hasn’t happened anywhere that same-sex marriages are legal. Quite the opposite, in fact–Massachusetts, the first U.S. state to recognize same-sex unions, has one of the lowest divorce rates in the country.

Leaving aside the hysterical rhetoric and tortured “evidence” in the AFA’s Weekly Email, one sentence leapt out at me: “It is the people of Indiana who should decide on marriage.”

No, Micah, it isn’t.

In our system, we don’t get to vote on other people’s fundamental rights. We don’t get to vote to segregate black people, we don’t get to vote against interracial or interfaith marriages. We don’t get to vote to abolish jury trials, or to override restrictions on search and seizures. We don’t get to vote to make people Baptists or Episcopalians.

Justice Jackson said it best, many years ago, in West Virginia Board v. Barnette:

The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

Maybe you don’t agree that people who are different from you should have the same civil liberties and rights that you enjoy. Fine. Don’t agree with it. But it is the law of the land, and you really ought to know that.

I wonder what new evidence tomorrow will bring….

A Widespread Misunderstanding

A recent comment posted to this blog demonstrates a widespread–and pernicious–misunderstanding of the role of the U.S. Constitution. The commenter demanded to know where there was any reference to healthcare in the constitution.

The answer, of course, is that no such reference exists–just as there’s no reference to, say, smoking. Or marriage. Or the right to drive a car. Or the internet.

The constitution does not grant us rights. It limits the government’s right to infringe on those rights. The founders believed that we have certain “inalienable” rights by virtue of being human (hence “human rights”). Some believed those rights were “endowed by the Creator.” But Creator or no, those human rights preceded governments and their laws; the Bill of Rights was intended to constrain government from ignoring or invading them.

The bottom line is that government can pass laws and create programs that the legislature believes will advance the general welfare, so long as those laws and programs do not run afoul of the limits imposed by the document itself, or by the Bill of Rights. We are all free to disagree about the wisdom of government’s policy choices; we are equally free to debate whether, in close cases, government has crossed the lines established by the constitution.

But when we look to the language of our constituent documents for permission–when we view government as the source of our rights–we betray a fundamental misconception of the role of government and law in these United States.