The traffic wasn’t that bad, or it was merely just as bad as it always is here in TMZ – that land that useless celebrity gossip show invented, the Twelve-Mile Zone around Hollywood. It’s not exactly a war zone, overrun by armed paparazzi, and President Obama visits here now and then, which only messes up the traffic a bit, and briefly. This time it was dinner the Monday evening before Thanksgiving with Magic Johnson and friends, and breakfast the next morning with his old friends who actually created that “Friends” show that’s somehow still in syndication, and then a visit to the DreamWorks Studio over in Glendale, next to Burbank. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO there, is a major Obama donor and supporter, but all of them are. This was a fundraising trip. Obama won’t be running for anything ever again – there’s no higher office to aspire to, except becoming the next Pope perhaps, but Obama’s a married man, with kids, and not Catholic, so that’s out of the question – so Obama was fundraising for the party. There’s little chance the Democrats will retake the House, but if the Republicans retake the Senate the government will seize up. With full control of both the House and Senate, the Republicans will shut everything down to prove, once and for all, that government itself is evil and useless. Obama doesn’t believe that. Democrats don’t believe that, so Obama gave his talks about things the government could do to get the economy working right again, for everybody, not just the rich folks, and about Obamacare, which is designed to make life a whole lot less perilous for the thirty or forty million people currently unable to access any sort of healthcare. It was the usual stuff, but with an odd twist. He quoted the late movie critic Roger Ebert, from his own Chicago – “Kindness covers all of my political beliefs.” He paused and added this – “When I think about what I’m fighting for – what gets me up every single day – that captures just about as much as everything.”
Those of us who were once high-school English teachers might quibble with the last six words there – he should have said “that captures nearly everything” or something – but it’s the Republicans who have a real problem with what he said, because they have a fundamental problem with what others see as kindness. You see, kindness, more often than not, is quite dangerous. When you’re kind to others, offering them food, shelter or clothing, or healthcare, or protection from the actions of bad people selling them what turns out to be worthless, you’re allowing them to fall into the trap of thinking of themselves as victims, and what’s more, victims who think they deserve what others give them. You rob them of the sense of personal responsibility. They become Takers. They become that Forty-Seven Percent that Mitt Romney was talking about, those who refuse to take any responsibility for their own lives at all and just expect things. Kindness makes you an enabler of that, and of course a nation of such people is doomed – no one would ever want to do anything. We’d have a nation of whiners, supported by a handful of successful people, forced to fork over to them most of what they had earned through their own hard work. That handful of successful people might go on strike and just refuse to play that game, like Ayn Rand’s hero John Galt, but that hasn’t happened yet. That’s still just a fantasy for these folks – but they can dream, can’t they?
There’s no need to review how this has been the Republican position since FDR – they fought his WPA and Social Security and the whole idea of unemployment insurance and the SEC and all the rest. They fought Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society too – Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start, and all the civil rights stuff too, and they thought his War on Poverty was exceptionally stupid, as people should take care of themselves. Now they’re fighting Obamacare, so really, nothing ever changes. Obama’s off-script comment about kindness, as awkwardly as it was phrased, actually gets to the core of what we’ve been arguing about since the collapse of the economy in 1929, or even before that. Kindness, or even basic human decency, is a personal and private matter – the government should never practice any such thing. Doing so will ruin us as a people, and ruin the nation. Save that stuff for church on Sunday, and pet your dog now and then.
Even there there’s a problem. Two or three years ago, Bill O’Reilly reminded all Americans that it says right there in the Bible that “the Lord helps those who help themselves” – so Jesus really thought stuff like unemployment insurance and welfare and food stamps and all the rest were immoral, because charity creates a “moral hazard” for those who receive it. That would mean that when Jesus said “the poor are always with us” it’s obvious that He was simply exasperated with such losers, who can’t ever seem to get their act together. It’s just that the devastating quote from the Bible that O’Reilly thought he found caused quite a stir – because there are no such words in the Bible. In subsequent interviews, O’Reilly sputtered that that’s what was clearly implied in the Bible, if you thought about it. O’Reilly also protested that he was a fine Irish lad, who had gone to Catholic schools all his life, and the nuns had taught him that kindness, which the Church calls Charity, can ruin everything.
This was not Bill O’Reilly’s finest moment. He was mercilessly hammered, and now we have a new Pope who might as well be saying stop this nonsense, Bill – keep God out of your gripes about earning tens of millions each year and then having to pay a bit more in taxes so other citizens can survive. God ain’t a Republican!
The Pope doesn’t talk like that, but the same day that Obama was out here in Glendale saying it all comes down to kindness, the new Pope was saying pretty much the same thing halfway around the world in Rome, in an apostolic exhortation that Pope Francis released at about the same time – and as such things go, it was a barn-burner.
To be clear, Jimmy Akin explains here just what an “apostolic exhortation” is:
It’s a papal document that, as the name suggests, exhorts people to implement a particular aspect of the Church’s life and teaching. Its purpose is not to teach new doctrine, but to suggest how Church teachings and practices can be profitably applied today… It is one of the more important papal documents – more important, for example, than a Wednesday audience or a homily. As it is of a pastoral nature rather than a doctrinal or legal nature, though, it is ranked lower than an encyclical or an apostolic constitution.
That doesn’t sound like much, but John Allen in this item compares it to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
“I dream of a ‘missionary option,'” Francis writes, “that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world, rather than for her self-preservation.” In particular, Francis calls for a church marked by a special passion for the poor and for peace. The theme of change permeates the document. The pope says rather than being afraid of “going astray,” what the church ought to fear instead is “remaining shut up within structures that give us a false sense of security, within rules that make us harsh judges” and “within habits that make us feel safe.”
Okay then, this is a call for paying attention to the poor and to issues of peace – nothing new there, except it’s a change of emphasis. The Pope is saying it’s time to ease up on obsessing about abortion and contraception, and on demonizing gays, and on deciding who’s got the doctrine just right and who should be shunned and ridiculed for not being angry enough about this minor doctrinal issue or that. There are more important things, or so the new Pope says:
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
Wait! This guy is attacking everything the Republicans have been saying for generations. Sure, Catholic social theory always demanded universal healthcare, but this goes even further:
How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
This guy sounds like Obama, when Obama’s on a roll, particularly since he sees a need for state action, not just vague trust in the big-heartedness of the powerful. He’s all for economic regulation and democratic supervision of the capitalist system, where the people, in general, get to curb the actions of the rich few:
While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.
Yep, the new Pope recommends vigilance for the common good, perhaps as with Dodd-Frank and the new Consumer Protection Bureau, which the Republicans have done their best to destroy, because there is such a thing as common decency, and he’s not seeing a whole lot of that:
In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
Then the new guy actually calls for political change:
A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.
Somewhere, Bill O’Reilly is weeping bitter tears for the Church he thought he knew, but Matthew Yglesias likes this new guy in Rome:
I’ve heard a number of conservative Catholic commentators remark, numerous times, that it’s silly for left-wing people to be highlighting Pope Francis’ thoughts on economic policy because all this stuff has been Catholic doctrine for a long time. I think this misses the point. Obviously a new pope isn’t going to make up a new religious doctrine from scratch. But when you have a corpus of thinking and tradition that spans centuries, it makes a great deal of difference what you emphasize.
I remember very clearly having been an intern in Chuck Schumer’s office and attending with the senator, some of his staff, and a wide swathe of New York City political elites an event at St Patrick’s Cathedral to celebrate the posthumous award of the Congressional Gold Medal to Archbishop John O’Connor. His successor, Archbishop Egan, delivered an address that went on at length about O’Connor’s charitable work, but on a public policy level addressed almost exclusively the Church’s support for banning abortion, for discriminating against gay and lesbian couples, and for school vouchers. That was a choice he made about what he thought it was important for people to hear about. Pope Francis is making a different kind of choice.
Maybe Obama was in Rome and Pope Francis was in Glendale, but Michael Sean Winters argues here that Francis is diving much deeper than anyone suspects:
It is not, first and foremost, about securing our own salvation, a case of our moral status. It is about something deeper.
It is about a genuine “culture of encounter” in which the faithful encounter the poor not only because we are commanded to, but with the awareness that the poor hold a privileged place in God’s love. We will meet Christ when we “go out” to meet the poor. The privileged place the poor are accorded in the Gospels, must translate into their receiving a privileged place in the heart and mind and work of the Church if we are to remain faithful to the Gospels, if we are to be continually be nourished by the Lord, if our Eucharist is to be a worship in truth, not in isolation. That vision permeates the text.
Those of us who are generally indifferent to religion might find what Winter has said here a bit off-putting, but it’s clear what the Pope has just told all Catholics to do – go out there and be a mensch, damn it. Pope Francis just prefers Latin to Yiddish. And he probably has no idea who Roger Ebert is either.
It doesn’t matter, because Catholics on this side of the pond just aren’t listening:
More than a year after it upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court has set the stage for a showdown over the law’s requirement that employer health plans cover birth control. It agreed on Tuesday to hear two cases challenging the mandate, each brought by a secular, profit-making company seeking an exemption on religious grounds. They are among a slew of lawsuits seeking similar exemptions. Lower federal appellate courts have split on the question, creating a need for a decisive ruling from the Supreme Court that rejects the specious religious liberty claims.
The thoughtfully balanced law exempts houses of worship and accommodates nonprofit religious and church-affiliated organizations, like hospitals and universities. At the same time, it preserves an employee’s right to make her own decisions regarding birth control and not to conform to the religious beliefs of her employer.
The new Pope says don’t obsess so much about birth control – there are more important concerns – but that’s not how folks over here see things, and this could be one way to help destroy Obamacare, even if the church has always been for universal healthcare. Add to that the new Pope just said that “the ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace” are evil, as if that matters:
While the Supreme Court has upheld the free speech rights of corporations, it has never recognized that a secular corporation is an entity capable of engaging in religion or that the religious beliefs of owners excuse noncompliance with the law. To do so now would upset accepted principles of corporate law and set a risky precedent by elevating the religious views of company owners over the interests of society and the well-being of employees. The ruling could also invite challenges to other treatments and procedures that offend business owners’ personal beliefs.
Well, yes – and a number of evangelical outfits hold that women are to be ruled by their men, just like God rules man, and women should be home with the kids, not working, so this case could determine if you can fire all the women who work for you, and never hire another, because of your religious beliefs. Just in terms of healthcare, Christians Scientists don’t believe in medicines of any kind – God forbids such things – and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe God forbids blood transfusions. Would they be permitted to amend health coverage for their employees to exclude those, no matter what their employees believe? Mormons used to hold, as a matter of faith, that black folks weren’t fully people – God said so – and it still might be that someone will claim they should be exempt from hiring black folks, or even serving them, or serving Jews, because the Jews killed Jesus – and so on and so forth. Someone might refuse to hire Mormons.
This is a tricky case:
Those who are challenging the mandate argue that it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that bars the federal government from taking actions that “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the action advances a compelling government interest and is the “least restrictive means” of achieving it.
Is the promotion of women’s health and equality a compelling interest? That depends on who you ask. Is there a substantial burden on religious exercise here? That depends on who you ask. Do private businesses and their owners have a right to impose the owners’ religious views on workers who do not share them? That depends on who you ask. It’s quite a mess.
Micah Schwartzman, the Edward F. Howley Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, and Nelson Tebbe, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, offer a complete analysis of what’s going on here – but basically, the owner of Hobby Lobby, the key plaintiff here, says he will not provide contraceptive coverage, no matter what the new Pope says about obsessing over the wrong things. Hobby Lobby is a large chain of craft stores, not associated with any church in any way, but the CEO has his religious beliefs, unique to him, and the two professors do sum up the constitutional issue:
The Establishment Clause allows the government to accommodate religious actors in many situations by removing burdens on religious belief. But in an important line of cases that has not received the attention it deserves, the Supreme Court has insisted that the Establishment Clause prohibits religious accommodations that impose burdens on third parties – which is exactly what is happening here. Exempting Hobby Lobby from the contraception mandate will seriously burden precisely those women who are its intended beneficiaries. Supreme Court case law on the Establishment Clause does not allow that result. In one decision, among many, Chief Justice Warren Burger quoted Judge Learned Hand, saying “the First Amendment gives no one the right to insist that in pursuit of their own interests others must conform their conduct to his own religious necessities.” That constitutional principle matters here in a particularly powerful way because Hobby Lobby is basing its claim on a federal statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But no statute, including one that purports to extend religious liberty, can be applied in a manner that conflicts with a provision of the Constitution.
The other issue is treating corporations, an aggregate of investors pooling resources to make a ton of money and then make even more, as people, with deeply-held religious beliefs, even if the corporation is not even vaguely associated, legally and in any way at all, with any church or religion. The Pope would never understand such a thing, and as Harold Meyerson notes, this really is a mighty odd notion:
Where does this corporations-are-people business start and stop? Under the law, corporations and humans have long had different standards of responsibility. If corporations are treated as people, so that they are free to spend money in election campaigns and to invoke their religious beliefs to deny a kind of health coverage to their workers, are they to be treated as people in other regards? Corporations are legal entities whose owners are not personally liable for the company’s debts, whereas actual people are liable for their own. Both people and corporations can discharge their debts through bankruptcy, but there are several kinds of bankruptcy, and the conditions placed on people are generally far more onerous than those placed on corporations. If corporations are people, why aren’t they subject to the same bankruptcy laws that people are? Why aren’t their owners liable for corporate debts as people are for their own?
If corporations are going to be given the freedoms that people enjoy, they should be subjected to people’s obligations and restrictions too. I’m not sure how many corporations would think that’s such a good deal.
Real people, the other kind of people, the kind with flesh and blood, do have obligations and face all sorts of restrictions – that’s life. If corporations don’t have to face obligations, or restrictions, something changes. “A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules” – as the new guy said. Obama just said kindness pretty much covers all of his political beliefs, and that begs a question. If corporations are going to be given the freedoms that people enjoy, can they also be a mensch? That seems unlikely.
But many things seem unlikely. Obama may be running for Pope now. It’s all about kindness.