Ted Frier

Ted Frier
April 02
Ted Frier is an author and former political reporter turned speechwriter who at one time served as communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, helping Bill Weld become the first Bay State Republican in a generation to be elected Governor. He was Chief Speechwriter for Republican Governor Paul Cellucci and Lt. Governor Jane Swift. Ted is also the author of the hardly-read 1992 history "Time for a Change: The Return of the Republican Party in Massachusetts." So, why the current hostility to the Republican Party and what passes for conservatism today? The Republican Party was once a national governing party that looked out for the interests of the nation as a whole. Now it is the wholly-owned subsidiary of self interest. Conservatism once sought national unity to promote social peace and harmony. Now conservatism has devolved into a right wing mutation that uses divide and conquer tactics to promote the solidarity of certain social sub-groups united against the larger society while preserving the privileges of a few.


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JANUARY 19, 2013 10:17AM

Faith v. Democracy

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"Truth is truth and does not change because of the Mob." So says a fundamentalist friend of mine, call her Lori, from my days long ago at Montgomery Catholic High, deep in the Heart of red state Dixie.

Lori and I picked up right where we left off back in high school - arguing with one another - when she linked to a letter on Facebook asking for support of the evangelical owners of the chain store Hobby Lobby in their dispute with the federal government over providing health coverage to their employees for family planning.

The Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling (by refusing to take the case) that the owners must abide by the provisions of Obamacare no matter how blasphemous they might think it to be. The defiant owners have threatened to disobey the law anyway.

Lori's view is a kind of theocratic capitalism - a fusion between property rights and religious "freedom" that demands that in all significant controversies in American law and policy the beliefs of the religiously devout who are wealthy must be accorded deference.

Therefore, if the owners of a business like Hobby Lobby are strongly opposed to birth control, who does the government think it is telling them they must provide health benefits their employees want (and their doctors prescribe) but which are offensive to the owner's religious sensibilities?

My view, as I have stated before, is that this controversy, like the one involving the Catholic bishops earlier, reflects the relentless campaign by traditionalist elements to both prioritize religion over all other forms of belief in our Republic and then use property ownership -- irrespective of how much taxpayer support those owners might get - as leverage to advance their patriarchal way of organizing society as a substitute for the modern and democratic society we have now.

My argument is that Notre Dame is fundamentally a "business" not a "church" and so its Catholic owners ought to be treated like business leaders, not ecclesiastical ones. At some level this is a dispute over theocracy versus democracy and the relative power and influence religious leaders will have over democratically-elected ones to shape our society.

If Hobby Lobby wants to do business in the United States, employ American workers, and earn profits by selling goods and services to Americans in an economy that is profitable thanks in large part to huge public investments in education, transportation, public safety, public order and defense, then it must play by the rules which apply to everyone else and not think it is somehow entitled to special consideration just because its opinions on right and wrong are "religious" in nature.

Redefining the conflict as one of the right of property owners to use their own property as they see fit does not alter the underlying question we face: Whether America will be a theocratic society or a democratic one.

In other contexts we do not allow property rights to trump civil or individual rights. We do not allow the owners of restaurants or theaters or other "public" accommodations to leverage their property ownership in order to impose their bigotries, prejudices and superstitions on the rest of us, no matter how firmly or sincerely held, by denying service to others based on race, ethnicity or religion -- even though there are some (like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul) who think we should.

The same principle applies with business owners Like Hobby Lobby's who think ownership entitles them to deny benefits to their employees available to everyone else simply because they have an objection based on their own particular religious tradition.

Lori is smart and articulate and so is able to give a good account of the view of America held by those whose politics are mostly an extension of their religious devotion. And what Lori says is that "the Founders accepted as fact that our rights were granted by God, not given to us by man, and thus a moral society based on God's laws would govern themselves accordingly."

It was not a perfect model, she said, but was "an exceptional experiment" that has so far produced "great prosperity and freedom" these past two hundred years.

Lori exhibits a rhetorical slight of hand common among theocrats who want to use politics in order to reorient America towards a more "Biblical worldview."   The legerdemain appears when she refers to her liberal adversary on the other side not as "democracy," which implies competing beliefs and values like freedom and liberty, but as "the government" with all of the negative connotations about bigness and oppressiveness that term implies.

"Your way of thinking," says Lori, for example, "is that somehow the Government in its vast wisdom and power grants Hobby Lobby the right to do business in the United States, allowing them to make a profit."

But it's a mask that falls quickly when Lori lets down her guard and tells us what she really thinks, which is: "Our Constitution is based on a representative republic and we have slowly slipped into mob rule -- pure democracy -- with all of the propositions and direct votes of the people."

Lori says she does not think the Founders "set us up as a Theocracy" -- probably because "theocracy" sounds bad and polls poorly. Nevertheless, she quickly adds that the Founders "never expected God to be absent from our hearts and minds."

Our morality has to come from somewhere, says Lori, and that source she insists can't be "the whims of lawmakers or the court of public opinion."  That is because, as she said at the beginning, "truth is truth and does not change because of the Mob."

I do not think the Founding Fathers wanted "to purge God from our hearts and minds" either. But neither do I think they wanted to trust their new republic and its politics to a religious sensibility that is authoritarian in nature because it believes "truth is truth."

The Founders were not godless atheists. But they knew their history and the sobering record of past republics which had committed mass suicide through factionalism and civil war.

And so the Founders were obsessed with how to construct a sustainable nation out of so many disparate parts so as to promote "domestic tranquility."

Formal checks and balances were important for making sure groups worked together to pass laws.  But more important was a generalized public philosophy or ethos -- a tradition of civility and tolerance and liberal-mindedness - able to marginalize as much as possible absolutist doctrines like religion from dominating the national conversation and making politics itself - "the art of compromise" - impossible in any meaningful sense.

In controversies like Hobby Lobby and the one involving the Catholic bishops, we have gone from the First Amendment protecting the right to worship without state interference to the right of property owners to impose their religion on others if one has enough money to run a business or state-subsidized hospitals, schools, universities and social service charities.  

It's not immediately evident to me how it is possible to organize a complex, diverse society on such a basis and sustain it -- at least not a modern democratic one.

And that is why I see conflicts like Hobby Lobby's as skirmishes in the larger cultural civil war being waged around the world between modern pluralist and popularly-governed societies and those traditionalist ones trying to restore to power all the same old ancient authorities of faith, wealth and privilege.

Daily Beast columnist Andrew Sullivan is on the same page when he says "the core dynamic in the world today is between fundamentalism and liberalism."

By liberalism, Sullivan means "acceptance of ideological and cultural diversity, a limited government, and a clear separation between church and state."

This is in contrast with "fundamentalism," by which Sullivan means "the attempt to enshrine certain scriptural or religious doctrines into literal reality for ever and to fuse them with politics and national identity."  

Think "Christian Nation."

This does not mean that American liberals or "secularists" support the "obliteration of religion," says Sullivan, since liberal democracy has, in America, "helped religion flourish and evolve in constantly surprising ways."  

But it does mean that the overriding public sensibility in America - the mindset and set of basic values and assumptions we use in our public politics - will be secular and modern in nature and not religious and traditionalist.

Women's rights and freedoms are the canary in the coalmine here since women's freedom are a common salient in these civil conflicts aggravated by traditionalists who see the government of a country as being essentially an extension of the government of the (largely) male dominated family with its separate and distinct gender roles.

This is why the "War on Women" took on particular intensity in the last election as the long-standing disagreement over abortion rights spilled over into issues long thought to be resolved, like access to contraception and even equal pay for equal work.

Each of those issues had their own logic, to be sure, but were also aspects of the larger struggle by some to make the foundations of the American Republic theocratic not democratic, reflecting the paternalistic beliefs held by traditionalist authorities that the people, and by extension the society as a whole, is not competent to make these kinds of moral and "value" decisions by themselves and of their own free will.

Lori would probably never say this since she considers herself to be a patriotic American. But at some level I think Lori doubts the legitimacy of the American democratic republic. "No longer can we trust politicians to take our wishes to Washington," she says. "America has been asleep for many years regarding politics and needs to wake up."

Lori would never take up arms against her own country or participate in the violent overthrow of the government. But her attitudes about democracy, legitimacy and political sovereignty -- and her alienation from the country and its government -- provide aid and comfort to those who would.

And it's that alienation that will make putting sensible restrictions on military-style assault rifles and other weapons of war and mass destruction a very heavy lift.

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This caught my attention.......

""Daily Beast columnist Andrew Sullivan is on the same page when he says "the core dynamic in the world today is between fundamentalism and liberalism."

By liberalism, Sullivan means "acceptance of ideological and cultural diversity, a limited government, and a clear separation between church and state." ""

While agreeing with this as far as it goes, I wonder if we don't have another "horse in the race", as it were. While the founders had to wrestle with how to do the necessary without religious influence playing an unwanted and unwarranted role, we now have another "outside" inside contender for a major role in how governing is done.

This is the major corporation / financial institution. Such bodies constitute such massive financial influence on government through legal and illegal means, that they truly have taken a seat at the table and are expecting to be "dealt in." Governments, at various levels, are acceding to this demand.

Perhaps, as well as a clear separation of church and state, we also need to establish a clear separation between business and the state. Business goals and interests are definitely NOT those of a state set up to serve the people of the society. At times they are so different that they diametrically oppose that which would be beneficial to the people whom the state purports to represent.

too many words, particularly if your assumptions are wrong.

1. america is not a democracy. the precise label is 'elective oligarchy,' and if that doesn't sound good, it's better than 'plutocracy.'

2. if america wants to insure its workers, america should pay. the notion that employers should pay for health insurance is absurd. it creates a form of indenture for the employees, and cripples small business.

3. america is trapped by its culture and history, mired in medieval notions which lead to various inefficiencies most notably in education. this has been masked by buying in graduates from overseas, but the eu and china are beginning to pay as much.

4. lori is right: a great many americans are dependent on religion for a sense of security, and elective oligarchy responds to that dependency even now when they are about half of the electorate. american politicians simply must display religious sensibility, certainly hypocritical but even more dangerous for being corrupt.

so it's no use applying your wishful thinking to her fantasizing, you're both living in dreamland. america is not a just and tolerant democracy, was not designed to be, any more than it is a baptist theocracy. but lori's fantasy is superficially closer to the truth.

I agree. The fundamental issue here is the basic one of "sovereignty." Where is it? At the end of the day, who decides? Where is ultimate power located? You would have thought those issues were settled after 230 years, but apparently not. Jim DeMint quit the US Senate and said conservatives should not trust the GOP. So obviously DeMint does not think sovereignty resides in The People and those institutions the people have created, exercising "popular sovereignty," to govern themselves, namely the US Senate and the political parties.

I think what really separates liberals and conservatives is this notion of sovereignty. Liberals believe it resides in the community as a single corporate entity acting through the one thing we all share in common, which is our democratically elected government. Conservatives believe it resides in some more particular community, whether their faith, their cultural subgroup, or in an economic class defined by the property they own.

How far the federal government can go in any given sphere is a perfectly legitimate question for a government under a constitution with enumerated powers. But I believe the quarrel that conservatives have with "Big Government" goes beyond complaints about its size, cost and intrusiveness and strikes at the very heart of its legitimacy. This echoes the arguments about the nature of our national community we had before the Civil War, which is just one of the reasons why since the Southern takeover of the GOP in 1994 the only two non-Republicans to win the White House have faced threats of impeachment and challenges against their legitimacy.
Unfortunately your friend, Lori, is one of many who have become cynics about government to the point where trying to reason with them about the non-problem become a lesson in futility. I work with many such…and the mindset that “government” (especially big government) is out to “get us” is dominant to the point where trying to explain that WE are the government falls on deaf ears.

Ronald Reagan (or more exactly, the personality of Ronald Reagan) bears a good deal of fault, although even I realize that the man probably never intended (nor expected) his remarks about government to go where they have.

This distrust and hatred of government is at the base of so many problems we face right now…and is what looks to me to be an inoperable cancer on the body politic.

Frankly, I think the religion angle in all this will eventually straighten itself out, but the ideological angle is so deeply ingrained right now I see little hope of it being repaired before other more serious damage is done as a result of it.

Not sure how to impact on it except by what so many of us are doing…to discuss it and get others to discuss it. Perhaps a light will go on for enough to make a difference. If not...well, I don't even want to think about "if not."
al loomis,

I agree with you a lot more than I don't -- I think the idea of employer-based health care is stupid, for example, just like you say. And I can't really contest your other complaints because they are there in the historical record. But perhaps where we part ways is in this gap between promise and practice, between our history and our ideals. The logic of America is democratic even if our history is as oligarchic as you say. Look at the battle over slavery. Look at how long it took to give women, blacks and young people the vote. The direction of American history is toward greater personal freedom and opportunity even if the precise course is not linear but circuitous instead, one step forward and two steps back. The Founders were elites protecting their power and position, no doubt about, but they also signed their names to documents declaring all men created equal and giving power to "We the People."
Frank, thanks for your comments. I think you are right about the religious angel eventually sorting itself out because its a political movement that is ultimately based on loving your enemy and building a larger community. But I agree about the larger ideological dangers that exist today. Our system has always given the minority much greater power than they have in other kinds of parliamentary democracies and we have a conservative movement that is not powerful enough to govern but is strategically located where it can do the most damage by making one of the branches of our government dysfunctional. I don't see how the GOP can change because there is no incentive for Tea Party radicals to change and so very little leverage Republican leadership can bring to bear. Live by the gerrymander, die by it.
Frank, I meant religious "angle," of course, not angel. Freudian slip!
Well argued, Ted. With Obama virtually shredding the Bill of Rights, I think it's understandable that a lot of people see the current US government as tyrannical and using violence to overthrow it. I don't know about you, but if I had been a Jew in Nazi Germany, I would opted to take out a few SS officers rather than getting into a box car.
Lori needs to know that the Court, long ago...late 1800s, said that all church-owned businesses have to follow the same laws as private businesses in the same market. She also needs to read Madison's Federalist 10, where Madison describes "Republic" and "Representative Democracy" as being one concept. Republic being an executive ruling with public input, representative democracy being our form of that public input.

Private business owners deciding public policy? There's no more a right to that than a church doing the same. The right-wing claims admiration of the Constitution, but doesn't know the first freakin' thing about it. They've been propagandized into idiocy. I know this from experience. In fact, most claims of constitutional fealty are inversely proportional to actual knowledge. The more strident the claim, the less likely they know Constitution from constipation. It's just another buzzword where the Right is concerned.

We can only hope the steadily sinking reputation of the now ass-over-head ideologically insane GOP continues until they are reformed, or replaced by something closer to sane.
Hard to believe we'd still be fighting with the forces of religious intolerance in the 21st century--not in the parts of the world where little or nothing has changed since antiquity, but here in the US with all the resources and history available for us to learn from.

It both shows the resilience and stranglehold of orthodoxy to control men's minds. Though our form of government and our culture, perhaps more than any other outside of Europe, supports the rights and obligation of the individual to control their own destiny, we still have a vast population that abrogates that right and turns themselves over to institutions and demagogues to tell them what to think. Their need for structure far outweighs their ability to be free.

The idea that they have rights, and they in fact can make their own choices is foreign to them, only beginning to dawn on their consciousness. You want to shake them and tell them to wake up, but they are far too scared. Their Gods are too far away and have forsaken them.
Well said Ben. Dogmatic imprisonment is even less easy to understand when you consider how discredited the Catholic hierarchy is that would enforce it. I like what Bruni said in his NYT column this morning about that: IThe repeated scandals "has also helped to turn many Catholics away from the church, while prompting others to regard its leaders as ornamental and somewhat irrelevant distractions. They cherish the essence and beauty of their religion. They just can’t abide the arrogance of many of its appointed caretakers."

Appointed caretakers. I like that.