Thursday, November 24, 2016

It Is Not My Place To Have an Opinion

My wife and I recently finished watching Downton Abbey. (Behind the times, I know.) One of the interesting features of the series is how often a character, when asked about some important matter, will answer with something like, "It is not my place to have an opinion." It's not just the servants who express such sentiments; even among the aristocracy, this sense of boundaries is keenly felt.

It strikes me that contemporary America is need of such a sense of boundaries. At present, whenever there is a problem or controversy anywhere in the country, people a thousand miles away begin commenting on things about which they know very little and social media storms brew in no time. Apart from the most grave forms of injustice, we need to trust our fellow citizens in other communities and other states to resolve their own problems. We need to trust that good people in other places will be the voices of decency and reason. They don't need us pontificating about every headline that crosses our news feed.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Films to Heal America

America is in serious need of reconciliation and healing. That was bound to be the case whatever the results in Tuesday's poll. So I asked some American Solidarity Party members for film recommendations to help foster such healing.

The suggestions were wide-ranging, including religious films (The Mission, The Island, There Be Dragons), films about wars (Joyeux Noel, The Railway Man, To End All Wars), films about America (Remember the Titans, Forrest Gump), films set in ancient Rome (Ben Hur, The Robe), and films set in foreign lands or the dystopian future (St. Petersburg, Les Miserables, The Diary of Immaculee, Hunger Games). Here are three I thought particularly notable:

Of Gods and Men (2010). A community of Trappist monks decided to stay in Algeria alongside their Muslim neighbors, even as the civil war turned decidedly ugly.  This is their story.

The Tree of Life (2011). This film tells the story of one man's life through his recollections of childhood and particularly his parents. (Side note: Robert Barron gave some commentary on this film as well.)

Pay It Forward (2000). A film about the power of kindness toward others.

Have you seen any of these films? What did you think? Are there others you would recommend?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Vote Your Apathy!

Tired of the latest news about Clinton's mishandled emails? Disgusted by Trump's treatment of women? Ready to endorse the Giant Meteor just so we can be done with this election? If you're feeling apathetic about the presidential election, go vote that apathy!

Staying home may be understandable, but it sends the wrong message. It lets the major parties think that more of the same is ok. And it's not.

A third party vote, far from being wasted, sends a message that we need fresh voices, new perspectives, and a real commitment to the common good. So go vote for Michael Maturen and the American Solidarity Party. But if you can't get behind ASP for whatever reason, vote for independent Evan McMullin, Libertarian Gary Johnson, Constituionist Darrell Castle, or the Green Party's Jill Stein. Whatever you do, don't let your apathy be mistaken for agreement. Vote for change.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Is a Third Party Vote Wasted?

This post first appeared on the American Solidarity Party of Virginia website.

You can’t talk about voting for a third party for very long before someone will say, “I don’t like either major candidate, but I’m not going to waste my vote on a third party.”

But is it a waste?

Those who make such comments would point out that, particularly in the presidential race, the odds of actually electing a third party candidate are quite small. In this sense, success is virtually impossible and so the vote is “wasted.” But voting Republican in California, or Democratic in Alabama, is also virtually guaranteed to “fail,” in the sense that these states’ electoral votes are foregone conclusions.

Voting third party, like voting Republican in California or Democratic in Alabama, can send a powerful message. It demonstrates that there are voters out there, voters willing to go to the polls, who have values that are not currently being reflected by the major parties. This is an invitation – to the major parties, to donors, to fellow voters – to rally to those values and the voters who stand by them.

Voting always involves a moral hazard. When you vote for someone you support them, their pros and their cons alike. We generally weigh these and find someone whose positive traits and policies we think are more significant than their shortcomings. Nevertheless, by casting a vote, we are, in some measure, supporting those shortcomings too. In settling for a major party candidate, you may be taking on a larger moral hazard than you’d like. Why not choose a third party candidate with whom your conscience can sleep well at night?

“But what about the Supreme Court?” some people ask. Are we not obligated to vote for a major party candidate, however bad, in the hope of saving the highest court from the justices that the other candidate would appoint? As writers all over the internet have been pointing out, that line of thinking is filled with holes. It rests on a long string of “maybes” and “what ifs,” ignores the role of the Senate in confirming justices, plays upon fear, and overlooks the poor quality of justices we’re likely to get from either candidate.

Next month you can send a clear message that you want something different. You can vote third party. You can vote for American Solidarity. Or you can add your vote to the sea of messages you did not craft and with which you do not agree.

The choice is yours.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Constitutionalism, Solidarity, and Immigrant Heritage: Three Reasons to Celebrate Today!

Today is a triple holiday!

On this day in 1787 the delegates to the Constitutional convention signed the document that has provided the foundation to our political order. As much as we grumbled about contemporary politics, I think the US Constitution deserves recognition as one of the most stable systems of government the world has seen and the framework within which America has prospered in freedom and material plenty. (I would add, in passing, that Constitution Day is a sadly under-celebrated holiday in the US, though the University of Dallas always celebrates in style, with rousing singing of patriotic songs in all of their verses. Definitely worth attending.)

But a constitution, even a good one, is largely an empty vessel. It is the grammar, if you will, of politics, not the contents. Those contents are provided the people, parties, and policies that operate under that system of government. On 17 September 1980, the Solidarity labor union was established in Poland, under a constitutional arrangement far different from our own. But in spite of the Communist system within which it was forced to operate, Solidarity acted as a powerful force for good, reminding us to always pursue what is best, in spite of the odds or circumstances.

Finally, 17 September is also the birthday of Friedrich von Steuben, one of the foreign volunteers who aided the young republic. It is observed in a few localities as Von Steuben Day (complete with parades in New York, Chicago, and Philly). For all its exceptionalism - and America is indeed an exceptional place - our country owes a great debt to the hard work and diverse contributions of many waves of immigrants. Von Steuben Day is a reminder that our arms should continue to be open to those seeking to come to our country.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Does Christian Democracy Violate the Separation of Church and State?

A friend recently expressed to me concern that the American Solidarity Party (ASP), a party in the tradition of Christian Democracy, might violate the separation of church and state. It would be easy to dismiss this question out of hand. After all, the Constitution does not contain the phrase "separation of church and state". It simply requires that (a) Congress does not establish an official religion and (b) Congress does not interfere with the free exercise of religion.

One might point out that that ASP, as a tiny party, is far from the halls of power. Even if ASP took major offices, I am aware of no religious community represented by ASP members that would demand strict adherence to particular policies. Most churches articulate principles and leave their application to the judgement of individual members and office-holders. Even if the leaders of one church tried to exercise undue influence on the political process via ASP members, surely members of the party from other faiths would object.

ASP sometimes expresses its positions in Christian terms because many of its members are Christian. But this doesn't mean that ASP does not welcome people of all faiths, or that its positions only make sense if you are a Christian. Indeed, people of many faiths, and even no faith at all, have articulated many of the same policy positions.

But at its heart, the question about church and state is about the role of religion in the public square. It is a topic of profound importance, one definitely worth addressing.

In Defense of Religious Pluralism

I am a Catholic and have attended worship in the Church's various traditions: Roman, Greek, and Maronite. But I've also attended services in other churches: Episcopalian, Methodist, Evangelical, Mormon. Not so long ago I attended Friday prayers with a friend at her mosque.

Last year I had the chance to visit the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, popularly known as The Punchbowl, in Hawaii. It is home to thousands of war dead from World War II. Many of them are Japanese Americans from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in American military history. And as you walk along their tombstones, you notice something interesting: a great many, perhaps most, of them do not have a cross on top, but a Buddhist prayer wheel.

Our nation was founded by people of various faiths: Protestants from high church Anglicans to dissenting Quakers and everything in between. There were a few of Catholics and Jews and more than a few deists of various kinds. The Founders crafted a Constitution which neither enshrines a single faith as the official religion, nor bans religion from public view. They wanted a vigorous public discussion between many faiths.

I do not, as a matter of theology, believe that all religions are equal or correct. But I respect the dignity of all people, including their religious beliefs, and I recognize that, as a matter of public policy, our country is made stronger when people of faith share and act upon their values.

Some people fear an undue influence by Christianity or a particular Christian denomination over our national politics. There has indeed been a sad history of religious oppress oppression and violence across the centuries; I'll not say such fears are unfounded. But the answer is not to banish religious voices. On the contrary, I welcome more of them. I would love to see a member of Congress introduce legislation by explaining that the policies it contains are supported by the principles found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran. I would love to see an Indian American run for office and explain how his or her Hindu faith inspired public service. And I would love to see Christians campaign for the values of the Gospel.

America needs religion.  But, to quote T. S. Elliot, "There is no competition— / There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again... / For us, there is only the trying."

Monday, August 8, 2016

Some Frequently Asked Questions: Religion, Foreign Policy, Drugs, and Amnesty

As friends and acquaintance read over the platform of the American Solidarity Party (ASP) and some of the various articles that have been written about it, there are some questions I hear more often than others.  Today I'll try to answer four of them, based on my personal understanding of ASP's principles and platform.

Q: Is ASP a Christian party?

A: Sort of. ASP is a party in the tradition of "Christian democracy." This is a movement that began in 19th century Europe and really gained momentum after the horrors of World War II, as people undertook the work of rebuilding society in a way that would be just, secure, and peaceful. We also draw inspiration from America's Founding and the Civil Rights Movement, both of which also have Christian roots.

ASP acknowledges the role of the Judeo-Christian worldview in America history and culture, but advocates for the protection of all religions, as guaranteed by the First Amendment. The party is a broad tent. ASP members come from many faiths, as well as people of no faith at all. A wide variety of Christian denominations (and localities!) are represented: our presidential candidate, Mike Maturen, is a Catholic in Michigan; the chairman of our national committee, Matthew Bartko, is a Protestant in Pennsylvania; our media manager, Christopher Keller, is an Orthodox Christian in Minnesota. This comes as little surprise, since Christian democracy itself is ecumenical, having been influenced by Catholic thinkers such as Pope Leo XIII and Jacques Maritain, as well as Protestant thinkers such as Abraham Kuyper.

Q: Is ASP pacifist or isolationist?

A: Neither. ASP opposes war apart from the traditional criteria of just war. In other words, war must be a last resort, only used in grave circumstances, when there is a reasonable probability of resolving the conflict. In the conduct of such a just war, the use of force must be proportional to the threat and the rights of non-combatants must be respected. In line with such thinking, ASP opposes torture, attacks on civilians, and preemptive strikes. ASP calls for a less aggressive foreign policy, without unilateral military intervention in foreign countries or military bases which are not needed to protect our diplomatic missions or treaty allies.

None of this means that America should disengage from the world. On the contrary, I think ASP's platform implies a brotherly concern for all people. America's history and many material blessings have placed us in a position to do a great deal of good in the world. Through the use of traditional state-to-state diplomacy, public diplomacy (where we reach out directly to foreign populations, particularly those whose governments may not be telling them the full truth), intelligence, trade, student exchanges, and the work of so many private organizations, America can promote a more free and secure world, to the benefit of our own country and the whole world. This is the notion behind full spectrum diplomacy. From time to time the use of military force is necessary, but it is a tool rarely used, and only as a last resort.

A quick look at the federal budget gives a sense of how ASP priorities might be applied. In fiscal year 2015 the federal government spent $3.8 trillion. Of that, $598 billion was spent on the military. In contrast, the State Department received $46 billion, less than a tenth as much, for diplomatic efforts. The Peace Corps spent $380 million, or less than 1% of what the military spent and 0.01% of the total budget. I am under no illusion that doubling the Peace Corps budget would make peace break out throughout the world or end the need for the military. But given how inexpensive soft power is when compared to military hardware, it's probably worth investing in a little more soft power.

Q: What is the difference between legalization and decriminalization of recreational drugs?

A: Legalization would mean that drugs became like any other product: state and local governments would be free to tax or otherwise regulate their sale and consumption, but, generally speaking, using them is allowed. Decriminalization would mean that drug use becomes something like speeding: you could be fined for it, but it's not a criminal offense, so users wouldn't be tried in court, sent to jail, or have a criminal record.

ASP endorses the decriminalization (but not legalization) of recreational drugs. The "War on Drugs," launched in the 1970s, has proved a terrible failure. In spite of spending billions of dollars and incarcerating millions of Americans, there is no sign of drug use abating. Incarcerating drug users not only costs tax-payers money, but also separates drug users from their families and society, making it harder for them to get a job after release, for example, and putting them in contact with far more serious criminals. Let's admit that the "War on Drugs" has failed and try something different.

Q: Why does ASP support a pathway to legal residency for illegal immigrants?

A: ASP supports broad immigration reform. Squeezing one part of the immigration balloon without addressing the full problem will simply put increased pressure somewhere else.

Countries have the right to know who is entering and to control that movement of people. But we must also recall that America is a nation of immigrants. We have been richly blessed by generations of new arrivals from around the world. That people continue to want to come to the US is a tribute to our great nation. Moreover, we have a duty to care for the poorest and weakest among us, which includes refugees fleeing religious, political, and racial persecution. We need to reform the bureaucratic processes by which people can legally enter the US. At present, these processes are too convoluted and too lengthy, mired in red tape.

Reforming the immigration process may address future immigrants, but does not address the millions of people who are here illegally.  In many cases, illegal immigrants were brought here as children and were in no way responsible for their status.  In other cases one member of a family entered legally and, when the red tape defeated their loved ones, other family members entered illegally to re-unite the family.  Moreover, children born to illegal immigrants are US citizens, even if their parents are not.

Leaving the millions of illegal immigrants currently living here - many of whom are long term residents, most of whom are hard working and, apart from their immigration status, law abiding - in legal limbo does no one any good.  It discourages them from seeking things like a driver's license or reporting crimes to the police, for fear that their status will be discovered.  It allows unscrupulous employers to pay pitiful wages, blackmailing their employees with the threat of reporting them to immigration authorities.

There are various proposals for a pathway to citizenship, or at least permanent legal residency, for illegal immigrants.  The usual requirements for citizenship - including a rigorous exam in American civics, which, frankly, many Americans could not pass - need not be waived.  Those who have committed crimes while here need not be eligible.  But for those who simply want to care for their families and contribute to American society, ASP believes its time to bring them in from the cold.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Paul Ryan, Please Take Note

Mr. Speaker,

Like George Will, I no longer recognize the Republican Party as my political home. Please do not take my departure personally; I have a great deal of respect for you, not only because you can comment on Aquinas commenting on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, but also for your calls for decency and bipartisanship, your willingness to admit you were wrong, and your words in defense of the poor.

The problems with both major party candidates are significant, as I am confident you understand. As a result, many people are planning to abstain from voting. I have been tempted to join them, but I fear abstention sends the wrong message. I do not want men and women running for office to conclude that fear-mongering and vitriol are the best tools for drumming up votes.

I plan to vote for Mike Maturen and Juan Muñoz on the American Solidarity Party ticket in November. I hope that, in some small measure, you and men and women like you will take note of my vote. When you run for president in 2020 - as I hope you will - I would like you to look back on 2016 and see in my vote a reminder that decency, compassion, and compromise have a constituency.

Mr. Speaker, America wants - and needs - you to be the kind of leader I believe you are, and not the kind of leader that this year's Republican nomination process has produced.

That's the message I would like my vote to send.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Remembering the Role of Religion in the Public Square

Today we mark two anniversaries. Though divided by an ocean and more than a century, these two events remind us of the importance of religion in public life.

On 20 July 1775, the Continental Congress called upon our young nation to undertake a day of prayer and fasting, seeking the mercy and aid of the Almighty God. To further make the point, Congress attended Anglican services that morning and Presbyterian services in the afternoon. These men understood the danger of losing the rightful autonomy of religion and politics; they had studied history and knew of the horrors caused by the wars of religion in Europe. And thus they promoted religious pluralism, refusing to endorse one denomination or another. But they also knew that religion is not only permissible, but necessary in our public life. They understood that, most especially in moments of great need, mankind must submit itself to the wisdom and mercy of God.

On 20 July 1944, members of the German Army attempted to kill Adolf Hitler, evict the Nazis from power, and enter into a negotiated peace with the Western Allies. It was a close run thing, but the attempt failed and everyone connected with the plot was arrested. Among them was a Catholic priest, Alfred Delp (pictured left). He had not been involved with the plot itself, but had spoken with some members of the Kreisau Circle, a loose organization whose primary crime was to imagine what a post-Nazi Germany might look like. Delp had provided some perspectives based on the social teaching of the Catholic Church. Because some members of the Kreisau Circle were involved in the plot, virtually all were arrested and most executed. While in jail awaiting his fate, Delp wrote:
Spiritually we seem to be in an enormous vacuum. Humanly speaking there is the same burning question - what is the point of it all?... Scarcely anyone can see, or even guess at, the connection between the corpse-strewn battlefields, the heaps of rubble we live in and the collapse of the spiritual cosmos of our views and principles, the tattered residue of our moral and religious convictions as revealed by our behavior.... The social problem has been overlooked... and also the problem of youth and the problem... of spiritual questions which can all too easily masquerade as cultural or political questions.
Without the insight that religion brings, we lose sight of the deeper issues with which our nation struggles. Do we have a problem with violence? Yes. With racism? Yes. With poverty? Yes. But at the root of all of these is a problem with sin, with pride, with a rejection of God and the dignity He has given to all men.

At its recent national convention, the American Solidarity Party approved an amendment to the platform, stating, "We advocate for laws that allow people of all faiths to practice their religion without intimidation and deplore aggressive secularism that seeks to remove religion from the public sphere." The platform goes on to state, "We deplore the reduction of the 'free exercise of religion' guaranteed by the First Amendment to 'freedom of worship' that merely exists in private and within a house of worship. The right to follow what the Declaration of Independence called 'the Laws of Nature and Nature's God' must be respected."

Religion is about far more than what you do at a mosque on Friday, in a synagogue on Saturday, or in a church on Sunday. Religion is a way of life, one that America has long valued, and one that we continue to need in our public discussions as much as we ever have.

Today's image comes from the website of author Mary Frances Coady.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Why I Joined the American Solidarity Party

A year or more ago I began to sketch out the principles and policies of a hypothetical political party. It would stand for human dignity, family, local government, and responsibility. It would be a centrist party with a consistent life ethic, opposing abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. It would be pro-market, supporting trade and the right to work, without idolizing the free market. It would be internationalist but not militarist, focused on using trade, intelligence, and public diplomacy before resorting to the sword. You might say this hypothetical party would have all the good things of the Republican Party without of its ills.

I grew up staunchly Republican. I attended the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and was on the floor when George W. Bush was nominated for president. In college I discovered traditional conservatism and realized that the GOP was not always a champion of conservative values. In graduate school I discovered that there are far more tools to foreign policy than just economic sanctions or military force. And I starting reading more social doctrine of the Catholic Church, seeking to have my faith inform my politics, instead of the other way around. Among other things, I came to realize that the Church took very seriously the Gospel's command to care for the poor and the weak. Yes, we must do that as individuals in our immediate area, but we must also do it as a society and sometimes that means government action.

With the presumptive nomination of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump - two candidates about whose shortcomings and vices much as been written - the need for some kind of alternative seemed pressing. Not that I was actually planning to found a party, but I hoped that my hypothetical platform might help spur discussion.

And then I discovered that an actual party very nearly fitting my own platform already existed: the American Solidarity Party (ASP), a small, young party, based on principles drawn from Catholic social teaching and similar ideas found in Protestant and Orthodox Christianity. It calls for respect for human life, from conception to natural death. It calls for an economy that is fair, transparent, and democratic. It defends the Bill of Rights and the freedom of all Americans to exercise those rights. It calls for decentralized universal healthcare, hospitality for migrants, and the promotion of peace.

I will be the first to admit that I do not support every plank in the ASP's platform. But I am very excited to have found it. For the first time in a long time I felt excited about a party, rather than merely tolerating it. This past weekend we held our national convention. There was civil discussion, in which I was able to participate rather extensively, and then voting on every amendment to the platform, every candidate nominated or endorsed. It may be a tiny party, but I had a real voice in it, and that was refreshing.

Over the coming weeks and months I'll be blogging about the ASP, the Christian democratic tradition from which it emerged, and what I think it might all mean for America.