What do two Democratic senators from Illinois, separated by 150 years, have in common?
I’ll apologize in advance if this post goes on a bit, but a number of thoughts converge here–from James Dobson to Barack Obama, thence to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas—with Douglas Kmiec thrown in for good measure (see comments on Prof. Kmiec lately by Rick Garnett and Gerry Bradley).
First, I have heard about some criticism lodged by Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family against Barack Obama–among other things saying that Obama has a “fruitcake” interpretation of the Constitution. I don’t know much more than that about what Dobson said. But the story led me to go read the 2006 speech of Obama’s, on the subject of religion in politics, that Dobson was criticizing.
In many ways it’s classic Obama, with a lot of rhetoric about reaching out, and about the importance of religious faith to Americans, but without any real payoff in terms of tugging Obama away from hard-left positions on policy. We get this, for instance:
[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas [sic], Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant [sic], Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King–indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history–were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.
Great stuff, huh? But what about the great moral issue of the last 35 years, abortion? Obama forgets all about the passage just quoted, saying:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
Everything Obama says here about the requirements of democratic discourse is essentially true. So maybe you were expecting that he would go on to explain just how such a “universal” argument against abortion could be made, so that a principle accessible to all can be articulated? You know, like maybe the relentlessly rational arguments of a Ramesh Ponnuru, for instance? Not on your once-unborn life. But you knew that already. Obama goes exactly nowhere from this observation. His whole point in this paragraph is implicitly to deny that it is possible to construct an argument against abortion that is not rooted wholly in an appeal to some peculiar revelation. So in the end his much-vaunted outreach to the religious comes to this: “Yes, come into the public discourse with your religious perspectives, just like Dr. King did. But when it comes to abortion you’d better argue in non-religious terms that everyone can accept. And you know what? We all know you can’t.”
Of course there’s also the cute construction there in which Obama says, “I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons.” He does not say “I am.” And we have no reason to suppose, from anything Obama has ever publicly said or done, that he is opposed to abortion, for religious or any other reasons.
And then earlier this evening I was rereading, for a lecture I must give next week, Abraham Lincoln’s great “House Divided” speech of 1858, accepting the Republican nomination to run against Sen. Stephen Douglas. And suddenly I realized how much Obama’s appeal tracks with Stephen Douglas’s. And how important it is to see that Obama’s appeal is as fraudulent as Douglas’s was. And where Douglas Kmiec fits in as a latter-day Republican Douglasite.
You see, one of the temptations for Republicans in 1858 was to support Douglas, a great figure in national politics, because he had thrown them the bone of one or two votes on issues where they saw eye to eye. (The Lecompton constitution issue in Kansas, for you history buffs out there—but note that this is more than Obama has ever done for Republicans.)
Lincoln met this dangerous temptation head on, in passages that I wish Douglas Kmiec would ponder in reconsidering his support for Obama. I have changed “Douglas” to “Obama,” and inserted references to abortion here and there to complete the parallel:
There are those who denounce us openly to their own friends, and yet whisper us softly, that Senator [Obama] is the aptest instrument there is, with which to effect that object [of reducing the incidence of abortion]. . . .
They remind us that he is a very great man, and that the largest of us are very small ones. Let this be granted. But “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” [Senator Obama], if not a dead lion for this work, is at least a caged and toothless one. How can he oppose the advances of [abortion]? He don’t care anything about it. His avowed mission is impressing the “public heart”’ to care nothing about it. . . .He has done all in his power to reduce the whole question of [abortion] to one of a mere right of [choice]. . . Senator [Obama] holds, we know, that a man may rightfully be wiser to-day than he was yesterday–that he may rightfully change when he finds himself wrong.
But, can we for that reason, run ahead, and infer that he will make any particular change, of which he, himself, has given no intimation? Can we safely base our action upon any such vague inference?
Now, as ever, I wish to not misrepresent [Senator Obama’s] position, question his motives, or do ought that can be personally offensive to him.
Whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on principle so that our great cause may have assistance from his great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious obstacle.
But clearly, he is not now with us–he does not pretend to be–he does not promise to ever be.
Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by its own undoubted friends–those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work–who do care for the result.
Free hands, and a heart in the work. I think that fairly describes John McCain. Not Barack Obama, Professor Kmiec.