The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Partial Commendation

On July 8, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1] This new Commission deserves both commendation and criticism. Below are its positive points, and a subsequent post will discuss the many legitimate criticisms of this new institution.

U.S. Primary Sources for Human Rights

According to Secretary of State Pompeo, the Commission regards the U.S. Declaration of Independence from 1776 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 as pillars of U.S. dedication to human rights. As the Secretary said at the launch, “The Commission will focus on “human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An American commitment to uphold human rights played a major role in transforming the moral landscape of the international relations after World War II, something all Americans can rightly be proud of. Under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights ended forever the notion that nations could abuse their citizens without attracting notice or repercussions.”[2]

In other statements the Secretary has asserted that freedom of religion and belief is the foundational and most important freedom. While that perhaps could be debated, it is clearly an important freedom.

Both of these declarations indeed honor human rights, and the inclusion of the Universal Declaration is an implicit admission that the U.S. alone does not have all the answers on this subject. Here then are some of the key points of these two documents that call for commending the Commission.

U.S. Declaration of Independence

These are the familiar words from the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On December 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly at a meeting in Paris, France adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by a vote of 48-0. Eight countries abstained: the Soviet Union, five members of the Soviet bloc (Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Yugoslavia), South Africa and Saudi Arabia. The other two U.N. members at the time were absent and not voting (Honduras and Yemen).[3]

Some of this Declaration’s words in its Preamble and 30 Articles are reminiscent of the language of the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. Here are some of the provisions of the U.N. document:

  • “[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” (Preamble)
  • The “peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women.” (Preamble)
  • “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (Art. 1)
  • “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” (Art. 2)
  • “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” (Art.3)
  • “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” (Art. 4)
  • “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (Art. 5)
  • “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” (Art. 7)
  • Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.” (Art. 8)
  • “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” (Art. 9)
  • “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” (Art. 10)
  • “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty . . . .” (Art. 11(1).)
  • “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (Art. 14(1).)
  • “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” (Art. 16(1).)
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (Art. 18) (Emphasis added.)
  • “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.: (Art. 19.)
  • “ Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” (Art. 20(1).)
  • “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family . . . .” (Art. 25(1).)

Other UDHR provisions, which have been overlooked in various comments about the Commission and which relate to its negative points to be discussed in a subsequent post, are the following: “[H]uman rights should be protected by the rule of law” (Preamble); U.N. “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Preamble); “[E]very individual and every organ of society . . . shall strive . . . by progressive measures national and international, to secure . . . [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance”[Proclamation);[4] “The will of the people shall be the basis of authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage . . . .” (Art. 21(3).)

The importance and significance of these provisions were emphasized by the Commission’s chair, Mary Ann Glendon, in her book: A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2001). The Preface says the UDHR “became a pillar of a new international system under which a nation’s treatment of its own citizens was no longer immune from outside scrutiny. . . . Today, the Declaration is the single most important reference point for cross-national discussions of how to order our future together on our increasingly conflict-ridden and interdependent planet.”   Her book’s Epilogue emphatically states:

  • “The Universal Declaration created a bold new course for human rights by presenting a vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and grounded by the rule of law.”
  • “The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have increasingly acquired legal force, mainly through their incorporation into national legal systems.”
  • “One of the most basic assumptions of the founders of the UN and the framers of the Declaration was that the root causes of atrocities and armed conflict are frequently to be found in poverty and discrimination.”

Conclusion

The U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights indeed are major sources of human rights, and the Commission’s proclaiming them as important is an action to be commended.

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019);U .S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched (July 8, 2019); More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019); Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 18, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press (July 8, 2019).

[3] U.N., Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10, 1948), UN Gen. Assembly Res. 217A, Doc A/810 at 71; Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Wikipedia; Kenton, Human Rights Declaration Adopted by U.N. General Assembly; U.N. VOTES ACCORD ON HUMAN RIGHTS, N.Y. Times (Dec. 11, 1948). The history of the UDHR and its not being legally binding on U.N. members or other states are discussed in The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[4] The U.S. has signed and ratified 19 multilateral human rights treaties in accordance with the Constitution’s Article II (2.2) requiring the “advice and consent” by two-thirds of the senators present at the vote. In addition, the U.S. has signed, but not ratified, nine other multilateral human rights treaties while at least seven significant human rights treaties that as of February 2013 had not been signed and ratified by the U.S. (See Multilateral Treaties Ratified by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 9, 2013); Multilateral Treaties Signed, But Not Ratified, by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 12, 2013); Multilateral Human rights Treaties That Have Not Been Signed and Ratified by the U.S. (Feb. 16, 2013).

 

 

 

 

Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights

The July 8 launch of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights continues to draw comments, pro and con.[1]

On July 17, 2019, Secretary Pompeo was interviewed by Hugh Hewitt, primarily about the Second U.S. Ministerial on International Religious Freedom.[2] In addition, the Secretary made the following comments related to the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights:

  • “No previous administration has prepared to defend this most basic freedom – you talked about that, Hugh – absent having the capacity to believe what you want, and to act in accordance with your own conscience. All of the other things that we talk about as freedoms or rights are subservient to . . . [the freedom of religion and belief]. So very important that we advocate on behalf on this. Some 80 percent of the people in the world today live in religiously restricted environments.”
  • “[N]ations become stronger when they permit their citizens to exercise their core beliefs about who they really are. . . .[This is good for other countries] in terms of their capacity to build out their country, to grow the economy in their nation, to keep their country secure and safe. This central premise of religious freedom makes countries stronger. It doesn’t create risk. . . . [It’s in the best interest of every country] to increase the religious freedom in their country.”
  • “President Trump and the administration take this central core idea of religious liberty as a very important priority for the State Department, and indeed all of our government.”
  • “[T]he mission that I have given Professor Glendon and her colleagues [on the Unalienable rights Commission] . . . is to go back to the fundamental grounding of human rights that the founders have set forth for us, to evaluate the various components of those human rights. Which ones are central? Which of this set of rights are core to America’s success, and indeed, more broadly, the success in the world?”
  • “[W]hen everything is a right, these most fundamental, foundational rights are neglected . . . and will misdirect American policy. We won’t be focused on those things that are most central to American security around the world.”
  • The Commission has been asked “to go back and reground. . . . [The] State Department hasn’t done this in decades and decades, and I’m optimistic that they’ll come to a conclusion that will be important for the United States as we move forward, thinking about how to frame how the United States speaks about human rights and fundamental rights all around the world.”
  • “[T]he fear in many of these countries is if they grant these set of rights, that they will lose political control. But in fact, the opposite is true. Leadership that takes these rights seriously becomes stronger, their people become more capable of helping in the governance of their nation. You get good economic benefits too, but you get enormous social good that comes from the guarantee of this set of rights.”
  • “We’re very focused on our mission. The fact that some on the left have become sort of crazed by the fact that we’re . . . trying to create this religious freedom around the world, or define the central rights for every American, I find confusing, befuddling, and perhaps suggestive that they know they have the wrong end of the stick, and we are going to ground America in our constitutional understandings in ways that some . . .wish wouldn’t happen.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Chair, Tony Perkins, unsurprisingly applauded “the creation of this Commission as another way of ensuring that the protection of these fundamental rights – the most foundational of which is freedom of religion or belief – is a core element of strategic policy discussions.”  The Vice Chair, Gayle Manchin, agreed: “To the degree that this new Commission within the State Department can help further communicate from Washington to the Department’s farthest outposts the importance and urgency of religious freedom concerns as a fundamental human right, we believe this will lead to higher impact negotiations on behalf of the more than 70% of the world’s population that is currently suffering persecution or abuse.”[3]

Also supportive was Gary Bauer, a prominent Christian conservative activist, who said, “This administration has reached new levels of commitment on the fundamental right of freedom of religion that’s unprecedented historically, and I hope it will continue for decades ahead.”[4]

Skepticism about the Commission, however, continues to be voiced.

Rebecca Hamilton of Just Security warned that “the ‘natural law’ language was code for religiously-infused opposition both to reproductive rights and to protections for members of the LGBTQ community. . . . Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, expressed concern about the administration’s distinction between ‘unalienable rights’ and ‘ad-hoc rights,’ as well as its ‘seemingly permissive stance on a variety of human-rights abuses’ around the world. The head of Human Rights Watch was even more dismissive: “We don’t need a commission to figure out that the Trump administration will have little credibility promoting human rights so long as the president continues to embrace autocrats.” According to Amnesty International, “This approach only encourages other countries to adopt a disregard for basic human rights standards and risks weakening international, as well as regional frameworks, placing the rights of millions of people around the world in jeopardy.”[5]

Rob Bereschinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor and now the Senior Vice President, Policy for Human Rights First, a U.S. nonprofit, stated, “Given the way in which the Commission was conceived, without the input or awareness of the State Department’s human rights experts or members of Congress, many in the human rights community are skeptical of its motives. Secretary Pompeo has asserted that the body is meant to focus on ‘principles’ rather than ‘policy,’ but that’s a blurry distinction at best. The principles under which the United States advances human rights are well-established, and much of the criticism from human rights advocates concerning this administration centers on its violations of those rules. Each time the president attacks America’s free press as an ‘enemy of the people,’ or the administration obscures its role in separating children from their parents, or selectively highlights Iran’s poor human rights record while downplaying that of Saudi Arabia, U.S. credibility is undermined.”[6]

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, castigated Secretary Pompeo for his pious assertions of the need to ascertain what human rights mean. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Secretary. A lot of bipartisan and international consensus, consolidated over the postwar decades, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other horrors, exists as to what human rights are and what America’s role in defending them should be.”[7]

Therefore, said Cohen, “there is no need to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Secretary. A lot of bipartisan and international consensus, consolidated over the postwar decades, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other horrors, exists as to what human rights are and what America’s role in defending them should be.”

“Modern human rights are grounded on the dignity inherent in every human being. They are not God-given rights, or Trump-given rights, and they apply to people of all faiths and to those who have none. They include freedom of speech, the press, assembly and religion, and the “right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” as the Universal Declaration puts it. They involve combating discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation.”

Pompeo has talked about the need to go back to concepts of natural law and natural rights at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But, Cohen continued, ”these ‘natural rights’ at the time, of course, included chattel slavery and the dehumanization of black people, as well as the disenfranchisement of women.” In short, “the ‘natural’ rights of 1776 are not the human rights the [U.S.] helped codify in 1948 [in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights].”

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[1] This Commission has been discussed in the following posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019); More Comments About the Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019); The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (July 11, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo With Hugh Hewitt of the Hugh Hewitt Show (July 17, 2019).

 [3] U.S. Comm’n on Int’l Relig. Freedom, USCIRF Statement on State Department’s Creation of “Commission on Unalienable Rights” (July 8, 2019).

[4]  Toosi, Trump’s religious freedom conference creates awkward alliance, Politico (July 14, 2019).

[5] Drezner, Can any good come out of the Commission on Unalienable Rights? Wash. Post (July 10, 2019).

[6] Human Rts. First, State Commission on Unalienable Rights Must Focus on Reversing Harm Done by Administration (July 8, 2019).

[7] Cohen, Trump’s Ominous Attempt to Redefine Human Rights, N.Y. Times (July 12, 2019).

 

The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

As has been noted in a post about the recent launching of the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the following favorable comments about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): “The Commission will focus on “human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An American commitment to uphold human rights played a major role in transforming the moral landscape of the international relations after World War II, something all Americans can rightly be proud of. Under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights ended forever the notion that nations could abuse their citizens without attracting notice or repercussions.” [1] (Emphasis added.)

In addition, the Commission’s chair, Mary Ann Glendon, has written a marvelous book about the UDHR: A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2001). [2] In her Preface, she says this Declaration “became a pillar of a new international system under which a nation’s treatment of its own citizens was no longer immune from outside scrutiny. . . . Today, the Declaration is the single most important reference point for cross-national discussions of how to order our future together on our increasingly conflict-ridden and interdependent planet.”  (Emphasis added.) Her book’s Epilogue emphatically states:

  • The Universal Declaration created a bold new course for human rights by presenting a vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and grounded by the rule of law.”
  • The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have increasingly acquired legal force, mainly through their incorporation into national legal systems.”
  • One of the most basic assumptions of the founders of the UN and the framers of the Declaration was that the root causes of atrocities and armed conflict are frequently to be found in poverty and discrimination.” (Emphases added.)

Therefore, the following brief summary of the UDHR should assist in understanding the upcoming work of the Commission.

The History of the UDHR

The Charter of the United Nations entered into force on October 24, 1945. Its Preamble stated, in part, that the U.N. was created “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women” and “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” And one of its stated purposes was “To achieve international cooperation . . . in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” (Art. 1(3)) The Charter also established the Economic and Social Council (Ch. X), which was to “make recommendations for the purpose of promoting respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” (Art. 62(2))

In June 1946, that  Economic and Social Council established the Commission on Human Rights, comprising 18 members from various nationalities and political backgrounds. The Commission then established a special Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, to write the Declaration. The Committee met in two sessions over the course of two years to consider that proposed instrument with Canadian John Peters Humphrey, Director of the Division of Human Rights within the U.N. United Nations Secretariat, as the principal drafter of the UDHR along with a committee that included René Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, and P. C. Chang of the Republic of China. Once the Committee finished its drafting in May 1948, the draft was further discussed by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. Economic and Social Council, and the Third Committee of the General Assembly. During these discussions many amendments and propositions were made by UN Member States.

On December 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly at a meeting in Paris, France adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by a vote of 48-0. Eight other countries abstained: the Soviet Union, five members of the Soviet bloc (Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Yugoslavia), South Africa and Saudi Arabia. The other two U.N. members at the time were absent and not voting (Honduras and Yemen).[3]

Selected Provisions of the UDHR

Many of this Declaration’s words in its Preamble and 30 Articles are reminiscent of the language of the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. Here are some of those words in the U.N. document:

  • “[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” (Preamble)
  • “[H]uman rights should be protected by the rule of law.” (Preamble)
  • The “peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women.” (Preamble)
  • N. “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” (Preamble)
  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (Art. 1)
  • Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other s” (Art. 2)
  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” (Art.3)
  • All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” (Art. 7)
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (Art. 18) (Emphases added.)

Legal Status of the UDHR

As a resolution of the U.N. General Assembly, the UDHR is not legally binding on U.N. members. As Mr. Justice Souter stated in an opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court, “the [Universal] Declaration does not of its own force impose obligations as a matter of international law.”[4] Instead, like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the UDHR was an inspiration and prelude to the subsequent preparation and adoption of various multilateral human rights treaties as well as national constitutions and laws.

Conclusion

 On December 10, 1978, the 30th anniversary of the UDHR’s adoption, President Jimmy Carter said this Declaration “and the human rights conventions [treaties] that derive from it . . . are a beacon, a guide to a future of personal security, political freedom, and social justice. . . . The Universal Declaration means that no nation can draw the cloak of sovereignty over torture, disappearances, officially sanctioned bigotry, or the destruction of freedom within its own borders. . . . Our pursuit of human rights is part of a broad effort to use our great power and our tremendous influence in the service of creating a better world, a world in which human beings can live in peace, in freedom, and with their basic needs adequately met.”[5]

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[1] Here are other posts about the Commission:  Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019); More Comments About the Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019).

[2] The Glendon book discusses the history of the drafting of the Declaration and includes copies of the various drafts.

[3] U.N., Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10, 1948), UN Gen. Assembly Res. 217A, Doc A/810 at 71;Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Wikipedia; Kentonspecial, Human Rights Declaration Adopted by U.N. General Assembly; U.N. VOTES ACCORD ON HUMAN RIGHTS, N.Y. Times (Dec. 11, 1948).

[4] Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain,  542 U.S. 692 (2004); Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, Wikipedia.

[5] Excerpts From Carter’s Speech on Anniversary of Human Rights Declaration, N.Y. Times (Dec. 10, 1978).

 

The U.S. Declaration of Independence’s Relationship to the U.S. Constitution and Statutes

The U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, obviously preceded and in many ways inspired the U.S. Constitution of September 17, 1787. But in my three years as a student at the University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966, and my 35 years as a practicing litigator-attorney (including some constitutional cases), 1966-2001, I never encountered the question of whether and how the Declaration should and could affect the interpretation of the Constitution.

George Will

Now noted author and commentator George Will in the “Introduction” to his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, says “We [conservatives] seek to conserve the American Founding” with a “clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.” Indeed, “Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do for them.”

Therefore, according to Mr. Will’s book, “The doctrine of natural rights is the most solid foundation—perhaps the only firm foundation—for the idea of the political equality of all self-directing individuals.”

One of Will’s recent columns extends these thoughts. He says, “the Declaration expressed, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, the broadly shared ‘common sense of the subject.’ Rather than belabor the Declaration’s (to them, unremarkable) assertions, the Constitution’s framers set about creating institutional architecture that would achieve their intention: to establish governance that accords with the common sense of their time, which was that government is properly instituted to “secure” the preexisting natural rights referenced in the Declaration.” Therefore, the “The Declaration’s role is the locus classicus [classical location] concerning the framers’ intention [and original meaning and continuing purpose], which is surely the master key to properly construing what they wrought.”[1]

Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and a law professor at George Washington University, shares some of the ways that the Declaration has influenced the Constitution.[2]  As President Lincoln noted in 1861, “the expression of the principle [of Liberty for All] in our Declaration of Independence . . . was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.” As Lincoln recognized, “the two documents are closely linked. From the Founding era until today, conservatives, liberals and everyone in between have agreed that the theoretical basis of the U.S. Constitution—and American political life in general—can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s” words in the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

However, Rosen says, conservatives and liberals often disagree about what these words of the Declaration mean in terms of government policies and laws, as has been true throughout our history. This has been true in political debates in some Supreme Court cases. For example, in last week’s case about partisan gerrymandering, Justice Kagan in dissent cited the Declaration’s statement that governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed” to justify her opinion that the courts need to intervene in gerrymandering cases. On the other hand, conservatives today cite the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” to support their assertion that there is a fundamental right to life that trumps a woman’s right to an abortion.

Reactions

The notion that the Declaration is relevant to interpreting the Constitution is superficially attractive. But most of the Declaration is a bill of particulars against “the present King of Great Britain” and his “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having, in direct object, the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.” Those words do not appear to be helpful in interpreting the subsequent Constitution.

More importantly for Will and other like-minded individuals, the Declaration holds “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This apparently is the central assertions that should be used in interpreting the Constitution.

But immediately after these words, the Declaration states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” For this blogger, those words strongly suggest, if do not require, an examination of the words adopted by the government in constitutions and statutes in order to construe those rights.

This blogger would appreciate intelligent reactions and comments on these issues as well as citations to any U.S. Supreme Court cases that use the Declaration to interpret the Constitution.

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[1] Will, To construe the Constitution, look to the Declaration, Wash. Post (July 3, 2019).

[2] Rosen, The Declaration of Independence Unites and Divides Us, W.S..J. (July 4, 2019),

“What Is a Reformed View of Politics?”

This is the title of the sermon by Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, on Reformation Sunday, October 28.[1] Below are photographs of Rev. Hart-Andersen and the Westminster Sanctuary.

 

 

 

As noted in other posts, every Westminster worship service is divided into the following three sections: Preparing for the Word, Listening for the Word and Responding to the Word. Here are some of the elements of the first two sections of this service.

Preparing for the Word

The service was opened by the stirring Prelude: “Marche en Rondeu” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and “Trumpet Tune in D Major” by David N. Johnson that were played by Douglas Carlsen (trumpet, Minnesota Orchestra), Jeffrey Gram, timpani; and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Rev. David Shinn, Associate Pastor, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Eternal God, we confess we keep you at a distance to pursue our own way. We forget your mercy is waiting for us as we close our hearts to you. Whisper the offer of your grace once more to us, and wash away all the things we have done and left undone. Make a new way for us to live in humility, showing love to others and to you. May we be forgiven as we confess our shortcomings, and renewed by your faithfulness, courageous in our pursuit of justice and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son.”

Listening for the Word

The Scripture Readings

Genesis 17: 1-8 (NRSV):

  • “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty;  walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’”

Matthew 1: 1-6a, 17 (NRSV):

  • “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah,the son of David, the son of Abraham.
  • Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
  • And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,
  • So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”

The Sermon[2]

“Scripture is concerned with history, and we should be, as well.  If we are not, as George Santayana famously observed, we ‘are condemned to repeat it.”

“That warning came to mind yesterday as we heard about the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism has spiked in America; the number of hateful incidents directed at Jews rose last year by 57%. Something is going wrong in our midst.”

“Political discourse hasn’t helped. When Neo-Nazis march and rally and are not clearly and resoundingly denounced by our leaders, that sends signals to those with hate in their hearts. If we forget the long history of bigotry and violence against Jews, we will repeat it.”

“If we forget the long history of injustice and violence against indigenous people in this land, we will repeat it.”

“If we forget the long history of the enslavement of African people in America and violence directed against them and their descendants, we will repeat it. If we forget the long history of mistreatment and violence against women and immigrants and people of differing sexual orientation and identity we will repeat it. “

“Our faith is rooted in history. Scripture goes out of its way to show the connections from one generation to another, to weave the threads of memory and experience, of joy and lament, through the long years of the human story. Scripture wants us not to forget.”

“When the Bible includes lists of the generations, as we heard in Matthew’s gospel, that precede us, it does so to remind us that we do not exist in a vacuum. We are tethered to a people and to values and to narratives of meaning. We are not alone. We are not the first to struggle with what it means to confront the baser impulses of the human heart, or to live in fractured community, or to seek out a God who can sometimes seem distant.”

“The gospel of Matthew opens with a recitation of the generations that stretch from Abraham through David. Fourteen generations. Then another fourteen up to the time of Babylonian exile. Then fourteen more to the birth of the Messiah.”

“Matthew doesn’t mention women in the genealogy, except when it’s necessary to bridge a gap from one generation to another. A man who cannot produce an heir with the correct lineage has to rely on an outsider woman. Then Matthew includes them, otherwise the entire biblical story would come to an abrupt end. It’s the patriarchy’s grudging way of acknowledging that women matter in the story.”

“What would it look like to extend the telling of the generations, from Jesus on…Paul, Lydia, Origen, Perpetua and Felicity, Monica, the desert mothers and fathers, St. Columba…up to the time of the Great Schism of Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054.”

“Then Hildegard of Bingen, Peter Waldo, Julian of Norwich, Jan Hus, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila…and on to the time of the Protestant Reformation. Then Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, our Presbyterian ancestor, Beza, Knox. Four of them are enshrined in our windows, once again suggesting there were no women involved. There were. We should have four other windows with Marie Dentiere, Marguerite de Navarre, Argula von Grumbach, and Olympia Morata – ancestors from that era and leaders in the faith.”

“The generations continue with Bartolomé de las Casas, John Winthrop, John Wesley, Chief Joseph, Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Sitting Bull, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gene Robinson. Who would you put into that lineage?”

“We’re all linked by the flow of history, passing along the wisdom of the ages, the stories of pain and suffering, the moments of redemption. We’re not making up our faith as we go along. We’ve received it and are carrying it forward, to the generations that follow. We are stewards in our time of the hope at the heart of our faith.”

“It’s Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate the stream of Christian history in which we stand as Protestants. We open with John Calvin’s hymn and will close with Martin Luther’s. It’s also nine days before an election that has highlighted and heightened tensions among us. We’re anxious in America, and afraid. The divisive rancor is endless and exhausting. Our politics are tearing us apart.

“ In the midst of the chaos in which we find ourselves, our faith, our Protestant, reformed faith, can help us navigate the politics of these times in which we live.”

“”Do Politics Belong in Church?’  the cover of a recent issue of a Christian journal asks. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who conspired against Hitler, has a response. ‘As much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle,’ Bonhoeffer says, ‘Nonetheless, even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for their neighbor.’ (Sojourners, p. 19, Feb 2018)”

“If we want religion that doesn’t engage in politics – not partisan politics, but the kind of politics that involves ‘standing up for our neighbors’ on the receiving end of hatred and poverty, prejudice and violence – if that’s what we want to avoid, then we had better find another savior.”

“What’s a reformed, or Presbyterian, view of politics? The response to that question begins with the notion of covenant, which we learned from the Jews. Covenant refers to the bond between God and humanity. God promises never to abandon humankind; that bond becomes the model for all human relationships, including between two people, or in a family, or in the community, or in the relationship between rulers and people, between government and citizens. Politics, in the Presbyterian understanding, is based on God’s call to life in covenantal community.” (Emphasis added.)

“Covenant goes back through our biblical ancestry to Abram. When God establishes a covenant between them, Abram becomes Abraham. He’s given a new name; that’s what happens when someone comes into covenant with God. That’s what was happening in the Tree of Life Synagogue yesterday. When the shooting started they were in the midst of the naming ritual for a new baby, marking the start of that child’s covenantal life with God.”

“For Abraham the new name as he comes into covenant with God is also a sign that he will be the father of a long line of descendants – the very line that stretches through the Hebrew people to the Messiah, and then on through the early church, and to Roman Catholicism, and to the Reformation and into our time.”

“Covenant theology of the Presbyterians played a key role in the development of democracy in America. H. Richard Niebuhr writes that for Presbyterians,

  • ‘The world has this fundamental moral structure of a covenant society and that what is possible and required in the political realm is the affirmation and reaffirmation of humanity’s responsibility as a promise-maker, promise-keeper, a covenanter in universal community.’ (Quoted in “The Concept of Covenant in 16th and 17th Century Continental and British Reformed Theology” in Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, Donald K. McKim, ed. [Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1992], p. 95)

Three dimensions of covenant have particular relevance for American democracy today.” (Emphasis added.)

“First, covenant life is inclusive. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek,’ the Apostle Paul writes,

  • ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the covenant.’(Galatians 3:28-29)” (Emphasis added.)

“America was established with that covenant principle of inclusivity enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, when it states ‘that all men’ – all human beings we would say today – ‘are created equal (and) endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.’ All are included because all have the same rights and are equal before the law.”

“Democracy depends on inclusivity. That principle is under assault today. Some appear to be created more equal than others. The growing gap between those with power and resources and those without such privilege runs counter to the biblical admonition to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Racism destroys the promise of community. Differing treatment by law enforcement and the criminal justice system betrays the assurance of equal rights. The true measure of the success of a society is not how well those at the top are doing, but how well the most vulnerable are faring.”

“Covenantal politics is inclusive.” (Emphasis added.)

Second, covenant life affirms the full humanity of every person. In the biblical account of creation the earthling is made in the image of God. That assertion means that every human being is of the same value and has something to contribute. That fundamental claim undergirds democracy – that all have equal access to participation in the political process and equal access to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”’ (Emphasis added.)

“When Sojourner Truth in 1851 stood up for her full humanity [and said[:

  • ‘And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’ Delivered 1851; Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio) “

“Democracy depends on seeing the worth of every person. That principle is under assault today. The rise of hate crimes against Jews and Muslims eats away at their full humanity. Immigrants and refugees are treated as unworthy and their full humanity is implicitly questioned. More than three million people who have served their sentences cannot vote because of a felony on their record and their full humanity is not restored to them. This week the government proposed new rules that would deny the full humanity, even the existence, of more than one million people who identify as transgender.”

Covenantal politics affirms the full humanity of every person.” (Emphasis added.)

“Finally, covenant life requires truth-telling. In John’s gospel Jesus says, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’” (Emphasis added.)

“The Declaration of Independence speaks of ‘truths’ that are ‘self-evident.’ Democracy requires a shared understanding of the truth. Without it there is no trust and the democratic system cannot function without trust.”

“In 1788, Presbyterians in New York and Philadelphia, fresh from helping write the U.S. Constitution, sat down and wrote a set of Principles of Church Order. Among them was this phrase: ‘Truth is in order to goodness,’ meaning truth-telling leads to good behavior.“

“They went on to say, ‘No opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level…We are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty.’ (F-3.0104 in PCUSA Book of Order)”

“Democracy depends on telling the truth, especially by those in power. That principle is under assault today. Conspiracy theories displace reality, facts become whatever is convenient in the moment, and lies masquerade as truth. When the truth goes missing, people suffer, and trust soon dissipates – and to live in covenant with one another trust is needed.”

Covenantal politics requires truth-telling,” (Emphasis added.)

“We are at a pivotal moment in our nation. Our democracy is fraying. Fear abounds. Violence simmers all around us and occasionally breaks through the surface. Trust has been depleted. Rhetoric works against the values and principles on which our democracy depends.”

“But we are a people rooted in history. We remember other times when the nation was threatened from within. And we overcame. ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all,’ ‘President Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address even as the Civil War continued to rage,

  • ‘Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…and…do all which may achieve…a just and lasting peace among ourselves.’”

“Those words express a politics of biblical covenant, where we are bound together and committed to the welfare of one another. If the nation could find its way back from the brink in that perilous and violent time, surely we can work our way out of the current predicament in which we find ourselves.”

“Democracy is a covenantal form of politics, and for it to be healthy requires participation. We need to do our part; we are responsible for one another. Voting is not merely a right; it’s the duty and responsibility of citizens in a democratic nation. Peaceful political engagement expresses and embodies and brings to life the promise of democracy.”

“Let us not forget that we are people of faith, rooted in history, in covenant with God and with one another, carrying on the hope of generations before us, even as we stand ready to hand that hope on to those who follow us.”

“In the end, we can trust that God’s grace and mercy, God’s justice, and God’s love will prevail, and we shall overcome.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

I usually ignore the biblical references to generations and descendents. They seem so boring and useless. This sermon, however, let me see that the previous generations of figures in the Bible plus my own ancestors remind me that I am not alone. As the sermon says, such references “remind us that we do not exist in a vacuum. We are “tethered to a people and to values and to narratives of memory.”

We are “stewards in our time of the hope at the heart of our faith.” This is another passage of the sermon that made an impact on me. I had not thought of being a steward for the short time of my life of a belief that was passed on to me so that the belief may be carried forward in time after I am gone.

I also never had thought of being a member of a covenantal community in the U.S. involving everyone who is here right now. Yet I certainly have believed that life in the U.S. is or should be inclusive recognizing the full humanity of everyone.

This also means that democracy “ is a covenantal form of politics” requiring my participation.

Finally I am reminded that retrieving and studying the Scriptures and the sermon and then writing about them provide deeper and more enriching insights. I urge others to do the same.

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[1]  The bulletin for the service is online.

[2] Sermon, What Is a Reformed View of Politics? (Oct. 28, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[3] The opening hymn that sometimes is attributed to John Calvin was “”Greet Thee, Who My sure Redeemer Art.” https://hymnary.org/hymn/GG2013/624

 

The closing hym, “Sing Praise to God Who reigns Above” is not attributed to Luther. https://hymnary.org/hymn/GG2013/645

 

Senator Jeff Flake Condemns President Trump’s “Fake News” Tirades

On January 17, Senator Jeff Flake delivered another speech on the Senate floor that lambasted President Donald Trump, this time for his “fake news” tweets and comments.[1] This speech was a sequel to the Senator’s October 24, 2017, speech and Washington Post article rejecting the President’s character and actions.[2] Here is a photograph of the Senator giving the speech.

Senator Flake’s Speech

Near “the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America.”

“As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, famously said: ]Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any time in our history.”

“It is for that reason that I rise today, to talk about the truth, and its relationship to democracy. For without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, . . . our democracy will not last.”

“2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. ‘The enemy of the people,’ was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.”

It “is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people,’ that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader.”

“This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.”

“I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of ‘fake news’ are dubious, at best. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of U.S. based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth.  To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.”

According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21 reporters who are being held on ‘false news” ‘charges.”

So “powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office.  Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.”

“No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it.”

“Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.”

“No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. . . .  An “American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.”

“Now, we are told via twitter that today the president intends to announce his choice for the ‘most corrupt and dishonest’ media awards. It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are.”

“And so, 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together, my colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.”

“Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction.”

“It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial – such as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.”

?But many untruths are not at all trivial – such as the seminal untruth of the president’s political career – the oft-repeated conspiracy about the birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate – to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.”

“To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a ‘hoax’ – as the president has many times – is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security.  It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads.”

“Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth – so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington – is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.”

The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.”

Every “word that a president utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports. . . . “

“This feedback loop [from foreign leaders] is disgraceful. . . . Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.”

“We are not in a ‘fake news’ era, , , , We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.”

“In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a recipe for disaster.  As George Orwell warned, ‘The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.’”

“Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.”

“What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was eloquent in answer to that question:

  • ‘We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.’”

The “question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world — made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.”

“We are a mature democracy – it is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring – or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.” 

“I will close by borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young missionary in England he contemplated the question: “’What is truth’” His search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up with, titled ‘Oh Say, What is Truth. It ends as follows:

  • ‘Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,

For the limits of time it steps o’er.

Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst.

Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,

Eternal… unchanged… evermore.’”

Conclusion

The same day as Senator Flake’s speech, Arizona’s other Republican Senator, John McCain, published an op-ed article in the Washington Post with similar criticisms of President Trump.[3] This commentary reminded us of McCain’s criticism of Congress’ ignoring regular procedures over the so-called “repeal and replace” Obama Care bill when McCain killed the bill with his negative vote.[4]

President Trump’s response to these criticisms first came from his Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, who said, Senator Flake was “not criticizing the president because he’s against oppression. He’s criticizing the president because he has terrible poll numbers and he is, I think, looking for some attention.” Note the ad hominem response and refusal to grapple with the merits.

Later that night the President on Twitter also ignored the substance of these criticisms when he  announced his “fake news” awards to CNN (four times); The New York Times (two times); and ABC, The Washington Post, Time and Newsweek (one time each).[5]

All of these comments reminded me of the struggle between the Washington Post and the Nixon White House over the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the work that is involved in publishing real news, all of which is skillfully portrayed in the current movie, “The Post.”

I commend Senators Flake and McCain for standing up for true American values in their criticisms of the President.

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[1] Press Release, Flake: Reflexive “Fake News” Claims Not Good For Democracy (Jan. 16, 2018)

[2] Senator Jeff Flake’s Courageous Defense of American Values and Democracy, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 6, 2017),

[3]  McCain, Mr. President, stop attacking the press, Wash. Post (Jan. 17, 2018); Sullivan, Arizona’s GOP Senators Assail Trump for His Attacks on the Press, N.Y. Times (Jan. 17, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Senators Rip Trump Over His Attacks on the Media, N.Y. Times (Jan. 17, 2018).

[4] McCain Floor Statement on Need for Bipartisanship (July 25, 2017)

[5] Flegenheimer & Grynbaum, Trump Hands Out ‘Fake News Awards,’ Sans the Red Carpet, N.Y. Times (Jan. 17, 2018).

 

President Obama Welcomes New U.S. Citizens with Inspiring Challenge

As noted in prior posts, the final step for someone to become a naturalized U.S. citizen is to attend a ceremony in which the individual takes an oath of allegiance to the United States of America and officially is declared to be a U.S. citizen. This is after such an individual meets the requirements of U.S. law through submission of an application with various aspects of personal information and an interview for vetting that information.[1]

Such a ceremony took place on December 15, 2015, at Washington, D.C.’s Rotunda of the National Archives Museum, where the original Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are permanently displayed. December 15 also was the 224th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

Obama

new citizens

 

 

 

 

On this occasion President Barack Obama provided inspiring words to welcome 31 new U.S. citizens. Above are photographs of the President giving his speech and of some of the new citizens. Here is what Obama said.[2]

“To my fellow Americans, our newest citizens. You are men and women from more than 25 countries, from Brazil to Uganda, from Iraq to the Philippines.  You may come from teeming cities or rural villages.  You don’t look alike.  You don’t worship the same way.  But here, surrounded by the very documents whose values bind us together as one people, you’ve raised your hand and sworn a sacred oath.  I’m proud to be among the first to greet you as “my fellow Americans.”

“What a remarkable journey all of you have made.  And as of today, your story is forever woven into the larger story of this nation. . . . [Y]ou still have a demanding and rewarding task ahead of you — and that is the hard work of active citizenship.  You have rights and you have responsibilities.”

“Just about every nation in the world, to some extent, admits immigrants.  But there’s something unique about America.  We don’t simply welcome new immigrants, we don’t simply welcome new arrivals — we are born of immigrants.  That is who we are.  Immigration is our origin story.  And for more than two centuries, it’s remained at the core of our national character; it’s our oldest tradition.  It’s who we are.  It’s part of what makes us exceptional.”

“[U]nless your family is Native American, one of the first Americans, all of our families come from someplace else.  The first refugees were the Pilgrims themselves — fleeing religious persecution, crossing the stormy Atlantic to reach a new world where they might live and pray freely.  Eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were immigrants.  And in those first decades after independence, English, German, and Scottish immigrants came over, huddled on creaky ships, seeking what Thomas Paine called ‘asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty.’”

“Down through the decades, Irish Catholics fleeing hunger, Italians fleeing poverty filled up our cities, rolled up their sleeves, built America.  Chinese laborers jammed in steerage under the decks of steamships, making their way to California to build the Central Pacific Railroad that would transform the West — and our nation.  Wave after wave of men, women, and children — from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, from Asia and Africa — poured into Ellis Island, or Angel Island, their trunks bursting with their most cherished possessions — maybe a photograph of the family they left behind, a family Bible, or a Torah, or a Koran.  A bag in one hand, maybe a child in the other, standing for hours in long lines.  New York and cities across America were transformed into a sort of global fashion show.  You had Dutch lace caps and the North African fezzes, stodgy tweed suits and colorful Caribbean dresses.”

“And perhaps, like some of you, these new arrivals might have had some moments of doubt, wondering if they had made a mistake in leaving everything and everyone they ever knew behind.  So life in America was not always easy.  It wasn’t always easy for new immigrants.  Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves.  There was discrimination and hardship and poverty.  But, like you, they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them.  And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.”

“Just as so many have come here in search of a dream, others sought shelter from nightmares.  Survivors of the Holocaust.  Soviet Refuseniks.  Refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia.  Iraqis and Afghans fleeing war.  Mexicans, Cubans, Iranians leaving behind deadly revolutions.  Central American teenagers running from gang violence.  The Lost Boys of Sudan escaping civil war.  They’re people like Fulbert Florent Akoula from the Republic of Congo, who was granted asylum when his family was threatened by political violence.  And today, Fulbert is here, a proud American.”

“We can never say it often or loudly enough:  Immigrants and refugees revitalize and renew America.  Immigrants like you are more likely to start your own business.  Many of the Fortune 500 companies in this country were founded by immigrants or their children.  Many of the tech startups in Silicon Valley have at least one immigrant founder.”

“Immigrants are the teachers who inspire our children, and they’re the doctors who keep us healthy.  They’re the engineers who design our skylines, and the artists and the entertainers who touch our hearts.  Immigrants are soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen who protect us, often risking their lives for an America that isn’t even their own yet.  As an Iraqi, Mohammed Ibrahim Al Naib was the target of death threats for working with American forces.  He stood by his American comrades, and came to the U.S. as a refugee.  And today, we stand by him.  And we are proud to welcome Mohammed as a citizen of the country that he already helped to defend.”

“We celebrate this history, this heritage, as an immigrant nation.  And we are strong enough to acknowledge, as painful as it may be, that we haven’t always lived up to our own ideals.  We haven’t always lived up to these documents.”

From the start, Africans were brought here in chains against their will, and then toiled under the whip.  They also built America.  A century ago, New York City shops displayed those signs, “No Irish Need Apply.”  Catholics were targeted, their loyalty questioned — so much so that as recently as the 1950s and ‘60s, when JFK . . . [ran for office], he had to convince people that his allegiance wasn’t primarily to the Pope.”

“Chinese immigrants faced persecution and vicious stereotypes, and were, for a time, even banned from entering America.  During World War II, German and Italian residents were detained, and in one of the darkest chapters in our history, Japanese immigrants and even Japanese-American citizens were forced from their homes and imprisoned in camps.  We succumbed to fear.  We betrayed not only our fellow Americans, but our deepest values.  We betrayed these documents.  It’s happened before.”

“And the biggest irony of course is that those who betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants.  How quickly we forget.  One generation passes, two generation passes, and suddenly we don’t remember where we came from.  And we suggest that somehow there is ‘us’ and there is ‘them,’ not remembering we used to be ‘them.’”

“On days like today, we need to resolve never to repeat mistakes like that again.  We must resolve to always speak out against hatred and bigotry in all of its forms — whether taunts against the child of an immigrant farm worker or threats against a Muslim shopkeeper.  We are Americans.  Standing up for each other is what the values enshrined in the documents in this room compels us to do -– especially when it’s hard.  Especially when it’s not convenient.  That’s when it counts.  That’s when it matters — not when things are easy, but when things are hard.”

“The truth is, being an American is hard.  Being part of a democratic government is hard.  Being a citizen is hard.  It is a challenge.  It’s supposed to be.  There’s no respite from our ideals.  All of us are called to live up to our expectations for ourselves — not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient.  When it’s tough.  When we’re afraid.  The tension throughout our history between welcoming or rejecting the stranger, it’s about more than just immigration.  It’s about the meaning of America, what kind of country do we want to be.  It’s about the capacity of each generation to honor the creed as old as our founding:  “E Pluribus Unum” — that out of many, we are one.”

“Scripture tells us, ‘For we are strangers before you, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.’ In the Mexican immigrant today, we see the Catholic immigrant of a century ago.  In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II.  In these new Americans, we see our own American stories — our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, our uncles, our cousins who packed up what they could and scraped together what they had.  And their paperwork wasn’t always in order.  And they set out for a place that was more than just a piece of land, but an idea.”

“America:  A place where we can be a part of something bigger.  A place where we can contribute our talents and fulfill our ambitions and secure new opportunity for ourselves and for others.  A place where we can retain pride in our heritage, but where we recognize that we have a common creed, a loyalty to these documents, a loyalty to our democracy; where we can criticize our government, but understand that we love it; where we agree to live together even when we don’t agree with each other; where we work through the democratic process, and not through violence or sectarianism to resolve disputes; where we live side by side as neighbors; and where our children know themselves to be a part of this nation, no longer strangers, but the bedrock of this nation, the essence of this nation.”

“More than 60 years ago, at a ceremony like this one, Senator John F. Kennedy said, ‘No form of government requires more of its citizens than does the American democracy.’  Our system of self-government depends on ordinary citizens doing the hard, frustrating but always essential work of citizenship — of being informed.  Of understanding that the government isn’t some distant thing, but is you.  Of speaking out when something is not right.  Of helping fellow citizens when they need a hand.  Of coming together to shape our country’s course.”

And that work gives purpose to every generation.  It belongs to me.  It belongs to the judge.  It belongs to you.  It belongs to you, all of us, as citizens.  To follow our laws, yes, but also to engage with your communities and to speak up for what you believe in.  And to vote — to not only exercise the rights that are now yours, but to stand up for the rights of others.

“Birtukan Gudeya is here [today] from Ethiopia.  She said, ‘The joy of being an American is the joy of freedom and opportunity.  We have been handed a work in progress, one that can evolve for the good of all Americans.’”

“That is what makes America great — not just the words on these founding documents, as precious and valuable as they are, but the progress that they’ve inspired.  If you ever wonder whether America is big enough to hold multitudes, strong enough to withstand the forces of change, brave enough to live up to our ideals even in times of trial, then look to the generations of ordinary citizens who have proven again and again that we are worthy of that.”

“That’s our great inheritance — what ordinary people have done to build this country and make these words live.  And it’s our generation’s task to follow their example in this journey — to keep building an America where no matter who we are or what we look like, or who we love or what we believe, we can make of our lives what we will.”

“You will not and should not forget your history and your past.  That adds to the richness of American life.  But you are now American.  You’ve got obligations as citizens.  And I’m absolutely confident you will meet them.  You’ll set a good example for all of us, because you know how precious this thing is.  It’s not something to take for granted.  It’s something to cherish and to fight for.”

“Thank you.  May God bless you.  May God bless the United States of America.”

And I say, thank you, Mr. President, for a necessary and inspiring message to us all. It echoes some of the points recently made by Minneapolis clergy that were discussed in a recent post.

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[1] Minnesota Welcomes New Citizens (June 8, 2015); Naturalized U.S. Citizens: Important Contributors to U.S. Culture and Economy (June 7, 2015).

[2] White House, Remarks by the President at Naturalization Ceremony (Dec. 15, 2015); National Archives, Press Release: President Obama to Deliver Keynote Address at National Archives Naturalization Ceremony on December 15 (Dec.11, 2015); Harris & Goodstein, Obama Counters Anti-Muslim Talk by Welcoming New Citizens, N.Y. Times (Dec. 15, 2015).