Monday, March 05, 2007

What Sam Brownback Should Have Said

This morning I listened to an interview with Sam Brownback on NPR (now available online here). The interviewer was Renee Montagne, and she used a rather clever rhetorical device on the self-styled "Bleeding Heart Conservative." In her lead-up to a question about abortion, she began by talking about something she characterized as a kind of political "compromise":
...the late governor of California, Pat Brown, who was against the death penalty as a Catholic, but he was also a Democrat and a liberal — but he was against the death penalty personally and morally, and yet he signed off on executions because it was the law. He separated out even his moral position from what he had to do as the representative of those who had voted for him.
The question, of course, had nothing to do with the death penalty (which Brownback, a convert to Catholicism, already opposes), but abortion:
Taken to other issues such as abortion or stem cell research, if stem cell research was the law and you were president, what would you do?
I called this a clever move on Montagne's part because her lead-up to the question was an instance of what rhetoricians call a captatio benevolentiae, a "seizing of good will", that is, it was intended to lull her interlocutor into a comfort zone, perhaps thinking "Oh, this question is a slow pitch" prior to springing the actual question, which was not intended as a slow pitch at all. It is extremely likely that Renee Montagne opposes the death penalty, and just as extremely unlikely that she opposes abortion. She wants to feel comfortable with the prospect of someone like Brownback holding public office. She wants to come right out and say, "You're not one of those nut cases who wants to play moral watchdog and rob women of their hard-earned rights are you?" But she can't ask that on national radio (though you can pretty much get away with it on national public radio, but there's this pretense of objectivity that's always getting in the way). So instead of saying something like that outright, she takes a case that she thinks everyone will find extremely congenial - - a governor who signed off on executions even though he was opposed to them - - in the hope that any sane and rational person will feel the same way about abortion: sure I'm personally opposed to abortion, but I would never dream of letting my own personal moral views have any effect on how I perform my public duties. This was the same fix that John Kennedy found himself in as long ago as 1960 when he tried to reassure a group of Baptists that, if he were to be elected president, he would not be taking his orders directly from the Vatican.

And just as John Kennedy dropped the Catholic football on that occasion, Sam Brownback dropped it on this one:
Well, I'm going to execute the law. I'm a constitutional officer now; I'd be a constitutional officer then. I'm going to comply and do the law. That will not keep me from advocating a different system or a different scenario. But I'm going to comply with the law as a constitutional officer sworn to uphold the constitution.
There's a subtle subtext here. By saying that he would be "advocating" a different system while emphasizing that he would "comply with the law", Brownback leaves the impression that his pro-life activities will consist principally in verbal opposition but peaceful co-existence with the status quo. That may not be what he was thinking when he said that, but I suspect that he chooses his words very carefully, especially when he's being interviewed for a liberal outlet like National Public Radio.

In reality, "advocating" is not good enough, especially if one understands just why it is that one ought to oppose abortion and stem cell research. Just because one is a "constitutional officer" there is no reason to think that there are no constitutionally acceptable ways to actively oppose abortion. One can make it a point to nominate pro-life candidates for the federal bench, for example, or veto laws that threaten human life. Saying that you intend to do such things, however, would probably be political suicide, since to openly express such sentiments prior to being elected would be tantamount to hanging a sign around your neck reading "right wing extremist" or "religious fanatic". Instead it's a lot easier to say that you will "advocate" for what you believe in, rather than actually "working for" what you believe in. Politicians aren't beyond a little captatio benevolentiae of their own, after all.

One does grow rather tired, however, of the pretense that there is no place for personally held convictions in politics. Oh, I know, it's only the religious convictions that we're supposed to be too ashamed of to mention in public. It's OK to say that we think illegal aliens ought to be hunted down like dogs in the desert and shipped back to wherever they came from in four-panel trucks, or that we're outraged by drug trafficking. Nobody ever characterizes those kinds of issues as things that one should keep to oneself, even if one is "personally opposed" to such things. You would never find anyone looking embarrassed upon hearing a politician do more than merely "advocate" for equal rights for African Americans - - indeed, a politician who did nothing more than "advocate" such things would quickly lose support, since nowadays we expect our politicians to do something about such injustices, not merely "advocate" for something better.

Why should religious convictions be any different? When you hear that a politician is in favor of a living wage, do you ask if he favors it for religious reasons? If she is in favor of ending discrimination against African Americans, do you ask if she has religious reasons for thinking that all people are equal? Maybe she thinks people are equal "in the eyes of God" or some such rot, so we needn't take her seriously. All moral judgments are grounded in values that are particular to the individual who makes the judgment, and yet we act as though religious values are somehow more to be avoided than, say, utilitarian calculations.

I'd be willing to bet that the folks who complain the loudest about religious convictions creeping into politics don't really care about religious convictions at all, they only care about keeping abortion safe and legal. Latching on to the shibboleth of religious convictions is just the easiest way, politically, of keeping the pro-lifers on the outskirts of acceptability. You never hear people complaining about anti-death penalty protesters that they are trying to impose their religious convictions on the rest of us, and you never heard such complaints about the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s, and yet both movements had and continue to have many people who believe in them for religious reasons, just as there are plenty of folks who oppose abortion for reasons that have nothing to do with religion.

You simply cannot use such a criterion anyway, since it is not testable. Suppose I oppose the death penalty for purely religious reasons, but no one knows that I am religious; it is not a difficult matter to compose arguments against the death penalty that have nothing to do with religion, and I could always say that my convictions against the death penalty are grounded in those arguments. I suppose someone who was really religious would not be too ashamed to give the real reason for his opposition to the death penalty, but then nobody would vote for him, for fear he would feel the same way about abortion and stem cell research. Better to have a sophist in office than some religious nut.

I know that Sam Brownback is not afraid to say what he thinks, because here's what he said when Montagne asked him about the possible benefits of stem cell research:
You know, you could destroy me today and harvest my body parts and save a number of lives — you know — with my heart, kidneys, liver. Is that a greater good? Now, some might suggest it is, but it just is morally wrong to take one human life for the benefit of another.
Not exactly the way I would have put it myself, but it is a version of the same argument that I would have given in response to that question, and it ought to be the end of the discussion for anyone except the most base sort of utilitarian.

So here's what Sam Brownback should have said in answer to Montagne's question about political "compromise":
Well, I'm going to do everything that is within my power, legally, to bring about a change in these morally repugnant policies. I'm a constitutional officer now; I'd be a constitutional officer then. Everything that I do will be within the limits of the law and my constitutional duties, but that will not keep me from doing what I know is the right thing to do and bring about a different system. But of course I'm going to comply with the law as a constitutional officer sworn to uphold the constitution, so all of the change that I help to bring about will be accomplished by democratic means.
Good luck hearing anything like that before November 2008.

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