Interpreting Obama’s History Lesson on the Crusades

President Obama recently made headlines with some off-the-cuff historical commentary at the National Prayer Breakfast. In discussing the challenge posed by terrorist groups like ISIS, Obama cautioned: “Lest we get on our high horse and think (violence in the name of faith) is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

The responses to this statement from both the Left and the Right were predictably divergent. Liberals considered the statement unremarkable. (Religion has often led to violence and extremism no matter which group wields it; who could object to such an obvious truth?) Conservatives, however (especially Christian ones) took offense to the comparison as both historically inaccurate and irrelevant to the present conflict: what could be gained by the President of the United States appearing to draw a moral equivalency between the obvious present evil of ISIS and the possible sins of a handful of Christians committed almost a thousand years ago?

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Of course, it is always useful to recognize that no one person or group of people has a monopoly on morality; I have never met a Christian who would argue otherwise. We know Jesus’ message of humility and forgiveness was more often directed at hypocrites like the Pharisees who went about proclaiming their good deeds, unlike the prostitutes and tax collectors who made no such pretensions. There is plenty of biblical and historical evidence that good and bad individuals (or if you prefer, behaviors) exist in all groups.

However, if this was Obama’s intended point, it failed for several reasons.

First, the Crusades were morally ambiguous. They provide neither a clear-cut case of Christian vice and Muslim virtue, or the reverse. The Crusades were also not a single event, but rather a series of rather disorganized and disparate military campaigns that occurred over a period of centuries. This makes them especially difficult to teach, and even more difficult to employ as straight-forward lessons in morality.

Contemporary historians have often failed to understand what motivated individual Crusaders. Many western Christians sacrificed their fortunes to go and do battle against the enemies of Christendom, believing wholeheartedly in the rightness of their cause and the promise of receiving indulgences for their sins. Though some have imagined them to be harbingers of 19th century European imperialism, the Crusades were not motivated primarily by economic and political greed dressed up in religious justifications.

Some Crusaders did commit atrocities, most notably the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland Massacres. But according to Wikipedia:

The massacre of the Rhineland Jews by the People’s Crusade, and other associated persecutions, were condemned by the leaders and officials of the Catholic Church. The bishops of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms had attempted to protect the Jews of those towns within the walls of their own palaces, but the People’s Crusade broke in to slaughter them. Fifty years later when St. Bernard of Clairvaux was urging recruitment for the Second Crusade, he specifically criticized the attacks on Jews which occurred in the First Crusade.

The Fourth Crusade was the most infamous failure, as Latin Christians sacked, pillaged, and plundered the already-Christian Constantinople. The full story is a lot more complicated than that, but it is important to realize that there was no single leader, not even the pope, directing the actions of the Crusaders. In fact, they were so disorganized it is almost a miracle that they even arrived at their destination, much less established short-lived Christian kingdoms.

Adam Gopnik writes a thought-provoking article in the New Yorker about the nature of history, though I disagree with some of his conclusions. History simplifies, he observes, but “restoring complexity doesn’t always make things clearer.” Gopnik writes: “the forces in history are always multiple, complex, and contingent, much more so than the fables make it seem. The forces in any particular historical event are always almost infinitely divisible into smaller and often contradictory parts, with a lot of fuzzy cases and leg room.” The Crusades are a perfect example of this.

Second, historical context is especially important here. If one is determined to use the Crusades to illustrate some contemporary political point, one must first understand where they fit into the larger pattern of interaction between Christians and Muslims that has been unfolding for the past fourteen hundred years.

For over four centuries prior to Pope Urban II’s call, Christians had been fighting a series of defensive battles against Muslim expansion, and losing more often than not. Charles Martel did lead the French to victory at the Battle of Tours in 732, halting the Muslim advance into Europe, but only after all of Spain had been lost (Over 700 years would pass before it was reclaimed.). When the recently converted Seljuk Turks (and not the original Arab carriers of Islam, who had controlled the Holy Land for centuries) began threatening the safety of Middle Eastern Christians and the survival of what was left of the Byzantine Empire, this prompted Pope Urban II to call for Roman Christians to assist their brothers in the East, reclaim the Holy Land, and make the birthplace of the Christian faith safe once again for Christians. They failed on nearly all accounts.

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It is hard to see why a failed Christian campaign to retake their faith’s holiest sites could continue to anger present-day Muslims, as most Christians that I know have forgiven Muslim victories in the Middle East, Spain, the Balkans, and Anatolia, to the extent that they were even aware of them.

While Christians and Muslims have coexisted peacefully at several times in history (usually under Muslim rule, with Christians paying for the privilege), Islam has more often than not acted as the aggressor. Even after the threat of the Seljuk Turks abated (the ones who provoked the Crusades), the Ottoman Turks continued to threaten and enslave European Christians for centuries until a couple key defensive victories halted their advance, most notably at Vienna and Lepanto.

It is beyond the scope of this post to adequately expand on this point, but Islam and Christianity have very different beliefs and histories. Jesus never led men into battle or governed an empire, while Mohammad did both. Jesus famously instructed his followers to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” while Mohammad established a caliphate with no distinction between religious and political authority. Early Christians were severely persecuted for their beliefs with many dying as martyrs for their faith, while Islam from its inception spread by the sword and attracted converts seeking political, social, and economic advancement. While Christianity developed within the cultural context of Judaism and the Roman Empire, Islam incorporated many of the pre-existing traditions of the Arab people. All this context matters if we are to really learn from the past. We can’t just cherry-pick isolated events, neglecting the bigger picture.

Third, when attempting to draw lessons from history, it is important to ask whether this is the right time to bring that back up. Is Past Event A really the right parallel for Current Situation B?

Imagine a married couple having a fight. A wife has just discovered that her husband is having an affair. He counters that yes, he has been cheating on her for years, but remember that time a decade ago when she forgot his birthday? The wife’s oversight might be true in the historical sense, but clearly not helpful at the present moment and no excuse for his greater misdeeds.

So is Obama the right person, the Prayer Breakfast the right place, and our current conflict with radical Islam the right occasion to bring up the sins of a relatively small number of Christians operating largely independently of any central control over 800 years ago? I would have to answer no on all accounts. In fact, that Obama did so shows a great lack of understanding of our present crisis.

Do we think ISIS cares about all the times in history that Muslims have murdered Christians and Jews, or even other Muslims? Of course not; they are too busy beheading all enemies of their radical totalitarian ideology.

Can we imagine FDR bringing up America’s past sins of slavery and broken treaties with Native Americans, just as he was trying to inspire Americans to fight the Japanese and Germans? Didn’t think so.

President Obama is the wrong messenger to get Christianity off its supposed “high horse,” just as Mitt Romney proved an ineffective messenger in championing the middle class. Here are just a few other statements from the president that provide the context by which Christians now judge his remarks.

Obama on Islam:

“The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam.”

“Islam has always been part of America.”

“As a student of history, I know civilization’s debt to Islam.”

“Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance.”

Obama on Christianity:

“Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation.”

“We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.”

The list goes on. After so many statements downplaying or criticizing Christianity, with so many others appearing to celebrate and excuse Islam, many Christians aren’t cutting him any more slack.

My fourth and final point about the failure of Obama’s Crusades comparison is this: bad historical analysis runs the risk of obscuring truth by promoting cynicism and moral relativism.

Gopnik claims:

We welcome complexity because it makes the moral points stand out more clearly against their background… The President’s point turned out to be not just exactly right but profoundly right: no group holds the historical moral high ground, and no one ever will. But this is not because a moral high ground doesn’t exist. It’s because we’re all still climbing.

Again, I would counter that while no group has an absolute monopoly on morality, there is such a thing as a historical moral high ground. No one is perfect, but this does not mean we are all the same.

During World War II, the United States was not perfect. We dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing tens of thousands of civilians, and humiliatingly interned in camps thousands of Japanese-Americans thought to be untrustworthy simply because of their race. Even as we fought dictatorship abroad, we denied African-Americans and women equal rights at home.

Did we still occupy the moral high ground? Absolutely. We were fighting an enemy in Japan that carried out the infamous Rape of Nanking and had imperial designs on all of Asia. In Nazi Germany, we fought an enemy that systematically killed eleven million innocent people, including six million Jews. After the war, instead of exacting revenge, we invested millions of dollars in rebuilding both countries to help the Japanese and German people whose soldiers had just claimed thousands of our own.

Despite all our mistakes during the Cold War, we most certainly occupied the moral high ground in our fight against the Soviet Union and its dehumanizing communist ideology. Only one side of this fight had to build walls to keep their people in.

Despite all our mistakes in the Middle East, we most certainly occupy the moral high ground in the current struggle against ISIS, which isn’t saying much, as they seem determined to discover ever deeper lows.

Yes, we are all “still climbing,” but some of us have come further than others, and it is important to recognize this. Societies that still condone female genital mutilation, pedophilia, torture, and draconian limitations on individual freedom have much further to go. We should assist them so far as we can, while resisting any and all attempts to erode the liberties we have fought so hard to secure.

Occasionally, calling to mind the sins of our ancestors provides a valuable inoculation against self-righteousness, as well as hope for those who would like to make similar social and political progress. But sometimes it does nothing more than provide our enemies with ammunition to use against us. It creates ambiguity and doubt, when what we really need are moral clarity and resolve.

Finally, some parting thoughts on recent events:

Even as I wrote this post, two things have happened that tragically serve to illustrate some of my points. First, ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians. In the official Obama administration statement, these brave martyrs were identified merely as “citizens.” The fact that they were Christians who died for their faith was not mentioned.

Second, more information has come out about the man who killed three Muslim young people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. While many in the media were eager for a story featuring a Christian extremist as the bad guy and clamoring for a hate crime investigation, the killer has been identified as a militant liberal atheist. This counters the pervasive fallacy that religion is the primary cause of violence both past and present, one that will require a separate blog post to refute.

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Conflict, the Constitution, and Compromise: Six Takeaways from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Many Americans are frustrated by the gridlock and lack of cooperation in Washington. Some blame Republican “obstructionists” in Congress, while others point to an insular and dysfunctional White House. There have even been attempts to lay our current troubles at the feet of James Madison, Father of the Constitution. But does it really have to be this way?

Last night I heard Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison speak at Roanoke College. The talk was part of a series on the Constitution, the question: “Can the President and Congress work together?” The answer was a predictable “no.” However, the lecture did shed light on several important issues. My six “takeaways” include insights from Senator Hutchison, as well as my own reactions to her points.

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  1. The tension between the executive and the legislature is built into our Constitutional process, for good reason.

It would be extremely misguided to read the last six years as proof that we need to radically amend or bypass the Constitutional process. The first three articles of the Constitution lay out a separation of powers with checks and balances wisely designed to prevent too much power from being concentrated in too few hands—the definition of tyranny. Yes, it’s inconvenient and cumbersome at times; however, the tension between the executive and the legislature is necessary to prevent rule by an elected king. All presidents are tempted to overstep their bounds. It is the prerogative of all Congresses to rein them in.

Senator Hutchison recalled her experiences with fledgling democracies, including former Soviet republics. The freedom fighters always think it’s about the vote, she said, but they are wrong. Voting is the easier and less essential piece to building a strong democracy. More importantly, a good Constitution is needed to provide the structure through which free and open debates can play themselves out.

The Senator provided many historical examples of the tension between the President and Congress, including the War Powers Act. All presidents have used executive orders. However, President Obama cannot be judged on the number of executive orders alone, as he has greatly expanded the use of executive memoranda, directives to agencies that have the practical effect of law without the benefit of the legislative process. Also, not all executive orders are created equal; some represent minor changes, while others radically alter policy. Recent examples include Cuba and immigration.

Nevertheless, Congress has stopped President Obama from carrying out some of his plans, including closing the Guantanamo Bay prison. The judiciary has stepped in as well, declaring Obama’s “recess” appointments to the NLRB unconstitutional, as the Constitution clearly gives Congress the power to confirm appointments. Thank you, James Madison.

  1. It is important to build relationships with members of the other party.

Despite the tension between President and Congress, and despite the tension between the two major political parties (which the Constitution did not even envision), our elected leaders still have an obligation to handle the nation’s business. This requires negotiation and compromise.

But in order to achieve anything involving two competing sides, there must be a basic foundation of trust. You don’t have to be best friends. You don’t even have to like each other. But you do need to respect each other.

According to Senator Hutchison and other sources, President Obama does not seem to have invested much time or energy in cultivating open and collegial relationships with members of Congress. Even Democrats complain that he doesn’t invite them over to the White House. He doesn’t solicit their opinions. He doesn’t call, unless he wants something.

Senator Hutchison recalled one telling example—the so-called “fiscal cliff.” President Obama was getting nowhere. Neither were Harry Reid and John Boehner. Congress had been recalled after Christmas for the third time in history, the other two coming after the Pearl Harbor attack and the JFK assassination. In the end, it fell to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell to hammer out a deal with Vice President Joe Biden, the two having developed a good relationship in the Senate.

  1. It is important for public servants to have private sector experience.

Two questions during the Q&A portion were particularly telling. When Hutchison was asked if term limits would help for members of Congress, her answer was a resounding yes. Our Founding Fathers were against the idea of career politicians. Congressmen should have to do something else other than make rules the rest of us have to live by. The latter results in detachment from the concerns of everyday Americans and the desire to stay popular at any price to keep winning elections.

I thought Senator Hutchison’s best answer came when she was asked what advice she would offer a young man or woman who wanted to be a U.S. Senator. Hutchison advised against simply hopping from local to state to national office. She claimed to have been often struck by how disconnected politicians can be from “the real world,” and the business world in particular. If most congressmen had actually run a business, they might not be so eager to saddle them with burdensome regulations.

“Do something else first,” she suggested. Get a job in the private sector. Volunteer in your community to gain a better sense of their needs, so that if you ever get the honor of serving in elected office you can be a good representative.

  1. We need to move away from “comprehensive” legislation.

Why does it seem so difficult to get stuff done, even when a proposal enjoys overwhelming support from both parties? Hutchison explained how popular ideas are delayed by quests for “comprehensive” solutions. For example, both sides agree the corporate tax rate should be lowered: Republicans to 25%, Democrats to 26%. What keeps this from happening is the insistence by some that nothing be done on the corporate side (where there is some agreement) until a deal is also reached on the individual side (where there is far less).

Popular solutions should not be held hostage for more controversial or contentious ones. I personally think pieces of legislation should be limited to 50 pages or less, the shorter the better. Anything over that is likely to have been written by lobbyists, to include wasteful spending from both parties, and to be unnecessarily complex when the simplest rule is often fairest.

  1. There is a unique hostility between the Obama Administration and Congress.

Both Clinton and Bush made much more of an effort to reach out to the other party in Congress, while the opposite has been the case with Obama.

President Obama is uniquely bad at compromise due to a combination of inexperience and narcissism. Some have observed that he seems to dislike politicians, much preferring the company of close friends, celebrities, and professional athletes. He thinks negotiating is when you explain your position to the other side for as long as it takes for them to concede that yours is the only reasonable view. If they still can’t see the light after repeated attempts at persuasion, they are either ignorant or malicious. So you move on without them.

Before assuming the office of President, Obama never brokered a deal. He never had to run anything, other than a campaign. It is very unfortunate that in first two years of his administration, Obama didn’t have to compromise due to Democratic supermajorities in Congress. Thus, he made little effort to include Republican ideas in the stimulus, Dodd-Frank, or Obamacare. This understandably left a bad taste in the mouths of Republicans, who were more than happy to spend the next two years blocking his proposals.

This is not to let Republicans off the hook entirely, but they haven’t had much to work with. According to Hutchison, Republicans read the 2014 midterm elections as a mandate from the American people to work together on important issues like the economy. Unfortunately, the White House does not seem to see it this way, and is instead proposing additional liberal policies like free community college that are unlikely to get any traction in Congress.

  1. It is still inspiring to see strong female leaders.

Maybe we should be at the point in history where seeing a strong female leader is no more remarkable than seeing a strong left-handed leader. However, it is still inspiring to me to meet a woman with such a wealth of experience who manages to embody both strength and conviction. Whether or not you agree with her on every issue, Kay Bailey Hutchison is a role model for this reason.

Conflict is built into our Constitution, along with the need for compromise to overcome it. Wisdom lies in knowing when to stand your ground and when to sit down and work with the other side. As our politics becomes more polarized, there is even greater need to elect leaders with the experience and maturity to know the difference. Those aspiring for ideological purity would be better suited for philosophy or religion, as politics remains the art of the possible.

We Need More than a Strategy for ISIS

By Lauren Gillespie

In what may come to be regarded as a low point in his presidency, Obama admitted at a press conference last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with ISIS. It’s bad enough to witness the leader of the free world golfing and fundraising while barbarians are beheading American journalists, persecuting Christians, and clearly signaling their intent to strike the homeland. The thought that he would do so in the absence of a clear strategy to defeat (degrade? contain?) them is beyond comprehension.

Much could and has been written about the shocking level of incompetence necessary to produce such words. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that our problem with Islamic supremacism in general and ISIS in particular goes beyond having a clear strategy to defeat them (though this is certainly important) and cuts to the very core of our identity. It’s not enough to oppose the mission of ISIS; we need to have a greater one of our own.

This starts with recognizing what it is that makes radical jihad appealing, even to certain segments of our own population. This is necessary not to excuse or emulate their ideology, but rather to understand it. Something attracts young men in particular to their cause, or else 100 Americans (that we know of) and 1,500 Britons would not be fighting alongside an enemy that has sworn our destruction. It’s not wealth. It’s not the promise of a long, comfortable life. So what is it?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a George Orwell review of Mein Kampf from 1940. In it, he rightly condemns Hitler as a lunatic, but also notes the underlying appeal of Nazism. Orwell observes that Hitler “has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude” and the progressivist view that “human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain.”

Like Nazism, Islamic extremism offers neither comfort nor security — the ostensible goals of the welfare state — but rather sacrifice in the name of a sacred mission. In the end, the differences between Aryan supremacism and Islamic supremacism are minor. Both are fascist, as they meld religion and government into one and the same thing. Both call their members to fight for a glorious cause, to be part of something greater. Both view themselves as liberators from an enemy that is both decadent and despicable, grown weak and soft in nature and yet wielding a power disproportionate to its merits. In other words, the jihadists view us the way the Nazis viewed the Jews.

ISIS is a militant ideology. To defeat them, we need both a better military (check) and a better ideology. What do we stand for? What are we willing to die for?

These questions are perhaps not as easy to answer as they once were. We seem to lack even the language necessary to frame such a cause, so afraid are we to give offense. Diversity and tolerance are good to a certain degree, but who would lay down their lives in the name of multiculturalism, or even libertarianism? No soldier ever charged into battle crying: “I risk my life for the right of everyone to do whatever they want, no matter how perverse, so long as they don’t directly harm anyone else!”

This is not to say that our culture need be monolithic. The Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War and the brave men who stormed the beaches of Normandy had ancestors who hailed from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and West Africa. But while their backgrounds and origins were diverse, the vast majority accepted Judeo-Christian principles of freedom, inclusiveness, and the intrinsic value of human life. Like our Founding Fathers, they acknowledged the existence of good and evil, as well as the human temptation to choose the latter. You don’t have to be a Jew or a Christian to share these values, but it helps to recognize that they arose in a specifically Judeo-Christian context.

In Turkey, Obama famously declared: “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.” A few days ago, Alveda King called him out on this, asking that he bring us back to God and supply some righteous indignation. This goes beyond politics. When it comes to rallying a population in the face of an existential threat, even the dollars and cents capitalism favored by so many fiscal conservatives falls short. If we are all just here by accident, if our goals in life are merely material and temporal, then what does it matter if a community thousands of miles away is tortured, displaced, and persecuted?

Like Orwell observed, people desire more than material comfort. On a fundamental level, we yearn for a higher purpose– for truth and justice. But in the place of our traditional values, new beliefs have seeped into our culture that divide Americans by class, gender, and race, eschewing the very notion of a common purpose. In order to ignore the gross injustices that abound in the world and our own society, we seize upon the slightest perceived offense. We waste ink and breath debating the name of the Washington Redskins and the existence of a “war on women” while studiously ignoring the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East and the unborn in our own communities. Western feminists do nothing to address the atrocities committed against women in Africa and Asia, including genital mutilation, acid attacks, and rape, while devoting themselves to the causes of free birth control and unlimited access to abortion. It’s embarrassing.

Many Americans today, especially in my own generation, would rather adopt an attitude of “don’t judge me and I won’t judge you” than expose themselves to increased scrutiny and charges of hypocrisy. But multiculturalism, consumerism, and moral relativism will not be enough to defend ourselves against Islamic supremacism and other fascist incarnations. Neither will adopting our own “convert or die” extremist mentality. We defeated Nazism and Soviet communism in large part because we believed our values of freedom and democracy were worth fighting for. We need to figure out how to fight ISIS. But we also need to remember why.

Some Thoughts on Ferguson

What has been your reaction to the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri? Did you feel grief that a teenage boy was killed? Anger at the cop who pulled the trigger, the reaction of the Ferguson police, or the racism of the “system?” Did you feel frustration at the rush to judgment? Sadness at the divisions laid bare by these events? Fear that the riots that occurred in the wake of the shooting could be coming soon to a neighborhood near you?

Maybe you experienced some combination of these different reactions. Either way, it is hard to identify anything positive about the last two weeks. There are no winners here. Not Michael Brown’s family, who lost their son. Not the cop, whose life will never be the same – regardless of the outcome of any investigation. Not the small business owners whose stores were looted. Not America, criticized by the likes of Iran and Russia for the flaws in our democracy as we try to restore order and justice to the world at large. There are no winners here.

I read a post on Facebook by an African-American writer asking, where is all the white outrage over Ferguson? The piece began “As we all know by now” and went on to give a particular narrative where Michael Brown was just a boy walking to his grandmother’s house who was shot dead by a white cop, presumably for no reason other than his race.

The problem is we don’t know what happened. We weren’t there. Only Darren Wilson knows what occurred within his mind in the seconds it took for him to fire shots at Brown, six of which hit his body and ultimately killed him. Only Michael Brown, God rest his soul, knows what was going on in his mind when he engaged with Wilson prior to the shooting. If the races of the shooter and the deceased were reversed, would the media be engaging in the same rush to judgment? Or would we be urged to exercise caution and not jump to conclusions? Would we even be hearing about it at all?

Eyewitnesses might think they know what happened based on what they saw. At least one account captured on video moments after Brown’s death has Brown charging at Wilson. There are reports that Wilson suffered a facial fracture and was severely beaten by Brown. Other witnesses, including Brown’s friend and accomplice, say he had his hands up and was surrendering. Even if Brown was somewhat of a bully, as the liquor store robbery tape suggests, or an aggressor, as Wilson’s wounds indicate, this does not justify his death.

It is conceivable based on the available evidence that Darren Wilson feared for his life and used lethal force as a last resort. It is also conceivable that his judgment was clouded somehow by Brown’s race or appearance. Perhaps the fact that he was 6’4” and almost 300 pounds was a greater factor for Officer Wilson than his skin color. We don’t know. What we do know is that despite any new details that may emerge, the death of an 18-year-old kid is a terrible tragedy and we should do everything we can to prevent it from happening again.

One thing is clear after the last two weeks – there is very real frustration on the part of both minority and low-income communities in America that is threatening to boil over, and it cannot be ignored. The way to address this frustration and anger is not with looting and rioting, or provoking a police response by disobeying orders. It is not to change the subject to black-on-black crime or to wait and hope it all goes away. We need to seek practical, concrete solutions to bridge the divide between our dreams of a more equal society and the harsh reality on the ground. In my humble opinion, we should respond to the events in Ferguson in three ways, addressing both our short-term and long-term needs.

The first step must be to handle the immediate crisis and restore law and order to Ferguson. So far local law enforcement and state authorities have tried imposing curfews, using paramilitary techniques, arresting those who do not comply, and calling up the National Guard, none of which has done much to stem the violence. It seems the best solution might be to do what Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson has done, which is to ask that peaceful protestors assemble and march in the daylight, leaving the night for the police to protect businesses from the looters and agitators looking to profit off the community’s misfortune.

The second step must be to ensure a transparent and unbiased investigation of what happened on that August day. Already there is talk of how the riots will not stop until Wilson is indicted. Let’s not have a repeat of the Zimmerman-Martin ordeal. There was probably not enough evidence to indict Zimmerman, certainly not on the charge of murder in the first degree. This is why he was initially released. And yet the special prosecutor caved to the political pressure and overcharged him, leading to a highly publicized and divisive trial with a predictable “not guilty” verdict: not because Zimmerman was a great guy, but because in America defendants are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof rests entirely on the prosecution. So, let’s have an open and transparent investigation, but let’s not sacrifice one man’s life and the rule of law to the political and social pressures of the moment.

The third step must be to have an honest conversation about how to address the needs of the African-American community and other minority communities in the United States. Here are just a few common sense reforms that might make a difference:

  1. Work to establish better relationships between police forces and minority communities by recruiting more minorities to serve in law enforcement and engaging in various outreach initiatives. JROTC is already successful in diverse public high schools like the one at which I teach. Why not pilot a junior law enforcement program? We should also have a separate discussion about the militarization of the police in general as it relates to their ability to serve their communities, not intimidate them.
  2. Reform our criminal justice system to eliminate any racial disparities that may exist in sentencing, reduce sentences for non-violent crimes including those that are drug-related, end mandatory minimum sentencing, and establish ways for ex-cons to have their voting and Second Amendment rights restored.
  3. Reform public school systems to focus on excellence and achievement for all students. I have read that even well-intentioned white educators can sometimes subconsciously lower expectations for students of color. Teachers may think they are being nice or understanding by making exceptions for kids with difficult lives, but this is not always the case. All students need to be respected, challenged, and given the support they need to succeed. It also couldn’t hurt to recruit more African-American educators, in particular African-American males. I have seen with my own two eyes the difference this can make in a student’s engagement.
  4. Reform our economy to create more opportunity for all Americans – especially minorities. African-American men have double the unemployment rate of white men. Imagine if our federal government were to cut the corporate tax rate, eliminate unnecessary regulations, and allow private businesses to develop our energy potential. Millions of jobs would be created for all Americans. Regardless of race, there is no better social program than a family and no better economic program than a job.

Of course, these reforms will do nothing to lift minority and low-income communities out of poverty and crime if a bigger change is not made at the family and community level. I have had the privilege to teach with many such positive African-American community leaders. They truly shoulder a heavy burden, working every day to be positive role models that provide both encouragement and tough love. They will be the first to tell you that government reforms are no substitute for having a father in the home or a culture that values education. They are the ones we need to be asking for solutions on how to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans.

The one thing we can’t do is send the message to black children that it doesn’t matter how much they study or how hard they try to succeed; our racist society will not allow them to advance. This is a bitter and contemptuous lie that I have already seen some of my African-American students swallow, and it might be the biggest obstacle to their future success. We need fewer Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons vying for their moment in the spotlight and more actual community leaders like the men and women I serve alongside, men like Captain Ron Johnson. The ills that plague many minority and low-income communities have both external and internal factors, both of which must be addressed if we are to avoid a repeat of Ferguson.

Answering Israel’s Critics

By Lauren Gillespie

We all do things when we are fifteen that we later regret. In my case, in addition to the usual suspects, this was to draw a false moral equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians during the Second Intifada. In 2002, I wrote an op-ed for the Roanoke Times blaming leadership on both sides (Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat) and calling for everyone to just share the land and get along, as if this were as easy as two children agreeing to share a sandbox. At the time, Palestinians were launching suicide attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli civilians, while Israel’s alleged offense was to continue settling land won in the 1967 War. Were I to see the piece today, I would likely blush in embarrassment.

At the time, I lacked an in-depth understanding of the background of the conflict and bought into the naïve notion that both parties must share the blame for any violence. Like others in the millennial generation, I have no memory of the Cold War. I grew up in the 90’s, that golden decade when communism had been defeated and Islamic terrorism still seemed a distant threat. The world was a safe, happy place. We didn’t have enemies bent on our destruction. Conquest and empire were things of the past, to be replaced with tolerance, multiculturalism, and self-esteem. If people in other countries still killed each other, they were either immature or mean.

In the twelve years since my first foray into writing about the conflict, I have earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in Foreign Affairs with a concentration in the Middle East and spent five years teaching AP World History. I say this not to claim to be an expert on the region (which I am not), but merely to explain how my thinking on the subject has evolved.

For the past month, I have been devouring any new information I can on the ongoing Israeli-Gaza War. Each day brings new developments, and I am still discovering new layers to the proverbial onion. I have been hesitant to write on the subject because of both the complexity of the situation and the fact that it has become such an emotional issue for so many. Warfare has always been brutal, and civilians always suffer disproportionately for the mistakes of their governments. In the past, we read reports of the carnage and statistics of casualties. Now we see pictures of disemboweled toddlers posted to twitter in real time.

But I have reached the point at which I can remain silent no longer. I cannot read another blog post, twitter trend, or facebook status accusing Israel of genocide and not respond. It turns my stomach to hear people compare the Israeli Defense Forces to Hitler – as if Israel’s objective were to kill civilians; as if they have forgotten that the Holocaust claimed the lives of six million Jews.

Many Americans are as ignorant of the background of the conflict as I was at fifteen, and some just as naïve in their understanding of foreign policy. Unfortunately, this seems to include Secretary of State John Kerry, whose embarrassing attempt to negotiate a ceasefire ended in disaster, legitimizing Hamas (a terrorist organization) and infuriating Israel (our long-time supporter and ally).

Critics of Israel have only two arguments: that Israel has killed more Palestinian civilians than Hamas has killed Israelis (1,650 Palestinians killed in attacks by the IDF at last count, compared to 60 Israeli soldiers and 2 civilians killed by Hamas), and that Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians are justified as “resistance” to Israeli “occupation.” Both arguments fall apart upon closer inspection.

First, comparing death tolls is not the proper way to determine the moral high ground in a conflict. More important is the intent behind the action. In a court of law, self-defense can be used as justification for taking another’s life. There can also be cases of manslaughter in which the intent was not to inflict harm, but it resulted from negligence. At best Israel’s actions fall under the first category, at worst the latter.

Israel has taken several measures to limit civilian casualties among Palestinians, including “roof-knocking” bombs delivered as warnings, leaflets urging evacuations, and even text messages. This has proven extremely difficult, as Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet and Hamas has embedded itself within the civilian population, even urging Palestinians to ignore Israeli warnings.

Have they done enough? The shelling of another UN school (where Hamas rockets have previously been found) certainly raises this question. I’m sure that were I the mother of a Palestinian child killed in an IDF operation, I would be too devastated to care whether or not it was intentional; this is why we must always pray for peace. But charges of genocide imply an intent to inflict harm that simply has not been demonstrated. From the Israeli standpoint, it is also illogical. What does Israel stand to gain from killing Palestinian children? It only makes them look worse in the eyes of the world. Their quarrel is with Hamas, which they rightly perceive as an existential threat.

Hamas, on the other hand, has done everything it can to kill or capture Israeli civilians, including rocket attacks and tunneling. They have endangered Palestinian civilians by firing from schools, cemeteries, and playgrounds, even killing 10 Palestinians in a recent misfire. Since the conflict started on July 8, Hamas has launched 3,000 rockets at Israel. Is Israel to blame for the fact that they are better at (and more interested in) defending their civilians than Hamas? If Israel dismantled their Iron Dome Missile Defense system and Israeli civilian deaths climbed into the thousands, would world opinion shift in their favor? Somehow I doubt it. Israel has the military capability to annihilate Gaza – every man, woman, and child – but they have at least attempted to limit their attacks to military targets. It is highly doubtful that Hamas would show the same restraint if the roles were reversed.

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When Hamas does something particularly indefensible, like attack Israel 90 minutes into a humanitarian ceasefire, their apologists quickly claim that an occupied people have the right to resist in any way they see fit. But Israel does not occupy Gaza. In 2005, they withdrew all their forces, evicting 10,000 of their own settlers and essentially creating the first independent Palestinian state. World leaders kept telling Israel the attacks were due to settlements and occupation. Why not give it a try?

Unfortunately, Palestinians in Gaza voted Hamas into power over the more moderate Fatah. Hamas devotes most of their resources, including international humanitarian aid, to the construction of costly tunnels and purchase of new rockets to attack Israel, rather than improve the lives of Palestinians. They preach Anti-Semitism to children and celebrate the slaughter of Israeli civilians. After the 2012 conflict, parents in Gaza named babies after the Iranian rockets that had been used to strike Israel.

Israel has been criticized for its blockade of Gaza (not the same as an occupation), and perhaps they could do more to ease this. But Israel’s strategy is based on the desire to keep Hamas from getting new rockets and to shift Palestinian support away from Hamas, much like our nation’s economic sanctions of Iran. Egypt has also restricted access to Gaza, yet they do not face the same criticism.

Second, if Hamas is justified in resisting “occupation,” isn’t Israel justified by the same logic in resisting its destruction, the stated goal of Hamas? If America had an enemy that was constructing tunnels to kidnap and kill American civilians and launching rockets into our airspace, how would we expect our leaders to respond? Perhaps it is not surprising that 95% of Israeli Jews see the operation in Gaza as just. Denounced by both traditional adversaries and allies, including the UN, Israel seems to have concluded that nothing short of national suicide would increase their global popularity. They have chosen the survival of their people over the approval of others.

In a way, Israel and Hamas are both succeeding in their different objectives, which is why a ceasefire has been so difficult to negotiate. Israel has dismantled hundreds of terrorist tunnels and 3,000 Hamas rockets, protecting their civilians at the cost of 60 soldiers. Hamas has won international sympathy, protecting its political relevance at the cost of an estimated 1,650 Palestinian civilians. Israel’s stated goal is to destroy Hamas. If it is allowed to succeed, Palestinians in Gaza might benefit just as much as Israelis.

But Israel’s struggle means more to me than just this most recent conflict. In Dinesh D’Souza’s America, Bono claims America is exceptional because it is the only nation that is also an idea: that you can advance as far as your talents and work ethic will take you, no matter where you were born or what your father did for a living. But Israel too is the embodiment of an idea: the belief that the Jewish people should control their own sovereign state in the Promised Land, also known as Zionism. In a recent column defending Zionism, Michael Oren writes:

Though founded less than 150 years ago, the Zionist movement sprung from a 4,000-year-long bond between the Jewish people and its historic homeland, an attachment sustained throughout 20 centuries of exile. This is why Zionism achieved its goals and remains relevant and rigorous today. It is why citizens of Israel—the state that Zionism created—willingly take up arms. They believe their idea is worth fighting for.

Hamas is also founded on an idea they are willing to fight and even die for – Islamic supremacism. But Hamas is not the only organization dedicated to this cause. Just look across the Suez to the Muslim Brotherhood, only recently ousted from power in Egypt. Look at ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Islamic supremacism (which is distinct from the religion of Islam) has been shown to lead to the persecution of Christians and the perpetuation of violence wherever it spreads. Zionism, for all its flaws and critics (including some Jews), has proven the only thing capable of protecting and empowering many of the world’s Jews.

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Even in the face of Hamas’ rockets, Jews continue to immigrate to Israel by the thousands. Why? Because they still believe in the idea of Zionism. Because Anti-Semitism is alive and well around the world. In Europe, the black flags of ISIS were recently allowed to fly over the Netherlands, as crowds chanted “Death to the Jews!” In the United States, pro-Israeli demonstrators had to be escorted away from the White House after being attacked by a pro-Palestinian crowd. Online forums erupt with Anti-Semitic rants, yet facebook decides they do not violate their community standards. The virulence and hatred on display cannot be explained by anger over Palestinian casualties in the ongoing war.

The Holocaust did not give birth to Zionism, or even Jewish migration to Israel, but it did offer definitive proof of the need for a Jewish state. For a brief moment, the world realized that never again should Jews be forced to rely upon the goodwill and generosity of strangers. It is a lesson we would all do well to remember.

No Surprise Obama Is Checking Out

By Lauren Gillespie

“The degree to which Barack Obama is now phoning it in – sleepwalking perfunctorily through his second term, amid gold rounds and dinner parties – is astonishing,” writes Matt Lewis for the British Telegraph. “The only thing that makes sense is that he is exhausted and, perhaps, has checked out of the job early. If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, then Obama is dining out, golfing, and raising money while the world collapses.”

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It’s a pretty damning indictment, and just one of the many pieces written in the last month expressing concern at our commander in-chief’s bizarre detachment from the serious problems flaring up around the world and at home.

Now I don’t claim any special powers of clairvoyance; I’m just a humble historian who believes in using past experience to predict future behavior. In the timeless words of Sublime, “I ain’t got no crystal ball.” But I hope you will excuse me in saying that I am not at all surprised. In fact, we really should have seen this coming.

Most people seem to have forgotten this, but when Obama first took office, his 68% initial approval rating was the highest since Eisenhower. Even Republicans and conservatives were afraid to say anything overly critical about the first African-American president. You didn’t want anyone thinking you were a pessimist or, worst of all, a racist.

But even as the talking heads predicted Obama would govern from the center and enjoy success in office, I had a strong feeling that Obama’s presidency would be just as liberal as the rest of his political career, and that the goodwill so much of the country had extended to him would not last.

I knew Obama would fail to live up to the hype because at a certain point he would have to stop talking and actually start governing. This means making decisions and taking actions. Candidate Obama presented himself as a blank canvas upon which diverse groups could project their often-conflicting dreams. He appealed to a broad swath of the electorate by speaking in vague terms of hope and change. But where words can be general, actions are concrete. They invite judgment. There is no way to please all people at all times, except by doing very little. Even this will offend someone, somewhere, who wishes you had done more. And then there was the matter of Obama’s past.

In his two autobiographies (seriously, who else is this narcissistic?) Obama confessed to a certain degree of laziness in high school and college. He was ambitious for sure, but lacked focus. Yet he was able to get himself elected editor of the Harvard Law Review, the first African-American to hold this honor. Obama took the notoriety and book deal that came with the position, but contributed none of his own work to the publication. There is even credible evidence to suggest that much of Dreams from My Father was actually written by Bill Ayers.

After a stint as a community organizer in Chicago, a job that doesn’t come with a great deal of accountability, Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate. He voted “present” 129 times. For those of you who might be understandably confused as to what this means, Obama could not bring himself to vote “yes” or “no,” so he simply stated that he was there.

Obama launched himself into the national spotlight in 2004, not with any meaningful policy or achievement, but with a speech – the DNC Keynote Address. When his opponent was forced to withdraw in disgrace, Obama cruised into the United State Senate. He failed to sponsor any major legislation, seeming to find the whole political process boring and beneath him.

2008 provided a magical opportunity for Obama. George W. Bush was incredibly unpopular. The country was craving a breath of fresh air, and Republicans – ever attuned to the mood of the electorate –chose John McCain. Suddenly, Obama’s lack of experience became an asset. He may have had few accomplishments of which to speak, but neither did he have much of a record to defend. Clinton had to explain her decision to vote for the Iraq War, but Obama could point to a speech he made as a state senator opposing it.

Obama won enough early primaries and caucuses to seal the deal, but not before the first serious challenges to his narrative were finally raised. The Jeremiah Wright story broke, along with other questionable connections to shady characters (Ayers, Rezko). Obama refused to actually condemn or support his former mentor, but once again delivered a speech about unity as he threw his octogenarian grandmother under the bus. Are you sensing a pattern yet?

Democrats had almost started to realize their error, but too late. He was the candidate, and the pro-Hillary folks in the media who had once challenged his experience rallied to protect him. John McCain was gaining in the polls until the entire financial system crashed just weeks before the election. While McCain came off as erratic after suspending his campaign and rushing in to broker a deal, Obama appeared cool and collected on the sidelines.

The Nobel Committee decided to award Obama the Peace Prize just days into his first term, based on the incredible accomplishment of not being George W. Bush. (They now want it back.) But simply looking and sounding different than his unpopular predecessor was never going to achieve meaningful results. Obama squandered his initial goodwill from Republicans and moderates on an unpopular and ineffective stimulus package. He promised unemployment would not top 8% if Congress passed the bill, and it soared past 11%. He later joked about the whole idea of “shovel-ready,” but a trillion dollars in new debt is no joke. I guess he couldn’t bother to verify the facts of his own law before selling them to the American people?

Obama didn’t reach out to Republicans because he didn’t need them—he had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. Then, with the country still reeling from the Great Recession, he decided to tackle healthcare. He gave speeches, and speeches, and more speeches. Then he turned over the actual crafting of the bill to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who presumably delegated the responsibility to Democratic staffers and lobbyists. The country hated it, but Obama signed it into law. Perhaps we just needed him to explain it to us one more time.

After the “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms, Obama refocused his energies on his greatest political skill: campaigning for president. While 2010 seemed to signal an uphill battle for Democrats, it also provided Obama with a new tactic – denouncing Republican “obstruction.” Yes, from the same people he refused to listen to for the previous two years. (“I won,” and so on.) His lack of attention to the business of governing continued. The day after four Americans were killed in Benghazi, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Obama delivered a few obligatory remarks before jetting off to a Las Vegas fundraiser.

Again, he benefitted from Republican division and unforced errors. No one of any real stature rose to challenge him except for Mitt Romney – a great man for sure, but not a great campaigner. Romney suffered from being a moderate Mormon millionaire who had passed a mini-Obamacare in Massachusetts. I’m mostly happy we escaped a President McCain, but I still regret that our country passed on such a capable and serious leader as Romney. Apparently, a majority of Americans now agree with me and would choose Romney if given a second chance. (How prophetic, incidentally, was Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” routine?)

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Okay, you might be thinking. Lots of people predicted Obama would fail to live up to the messianic expectations of 2008, but what about 2012? Many thought Obama might be liberated by having won his last election. He could focus on his legacy, which might involve more outreach to Republicans and serious progress on policy issues like immigration.

The most telling predictor of Obama’s second term malaise was the fact that he failed to offer anything remotely resembling a second term agenda. He couldn’t campaign on “Hope and Change 2” or the even more hilarious “Yes We Can, But–.” “You Didn’t Build That” had a nice ring and revealed his true disdain for private sector job creators (I mean, greedy capitalists), but it was never going to carry him across the finish line.

So Obama campaigned on Mitt Romney being a mean, nasty rich guy who doesn’t care about you or your family, his heroic take-down of Osama Bin Laden, and the excuse that any lingering economic problems were Bush’s fault. These might have made for effective political strategies, but they have proven difficult to translate into actual policies.

Now here we are in 2014, with two and a half years left of Obama’s presidency. He claims he didn’t know about the IRS scandal, the VA scandal, the Benghazi scandal, or the fact that there were serious issues with the implementation of his healthcare law. He doesn’t have time to go to the border. He’s too busy to stand up to Vladimir Putin (to whom he promised “more flexibility”) or to defend the thousands of Christians and moderate Muslims facing persecution as Iraq and Syria collapse. He has failed to capitalize on the one thing that would almost certainly revive a still-dismal economy – America’ great energy wealth – and has put off a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline for five years now. Voting “present,” perhaps?

It looks like Obama is preparing to ride out his second term, just like he rode out his first term as president, his four year stint in the U.S. Senate (two of which he spent campaigning for president), his unremarkable time in the Illinois State Senate, and most of his academic career.

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Yep, we should have seen this coming.

It is too late to hope for Obama to become the unifying leader so many hoped he would be. He is simply not that guy. But in many ways the events of the next two and half years remain unpredictable. The big unknowns are the 2014 elections, the high probability of more global catastrophes, and how Obama responds to new criticism from the Left. My gut says that with Obamacare’s future in doubt, he will look to the one area where he can change public policy through executive action – immigration reform. He could decide to grant a presidential pardon to all 15 million or so illegal immigrants currently residing here. This might be unpopular with the American people, but Obama is no longer trying to impress us. He has surrounded himself with sycophants eager to preserve his narcissistic view of the world, and he is certain that history will judge him kindly.

The problem is the rest of us don’t have time to wait for the history books; we must live our lives in the present. America does not have another two and a half years to waste.

We Need More Compassion, Less Government

Compassion is a term that seems to get tossed around with increased frequency these days. We are told to show compassion for Central Americans illegally crossing into the United States and Palestinians being killed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza, as well as the poor and suffering in our own communities. But what does it actually mean to be compassionate? Is it simply giving people what they want? Leaving them alone? “Tolerating” them?

I would define compassion as acting in a way that recognizes the common humanity of others. To embrace the Bill Clinton cliché, it involves “feeling their pain”; we have to both suffer with them and endeavor to alleviate their suffering. Compassion is not tossing a few crumbs from the table and saying, “Here is something to you more comfortable down there.” Rather, it is bending down to pick each other back up.

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Compassion is one of the central messages of the Gospel. Christ calls us to serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized—as He Himself did. Christians understand that this obligation extends into the public and political spheres. We have a duty to elect leaders and support policies that promote our values. But Christ’s message was not intended for governments or kings; it was directed at individuals.

Compassion is not a policy. Policies are the means we choose to achieve our ends. Compassion helps shape these ends, and eliminates certain “means” as immoral and unjust, but to arrive at policies that are both compassionate and effective, we need to realize the limits of what government can and should do. Government can impose taxes and then redistribute income in the form of welfare programs, but it cannot embrace the pain of a homeless man, the desperation of a single mother, or the hunger of a needy child. Neither can bureaucracies, those impersonal agencies that reduce real human beings to numbers and statistics as a matter of course. (See the recent Veterans Administration scandal.)

Only individuals are capable of showing true compassion. Only fellow human beings can break down the material distances that separate our bodies—the superficial differences of appearance and circumstance that make some lives seem more worthy than others. We do this when we give freely of ourselves, sometimes with as little as a smile, a hug, or a home-cooked meal.

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I have been overwhelmed with gratitude when people in my family and community have reached out to help me, especially when my son was born with a life-threatening heart defect. But I have never felt this way about government assistance. I have been filled with joy while serving people in my family and community, but never when paying taxes.

Anyone who has ever suffered a serious illness or trauma will tell you that while they needed the experience and expertise of medical professionals, they also needed to be reminded of their basic humanity. The right doctor or nurse can give a patient love and hope, while the wrong one can make them feel less than human, like a piece of malfunctioning equipment on an assembly line.

Very few doctors intend to hurt their patients, yet many do, or we would not have so many medical malpractice lawsuits. Sometimes even well-intentioned policies have the unintended consequences of harming the very people they are designed to help. Foreign aid can prop up corrupt regimes and stifle the development of local economies. Certain welfare programs have been shown to discourage initiative and breed dependency. Opening our borders will invite terrorists and gang members to harm our people and hurt the middle class. Denouncing Israel for defending itself will embolden Hamas to continue their attacks on Israeli civilians and to cynically use their own people as pawns to enflame Anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel around the world.

Typically, the closer we are to someone, the more we will do to ensure their well-being. But we have a responsibility to show compassion even to suffering people in distant lands. Millions of Christians are being killed or forced to flee from all over the Middle East. Since 2003, Iraq’s Christian population has dwindled from 1.5 million to 400,000. Just this month, ISIS purged Christians from Mosul whose ancestors have worshiped there for 2,000 years, burning ancient churches and marking the homes of Christians as targets for looting and persecution.

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Yousef Habash, bishop of the Syriac Catholic Church asks, “Where is the conscience of the world? Where is the United Nations? Where is the American administration to protect peace and justice? Nobody has said a word.”

Our government will not speak out until we do. Disasters and crises can galvanize us into action, providing ample opportunities for compassion, but only when we are willing to pay attention to them. Government has an important role in promoting peace and justice, but too many people look first to politics for solutions when they should start by looking in the mirror. Our individual efforts to show compassion are not as limited as our search for effective policies. As Gandhi said, we have to “be the change (we) want to see in the world.”

Pope Francis has shown us how one man’s compassion can inspire millions. When he washes the feet of a Muslim woman and kisses the face of a disfigured man, his actions recognize their common humanity. He reminds us that serving others is an honor and a privilege. What we do for the least of God’s children, we do also for His Son.

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When Pope Francis criticizes the flaws of global capitalism or opposition to immigration, he does so not to advocate for the alternatives of socialism or open borders, but to remind us of our common humanity. Poverty, illness, imprisonment, and war are all conditions that degrade the dignity of the individual. We have an obligation to show compassion to those most in need of being reminded of their worth.

Many on the Left sincerely believe their policies are necessary to help the poor and oppressed in the United States and around the world. They may even see it as their Christian duty to support socialist redistribution and amnesty at home and to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. But certain politicians in America and radicals abroad have found that they can win more support by dividing people against each other than encouraging them to unite with a common purpose. They stifle compassion by dividing us into camps, and in its place grow resentment and contempt.

I have stated before that liberals do not have a monopoly on compassion, and neither do conservatives. Neither do Christians. We are just as prone to sin as anyone else, and in just as great need of God’s grace. Even as we defend our borders, we cannot dismiss illegal immigrants as “parasites.” Even as we denounce Hamas, we must empathize with the victims of violence in Gaza. When it comes to helping others, we can never give enough, serve enough, or care enough.

Compassion does not mean using the powers of government to give each group what it wants. Rather, compassion is reaching out to the suffering and having the courage to stand up for the persecuted. It requires us to see people not as members of racial, religious, or social groups, but as fellow human beings. Compassion means accepting that the responsibility to help others rests primarily with us and not with government.

Claims of Compassion and Racism on Immigration Policy

It was the end of yet another long day. The final bell would ring in less than five minutes. Staving off exhaustion, I leaned back in my chair and listened to the bright young man before me describe his big plans for the future.

“In a few years, I’m gonna have my own business, and we’re gonna to do nothing but concrete. I’m gonna be rich, too.” He wore a North Face jacket and a pair of $200 cowboy boots—a good sign for sure, if money was the goal. He continued, “I’m gonna do it by hiring new people who just got here. I’ll tell them, ‘Five dollars an hour, take it or leave it.’ If they ask for more, I’ll just find someone else that doesn’t have anything.”

This rather callous statement surprised me, not because it showed a lack of business savvy, but because the young man before me was himself an illegal immigrant.

Pablo (not his real name) was charming, smart, and brutally honest. He made no secret about being undocumented, describing in detail to the class how people from Mexico and Central America rode the train—“La Bestia”—to the United States. He told us of the coyotes who smuggled them in—“$10,000 guarantee, $5,000 with some risk”– and how people kept that amount saved up in case they ever got deported. Some turned up again in as little as two weeks.

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I start with this story for two reasons. First, many commentators have already written excellent philosophical pieces analyzing the current border crisis, especially Victor Davis Hanson and Peggy Noonan. If I didn’t begin with my own experience, I’d have nothing new to add. Second, Pablo’s statements to me and my other experiences with immigrant students have led me to some fairly obvious but important conclusions.

Immigrants come to the United States mainly for economic opportunity and political stability, two things usually lacking in their nations of origin. They don’t risk everything they have to enjoy our superior climate or public transportation, often missing their home countries dearly. Economic opportunity depends largely on supply and demand, while political stability rests on respect for the rule of law. Ironically, both of these are undermined by illegal immigration.

This is why immigration policy is so emotional for ordinary Americans—not because the majority of the country is racist, but because we understand that losing control of our borders erodes the very qualities that make us an attractive destination in the first place.

To people who care about national sovereignty, the charge of racism is particularly frustrating, though not at all unfamiliar. The logic of the Left usually goes something like this:

  1. Don’t think employers should have to provide plans covering 100% of their employee’s birth control choices, including abortifacients? You must hate women.
  2. Don’t think the institution of marriage, having anchored human society for the last 5,000+ years, should be redefined to include same-sex couples? You must be a homophobe.
  3. Don’t support the expansion of the welfare state beyond what we can actually pay for? Clearly, you hate the poor.
  4. Don’t support affirmative action (especially as it has been shown to hurt minorities)? Racist.
  5. Don’t agree with President Obama’s policies? See above.

This is not to deny that some people actually are racist, homophobic, and sexist. But in the political arena, these charges are often leveled to halt honest debate and scare potential critics into going along with the Left’s transformative agenda. Having eschewed reason, progressives claim a monopoly on compassion and attempt to discredit all who stand in their way. The race card is their most potent weapon in this task, and they know it.

It is true that in the past our nation’s immigration laws reflected racist fears, most notably the Chinese Exclusion Act. But it is also true that when a three decades-long wave of immigration was cut off during World War I, working class wages rose. In particular, African Americans found new opportunities working in Northern factories.

For most people, concerns about immigration have little to do with race, culture, or language. I’m not the kind of person who gets offended when asked to push “1” for English. I wish I were proficient enough to “oprima numero dos” for Spanish. I would love to see Pablo able to use his talents to enrich Mexico or the United States—whichever he chooses. I love Hispanic culture– the people, the music, the food. We share a passion for soccer and the Catholic Church.

But I am deeply worried about the repercussions of our apparent disregard for the rule of law. As Noonan asks, “Is a nation without borders really a nation at all?” What happens when localities in Texas and Arizona and California are forced to declare bankruptcy because they cannot continue to provide services to illegal immigrants? What happens when Al Qaeda realizes they can send 17-year-old recruits (or people claiming to be seventeen) into our country via Mexico? What happens when the next decomposing corpse of a child is discovered in a Texas desert?

When I first heard about the crisis along our southern border—thousands of unaccompanied minors arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs—my first thought was that it was all so predictable. President Obama made an election-year promise not to deport young illegals, and what do you know—more young illegals show up. The idea that our laws exist but are not enforced is dangerous and will not be limited to immigration. It is this sort of lawlessness many immigrants are attempting to flee.

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The economic side of the coin is troubling too, although its effects may be felt more gradually. Like Pablo’s business plan, it boils down to supply and demand. Companies would rather hire the people willing to do the job for the least pay. When countries are able to regulate the flow of new immigrants, they can ensure that immigration enriches our society and benefits our economy. If not, new immigrants have less incentive to assimilate and their numbers exert downward pressure on wages, especially when unemployment is already high. The groups most affected by this competition for scarce jobs are African-Americans and working-class whites, not the wealthy elites clamoring to be recognized for their compassion.

But all this talk about the long-term political and economic dangers of illegal immigration neglects the most pressing aspect of the present crisis. Children are being killed and maimed falling off of trains. Girls as young as ten and eleven are being raped, nearly a third of all who make the perilous journey. The ones lucky enough to arrive in one piece find themselves herded into overcrowded shelters—we may as well call them refugee camps—where they sit and wait, without parents or any certainty of a safe future. Churches and other religious organizations are being told they cannot help, even banned from donating teddy bears. How can anyone call this compassion?

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Some suggest the answer is just to let anyone into the country who wants to come here. We are told that open borders work. We are told that our government owes just as much to a woman in Honduras who puts her two kids on a train as it does to a factory worker in Pennsylvania or a housewife in Arizona struggling to stay current on their mortgage payments.

America is a compassionate nation. When disaster strikes anywhere around the world, we are the first to offer help. We take seriously the Christian call to charity. We will have to deal with the fact that our government’s lax enforcement of our current immigration laws– encouraged by self-interested business leaders and irresponsible politicians at the expense of the middle class– has resulted in more illegal immigrants living here than ever will be or should be deported.

But for the time being, we have a real-life crisis on our hands akin to an invading army or a Hurricane Katrina. We must act to secure the border immediately using whatever means necessary, including the National Guard. We have to send the message to our southern neighbors that American legal status is not the right of anyone under eighteen who can get here. Children should be returned to the ones best able to care for them– their parents. As the one who issued the executive order halting the enforcement of current law, President Obama should be the one to remind Mexico and Honduras and Guatemala that we are still a country with borders that must be respected. That would be the compassionate thing to do.

Why You Need to See Dinesh D’Souza’s “America”

Go see Dinesh D’Souza’s movie “America: Imagine the World without Her.”

See it as soon as you can. Take your kids. Take your parents. Take your conservative and religious friends who likely already believe its message. Take your liberal and secular friends who may need more convincing. It is truly a film everyone should experience.

At the end of the two hours, if you feel you would have been better served enduring endless fart jokes next door in “Tammy,” I will personally reimburse your eleven dollars and buy you a new bag of popcorn.

Scratch that last. I’m a teacher trying to get through the lean months of summer, and do not have the funds to make this guarantee. But you get the idea.

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People who know me might assume that I have always been a church-going, dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but this could not be further from the truth. When I was sixteen I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and the equally anti-Christian Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, swallowing them hook, line, and sinker. When I was eighteen, my dad told me he would cut me off financially if I paid to see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. I went anyway.

I have always thought that if you are going to believe something, you should not be afraid to hear the other side’s best arguments. If your deeply-held convictions fall apart at the slightest challenge, then they could not have been that solid to begin with. Sometimes in order to believe, we must first doubt.

We don’t gain anything from echo chambers. We need to engage head-on with the other side, which is why I have so much admiration for Dinesh D’Souza. I even feel a sort of begrudging respect for Bill Ayers for at least engaging D’Souza in open debates, most recently on Fox News with Megyn Kelly. At least liberal professors are not afraid to say what they really mean and what they intend to do, unlike liberal politicians.

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There is an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt. An immigrant himself, D’Souza is the perfect person to answer America’s critics. He does not have to imagine a world without America; he has lived in one.

D’Souza begins with a hypothetical scenario almost too possible to contemplate: What if George Washington had been hit by a sniper’s bullet and the Revolution had died with him? Would the world be a better or worse place for America’s absence?

Through interviews with activists and scholars on the Left, D’Souza presents the five main indictments against America being told every day in high schools and colleges around the nation. They are:

  1. We stole the land from the Native Americans.
  2. We stole half of Mexico in the Mexican-American War.
  3. We stole the labor of the Africans through slavery.
  4. We steal the resources of foreign nations through our imperialistic misadventures.
  5. We steal from our own people through the greed of our capitalist economy.

Basically, America is a country built on theft. As Michelle Obama said, we are “downright mean.” We are not one nation of free men and women, but rather a system of victims and victimizers, oppressors and oppressed. These stories are told by people like Howard Zinn to make us feel shame for our country’s sins, not pride in her virtues. This shame has a purpose—to win our consent in the progressive’s dream to re-make America (to “fundamentally transform America,” as Obama has said), instead of trying to restore her core values of faith and industriousness.

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I will leave it to the film to articulate these ideas, and to D’Souza to convince you that they are oversimplified and misleading. Of course America has made mistakes. We are just as prone to greed and folly as anyone. The difference is our commitment to the idea that in America, “you write the script to your own life.” As Bono notes, we are the only nation that is also an idea. This freedom to chart your own course is the essence of the American Dream and the reason we remain the hope for the world.

Critics may accuse D’Souza of whitewashing the darker chapters in American history, but this is not the case. He simply puts them in their proper historical context. Throughout world history, most states and empires have gained their wealth though conquest and plunder. Look at the Vikings, the Mongols, and the Islamic caliphates. Slavery is, unfortunately, as old as civilization itself, and greed as old as humanity.

The Native Americans took each other’s land through territorial conflicts for centuries before we arrived, killing and enslaving as they went. 3,500 free blacks in the South owned over 10,000 slaves. While many other countries had slaves, we were the only one to fight a war to end it. Instead of plundering their resources, we lost thousands of lives and billions of dollars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to give others a chance at freedom (as well as try to advance what we thought were our self-interests). Our capitalist system has enriched the lives of not just our own citizens, but lifted millions out of poverty in India and China.

None of this is said to excuse or minimize the atrocities in our past. America is not perfect. Like every other nation, we have our faults and we have made our fair share of mistakes. The difference is that our Founding Fathers created a framework in the Declaration of Independence that could be used over time to remedy these faults, bringing our actions ever more in line with our ideals.

Despite our imperfections, millions continue to come to our country each year, crossing oceans and risking everything to seek their chance at the American Dream. In what other nation could Frederick Douglass, born a slave, meet with the President of the United States? In what other nation could Madame C.J. Walker, the child of former slaves, become the first self-made female millionaire?

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Every year when I teach nationalism, I start by asking how many of my students (10th graders) are proud to be American. Usually about half raise their hands. Many have already accepted the lie that America is no more exceptional than any other nation, and that the United States is synonymous with stupidity and greed. This revisionist history cannot continue to be pushed without severe political and cultural consequences.

See this movie to celebrate America’s greatness, but more importantly to remember what is at stake. You won’t be sorry you did.

Last night, my husband and I saw it with about thirty others. When the credits began to roll, no one got up from their seats. It was almost as if we were afraid of the enormous responsibility awaiting us once we left the theatre, and not yet done being inspired. D’Souza quotes Ronald Reagan’s observation that ours is the only national anthem that ends in a question:

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

How we answer this question will depend in part on how well we understand the truth about our own history, and how effectively we communicate this truth to our children. Reagan also said:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

Your Contraception Is Your Responsibility

Women can buy houses on their own. They can purchase cars without help from their bosses. Women can grocery shop, book vacations, save for retirement, and in general run their family’s finances—as most do—without assistance from their employers.

But they can’t purchase birth control on their own.

At least, this is the message of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dissenting opinion, following Hobby Lobby’s recent victory in the Supreme Court.

She writes: “The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would…deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage.”

But since when does not paying for something mean denying access to it? By this logic, my employer has been denying me access to gym memberships, home security systems, and food, all of which can be viewed as more essential to good health than birth control.

Or are women just uniquely helpless in this, the most personal aspect of their lives? They can’t have it unless someone else pays for it?

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Whose responsibility is it to pay for a woman’s birth control: her own, her employer’s, or the government’s? If reproduction and contraception are individual rights, as liberals claim, then they are also individual responsibilities.

Rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin; you can’t have one without the other. When I was a child, my parents could prevent me from having certain things simply by refusing to pay for them. Now that I am responsible enough to make my own money, I have the right to use it as I please, even on things my parents might not support.

When you make government or your employer the “parent” by demanding they pay for something you could get yourself, you are also making yourself a child, beholden to their better judgment. “You can’t tell me what to do with my body!” liberals cry. “But you have to pay for it!”

Demanding something as a right while denying it as a responsibility is the essence of adolescent petulance.

The Hobby Lobby ruling has set off a heated debate that appears to pit women’s rights against religious rights, but this narrative overlooks the responsibility side of the equation. Women did not lose any rights as a result of the decision. Congress should never have passed a law (Obamacare) making employers 100% responsible for their employee’s birth control choices, including methods that can be seen as ending a human life after it has already been created. Whether one views certain forms of birth control as moral or immoral, contraception itself remains the responsibility of the individual.

Liberals have been quoting Ginsburg’s blistering dissent, but her arguments miss this basic point. She writes: “Any decision to use contraceptives made by a woman covered under Hobby Lobby’s or Conestoga’s plan will not be propelled by the Government, it will be the woman’s autonomous choice, informed by the physician she consults…

As the woman’s autonomous choice, it is also her autonomous responsibility. It is extremely unlikely that Hobby Lobby’s female employees will be forced to bear unwanted children as a result of this decision. Their policies still cover sixteen forms of contraception, just not the ones with the potential to prevent an already-formed embryo from implanting in the uterine wall. And if they want any of the remaining four, they can pay for them. Hobby Lobby is not trying to stop them.

She continues: Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community…”

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The Catholic Church was already granted an exemption as part of the law. Fortunately, the Supreme Court ruled that you do not forfeit your freedom of conscience when you form a business.

There is a reason the First Amendment protects freedom of religion together with freedom of speech. Our Founding Fathers understood that one’s freedom of religion is not confined to worship alone, but extends to other areas of life as well. Hobby Lobby is not taking any action to prevent employees from using birth control. They simply don’t want to be compelled to pay for (and by extension participate in) an act they find morally questionable.

This is their right. Once I turned twenty-one, my parents could no longer stop me from consuming alcohol. But I didn’t demand they supply me with weekly stockpiles of liquor.

Ginsburg continues: “It bears note in this regard that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month’s full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.”

Many life-saving surgeries are also equivalent to (or greater than) a month’s full-time pay, but Obamacare does not require these to be covered at no additional cost. Claiming contraception as an essential preventative service requires us to understand pregnancy as a life-threatening condition. This may be the case for some women, who still have many options under this ruling, but certainly not the majority. If pregnancy were an illness to be prevented at any cost, like colon cancer, people would not spend tens of thousands of dollars intending it as a result.

In the meantime, insurance companies have raised co-pays on essential prescription drugs needed to keep people alive in order to cover the costs of providing “free” birth control. Nothing is ever truly “free.” Someone always pays. In the case of contraception, it should be the one using it.

Perhaps Ginsberg’s strongest argument is that people do not have an unlimited right to religion. She writes: “Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…

Fortunately, no one is claiming religion as an unlimited right to refuse to comply with the law. In fact, this was specifically stated in the majority opinion. In this particular case, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no compelling government interest in forcing Hobby Lobby to provide four particular types of contraception that can act as abortifacents. It did not grant employers an unlimited mandate to impose their religious views on employees.

“The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield,” Ginsberg worries. A liberal friend of mine concurred, taking to Facebook to express his concern over the “slippery slope” that might allow employers and organizations to pick and choose which services are covered and which are not. They would have the power to become “judge and jury” over the individual’s every health problem. He listed Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes as conditions employers could claim were the result of individual choices, and thus not subject to coverage.

I was amazed at how well this argument summarized the case against government-run healthcare, which remains the real “slippery slope.” If society has to foot the bill for your healthcare costs, they will naturally demand increasing control over your healthcare decisions. When you give government the responsibility to pay for what happens to your body, you also surrender the right to control it.