I finished Sheila Suess Kennedy's What's a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing in the ACLU? I have two items.
A significant theme in Kennedy's book is the need for civility in
political discussions. On page 164, Kennedy states: "Direct mail
campaigns by the ACLU aren't much different than those conducted by the
Christian Coalition or the Republican National Committee. Only the
enemy has been changed. Such appeals may fill organizational
treasuries, but they do a serious disservice to public dialogue. Worse,
as the public becomes more sophisticated, they contribute to a
dangerous and growing cynicism about American institutions."
appreciate this passage because Kennedy acknowledges that the ACLU
itself needs to work on being part of the solution rather than part of
the problem in the area of public dialogue. When she referred a
few pages earlier to a "Campaign for Civility" that the Indiana Civil
Liberties Union initiated in 1994, I was rather skeptical about the
effectiveness of such an enterprise, for I thought that the right-wing
could simply come back and say that the ACLU and people on the Left (not
that Kennedy regards the ACLU as left-wing) were themselves uncivil and
thus had no authority to lecture people on civility. But Kennedy
acknowledges that there is enough guilt to go around.
thing is, what do you do when you believe that somebody else is a
genuine threat to the well-being of society? Well, the ACLU and the
religious right choose to warn people about what they think is a
threat. This is understandable. But how productive is it? Wouldn't it
be better if people sat down and talked and listened to one another,
rather than just fighting?
Although Kennedy talks about fruitful
interactions that she has had with people who disagree with her,
overall, she appears to be skeptical that the religious right is even
open for dialogue. She is probably right about that, in an overall
sense. But I do believe that a fruitful discussion between elements of
the religious right and the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of
Church and State, People for the American Way, etc., is conceivable.
Back in the 1990's, Ralph Reed came across as someone with whom you
could have a conversation. He was tactful. He was open to addressing
questions. He approached discussions as a place where he could listen
and clarify his own position. Whatever his tactics in the political
arena, he modeled respectful engagement of others in dialogue whenever
he appeared on TV news programs. And this is not surprising,
for he has a Ph.D. in American History from Emory! Nowadays, my
impression is that Reed does not have the same level of star power that
he once did, on account of questions about his relationship with Jack
Abramoff, and other factors. It would be nice if the religious right
could have somebody like Ralph Reed, at least in terms of modeling
respectful dialogue. Or perhaps elements of the religious right are
already moving in the direction of being open to constructive dialogue.
Tim Daly of Focus on the Family has talked in the past about making
Focus more open to conversation (see here). I hope that this happens.
will say, though, that there are times when I am glad that personal
attacks are a part of political discourse. Case in point: the 2012
Presidential race. I suppose that Barack Obama could have sat down with
Mitt Romney to have a dialogue about the issues of the day, and, on
some level, they did. But, in my opinion, Obama needed to bring up Bain
Capital and Romney's continual flip-flops in order to win. Positions
are important, but it's also important for people to know what kind of
person would be representing them were he or she to win!
question that has been swimming around in my mind is the school of
constitutional interpretation to which the ACLU belongs. Is it strict
constructionist? Originalist, in terms of wanting us to go with the
intentions of the Founding Fathers? Textualist and literalist? Or does
it regard the U.S. Constitution as a living, breathing document? I
seriously wondered this. A number of people on the right-wing
probably assume that people who disagree with them are in the "living,
breathing" school of constitutional interpretation, but I was not
certain that this could be said about the ACLU. The ACLU, after all,
strikes me as strict and almost absolutist when it comes to the Bill of
Rights, and that, to me, lacks the flexibility of the "living,
breathing" approach. At the same time, it seems to me that a narrow,
over-literal interpretation of the Bill of Rights has been used by
judges to restrict people's constitutional rights, and so I wouldn't be surprised if the ACLU shied away from textualism.
In terms of
Kennedy's book, she does treat the intentions of the Founders as
significant in trying to understand the Establishment Clause of the
First Amendment. At the same time, she highlights her problems with
originalism on pages 183-184. She notes that it's difficult to uncover
the original intent of the U.S. Constitution, for there was more than
one Founding Father, each of whom may have had a different original
intent. She also says that the Founding Fathers did not foresee some of
the issues that exist today, such as pornography on the Internet. But
she does believe that we should look at the principles of the U.S.
Constitution and seek to apply them to the concerns of today. Speaking
for myself, I think that looking at original intent is important in this
task, for we should see what the Founding Fathers intended each
amendment in the Bill of Rights to accomplish. Is there an alternative
to this approach that is not arbitrary?