By Leon Suprenant | April 1, 2008
When I read that Catholic constitutional law scholar Douglas Kmiec recently endorsed Barack Obama for president, I immediately thought of one of my favorite lawyer jokes:
Question: How can you tell that a lawyer is lying?
Answer: His lips are moving.
I’m certainly not calling Professor Kmiec a liar, but this usually reputable Catholic scholar does stand on shaky ground whenever he moves his lips to explain this bewildering position.
Since coming out in support of Sen. Obama, Prof. Kmiec has been interviewed and discussed extensively in the media and throughout cyberspace. In fairness, what I thought I would do is take a relevant portion of an interview he gave to beliefnet.com and then briefly point out five significant problems with his line of argumentation.
In endorsing Obama, you said he’d signaled that he’s open to different points of view on social issues like abortion. But has he said anything to indicate he’d deviate from the Democratic Party’s pro-choice line?
Kmiec: “What convinced me about his integrity on those issues was his willingness to talk about social responsibility to audiences that aren’t used to hearing that message. For example, when he went to speak to Planned Parenthood, he could have done what every Democrat does: wave the pro-choice flag and talk about defending Roe. He did that, but he also said something very important, that sexual intimacy has to be culturally understood as being a mature choice about being open to creating new life and the responsibility of new life, and that we have an obligation in our churches and in our schools to convey that information.
“And so at some point you have to decide whether the incidence of abortion will be more affected by the another conservative Republican appointing the right person to the Supreme court, and resolved as a legal issue, or by a candidate who wants to end the politics of division and who has a healthy responsibility for religion and its place in public thinking and public discourse. I came to the conclusion that his personal faith journey, which causes him to fully recognize how faith answers the hunger in the human soul, and his willingness to talk about self-responsibility, would make him mindful of opposing views on abortion.”
Then your endorsement has as much to do with a failed conservative strategy of trying to eliminate abortion through the courts as it does with Obama’s appeal?
Kmiec: ”It’s even broader than that. It’s not the specific failure of this president or this administration, it’s the conclusion that trying to change the law on this topic [abortion] is a bit of fool’s game, that the thing that needs to be changed is more the heart of the individual person and the attitude of the larger culture. And that can hopefully be done by some of the things that Senator Obama talks about: the attitude of personal responsibility, of importance of the family, the well being of the culture, and quite frankly the economic policies that would affect the needs of the poor and the average American.
“As a Catholic looking at candidates, my faith instructs me to look at the whole person respective to the church’s social teaching on wages, education, issues of family, culture, responsibility toward the environment, the reduction of mindless or excess consumption. And the Catholic Church was quite explicit about the concept of preemptive war being contrary to the principles of just war. One of the things that happened to Catholics over the last two decades is because of the evil of abortion, we’ve been somewhat less mindful of the need to serve those around us—those who are calling upon us for assistance in a tangible way.”
(1) He starts off by referring to Sen. Obama’s “integrity” on issues such as abortion and elsewhere on key cultural issues such as homosexuality. He glosses over the fact that Sen. Obama, through his actual votes and actions during his short tenure in public office, has aligned himself with the most radical elements of the “sexual left”–hardly a record of responsibility and integrity for one who gives lip service to religious values. Does his alignment with the “culture of death” really signal an end to a “politics of division”? How would Prof. Kmiec have felt in the mid-19th century about a politician who strongly supported the Dred Scott decision, but had the audacity to say that he abhored the politics of division surrounding the slavery issue, as if those who opposed treating human beings as personal property were the ones being unreasonable.
(2) Prof. Kmiec was obviously wowed by Sen. Obama’s comments about sexual intimacy being a mature choice involving personal responsibility. Would Hilary Clinton or John Kerry or Ralph Nader or any presidential candidate disagree with that? Granted, Sen. Obama has remarkable rhetorical skills, but at the end of the day the statements that Sen. Kmiec paraphrases in a positive light are pious political platitudes that are not backed up by any meaningful position or action, and actually belied by things Sen. Obama said in the same speech.
(3) I had to laugh at the comment about Sen. Obama’s being “mindful of opposing views.” As noted in a previous post, even when it comes to his staunch support for partial-birth abortion, which is overwhelmingly opposed by most Americans, Sen. Obama says “I will not yield.” He has also spoken of his willingness to use the bully pulpit to force “sexual morality according to Barack” down the throats of the American public. Prof. Kmiec here is either being naive or disingenuous.
(4) Prof. Kmiec then suggests that the ability to appoint federal judges is not as important as changing individual hearts as well as the collective culture’s heart on the issue of abortion. Of course that’s true. But especially in an age of activist judges, people on both sides of the aisle recognize that the most significant power a president has when it comes to abortion and other culture of life issues–for good or for ill–is the ability to appoint Supreme Court justices as well as judges for the lower courts. That’s why Sen. Obama and his liberal comrades in the Senate won’t accept even the most qualified judicial appointments if it can be shown that they accept traditional Judeo-Christian morality. And surely it’s easier to change hearts when the “right” position has the full backing of the law. Prof. Kmiec knows this and is already transitioning to the fifth and final point.
(5) Prof. Kmiec downplays the significance of judicial appointments, where Sen. Obama would be worst-case scenario, so as to level the playing field. At the end of this interview he starts throwing out all the specious arguments used by many “progressive” (liberal, dissident, hopelessly Democrat, et al.) Catholics to justify voting for the less pro-life candidate. He uses the “Catholics are not single-issue voters” argument, as though all issues are essentially equal. (It also assumes that the pro-life candidate and his or her backers are out to lunch on all the other issues, that they don’t care about the poor, the economy, education, environmental concerns, and the rest, but we won’t go there in this post.) Also, there’s the common use of trying to show that both sides are essentially equal on life issues by overstating the Church’s position on capital punishment or, as is more fashionable these days, “just war.”
It would be more honest for Prof. Kmiec just to say that for whatever reason he wants to support a rabidly pro-abortion, pro gay-rights candidate, without giving his decision the veneer of being a responsible position for a Catholic leader with his legal credentials. But, being a lawyer, I guess he couldn’t resist the temptation to move his lips . . .