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June 29, 2003 Opinion

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These are a continuation of several "open forum" pages. Send your comments to be posted to these topics, or suggest additional topics.  Or don't do either?


This week: God Speaks, and the law doesn't ...
There was an item by Arnon Regular in the newspaper Haaretz (Israel) last Thursday (that would be June 26, 2003, or looking at it the other way, Sivan 26, 5763). 
The story was a scoop - selected minutes acquired by Haaretz from one of cease-fire negotiations between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and faction leaders from the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular and Democratic Fronts that had occurred the week before. 
The minutes show that Abbas reviewed his two meetings with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Bush at the Aqaba summit.   Abbas said that at Aqaba, Bush promised to speak with Sharon about the siege on Arafat.  He said nobody can speak to or pressure Sharon except the Americans. 
"According to Abbas, immediately thereafter Bush said: 'God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East.  If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them.'"
Could this be?  God actully speaks to George Bush?  Or at least George Bush thinks God speaks directly to him and tells him what to do?
The implications are interesting. 
But the Palistinean Prime Minister said that Bush said this.   Perhaps Abbas misunderstood GWB.  Bush could not have said this.  Haaret is usually a reliable newspaper, and they do not claim GWB actually said this, only that Abbas said that GWB said this.  So I'll relax.
Al Kamen in the Washington Post the next day discussed this.  He did some research:
Two calls to the White House for clarification went unreturned, but colleague Glenn Kessler did some digging. The Haaretz reporter, Arnon Regular, read what the paper said were minutes of the Palestinians' meeting to Kessler and another colleague, who is an Arabic speaker.

The Arabic-speaking colleague's translation, was this: "God inspired me to hit al Qaeda, and so I hit it. And I had the inspiration to hit Saddam, and so I hit him. Now I am determined to solve the Middle East problem if you help. Otherwise the elections will come and I will be wrapped up with them."

Even then, there's uncertainty. After all, this is Abu Mazen's account in Arabic of what Bush said in English, written down by a note-taker in Arabic, then back into English.
Okay then.  The voice of God bit may be wrong.  It perhaps was "inspiration" - not God's actual voice in Bush's head.  Maybe.
Or maybe Abbas made it all up to impress his militant friends.  And the White House is saying nothing because either of the versions makes the Evangelical Christian Conservative bloc of the Republican Party all giddy and happy.
Assume the first version is true.  All this would not be surprising, I suppose.  Better that Bush listens to the imaginary big man in the sky than, say, Marge Simpson or Barney the Dinosaur, or to any other voices he might have chattering away in his head at any given moment.  If you're going to have voices in your head telling you what to do, better that at least one is the voice of God - Himself.  I understand He's a good guy.  Fair and balanced.
Assume the second version is true.  The God of a born-again Methodist is, I imagine, not a bad being, or entity, or concept.  I'm not clear on the details of Methodist theology so one of those words may be right.  But if Bush or anyone else thinks about what this Methodist God would want and acts accordingly, then this is probably fine - unless this particular version of God is one of vengeance and wrath and all that sort of thing.  For the sake of argument we'll assume the Methodists like to think of God as just and loving - vengeance and wrath are used only against those really irredeemable folks who can never be "saved" and thus the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were fine and dandy.  These wars would be, as Martha Stewart says, "a good thing."
Assume my third hypothesis, that Abbas made it all up to impress the guys at the table.  No comment then on Bush, just that Abbas should not be telling fibs.  A bad diplomatic practice.  You get caught.  And then folks make fun of you and stop believing most anything you say.  Only Bush and Powell and that crew can get away with fibbing.  No one else can - not even Tony Blair, as you see if you're following the news out of the UK these days.
It seems to me, however, that the first and second alternatives above do not bode well for the Democrats in 2004. 
How can one campaign against the man God has chosen to represent Him on Earth?  Who would dare run against the Chosen One?  Or alternatively, how can one campaign against a president who is divinely inspired? 
You don't want to get into a pissing contest over just who God is really speaking to at any given moment.  I say, "God told (inspired) me to do this."  You say "But God told (inspired) me to do something quite different, so you obviously misunderstood God last night."  And I say, "No I didn't!"  And you say, "Yes you did because he told me something else."  This gets you nowhere.
By the way, I'll lay odds Saddam and Osama are finally captured in September, during the last day of the Republican Convention.  The would be divine.  The convention is, of course, in New York City this year.  And I assume that this stunning success would be announced at the big Republican ceremony that is planned for Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site.  The final nail in the coffin for the Democratic Party.   I was recently in the area but didn't visit Ground Zero.  I'm not a member of the Republican Party so I figured I wasn't exactly welcome.
Okay.  I think I have all of the cheap shots out of my system now.
The real issue raised here is one that was only implied last week in this column, the column that reviewed how the Christian Right views particular passages of the Bible as justifying what Israel does in the middle-east these days, and justifies what we do to support Israel, or to support the hypothetical not-yet-formed Palestinian nation. 
All the "God Talk" floating around these days raises the question of church and state in a rather more basic way.  Is this country to be a secular state or a religious one?
That is not a facetious question.
This week the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that the government, the Texas state government in this particular case, has no right to regulate private sexual behavior between consenting adults - private meaning in their own home behind closed doors - even if the behavior is homosexual.  Those last six words are the problem.
All of the political discussion about this that I saw on television, or read in the press, really came down to one question.  Does the government of any state, or the federal government, have a "compelling state interest" in enforcing "moral" behavior? 
The alternative is that criminal acts are only those acts that hurt others, individually or as a group (class actions suits are fine) or hurt society as a whole - and then what one considers moral or immoral is really a personal matter of your own religion and beliefs.
On one side is a fellow like Rick Santorum, the third-ranking Republican in Washington.  He claims this "right to privacy" business doesn't exist in the constitution and was created whole-cloth in the Griswold decision, and that the government has a duty and the clear right to regulate "private" sexual behavior of adults in their homes.  Some behaviors are, to him, morally wrong.  There is a compelling state interest in stopping those behaviors.  If you allow homosexual behavior at all, then do you allow bigamy or polygamy if all parties agree?  Do you legalize prostitution?  It that the kind of country you want?  Santorum also adds that John Kennedy did irreparable damage to our country when he assured folks in his 1960 presidential campaign that even if he was a Catholic he wouldn't let his religion influence his policy decisions in any way.  For Santorum, government is about supporting what is morally right.  That's what government is for.
Quick note: the Griswold decision in the mid-eighties concerned the Connecticut statutes that permitted police to enter any home to prevent what was then a crime in that state, the use of any kind of birth control devices.  SCOTUS ruled there the Constitution implied a right to privacy and the use of birth control devices or pills was a matter better left to the individual, to his or her conscience, and to the religion of the parties.
As you can tell, I'm not at all convinced "immoral behavior" can be universally defined.  A friend said there are always then Ten Commandments.  Yeah, it is wrong to kill another, unless it's a state-approved execution, or during a war where one is told who it is okay to kill, or it is self-defense and you're trying to stay alive yourself, or one is killing a fetus in the first three months of pregnancy but not in the last six, with certain exceptions for medical conditions and the health of the mother, or pulling the plug on someone who has been declared "brain dead" by the hospital Brain Death Committee (there are such things).  The Ten Commandments?   The Ten Pretty Good General Guidelines is more like it. 
But you do want folks to behave reasonable nicely to each other.  It's not like rules don't matter.  But what should these rules be?
So I see Justice Scalia ranting about the six who outvoted him on this Texas case.  He's really ticked at Justice Kennedy.  Texas defended its law as an effort to enshrine traditional morality, but Justice Kennedy declared that the law "furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual."  Law, the court has said in effect, is meant to regulate crime, not a majoritarian conception of sin. 
The problem is the folks who don't see a difference between the two.
There is the Reverend Jerry Falwell on the talk shows so sad about the government forsaking its role in stopping this nation's moral decline.  Is that what the government is supposed to do?
That's the question.  What is the government supposed to do?
This may not be a Republican against Democrat thing, really.  It's about letting folks alone if they're not hurting anyone else.  Or the alternative - codifying the moral rules, turning that list into a list of specific crimes, and punishing those guilty of those crimes. 
Unless I'm hurting you, my moral beleifs are none of your business.  And keep yours to yourself.
It not a matter of political party.  George McGovern, the old liberal politician from another era, still likes to praise the late Barry Goldwater for saying, "I think every good Christian should kick Falwell in the ass."
It's matter of freedom.

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29 June 2003