At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the second presidential debate, Barack Obama claimed that within hours of its occurrence, he referred to the September 11th attack on the American embassy inLibya as an “act of terror.” When Mitt Romney proceeded to challenge the President’s veracity on this score, moderator Candy Crowley insisted that Obama was correct. 

This brief exchange is now being treated as the single most important event of the evening.  Today, Crowley is as much at the center of media attention, of controversy, as are Romney and Obama.

Crowley and Obama are both correct that, within 24 hours or so of the murder of our ambassador and three others, the latter did indeed use the expression “act of terror” in connection with the Libya incident.  From the Rose Garden, Obama said that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

This is fine and well.  Every American can sleep just a bit easier knowing that the Obama administration will not tolerate acts of terror.  But Mr. President, we were still left wondering, is this act such an act?   

Grammatically and logically, there is all of the difference between those propositions that are universal and those that are particular.  Knowing a thing or two about all acts of terror is not the same as knowing whether any particular act deserves to be treated as a member of that class.  

Objectors will claim that even though he didn’t explicitly identify the Libyan attack as an act of terror, given the context of Obama’s remarks, it is clear that he implicitly described it as such. 

The problem, though, with this line of reasoning, is that not only is it not clear that this is what Obama did; the context makes it pretty clear that he did not identify the Libyan attack an act of terror.

An analogy may help here.  As a college instructor, I give my students writing assignments. Now, suppose that one of my students, Bill, say, submits work that is suspiciously similar in wording to the work of another one of my students, say, Joe.  It is possible that neither Bill nor Joe acted inappropriately, but it is also possible that they either plagiarized one another or a third person.

Now, I stand before my students and indignantly declare: “No acts of plagiarism will ever shake the resolve of this great institution of higher learning, alter the character, or eclipse the light of the values that it stands for.” 

Given this context, all that an observer is justified in inferring is that I have zero tolerance for plagiarism and that I suspect that plagiarism may have occurred. 

No one would be justified in concluding that I hold either Bill or Joe to be a plagiarist.

Similarly, all that the President’s remarks established is that his administration has zero tolerance for acts of terror and that he recognizes the possibility that the Libyan attack was an act of terror.

They most decidedly do not establish that he was convinced that it was an act of terror.

There are other considerations that render Obama’s andCrowley’s claim even more suspect.

For one, for a couple of weeks following the Libyan attack, the President’s administration insisted that it was a “spontaneous” reaction to an amateurish “anti-Islam” video made by some obscure American.  This was the line regurgitated on multiple occasions by Obama’s UN ambassador, Hillary Clinton, Jay Carney, and the President himself.  In fact, when Obama addressed the world via the United Nations, he mentioned this video six times.  He called the Libyan attack an act of terror not once.

A spontaneous reaction, an uprising or revolt, is not an act of terror.  The attack in Libya could be one or the other, but it cannot be both.  Obama clearly made his choice before it was no longer possible for him to stick by it.

But there is another consideration that may be lost upon commentators.

The President has repeatedly castigated Romney for jumping to conclusions.  Romney, he once said, tends to “shoot first and aim later.”  Recall, Romney was excoriated by the left-wing media for pronouncing the Libya attack a terrorist attack shortly after it transpired.

Yet if Obama beat Romney to the punch and called it a terrorist attack at roughly the same time, as he and Crowley now maintain, then, we are compelled to ask, didn’t Obama shoot before aiming?  Wouldn’t he be guilty of doing what he has been warning all of us against by drawing premature conclusions?

Granted, this wouldn’t be the first time that the President’s preaching contradicted his practice.  But in this case, I think the more likely explanation for such a glaring contradiction is that he simply isn’t telling the truth when he said that he called out the Libya attack as an act of terror on September 12th.


The second presidential debate is now history.

As was the case in Mitt Romney’s first encounter with President Obama a couple of weeks ago in Denver, the former prevailed.

That Obama was feistier than he was in the first debate is undeniable.  However, equally undeniable is that, as far as his electoral prospects are concerned, he didn’t do himself any favors.

Actually, I think when this election is all said and done, we will realize that the President harmed himself.  

Obama, you see, wasn’t just feisty.  He was insulting.  He was cocky.  He was condescending.

In short, Obama simply didn’t appear presidential.

In fact, he appeared resolutely un-presidential. 

In contrast, Romney, though firm and factual, was measured. But perhaps he can afford to be, for Romney is a man who exudes authority without uttering a syllable.

And when he does speak, such is his command over the facts—and his opponent’s lies—that one could be forgiven for having to constantly remind oneself that it is Romney who is the challenger and Obama the president.

Obama was trying hard to redeem himself from the beating that he suffered at Romney’s hands in Denver, what may have been the most one-sided pummeling in the history of presidential debates.  And he was laboring diligently to establish to the world that he is not the incompetent president that legions of Americans have come to see him as.

Yet this was Obama’s problem: he was trying hard, yes, but he was trying too hard.

And it showed.

In other words, a person who really knows his stuff and who possesses a healthy, justified confidence in himself will not appear to be trying at all.  Whatever he says or does, he will say or do effortlessly.

The person who has mastered his craft will make it look easy.  The mathematician, the dancer, the martial artist, and the Olympic ice skater leave us thinking that anyone, with the greatest of ease, can do what they do.

Most of us, however, once we try our hand at any of these activities, are instantly relieved our delusions.  The recognition that one is an amateur still is sobering, humbling.

Yet Obama is and has always been intoxicated on his own hype.  Humility, long regarded as a cardinal Christian virtue, is an excellence in which Obama is in exceedingly short supply.   

The good actor is the actor who doesn’t appear to be acting. But while Obama was all theater last night, he has neither the sobriety nor the humility to realize that he is just not that good of an actor.  

Not only is this not going to help his sagging poll numbers.  It is going to harm him.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, there will be no second act for Obama.

The third debate is going to transpire on a very different sort of stage than the one Obama performed upon last night.  He will not be free to walk around, to work a crowd, and to turn his back on Romney when the latter punches one hole after the other in his script.

What is infinitely worse for Obama is that, because he is such a thoughtless actor, he apparently never even paused to consider that one of his lines from last night’s show may have just undercut the whole narrative that he and his team have worked so tirelessly (yet sloppily) to compose. 

Obama, without missing a beat, claimed to have identified from the outset the September 11th attack on our embassy in Libya as a terrorist attack.  This, though, is nothing more or less than a boldfaced lie.

That it is a lie was confirmed—but again—within seconds of the completion of the debate.  Far from undoing the scandal over our second 9/11 in which his administration has been embroiled, Obama’s lie has just exacerbated it.  He added a whopper of a lie upon a house of lies that has been in the making ever since this grisly attack occurred.  In doing so, he contradicted the narrative of innocence that his team has been busy at work spinning.

Obama also provided Romney with red meat that the Republican challenger will be sure to grab hold of for all that it is worth when the two meet to discuss foreign policy in their third and final debate on Monday night.

So, my verdict is this: not only did Obama’s arrogance cost him last night’s debate, it paved the way for but another Romney victory on Monday evening.       





During the Vice Presidential debate, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan—both Roman Catholics—were asked about their respective views on abortion. 

Biden’s answer is one that we have come to expect from Catholic Democrats.  Personally, he said, he shares his Church’s perennial position against abortion.  However, this is a belief that he refuses to “impose” upon others. Thus, Biden remains, along with the Democratic Party of which he has been a life-long member, rigorously “pro-choice.”

This point of view is as intellectually as it is morally bankrupt.

The Roman Catholic Church opposes abortion for the same reason that it opposes murder: abortion, like murder, inescapably entails the destruction of an innocent human being.  If Biden subscribes to Catholic teaching on this score, then this is what he believes.  What this means is that he has no basis, neither within his faith tradition nor without, upon which to justify his refusal to do what he can to prevent people from pursuing abortion. 

Yet for as indefensible as Biden’s position is, Paul Ryan’s was confused as well.

Ryan unabashedly identified himself as “pro-life.” He rejects abortion, he said, because of “reason” and “science,” yes, but, ultimately, because of his faith.  However, Ryan immediately insisted that he and Mitt Romney are willing to allow for abortion under some circumstances.  Abortion, he explained, is morally permissible if a woman conceives as a result of incest, say, or rape.  If a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy, an abortion is a morally acceptable course of action for her to pursue under this condition as well.

The problem for Ryan is that his Church agrees with none of this.  For that matter, neither will his invocation of reason and science save him here.

Recall, for the Church, abortion is an evil because it consists in the destruction of an innocent human life.  Now, regardless of how or why this life came into being, it is still innocent of any wrongdoing. That being so, if it is immoral to deliberately kill an innocent human being some of the time, then it is immoral to do so all of the time.  After all, it is the innocence of the human being, and most definitely not the circumstances of that being’s conception, that is morally relevant.

So, Ryan’s Catholic faith simply will not supply him with a justification for these exceptions that he appears willing to make for abortion.

But “reason” and “science” are equally impotent in this regard.  Let’s take the latter first. 

When Ryan alluded to science to justify his opposition to abortion, presumably he was trying to make the point that even science confirms that life begins at conception.  This is true.  Yet, in itself, it is also morally irrelevant, for science is science—not morality.  And if science hasn’t the authority to speak to the moral import of abortion or even life itself, then it certainly doesn’t have any authority to speak to the moral import of the circumstances surrounding conception.

Reason, though, unlike science, isn’t silent with respect to the sensibleness (or not) of the concessions that Ryan is willing to make to abortionists.  In fact, it actually militates against them. 

If, as he says, reason tells Ryan that abortion is impermissible because reason establishes that a human life comes into being at conception, then reason must dictate with just as much force that the circumstances of conception are irrelevant.

But, it may be asked, what about when a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy? Is not Ryan correct?  Isn’t it morally permissible in such an extraordinary situation to choose an abortion?

According to the Roman Catholic Church, the answer is a resounding “no.” 

It is here that the traditional Catholic doctrine of “double effect” comes into play.

According to double effect, even if such-and-such an action has consequences that are undesirable and even otherwise evil, as long as those consequences are unintended and unavoidable, it is permissible to choose the action in order to escape a more evil choice.

For example, suppose a woman is, say, suffering from an ectopic pregnancy.  It is permissible, Ryan’s faith teaches, for her doctor to “abort” her unborn child, for unless so, both mother and child will die; this way, in contrast, at least one life—that of the mother—can be spared.  In other words, since, according to Catholic morality, it is the intention of an action that makes it what it is, insofar as the doctor’s intention here is to save the mother’s life—not kill her unborn child—the act in question is not truly an abortion at all. No one can be said to have chosen an abortion.

The point, however, in all of this is that Paul Ryan has no basis in his faith to qualify his opposition to abortion in the ways that he has. He may not have strayed as widely from his faith as has his opponent, but it would be dishonest to deny that he has indeed strayed.    





Given all of the precious time that they have invested in talking about the gazillions in debt with which Democrats are saddling future generations, it appears that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have imbibed their party’s conventional wisdom to the last letter.

From the outset of this year’s presidential election, it has been said over and over again by many a Republican commentator that, far from getting “personal,” the Republican challenger(s) simply has to address President Obama’s “failed policies” in order to make their case to the American electorate.  Just explain what Obama has done, so goes this reasoning, and the American People—always attentive and eager to do the right thing—will act accordingly at the ballot box.

Plato referred to all socially useful lies as “convenient fictions.”  The idea, relentlessly promulgated by Democrats and Republicans alike, that the American voter is a bottomless font of virtue and wisdom is the convenient fiction par excellence or our day:  considering that every partisan who parrots this line disagrees vehemently on virtually all things with about half of their compatriots, no one can possibly believe it.

The average person, whether American or otherwise, is not moved by allusions to bare facts alone.  Actually, naked facts move no one. 

What moves most people is a good story designed to appeal primarily to their emotions—not their intellect. 

Such a story need not be devoid of facts, but—if they are to inspire action—the facts need to be included in the story. 

Given that the average American is far more interested in who will be America’s next “Idol” than in who will be its next president, one would think that it should go without saying that talk of remote abstractions like some unfathomable national debt promises to be of little effect. 

Of course, it isn’t that the issue of our debt isn’t of importance. But of greater importance, from the standpoint of the average American, is that he has to spend more of his earnings on gasoline for his car than he has ever had to spend in the past.  Of greater importance is that he is now spending more on groceries than ever before.  Of greater importance is that the average American, or someone who he knows and cares for, can’t find a job.

All of these ugly facts—stone cold realities that your average American feels throughout every one of his bones—can be easily packaged into a narrative that has as its chief antagonist the man who four years ago pledged to “fundamentally transform” the United States as we have always known it.  The narrative would make abundantly clear that this is the same man who had spent all of his adult life surrounded by the worst anti-Americans, radicals whose detestation for the country culminated in acts of domestic terrorism. 

The villain of the story—we are all suckers for a good (and even not so good) morality tale—is Barack Hussein Obama, the Architect of the miseries with which Americans have had to live for the last four years.

Man does not live by brute reason alone.  The more conservative minded theorists of yesteryear knew this. 

The seventeenth century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, Blaise Pascal, stated: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”  We should be on guard against overestimating the power of the intellect, Pascal insisted, for “the supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.”  In the final analysis, Pascal concluded, “all of our reasoning ends in surrender to feeling.”

Another French essayist, Michel Montaigne, said: “Our normal fashion is to follow the inclinations of our appetite, left and right, up and down, as the winds of occasion bear us along.”  A human life is nothing other than “motion and inconstancy,” and “our willing of anything is never free, final or constant.” At another place, Montaigne asserted that “even when our trust is readily placed in them, reasoning and education cannot easily prove powerful enough to bring us actually to do anything [.]” He continues, swearing that “reason is so inadequate” and “so blind, that there is no example so clear and easy as to be clear enough for her [.]”  For reason, “the easy and the hard are all one,” and “all subjects and Nature in general equally deny her any sway or jurisdiction.”

The eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume famously declared: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”  He also said that “eloquence, at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection, but addresses itself entirely to the desires and affections, captivating the willing hearers, and subduing their understanding.”

The great Edmund Burke reminded his contemporaries, and ours, that: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason,” for “we suspect that this stock in each man is small [.]”  Rather, “instead of casting away our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree,” for “prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give to it permanence.”

More recently, in the twentieth century, Joseph Schumpeter took a machete to what he called “the classical doctrine of democracy.”  According to this doctrine, the democrat is a rational agent who weighs over facts, draws out their implications, and then chooses accordingly.  This, Schumpeter judged in no uncertain terms, is a fiction of the first order.

“The ways in which issues and the popular will on any issue are being manufactured,” Schumpeter states, “is exactly analogous to the ways of commercial advertising.”  That is, “mere assertion, often repeated, counts more than rational argument” for the average voter.  Rational argument takes a back seat as well to “the direct attack upon the subconscious” inflicted upon him by politicians and their accomplices in the news media.  As in commercial advertising, these attacks assume “the form of attempts to evoke and crystallize pleasant associations of an entirely extra-rational…nature.” 

Schumpeter concludes:

“Thus the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field.  He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.”

Men are not moved by reason alone.  An example from early American history illustrates well this truth. 

In his magisterial, Liberty and Freedom, David Hackett Fischer relays an exchange that transpired in 1843 between Mellen Chamberlain and Captain Levi Preston.  The former was a young scholar in search of the roots of the American Revolution.  The latter was a ninety-one year old veteran of the War for Independence. 

Chamberlain wanted to know why Preston fought at Lexington and Concord.  “Were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?” he asked. Preston replied that he had never seen any stamps and, in any event, “I always understood that none were ever sold.”

Next Chamberlain asked him if it was the tea tax that had provoked him. Preston scoffed at this suggestion just as forcefully as he scoffed at the idea that he may have felt oppressed by the Stamp Act.  “Tea tax?  I never drank a drop of the stuff.  The boys threw it all overboard.”

When Chamberlain questioned whether Preston had drawn his inspiration from such great theorists of liberty as [James] Harrington, [Algernon] Sidney, and [John] Locke, the old man said bluntly: “I never heard of these men.  The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ Psalms, and hymns and the almanacs.”

Finally, as if to throw up his hands in exasperation, Chamberlain asked: “Well, then, what was the matter?” Preston’s response is telling.  “Young man,” he began, “what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had been free, and we meant to be free always.  They didn’t mean that we should.”

It is not reason, not bare facts, from which our motion originates.  Republicans need to remember this the next time they are tempted to use a televised debate or a campaign speech for but another opportunity to throw around abstract numbers about debts and deficits and anything else.