In an interview given to the editor of the Italian Jesuit publication “La Civilta Cattolica,” and released September 19, Pope Francis said that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay rights and contraception. The church should not be “distracted” into promulgating a multitude of doctrines “insistently”. He said of complaints reaching him about “lack of orthodoxy” that they “are better dealt with locally.” Otherwise Vatican offices will risk becoming “institutions of censorship.” In coming out against insistence on orthodoxy on sexual matters the Pope used the metaphor of treating the wounded on a battlefield “you don’t ask a seriously injured person if he has high levels of cholesterol.” He says that God looks on the gay person as an individual.

Here in America, one gasps at the importance of the Pope’s message in the light of the very recent impact of Catholic dogmatism on American politics and culture. It is not so long ago that we had a prominent Republican candidate for the Presidency, Rick Santorum, a Catholic, make the banning of contraception a core campaign plank, or that in the last Iowa presidential primary season all of the Republican candidates, except for Mitt Romney, took a pledge to appoint only anti abortion officials to key justice and health departments. And who could forget the appointment of a Vatican “inquisitor” to put the nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in their place, not for violating Catholic dogma on abortion, but for not speaking out against it in their work.

Pope Francis thus has repudiated much of his predecessor’s authoritarian mischief on religion and public policy. In the debate over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act absolutists in the Catholic Conference of Bishops opposed even non-religiously affiliated organization from paying for insurance for their employees that covered abortion. No individuals were forced to participate against their choice in health insurance decisions that went against their personal beliefs on issues such as abortion. Nevertheless the ACA was supposed to be forcing the institution, seen as a person, to go against “his/her” beliefs.

The negative impact of deference to dogmas went even deeper. To argue against a national health program, Santorum and a number of legislators made clear that having a health care plan in Massachusetts was different from having the same health plan at the federal level because government health care at the federal level violated the principle of “subsidiarity”, meaning that what is ok at a lower – subsidiary – level is not ok at a general level. Government health care programs were only ok if they were at the right, i.e. lower level. Needless to say, whatever he really thought, Mitt Romney bought into this dogma, which he could say saved him from the “stigma” of Obamacare. Romney, after all, had introduced comprehensive health care in Massachusetts during his governorship.

It is clear that Pope Francis rejects all of this. Beyond specific doctrines he thinks the church is obsessed with, he is attacking the authoritarianism the Republican Party is wallowing in. Republicans do not want to compromise. They want to enforce their will and doctrinal purity on all matters. One can only hope the sound of the Pope’s message carries far over the land.


The likelihood of US military actions against the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons in an early morning attack last Wednesday on towns in the vicinity of Damascas is high. Secretary of State John Kerry called regime responsibility “undeniable.” After a five day delay UN observers were finally allowed in the area. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will almost certainly remain alone in denying responsibility for chemical weapons attack which according to Doctors without Borders have already claimed 355 lives lost in the clinics it supports. The US administration will not be alone if military action is taken. The French foreign minister minister has said that the “only option I do not envisage is to do nothing.” As reported in the NY Times (8/27) the Obama administration is looking at cruise missile strikes from destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean aimed at military bases in Syria.

There are ample precedents for international military action taken to protect civilians from internationally recognized crimes against humanity. Use of chemical weapons is prohibited by numerous international treaties: the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Geneva Gas Protocol, and the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases. Use of chemical weapons is a war crime over which the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction.

Military strikes against al-Assad in the wake of chemical attacks need not imply anything further than the protection of civilian populations from violations of international law. It would not make a statement of intention to overthrow al-Assad. The 1991 invasion of Kuwait was specifically to respond to Saddam Hussein’s violation of international law in invading Kuwait. After restoring Kuwait’s sovereignty we did not go on to overthrow Saddam. The 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade was part of NATO’s action taken under the Anti Genocide Conventions to protect Albanian residents of Kosovo from Serbian killings. Kosovo independence was the ultimate result. The international community did not, however, follow up its military campaign with military action to overthrow then Serbian President Slobodan Milosovic.

Military actions of the kind contemplated in this case and in the past have assumed imminent further threats and a population to be protected. There need not be a continuing threat to a civilian population, however, to justify military action. The use of chemical weapons should be punished. Meting out punishment in the International Criminal Court is punishment. So are military strikes against al-Assad’s military bases. When Bosnian Serb Xdravko Tolimar was found guilty by the ICC in 2012 for war crimes committed in the Bosnian war,and jailed for life, he was no longer a threat to anyone. He was punished, as Assad should be.
Elizabeth Clark

On March 27, 2012 I wrote a Blog “License to Kill Trayvon Martin” ( I described Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation which was immediately cited as a defense in George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. This legislation had been pushed on the Florida legislature by a shadowy far right group, the American Legislative Exchange council, backed by the right wing billionaire Koch brothers, worked in close coordination with the National Rifle Association in state legislatures around the county. I also described the role played by Florida’s law permitting the carrying of concealed weapons.
I concluded: “Connecting laws on concealed weapons and Stand Your Ground provisions, which require only that the individual taking action believes he is being threatened, creates a perfect storm. Under Stand Your Ground it would not be possible to prove that Trayvon Martin did not threaten George Zimmerman because there were no witnesses and one of the two protagonists is dead. One can make inferences from Zimmerman’s 911 call, when he was told not to follow the “suspicious” person, but enough to convict him? The conclusion is stark. Homicide is no longer prosecutable. States with Stand Your Ground laws have “legally” sanctioned lawlessness.”
My prediction Zimmerman would be acquitted was correct. That is not even cold comfort but only adds to my sick outrage. As The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said in its statement July 14, 2013: “There can be no doubt after the Not Guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman that murder has now been legalized in half of the 50 states. The traditional presumption in the law—from the advent of the Hebrew Bible through the creation of Roman law, English common law, and American law—has been that if you could spare human life, it was incumbent upon you to do so. With the “Stand Your Ground” law, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its partners in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have turned 3,000 years of jurisprudence on its head. Now you can provoke a fight, and if losing that fight, kill the person you attacked”

Forward Progressive made the same point July 14:
“What these laws do is open the door for people to commit murder and place in a jury’s hands “why” they killed — which is a hell of a lot harder to prove than whether or not they actually committed the murder. They justify killing based on self perception of threat and provide enough of a gray area that “without a shadow of a doubt” becomes almost impossible to prove.”

There is a more general conclusion to draw from the travesty of justice in Florida. Rule of law is an essential element of democracy. How many individual states have to grind away the core of democracy before America succumbs.

Whether in Eastern Europe on the collapse of the Soviet Union, or South Africa on the collapse of apartheid, it was clear people wanted their voice to be heard. They wanted the respect and dignity they had been denied for so long. If they thought elections were fair and their vote counted as the equal of others, they lined up for hours to exercise their democratic rights.

Not all first elections in democratic transitions are good elections. Most are not. Voters can be voting for a parliament where a bloc of seats is reserved for the military (Indonesia) or where the eventual winner of elections wields an independent militia (Hamas in West Bank 2006 elections). Categorizing countries politically is almost to guarantee oversimplification. Is the United States a liberal democracy, given the role money plays in our elections? Certainly Egypt’s 2011 elections had many deeply controversial – and undemocratic – features.

It is simplistic to call what is happening in Egypt a coup against a democratically elected leader, if for no other reason than that democratically elected leaders can turn authoritarian once in office. Not that setting elections are not of prime importance as the first task of the post-Morsy government.

One lesson that can be drawn, both from the turmoil in Egypt and the recent elections in Iran, is that political participation is now what people are going to do. There was talk – and action- to boycott Egyptian 2011 elections. In Iran, boycotting elections has been a way to prove your political integrity. No more. Opposition Iranians did not boycott but participated in June’s elections, although they certainly weren’t democratic, with clerics picking who could and who could not run for office. As a result, Iranians elected as President the most liberal candidate available. Whether in Iran or Egypt democracy is coming to mean keeping at it. There is no rest for the weary.

I have a friend who was director of a gun violence prevention organization, Cease Fire Pa. She told me she stood outside of malls passing out Cease Fire literature. Women, she said, would tell her in low voices that they agreed with her movement, but couldn’t support it – because they were afraid. I asked my friend if the reason they were afraid was that they thought some gun rights fanatic would find their homes, ring her their door bells and shoot them, they said “yes”.

I am reminded of that conversation discussing among my colleagues at the Woman’s National Democratic Club what we should do about the March gun rights fanatics are planning for July 4. An ex Marine, Adam Kokesh, wants to bring his group, with loaded rifles slung on their backs, to march around the Capitol and the White House. The point, he is quoted as saying, is “to put the government on notice that we will not be intimidated.” To do this he would have to break a number of laws and DC Police Chief Lanier has said they won’t be let into the District.

Still, maybe they would get into the District. We thought about how we would push back and protest the protest. We thought of going up to the marchers wearing placards saying “I am a teacher, I work for the government….I am a diplomat, I work for the government… I am a fire fighter…. I work for the government….why are you threatening ME?” Then, finally, what about putting flowers into their rifle butts?
Elizabeth Spiro Clark

Former congressman Asa Hutchinson appeared at the National Press Club on April 2 to present a plan, “National School Shield,” that came out of a NRA funded task force, but was supposedly independent of the NRA. The only significant distance from the NRA’s previously announced proposals was to back off plans to protect schools with armed vigilantes. Otherwise, the pro gun agenda called for training and arming paid guards and school staff, at least one in every school. Assault weapons, high capacity magazine clips, background checks, and even making gun trafficking a federal crime are all assumed to be off the table by Hutchinson and the NRA.

More appalling than the plan, however, was reporting on the boot stomping atmosphere surrounding the press conference. At least 20 NRA security men, some with visible guns in holsters, patrolled the room, ordering photographers not to take pictures, and reporters to get out into the lobby. They inspected reporters’ brief cases. Clearly the gun friendly medium was the message.

When asked about common ground with gun control advocates, Hutchinson said his plan was it. If so, columnist Dana Milbank said, “American school children may grow accustomed to the sort of scene Hutchinson caused Tuesday protected by more armed guards than a Third World dictator (WP op-ed, 4/2).”

We must think about what the school environment Hutchinson wants means concretely. What kind of a “scene” are our children going to get accustomed to? Picture kids talking about the latest variety of assault weapon as “cool”. Look to social pressure on kids to join gun clubs. Assume kids will be afraid to take unpopular positions. Assume a world where critical thinking is dangerous.

A gun culture, which we already have, implies you can only get your way if you back it up with lethal power, and must have the lethal power to protect yourselves. You are a target of disrespect otherwise. People, in this worldview, who say they admire the tradition of non violent protest must be weaklings.

We must fight back against pro gun plans, not only to stop our horrific gun homicide rates, but in order to live in a society based on ethical principles and in a democracy.

Now that the tsunami of punditry on the President’s inaugural address has washed over us, the main conclusion of both his fans and detractors is left standing. He was aggressive in laying out his vision and did not so much as tip his hat to finding common ground with Republicans.

The Kansas Methodist, Rev. Adam Hamilton, chosen to preach at the National Cathedral Inaugural service, lauded the president for “a gift unlike any other President we have ever had” to cast a vision. However, Hamilton’s real message to Obama seemed to be when he told PBS news hour audiences that working across the partisan aisle should be Obama’s vision. Find issues, he counseled him, where you can work together and then build on that step by step to overcome the bitter partisan divide.

What does Hamilton’s vision mean in practice? All say Republicans and Democrats may be able to come together on an immigration policy. But then, why would anyone think they could move on to cure America’s partisan divide, or even reach agreement on any other issue. Is immigration reform the vision we are looking for? Do we just drop climate change, investing in education, gun control, equal opportunity economy, among other elements of Obama’s vision?

Finding common ground with Republicans should not be the centerpiece of Obama’s vision. As Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein told us a year ago in “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks,” America’s problem isn’t political polarization, it is the takeover of one party, the Republicans, by extremists. Those who are pushing to find consensus at all costs are elevating partisan rancor to the vision level and dignifying and validating extremism. To comment on the President’s Inaugural address, as Speaker Boehner did, that the President’s goal is to “annihilate” Republicans was a completely commonplace Republican statement―but extreme nonetheless.

Obama should not see his goal as finding common ground with extremists. Obama’s aggressive promotion of his vision is just that. If Republicans want to take it as aggression against them, they are wrong. He cares about his vision―not about annihilating Republicans. Republicans hate big government; they must hate politicians whose profession is mastering the art of governing. They are the last to say Obama should care more about placating partisan enemies than he does about succeeding in implementing his vision. He is prepared to leave all calls for nonpartisanship aside and go talk to the American people and get their direct support for his vision. What could be more American, more democratic?

Obama’s vision, in its whole and in its parts, should be what we are all talking about and not debating whether he has crossed some red line of the Republicans, who are so leaderless they don’t even have anyone to draw the red lines.

We must clearly separate America’s political dysfunction from a vision for America. Political dysfunction will get cured when the debate is on the vision. Honest disagreements on elements in a vision are welcomed. However, we should reject those who tell us that the President is aggressive and partisan and that his vision should placate the most extremely disaffected among us. That is not a recipe for success. Moving only where there is common ground is a recipe for disaster.
— Elizabeth Spiro Clark