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The Author of Loathing Lincoln Explains Why Some on the Christian Right Loathe Lincoln

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

 photo loathinglincoln.jpgOne under-reported result of the 2014 elections was the rise of Neo-Confederate politics in the U.S. This included the election of unabashed apologist for the Confederacy Michael Peroutka, who was elected to Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Council; and Joni Ernst, a proponent of nullification and secession, who was elected to the United States Senate from Iowa. It has also resulted in divisions on the Christian Right as well as in the wider Republican Party.

Thus is seems like a good time to ask John McKee Barr, the author of one of this year’s most informative books, Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present for some insight into what is going on. As Barr told me before our interview, it is within the Neo-Confederate movement where the hatred of Abraham Lincoln and all he stood for meets the Religious Right.  

John Barr is currently a professor of history at Lone Star College-Kingwood [Texas], having joined their faculty in 2008. There he teaches a variety of courses including the survey of U.S. History, “Political Novels”, “The Emancipators: Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Making of the Modern World,” and “Revolution and Counterrevolution.” His website can be found right here.

Loathing Lincoln is his first book and an important first effort. The tome not only provides the reader with excellent insight into the to peculiar tradition of Lincoln hatred, but by extension, a more complete understanding of many of the beliefs that underlie the current nullification and secession movements.

I began our conversation by asking Barr to explain Lincoln’s religious philosophy. Was it unchanging or did it evolve over time?

Barr: Lincoln’s religion has been a topic of unending fascination, both for his admirers and his critics. For me, the best book on this subject is Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln:Redeemer President. In broad terms, I think we can say that Lincoln grew up in a deeply religious world of Protestant Christianity. As Guelzo puts it, “Intellectually, he was stamped from his earliest days by the Calvinism of his parents.”  In addition, Lincoln certainly had what many have called a melancholic streak in his personality (Lincoln’s “melancholy dripped from him as he walked” his law partner William Herndon said), and that too, at least in my view, shaped his religious beliefs. One of his favorite poems was by William Knox, one entitled “Mortality.” A close look at that poem I think verifies the future president’s dark outlook. Still, Lincoln did go through a phase of being what Guelzo calls a “religious skeptic.” He never joined a church, and one political opponent, Peter Cartwright, accused Lincoln of what was called then “infidelity” in a congressional campaign. You can see Lincoln’s response to that charge here. Personally, it seems to me that Lincoln would just rather avoid the whole subject and he does not really answer the charge, thus lending some credence to the idea that Cartwright’s allegations were true.

Now, when Lincoln is campaigning against the extension of slavery into the territories in the 1850s he frequently attacks, or mocks, the idea that slavery is a divine institution and good for the slave (e.g. pro-slavery theology). I especially like the sentence in the preceding link where he says that “Certainly there is no contending against the Will of God; but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases.” Thus, he condemns slavery’s defenders for using God to mask their own self-interest.

During the Civil War, I think Lincoln’s language becomes much more suffused, if you will, with religious imagery. In a sense, how could it be otherwise? Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dying (this would be millions, proportionally speaking, today) and he had to make sense of all this suffering and communicate it to the American public in religious language. The culmination of this is his Second Inaugural Address, which some historians believe is truly his greatest speech. Notice Lincoln’s sense that the war is God’s just punishment for the sin of American rather than southern slavery. It is a remarkable address, yet one without rancor and closing with perhaps the finest peroration in the English language.

Once the war concluded and Lincoln had been assassinated, then the issue of his religious beliefs became of profound importance for Americans. This is something that I explore in great detail in the second and fourth chapters of my book, Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present. Lincoln’s opponents accused him of being an “infidel,” or unbeliever (this was true not only in the South, I might add), while some of his defenders claimed him as the quintessential Christian. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, tried to set the record straight in the aftermath of his friend’s death, but in claiming Lincoln was not a Christian he made many people quite angry. Nowadays Lincoln’s religious beliefs are interesting to Americans, of course, but I’m not sure they are as important to people (we are a much more religiously pluralistic country today, including those Americans who like Lincoln affiliate themselves with no church at all) as they were in the latter part of the nineteenth-century, or the early twentieth century. Still, I would agree with Christopher Hitchens that Lincoln cannot be enlisted in the atheist cause. He is instead a political figure who challenged those who claimed religious certitude, those who used religion to justify what was in their own self-interest, yet drew on religious tradition/language in attempt to ascertain the meaning of the Civil War for all Americans.

Cocozzelli: Why would conservative Christian libertarians despise Lincoln?

Barr: I think that it is because Lincoln and the Republicans used public power to intervene into a private arrangement – slavery. And, it seems to me anyway, that today many Christians are deeply suspicious of any government that might do something similar. Think gay marriage, for example. Also, I don’t know that all, or even most, Christian libertarians despise Lincoln. To be sure, some do and they are influential, but I don’t know if they are a majority.

Cocozzelli: What about Lincoln’s legacy teaches us how to effectively answer the Christian libertarian right?

Barr: Consider these words from Lincoln: “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or [on] any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate.”

Opus Dei Priest’s Secessionist Roadmap to Theocracy

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Fr. C.J. (“John”) McCloskey is in many ways the American face of the secretive Catholic organization, Opus Dei. He is a former Wall Streeter, who is well-connected on the Catholic Right and among the political and media elite of Washington, DC. There, he fosters his message of traditional Catholicism and supply-side economics framed with a reactionary view of the American people as being either “Bible Christians and faithful Catholics” or a “…culture of death.”

McCloskey recently raised the stakes of his geo-political vision in an essay in which he considers secession in response to and the continuation of Roe vs. Wade as the law of the land, which he sees as epitomizing the “tyrannical regime” that is the government of the United States.

John McCloskey

Then there is another possibility course of action, which, while ranking low in probability with the bookmakers, should not be ruled out: secession. I wrote about this elsewhere some years ago and stirred up no small amount of controversy. The red state/blue state dichotomy could—perhaps sooner than we might think—result in states opting to pull out of the union. My guess is that if that were to happen, the armed forces of the United States (who tend to be more conservative and religious than the general population) would be reluctant to exercise military force to stop seceding states. In addition, perhaps paradoxically, the generalized modern sense that we should not dictate personal lifestyle choices for others (although it coexists in many liberal minds with intolerance of traditional morality) may make blue states reluctant to impose continued membership in the United States on red states that choose to secede. On the other hand, given the United States’ status as a major superpower for the past century, for strategic reasons there may be more official resistance to secession than we might think. We pray the secession option does not happen, but ultimately the protection of innocent life trumps any tyrannical regime that cannot protect even the smallest of its future citizens.

As startling as these assertions may be, they are not new for McCloskey. As I observed in a post in 2013, the Opus Dei prelate is linked to Catholic neo-Confederate activist Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Indeed, McCloskey is no stranger to the concept of secession:

It is therefore no surprise that among Woods’ admirers is the influential Opus Dei priest C. John McCloskey. The former Ivy League-Wall Street laissez-faire apostle-turned-prelate has himself ruminated on the appeal of secession to achieve theocracy. In his infamous futuristic dystopian essay 2030: Looking Backwards he gleefully imagines a violent separation from the United States:

The tens of thousands of martyrs and confessors for the Faith in North America were indeed the “seed of the Church” as they were in pre-Edict of Milan Christianity. The final short and relatively bloodless conflict produced our Regional States of North America. The outcome was by no means an ideal solution but it does allow Christians to live in states that recognize the natural law and divine Revelation, the right of free practice of religion, and laws on marriage, family, and life that reflect the primacy of our Faith. With time and the reality of the ever-decreasing population of the states that worship at the altar of “the culture of death,” perhaps we will be able to reunite and fulfill the Founding Fathers of the old United States dream to be “a shining city on a hill.”

McCloskey’s key phrase is this: “…and laws on marriage, family, and life that reflect the primacy of our Faith.” such a statement cannot be mistaken for anything but the intention is to create a theocracy through secession.

The Ghost of John Calhoun

Secessionism has its roots in the philosophy of 19th century South Carolina Senator John Calhoun (1782-1850). Distrustful of democracy, Calhoun was a firebrand who, unlike other Southern politicians who not only described slavery as “a necessary evil,” openly proclaimed the peculiar institution to be a positive good, not only for African-Americans (of whom he paternalistically described as, “a people unfit for it [liberty]”) but as a means of driving away poor whites he viewed as “shiftless.”

Unlike his contemporaries Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln, Calhoun did not believe Americans were a people; instead, only individuals and groups of people who took their identities by their home state or by their particular section of United States. Disdaining numerical democracy, he believed that minorities had to be protected – albeit, certain elite minorities: the slaveholder but not the slave. To that end, Calhoun developed the concept of “concurrent majorities.”

Calhoun knew that the northern urban centers had the numbers to politically prevail over the agrarian south. So in place of numerical expressions of a national will Calhoun substituted the idea that votes would not merely be counted but weighed pursuant to sectional interests and prejudices.

(This view is consistent with what conservative icon Russell Kirk observed to be one of Calhoun’s fundamental beliefs: complete equality is incompatible with liberty)

In any case, Calhoun’s notion of weighted sectional interests would serve as justification for individual states to nullify Federal statues locally determined to be unconstitutional. And according to Thomas E. Woods, if nullification is not widely supported a state has another remedy:

In Calhoun’s conception, when a state officially nullified a federal law on the grounds of its dubious constitutionality, the law must be regarded as suspended. Thus could the “concurrent majority” of a state be protected by the unconstitutional actions of a numerical majority of the entire country. But there are limits to what the concurrent majority could do. Should the three-fourths of the states, by means of the amendment process, choose to grant the federal government the disputed power, then the nullifying state would have to decide whether it going with the decision of its fellow states or whether it would be better to secede from the Union.

Therein lies the excuse for secession. Upon closer inspection, it is a flimsy excuse to avoid a common minimum standard of basic rights. For all his concern about minority rights, Calhoun was downright hypocritical.

A close review of “concurrent majorities” reveals that the concept is not only ignores the prevailing will of a national consensus it also does not protect the rights of all minorities. Instead, the real life application of concurrent majorities would really mean local self-selected minorities rule. In other words, what would be a national minority in terms of sectionalism would then become that section’s prevailing majority.

We need look no further for a good example than the American South on the eve of the Civil War. In 1860 there were 9 million individuals living in Dixie; of those 4 million were African-American slaves with no rights whatsoever. Under this scheme not all individuals share the same minimum standard of rights. At the same time, the white land owning classes fully enjoyed the right to vote, to serve on juries and engage in other civil functions. The notion of concurrent majorities is nothing but a sham; an excuse to cast oppression as a liberty interest.

Neither Woods nor McCloskey advocates the restoration of the institution of slavery. However, they do seek a different system of oppression: theocracy. Ideas such as nullification, secession and concurrent majorities can be used interchangeably to bring about theocracy as they were once used attempting to make permanent human slavery. And just as African-Americans were once denied a minimum standard of natural rights so too would those not practicing a traditionalist Catholic or fundamentalist Christian religious belief. Personal decisions regarding birth control, reproductive rights the marriage equality would be limited by the dictates of ultra-orthodox Christian Applications to secular law, not by the collective will of the nation.

Over the course of more than two centuries as an American people the general movements has to make basic rights more inclusive. This includes the freedom to believe or not to believe as we see fit. Americans have given their lives in the struggle against those who would diminish those rights. It appears that McCloskey has no qualms about entertaining discredited and treasonous ideas and actions in order to accomplish what cannot be accomplished through the democratic process.

It is disconcerting enough that zombie concepts such as nullification and secession are currently being casually bandied about in the public discourse. It is even more disconcerting when a priest who has the ear of the rich and powerful does so as well.

Yes, Mr. Woods, You Advocate the Right to Oppress

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

 photo thomaswoods_zps65b2661f.jpg This post constitutes my third and final reply to Thomas E. Woods, Jr.’s critique of my series on his neo-Confederate activities. In my first reply I explained why, his protestations not withstanding, he is indeed a neo-Confederate. My second reply focused on how Woods twists his opponents’ statements into self-serving red herring.

Now I get to what is as the heart of Woods’s neo-Confederate/libertarian agenda: defending the right to oppress; a critical component of which is the combination of nullification and secession.

“I am a libertarian” and “not a `neo-Confederate'” wrote Thomas E. Woods, Jr. in a verbal shell game he plays to mask the shared flaw of his chosen philosophies:  the elevation of raw power over justice and equality before the law, cloaking oppression in the guise of freedom and liberty.

As I have previously noted, his advocacy of both secession and the unilateral nullification of Federal court decisions as well as Federal legislation appeals to many on the Catholic Right. What’s more, nullification is becoming a weapon in efforts to thwart the will of the American people as expressed by its elected representatives.

Some Neo-Confederates are also Libertarians

While not all libertarians are neo-Confederates, neo-Confederates of Woods’s ilk are certainly libertarians. This comes into focus when we consider the League of the South,a neo-Confederate organization with which Woods proudly identifies and whose core economic beliefs are of the aforementioned Austrian School of libertarian economics: opposition to fractional banking; a return to the gold standard; and a general distrust government regulation that often borders on anarchy. (Indeed, Woods himself is devotee of  anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard).  Woods’s strain of libertarianism argues that these are essential elements of freedom.

Austrian school libertarians even oppose the laissez-faire “Chicago school” economics of Milton Friedman — which at least considers using some government intervention in the economy through monetary policy.  Austrian schoolers want government to play no role at all in the economy. After all, they steadfastly assure us, that economically speaking, everyone acts with reasonable self-interest.

Austrian schoolers also believe that the freedom to contract is absolute, regardless of the imbalance of power between parties, particularly when it comes to matters of employment. “Labor is appraised like a commodity not because the entrepreneurs and capitalists are hardhearted and callous,”  Ludwig von Mises famously declared, “but because they are unconditionally subject to the supremacy of the pitiless consumers.” (Woods is a Senior Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama.) Every dollar is a ballot from their point of view; and the messy ethical considerations of government are replaced by the supposed efficiencies of the free market. Of course, if every dollar is a ballot, then those with more dollars have more ballots and the outcome of every election is predetermined.

Thus the question of freedom, is really a question of freedom for whom?

The above von Mises quote suggests that owners are free to abuse low wage workers while providing excessive executive compensation; unjustifiable stock dividend payouts; failing to invest in more efficient manufacturing equipment; and ineffective trades policies. And as the 2007 Wall Street meltdown has proven, many financial figures do not act solely out of “reasonable self-interest;” irrationality plays an outsized role along with, greed, ego and self-aggrandizement.

This gets us to the core of our dispute: That Woods’ neo-Confederate libertarianism distorts the meanings of freedom and liberty into a defense of the excesses of self-interest.  He argues, referring to me:

And finally, my critic says I defend a “right to oppress.” This is preposterous, needless to say. … The point is that the federal government is far more likely to be a threat to our liberties, indeed to civilization itself, than the states — from which, in any case, exit is rather easier. There is absolutely nothing the states could do that would amount to a grain of sand on the beach compared to a new Middle Eastern war, but I am supposed to be super worried about what Montana might do next. Nice priorities.

He then added, “And of course, nothing centralized regimes do ever, ever, ever discredits centralization.”

This is typical Woods, vigorously assaulting a straw man of his own invention. (While I clearly believe that a sturdy federal government is far preferable to confederacy, nowhere have I claimed that it is a perfect; all forms of government are subject to abuse.) Quite tellingly though, Wood opposes the centralization of power in a democratically elected Federal government, but thinks the centralization of economic power in the hands of unaccountable private interests is just fine.  

There is no shortage of examples to demonstrate that Woods’s definition of freedom includes the right to oppress.  Woods goes so far as to oppose child labor laws. (He claims that passing laws against child labor is like passing laws against gravity.)  He also opposes the recent efforts of fast food workers to achieve a living wage. “Instead of being amazed that they can earn anything at all with no skills to speak of,” says Woods, “they are enraged that they aren’t making a comfortable living performing a task as simple as fast-food preparation.”

Ignoring Facts and History

History teaches us a different lesson about child labor than the world according to Woods.  Child labor in the past has been used to drive down wages by creating a surplus of workers. Beyond that, the law informs us that minors are generally considered to be legally incompetent to enter into most contracts. While Woods’s position may be honestly grounded in his libertarian philosophy it does not change the dynamics of highly unequal wage bargaining power — hence his embrace of a right to oppress children without interference from the government.

Progressive child labor laws have freed children from toiling long hours in mills full of dangerous machinery or having to dig for coal in poorly ventilated and unsafe mineshafts. At the same time, parents have received better wages because the size of the workforce was reduced. Children once unable to attend school, now have the opportunity, which in turn, creates a more sophisticated work force.

Likewise, increases in the minimum wage pegged to productivity have proven to be healthy for the overall economy – as well as being the right thing to do. Woods mischievously frames his argument against fast food workers seeking a raise, by suggesting that they want something exorbitant.  It is not unreasonable for workers to seek wages that are at the very least, adjusted for inflation.  Woods’ twisting of facts to fit his argument is characteristic of his method.

As if all this were not enough, there is one part of Woods’s critique of one of my pieces on nullification that I find astonishing. “There is absolutely nothing the states could do,” he claims, ” that would amount to a grain of sand on the beach compared to a new Middle Eastern war…” As someone who holds a Ph.D. in history from an Ivy League university he should know better. He must certainly be aware that his beloved (so-called) Confederate States of America’s dreams of a slave empire extending into the Caribbean as well as Central and South America.  History teaches us that neither size nor form of government is a guarantee against Empire – let alone the desire to extinguish individual rights.

If the modern federal state is inherently such a tyrannical menace, why have Sweden’s armies not marched in conquest?

No Oppressor is an Island

Woods is also involved with organizations that are devoted to the right to oppress.

As I have previously documented, Woods is a founding member of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group.

The League’s “Core Belief Statement” also suggests a religious supremacism of the sort that would clearly be a building block of theocracy. The League declares:

“The South still reveres the tenets of our historic Christian faith and acknowledges its supremacy over man-made laws and opinions…

If the southern Leaguers got their way in this regard, the prospects might be bleak for anyone other than officially approved Christians, and worse for minority religions and the non-religious. Freedom for religious supremacism means the right to oppress, whether at the state, local or federal level.

Woods, a convert to traditionalist Catholicism, is a regular contributor to the The Remnant . This traditionalist biweekly newspaper has been highly critical of anything Catholic since Vatican II, including Nostra Aetate, — the official Catholic statement repudiating the notion that the Jewish people are guilty of deicide.  The Remnant has also been a vocal supporter of the schismatic – and anti-Semitic – priestly order of the Society of St. Pius X.  For this and other examples of hostility to Judaism The Remnant has also earned a spot on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups.

The Remnant’s support for SSPX is a particular point of interest. SSPX has maintained ties to the Northern Italian secessionist political organization, Northern League – as does the League of the South.

Coming Full Circle

Of course, to this crowd, the main problem with a sturdy federal government is that it stands in the way of the neo-Confederate vision itself. Modern notions of civil rights as well as the legacy of New Deal economics exist to protect the rights of those who would suffer if the neo-Confederate libertarian dream were to come true.

What the agendas of secession and nullification are truly about is the frustration of various like-minded minority factions’ ambitions to oppress the majority.  To that end, they want the federal government disassembled at least to the point where the religious and economic prejudices of the few are less likely to be checked by the democratically derived consensus of the many.

This happened in 1861 when proslavery forces lost their grip on the White House; and it is happening now with a small but effective gang of Christian Right activists that cannot find a constitutional avenue to impose their moral and economic views on the entire nation.  It is why we see, paradoxically, the likes of the theocratic protestant Gary North (an Associated Scholar of the von Mises Institute) and Opus Dei priest C. John McCloskey embrace Woods’s brand of theocratic libertarianism. North and McCloskey are not opposed to theocracy, per se, they just want to localize it. Indeed, that is why Woods’s advocacy of secession and nullification is so appealing to them. If they cannot persuade the whole country to see things their way while playing by the rules, they will simply tear up the rulebook – as well as the nation.

This is libertarianism’s inherent fatal flaw: Its sole emphasis upon the liberty of the more powerful individual and its striking indifference to the rights of others.  It fails to account for externalities — when a third person is affected by an occurrence or transaction to which he is not a party.  It is a philosophy of governance that refuses to consider that the individual’s well-being is linked to the well-being of all within a given society.

I will assume that Thomas E. Woods, Jr. is sincere when he says he doesn’t personally believe in oppressing others who are different than him.  But he defends a philosophy predicated upon a highly subjective definition of liberty attained at the expense of others.  I would go so far as to say he also believes in maximizing the opportunities presented in such situations. Therefore, he resolutely believes in the right to oppress, and is conflating freedom with oppression.

But there is a different way of viewing freedom.  

 “One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn,” Aristotle once said, “and indeed democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just.”

For related articles, click here.

The Methods in the Mendacity of Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Catholic Right activist Thomas E. Woods, Jr., was upset when I described him as a neo-Confederate. But his ongoing involvement with neo-Confederate organizations as well as the ideas expressed in his writing earned him that descriptor. It is one which will undoubtedly be fairly applied until such time as he publicly disassociates himself from neo-Confederate groups and publicly changes his mind about the value of neo-Confederate ideas.

This post is the second of three brief replies to Woods’s critique of my series. In this piece I will focus on how he avoids responsibility for his own views.

First, let me acknowledge that I provided an opening for Woods to misrepresent something I had written via my own imprecision in  “Thomas E. Woods, Jr. And the Right to Oppress”.  Here is the paragraph in my post with the key sentence highlighted in italics:

 

Woods’ omissions are all-too-convenient. First, in response to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional) nine other states expressed either disapproval or outright rejection of the Resolutions. Secondly, Jefferson was always an anti-Federalist. Beyond that, Madison would conclude that determining unconstitutionality was to be decided by the federal courts. For Madison, nullification was a means of registering protest, not acting upon it.

Woods wasted no time in twisting this into a self-serving deflection. “For some reason,” Woods declared, “central to his argument is his claim that Thomas Jefferson was an Antifederalist. He was not.”

Sometimes the use of the capital letter of a written word changes its meaning. For example, when I used the term “anti-Federalist” I used a capital letter “F” as in the Federalist political party of which George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were members (it was President John Adams who signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law; more on that issue in a second). I should have fully explained this, and not relied on a capital “F”.

Yet my error does not justify Woods’ claim that that I was describing Jefferson as an “antifederalist” — slyly employing a lower case letter “f” in the word, federalist. This writing of “federalist” describes a political philosophy, not a political party, as Woods almost certainly well knows.

Did I argue that the Alien and Sedition Acts were justified, as Woods suggests? Of course not; nor did I argue that nullification is ever the proper remedy for an individual state in reacting to a federal piece of legislation – no matter who is president of United States.  Instead, I was arguing for the proper Constitutional process of registering complaint on such ill-conceived legislation. To suggest otherwise is intellectually dishonest.  

So while I am sorry that I provided Woods with an opportunity to divert his readers away from my main point — the invalidity of nullification — we can thank Woods for revealing to us some of the methods of his mendacity.  (We can include in the latter his failure to provide a link to my piece so that reader could see for themselves what I had to say.)

So, back to our story. Was Jefferson a federalist?  To the extent that he supported the U.S. Constitution, yes. But Jefferson was also a man of contradictions. While being wary of larger government as President, for example, he also transacted the Louisiana Purchase — clearly a strong exercise of federal power. But beyond that, he was not a federalist in the same sense as Federalist Party members George Washington and Alexander Hamilton; two men who understood that confederation was not a sturdy enough form of government to withstand the arbitrary passions that have destroyed many societies throughout history.

What Woods is actually advocating is giving factions the power to hold popular government hostage.  Factionalism does not arise out of the Enlightenment ideal of reason and the pursuit of rational self-interest (as opposed to the unfettered laissez-faire self-interest favored by conservatives and those further Right).  Instead, it rears its ugly, destructive head when unchecked emotion controls group actions. Indeed, the contemporary Religious Right is increasingly resorting to factionalism to get its way; much like a child throwing a tantrum when it is told they cannot do something destructive to others.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.’s Long and Winding “Yawn”

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

 photo thomaswoods_zps65b2661f.jpg “Apparently there’s been a series against me over at the Daily Kos by a left-liberal lawyer,” neo-Confederate author Thomas E. Woods Jr. recently wrote in a blog post titled, “Left-Wingers Attack; I Yawn.”

Before launching into his response to my series he claimed, “I no longer pay attention to left-wing attacks”  (Except, apparently, when he does).

This post is the first of three brief replies to Mr. Woods. In this initial offering I will explain why the term neo-Confederate to which he objects, suits him so well.

“It’s the same arguments every time,” he fumes. “They pretend I haven’t answered them. I have.”

But has he really answered me, or anyone else? Or are his answers really more like deflections? There are good reasons why he is described as a neo-Confederate. Let’s look at a few.

Woods knows that many of his clearly neo-Confederate ideas and purposeful involvements will make other of his allies uncomfortable at best, especially among the Catholic Right. So his ideas and involvements must be hidden or downplayed and when they cannot be, they are strenuously denied.

Woods claims that he is really just a libertarian. But that is a canard. Most of us know libertarians. And while we may disagree with them on many issues, especially economics, we know that they are not advocating the breakup of United States of America.

Woods insinuated in his response that I have equated his calls for secession and nullification with racism and a call to reestablish slavery, hence, why I call him a neo-Confederate. I did no such thing, of course, and all he has for an argument is to lump me in with other unnamed critics, complaining, “They idiotically call me a “neo-Confederate” (have they really not seen the zombie video, or are they trying to caricature themselves?).”

Woods would have us believe that this video answers all of his critics about everything. (It would be better titled “The Zombie Straw Man.”)  Using the setting of a mock interview to discuss his book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century, he starts out by saying that the federal government does whatever wants without constitutional restraint. Of course he does not specify exactly what the government is doing that requires restraining.  He goes on to claim that if anyone questions the constitutionality of a given issue, “they laugh you.”  Paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, who are all these people who are laughing?  Of course, he does not say.  This is, after all, a straw man he is pummeling.

As the video churns on we see the zombie “host” throw accusations of “slavery” and “neo-Confederate” at Woods, as if those of us who use this moniker to define him do so baselessly.  But perhaps unsurprisingly, he engages in the very behavior of which he accuses his critics — falsely (and absurdly) equating those who oppose nullification and secession with Hitler.

He never addresses the real reason why he’s fairly described as a neo-Confederate: it is the content of his own works and his involvement in neo-Confederate organizations.  Let’s look at a standard definition of the term:

The Southern Poverty Law Center defines it this way:  

The term neo-Confederacy is used to describe twentieth and twenty-first century revivals of pro-Confederate sentiment in the United States. Strongly nativist and advocating measures to end immigration, neo-Confederacy claims to pursue Christianity and heritage and other supposedly fundamental values that modern Americans are seen to have abandoned.

So even the SPLC does not say one has to advocate slavery or even be an overt racist to be a neo-Confederate. But one does not have to look very hard to see what the League is all about. A current visitor to the League’s web site will find a close-out special on League of the South tee-shirt with a quote from Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) on the back. And if you need a bumper sticker to express your feelings about secession, you might pick “Feds Out of Dixie!”. And after making your purchases you can keep up with the cause on the League of the South blog, Rebellion.

In fairness, Woods once stated, “I have played no day-to-day role in the [League of the South] organization and I am responsible neither for the comments of any other member nor for the politically incorrect statements I am told can be found on the League’s site.”

But with that said, nowhere in that statement, or any other statement he has made to my knowledge, does he actually separate his views from those of the League. And although Woods acknowledges that he was present at the League’s formative meetings, he also claims not to completely identify with the League’s core beliefs. But he does not say which ones or why.

There is much more eye opening material in the League’s core beliefs, which are laced with exclusionary statements, such as:

“The League of the South asserts that Southern society is radically different from the society impressed upon it by an alien occupier.”

 

Woods is more than a contemporary fashionista of secession and nullification.  He is a leader who puts an Ivy League gloss on some crude and discredited ideas, and even cruder and more discredited proponents of these ideas. Indeed, for a man who says he is not a neo-Confederate because he is not a racist and does not believe in slavery, he is having a hard time explaining his relationship with the League of the South, a leading apologist for the Southern Cause.

But one does not have to rely entirely on Woods’s involvement with the League as evidence of his neo-Confederate commitments. He is also involved with the Abbeville Institute (taking its name from the birthplace of secessionist John C. Calhoun). As my Talk to Action colleague Rachel Tabachnick has already noted:

Woods is from Massachusetts with degrees from Harvard and Columbia, but he has described himself as one of “the founders of the League of the South.” He is also affiliated with the Abbeville Institute, described by the Chronicle of Higher Education as a group of 64 scholars nostalgic for the Old South and Secession. Time Magazine described the institute, founded by Emory University professor Donald Livingston, as a group of “Lincoln loathers.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed the Abbeville Institute founder as one of the leaders in the modern neo-Confederate movement and, as described in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, pointed out the following quote in its mission statement.

“Rarely these days, even on Southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of white people in the South.”

 photo thomaswoodshistory_zps7015e6a2.jpg There is also Woods’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.  Woods uses Confederate revisionist rhetoric to describe the Civil War, as the “War of Northern Aggression” or the “War Between the States.”

Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain once adroitly observed:

“There was no war between the States. It was a war in the name of certain States to destroy the political existence of the United States, in membership of which alone, on any just theory of the government, their own sovereignty as States inhered, and could make itself effectual. To this absurd pass did that false theory come — a war of States against the people; and if successful, the suicide of States.”

Indeed, this book cements his credentials as a neo-Confederate, starting with the cover art. There we see a smug looking Confederate officer standing with his arms almost folded with an “I-told-you-so” look on his face.

But finally there is Woods’s 1997 article in The Southern Partisan magazine entitled, “Christendom’s Last Stand” where Woods, who described himself as “a founding member of the League of the South,” enthusiastically waved the flag of his neo-Confederatism:

So the War Between the States, far from a conflict over mere material interests, was for the South a struggle against an atheistic individualism and an unrelenting rationalism in politics and religion, in favor of a Christian understanding of authority, social order and theology itself. The intelligent Left knows this, and even the incurably stupid, like [former Democratic Senator from Illinois — the first African-American woman to be elected as a U.S. Senator] Carol Moseley-Braun, must at least sense it. For all their ignorant blather about slavery and civil rights, what truly enrages most liberals about the Confederate Battle Flag is its message of defiance. They see in it the remnants of a traditional society determined to resist cultural and political homogenization, and refusing to be steamrolled by the forces of progress.

I have been a Northerner for my entire 24 years. But when we reflect on what was really at stake in the “late unpleasantness,” we can join with [Confederate Vice-President] Alexander Stephens in observing that “the cause of the South is the cause of us all.”

And that is why Thomas E. Woods, Jr. has earned the description of neo-Confederate.

Refuting Nullification, Part Two

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

In this series we have been discussing the emerging influence of Thomas J. Woods and other Catholic Right neo-Confederates, who are advocating that states nullify federal statutes and court rulings with which they disagree. Some are calling for outright secession.  The next installment explained why nullification matters and how it can lead to localized tyranny and theocracy. Then we discussed the historical argument against nullification and by extension, secession.

Now we are taking the obvious next step:  The Constitutional arguments against nullification.

At the forefront of the Catholic Right’s nullification/secessionist movement is Thomas J. Woods.  His writings and speeches are frequently cited by a budding alliance of Catholic social conservatives and secessionists that extends to the likes of Opus Dei evangelist C. John McCloskey and politico Alan Keyes.  They claim that their ideas are constitutionally viable — but they are not, and here is why.

Woods justifies nullification via “the compact theory” of government – that the United States of America government was formed by a compact agreed upon by all the states, whereby making the federal government a creation of the states. In Woods’ view this give individual states the power to “nullify” laws or federal court rulings they see as unconstitutional.

But as we explored in the very last post, it is a theory with little or no basis in historical fact. If states did indeed precede the federal government, then what of states such as Alaska, California, Hawaii and Louisiana that were carved out of federal procurements of war seizure or purchase by treaty?  Both of these powers are specifically reserved to the federal government in the Constitution. Beyond that, it is a theory that ignores our nation’s founding as a people.

The Foundational Argument

Inspired by Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln understood the inherent weakness of the compact theory upon which Woods rests his theory. Lincoln also understood that there is no legal justification for either nullification or secession. Consider this passage from his First Inaugural Address:

Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it–break it, so to speak–but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?

Putting aside the fact that even among the original framers there was a divergence of opinion over its intent, Woods and other advocates of nullification punt on the obvious conclusion; that if it were the intent of the Founders to allow for secession of a given state of mechanism, would have been inserted into the constitution. Woods’ weak response is “The mere fact that a state’s reserved right to obstruct the enforcement of an unconstitutional law is not expressly stated in the Constitution does not mean the right does not exist.” Directly preceding this comment, he argues, “This is an odd complaint, coming as it usually does from those who in any other circumstance do not seem especially concerned to find express constitutional sanction for particular government policies.”

Woods seems to be alluding to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling for Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 case that overturned a state law banning the sale of birth control on the grounds that it violated the “right to marital privacy” (It is not surprising that Woods, as a traditionalist Catholic, Woods would derisively hone in on this decision). In his dissent, Justice Hugo Black then found no general “right of privacy.”  Nevertheless, majorities in Griswold  (and later in Roe v. Wade) did find support for the right to privacy in the Fifth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, and this is now a matter of settled law.  However, no one has been able to reasonably infer a right to either nullification or secession in the Constitution.

While Article IV of the Constitution provides for the admission of new states, there is no provision for secession (Lincoln touched upon this in his First Inaugural Address:  “Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.”).

We can say the same about the nullification of federal legislation. Lincoln knew that neither secession nor nullification were not to be confused with the Right of Revolution as stated in the Declaration of Independence (“Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], the people have a right to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness”).

More importantly, the concept of any state nullifying any federal law without the proper court challenge was contemplated and rejected by the Framers in Article IV of the Constitution. More broadly in the Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause” is unambiguous. The Constitution and laws made by the Congress are “the supreme law of the land.”  And it doesn’t give or suggest any override authority to the state governors and legislatures:  

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”

The Rub

Indeed, the radical ambiguity of Woods and his cohorts about how one determines what is and is not Constitutional — is a recipe for arbitrary and capricious behavior.  We have the Supreme Court to make those calls. And while Article III does not specifically assign that power was, as evidenced by Alexander Hamilton, one clearly intended by its proponents.

Simply put, the Woods’ formulation has the potential for radical breaks with the supreme law of the land, for example on matters of matters of birth control, reproductive rights, and even the establishment of an official state religion. In sum, the denial of some of the most basic rights guaranteed to individuals by the U.S. Constitution opens the door not to a more perfect union, but to a confederation of little theocracies.

Indeed, James Madison, writing in Federalist No. 44 observed regarding the supremacy clause of the Constitution:  “Without the substance of this power, the whole Constitution would be a dead letter.” He then presciently warned:  

“The question, therefore, whether this amount of power shall be granted or not, resolves itself into another question, whether or not a government commensurate to the exigencies of the Union shall be established; or, in other words, whether the Union itself shall be preserved.”

That is indeed still the question.

Why Nullification Matters

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

In the first post in this series, I discussed the push for secession and nullification now being made by Catholic Right Neo-Confederates, notably Thomas J. Woods, Jr. Now, almost a century and a half after that approach was soundly defeated, some Catholic social conservatives are resorting to these pernicious ideas, apparently in order to prevail on such issues such as reproductive rights and gun control.

While the battles of the culture wars rage, it is far from clear to the Catholic Right that they can prevail across the board. While abortion rights are under attack in many of the “red” states, Roe vs. Wade still stands, marriage equality is becoming increasingly accepted, and the neo-conservatism that epitomized the Bush era, is on the ropes. What’s more, Pope Francis, clearly has no use for their brand of laissez-faire brand of economics of the likes of George Weigel and Robert P. George. Thus the Catholic Right appears to be in a state of orderly, tactical retreat; regrouping and waiting to strike on the ground of their own choosing. And when they do their weapons of choice may be secession and nullification.

At the forefront of this reorganization is Thomas Woods. His writings and speeches are constantly cited by a budding alliance of Catholic social conservatives and secessionist apologists. While pundits periodically write off the Religious Right, this trend has been evident for some time. I noted here and here in 2010 that Catholic GOP operative Deal Hudson has trying to get such a movement going for some time. Even Robert P. George has been endearing himself to Tea Party folks by embracing the gleaming libertarian notion of goldbuggery.

The Tenth Amendment Center

Many of the shorter works of Thomas Woods can be found at or linked to from the web site for the Tenth Amendment Center, (TAC) an organization that describes itself as “… a national think tank that works to preserve and protect the principles of strictly limited government through information, education, and activism… [and] … as a forum for the study and exploration of state and individual sovereignty issues, focusing primarily on the decentralization of federal government power as required by the Constitution.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has reported on the group and its leaders:

For the past several years, [executive director Michael] Boldin has crisscrossed the country, taking the TAC’s nullification message to supporters known as “Tenthers.” Its “Nullify Now!” conferences have been held in cities including Austin, Texas, Jacksonville and Orlando, Fla., and Manchester, N.H.

As well as:

Thomas E. Woods, a former member of the neo-Confederate hate group League of the South and the author of Nullification: How to Resist Tyranny in the 21st Century, is another constant on the “Nullify Now!” tour.

Importantly, SPLC further noted:

The TAC’s partner in this endeavor is the Foundation for a Free Society, which espouses the libertarian free-market theories of Murray Rothbard and the Austrian School of Economics. Foundation leader Jason Rink has described the federal government as the primary threat to liberty.

The Foundation for a Free Society’s web site features exhortations for nullification — including a film “Nullification: The Rightful Remedy.” The stars of the film include Boldin, Woods and Rink, as well as Art Thompson, the Executive Director of the John Birch Society.

TAC serves as vehicle for dissemination of the nullification and secession message to the Religious – specifically, Catholic – Right. TAC’s founder and executive director, Michael Boldin, writes a regular column for Renew America‘s the web site; an organization was originally created to support for Conservative Catholic Alan Keyes’ short-lived cable news show now dedicated to advocating for limited government but with strong theocratic overtones. Other Catholic Right contributors at Renew America, in addition to Keyes himself, are Matt C. Abbott (discussed in an earlier post) and Marielena Montesino de Stuart — who is no fan of Vatican II nor of Catholic notions of Social Justice.

Nullification

Part of TAC’s strategy is to provide model legislation. Recently Governor and
(Opus Dei convert) Sam Brownback (R-KS) signed into law legislation designed to nullify any federal gun control regulations concerning any weapons manufactured in Kansas for use in Kansas. The bill was taken from the TAC model bill template. A GOP-controlled Missouri legislature recently sent an almost identical piece of legislation to its Democratic governor.

TAC provides other model nullification laws that cover an array of libertarian causes from voiding Obamacare, to withholding National Guard units, to allowing banks in individual states to begin offering and accepting gold and silver as legal tender.

But as a nation, we have been down this road before, and know from bitter experience that nullification – and by extension, its not-so-distant-kinfolk, secession, can destroy any semblance of the United States as a governable nation. When individual states believe they can ignore a gun law or a health care law they can ignore any law, including those that guarantee religious freedom via the prohibition of the establishment of a state religion. This was indeed the case recently in North Carolina where a group of Republican legislators introduced a bill that would allow an official state religion, essentially declaring the Tar-Heel state exempt from the Constitution and court rulings on Church-State separation.

And therein lies the hypocrisy of nullification. The theory relies upon the false premise that only the federal government is capable of tyranny; it blindly ignores that individual states can be tyrannical. As the history of Jim Crow demonstrates, that is more than a mere valid concern; it is a reality. Doctors involved with reproductive rights and embryonic stem cell research would be the potentially oppressed, as would be their patients. Nullification could well serve as the mid-wife to local theocracy.

And this point of departure will lead into the next post: The historical argument against nullification and secession.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. and the Neo-Confederate Catholic Right

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Thomas Woods is an increasingly influential  player on the Catholic Right. In this and a subsequent post, we will consider how his world view is   incompatible with both Catholic Social Justice principles and American history.

Over the years, this column has looked at the many facets of the Catholic Right, including neo-cons, paleo-cons, Bill Donohue, Opus Dei, and more. We now come to the Neo-Confederate Catholic Right, a peculiar variation of libertarianism, which focuses almost exclusively on economics while maintaining most, if not all of the social conservative culture war issues such as opposition to reproductive rights and marriage equality. Indeed, this movement employs the long discredited states’ rights theory of nullification — the notion that any state has the right to ignore any federal court order or law which that state has deemed unconstitutional.

Among the Catholic Rightists beating the drum for nullification are Pat Buchanan, Thomas DiLorenzo, Thomas Fleming and Thomas E. Woods, Jr.  All four advocate states’ rights, a seething resentment of Abraham Lincoln, and as Rachel Tabachnick recently highlighted, Woods is a key member of the pro-secession League of the South, Traditional Catholicism (save possibly DiLorenzo) and Austrian-school, libertarian economics.

Woods is a convert to the type of Catholicism sought by many on the Catholic Right. As such, he is a vocal proponent for a return to a pre-Vatican II mindset. He is extreme in his economic libertarianism as well as secession and nullification.  While nullification has a long and dark history on matters of race in the U.S., it is also looming as an issue for reproductive rights and marriage equality.

It is therefore no surprise that among Woods’ admirers is the influential Opus Dei priest C. John McCloskey. The former Ivy League-Wall Street laissez-faire apostle-turned-prelate has himself ruminated on the appeal of secession to achieve theocracy.  In his infamous futuristic dystopian essay 2030: Looking Backwards he gleefully imagines a violent separation from the United States:

The tens of thousands of martyrs and confessors for the Faith in North America were indeed the “seed of the Church” as they were in pre-Edict of Milan Christianity. The final short and relatively bloodless conflict produced our Regional States of North America. The outcome was by no means an ideal solution but it does allow Christians to live in states that recognize the natural law and divine Revelation, the right of free practice of religion, and laws on marriage, family, and life that reflect the primacy of our Faith. With time and the reality of the ever-decreasing population of the states that worship at the altar of “the culture of death,” perhaps we will be able to reunite and fulfill the Founding Fathers of the old United States dream to be “a shining city on a hill.”

What McCloskey describes as “by no means an ideal solution” has a more accurate, more commonly-held description: Treason.

And yet there is more than a hint of hypocrisy in McCloskey’s admiration of Woods – especially his libertarian economic outlook.  Catholic writer Angus Sibely has observed, Woods is a devotee of über-libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard. A closer examination of Rothbard beliefs reveals why this is problematic.

First, Rothbard is the father of anarcho-capitalism, the basis of Woods’ economic philosophy.  It is such an extreme philosophy that even law enforcement and the courts would be privatized; taxation would be replaced by either private payments or insurance settlements. Rothbard is on record saying “the entire theory of labor unions is deeply flawed.” As Angus Sibley explains, it is the very antithesis of Catholic economic teachings:

Most practical methods of reducing inequalities are repugnant to libertarians. Labor unions are hated because they obstruct the worker’s freedom to agree his own contract with his employer. … Redistributive taxation (higher tax rates on higher personal incomes) “is a mode of disguised expropriation of successful capitalists and entrepreneurs” according to Mises, while his admirer Murray Rothbard stated that “Taxation is Robbery” and that “the libertarian favors the right to unrestricted private property and free-exchange”.

Hayek rejected outright the principle of distributive justice: “the results of the individual’s efforts are necessarily unpredictable, and the question of whether the resulting distribution of incomes is just or unjust has no meaning.”  Catholic teaching flatly repudiates such nonsense. Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum, §45) spoke of “a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner”, and he strongly commended (#49) workers’ associations, of which “the most important of all are workingmen’s unions.” John Paul II (Centesimus Annus, §20) observed that “unions… are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people.”

But what is all-too-conveniently glossed over by Woods, McCloskey and others — is Rothbard’s shocking and idiosyncratic view on abortion.  It is a view that is consistent with extreme libertarianism, but is very far from any other pro-choice thought I have ever heard. Rothbard’s view suggests a deep fissure on the conservative spectrum that they would rather we not see.

Most fetuses are in the mother’s womb because the mother consents to this situation, but the fetus is there by the mother’s freely-granted consent. But should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic “invader” of her person, and the mother has the perfect right to expel this invader from her domain. Abortion should be looked upon, not as “murder” of a living person, but as the expulsion of an unwanted invader from the mother’s body. Any laws restricting or prohibiting abortion are therefore invasions of the rights of mothers.  [Emphasis added]

We need to understand why Woods and McCloskey’s Neo-Confederate philosophy of nullification and secession is so appealing to some on the Catholic Right so we can not only better answer them, but sharpen the contrast with just alternatives. Those tasks will be tackled in subsequent posts.