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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.

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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.