October 26, 2019

Elijah Cummings and the Little Sisters

Beto O’Rourke’s punitive position on tax exemptions contrasts with a poignant Capitol Hill memorial.

I was writing a rather stern column about the mess in Washington, but I got kind of swept Thursday by the beautiful bipartisan tribute to Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, in Congress’s Statuary Hall, a ceremony held just before his burial back in Baltimore.

I want to get beyond the merely sentimental. Everyone seems to have liked him a lot; I knew him slightly and liked him too. I would only add to his enumerated virtues the power of his warmth. I met him at an event five or so years ago and when we were introduced I went to shake his hand. He’d have none of that and enveloped me in a hug. I don’t remember what we talked about but it seemed important to the two of us, in one of those nice moments that sometimes happen, that we show a mutual appreciation for who the other was. We did, and held hands. I just found to my shock that remembering this leaves me a little choked.

There was something not sentimental but poignant and half-grasped in the tribute to him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke movingly about how Cummings came to Washington not to be a big man but to do big things. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “He was strong, very strong when necessary… . His voice could … stir the most cynical hearts.” Cummings’s friend Republican Rep. Mark Meadows said he had “eyes that would pierce through anybody standing in his way,” and like the others read Scripture. It was nice to hear the Bible read in Statuary Hall; the religiosity had a great sweetness to it. “In my father’s house are many mansions,” Mr. Meadows read, and suggested the Baltimore boy was in a grand new home.

What was poignant was how much the speakers enjoyed being their best selves. Congress knows how hapless it looks, how riven by partisanship and skins-vs.-shirts dumbness. For many of them it takes the tang out of things. They know it lowers their standing in America. They grieve it. It embarrasses them. They’d like to be part of something that works, something respected.

It wouldn’t be lost on the brighter of them that they were enacting in the Cummings ceremony a unity and respect, a shared purpose, that they wish they could sustain but are unable to.

They believe they are forced into their partisan positions by several things, among them that America is badly divided and the politically active on both sides, in their mutual loathing, pull toward the extremes.

As I watched the ceremony I thought of a dinner two weeks ago with a close friend. It was just the two of us and we found ourselves going deep about how we feel about everything. She is a spirited lefty, a longtime Democratic donor, I am a righty, a conservative as I define it, but neither of us has ever cared much about that because the essence of friendship is … essence. Who you are, which fairly enough includes politics but is not limited to politics. We’ve had 30 years of teasing and occasional sparring but this night we went to the thoughts behind our views. She asked me how I see my own political views; am I more lefty than I was? I found myself saying something I’d never said, that all my political thinking comes down to this: I am for whatever will hold America together, full stop. I see it breaking in a million pieces and my every political impulse has to do with wanting it to hold together, to endure, to go forward in history and the world. If that means compromise, fine. She thought about this, nodded and said softly that that makes complete sense right now. “That’s a program.”

But don’t most of us kind of think like this? Even if we haven’t articulated it or even noticed it’s what we think. But isn’t it the right primary intention?

A deep impediment is the air of political maximalism that careless people who never know the implications of things encourage. Years ago Rep. Bella Abzug of New York would point out that her father was a butcher, who owned the Live and Let Live Meat Market. I always liked that. Nobody says that phrase anymore, live and let live, but long ago everybody did. Now it’s part of what’s missing — a sense of give. So many people feel bullied, pushed around by vague and implacable forces. They fear the erosion of central freedoms.

Here is the first example that springs to mind. It reflects my cultural views and indignations, but I ask you to take it on its own terms.

In early October CNN had a town hall on LGBTQ issues for the Democratic presidential candidates. They said the sort of things they say, you can imagine them, you don’t need your neighborhood pundit to tell you. But at one point the essential nature of the new progressivism jumped out.

Don Lemon asked Beto O'Rourke: “Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities, should they lose their tax exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?”

“Yes,” said Mr. O'Rourke, not missing a beat. “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. So as president we’re going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”

Regular readers know we do not especially admire Mr. O'Rourke, that we believe the past year he has been having not a campaign but a manic episode. But he said what he said because he wanted to please a significant part of the Democratic base, and he received big applause.

Can we agree his is a radical, maximalist stand? Under his standard the Catholic Church would be ruined, and with it a whole world of charities, schools, hospitals, orphanages, other agencies, all of which help those with limited resources. Let’s just posit without bothering to defend the proposition that an America without the Catholic church would be a poorer, sicker, colder place, and one less likely to continue.

At almost the same time as the CNN town hall, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who serve the elderly and impoverished, were again in court asking for protection from the ObamaCare mandate that tells them they must include contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans. It’s been a long legal journey: The Supreme Court has already been involved. So has the Trump administration, whose directives regarding religious protection have been challenged by certain states, which got injunctions, which have been upheld by the appellate courts. The Sisters are forced to appeal to the high court again, which will, please God, affirm, with clarity and force, the constitutional rights without which they cannot exist.

Oh, progressives, if you only had the wisdom to back off, to see your demands as maximalist, extreme, damaging to the fabric, the opposite of live and let live. When you push in this way to control the culture of the country, do you ever ask, “When I win, will there be a country left?”

Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.

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