Friday, June 27, 2014

Playing Partisan Games with Religious Rights


Petty politics played with religion this week in Washington.

In other words, nothing new happened on Capitol Hill.  Not that our elected officials want you to know that.

This week, for example, instead of trying to advocate for substantive change in the way Congress does business, Republican senator Rand Paul engaged in some busy-work in a Senate committee.  He tried to call Democratic senator Barbara Boxer's bluff over her concerns about the way some women in other countries are being treated by radical Muslims.

Believing that Boxer was simply playing to the liberal faithful as she extolled the virtues of combating injustices against women, Paul tried to attach a religious rights amendment onto an otherwise bipartisan bill.  And his amendment sounded good enough:  it would have prevented the United States from giving foreign aid to countries whose anti-blasphemy laws sentence convicts to death or life imprisonment.

Ostensibly, Paul's amendment was aimed at Muslim countries where both the subordination of women and the persecution of converts to Christianity are prevalent.  Had his amendment been passed in committee, it could have killed two birds with one stone:  appealing to religious rights activists, and feminists - two groups that are rarely on the same side of anything.

However, only one other Republican senator voted with Paul for his religious liberties amendment, and it died in committee.

Technically, if Paul was genuinely interested in calling Boxer's bluff on her concern over the plight of women in countries where they're treated as second-class citizens, he could have crafted an amendment that more directly addressed the issue, rather than exploit something like religious rights.  But Paul was being just another politician here, and in this case, an ineffective one.  If you were to corner Boxer and ask her if she supports both women's rights and religious rights, she'd likely reply in the affirmative on both counts.  But if you ask her to prioritize the two, it's likely she'd put the former over the latter.  Right?  Sure, Paul can say his objective was bipartisan, but he knows the score.  So to call foul on a game he already knew was set is more hollow grandstanding on his part than genuine leadership in the Senate.

And not just because he was toying with Boxer, but because the whole topic of foreign aid is bigger than just women and religion, isn't it?  After all, American politicians, from the President on down, don't expect foreign governments to treat their people a certain way just because we give them money!

Foreign aid is a tool used by American governments to obtain political favors that primarily benefit our interests.  Not theirs.  We may help countries score their own political points along the way, and achieve some altruistic, beneficial human rights successes in the process.  Foreign aid can also generate some good photo ops for politicians supervising the distribution of food to impoverished people groups.  But all that is icing on the cake, not the cake itself.  The cake is what we can get for ourselves in the bargain:  oil, political stability, political leverage, a jab at a common enemy, bragging rights in foreign policy, or the self-aggrandizement of the most prominent politician involved in the deal.

It's a token power play on our part.  Still, Washington thinks it works, even if the diplomacy surrounding it can get tricky.  And the tricky side of foreign aid is why politicians don't want to be too restricted in how they broker each deal.

Much is made these days about how much America spends on foreign aid, particularly in contrast with the return on our "investment" that average American voters think we should be getting.  However, this concern betrays a naïveté on the part of citizens beyond the beltway who don't understand that the money is going to foreign leadership, not foreign indigenous groups, or foreign persecuted groups, or foreign poor people.

We're handing U.S. taxpayer dollars to leaders in other countries who've either worked themselves into a tight financial spot and need some political "capital" - or are simply incompetent, or lazy, or hopelessly corrupt.  Washington knows not to expect much from the dollars we dole out around the globe, because the return on investment principle is the same in foreign policy as it is with social welfare programs.  Conservatives gripe about it all the time when it comes to entitlements, but foreign aid can actually be viewed as an entitlement slush fund for politicians hoping to score something with, in, or through a foreign country.

Besides, foreign aid comprises less than 2% - two percent! - of America's budget, and other countries know this.  They know our foreign aid is petty cash.  Even Christ would likely ask why it isn't somewhere around 10%, especially if we are supposedly a "Christian" nation.

Which brings us back to religious freedom.  What do rank-and-file conservatives think about when they talk about religious freedom?  Is it freedom for anybody to practice the religion of their choice, no matter how unconventional or unpopular it may be?  How many people who cheer religious freedom would allow an Arabic prayer to be read over the loudspeaker at their kids' school?

Rand Paul is good at puffing up smokescreens to obscure the fact that he's not really doing much of anything in Washington except playing the same type of partisan games he criticizes his fellow politicians for playing.  Throwing religious liberty into the mix simply earns him brownie points among God-and-country right-wingers.

Meanwhile, if international religious liberty is so valuable to the good senator, why doesn't he try again and champion a full-fledged bill for it, instead of a piddly ol' amendment?  If this isn't a topic to trivialize, then take the lead on it!

Wouldn't that would be a good way for a self-presumed maverick to set himself apart in our bickering, do-nothing capital?


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