Romney attacks Obama's "secular agenda"

Has "secular" become a dirty word in US politics?

American presidential elections always produce their bizarre surprises, but few could have predicted that a row over the funding of birth control should be overshadowing the state of the economy as the focus of a heated national debate about religious freedom. Or to accusations that President Obama is engaged in an all-out "war on religion".

Yesterday Mitt Romney, looking ever more vulnerable to the socially conservative Rick Santorum, was answering audience questions in Michigan ahead of next week's primary -- one of those contests invariably described as "crucial". He took the opportunity to burnish his "pro-life" credentials, pledging for example to cut off federal funding for the abortion provider Planned Parenthood and promising to choose a pro-lifer as his running mate. He also spoke, not for the first time, of the need to protect "religious freedom". Criticising Obama's record, he put much of the blame on "the people the president hangs around with and their agenda, their secular agenda". They were people who "fought against religion".

This is, of course, code for the administration's policy, since watered down (largely under pressure from the Catholic Church) to force even religious employers to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their workers' health insurance. The ultimate problem might lie in the concept that healthcare provision should form part of the employer-employee relationship at all. There's no doubt, though, that an ad hoc alliance of Catholic bishops, Protestant evangelicals and Republican politicians has managed to turn this from an issue of equal access to healthcare into one of "religious freedom", at least in terms of the public debate.

Even though the freedom under discussion is not the freedom of citizens to worship freely but rather the freedom of powerful religious organisations to deprive ordinary Americans of provision that most of them have for decades taken for granted. Even though most ordinary Catholic voters disagree with their church leadership on the issue.

When Romney speaks of a "secular agenda" what he is actually talking about is the rights of women to have control over their own bodies and their own fertility. The vast majority of American women, including Catholics, have long used contraception in their own lives, whatever the official position of the church hierarchy. Romney himself, when he was governor of Massachusetts, took a far more nuanced position on abortion than the one he now advocates. It's fair to say, though, that his current pro-life stance long predates the emergence of Rick Santorum as a serious contender. He has been accused of flip-flopping, but it would probably be truer to observe that his shift mirrors the reorientation of the Republican party as a whole in recent decades.

As Ann Gerhart noted the other day in the Washington Post, there was a time when a Republican congressman from Texas (by the name of George Bush Sr) could argue that "if family planning is anything, it is a public health matter." That was the 1970s.

For all the heightened talk of a "war on religion", it's hard to see how the the Obama administration represents an atheistic lurch. As both candidate and president, Barack Obama has "done God" with the best of them. The US constitutional tradition, embodied in the First Amendment, has always stressed freedom of religion rather than (like French secularism) freedom from religion, but from the days of the Founding Fathers until well into the second half of the twentieth century, politics and religion were seen as largely separate spheres of activity. John F Kennedy's opponents tried to discredit him by hinting darkly that, as a Catholic, he might be taking orders from Rome. Today's Republican hopefuls, even the Mormon, seem almost to want to present themselves as instruments of Vatican policy. All very strange.

It's actually the Obama administration, insofar as it is pursuing a "secular agenda" at all, that stands in the mainstream of US political and legal history. A secular agenda is not the same thing as an anti-religious one, a fact that would have been obvious to every previous American generation. What is historically novel is the attempt on the part of the religious right to recast political questions as spiritual ones. They are trying to use the hallowed constitutional right to freedom of worship to restrict the freedoms of ordinary Americans, religious and otherwise. And, at least in the limited area of the race for the Republican nomination, they would seem to be making most of the running.

George Bush Sr, in the speech quoted above, could refer to opponents of state funding for birth control as "militants" who sought to use the issue as "a political stepping stone." Forty years later, it seems, the militants have taken over the Republican asylum.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”