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Eyes to see

(Scot J. Ferrell /Congressional Quarterly/Newscom)


Eyes to see

Thomas Farr shows the importance of religion and freedom in world politics

Thomas Farr's World of Faith and Freedom (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008) has an informative subtitle: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security. That's exactly right. Early on, the Bush administration's Middle East initiative was valuable in seeing that dictatorships did not serve America's long-term interest, but it erred in promoting democracy as the solution: Democracy without liberty can be even worse than autocracy because more pairs of eyes are watching for any sign of dissent.

Farr makes a critical point in relation to the new Afghan political order: Muslims there are "generally free to perform rites-to worship and attend to the private imperatives of Islam. They could attend mosques and follow the pillars of their religion. But religious freedom means more than private activity. Among other things, it means the right to speak and write publicly about religion."

U.S. government officials who see religion as something that happens within a mosque or a church have little patience for those who rock the boat by speaking freely of Jesus. Domestic policymakers have often worn similar blinders. Some hailed it as a great breakthrough when Congress in 1996 told social service ministries that they could have a crucifix on the wall and a Christian-sounding name on the door. Whoop-de-doo. Some were dumbfounded when many Christian groups said that wasn't sufficient, that Christians wanted the freedom to talk about Christ's grace to those who walked in weary and heavy-laden with sin.

Farr shows that our ignorance is not blissful: The State Department did not anticipate Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979 or the Polish Catholic Church's role in battling Soviet hegemony during the 1980s. This consistent underestimating of one factor should lead secularists to doubt their predictive power. Instead their tendency is to treat each religion-based change as anomaly rather than pattern.

Farr sees well and reports on blindness; Washington Post veteran Robert G. Kaiser's So Damn Much Money (Knopf, 2009) shows that the author himself is blind. Kaiser's good stories and specific detail show that his subtitle is no exaggeration: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. But when Kaiser finally gets to his proposals on page 357 he misses the significance of his title's reference to all that money.

See if you can find the fatal flaw: Kaiser writes that Congress should provide for government financing of all elections to federal office. (He notes that Congress legislated this solution for presidential campaigns but it broke down.) He calls for lobbyists to be banned from campaign fundraising, to be restricted severely in how much they can personally give to campaigns, to be required to report publicly on any conversation they have with any public official, and so forth.

What's wrong with this picture? Every proposal seeks to restrict the financial clout of lobbyists, but not a single proposal attempts to restrict the financial clout of Congress and the White House. As long as the manure pile is so vast, flies will be drawn to it. (Let's restate that more politely: As long as the honey pot is so enormous, bears will seek it.) Kaiser offers zero proposals for decentralization that would remove some power from Washington and thus lessen the reason for lobbyists to flock there.