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Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

Our hope is that the world’s religious leaders and the rulers thereof will unitedly arise for the reformation of this age and the rehabilitation of its fortunes. Let them, after meditating on its needs, take counsel together and, through anxious and full deliberation, administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth.

The Great Being saith: The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion. Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

Those words of Baha’u’llah were on my mind today as I read the news of and some reaction to the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s Peace Prize to President Obama. Baha’u’llah sets a lofty standard: “Let them, after meditating on its needs, take counsel together and, through anxious and full deliberation, administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth.”

In its press release, the committee focused only on Obama’s ability to get world leaders to “take counsel together,” commending him for the change he has wrought in the tone of international politics:

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations.

The committee made no mention of any movement among world leaders, sparked by Obama or not, to “administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth.” Many of the reactions I have been reading seem to have a similar bent.

Keeping that caveat in mind, I want to note that the Nobel Committee also focused specifically on the values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population:

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.

I know of no better expression of those shared values and attitudes than that found in the Writings of Baha’u’llah. Shoghi Effendi, cataloguing in God Passes By the prophecies for which Baha’u’llah is the fulfillment, writes, “To Him Isaiah, the greatest of the Jewish prophets, had alluded as the ‘Glory of the Lord,’ the ‘Everlasting Father,’ the ‘Prince of Peace,’…”.

I will end with quotations from that Prince of Peace, all of which are taken from a compilation on peace, which I heartily recommend to you, with the hope and the prayer that Baha’u’llah’s vision may be made real, through the efforts of all of us, whether we be President, Nobel Peace Prize winner, or otherwise.

O ye that dwell on earth! The distinguishing feature that marketh the preeminent character of this Supreme Revelation consisteth in that We have … laid down the essential prerequisites of concord, of understanding, of complete and enduring unity. Well is it with them that keep My statutes.

The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife. The religion of God and His divine law are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men. The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquillity of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God. Religion bestoweth upon man the most precious of all gifts, offereth the cup of prosperity, imparteth eternal life, and showereth imperishable benefits upon mankind. It behoveth the chiefs and rulers of the world, and in particular the Trustees of God’s House of Justice, to endeavour to the utmost of their power to safeguard its position, promote its interests and exalt its station in the eyes of the world. In like manner it is incumbent upon them to enquire into the conditions of their subjects and to acquaint themselves with the affairs and activities of the divers communities in their dominions. We call upon the manifestations of the power of God—the sovereigns and rulers on earth—to bestir themselves and do all in their power that haply they may banish discord from this world and illumine it with the light of concord.

The Great Being, wishing to reveal the prerequisites of the peace and tranquillity of the world and the advancement of its peoples, hath written: The time must come when the imperative necessity for the holding of a vast, an all-embracing assemblage of men will be universally realized. The rulers and kings of the earth must needs attend it, and, participating in its deliberations, must consider such ways and means as will lay the foundations of the world’s Great Peace amongst men. Such a peace demandeth that the Great Powers should resolve, for the sake of the tranquillity of the peoples of the earth, to be fully reconciled among themselves. Should any king take up arms against another, all should unitedly arise and prevent him. If this be done, the nations of the world will no longer require any armaments, except for the purpose of preserving the security of their realms and of maintaining internal order within their territories. This will ensure the peace and composure of every people, government and nation. We fain would hope that the kings and rulers of the earth, the mirrors of the gracious and almighty name of God, may attain unto this station, and shield mankind from the onslaught of tyranny. …The day is approaching when all the peoples of the world will have adopted one universal language and one common script. When this is achieved, to whatsoever city a man may journey, it shall be as if he were entering his own home. These things are obligatory and absolutely essential. It is incumbent upon every man of insight and understanding to strive to translate that which hath been written into reality and action…. That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race. The Great Being saith: Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. In another passage He hath proclaimed: It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.

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In this op-ed, Jonathan Freedland at London’s Guardian newspaper links the current health care debate in the US to the world’s ability to tackle climate change. His basic premise is that if President Obama can’t get the Congress to enact meaningful health care reform, then he won’t be able to get it to agree to whatever targets emerge from the Copenhagen negotiations in November and December this year. (The Copenhagen negotiations will (or will not) establish the set of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that will be in force once the targets agreed on at Kyoto in 1997 expire in 2012.)

Last November, the sigh of relief among greens and diplomats could be heard around the world. While George Bush had ripped up Kyoto, Obama would surely lead the way to Copenhagen.

Now that early confidence is fading. Those same diplomats and negotiators have seen the president struggle to make what, to outsiders, look like pretty reasonable changes to US healthcare. They have seen a summer campaign demonise him as an amalgam of Stalin, Hitler and Big Brother, bent on sending America’s frail grannies to their deaths in the name of a new socialism. If that’s the response he gets when he suggests Americans should be covered even when they change jobs or get sick, imagine the monstering coming his way if he tells his compatriots they have to start cutting back on the 19 tonnes of CO2 each one of them emits per year (more than twice the amount belched out by the average Brit).

While Freedland is right that today’s national leaders will have a large impact on our planetary ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate their negative effects, he’s wrong to suggest that those leaders are the only people who matter, even in the Copenhagen-heavy short term.

As the Baha’i International Community has stated, the fundamental necessity in solving climate change is “that the principle of the oneness of humankind must become the ruling principle of international life.” The BIC also indicates that the people of the world will need to be engaged at three levels, only one of which is in the functioning of international institutions. The two other levels indicated by the BIC are as follows:

The Individual Level: Engaging children and youth. A fundamental component of resolving the climate change challenge will be the cultivation of values, attitudes and skills that give rise to just and sustainable patterns of human interaction with the environment. The engagement of children and youth will be particularly important as this population will be called upon to exercise leadership and address the dramatic and complex challenges of climate change in the decades to come. It is at a young age that new mindsets and habits can be most effectively cultivated.

The Community Level: Advancing gender equality and engaging religious communities. On the community rests the challenge of providing the setting in which decision-making can occur peacefully and individual capabilities can be channeled through collective action. One of the most pervasive social challenges besetting communities around the world is the marginalization of girls and women – a condition further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change…. It would be a mistake, however, to cast women as the victims or simply as under-resourced members of society; they represent perhaps the greatest source of untapped potential in the global effort to overcome the challenges of climate change. Their responsibilities in families, in communities, as farmers, and as stewards of natural resources make them uniquely positioned to develop strategies for adapting to changing environmental conditions. Women’s distinct knowledge and needs complement those of men, and must be duly considered in all arenas of community decision-making. In light of this reality, the United Nations must give more attention to the gender dimensions of climate change.

As well, religious communities and their leaders bear an inescapable and weighty role in the climate change arena, especially given their tremendous capacity to mobilize public opinion and their extensive reach in the most remote communities around the world…. This role, however, must now unfold in the context of an emerging conversation – a rapprochement – between the discourses of science and religion. The time has come for the entrenched dichotomy between these two systems of knowledge to be earnestly re-examined. Both are needed to mobilize and direct human energies to the resolution of the problem at hand: methods of science facilitate a more objective and systematic approach to problem solving while religion concerns itself with those moral inclinations that motivate action for the common good.

So, wherever you are, you can play a role in addressing climate change as an individual and within your community. Only when we begin to act do we truly demonstrate our consciousness of the oneness of humanity. That consciousness is essential to our survival.

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In my last post, I outlined competing ideas about what kind of judicial philosophy a Supreme Court Justice ought to have. In their basic outlines, the two arguments are for judicial restraint (emphasizing the limited role of the judiciary) or for compassion from experience (emphasizing the human effects of court decisions). I should be clear, too, as I probably wasn’t in my first post, that Obama actually calls for both of these qualities in a nominee to the Supreme Court, though he does deem the first “insufficient” without the second. Also, McCain does call for a nominee to have “experience,” though his interpretation of experience is different than Obama’s. Stemming from this debate, and important in its own right, is the notion of whether a the Supreme Court (or the judiciary more broadly) should be representative of the nation’s diversity, specifically its ethnic diversity.

The process of Baha’i elections, as established by ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, provides a useful lens through which to analyse the process of selecting Supreme Court Justices.

Writing to the delegates chosen to elect the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States in 1925, Shoghi Effendi established criteria that Baha’is use to this day in their elections, even at the local level:

Hence it is incumbent upon the chosen delegates to consider without the least trace of passion and prejudice, and irrespective of any material consideration, the names of only those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.

Several parallels bear noting here. First, Obama’s call for a “rigorous intellect” and McCain’s for “legal competence and ability” in a nominee parallel Shoghi Effendi’s requirement of a “well-trained mind” and “recognized ability”. So, both politicians have this criterion correct: the nominee must be intelligent and able.

The two politicians also mention what we might call qualities of character. McCain notes that two qualifications in his mind are “integrity” and “character,” and Obama mentions that life experience “can give a person…a sense of compassion.” Shoghi Effendi clearly has in mind personal character in mentioning “unquestioned loyalty” and “selfless devotion” as two of the necessary qualities, but the difference between his standard and those of the politicians bears note. Shoghi Effendi requires that a person have loyalty and devotion to the Baha’i Faith, the system he or she will support and defend if elected. Any other qualities of character a person might have – integrity, say, or compassion – would be subordinate to this loyalty and devotion and would thus be used in service of the larger system which the role exists to support. So, perhaps Senators and Presidents should satisfy themselves of a nominee’s loyalty and devotion to the United States Constitution and let the nominee’s other qualities of character serve that loyalty.

Last, and most divisively, comes the question of experience. Both McCain and Obama require experience in a nominee, and their requirement aligns with Shoghi Effendi’s inclusion of “mature experience” as one of the necessary qualities for a potential member of the National Spiritual Assembly. Obama and McCain seem to disagree in their understanding of “experience,” though, as it relates to Sotomayor. McCain focuses on her professional experience as a lawyer and judge, while Obama includes that but goes beyond it to consider her broader life experience. As Obama put it, “What Sonia will bring to the Court, then, is not only the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career, but the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life’s journey.” That wisdom, for Obama, will help the Supreme Court take “another important step towards realizing the ideal that is etched above its entrance: Equal justice under the law.” For McCain, that “wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life’s journey” is not as important as a philosophy of upholding “all acts of Congress and state legislatures unless they clearly violate a specific section of the Constitution”.

These two quotations return us to the “necessary qualities” of “unquestioned loyalty” and “selfless devotion” to the larger system that Shoghi Effendi mentions. For although they do not state explicitly what each man understands by loyalty or devotion, they do give clues. For Obama, loyalty means helping to achieve a national ideal, and a Constitutional necessity, that does not yet exist in reality. For McCain, loyalty means respecting the will of the people (as expressed in legislative acts) unless it violates the text of the Constitution.

It seems, then, that both McCain and Obama consider these two necessary qualities important, though each interprets them differently than the other. This difference in interpretation is perhaps expected among people of different political stripes and by no means invalidates either man’s approach. In fact, if there were not partisan politics involved, we might not consider their differences to be quite so worthy of note. Considering Shoghi Effendi’s criteria helps us remove some of the partisan tension from this weighty decision.

The last issue Sotomayor’s nomination raises in the question of minority representation on important bodies, and I will turn to that question in my last post on the topic.

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In a historic moment in the U.S. yesterday, the Senate voted 68-31 to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court. The U.S. will have its first Latina Justice, and it’s about time. (For some reason, the video won’t embed here, so you’ll have to click through on the link above. And yes, that’s Al Franken acting as President pro tempore.)

After President Obama nominated her, the media focused much attention one comment Sotomayor made in the 2001 Judge Mario G. Olmos lecture, titled “A Latina Judge’s Voice”: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

(Here’s one post that covers some of the media response.)

This statement (along with others) was taken to indicate that Sotomayor believed that a judge’s role involves something more than applying law as crafted by legislatures. Obama seemed to support this view in his speech to nominate Sotomayor. After stating that the first two qualities he sought in a nominee were a rigorous intellect and a recognition of the limited scope of judges’ decisions, he went on:

These two qualities are essential, I believe, for anyone who would sit on our nation’s highest court. And yet, these qualities alone are insufficient. We need something more. For as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live. And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court.

Many Republicans disagreed with this view. The kerfuffle got me thinking about how we (I am a U.S. citizen) select the members of the Supreme Court and how that process relates to Baha’i principles for selecting people for roles of great responsibility. This will take two posts to get through. The rest of this one will summarize main threads in the argument over judicial philosophy, and the second will consider what insights might be gleaned from considering Baha’i principles for elections in thinking about selecting Supreme Court Justices.

As far as I can tell, there are not any specific requirements in the Constitution for who should become a Supreme Court Justice and who should not. (Article III is the relevant section.) In reading John McCain’s statement about why he would not vote to confirm Sotomayor, I saw two criteria implicit in McCain’s decision: (1) professional qualifications; and (2) judicial philosophy. McCain has no problem with Sotomayor’s qualifications. He said, “There is no doubt that Judge Sotomayor has the professional background and qualifications that one hopes for in a Supreme Court nominee.” On the matter of judicial philosophy, though, McCain thinks Sotomayor’s track record shows that her philosophy is beyond the pale:

[In 1987] I stated that the qualifications I believed were essential for evaluating a nominee for the bench included ‘integrity, character, legal competence and ability, experience, and philosophy and judicial temperament.’ … I believe that a judge should seek to uphold all acts of Congress and state legislatures unless they clearly violate a specific section of the Constitution and refrain from interpreting the law in a manner that creates law. While I believe Judge Sotomayor has many of these qualifications I outlined in 1987, I do not believe that she shares my belief in judicial restraint.

Although he did not say so specifically, it seems that the only one of his qualifications which Sotomayor does not meet is the required judicial philosophy. Thirty-seven other Senators joined McCain in voting against Sotomayor’s confirmation, and based on my reading of the coverage I assume that many of them agree with McCain. Jeff Sessions of Alabama (scroll down about half way on the linked page to see his questioning) focused especially on Sotomayor’s statements that her life experience influences her decisions on the bench.

Reading Sotomayor’s lecture it is clear that she thinks more members of minority groups should be represented in the judiciary. Linking these two threads of Sotomayor’s thought, perhaps she wants more minority representation because including their life experience in the process of legal judgment will make the judiciary more representative of the varieties of American experience. Sessions seems not to care about that kind of consideration, only that nominees have a judicial philosophy of “restraint,” as McCain called it, or “fidelity to the law,” to use Sotomayor’s phrase from her opening statement.

So, there appear to be competing ideas about what should constitute the appropriate judicial philosophy for a Justice of the Supreme Court. There’s the idea, espoused by Sotomayor in her speech and Obama in his comments on her nomination, that a person’s life experience may influence his or her judgment. Then there’s the idea of McCain and Sessions, which is that only the person’s understanding of the Constitution should matter. If the first holds, then having a diversity of experiences on a court would be of benefit to society. If the latter, a court’s diversity does not matter.

Can looking at the process of Baha’i elections shed any light on which of these criteria are legitimate? That will be the topic of my next post.

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